Everyone is special in one form or another but few carve out their name in history like Oisín McConville. In the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), he is a cult hero. Ask sports enthusiasts or anyone for that matter who watches mainstream news broadcasts and they’ll have heard the name ‘Oisín’.
Oisín, known as ‘the baby’, was naturally gifted. From an early age, this was obvious and with his talent came responsibility. He was captain of our primary school team, St Patrick’s, Crossmaglen, winning all competitions in 1985. It was 20 years later that he became captain of our senior club team, replicating those primary-school achievements. In between, he always led by example on the field, never one to shy away from responsibility, never one to hide when a score was required. He wants the ball. He roars for the ball. You have no choice but to give him the ball. But why wouldn’t you when time and time again he gets the equalising point or wins a match when defeat stares you in the face? Why not take a moment to raid the archives of your mind, see what you come up with. Is it the All Ireland final goal of 2002; the equalising point of the All Ireland club final 2007…?
With a combination of his general play and free-taking abilities, he is the most important player for club and county in the history of Armagh football. This cannot be disputed.
To us, he is a talented footballer, a great friend and a role model. In 1988, Oisín (along with other football friends) was accepted into the Abbey Grammar School, a Christian Brothers school based in Newry, Co. Down. For football and friendship reasons, we wanted to follow in their footsteps the following year. Oisín’s great love in the Abbey wasn’t academia, it was football. As in primary school and at club level, he excelled. It seemed as though the higher the standard, the better he became. Undoubtedly he would say that he made many friends at the Abbey. It was a fine school. His increasing popularity and on-the-field exploits fed an ever-increasing self-confidence. Some liked it, some didn’t. Was there an element of jealousy in the begrudging voices? In later years, when celebrating in Belfast after our first major club triumph in 1997, Oisín was introduced to an opponent who shall remain nameless.
The conversation went as follows:
‘Hey, Oisín, you know this man?’ ‘No.’
‘Yeah, you do, he plays for Burren.’
‘Na … No, can’t say I do.’
‘Ach, sure, he was marking you that day [the day of the final].’
After taking a moment to think, Oisín retorted, ‘Na, no one was marking me that day!’
Oisín scored a goal and six points during that match. He knew fine well who that player was but just decided to have a laugh and pretend not to know him. Unfortunately, the player concerned left the bar before Oisín had a chance to explain that he was only joking.
Oisín is a confident player and a confident person. Rarely is his confidence as a player dented; however, his confidence as a person has taken many a whipping and he has insecurities. The most grave of these has been as a result of his battle with a gambling addiction. In hindsight, we, along with many of his teammates, nourished this weakness: whether it was backing horses on the bus or playing poker and maverick during training camp or when staying in hotels to play away matches. Naturally, it wasn’t intentional but we were at the very least subconsciously aware of his lack of control, his will to win, his obsession to try and claw back money lost. We knew, maybe even before he acknowledged it, that there was a problem.
It has been said that one’s first step, whether it be in learning to walk or in taking action to change part of your life, is the most difficult step. This was certainly true of Oisín. He bravely faced up to his addiction and with fantastic family support has come out the far side of a very dark and difficult personal journey. There is no doubt that this experience has changed Oisín: changed his outlook on life and his approach to life. In our eyes, and in the eyes of many who know him, our admiration for the man has grown tenfold. The public perception of Oisín is one of a confident, arrogant, talented ladies’ man on one hand and a sporting role model for all kids on the other. We have had the privilege of growing up with, playing with and getting to know the true Oisín. His life has been a roller-coaster ride. This book will give you an insight into the private thoughts and life of Oisín McConville, a hero on and off the field.
John and Tony McEntee
Well, you know, I never got to bat in the major leagues. I would have liked to have had that chance. Just once. To stare down a big-league pitcher. To stare him down, and just as he goes into his wind-up, wink. Make him think you know something he doesn’t.
Archibald ‘Moonlight’ Graham, Field of Dreams
‘My name is Oisín McConville and I have a gambling addiction. It’s nearly two years since I’ve made a bet.’
