Between the White Lines
Exclusive GPA Football Column
Last weekend was a very bitter sweet weekend. I got a call early in the week with an invitation from the GPA to join a group of former players at the Leinster double-header in Croke Park.
A day to reminisce, I suppose a day for ‘washed- up’ inter-county footballers maybe, of which was a stark reminder that that is now what I am.
The biggest problem of the day was finding where the gathering was located. I collected my passes in the Croke Park Hotel. I was being accompanied for the day with a club mate and friend of mine Ian Dunne and the experience was a new one for us both.
So after two laps of the stadium, a visit to the premium level and I think we even stumbled across the ground keepers store room under Hill 16 (spot the clutches) we eventually found the suite we were supposed to be in.
The first two faces were familiar ones; two lads I had spent many days, both good and bad, in the Croke Park dressing with. Two lads that you wanted by your side every day you went to battle, two guys that you knew would leave every drop of sweat or blood on the hollowed sod in order for Kildare to prevail, Ronan (Roli) Sweeney and Karl (McGowan) Ennis.
The craic and banter started straight away with Roli asking Karl “How was the body?” and getting a list of ailments that the likes wouldn’t be seen on a plane going to Lourdes.
I scanned the room to see could I see who else I might recognise and I noticed the big square frame of the captain of Offaly’s 82 winning team Richie Connor locked in conversation with another giant of a man with a big pair of shoulders that I thought the coat hanger was still inside his shirt, none other than Padraig Dunne, who played midfield on that same Offaly 82 team that kept Kerry from the famous five in a row.
Both men now with an Interest in Kildare football as Richie manages Raheens and Padraig looks after Round Towers in Kildare town.
I’m not sure if they were shouting for Kildare to win or maybe that would go against the grain, and I wasn’t going to ask either.
Two other lads joined them that weren’t familiar but you could tell by the body language and the banter that there was a bond and respect. I could see that these two men hadn’t just bumped into the boys for the first time.
I nodded over; “Howya Richie, how’s the form?” ‘Great Johnny. How are they all in Allenwood?’ “Not a bother,” I said making my way over. “Ya have Raheens flying.”
His outstretched arm welcomes me as he shakes my hand with the biggest hand I have ever seen (I wouldn’t like to see it coming at me in the shape of a fist).
He introduces me to the group, Padraig Dunne and Stephen and Seamus Darby, some of Offaly’s finest sons. I had read Michael Foley's book, Kings of September, which gives a great insight into the whole Kerry/Offaly saga of the most famous All-Ireland final of the all, the 1982 final.
I felt I knew these lads and there was so many things I would have loved to chat to them about, like the nights they spent training on Croghan Hill, or was Matt Connor the greatest forward of his era. Maybe I’ll nab Richie in Coffey’s in Carragh some night after Allenwood and Raheens Lock horns.
As we got nearer throw-in for the Kildare-Meath game I enjoyed some refreshments; my guest Ian had designated me as the driver as we had a club match on Wednesday and as he was now part of the management team, I should do what I was told. Ian is 21 by the way. So he orders a pint for himself and although here I am retired from county football, I’m still on the 7Up.
We take our seats with Roli and Karl and Pat Mangan (a former great of Kildare football and former chairman of the Kildare supporters club) and we are all very confident that Kildare, over the 70 minutes, would have too much for the Royals.
Meath have been hit badly with injuries and with the experience we have on the bench I felt it would see us through. How wrong was I, and more importantly after all our battles with Meath in my time I should have known better!
Meath were typical Meath; physically hungry and, from the word go, they tore into Kildare and could, and maybe should have, hit the net on three or four occasions in the first half.
At half time we mulled over the opening exchanges and came to the conclusion that there was only five points in it and that, because Kildare hadn’t really got going in the first half, that with a good restart we could push on and still win the game.
Unfortunately for Kildare within a short period Meath had stretched their lead to 12 points and, while we fought back bravely, another Leinster campaign was at an end.
Viewing from afar for the first time in many years, I was reminded of two very important lessons about football.
The first was something I had drilled into me as a player: It doesn’t matter what you do in the match before or what you do in the match after, every game takes on a life of its own. You have 70 minutes to produce the goods and you do whatever it takes in that period to win. Play every game as if it’s your last because one day you will be right.
The other lesson was fresh for me – that a championship game is a Hell of a lot easier in the stands!
After the game a grey haired gentleman makes his way over to Pat Mangan and with a hand shake and smile that oozes admiration and respect for Pat.
Pat introduces us to none other than Tony Hanahoe, former All-Ireland winning captain with Dublin in the 1970s and chairman of the GPA’s Former Players Group.
I watched the two boys respectfully sit and chat, although they went toe-to-toe on many occasions in a bye-gone era. The rivalry is well and truly over and all that is left are great memories and huge respect for each other.
Tony has three senior All-Ireland medals, Pat has none, but as they shared this moment, that didn’t seem to count; they were warriors who had graced the field of battle.
Maybe winning isn’t everything.