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Brendan Crossan: Remembering the highs and lows of another pandemic year

Brendan Crossan - The Boot Room (
THE greatest challenge about doing this end of year review was trying to decipher when 2020 stopped and 2021 began. That’s what happens in pandemics: your head turns to mush and the years merge seamlessly into one another.   In this global pandemic, time becomes the weirdest thing of all.   One minute, the world is inching by at a snail’s pace – the next, you’re wondering where the last three months actually went.     As tumbleweed bobbed through The Irish News offices on Donegall Street, zoom calls became our virtual reality and our homes became our new workplaces.   At the beginning of 2021, the kids were in the throes of another extended lockdown.   The mornings and afternoons were at their unruly best, as mothers and fathers chipped away at Jolly Phonics and Seesaw - the new arms race of our time – while sports reporters like ourselves yearned to be in sports grounds with crowds, far away as possible from the next zoom call.     So, before we start, a disclaimer: some of these musings might well have occurred in 2020. And some of them mightn’t have occurred at all…     An open letter to Stormont… WITH outdoor sports off limits to children, one of the strongest advocates for the gates of sports grounds to be opened was former Down footballer and underage coach Benny Coulter.   By February 2021, children had lost eight months out of the last 11. Coulter felt enough was enough and painted a graphic picture for the Stormont authorities.   “I can see kids crumbling and nobody’s doing anything about it,” said Coulter. “I believe it’s safe for kids playing outside with all the controls in place, absolutely it’s safe.   “We came to training changed and didn’t use the changing rooms, travelled separately. I can’t understand why everything has to close down. But the problem is people are accepting it. I blame the politicians and the sporting bodies. They’re doing nothing about it. Nobody is standing up for the kids.”   Coulter was among several hundred sports figures who signed an open letter to Stormont urging them to allow children back onto sports fields. They included Aidan O’Rourke, Peter Canavan, Kieran McGeeney, Jane Adams, Stuart Dallas, Erin Getty and Gary Hamilton.   ///   Jack goes on the attack… WITH the GAA’s top brass evidently not pushing the Irish Government too hard on trying to get children back playing Gaelic Games, Down chairman Jack Devanney used the platform of virtual congress to highlight its raging importance.    “One of the big lessons is we have now become used to lockdowns and what lockdown means,” said Jack, “and we have to make sure once we emerge from it that we emerge completely. That we get back to life. The sooner we get children out and getting them active again and getting back to normality, the better.”   ///   Remembering Fergal McCann… IN March, Tyrone GAA was plunged into mourning by the devastating news of the death of former county trainer Fergal McCann.    Few people knew the much-loved Augher clubman, who trained Tyrone to the 2005 and ’08 All-Ireland titles, had been battling cancer for a year.   In a fitting tribute, club-mate Tony Donnelly said: “In my opinion, he was the best coach I ever seen.”   ///   Best social media debate… ANTRIM footballer Patrick McBride posed a great question on social media about what is more important: participation on sports day or rewarding children with medals?   “Should children aged 6-12 be given a certification for participation on sports day - or should there only be winners medals? (Gold, silver, bronze)?”   As debate raged, former Armagh goalkeeper Patrick Morrison perhaps came up with the best reply: “An anthropologist proposed a game to kids in an African tribe. He put a basket of fruit near a tree and told the children whoever got there first won the sweet fruits.    “When he told them to run they all took each other’s hands and ran together, then sat together enjoying their treats. When he asked them why they had run together like that as one could have had all the fruits for himself they said: 'Ubuntu, how can one of us be happy if all the other ones are sad?'   ///   Stay at home as parks bulge at the seams... AS frustration grew with the continued ban on children’s outdoor sports, Dr John McSparran aimed a broadside at the authorities.   “They say all their decisions are based on data and yet whenever they’re actually asked: ‘Where’s the data?’ They just come out with soundbites, like: ‘Well, it goes against the stay-at-home message.’   “It’s just a farce to think people will stay at home. What do they think they’re doing?   “If you go to any play park on a good day you’ll find they’re mobbed with children, so why not take them to an organised sporting activity that’s COVID-aware and is taking the necessary precautions and providing a structure for them.”   /// Weirdest phone call… WHEN you’re making Italian meatballs of an afternoon, your phone rings and on the other end of the line is Martin O’Neill who was kindly responding to an email request to chat about the fall-out of him being banned from playing at Casement Park by Antrim officials 50 years ago.   