I stand up from a chair at a Gamblers Anonymous meeting and these are the words I utter. They are the words with which I will introduce myself to you as well. I could tell you I’m an All Ireland medal winner with Armagh. A four-time All Ireland medal winner with Crossmaglen. An All Star. The guy who has kicked the most scores in the history of Ulster football – more than Peter Canavan, more than Paddy Doherty, more than any whose name will forever ghost around football grounds in this province. But none of that sums me up like those words. For years, gambling was my life. But in all that time, football was my escape.
It’s Monday, 2 July 2007 and I’m here in a room with those who have gone through what I have. They tell us it helps to gather together and admit we are crippled with such a fault. Supposedly, it makes you remember you’ve got this problem so it doesn’t come back and bite you in the ass. Thing is, it never goes away. Instead, it lies dormant, waiting to run up behind you and tap you on the shoulder some miserable day. But that’s not going to happen to me again. Ever. I’m always wary but always on top of it.
Sometimes I tell people who are here in this room what’s going on in my life. I’m sure they don’t want to hear it but on different occasions I’ve got up from my chair and talked about fights with family and friends, and about girlfriends that have come and gone down the years. But not tonight. All I am here for is to admit to my addiction, as my mind is too busy with thoughts of this game. In six days, Armagh will travel to Clones to face Derry in an All Ireland qualifier. We are all still hurting from losing out to Donegal in the Ulster Championship just three weeks ago. Our goalkeeper Paul Hearty dropped a last- minute high ball that floated into the square and we were beaten in the first round. That sort of thing doesn’t happen to Armagh. It was a tight game against a side that had just won the league and one that many saw as the coming team in Ulster. It was said that they would replace us as we faded away. They have talent all over the park but we were the better side. We outplayed them for long spells and although it wasn’t my best day I got a goal and we were on the way to one of those victories that has epitomised what we have become as a team.
But then came that goal, so now we are out and it’s into the qualifiers! And all because of one mistake from a goalkeeper who’s one of the finest in the country. He’s beaten himself up about that a lot since then but we’ve told him not to worry. I remember half-time in the 2002 All Ireland final. I’d missed a penalty but in the dressing-room the players gathered around me and said they’d win this game because otherwise I’d be made a scapegoat. They said they wouldn’t let that happen but it was up to me to forget it and get my head right for the second half. We tell Hearty the same thing now. We’ll make up for it across the summer and get back to where Armagh football always seems to be with this group of footballers – challenging for an
All Ireland late in the year. We’ve told him that when the final weeks of the championship creep up we’ll be there and he’ll look back on this entire experience and laugh.
Besides, it didn’t look to me like it was a legal goal anyway. Kevin Cassidy was in his face as the ball came down from the skies. He was in the square, too, but the referee did nothing. I wondered about it as I watched on from the other end of the field, and when I saw it again on television there was no doubt. The referee should have blown his whistle, given us a free out and we’d be in the sort of groove that has made us the team we are, preparing to play our arch-enemies Tyrone.
But we never used to rely on referees. We didn’t rely on anyone but ourselves and when you start looking for excuses maybe it’s a team coming to an end. When you start finding those excuses without much of a search, perhaps the team is already at an end. I don’t know if I’m the only one who has thought this but I doubt it very much. We’ve spent a large part of our lives together and you get the feeling everyone is feeling the same way. But we train and carry on as we always did. We talk positive and try our best to think positive. None of us dare mention any doubts, because persistence and defying the odds are what this Armagh side has been about. We’ve used this record for motivation and it will be no different for this game. Derry are the hardest side to face but I’m glad. I’m always glad when it’s tough, because it keeps you on your toes and motivates you. And it’s the sort of game where if we can overcome, it will make people sit up and take notice yet again.
We’ve become legendary for grinding out games. We’re admired throughout the country for consistently coming back for more. For not listening to people who say we’re too old as each year starts. In an era when every pundit said it would take two All Irelands to become a great team, we had just one. But in winning six Ulster titles – and in coming close so many times – we became great anyway Kerry won two. Tyrone won two. But our relentless pursuit has made this side legendary. It’s why none of us wants to let go and admit it was good while it lasted, and it’s why we cannot afford to lose this game to Derry, because that might signal the end.
