GAA Football

Coalisland's Paddy McNeice honouring his dad's memory

Coalisland's Paddy McNiece up against Killyclogher's Gabhan Sludden in this year's Tyrone SFC Final. Pic Philip Walsh

ENJOY the good times - because sadness can arrive all too suddenly. Coalisland’s Paddy McNeice knows that very well, having lost his father Joey in April of this year.

“Eight months ago now,” he recalled, in the aftermath of the Fianna’s somewhat surprising Tyrone SFC triumph. “Aye, he’d have been a proud man, we’re just delighted to get over the line.

“It was just out of the blue. He was down at the National League Finals that weekend, these things just happen, it was a shock.”

Paddy never seriously considered stopping playing, even for a while, saying: “I said I’d play on for him, because I knew that’s what he’d want.

“He’d tell you to ‘wise up’ if you were sitting in the house feeling sorry for yourself. Just get up and get at it, that’s just the way you have to get on with it.”

His father would have been involved on the sidelines too, had he lived, reckons Paddy: “He’d definitely have been in this management team because they are a team, they’ve done underage teams together right up through the years with all these boys. He’d be a happy man.”

Ironically, though, Coalisland boss Damian O’Hagan has said that he only got back involved with his club’s struggling senior side because of the death of close friend Joey.

Asked about him, O’Hagan replied: “Well, sometimes I get too emotional to talk about Joey McNeice.

“I know where I was whenever I heard that Joey had taken bad, I was in Donegal at a wedding, and I never got a chance to say goodbye, although I drove straight from Donegal to his home.

“He was a great fella, a fella that the lads loved, that the lads had massive time for. Sometimes he spoke a different language to them – but when he spoke, they listened.”

In his programme notes for the county final, O’Hagan wrote: “Joey was involved in the team management with us all down through the years. That’s really what brought us back in again, our memories of Joey, and it will do his memory proud to have the team back in a championship final.”

His son Paddy did him even prouder, scoring the Island’s first goal, to level matters at 1-6 apiece against Killyclogher, sparking the stunning turnaround that resulted in a seven-point success, 2-11 to 1-7.

McNeice was modest about his contribution, although admittedly a goalkeeping error played a big part: “It was just a high ball in, a bit of a scrap, and I was happy to be in the right place at the right time.”

He preferred to praise his fellow inside-forward, declaring: “Peter McGahan’s goal was vital for us, it gave us a bit of breathing space, allowed us to try and relax into the game, because we had been chasing the game right up to our goals.

“It was definitely nice to take a lead, for a change, into the last five minutes because normally we’re chasing games.”

Yet McNeice finished as top scorer on the day, with 1-3, as he had also done (with 0-4) back in 2010 when the Fianna bridged a 20-year gap to win the O’Neill Cup against old rivals Carrickmore.

The Blues really should have taken their 10th title two years ago, but allowed Killyclogher to escape with a draw, and were then hammered in the replay.

Paddy McNeice was away in the USA then, but laughs at the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that was the reason why Coalisland lost out in 2016.

“You’d have definitely liked [another] one before,” he says, “but so would everybody – that’s just the Tyrone championship for you.

“There were four different semi-finalists this year [compared to last year], that’s just how competitive it is. It’s nice to win one because they don’t come round that often.”

Back home again, McNeice works around Annagher as a buyer for Ezystak Conveyors, acknowledging: “It’s handy now – Seamie [McGrath]’s a good fella, sponsors the team too, puts his bit into the club.”

Coalisland have plenty of backers, in fact: “We definitely have a good following, the supporters stick by us. We’ve lost a few this year, so this one was for them.”

This one was particularly hard-earned, defeating Dromore, last year’s losing finalists Errigal Ciaran, and neighbours Edendork en route to the decider against a St Mary’s side that included Tyrone players Mark Bradley and the McCann brothers, Tiernan and Conall.

Coalisland’s chances wouldn’t have been rated highly especially after they struggled in the League, leading to O’Hagan and Peter Herron taking over – having been the men in charge in 2010.

“It’s nearly like two seasons the way it dragged out,” says McNeice.

“When the League’s done and you’re mid-table or safe, Championship’s like a new season, and that’s just the way we approached it.

“We took every game like a Championship Final – we had to, if you’re not on your game you’ll get dumped out.”

Coalisland must now take that approach into Ulster, into Armagh’s Athletic Grounds, where they will face tournament favourites Crossmaglen Rangers.

Paddy McNeice was born the same year CHECK Coalisland completed a Tyrone back-to-back, 1990, having reached the 1989 Ulster Final, but provincial progress is not something that Tyrone teams can think about too much.

Not because they lack talent, obviously, but mostly due to the dogfight involved in collecting the O’Neill Cup.

Tyrone champions cannot afford to look beyond their own borders, but McNeice is relishing taking on the renowned south Armagh outfit: “Look, Cross’ are an experienced side, but we’ll take it as it comes, like every other game, we’ll just play it like a final. That’s all we can do, do our best.

“If you’re in Ulster you might as well try your hardest, because it’s not too often – you might never get back to it, put it that way.

“In 2010 we beat the Fermanagh champions [Roslea], went on to meet the Donegal champions [Naomh Conaill, Glenties] and were just unlucky that day. We could have very easily been in an Ulster Final but it wasn’t to be.”

Two of his team-mates, Cormac O’Hagan and Peter Herron, have fathers in the Coalisland management, but obviously Paddy will miss his own dad’s presence anyway, having never found it a burden during his club career:

“I was well used to it because from I was knee height, under-8, he was taking us to tournaments all round the country, him and Damian and Peter [Herron].”

Joey may have gone, but however Coalisland get on in Ulster this year, Paddy McNeice has already made his family proud, and will continue to do so.

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