GAA Football

Punching above your weight - not getting chance to shine on St Patrick's Day isn't the end of the world, knows Kevin Winters

Not everybody gets the opportunity to strut their stuff on St Patrick's Day – as Kevin Winters knows all too well. With the MacRory Cup final upon us, the well-known solicitor takes a look back at a playing career that packed a punch (as well as a few elbows) but saw him miss out on what should have been his finest hour…

The 1981-winning MacRory Cup-winning team from St Colman's College, Newry

ST PATRICK’S Day sees the showpiece schools’ finals in GAA, soccer and rugby. For those lucky few participating, it will be a memorable lifetime experience - but for many more it's a disappointing reminder that they never made the cut.

I was a frustrated spectator at the 1981 MacRory Cup final at Casement Park. Lining out at midfield for St Colman’s, Newry I was sent off in the semi-final following a kerfuffle with an Abbey CBS player.

The origins of that dismissal lay with the words of our coach Ray Morgan, when he said: "You boys don't have girlfriends. The Abbey boys have all the girlfriends. You know what you must do... go out and make their girlfriends cry". Enough said.

Struggling in the gutters of the Marshes in the first half, the game swung our way with the departure of yours truly - the team’s least skilful player – and, crucially, the key free taker for the Abbey.

The theme of the preceding day’s team talk sparked the punch-up that led to my dismissal. Wearing a suit and an accompanying constipated look on the bench was an underwhelming way to collect a MacRory Cup winners’ medal.

However, my annoyance was tempered by the coach’s reassurance about the contribution I had made to winning the cup, plus ‘that punch’ put my name in lights and helped propel me onto the Down minor panel.

Team talks reflecting a connect with the agricultural roots of west Down clubs such as Ballela, Annaclone and Banbridge took on a more forensic nature.

So “let's go out and rotivate these b***ards”, “drive your shoulder up his h***", “kick all out of the square" were replaced with encouragement tailored to skill-sets which, in my case, meant Peter McGrath at St Colman’s saying to me: “We just expect you to work... plenty of work”.

The more prosaic advice was reserved for skilful players like Greg Blaney. I knew my place and understood my role as a man-marker. I prided myself in making sure my man didn't score or assist. If he didn't touch the ball at all that was a big bonus.

The late great Sean Hollywood once remarked that one of my better performances had come after I had completed a game without touching leather at all. Little wonder that, at the time, I identified with more unfashionable players such as Tyrone’s Harry McClure or Dublin’s Jim Roynane.

My burgeoning reputation as a manic man-marker whose main attribute was to put a
radar lock on his man was enough to get me a place on the Queen’s University Sigerson Cup panel, but not necessarily enough to keep it.

The squad required culling and as one of the few non-county players I could sense the axe coming my way. I wasn't having any of it. In a backs and forwards drill I stuck my arm out and caught my opponent on the neck with my fist.

It was a shocking tackle that almost led to decapitation. I assumed I was gone but I got a reprieve when my opponent made the fatal mistake of complaining to the manager, Sean O’Neill. He was dropped and I kept my place.

I'd love to think Sean O’Neill saw something more positive in my style of play beyond a kind of manic desperation to survive, but I doubt it.

Back in the 1980s I suppose there was a place for this style of play, given the attritional nature of Sigerson football.

The delightful prose of Mickey Madine in the cup programme pen portraits summed me up perfectly.

“Built like a bullock and plays like one. Is totally devoid of skill and is the team’s least skilful player but makes up for it with his entertaining runs. Favourite tackle - elbow to the throat "

Although I was able to hold my own with the best of them, it was a case of a punch too far when I thought I could outmuscle Derry’s Damian Barton in a challenge game. 

He was having none of my nuisance enforcer-role activity and I was deservedly despatched to the dressing room with a newly-rearranged head. I was a tad out of my depth and no county career beckoned.

I had to wait until I was a veteran before getting a chance to wear red and black again when playing for the Down over-40s. I went from being second last sub on the Down minors to being second last sub for the Down Masters - with nothing of note in the intervening quarter century.

With this call-up, there was a chance to see how flexible my arms were. Remarkably, they still worked and it was great to test them out in an All-Ireland semi-final on Dublin’s Jack Sheedy, Keith Barr, John O’Leary et al.

Mick Deegan and his jaw took exception to a particularly loose swing and let me know what he thought of it, a la Diego Maradona to camera in the 1994 World Cup.

A final match for Belfast Solicitors against the PSNI gave me a chance to bookend a career that finished pretty much the way it had started - with a dig in a policeman’s ribs.

SO I didn't make the final starting line-up on St Patrick’s Day but, like most who don't get that chance, it's unimportant in the long-term. Taking part on whatever team at whatever level is the important goal.

The life experience in doing so is inestimable. The disappointment in not making a squad, the starting team, being dropped/subbed /dismissed, or your team failing to make it, prepares you for all of life's travails.

Experiencing the tears in a losing dressing room can only make you stronger. The last sub on that Down minor squad was present Down manager Eamonn Burns – he and Mickey Linden were the only two to go on and win senior All-Irelands.

That statistic is supported by the Woody Allen quip that "80 per cent of success is turning up". So true. Turn up and take your chance because everyone gets a chance to pit themselves against stronger and better opponents at some stage. It can be the making of you.

Even though I have one of the finest collections of number 26 jerseys in county Down, I take a perverse pride when recalling legendary Clann na Banna stalwart Paul Downey’s assessment of my game.

"Kevin winters is to Gaelic football what Big Daddy is to ballet - but he'd always be the first name on my team sheet."

I like to think that career-defining summation informs an awful lot about my later professional working life and in particular my healthy disrespect for anyone who says something isn't achievable because it's too difficult, or that it hasn't been done before.

Kevin Winters is a solicitor at Belfast law firm KRW LAW, which specialises in challenges against the British government over Troubles legacy issues

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