I reckon that’s why I’ve decided to write this book. I’ve thought about it a lot but as I drive home through Crossmaglen from that Gamblers Anonymous meeting, I decide this is the right time. What’s happened still amazes me and it’s a story that needs to be told.
It’s late as I manoeuvre through the village, which is shrouded in darkness. Next to the church is Joe Kernan’s house. He’s the man who managed Cross to three All Irelands and then took the entire county to glory for the first time in its history. He revolutionised football in this place but now I can’t help but think his time is coming to an end. I’ve heard the same words from him all my life and they’ve become stale. I have all the admiration and respect for him that’s possible but still I want someone else in charge in the future and I don’t think I’m alone in that either.
Joe’s always carried himself with great dignity. When we lost, he told us to get on with it and to move forward, and somehow he always picked us up out of the dirt at the end of too many ‘nearly’ seasons. He always had us out training in hail come November, in preparation for the following year. And we always listened and never questioned. Until now. He’s done nothing wrong but I wonder whether we can ever win another All Ireland with him in charge. Perhaps my doubts are just a cover for doubts about my own ability as a player, doubts that I haven’t experienced in years and that I don’t quite know how to deal with now.
I pass Francie Bellew’s place. Francie’s a beast of a full-back who never played for Armagh and never wanted to until Joe took over for the 2002 season. That was one of the first things Joe did when he got the job and one of the wisest, too. He rang his club full-back and told him he was needed. Francie agreed but Joe was too cute to take him at his word, knowing that Francie was happy just ticking along with Cross. So Joe called at his front door the night of his first training session and physically put him in the car, like Francie was a child being dragged away to summer camp.
People always get the wrong impression about Francie. He’s worked away in concrete with his dad and his cousins, put his head down and got on with it. He has never done an interview and never will, so people think he’s shy and reserved. But far from it. We had won the club All Ireland in 1997 under Joe and our reward was a trip to Florida in January of the following year. We spent five days in Orlando and five days in Fort Lauderdale, and for the duration of the trip I was rooming with Francie. We were young and carefree and careless a lot of the time but this was the trip of a lifetime, with no time to waste. On our first night, we ended up holding up the bar in some nightclub. After that, the memories fade a little but we were still up early the next morning. Francie peeled his head off the pillow and talked in a tone that suggested he needed water – and fast. He was alert, though, which was strange after only a few hours’ sleep and given it was 8.30 in the morning.
‘How much did you spend last night, Oisín?’
‘Not sure, Francie. Two or three hundred dollars, I guess, but, sure, we’re on holidays. Don’t be worrying about that. I’m sure that was the idea of the two thousand they gave us to spend.’
‘I am worrying, Oisín. I haven’t got a penny left.’
It took me a while to stop laughing and we later worked out what had happened. Number one: it was customary to tip a dollar with each bottle of beer purchased. Number two: American one-dollar bills look very like American hundred- dollar bills. Number three: we were pissed.
‘Hey, Francie, you made one waitress very happy. She must have thought you liked her a lot.’
‘Fuck you, McConville. What’ll I do?’
But he got by. Francie always got by.
When he came onto the panel that first night, there were many who thought he wasn’t good enough to be there but he didn’t care. He knuckled down and got on with it. He earned respect quickly, never saying much. But when he spoke, people listened and people froze. When he went to the pub with us, people laughed. And when he finished that first season, he had helped all of us win AH Ireland medals and there wasn’t a person in that camp that didn’t respect his attitude and his ability.
Down a road to my right is Hearty’s place. Ever since that goal, he hasn’t been himself, which is a pity because he’s one of the real characters on this team. The sort of guy you need to break the monotony of life in an enclosed space with the same people. It might be a tale he tells or some act he performs on the pitch. It’s never anything major and nobody else would take any notice, but we do and we feed off these stories – it keeps us sane when things aren’t going well and it keeps us amused when we are winning.
