‘We can give out to each other in Crossmaglen - but nobody’s allowed to give out to us’ - Oisin McConville

‘I never thought marriage or kids would happen to me’

Former Armagh star Oisin McConville pictured in Crossmaglen.
Former Armagh star Oisin McConville outside Crossmaglen barracks PICTURE COLM LENAGHAN

EVERY box was ticked. Probably twice over. The Wicklow footballers had travelled up to Sligo the night before for their second Division Three game of the new season.

Oisin McConville was quietly confident his players would bounce back from their opening day defeat to Down.

He arrived at the gates of Markievicz Park only to be told he couldn’t park his car inside the ground.

The steward was adamant. Rules are rules.

It shouldn’t have been a big deal, but Oisin allowed it to fester in his head. He reversed his car and parked it up outside the ground.

He was niggled even more when his car registration was called out over the stadium tannoy during Wicklow’s pre-match warm-up.

It was apparently causing an obstruction.

“I had to get somebody to move my car and by the time the game started my head wasn’t where it needed it to be,” Oisin says.

“I shouldn’t have let it annoy me, but I felt it was deliberate – and that annoyed me. And it annoyed me even more that I put myself in that situation.”

To compound Wicklow’s woes, they conceded “two of the shittiest goals you’d ever see” in the first half – Alan McLoughlin crashing home from close range for the home side before Niall Murphy converted a penalty.

Kevin Quinn had an outstanding game for the visitors, but it still wasn’t enough to prevent Sligo from falling over the line to take the spoils and leave newly promoted Wicklow pointless after two games.

McConville was in foul mood before, during and after the Sligo game, and he let match official Kieran Eannetta know Wicklow weren’t happy with some of his decisions - angry words that were forceful enough to land him a four-week suspension from all activities.

“I spoke to the referee afterwards, and I’m on record as saying I was totally wrong to do that. But my mindset wouldn’t have been brilliant at that stage with other things annoying me.

“What did I learn that day? To shut my mouth! That’s the biggest learning. It’s difficult because I spent a good few years working on not hiding my feelings.

“I’m trying to put that in reverse, I suppose [smiling] – that’s why I ended up with the issues that I had [gambling addiction] because I was hiding away from those feelings...

“It’s better to be open and honest with people, and then you realise you can’t really do that in a public forum, especially as a manager of a football team.”

Taking a seat in the stands, he thought, wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world – until he was sitting in the stands on match-day and it was the worst thing in the world.

Wicklow tumbled straight back down to Division Four again – but there would be a stubborn kick in them before they’d bow out of Leinster and the Tailteann Cup.

Oisin McConville
Wicklow manager Oisin McConville celebrates his side's win over Westmeath Picture: Sportsfile (David Fitzgerald / SPORTSFILE/SPORTSFILE)

ALL the shops in the main square of Crossmaglen are open for business on this grey and sluggish Monday morning.

It’s less than 48 hours since Wicklow kicked themselves out of the first half reckoning of their Tailteann quarter-final against Down at Pairc Esler, eventually losing 1-18 to 0-12.

And just like that Wicklow’s season was over and the WhatsApp group fell silent.

KIS café – short for ‘Keep It Simple’ – sits at the bottom end of the square in the town, a decent ‘45 metre kick away from the gates of the famous St Oliver Plunkett Park.

Oisin swings into the café and just happens to sit beneath a framed photograph of Crossmaglen’s 1997 All-Ireland winning team up on the wall.

He’s 21 and flanked by Colm O’Neill and Francie Bellew in the back row with an unforgettable playing career about to unfold before him.

Although it’s only two days since Wicklow’s season ended, Armagh’s 2002 All-Ireland winning forward appears to have done a good job of rinsing everything out of his head.

“When the season’s on, it is constant contact; I don’t feel I overdo it, but I still feel I need to be at the other end of the phone. You sort of get married to your phone which I don’t like.”

The previous night, he felt liberated by leaving his phone at home and taking his three kids to the local play park.

“My wee girl is five and the other boys are nine and 11 and there’s a wee pitch there where we do a bit of kicking. It gave Darina [his wife] 20 minutes to herself – and that’s probably the first time since last November.”

Earlier in the day – which was Father’s Day – Oisin joined a few of his old ‘Cross friends on a charity walk to raise money so that young footballer Caolan Finnegan can access vital medical care in his battle against an aggressive form of brain cancer.

