GAA Football

Brendan Crossan: The Clare hurlers, Marsden, the warriors of the peninsula and missing the game

There was none better than Armagh's Diarmaid Marsden. If you didn't get him, you didn't get Gaelic football, as Brendan Crossan takes a walk through the years
Brendan Crossan - The Boot Room

FOR me, the sun rose and set with the Clare hurlers of the mid-90s. They’d leaders and big hearts in every jersey.

Anthony Daly, Ollie Baker, Jamesie O’Connor, the Lohan brothers and, of course, Davy Fitz. How could you ever forget Davy Fitz?

In the heat of battle stood the imperturbable Seanie McMahon.

I don’t remember him missing a ’65.

We sat in Gerry McCarthy’s house in New South Wales, Australia transfixed by the 1995 All-Ireland hurling final.

The men from the Banner County weren’t just hurlers; they were warriors. Theirs was the most romantic story, fit for the big screen.

Four years later, I’d landed in The Irish News.

Heart beating fast, this rookie reporter wandered into the Derry changing room after they’d beaten Cavan in Breffni Park and big Anthony Tohill giving me the time of day for a post-match interview.

Derry’s hurlers were on the rise, too.

The inimitable Geoffrey McGonigle, Kieran Stevenson, Kieran McKeever and John O’Dwyer could all play – but nobody moved quite like Ollie Collins.

Collins had it all and was smooth as silk.

And Brian White – a leader amongst men and O’Donovan Rossa to his marrow.

‘Whitey’ always knew how to get a party started.

Kevin Madden, Anto Finnegan, Kevin Brady, Marty Mulholland, Gearoid Adams, Sean McGreevy and big Joe Quinn started off on the ‘B’ roads before landing a Championship blow to an ageing Down team at Casement Park.

Pete McGrath was always a man of exceptional grace.

The start of the Noughties. New beginnings. Saffron hearts began to stir.

PJ and Darren O’Hare's cameo appearance on the Championship canvas as Antrim slayed Cavan at sunny Casement and the Ballinderry boys ripping it up in Thurles.

The Antrim hurlers soon quelled the Oak Leaf uprising and pushed Tipperary and Wexford all the way in HQ.

Brian McFall never walked; he swaggered. And always turned up on the big days.

I never seen Gary O’Kane play a bad game. There was Paddy and Liam Richmond and young Liam Watson who made the game look easy.

In ’05, Antrim’s house fell down around them. Brian Corcoran was 'finished', Timmy McCarthy 'over-rated'. Ah, Dinny, Dinny.

“If you offend one of us, you offend all of us,” said Cork’s Ben O’Connor.

And there he was Davy Fitz, a psychotic passion for winning, cutting lumps out of the Croke Park turf after Jerry O’Connor of Cork finally broke the Banner men’s resistance.

Clare’s last rage against the dying light.

But they'd come again under Davy Fitz.

Feeling privileged to catch the last defiant roars of Noel Sands’ mercurial career. A gifted hurler who never took a backward step.

The blood-stained jerseys of Marty Mallon, Gary Savage, Martin Bailie and Graham Clarke - warriors of the peninsula.

Enter stage right, Big Joe Kernan and Paul Grimley.

No more near-misses in the Orchard. It was time to grab at least one summer by the scruff.

Diarmaid Marsden was the real deal, my all-time favourite player. A bull of a man. Brilliant feet. Intelligence. The ultimate team player.

Marsden wore his mouth guard like a boxer, ready for 15 rounds. No-one pursued you like Marsden did.

If you didn’t get Marsden, you didn’t get Gaelic football.

Oisin McConville and Stevie McDonnell always brought the champagne. Nobody loved the dance floor more than Oisin and Stevie.

The bigger the crowd, the more they thrived.

And young Ronan Clarke blessed with devilish skill and poise. If you're good enough you're old enough.

A force of nature who kept it simple and was brilliant.

Look at Larry Reilly and Jason Reilly - still playing off the cuff after all these years, and there was nothing better than catching the ‘Gooch’ on a good day.

He was pure magic.

There was ‘Hub’ Hughes, the Killeeshil fire-ball. Every opponent was scorched by ‘Hub’ in ’03, while Cormac stood like Everest on the edge of the square.

Peter Canavan finally reaching the Holy Grail and shaking Sam above his head on the steps of Hogan, exorcising those defeats to Dublin and Meath.

And the alchemist Mickey Harte. ‘Persistence is awesome – it is absolutely awesome’.

Tom Brewster’s point and Charlie Mulgrew playing the accidental hero along the Erne.

Little. Maguire. Owens. McCluskey. McGrath. Nothing’s impossible.