Hearty’s life on a football field revolves around kicking a ball as far and as hard as he possibly can, and, given his huge frame, that’s always quite a distance. Whether the situation calls for a short ball or not, he will open up the shoulders and belt it. There was a story a while back that summed him up. He was at a coaching course for goalkeepers in Ulster and Packie Bonner had all the boys in a huddle. Hearty was there but drifted away after seeing a ball in need of a boot. But the ball he booted ended up catching one of the guys in the huddle square in the face. As this guy attended to his reddened jaw, Bonner stared at Hearty with a look as bemused as it was angry.
And there’s the McEntees’ home, right in the village square. Their mother, Mona, would be well known around the town from the shop and from the catering work she does. John and Tony and their two sisters, Aibhin and Fionnuala, are loved by everyone. The sisters are great characters and I’d get on especially well with Fionnuala. She’s a scream. Both the lads used to drive her crazy when they were in college. They’d always be ringing her looking for something. They’d even call looking for phone credit and never saw the irony in that. When the lads were in college, I’d always go and collect their bags for them from the house before heading off to training and they’d be stuffed with biscuits and packed lunches. Their gear would be washed and ironed, and when they headed off to college, I’d return with the bags, Fionnuala looking at me before pointing her eyes to heaven. ‘You’re all a bunch of spoiled bastards.’ She was right.
As much satisfaction as we gave people on the pitch over the years, it’ll still never make up for the help we got in getting there. For John and Tony it was their sister. For me it was my mother. The lot of us spoiled brats.
But Tony and John have always been my closest friends on the team and our families have forever been one. On the football field, I’ve always had huge admiration for both of them and they’ve got us out of more than our share of scrapes through their reliability. Be it a simple pass, a high catch or just holding possession: things that seem so simple but that the rest of us couldn’t always do under the weight of August and September pressure. But they’ve been more than teammates and in a place like this it’s not hard to see why. A while back a friend showed me a text message he got from John, having asked him just what he had won in all his years with both Crossmaglen and Armagh. His reply read: ‘4 All Ireland club, 5 Ulster club, 12 Armagh senior club, 5 Under-21 club, 1 minor club, 1 Ulster Og Sport, 1 Community Games All Ireland, 1 All Ireland county senior, 1 National League, 5 county Ulsters, 1 Ryan Cup with university. That’s most of them, I think.’
He could have added the Under-10, 12, 14 and 16 county titles he won as well – that we all won. You see, football has been our lives in this place, from the time we kicked ball around the village square. And sometimes as I walk around it now, I think of what we’ve achieved and Babe Ruth creeps into my head.
He did as he pleased. Being the greatest name on the greatest team of them all afforded him the luxury. The 1927 New York Yankees were unstoppable and so was he, on and off the ball park. One evening, a policeman in a suburb saw a car driving in the wrong direction down a one-way street. Ruth was inside and when pulled over he screamed, ‘I’m only driving one way.’ ‘Oh, hello, Babe,’ the cop replied. T didn’t know it was you. Go anywhere you like, but take it easy.’
I’m not comparing Crossmaglen Rangers to the New York Yankees but there were times when we felt we could do anything and get away with it because of what we achieved. Invincibility in sport makes you think you’re invincible in life. There were times when we thought nobody could touch us, we could get away with anything, because there were no police here as far as we were concerned. There were soldiers around but they weren’t ours.
But then there were other times. You have to realise we had big dreams and big ambitions. Problem is, Crossmaglen is small – hitching-post small. And Crossmaglen is tiny, too – gossip-mill tiny – and there are people in a place like this that hate to see you do well, that hate others succeeding. They’re in small towns everywhere and I hate to think it’s jealousy but, sadly, that’s exactly what it is. While many here got on with being the best they could, others spent their time trying to put those same people down, hating to see ambition, hating to see success. Sometimes the begrudgers won out. Many of us with Cross and Armagh have been the victims of the rumour mill. At one stage my mother heard a story about me beating Fionnuala McEntee to a pulp. It was bullshit but she still heard it and then Tony and John did, too. It’s not a nice feeling and, even though they would never have believed it, it makes you question the integrity of certain people that are out there. But at least Tony got a great laugh out of it.
