GAA Football

'You don't have to win all the time, but when you stop having that aspiration of wanting to do something… the day you stop trying is the day you start dying'

Along with Joey Cunningham, they were the men who replaced the man when Joe Kernan moved on to Armagh after leading Crossmaglen to unprecedented success. But Oliver Short has never been one to shirk a challenge in any walk of life and, as Neil Loughran finds out, that isn't about to change any time soon...

Crossmaglen stalwart Oliver Short smashed the Irish half-marathon record for his age group (60-69), and plans to continue to make waves in the indoor rowing world. Picture by Hugh Russell

IT’S about a five minute drive that delivers Oliver Short to the hurt locker. Leaving Crossmaglen, it’s a straight road out Dundalk direction before a sharp left, followed by another, before the familiar trek up towards the top of a country lane.

Eventually he arrives at the shed - well, that’s what they call it. It’s actually an old cow barn in the tiny townland of Sheelagh, just across the border into Louth. Here stands a high performance gym, Hugh Mór Conway style.

‘The shed’ is home to the medal-laden St Patrick’s tug of war club, first established in the late ’70s and driven by Conway and his offspring through the years. In recent times it has become a boxing club too, a string of talented young fighters learning their craft in these most humble of surroundings.

Short, though, isn’t here for either of those pursuits. His opponent is one of the 10 rowing machines fixed to makeshift wooden bases around the shed’s edges. He is here three nights a week but there is seldom an evening when all are not occupied.

And if it’s not Short it could be Aaron Kernan, or Oisin O’Neill, or the latest crop of talent off the Crossmaglen conveyor belt taking their spot and getting ready to go to work.

“Oisin does a lot of rowing with us - he is one of our big hopefuls for the future.

“He’s had to scale it back a bit with the football, he was looking forward to his first nationals this year but, because of everything that’s gone on, it wasn’t to be. But he has big aspirations.”

The Crossmaglen and Armagh star is not the only one.

Oliver Short has always needed something. If it wasn’t football, it was basketball. If it wasn’t basketball, it was coaching. If it wasn’t coaching, it was cycling. If it wasn’t cycling, it was triathlon. Now, at 60 years of age, indoor rowing is his obsession.

The relentless swooshing back and forth, the primal grunts, the steady stream of sweat into the eyes as Conway cranks up the pace, the pain in the glutes and the quads as those long limbs beg for rest – these are the things that keep bringing him back for more.

Two weeks ago Short smashed the Irish half-marathon record for his age group, one of seven lockdown breakthroughs across a range of times and distances. At the end of 2019 he won silver medals in the 1000m and 2000m at the European Championships in Prague before competing at the Worlds in Paris at the start of February, finishing seventh in the 2000m.

For a man who has seen plenty through a sporting odyssey spanning five decades, it was nice to know butterflies can still find a home on the big days.

“In Paris there it was all smoke and strobe lighting - you know that sort of gladiator music too? It was booming around the place. My heart was flying out of my chest…”

The inclusiveness of the sport, and the ability to compete from just about anywhere, whether it’s a cow shed in Sheelagh or the national sports campus in Abbotstown, has made goal-setting easy.

“Everything’s an open competition - you can be the slowest person in the world and you can enter to race against Sanita Puspore or the O’Donovan brothers, or the Campbells from Ballymena because it’s part of their Olympic qualification to do indoor time-trials.

“At the likes of the nationals, which were held at the University of Limerick last year, you could have 100 ergs [ergometers, the device that measures work or energy] all flashed up on a big screen while everybody’s going.

“Last Saturday I spent a sad morning watching James Cracknell beat the British indoor rowing record for the marathon. It was unbelievable. Once you’re in, it’s hard not to get hooked - hard for me not to get hooked anyway.”

Hard because, when Short sets his mind to something, that’s it. He has always seen life as a series of challenges to be embraced rather that shied away from – even if it does involve filling the biggest shoes in town.

