The Magheracloone magician: Tommy Freeman hoping to earn one last crack at Croke Park
It's 19 years since Tommy Freeman burst onto the scene with Monaghan, and 13 since his Allstar-winning escapades lit up the summer of 2007. Today, the 38-year-old will lead the charge as Magheracloone bid for an All-Ireland final spot against Louth's Mattock Rangers – Neil Loughran talks to the man himself, and some of those who have played with and against him through the years...
STEPHEN O’Neill, Steven McDonnell, Ronan Clarke, Benny Coulter, Oisin, Marsden, ‘Mugsy’, McGuigan, the Bradley brothers. Particular reverence is reserved, of course, for ‘God’ himself.
There are some brilliant forwards operating in Ulster at the minute but, let there be no doubt, we were spoilt rotten through the Noughties. Looking at that list of names you can’t help but marvel at a generation so uniquely blessed with marquee talent.
Most have long since hung up their boots, injuries calling time on some far too soon. But for one of that golden era’s brightest lights, the dream lives on. Anybody fortunate enough to have been in Armagh on the last Saturday in November will testify to this.
Most of the streets surrounding the Athletic Grounds were closed off as the city’s Georgian festival drew to a close, smoke bellowing from chimneys into the night sky while women in petticoats and bonnets pretended to be in Poldark.
If that was supposed to feel like stepping back into a different age, it had nothing on what was happening under the lights nearby where Tommy Freeman set the flux capacitor to 2007 with a spell-binding display as Magheracloone swept to victory over Tyrone champions Galbally in the Ulster intermediate final.
The familiar snake hips were there, jinking this way and that, drifting from flank to flank to keep the Pearse’s backs on their toes. A delicious double dummy created a goal chance for Michael Metzger, sending two men for 20 Bensons and a pint of milk in the process.
The electric bursts are deployed with more economy these days but remain part of the armoury, with four coolly taken points – two off the left, two off the right – adding the gloss on the scoreboard.
Mitchel’s boss James Kieran took him off in added time, not because the legs were weary but to let this stalwart of club and county soak up the adulation on a night when it had been well earned.
Tommy turns 39 in just over six weeks. This time last year he was unofficially retired, today he leads Magheracloone into battle against Louth and Leinster champions Mattock Rangers in an All-Ireland semi-final.
A return to Croke Park - and the chance to feature on the undercard of Dublin’s League opener against Kerry in two weeks’ time - stands only 60 minutes away, the prospect of adding an unexpected final chapter to a glittering career so tantalisingly close.
What a story it would be.
CLICHÉD as it may sound, football was always a way of life in the Freeman house. Eight children, four boys, four girls, one game. It was all they knew.
“We’d have been knocking about in the yard from no age, up at the club as well, then taken to the games by dad to watch the Monaghan teams in Ulster, lifted over the turnstiles, getting stuck in between the whole lot of us,” recalls one of the brothers, Damien Freeman.
“You’d be going home, copying what you’d be seeing in games. That’s just the way it was.”
Tommy is the youngest of the four boys. Throughout his career he has been well able to handle himself against some of the toughest, most tenacious backs to have laced up boots.
That robust edge, like the wealth of other gifts he brought to the table, was made right there in Magheracloone.
“Ah look, the brothers might have looked after me to a certain extent but if there was a ball to be won, there would be no pulling out,” smiles Tommy.
“The minute you were fit to walk the ball was given to you and with four boys and four girls they wanted to get you out of the house.
“Dad played with the club. Damien, David, Eugene, myself, we all played with the club. But even back then when you are at the field or wherever, everybody wanted to be the best about.”
Damien and Tommy progressed to county, the elder brother by three years always a few steps ahead.
Yet he knew it was only a matter of time before they would run out together.
“All along he would’ve been good, Tommy.
“I suppose as a brother, you never really think… you just expect it. I started playing senior football when Tommy was in the minors and you knew he was definitely going to come into the scene.