‘Hey, Oisín, did you hear me and John left you in need of an ambulance at training the other night?’
‘Nah, missed that one, John. Why’d you do it?’
Ah, sure, you can’t do that to Fionnuala.’
And then Tony added, It’s OK, Oisín, we know it’s rubbish and, sure, wouldn’t she have left you in need of an ambulance herself.’
There have been rumours about fights in training and on buses and in dressing-rooms down the years as well, and of course there have been incidents. We’ve been the most competitive group of footballers in the country but a large part of what we are makes us keep such things between ourselves. We move on and get along with each other, because we know if word gets out, cracks will appear and spread and grow until the whole thing caves in. That’s why the rumours are never true. Nobody knows what has really gone on within this group and we have shown no cracks. Maybe that frustrates people on the outside, so they go away and make things up.
I’ve had friends come here from outside and they’ve been sitting in a bar and heard people talking lies. I’ve been called a complete and utter fucking wanker’ behind my back by people who thought they were safe in the knowledge it wasn’t going any further. And it’s not just Cross. Many of the rumours have come from the surrounding areas. When I missed a match in the 2005 McKenna Cup, as I finished off three months’ rehabilitation for gambling in Athenry, an Armagh journalist at the match decided to let the press box in on some local knowledge. All, sure, it’s no surprise he’s not here. Sure, isn’t he drying out. Did you not hear about the pub he ran in Cavan? He drank it dry and was in a terrible way and off he went to dry out. Complete alcoholic, that fella.’ Don’t let the facts stand in the way of a good story.
We’re amateurs and sometimes I wonder why we go through it all. You put yourself up on a perch where everyone can see you, where people can knock you off and then drag you through the mud. But then I think of the escape football has been for me on so many occasions. When the phone rang and it was someone looking for money or a tip, I couldn’t answer, I was playing football.
In many ways, the rumours have made the club here stronger as well. As I pull into the driveway of my mother’s house, I can see the football field through the darkness. It has always been a haven for us. Even in times when the British tried to take it away. The tower is gone now but it made us famous for the wrong reasons. They took a chunk of the grounds in 1971 and built their barracks in the corner. It overlooked everything we did. Playing up front you could always see them peering out, suspicion in their eyes and guns in their hands.
There were times when helicopters landed on the football field during games, weapons pointing out at players and fans, leaving everyone wondering if there would be a time when this would go too far and someone would be killed. But we’d never have given them the satisfaction of admitting to that fear. We’d never have let them know we were scared, because this is south Armagh and hatred runs long and deep. I’m not political and I’ve got past all that but to the British troops south Armagh was a place where everyone was a Provo and an accident waiting to happen, and when people ask what’s kept this team great over all the years a lot of it is probably down to the mentality we grew up with and what we had to go through to do even the simple things.
I remember my brothers and me running for the cover of home after some smart-arse remark to some soldiers set them chasing after us. There were hundreds of such incidents. But as we grew up, we got on with our lives. Not that that was easy, because there was always some inconvenience around the corner. There would have been bombs here and there, shootings here and there, deaths here and there, but that just became part of it all.
When we were playing with the county seniors in the mid- 1990s, Brian McAlinden and Brian Canavan were in charge of the Armagh team. McAlinden was a Lurgan man and I guess that’s why we always used to train in that part of the county. At the time, we had a driver from Cross called John Martin. He’d go from house to house, picking up players on the way. There was Jarlath Burns and Benny Tierney and anyone else who wanted a lift. But it always happened in the same spot. We’d be driving down the road and you’d see the green uniforms and we’d look at our watches and realise we were going to be late for training. After a while, there wasn’t even a need for excuses and by the time the car pulled into the car park in Lurgan, the other lads would be making their way through some incomprehensible drill.