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Oliver Short and Joe Cunningham were joint managers of Crossmaglen Rangers after Joe Kernan stepped away to take over Armagh

WHEN Joe Kernan took up the reins in 1993, Crossmaglen Rangers were far from the force now famed across Ireland. It was seven years since black and amber ribbons had adorned the Gerry Fagan Cup – the longest period the club had gone without a county championship since World War Two.

Three more would pass before the good times began to roll again and when they eventually did, Oliver Short had exited stage left. A formidable full-back in pomp, he has county medals at every age grade with Cross, and also wore the orange of Armagh.

But while the drought years were tough, he never lost hope. As a maths teacher at St Joseph’s High School, Short’s ear was always close to the ground. He knew full well the surge of talent that was on the way up in Cross, and never shared the sense of doom and despair even during the most difficult of times.

“I taught most of the boys that were coming through – the likes of Joe Fitzpatrick, Francie Bellew, John Donaldson… it was probably a bit awkward in the first year under Joe because I was still there and they were still pupils at the school.

“They were all bright, dedicated, focused fellas, but they were hard as nails. They were easy in that respect; just old school town people whose parents had played as well so they had always a great respect.

“In his first three years Joe had an old team that had won stuff but was coming to the end. Once he got a really good team he polished them up and made them even better.”

The ’96 Armagh title marked a spectacular opening of the floodgates at Oliver Plunkett Park, and proved the foundation stone for the subsequent decades of success.

By the time Kernan moved on to the Armagh job five years later, Cross had won every county championship since - starting a stunning 13 in-a-row sequence – as well as amassing three Ulsters and three All-Irelands in four years.

“Not the easiest act to follow,” laughs Short.

But somebody had to do it.

And, after some of the senior players arrived at his door, he agreed – alongside friend and former team-mate Joey Cunningham – to accept what many considered a poisoned chalice.

“A few of the boys came out to me and asked me to train the team until they got someone. I rang Joey, who was reluctant, but when he took upon it he was just fantastic. One month ran into another, the craic was good and that’s how it ended up.”

Short had never coached at club level but, in his early years teaching, served an impressive apprenticeship at the top end of schools’ competition under the legendary Adrian McGuckin, helping St Patrick’s, Maghera to MacRory and Hogan Cup success during the early 1980s.

Combined with the lessons learned from Ray Morgan during his days as a pupil at St Colman’s College, and Derry great Jim McKeever at St Joseph’s teacher training college, a bank of experience was there.

“I’ve been very lucky in my life with the coaches I’ve worked with. Unbelievably lucky.

“From Ray Morgan to Jim McKeever to Adrian McGuckin, the legendary Tim Gregory in Crossmaglen who coached us all and he’s still there. Right up to Hugh Mór Conway now, in another walk of life.

“Every single one of those coaches had a vested interest in the personal. They could make an average player think he was a brilliant player. Equally, you were afraid to miss a training session – they built collectives, and the idea of letting that collective down didn’t even bear thinking about.

“Like, when I played for St Colman’s, we had our own thoughts on McGuckin. When I went to manage with him, I found a real family man who brought the same sense of family to all of his teams and all of his players. There was actually almost an innocence about him, as opposed to what I had thought. Morgan was exactly the same.

“That’s what made them great.”

Taking on Cross was the only challenge that could have coaxed him into such a role. His father, Paddy, played for and managed the club and Short had always fancied following those footsteps.

He never saw it as a long-term arrangement, and was under no illusions about the size of the task left behind as Kernan backboned his Armagh team with the brilliance of the all-conquering boys from Cross.

“It was never going to be the baton handed down to me or anything like that. I was happy teaching away, I had three very young kids at that time so there was no way was I even thinking of it.

“As well, I knew at that stage it was going to be difficult because Joe took seven of the senior players in Cross with him. I remember Oisin McConville asking me would that be okay, but who was I to tell guys to stop their career? So we went to games sometimes with only 15 players and we were getting a bit of a pasting at times.

