Aaron Kernan: Every club has their own Anthony Foley, including Crossmaglen
THERE are very few occasions in life when you can remember exactly where you were when you heard a particular piece of news. I’ve a feeling that Sunday, October 16 2016 is a day that will stick in my memory for quite a while.
As I was making my way to watch my sister-in-law playing in the Ulster club championship, my phone beeped. It was a message from my brother to say "Anthony Foley has passed away in the Munster team hotel, he’s only 42-years-old."
It completely stunned me. Foley was the leader of an extraordinary group of individuals who had brought so much joy to their province and beyond for the best part of a decade.
The club ethos, the loyalty, the work ethic, the sheer honesty - those core key values have created a legacy that the current players have to live up to and Foley was a massive part of that.
Given the strength, determination and courage he displayed throughout his playing career, he was the type of character you expected to be around for many years to come, he didn’t seem to have any weakness.
I never met Anthony Foley, but like everyone else in Ireland who is interested in sport, he was a man we became very familiar with. Not because of anything he said, but because of the manner in which he carried himself on and off the field throughout a hugely successful club, provincial and international rugby career.
He was someone I admired for more than his playing ability. I bought his book, Axel: A Memoir, when it was released in 2008 and an aspect of his personality that stood out for me was his ability to process information, particularly during a setback, and try to see reason in it.
In the book, Foley explains the build-up to the 2008 European Cup final, which led to him being omitted from the matchday squad five days before the game, in what was to be his final season as a Munster player.
He recalls his manager Declan Kidney’s number showing up on his phone on the Monday prior to the game: “You’re not ringing with good news,” he said.
“No. How did you know?” replied Kidney
“You never ring to give me good news,” said Foley.
Foley goes on to say: “I wasn’t being grumpy. When a decision like that is made by someone you respect, you take it on the chin. You know he’s done it for what he believes is the good of the team.”
At the beginning of his book, the prologue references the game day where he begins with the lines: “Time to make myself scarce. Only 45 minutes to kick-off and I feel like I’ve out-stayed my welcome.”
Foley is describing being in the dressing-room of Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium when he is overcome by a profound sense of separation from what now looms ahead.
So he makes his escape, surmising: “I’m no good to anyone here.”
I am sure that couldn’t have been further from the truth given the esteem in which he was held by his peers. His presence alone at that time would have been enough to reassure and compose his team-mates.
But Foley didn’t do ego, he only ever wanted what was best for the team, so off he went to his seat in the stand to witness Munster regain the European title.
Anthony Foley’s sudden passing has had a profound effect on the whole country, regardless of your sporting code of preference. It was his integrity and honesty that brought a flock of new supporters to the Munster cause because they recognised the elements they would like to see in themselves.
Each person reading this column will be able to identify someone from within their own club, in any code across the country whom they hold with the highest regard, similar to that of Foley in Munster.
For me, in my own club Crossmaglen, I was blessed to have shared a dressing room with a man who I always felt was our very own ‘Axel’ Foley.
Tough, uncompromising, fearless, talented, inspirational, ego-less, Mr Reliable - Francie Bellew. Francie wasn’t the fastest man in the world, but because of that he had almost a sixth sense.
He had the uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time. He was brave beyond belief and read the game perfectly. There were more talented and skilful players, but none maximised their talent to the level he did. There is no higher praise I could give him.
Throughout my time as a team-mate of Francie, not once did he ever, and I mean ever, offer his input during a team meeting, in the changing rooms or a team huddle prior to a game.
He was the quiet man of the group, who always had a smile on his face, nothing ever fazed him, and he was such a reassuring presence to be around because, just like Foley, he preferred to lead by actions and not words.
But when the hard work was done and there was reason to celebrate, there was no better man’s company to be in. There was no better sight than seeing Francie on the air guitar signing along to anything written by U2.
Francie is as humble as they come; he nearly gets embarrassed if someone comes up to talk football with him. I remember one game for Armagh when my dad was substituting him with a few minutes to go, after he had played a blinder. The crowd rose to their feet and gave him a standing ovation. Dad shook his hand and said, “Look at the applause you’re getting Francie.”
To which Francie quickly replied, “No Joe, they’re applauding you for eventually taking me off.”
Typical Francie. To me, Foley and Bellew are more than just sportsmen. They are the standard-bearers for us as people in our own communities.
We adore and idolise the ground they walked on and hope we will one day be revered in the same manner as them.