I don’t think it was a case of getting wiser with age on our part but we always kept our mouths shut when the window was rolled down and the questions were asked. More to do with the fact that we were in someone else’s car and the last thing we wanted was to be responsible for getting a number plate watched because we couldn’t shut it. And besides, John was always in there before we could say a thing. He was, and still is, some character. It probably used to annoy him more than us and he was always there with some verbals through gritted teeth. Any time they’d ask him what age he was, he’d just say over 21. As soon as we heard that we’d look at each other in the back, moving uneasily, knowing it was time to get out of the car. Everyone out. Everything out.
The bags would be gone through, the seats pulled apart. Each time, they knew they were never going to find anything more than a few pairs of boots and some orange jerseys but that wasn’t the point. They wanted their say. John wanted his. And by the time we got back on the road, everyone was convinced that they’d got the upper hand.
But there would always be craic in that car as well. John had some great sayings. He was typical of a lot of footballers from an older generation, having played for Crossmaglen in the 1960s, along with my father. Between the two of them, we’d heard all the stories down through the years, about how they were men and we were wimps, and in a way we never knew any better, because just a few miles away Down had picked up a couple of All Irelands in the ’90s, Derry got their hands on Sam Maguire as well, Donegal too. Us, though? We were nobodies on our way to training.
We used to complain if we were asked to train two nights in a row but John would be straight in with the tales of going to games at the other end of the county on a bike. Playing hard and tough and fast before taking the bike home. But from where I stand now, I think the likes of him had an admiration for what we were becoming and what we were achieving.
That admiration makes this game on Sunday all the more pressing as well. In six days, this could be over. I’m thinking more about a game than normal and about what people like John will think if we can’t keep it going. We’ve come from a place where nobody cared to a place where everyone is wondering is this it? Will Armagh go out of the championship with a record that reads two defeats and no wins? Will we be left looking on at the championship through July, August and September? Will it be like when I started playing with the county side back in 1994?
A lot of things in sport tend to be cyclical. Which makes it even more worrying, because, for me, it all started with Derry in 1994.
* * *
Back in 1994, Armagh were terrible. The sort of county others hoped to draw just to ease their way into things, while we’d train and lose and go back to playing with our clubs, because that was the real outlet for our abilities and the source of any chance we had of winning.
It’s hard to comprehend just how far things have come, even if we are on a ledge now. But again, there’s comfort. First, I don’t have to worry about my A levels now, not that they bothered me all that much when I was doing them. And second, we are a better team than Derry now and if we can get our heads right we should win. Back then, we weren’t a better team than Derry and we laboured under an inferiority complex that made us look even worse than we really were.
I’d made the Armagh panel that year for the first time and school was cast to one side. In truth, I was looking for an excuse to do just that. I never meant to be big-headed but I’m sure I told more than a few people about getting onto the team, and after the way things went in the league, I’m sure I never shut up. Looking back, there must have been times when I was unbearable. I was in school in St Patrick’s, Armagh, at that stage, having switched from Newry, and, strangely enough, that was when I started betting as well. There was a guy in school with me whose father owned a bookies in Belfast. He thought he knew the ropes and I thought this was another way to be popular. It was small money then, not that it matters. I’d still bet what pocket money I had but I’d laugh it off, and the fact there were days when I’d go without eating because there wasn’t any jingle from my school trousers seemed like something else to boast about. But while that spiralled, my county career didn’t.
My brother Jim was on the side at that stage. I’m not sure if he knows this but I always looked up to him. While on the inside I always wished I could play football like him, I still made sure he knew I was looking down on his small stature. He was a fantastic corner-forward, the sort of player that would have made it onto the Armagh team of 2002 when we won our All Ireland. I guess back then he was frustrated. He was annoyed by the lack of success and general lack of sense when it came to football. He stood in the corner, always marked by guys that had a good six inches over him, and while he craved for a low ball into space, he always seemed to find himself battling it out in some aerial duel that he was never going to stand a chance in, unless someone brought out a stepladder.
It was things like this that got on a lot of the players’ nerves and the situation must have driven Jim crazy. Especially when he got his chance to play with Ulster and began to realise just what he was capable of. I remember seeing him kick 4-3 in a Railway Cup match and I just wanted everyone I knew to see what my brother could do. But many just saw him stuck on this Armagh side, getting more frustrated with each game.