“Looking back, we were lucky. We played up and down the road for years and years, travelling to training, on team buses...”
Seamus McEnaney was over the Monaghan U21s by the time Tommy moved onto that stage in 2001 – the same year he made his senior debut under Jack McCarville.
That came after being asked in for a challenge game against a Tyrone side led by his hero, Peter Canavan.
“Damien came home and told me I’d been called into the panel and we were playing a match up in Omagh. I’d been going fairly well for the U21s, still I didn’t believe him at first.
“I came on in the second half and my idol was at the opposite end of the pitch.”
Freeman scored five points, three from play, in an impressive cameo, and was brought off the bench in the Championship win over Fermanagh that summer.
When ‘Banty’ took over the senior reins from Colm Coyle in 2004, Freeman was an established force, having just helped Magheracloone to their first – and so far only – senior county crown.
Around the same time Ballybay playmaker Paul Finlay was finding his feet on the inter-county scene too, his languid style and pinpoint passing providing the perfect foil for the cuteness and non-stop industry of the man in the corner.
“Tommy was a pure joy,” he said.
“It didn't matter what way you kicked it in, high or low, Tommy could compete. He’s probably known as a nippy corner-forward but Tommy is maybe 5'10 or 5’11 and deceptively strong so well able to hold his own, capable of beating his marker and taking him on.
“Just one of those special players that you always wanted to see on the ball because you knew something good was going to happen more often than not.”
Finlay and Freeman became the fulcrum and focal point of the Farney attack, helping turn Monaghan from also-rans into genuine contenders on a provincial stage dominated by the twin towers of Armagh and Tyrone.
Derry’s Gerard O’Kane spent his career going toe-to-toe with some of the best forwards in the country, but says the Magheracloone maestro gave him some of his biggest headaches.
“I first encountered Tommy in the 2005 National League Division Two semi-final in Clones - 10 seconds in he had the ball in the net.
“I still maintain to this day it was a Seamus Darby nudge in the back but he definitely caught me out. The next 15 minutes was a frenzied start for Monaghan and it ended up with me being changed off Tommy and Kevin McGuckin was given the marking duties for the rest of the day.
“It was just one of those days where everything was going right for Monaghan and they ended up beating us. We got revenge in the first round of Ulster three weeks later as the surprise element had gone, but we had to plan for Tommy specifically, such was the talent he had.”
The pair would be pitted against each other again two years down the line, and this time it was Monaghan who came out on top at Casement Park to book an Ulster final date with Tyrone.
Freeman was named man-of-the-match after scoring seven points, four from play, though O’Kane is quick to defend his corner.
“I actually played him well,” added the Glenullin man, who captained the Oak Leafs to an All-Ireland minor title in 2002.
“As a corner-back I was beating him to the ball and denying the initial ball winning in the corner but he fed a lot off the secondary ball, the loop around and one or two of our mistakes coming out of defence. We had a great battle that day.”
And 13 years on, the pair remain inextricably linked, albeit no longer through football, as O’Kane explains: “In a funny twist of fate my mother-in-law to be from Cavan is originally from Monaghan and used to babysit Tommy 35-plus years ago.”
Freeman hit 1-3 in the 2007 Ulster final, winning his personal battle with Conor Gormley, but it wasn’t enough for Monaghan against Mickey Harte’s bogeymen.
After another 1-5 in the qualifier victory over Donegal, the quarter-finals paired the Farneymen with defending All-Ireland champions Kerry. Where some would be cowed it was a challenge he relished - no matter what the circumstances.
“The one thing about Tommy Freeman, as you saw in that Ulster final there a few weeks ago, he’s a big day performer,” says McEnaney, now back in the Monaghan hotseat.
“He’s a natural leader on the pitch and a natural footballer. In the first 20 minutes Magheracloone just couldn’t get a score, kicking wide after wide, and up steps Tommy and kicks three in-a-row. That just settled the whole job down.