“We walked from here to Donaghmoyne (Caolan’s father’s club) and I walked most of the way back. About 10 miles, 20,000 steps…

“Darina collected me. It was a brilliant way to clear the head and there was a bit of craic obviously because you’re meeting up with lads who you played with and who you don’t see any more because I’m up and down the road to Wicklow and when I’m not, I’m at home or working.”

Oisin McConville gets a pass away despite the pressure from Donegal's Neil McGee
Oisin McConville made the game look easy

TO Oisin McConville, football was about instinct as much as anything else. Nobody thrived on the big days more than the Crossmaglen Rangers man.

There was an uncoachable quality, something wonderfully inarticulate about how he played Gaelic football.

“I remember Joe [Kernan] brought Colm O’Rourke up to speak to us before our first All-Ireland in ‘97.

“We were sitting down, and O’Rourke said: ‘Listen lads, the reality of it is, some boys that go out onto Croke Park will crawl into their shells, they’ll struggle and the game will pass them by.

‘Other boys will go out there and they’ll feel 10 ft tall and will want the ball and more of the ball.’

“As O’Rourke was talking, I was saying to myself: ‘I’m not going into my shell.’”

If anyone had crystal ball-gazed back then, Oisin McConville wouldn’t have exactly been seen as management material.

He was too much of a maverick for that.

Fast-forward to September 2011 - three years after stepping away from Armagh - he became DkIT manager (Dundalk Institute of Technology).

He remembers arriving a couple of hours early for training. Everything was set up and ready to go.

He was anticipating around 40 players showing up for the session.

Only eight turned up.

“You must realise where you need to start,” he says. “It must be steps and stairs. You can’t jump into an elevator and reach the top.”

Oisin met the DkIT players where he found them and built from there.

He spent 10 fulfilling years coaching the Dundalk-based students, winning a couple Trench Cups and a handful of league titles along the way.

It’s been ‘small steps and stairs’ since he joined Wicklow too.

“I’m not worried about ceilings,” he says.

The disappointment of relegation was wiped away to a large extent by knocking Westmeath out of the Leinster series in April.

Throughout his playing days, Oisin embraced the media - and that hasn’t changed since stepping into inter-county management.

In the lead-up to their Leinster SFC quarter-final with Kildare, he granted two media outlets access to a Wicklow training session and team meetings.

It was the kind of move that’s unheard of on the inter-county circuit these days.

“We didn’t go looking for it,” Oisin points out. “A couple of journalists got in touch. I wanted exposure for the [Wicklow] players. I wanted them to realise how important the result was at the weekend and how important the next game was.

“The more focus on our games, the more focus there is on us as a county – we got a lot of exposure this year with four or five of our games on GAAGO.

“How are the players going to aspire to get more or to want more, or to realise what goes on in the upper echelons of the GAA if they don’t experience it?

“It’d be worse if we went through the year and nobody wanted to talk to us.

“Unless we experience these things, they’re going to be alien to us. They’re going to matter some day and when they matter, the players have to be comfortable with them.”

Oisin adds: “When I played, I didn’t shy away from the media. You had a decision to make very early on in your career: I chose to embrace it and the reason why I embraced it was because I felt it helped me focus because the more focus there was on a game, the more focused I was.

“Or the more hype around a game, the more I realised that this game was important.

“My thinking was: ‘I’m going to do things better this week than I did last week. I’ll eat better, I’ll f***ing train harder.’

“Now, if you say that to a player nowadays, they might say: ‘Well, I prepare for every single game the same way?’

‘Do you? Fair play to you! Well, I didn’t.’

“I prepared better for bigger games than I did for smaller games… I don’t think I performed in all of the big games I was involved in - but I was always in them, I was always there, and it didn’t matter if it took me 60 minutes to figure it out, I still felt in my own head that I’d have the last laugh and I’ll take the opportunity if it comes.”

He doesn’t look in his rear view too often and doesn’t have a medal, jersey or a photograph of his playing days at home.

“I have all the memories. I know what happened. I don’t feel the need to put them on show. That might change. Maybe I’ll get more melancholy and will want to reminisce more.

“Even though I was living with the addiction, at the same time, my over-riding memories of playing are good ones.

“But even now, when I go to the pitch, I’m thinking, I’d love to play, just one more day, a pair of shorts on, don’t have to worry about 35 players, or a backroom team. Just go out and play.”