I often wonder if it hurt him to see such a good side come along after his time had passed, but he never showed it. In fact, I think such is his nature he felt pure satisfaction and pride at what we did, despite the fact he never got such an opportunity himself. He was never selfish and he didn’t become selfish when I got onto the panel that year either. He and John Grimley made sure I got on OK, with a quiet word here and there. Grimley was a big strong man and he’d often pull out of challenges if I dared stand in his way. It wasn’t that I posed any sort of a threat; he just didn’t see the point in threatening me physically by running straight through me, nor did he see the point of threatening my confidence by dumping me to the ground.
Jim McCorry and John Morrison were managing the side and, although I felt like a youngster who should keep the head down, they gave me an awful lot of responsibility. I played in the National League and no matter where the free, I was asked to take it. If there was a penalty, it was my turn to step up. I loved the responsibility and I responded, knocking over 1-6 or 1-7 a game. I was also the first down to the shop to open up the papers and see my name and my picture each week.
Problem was, this was the league and at that age you imagine it’s going to be like this come the championship. Looking back, it was a circus. Fellas aquaplaning across 20 yards of Armagh turf. A lone voice ringing out from a lonely terrace, ‘Go on to be fucked, Westmeath. Only for the Shannon no one’d ever have heard of yis.’ It was only the hardy brigade that really cared. And me. As far as I was concerned, I’d spent the league making a name for myself and by the time it was over I was ready for Derry.
We were underdogs but I was fairly sure I could turn the whole situation around. I was kidding myself; still, it would have been nice to have been given the chance. But that day was a joke, the sort of experience that summed up Armagh football. The whole thing was a shambles and we were going nowhere. In hindsight, I was very fortunate to be just coming into the team at that stage and I can’t imagine what it would have been like to have given your best years to that era.
The game was at the Athletic Grounds that day. It’s not the biggest place in the world but there was something about the ground, combined with running out onto a championship field for the first time, that made me think I’d never get over the din of noise and the mass of bodies crammed into every corner of the place. It’s a humble arena, soaked in tradition and defeat and heartache. Its grey exterior hints at the hundreds of stories of near misses by a county that could never match those around them. There were only ever two Armagh teams that had played here and were good enough to go on and reach an All Ireland final. Neither ever won but they brought a temporary lift to the place. The people that filed in and out during those two seasons had the strange feeling of satisfaction. They had nothing to grumble about and the place had a different atmosphere. But by 1994 it was back to its old self. The appearance of the place summed up Armagh football – outdated, unsuccessful and living off the rotting crumbs of the past. But even so, it always promised something more: a day that threatened to break the mould. And the noise and colour that day meant it was one of those times.
I took a moment to look around and while others would have shied away from the atmosphere, I just wanted to get out there and impress every single set of eyes. I was itching to be given my chance that day, to conduct the noise with a point here and a catch there. Beforehand, I had imagined the thrill of even just kicking around in front of a packed church and it made the fact of being dropped all the harder to take. As the referee blew the whistle and the starting line-ups jogged to their positions and shook hands and jostled, I was walking back to the bench – one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. Sitting there on the bench, I might as well have been in the crowd. The only consolation was the belief that I would come on at some stage and get my chance to impress that crowd. I never did.
What made it worse was that they never even thought of giving me a run-out, despite the fact Armagh were embarrassed that day. At half-time, we were eight points down. Grimley was captain that season but he couldn’t get on the team either. He was like a caged tiger sitting on that bench throughout the first half and when we hit the dressing-room for the interval, he erupted. He looked a dangerous man and once the door closed behind him he lost it completely and went mental. He ranted and raved and eventually picked up a water bottle and let fly. He never meant to hit Gerard Houlihan but he caught him and Gerard played the second half with a cut over his eye. I was terrified. It was like sitting in a classroom with the teacher you don’t mess with, only he’s having a bad day. And there’s no way you can leave. I sat there wondering if this was what it was always going to be like and if I’d skip this class in the future.
