GAA Football

Cahair O'Kane: The most wonderful time of the year

Niall McCusker's dramatic late goal against Crossmaglen in the 2008 Ulster club final was one of countless dramatic moments the provincial series has produced. Picture by Seamus Loughran

GREEN to yellow to crispy brown. With the changing colour of the seasons, so changes my levels of interest in watching Gaelic football.

It’s a strange thing for a journalist that follows GAA at inter-county level for so much of the year to admit, but I’ve always been able to take or leave the county scene.

I spent the first eight years of my working life following Derry the length and breadth of the country. Days, it was brilliant. And it never felt like work, ever.

But a lot of days, the restricted access, the lack of stories to tell, the monotony of the football…it could make the drive home a long enough one.

Whether Derry won or lost, there wasn’t any great excitement in it. In eight years’ watching, I can only really truly two majorly dramatic moments: Mark Lynch’s gorgeous side-footed finish across Stephen Cluxton the day Derry beat Dublin in the League in Celtic Park three years ago; and Eoin Bradley’s chip over Paul Hearty before he swung off the crossbar after putting Derry into a first Ulster final in 11 years.

Those couple aside, county football doesn’t flood the memory bank with dramatic moments the way the club series does.

Niall McCusker, a full-back that would've made Diarmuid O'Sullivan look like a choirboy, going in at full-forward for the last few minutes against Crossmaglen in the Ulster final in ’08, down in Brewster Park.

Dusk falling hard upon the Enniskillen skyline and Darren Conway’s effort comes down off the post, into his brother James’ arms. His effort is parried but of all men, McCusker is there to fire into the roof of the net from six yards and secure a replay.

That was the day I really fell in love with the Ulster club series. This drama. This excitement. This parochialism. This deep-rooted love of the team you’re supporting.

Watching Lissan earlier in the day play in an Ulster junior final with Mickey McCracken playing at corner-back in his early 40s, and Ciaran Loane almost the same age behind him in goals, gave my own club something to really aspire to.

They were well beaten by Drumhowan that day, but they had enjoyed a gripping win over St. John’s up in Armagh in an Ulster semi-final, the like of which they would never have been able to experience had the intermediate and junior grades not been brought up to speed in the last 25 years.

The appeal of the Ulster series has grown exponentially since it was first introduced in 1968.

At that time, Bellaghy were coming towards the tail end of the most golden of all generations of Derry football. Between 1956 and 1972, they won 11 of the 16 county titles going. Legends were made of men like Tom Scullion – who has 12 county medals - Tommy and Laurence Diamond, Tom Quinn and Frankie O’Loane.

But the team of ’72 is held in the upper esteem because there existed a pathway for them. The Wolfe Tones had won the first ever Ulster club title in 1968, beating St. Joseph’s of Donegal in the final.

Three years later, Bellaghy again emerged from Derry, taking their county title back off Newbridge. They entered Ulster a second time and played Ardboe in the quarter-final.

The games were not the most highly publicised at that time. Around the time of Bellaghy’s win, Lester Piggott was dominating the back pages, while news of the troubles still had the country in a vice grip.

There was little glitz or glamour about any of it, but the games still attracted big crowds and, on occasion, they attracted the media.

In an interview in 2012 to mark the 40th anniversary of that All-Ireland winning team, Bellaghy midfielder Peter Doherty recalled a moment from their quarter-final win over Ardboe in 1971.

“Mickey John Forbes was the famous player for Ardboe at that time. There was a photo of big Laurence Diamond in The Irish News the Friday before the game, a big write up on him.

“Ardboe had the pressure on us and they were a few points up. Mickey John was giving Lawrence stick about the paper: ‘Where’s your Irish News at now Laurence?’

“We went up the field and got a goal and ended up beating them by three or four points, and Laurence turned to Mickey John and said ‘If you’re looking the Irish News, it’s lying in the back of that net!”

Men of different eras will have memories that will sustain them through the harshest of winters. Those of a certain vintage will recall the great Scotstown team of the late ‘70s and the Burren team that followed them in delivering three Ulster titles in a row.

Lavey’s All-Ireland winning crop of 1991, Errigal Ciaran making history that they still hold dear to this day, Ballinderry, their neighbours from the Loup, Slaughtneil. And, er, Crossmaglen once or twice.

Loup's Paul Young (left) scored a superb goal in 2009 to deny Kilcoo

The year after Niall McCusker’s dramatic goal, it was Paul Young for the Loup. No right to win the ball, a yard behind the defender when it was kicked, he nipped in front and from fifteen yards on his weaker left foot, he fired an unstoppable shot past Stevie Kane to turn an Ulster semi-final away from Kilcoo.

Two weeks later, the privilege of seeing one of the best provincial final displays of the lot from St. Gall’s. The passing, the movement, the control they had of everything that afternoon, the All-Ireland looked their destiny.

Kilcoo, for their trouble, seem to have been on the sore end of a lot of those dramatic memories. In 2013, I had the rarest of Sundays off the day they played Ballinderry in the Ulster semi-final in Armagh.

So I loaded the car with Drum men and we drove up anyway, standing on the terrace with a crowd from Kilrea as Ballinderry produced an unbelievable opening quarter before ending up with 13 men and hanging on in the most dramatic of encounters.

Another Sunday off fell the day of Kilcoo’s replay against Crossmaglen two years ago. The biggest crowd in the history of the competition, 9,670, crammed into the Athletic Grounds. There wasn’t a seat to be had half-an-hour before the game as Cross suffered their first defeat in Ulster in eight years.

In 2012 I found myself stranded in Perth, listening to Radio Ulster online as Ballinderry and Crossmaglen met yet again, and the Armagh men came out on top yet again. The following February, still stranded, desperately refreshing scores on Twitter to see how Craigbane were getting on in an All-Ireland intermediate semi-final.

Sammy Bradley dropping the winner over the Omagh crossbar on the same ground to bring Slaughtneil the Holy Grail in 2014 in a finish to rival 2008.

Sitting half asleep on my return from honeymoon that day but unable to tear the eyes from the TV screen and the absolute epic that was last year’s final between Crossmaglen and Scotstown. Even the semi-final between the Monaghan champions and Slaughtneil.

So, so many great games. Great occasions. When Ballinderry and Slaughtneil won their titles in 2013 and 2014, nothing would do but a visit to the clubs that night. The atmospheres could only be described as delirious.

The fervour in Portlaoise when Slaughtneil took on Austin Stacks was absolutely spine-tingling. The Kerry side’s supporters embarking on their famous pre-match parade through the town, arriving in the ground together. And then the Slaughtneil team emerged from the tunnel and the roar went up. That roar set the tone for a gripping occasion.

It was never a chore to drive around the country and watch the Derry team, but it was an absolute joy to go and follow the clubs.

These are the best competitions that exist in the GAA. Embrace them now, because if Páraic Duffy’s proposals go through, they may well be destroyed.

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