Brendan Crossan: Antrim ace CJ McGourty can make up for lost time
THE first time I had a proper sit-down interview with CJ McGourty was 11 years ago in Culturlann on the Falls Road in west Belfast. CJ was 17 going on 18.
Before I met the St Gall’s man I knew enough about him. It depends who you asked too; some people would say he was hard to manage. He could annoy his team-mates, and annoy his opponents even more.
He was a bit immature (weren’t we all at 17?) and while he had this unerring ability to divide opinion in the county, one thing that was irrefutable – even among his fiercest critics – was his incredible natural talent.
He also excelled in hurling and soccer. In his last year at De La Salle he was a man in demand, featuring in 11 teams at one point.
He was a teenage prodigy, starring in finals and winning medals by the dozen. He had the world at his feet. He could do things with the ball that other players could only dream about.
He was always an audacious footballer. He would attempt things with no fear of the consequences. I watched CJ on countless occasions.
The bigger the stage, the more he thrived. From that point of view there was a bit of the Oisin McConvilles about him. He loved the stress tests of the big championship days.
In the 2010 Ulster Championship clash with Tyrone at Casement Park, he came off the bench and with Joe McMahon breathing down his neck he hit four points from play.
If you were bigger, stronger and quicker than CJ, he could still out-smart you. He made you believe – and convinced many of his markers – that the outcome of the duel would always come down to intelligence. Not strength. Brains.
He was the ace in the St Gall’s pack as Armagh man John Rafferty led the west Belfast club to the All-Ireland club final in 2006, only to fall to Salthill-Knocknacarra on a bitterly cold day in Croke Park.
Four years later, he was no longer the mercurial impact sub. Lenny Harbinson, CJ’s uncle, took the reins and reached the Holy Grail with the Milltown men in 2010.
At that stage, McGourty was the cerebral orchestrator of the St Gall’s attack, pinging passes along the ‘40’, slicing 45s over the crossbar and bending points over from impossible angles with the outside of his left boot.
It became his inimitable trademark. When he was on song, CJ was a joy to watch on a football field. Of course, the youngster was surrounded by brilliant footballers at St Gall’s who facilitated him.
Now 28, he has a greater appreciation of the role his St Gall’s team-mates played that allowed him to sample great moments. Men like Sean Burns, Mark McCrory, Simon Kennedy, Sean Kelly and his brothers Kevin and Kieran McGourty all played vital roles in allowing CJ to touch the sky.
At that stage, all he had to do was turn up and the invincibility of youth would take over. But here’s the catch. What came so naturally and ridiculously easy in the Azzurri blue jersey of St Gall’s was often complex and tense with Antrim.
It happens. When you’ve climbed a mountain at club level, scaling another with your county isn’t a straightforward process, as many Crossmaglen players could testify.
CJ’s career with Antrim had some of that swagger but we never saw it often enough. In 10 years, his name would drift on and off the Antrim teamsheet.
It didn’t help that he had two hip operations and struggled to deal with the rehab. And given the amount of teams he was lining out for as a teenager, there must have been elements of mental and physical fatigue in his early 20s.
He fell out with Antrim managers too, while others simply didn’t pick him. During Frank Dawson’s short-lived reign, CJ was never considered for selection.
In an interview with the Irish News around that time, the player said: “I stopped counting at 20. There were 20 forwards in Antrim asked to play for the county and I wasn’t asked. If you’re telling me I’m not in the top 20 forwards in Antrim I’d
have to laugh at you.”
In terms of developing a vision, Antrim GAA was found wanting on too many occasions, so there weren’t always the right structures in place to get the best out of the county’s best players.
His last appearance for the Antrim seniors was as a second half substitute in an All-Ireland Qualifier defeat to Fermanagh 18 months ago.
He’d be the first to acknowledge he wasn’t properly focused in 2015. Spending most of last year in Australia has done him the power of good.
He won a Sydney Championship with the Michael Cusack’s club and did some “growing up”. Everyone thought we’d seen the last of CJ McGourty on the inter-county stage, but he’s back after accepting Frank Fitzsimons and Gearoid Adams’s invitation.
It would have been a crying shame had that one-sided Qualifier defeat in Brewster Park been his last act in an Antrim jersey. Your retirement years are long. They can have a haunting effect too, particularly among players who meekly leave the stage and know in their hearts that they didn’t push themselves to the absolute limit.
CJ McGourty still has good road in front of him. If he really pushes himself and reaches his potential over the next few years, he can look back in 10 years time and be satisfied.
He has the pen and can write the next few chapters. These are the days that will define him.