Throughout his post-playing days, he’s enjoyed dabbling in punditry.

He spent endless Saturdays in the company of Thomas Niblock and Adrian McGuckin – in a BBC studio that became affectionately known as the “dungeon”.

“It was when the back door games started at one o’clock and finished at nine o’clock. We’d be in there the whole day; we’d have food together. It got to the stage I would’ve done it for nothing because we were having so much craic.”

It was through his work with the BBC and Niblock’s fascinating fly-on-the-wall documentary on Crossmaglen Rangers in 2016 that the pair became firm friends and came up with the germ of an idea for a GAA podcast.

‘The GAA Social’ soon morphed into one of the most popular podcasts in Ireland, and it has also kept Oisin at the game’s coalface.

Counselling was a career pathway Oisin embarked upon after coming out the other end of a gambling addiction.

He’s worked alongside, Sporting Chance and just this month was announced as the brand ambassador for The Gambling Awareness Trust.

His understated ability to listen has benefited him in his professional life, but also in his media work and football management.

“I’m 18 years now [since getting his addiction under control]. In the first couple of years I was hanging on.

“I felt I had to avoid stuff, wouldn’t go into a pub during the day in case there was racing on, I’d never buy a paper in case I flicked to the racing section. I avoided racing on TV, avoided results…

“Now, if I happened to be in a situation where I’m in a pub and there’s racing on in the corner, it doesn’t faze me. I’m so far removed from that world now.”

He adds: “Time in itself doesn’t heal, but I’ve learned to deal with it. A lot of the work I do revolves around intervention, meeting people who are in trouble.

“I don’t think there is anything that shocks me because I’ve probably experienced most lows in life, so I have empathy.

“I’m able to relate to the people, and the most important thing for me is I’m not there to lecture them. I’m there to help them.

“I could meet 1,000 people and 500 of them might be just ticking a box and I have to find that out. I know after an hour sitting down with someone.

“I’ve told people that they’re not ready. The good thing about challenging people like that is sometimes they’ll come back to you and say: ‘I was ready. I did it.’ And that’s brilliant.

“That’s all I want. I want people to have what I have now because I never thought I would have them – and I’m not talking about material things; I’m talking about the life that I have, the peace of mind that I have, the freedom I have, the family I have, the support network I have. I never thought marriage or kids would happen to me.”

Former Armagh star Oisin McConville pictured in Crossmaglen.
Former Armagh star Oisin McConville pictured at St Oliver Plunkett Park in Crossmaglen. PICTURE COLM LENAGHAN

OISIN McConville is 48 - he’ll be 49 in October and is looking forward to a third year down in Wicklow in 2025.

So much has changed since the team photograph on the wall above him, wearing the unmistakable black and amber jersey and being flanked by Colm O’Neill and Francie Bellew.

The town he’s from has changed a great deal too. Physically and emotionally.

The younger generation of Crossmaglen look at life differently compared to how Oisin McConville did when he was growing up.

There are no soldiers on the streets. No helicopters taking off or landing on the club’s grounds.

The metal grey perimeter fence of the army barracks beyond the top of the main square is an ugly relic from another time.

The trendy café we’re both sitting in on this Monday morning, sipping tea and coffee, is another sign of the changing times.

“My memories of the troubles are still very vivid,” Oisin says, “the fear is very vivid – the fear of a bomb going off.

“Even passing the barracks when I was young, you’d be thinking, if there’s an attack, I’m in bother here.

“I didn’t walk past them. I used to skip or run past them.

“That’s not there anymore. My kids aren’t looking over their shoulders. Businesses are prospering, young people are different now, they’re off doing different things - the world is opening up for the people here.

“It’s probably more accepted to be who you were meant to be – or be who you are.

“I’m proud to be from here. I give out about ‘Cross, everything about the town. If things aren’t going right on the football pitch, if something goes on in the town that you’re not 100 per cent happy about – I suppose we have the same issues as every other small town.

“But, you know what, I don’t know if it’s because you’re talking to me now, but there’s a young lad who’s sick at the minute - Caolan Finnegan – and you just see the best in people.

“There was charity walk the other day, 280 people, a truck run where I stood outside the barracks with my kids watching it.

“Between those two events, £80,000 or £90,000 was raised. We can give out about each other here - but nobody’s allowed to give out about us.”

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