The former St Malachy’s College student had been playing soccer for Irish League club, Distillery in 1971. Antrim GAA took a dim view of O’Neill’s alleged ‘flouting’ of the GAA’s ban on foreign sports rule and wouldn’t allow the MacRory Cup semi-final between St Malachy’s and St Mary’s to take place at the west Belfast venue.   The game had to be moved to a pitch at the Christian Brothers in Omagh which St Mary’s won.   “For a schoolboy, it was wrong,” O’Neill told The Irish News.   “The Antrim GAA were unbelievably strong – they were pro-ban the whole way through – and at school level I thought it should not be affecting school teams.   “If they wanted to point to something at senior level, that’s another thing, but at college level, particularly two teams from Belfast who should have been gracing Casement Park...   “To be feeling that the reason for that was me playing soccer seemed really unfair – unfair on both colleges.”   As it turned out, a few weeks later, Rule 27 [foreign sports ban] was abolished at GAA Congress at the Whitla Hall, Queen’s University.   ///   The game is nothing without supporters… ASKED was there any discernible positive playing in empty stadia, Republic of Ireland striker Callum Robinson answered with an emphatic no. “I can’t speak for everyone,” said Robinson. “Some lads might like it, less pressure, maybe the Gaffer can get his message across quicker. But it’s not for me.   “Hopefully fans will be appreciated a little bit more…It’s not the same without them. Scoring a goal or getting a massive result, and celebrating in front of your supporters - you remember those celebrations. I don’t care what anyone says, you have that extra five per cent in you when the fans are there.”   ///   Ireland at a low ebb… PLAYED behind closed doors in Dublin, minnows Luxembourg shocked Republic of Ireland, 1-0 in a World Cup qualifier. Gerson Rodrigues’s brilliantly struck winning goal in the 85th minute put Ireland’s World Cup prospects in serious trouble and also put new boss Stephen Kenny on the ropes as more of the Irish media began to question the Dubliner’s suitability for the top job.   ///   ‘I’m Irish – it’s that simple…’ IN an exclusive interview with The Irish News, former Northern Ireland U21 player Mark Sykes explained the importance of his identity and why he declared for the south.     “I told Ian [Baraclough] it was nothing to do with religion - as my partner is Protestant. At the end of the day, I see myself as an Irish person and the right thing for me to do was to represent Republic of Ireland. It’s that simple. Whenever someone switched back from Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland they didn’t get half the backlash that I did. People will pick and choose when they say things but that’s just the way life is. It doesn’t bother me.”   ///   Fathers and sons… “NOAH returning to sport doesn’t make everything better. I won’t say: ‘Ah, this is fine now.’ I’ll be delighted when they’re back but a year of my child’s life has been taken away from him, and for what.   “I completely get the seriousness of the virus, but there could have been so much more done in a constructive, controlled manner for the kids. The easy solution was to keep them in the house.” – Former Irish League player Joe McDonnell welcomes the belated return of children’s outdoor sports as his son Noah returned to playing football with Linfield.   ///   Child’s play returns… ON April 12, GAA clubs in the north returned to collective training. I visited O’Donovan Rossa on the Shaw’s Road, west Belfast on that Monday to watch Kevin Logan and his merry band of coaches enjoy the feeling of grass under their feet again.   In the fading light, the kids shout: ‘A haon, a dó a trí – ROSSSSSSAAAAA!’   I asked Kevin how he felt the first session went, he replied: “Chaos, hectic, loud and all over the place – great to be back.”    ///   Take a bow… MARISSA Callaghan was undoubtedly one of the stars of 2021, leading the Northern Ireland ladies to their first-ever qualification to a major tournament. The Cliftonville legend is a living, breathing parable of never giving up on your dreams.   ///   Best books of the year… Mickey Harte’s ‘Devotion’. Stuart Horsfield’s ‘Brazil 1982: Glorious failure’. And Arrigo Sacchi’s ‘Immortals’.   ///   Dublin a no-go zone… WITH the Irish capital in line to host several Euro 2020 games – delayed by a year due to the pandemic – the FAI finally admitted defeat and Dublin was the only host out of the original 12 who withdrew from staging matches because of COVID19.   ///   Now you see me, now you don’t… The GAA’s ‘elite’ status.   ///   Politics and sport… WITH the impact of ‘Brexit’ and the growing discord with the British Government’s erratic leadership, Antrim Gaels Paddy Cunningham and Jane Adams stepped forward to spearhead a campaign designed to nudge the Irish Government into action and start preparing for a United Ireland. The ‘letter to the Taoiseach’ has since grown in momentum with over 12,000 Gaels adding their weight to the campaign.      ///   Remembering the bright light of one night in November… ON May 4, one of Ireland’s heroes Alan McLoughlin passed away, aged just 54. McLoughlin will be forever remembered for his equalising goal against Northern Ireland at Windsor Park in November 1993 that sent the Republic through to the World Cup finals in America.    