Kieran McGeeney fetching a ball at the foot of Hogan in ’05 and Paul McGrane thumping the ball over Tyrone’s bar to draw the game.

Right on the laces of the Ballyhegan man’s right boot.

Boom.

Giants among men.

You can’t coach desire.

Standing in Knox’s Pub in Ennis, Co Clare applauding ‘Mugsy’ on TV.

The Dubs were on their knees.

Davy Fitzgerald has been one of the most colourful characters in Gaelic Games

Walking across the famous turf for some post-match quotes totally in awe of the place. Imagine playing here.

Being hypnotised by Seán Óg Ó hAilpín as he spoke with such passion and humility after the Rebels claimed back-to-back All-Ireland titles at the mouth of the Hogan Stand tunnel.

Seán Óg’s accent danced and reporters clung to his every word.

Ciaran McDonald's football was from another world and Jack O’Connor was going all Nouveau Riche. Yerra.

No-one will ever forget the biting cold of St Patrick’s Day 2006 at Croke Park - the day the St Gall’s footballers saved their worst to last and watched as Salthill/Knocknacarra headed west with the cup.

Michael Donnellan running down the corridor with one hand on the cup wearing the biggest smile I’ve ever seen.

Outside, Sean Kelly in floods of tears feeling he’d let everyone down.

Some days just aren’t meant to be.

John Rafferty, an adopted son of St Gall’s, taking refuge against the corridor walls surrounded by tape-recorders.

Nobody died that day but it felt like it.

The Milltown men would be back to plant their flag at the summit.

The McGourty clan, Terry O’Neill, Andy McClean and Kevin Niblock, led by the calming hand of Lenny Harbinson, breezed to the 2010 All-Ireland title at the expense of Kilmurry-Ilbrickane.

Old stagers Seanie Burns and ‘Doc’ McCrory could retire now. And Sean Kelly wearing the contented smile of a champion.

Remember the day Tommy Freeman danced like Astaire at Casement in ’07?

And what of the sheer brilliance of Crossmaglen Rangers in the All-Ireland final replay against Dr Crokes in Portlaoise?

One sunny Easter Sunday afternoon lost somewhere in the ‘Noughties’, sitting beside Matt Fitzpatrick - the nicest man on God's earth - above the holy ground of Portaferry, with the sun on our backs and watching Gerard McGrattan nail a couple of beauties.

Some days are better than others.

On the winding road back home, Strangford Lough swooned and glistened.

Another perfect day on the road.

In ’08, Tyrone were rehabilitated and ‘Ricey’ McMenamin snarled his way to a third All-Ireland crown.

If you had 15 Riceys you'd take them all.

Baker’s boys putting it up to Kerry in Tullamore. Saffron hearts stirring again.

Benny Coulter. Mark Poland. Danny Hughes. In the prime of their lives and clearing the way to an unlikely All-Ireland final, and who could forget Kalum King’s big paw in the dying embers against Kildare?

Cool Hand Luke wanted to be just like 'Wee' James.

Cork weren’t better than Down in the final; they were just too damn big as the rain fell in Croke Park.

I tell you, there was none better than Johnny Doyle, the beating heart of Kildare and the ferocious pride of Allenwood.

You see, Johnny Doyle never lost a game.

Saturday night, the floodlights, the lashing rain. Not an inch given between Kildare and Donegal in a truly epic encounter.

“To me, that was living,” Jim McGuinness later said.

“People are very rarely ‘alive’, you know. And for those 20 minutes in extra-time what was going through my mind was: this is unbelievable. Every moment counts and they are living on the edge. And it would be brilliant if they can come through this and win but even if they don’t, this is going to be a great life experience. Because in that moment, they were living in the fullest sense. The atmosphere that evening was as raw as I have ever felt.”

Don’t shoot, Cass. Too late. Left foot. Boom.

The pride of Gweedore leaving a legacy in that moment.

Nobody will ever forget Kevin Cassidy.

And no-one will forget Liam Watson’s ridiculous hat-trick on St Patrick’s Day as Loughgiel Shamrocks reached the Promised Land.

As soon as Frank McGlynn powered his way through the Down defence at Clones a year later, you just knew an All-Ireland was coming to Donegal.

Henry Shefflin and Joe Canning going point for point in 2012, the Galway man nailing that stoppage-time equaliser, the Cats licking the Tribe in the replay – and King Henry having the last laugh.

Malachy O’Rourke’s Ulster final masterclass of 2013 and Donegal’s folly of trying to intimidate Conor McManus.

We’re talking Conor McManus here. Not some regular Joe.

I never witnessed speed quite like the 2015 All-Ireland U21 final between Tyrone and Tipperary when Cathal McShane, Mark Bradley and Mark Kavanagh played fantasy football in Parnell Park.