“People thought this was the end of an era, but I knew when the Oisins, the McEntees, the Francies, came back they would just slot straight in, and they did. They gave everything for Crossmaglen.”

The only pressure he felt after coming into the job was to keep Crossmaglen’s county title-winning streak going – they did just that, but fell short on both occasions they entered into the provincial arena.

Young players like the Kernan brothers, Aaron and Stephen, were blooded during this time, so too Johnny Murtagh and Mickey McNamee. An emerging Dromintee side had been kept at bay.

Oliver Short played a major part in the Cross success story but when the time came, he was only too happy to go back to life as he had known it.

“There was nothing more I was going to be able to give – they needed somebody better than me.

“The club needed to get somebody in to help and after Joe, they had a period of reflection, an intake of breath. They maybe saw me and Joey as safe pairs of hands before giving it onto somebody to rebuild.

“It was the right time to go. I don’t look back on that time with anything other than pride.”

He helped out with the school teams at St Joseph’s, but never had any intention of continuing his managerial career beyond the borders of Cross. This was a one-stop shop and when it was over, he did what he had always done.

He looked for something new.

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Mairead Short watches on as husband Oliver competes at the Irish indoor rowing championships

“ALL my life I’ve always either been on a bicycle, or played basketball, Gaelic football, never to a fantastic level. I was a good bumper and grinder...”

Oliver Short laughs as he reminisces briefly about his playing days. Throughout the conversation there are regular references to the kind of player he was, as opposed to the player he might have been.

“My whole reputation was probably based on fear. I was an absolute nutcase.

“Because I was big and strong, every manager sent me out to be a destroyer. I probably have a reputation in Armagh of bringing good players down to my level. I probably could have done more, or made more of myself as a footballer, but at the time I revelled in the role of being a hard man until the next hard man came up and taught me a lesson.

“I was sent off in ’86 against Bellaghy. After that, my reputation was lost. But football’s still hard to replace because, when you’re brought up in Cross, it’s just a part of you and that’s it.

“There was a void to fill after I called it a day.”

Cycling kept him fit, but eventually he wanted more. Triathlons came next. Ten years ago, at 51, he competed in his first Ironman in Galway. And it wasn’t long before he found his way up to the shed.

“I’d got a slight injury running, and somebody recommended I go up to this tug of war club out the road. You have to see this place to believe it. At the time, Hugh Mór Conway had four rowing machines, but there were no steppers, no mirrors or anything like that.

“You’d just throw a couple of euro in the pot, you come in and he’d watch your numbers, your technique, tell you what you should and shouldn’t be doing. The man’s a genius.”

Initially his aspirations went no further than those four walls, but Short was never going to leave it at that. Eventually he entered into a provincial competition and did okay. Anybody can enter the nationals, so why not give it a go?

To date, he has won 10 Ulster titles, 10 Irish, three Scottish and two European medals. Yet still, just a couple of weeks out from his 61st birthday, he feels as though he’s only getting started.

“The way I played, I wasn’t the most skilful or the most talented, but I probably had a dark place of hurt that I knew I could go into when I needed. Like, if I’m level with someone and there’s 400 metres to go, I know I’ll win. I just know I will.

“Maybe it’s a Crossmaglen thing. Cross have won so many things by the skin of their teeth down the years because they don’t understand losing. You’d almost need a buffalo gun to kill them.

“I’m involved with a charity called Run for Autism, which raises thousands of pounds every year, that drives me on, and my wife Mairéad has always been a great support. But the bottom line is I just love sport, and competing. I always have, and I hope I always will.

“Listen, if I’d got into a camogie skirt, I’d have played camogie. If Frankie Dettori leant me his breeches I’d have had a go at horse-racing. I’d have had a go at anything.

“You don’t have to win all the time, but when you stop having that aspiration of wanting to do something… the day you stop trying is the day you start dying. That’s just the way I feel.”

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