Finally, there was silence and McCorry said a few words, but he’d already lost control of his troops and they’d lost the battle. We ended up getting beaten by 13 points and I never got a run. It was a disaster and coming home I was bemused by the whole set-up. Not just by the final score but also by all the stuff that was going on. Armagh football was pathetic, let’s be honest.
After this experience, my A levels slid even further down my list of priorities, although it turns out they were the reason I never got a game – if you are to believe the management. I’m not sure if I do, even to this day, and if they are telling the truth then it made about as much sense to me as everything else that was going on under their watch.
John Grimley was interviewed by the Irish News the following Tuesday and was asked about my absence. He said he couldn’t understand it, given that I’d been asked to take frees for the league and had been the team’s top scorer. He talked about how he’d given his best to Armagh but was so upset after this shambles that he couldn’t give the county any more. McCorry gave his response the following day. He talked about how he didn’t want to put any more pressure on me because of my exams. But what happened ruined those exams. I was sitting in the hall looking at a page full of questions and all I could think of was Armagh football. I couldn’t comprehend what he’d done. It’s not like I’d had extra time to go off and study and get myself in any sort of shape to pass my exams. And it’s not like there was any less pressure on my shoulders. I still went to every training session. I still had to turn up for the game and sit on the bench. I still had to deal with losing. They showed me a different life and then took it away when it most mattered.
My brother Jim was upset by what had gone on that day as well but the focus of his anger was the scoreline. He told me I should have been glad I was on the bench. No matter what abuse came my way in the aftermath of that, I was at least able to turn to those making jibes and say,’Hey, what was I supposed to do? I never even got my chance.’
But this made it even worse for me. I was on a panel that got destroyed by 13 points and I never put a foot over the whitewash. What did that make me and where did it leave my footballing ambitions?
After what had gone on, I was glad to be back with Cross, away from all of it, and there was comfort there. Things weren’t much better with the senior club side but myself and the McEntees and everyone else that had dominated underage knew something better was on the way. We lost to Maghery in the championship but we were in the midst of learning harsh lessons. Up until that season, it was a club where you could walk into the dressing-room and it smelled like a pub. We were all to blame. There were guys smoking in the corner and there were others who’d been out drinking.
Joe Kernan would change all that and at one stage in 1996 he dropped me for a league game because I had disobeyed him and gone drinking. It was at that point I copped on. I said to myself that I could easily carry on like this and become another waster, the sort of guy that was marked out at underage and that people thought could be great but who threw it all away, the sort of guy that sat at a bar telling everyone what he’d won as a kid and just how good he was set to be. I didn’t want that and after Joe dropped me I realised that was where I was headed. I never made that mistake again.
I needed Joe, and the rest of the players needed Joe. He needed us, too, and he was well aware of this underage team that was on the way. He hadn’t got his chance but that chance was round the corner.
Our underage team had been so dominant all the way through the grades that I actually believe the wrong players were picked that summer for Crossmaglen. It was going to take a year or so for us to develop physically into the sort of players that could handle the viciousness of local derbies but while our bodies might have taken a beating, and even though we were only 17 or 18, we could have won it through sheer skill. Patience breeds character.
Things were changing with the club and some people were clearly trying to change the county set-up as well. By the end of that summer, the Armagh County Board had decided it was time for a fresh breeze to blow through the dusty, stagnant corridors of the team. They got rid of the management and I don’t think anybody complained. They brought in Brian McAlinden and Brian Canavan instead. I didn’t know all that much about the pair, although I was aware they had kicked ball for Armagh in another era. It was obvious they didn’t know much about me either. And they didn’t seem to want to know. I spent the autumn of 1994 waiting for a call-up to the panel as we prepared for the following season. I wondered what these guys would be like, whether they could bring the organisation and professionalism that seemed to me to be so lacking. I wondered if they’d pick a panel for the future and bring in more fresh- faced teenagers. It was an exciting time.
This is the sample from “The Gambler” by Ewan MacKenna, Oisín McConville and John and Tony McEntee. You may buy this book on Amazon.com