Or the day the boys of St Mary’s Magherafelt touched the sky in the Cathedral City. Forever 17.

All the while ‘Curly’ McIlwaine, Mary K Burke, Seamus Loughran, Philip Walsh and Margaret McLaughlin capturing the kinds of images reporters could never do justice to.

I remember Philip Walsh snapped Anthony Devlin jumping six feet into the air in the Athletic Grounds after Kilcoo defeated St Gall’s to reach their first Ulster final.

Jim McCorry knew a thing or two about a thing or two.

Driving into the Mournes in the dark, straddling Lough Island Reavy with only the moon lighting the road to meet Paul Devlin.

‘County Down by birth – Kilcoo by the grace of God.’

The Ruairi Ogs are coming. An unforgettable day in Navan, Alex Delargy playing the shirt off his back, the Galway champions Sarsfields blitzed by the maroon machine.

A goose-bumped version of The Green Glens of Antrim. There’s only one John McKillop....

And Na Piarsaigh being a bridge too far for Cushendall.

The Irish News read: ‘Shane McNaughton was the best the Ruairi Ogs had to offer. Wearing his familiar green helmet, everything about McNaughton’s performance was magnificent. He was a glowing parable for never quitting.

‘Although this final was over as a contest long before the final whistle, McNaughton played with an effervescence you normally don’t see among the defeated.

‘His stick work was immaculate, buying him precious time and space.

‘He hit four brilliant points, the best of which came in the 53rd minute.

‘Twisting one way then the other, his movement seemed to defy the laws of geometry before splitting Na Piarsaigh’s posts.

‘The only injustice of the day was that Cushendall’s number eight had finished on the losing team.’

Parking up in Clonliffe College with the Sunday newspapers and Croke scorching the skyline above Drumcondra.

And taking another perfect day for granted.

I could've watched ‘Skinner’ all day, every day.

The insatiable pursuit of excellence in Slaughtneil and the all-conquering camogs.

Paula O’Hagan's insatiable pursuit of excellence and Hilltown staying up all night to laud their local heroes.

Jim Gavin running out of clichés in the press room after another All-Ireland win – and turning up at Falls Park one Sunday morning with 'Sam' and the ‘Run For Anto’.

The real face of a Gael.

Joe Maskey’s wonder goal in Navan. Frank Fitz and wee Pat on their way to HQ.

Be big, St Enda’s. Be big. Gerry Devlin’s words echo still around the Hightown.

‘A man is not dead while his name is still spoken.’

And ‘Sambo’ McNaughton firing the imagination of the St Enda’s hurlers and that unforgettable day in Owenbeg.

The Antrim senior hurling final is the best day of the year, bar none. There’s no better host than McQuillan’s, Ballycastle.

In 2017, Dunloy returned to the podium after an eight-year absence. Amid the celebrations a beautiful picture: Gregory O’Kane’s warm embrace of his dear mother Pauline. And ‘Pappy’ was there too.

Getting knocked off their perch the following winter, they reclaimed the cup in 2019.

But ‘Pappy’ and Pauline were not there - with us only in the mind’s eye. There’s no better man than Gregory.

And where the rainbow arcs sweet Baby Oisin rests and ‘Crico’ Colhoun, stolen from the arms of Lisa, Grace and Beth.

Pomeroy’s heart still bleeds.

Here comes Rory McQuillan with his winner’s medal.

Bleeding green and black.

At last, Cushendun. At last.

The magnificence of Neil McManus in Tullamore, the voice cracking afterwards as saffron hearts stirred again.

You could listen to Brian Cody all day.

“The basic thing is you go out with total honesty. You can talk about all the other things all you like. You have to bring yourself to the game and to have the nerve to do it. Nerve is important. Your head dictates so much what happens out there…”

Kilkenny will never grow old with Cody.

The ambling figure of Michael Murphy and his scandalous consistency for a decade.

And Tommy Niblock capturing the essence of the game with Danny Heavron.

‘Praying to mammy we’d see it through.’

Mr Miyagi himself: Dessie Ryan, the reluctant legend, still going strong over 100 metres.

A cool, sunny October day up on the Shaw’s Road.

The movement is gathering apace. ‘Mothers and Others’ kicking ball with the Proclaimers blasting from the big speakers.

This is living.

And Mickey Culbert – now there’s a life lived - with grass under his feet. It's the only way that Mick knows...

Twenty-one years with a ringside seat.

On a winding road with the heat up full blast. Always between towns and yellow lights in the distance.

A Sunday night with only the moon for company.

Springsteen’s on the radio.

The match report is sent and the laptop stored away.

So far from home. Already missing the game...

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