Capped 42 times, he was voted Ireland’s Player of the Year in 1996.   ///   Eavesdropping at Corrigan Park… AFTER the Antrim hurlers took the rare scalp of Clare in their NHL opener back in early May, I overheard two stewards chuckling to one another as the teams warmed down: “Commiserations boys – keep the game going down there.”   ///   Losing your senses… ANTRIM’S Marc Jordan suffered a severe bout of COVID19 last year. It took him several months to make a full physical recovery but there was one positive about being COVID positive.   In an interview in May, the Lamh Dhearg clubman said: “I’ve still no smell at all. My taste isn’t too bad, only a lot of food tastes the same to me. I’d be up on the family farm and I literally can’t smell the cow sh**!”   /// Best sideline joust… DARREN Gleeson and Davy Fitzgerald at Corrigan Park.   ///   Coolest man in Europe… LEONARDO Bonucci in guiding Italy to European glory against an ultra-defensive England team in the Euro 2020 final.   ///   Most ill-fated celebration… AIDAN Walsh going wild after securing a bronze medal at the Olympic Games, and injures his ankle in doing so and was forced to withdraw from the final.   ///   Person of the year… KELLIE Harrington’s pockmarked road to Olympic gold in Tokyo was some journey.   ///   Fall from grace… AFTER the emotional high of winning Ulster in 2020, the Cavan footballers were well and truly running on empty in 2021, suffering back-to-back NFL relegations to lowly Wicklow. An opening day Championship loss to Tyrone completed a miserable year for Mickey Graham’s men.   ///   Dazzled by ‘Dazzler’… PLAYERS like Darren McCurry soothe the soul. He announced his return to Tyrone colours with a staggeringly brilliant display in the Ulster Championship against Cavan. Who said spontaneity in Gaelic football was dead?   ///   Remembering a young Farney warrior… HOURS after guiding the Monaghan U20s to an Ulster final, young captain Brendan Og Duffy was tragically killed in a car collision. The Monaghan senior footballers played the following day in an Ulster semi-final against Armagh and produced an incredible display to win.   ///   Best game... ULSTER semi-final between Monaghan and Armagh. That was living in the fullest sense.   ///   Favourite interview… MEETING Niall Morgan at his home in Cookstown a couple of weeks out from the Ulster final between Tyrone and Monaghan. Living proof that meaningful access still exists in parts of the Association.   ///   Most exhilarating play… RORY Beggan’s brilliant steal off Tyrone’s Mattie Donnelly and pick-up in the Ulster final as Monaghan tried to get back on level terms in the dying embers of an engrossing Ulster final at Croke Park. Not all super heroes wear capes.    ///   Most exhilarating game… CORK’S enthralling extra-time victory over Kilkenny in the All-Ireland hurling semi-finals at Croke Park and Shane Kingston’s incredible seven points after coming off the bench for the Rebels. An unforgettable day on Jones’s Road.   ///   Reaching for perfecton… THE Limerick hurlers and their dream final performance against Cork – and watching Cian Lynch, Gearoid Hegarty and Aaron Gillane make magic on the greatest stage of them all.   ///   Ambush of the year… TYRONE’S outrageous win over Kerry in their delayed All-Ireland semi-final and the performances of Conor Meyler, Ronan McNamee, Kieran McGeary and Niall Morgan.   ///   The tide turns... THE performance against Portugal in Faro from the Republic of Ireland was the first signs of the tide starting to turn in Stephen Kenny's favour.  And their gutsy 1-1 home draw with Serbia a few days later seemed like the anchor had been lifted.   ///   Too many punches for Manny… THE social media video post of Manny Pacquiao’s wife spoon-feeding her husband him after his 12-round loss to Cuban Yordenis Ugas. Eyes half open, he looked like a man who could barely lift his head or arms unaided – the after-effects of eating up Ugas’s poker jab all night.    It proved Pacquiao’s last bout in the ring.   ///   Best post-match scenes… O’DONOVAN Rossa’s last-gasp victory over Cushendall in the Antrim Senior Hurling Championship semi-finals at Dunsilly.    ///   A long time coming… IT’S hard to beat some of the stories that emerge from the club championships each year. Kickhams Creggan and Clann Eireann captured the imagination by ending respective famines for county titles in Antrim and Armagh. Take a bow Gerard McNulty and Tommy Coleman.   ///   Jimmy was nearly winning matches in Down…   IT was more than rumours that Jim McGuinness was on the verge of signing up with the Down footballers. Whatever happened at the last minute only few men in the know can explain.   ///   Steel dreamers… NEWINGTON’S pursuit of excellence in claiming this season’s Steel & Sons Cup on Christmas morning at Seaview – the north Belfast club’s second in five years. The complete performance on the biggest day of the year for intermediate football.   ///   ‘A man never dies while his name is still spoken…’ THE entire GAA community were rocked by the news of Anto Finnegan’s death in September after a long battle with Motor Neurone Disease. There were many moving tributes paid to the former Antrim footballer in the days after – none more so than his team-mate Kevin Madden's.