“He has always shone on the big occasion – and nothing would stop him playing on those big days either. I remember on the Wednesday before the Kerry game in ’07, Tommy was working as a carpenter at the time and he put a nail straight through his hand with a nail gun.
“And guess what? He was still my top man on the Sunday.”
Marc O Se can vouch for that.
“Jesus, he was tough...”
At that time, O Se was as sticky a man-marker as there was in Ireland; forwards hated to see him coming.
But on a day when Rory Woods was at his brilliant best as Monaghan went right for the jugular, Freeman’s battle with O Se provided an intriguing sideshow.
“When Monaghan won the ball in the middle of the field, it was only going one place – into Tommy,” said the former Kingdom star, who tangled with Freeman at Croke Park again in the 2008 Championship.
“He kicked two points off me that day - one off the right, one off the left. That made it all the tougher to try and keep him quiet because you didn’t know what way he was going to go.
“We had a great battle, there were moments I was doing well, moments he was doing well... he was hardy. There was no end to him.
“It’s great for Tommy’s club that they have him back because, Christ, no better fella to have on your side.”
Freeman finished that year by collecting an Allstar award, some going considering Monaghan bowed out in the last eight, and continued to terrorise defences at inter-county level until 2013.
One of his final acts in a Monaghan jersey was to come off the bench in the dying moments of that year’s Ulster decider against Donegal, clipping over the last point as Malachy O’Rourke’s men brought the Anglo-Celt back to the Farney County for the first time in 25 years.
It was a fitting end, and the outpouring of emotion in Clones will live long in the memory. But, for Tommy Freeman, the adventure isn’t over just yet.
CHRISTMAS was a quiet one, but then it would seldom have been any other way. Throw a seven-year-old and a three-year-old running around his feet into the mix and nipping out for a run, rather than a few pints, becomes your release.
“This oul football kept me on my toes, but it’s been great fun about the place,” says Tommy.
“I’d look after myself okay. Listen, I’m no saint, I wouldn’t be an overly big drinker but when I can have one or two at the right time I’d have a few. An odd gym session, a bit of running around my road here, there’s a track a couple of miles away from me so I always kept myself ticking over.
“That stood to me when I went back.”
Returning to the fold having stepped away in 2018 wasn’t an easy one, but then it was anything but an easy year for Magheracloone.
First there was the heartache off the field when the club was left without a home after part of a disused mine collapsed, leaving two huge sinkholes across their pitch and forcing them to train and play at grounds in neighbouring counties.
Salt flowed into those wounds four weeks later when their 21-year stay in Monaghan’s top flight came to an end.
“I didn’t play last year - there was just a few things at home and I couldn’t really commit. I thought that was it.
“The new management got on to me and I decided to go back, try and help the team and get us back into senior football.
“I probably kept myself away from some of the games that season, I went to a few... the boys were just unfortunate. They were in such control in some of the games and ended up losing by a point or two.
“That was bad enough and then to lose our whole ground was twice as bad. But you bounce back, we went down and we’re straight back up.”
The Ulster title win and All-Ireland opportunity are bonus territory, unquestionably. Freeman and his team-mates will run out at St Oliver Plunkett Park in Crossmaglen this afternoon safe in the knowledge that the season’s objective is already under lock and key.
With senior status secured, this is the chance at something a bit special – especially as he is unsure whether there will be potential for any further fairytales down the line.
“To be honest, I’d say this could be it.
“I’m 38 now, 39 next month. Time’s ticking on so I’ll see what happens, but I’ve enjoyed being back. Would I rather be in senior football? Yes of course I would. You want to play at the top of your level for as long as you can, but this is where we are.
“It was brilliant to win the Ulster championship and it’s great to be involved in an All-Ireland semi-final. This competition can bring you places you only dream of going with your club.
“It’s been a wonderful journey and hopefully it can continue for another couple of weeks.”