Sport

That Friday Feeling: Clones is home to a million memories that money simply cannot buy

'The sight of virtually empty Clones for the Monaghan-Fermanagh quarter-final a couple of weeks ago was a sad one' Picture: Philip Walsh.
BY ANDY WATTERS

THINK of Clones and your mind drifts away to Ulster Championship battles on hot summer Sundays.

A contest raging on the wide open spaces of St Tiernach's Park and the ‘ooohs' and ‘aaahs' of a packed house.

As a youngster I sat on the terrace at the town end when Frank McGuigan routed Armagh almost single-handedly in the 1984 Ulster final. McGuigan scored 11 points that day in a virtuoso performance, running the Orchard county defence ragged and winning the Anglo-Celt Cup for the Red Hands.

It's only as I write this that I remember that, three years earlier, I'd been in the band (bashing the cymbals) which played before the game when Down hammered Armagh in the 1981 decider.

By 1999 I had graduated to the hill and Armagh got their own back on their bitter rivals. The pace of the Armagh forwards was electric that day and the Down defence couldn't live with them. Oisin McConville, in his pomp, finished the game with 2-7. In the closing stages, with the game well and truly won, he almost chipped Down 'keeper Mickey McVeigh. Back-pedalling, McVeigh managed to get a hand on the ball and save himself from an unwanted eternity of GAA highlight-reel history alongside Mike Sheehy and Paddy Cullen.

Yes, we all have our own memories of Clones.

And not just of the games. As you make your way up the ranks, the many watering-holes in the town hold their own attractions. A pub in the square was a home from home at one stage and after an hour or two's craic it was time to sup up and pick your way through the masses in the town towards the ground.

I saw a t-shirt the other day with the slogan: ‘Who won the minor match?' which made me laugh. I remember once I left the square with good intentions of watching the minors only to meet a friend I hadn't seen for a while.

‘One for the road' became three for the road and the minor match was forgotten. The town was quiet (although there were still decent numbers hanging around) when I eventually dragged myself away and shamefacedly made it to the ground for the second half of Armagh and Tyrone's breathless quarter-final draw. Joe Kernan's men won the replay the following weekend and, by September, were All-Ireland champions.

So the sight of virtually empty Clones for the Monaghan-Fermanagh quarter-final a couple of weeks ago was a sad one.

Watching the European Championships or Wimbledon on the telly, it was great to see the fans there in their thousands, so why were only 500 permitted to watch the Championship down south?

North of the border, the situation is a little better, but only a little.

The Northern Ireland Executive eventually made a decision to increase the numbers allowed to watch Armagh versus Antrim on the Thursday before the game and the Ulster Council hastily rejigged their plans to increase the crowd to 1700 – the 1200 extra tickets were snapped up in a flash.

I understand that sporting events are down the list of priorities in these times but why leave it so late? Had, in the words of ‘Dude' in the Big Lebowski, 'new sh*t come to light?' Had some junior scientist run desperately from a secret laboratory through the halls of Stormont, smashed open the meeting room doors and collapsed on the floor before whispering a last-minute message: “Professor Hoffinstein… says: Let… fans… into… Athletic Grounds.”

If that was the case you'd take that but it seemed that the decision-makers weren't aware that the Ulster Championship was on and that the public were desperate to get back to the games. We deserve better on both sides of the border.

Anyway, the upshot was that Clones was deserted on three sides with only a few forlorn-looking Monaghan flags fluttering on the Hill.

I lamented the situation the following day to a lady I happened to be chatting to. How sad it was that people were denied the opportunity to go to the games and experience the thrills and the craic that we took for granted for so many happy years.

She's a Down native.

“You'd have been there in the 1990s I'm sure,” I said.

Her face lit up.

“Ha, I was at Clones in the 1960s!” she shot back and went on to tell me about her days following the great Down sides of that decade and how her uncle had driven her and her family to Croke Park for the 1960 All-Ireland final when almost 88,000 fans watched the Mournemen beat Kerry. She was there again the following year when over 90,000 packed out Headquarters.

The seeds for those successes were sown at Clones which remains the home of Ulster GAA.

I would love to see Casement built. If Antrim GAA is to flourish like it can, like it should, then the county needs a home and the west Belfast venue would provide that but, if and when that eventually happens, it shouldn't be at the expense of Clones.

Even when empty, St Tiernach's Park is an impressive arena but the ground now needs some investment to give it a new lease of life. I went into the dressing rooms once to do some interviews after a National League game in February and can report that the temperature in there was lower than it had been in the stand. But that is fixable.

As we look ahead to the final of an Ulster Championship that is bubbling to an entertaining boil, it's time to open the coffers and give the place the makeover it deserves because that ground and that town are home to a million memories already made (and a million more to come I hope) that money simply cannot buy.

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