GAA Football

Kicking Out: We all have a hero like Sally

Shane ‘Sally’ Burke was the cult hero in Drum, fulfilling the same role as men like Plunkett Kane and Eoin McCusker, who will be on opposing sides in next weekend’s Tyrone SFC final. Picture by Mary K Burke

YOU’LL never have heard of Sally Burke, but you will recognise him in someone you know.

Shane is his right name, but nobody is ever known to have called him by it.

He was that man in our club. The one that didn’t have to make big speeches or buy everyone drink to try and be their friend.

Sally had the respect of the entire changing room because he earned it.

He played at midfield every single week for 20 years. The only time I ever saw him get injured told you all you needed to know.

The damage he did to his leg that day, most men would have been there for an hour, needed gas and air and an ambulance over to Altnagelvin. Sally got up and, with the help of a physio, walked off the pitch.

He’d win everything at midfield despite the fact he never jumped. His two feet would be planted. Wherever he wanted to stand, he’d stand like a boulder and it would take a seven-nation army to budge him.

Maybe 15-odd years ago, Damian Brolly was the great white hope coming up out of minor in our club.

Old enough to train with the seniors for the first time, I can still see the tackling drill down in the corner of the field beside the road.

Damian stepped in with the ball. The whistle sounded. What followed were the longest 30 seconds of his life.

Kevin McGuckin always tells a very similar story about the day his 17-year-old frame found itself in the tackling square with Sean Donnelly, Ballinderry’s own horse-strong midfielder.

These men are the definition of cult heroes.

In the GAA, we have a tendency to undervalue our own. The outside world sees a man hitting 1-5 every week and we see the two balls that were kicked in that he didn’t win.

Earning the unbending respect of your peers in the changing room is far more difficult to achieve than winning any medal.

What sets the cult hero apart from the rest is that when the chips are down, they turn up.

You can put on a show for the world but inside the four walls, men know. They know who they can rely on and who they can’t.

When next Sunday’s final is thrown in at Healy Park, two of the great club stalwarts of Tyrone football will be on opposing sides.

Plunkett Kane is the embodiment of a cult hero.

Mr Fianna, he’s the man that never misses a training session let alone a game. When Damian O’Hagan would dog them in pre-season, Kane would always come up to him after the session and smile: ‘When does the training start?’

In the ferocious world of Tyrone club football, he holds the rare position of being universally respected inside and outside the club.

Dromore’s own veteran, Eoin McCusker, wasn’t going to play this year. Coming 36 next month, building a house, a joiner by trade, his approach to football has always been all-or-nothing.

And if he couldn’t give Colm McCullagh everything then he had to give him nothing at all.

Only for the fact that it was his old team-mate that was doing the persuading, it’s doubtful Dromore would be where they are now. His performance off the bench in the first-round win over champions Dungannon will go down in history if they get across the line next weekend.

McCusker was told more years than enough to take the pre-season easy and come out as the ground hardened, but he wouldn’t dream of it.

A nephew of Peter Canavan, he was in around Tyrone squads in his early years but county football just wasn’t for him.

When they were heading to Galway one weekend on the Friday morning, he allowed that was it. The idea of heading down the road to eat big feeds and not get on just didn’t appeal.

Kane’s quandary was different. They’re still not sure in Coalisland what exactly it was about him that Mickey Harte never fancied.

He was on panels at different stages and they recall his two vital skyscraper points in a floodlit Croke Park win over Dublin in 2013, but that was to be his highlight.

Tyrone won’t come knocking at this stage but if anything, it only heightens the legend.

There were plenty of heroes to latch on to in Dungiven but none were as highly thought of as Emmett McKeever.

He was at the tail end of his career when they manufactured a role for him as a sweeper. But things were getting tight one afternoon against Magherafelt. One forward in particular couldn’t be contained.

‘Beefy’ was sent to rekindle his old man-marking days (NB you cannot be a cult hero without a good nickname).

The first ball, he shepherded his man towards the dugout and the two men ended up in it. McKeever looked like string but was made of stone. As the forward went to regather his feet, Beefy used him for leverage to take his own first.

‘It’s alright, I’ll be here all day’. That was the last was seen of his man that day.

When Dungiven won the Ulster Club title in 1997, they beat Errigal Ciaran in the final. Leading by three points, he was locked in a man-to-man duel with Eoin Gormley, the Tyrone side’s leading marksman of the time.

In the last four minutes, McKeever made a goal-saving block and then cut out a second chance.

When he was needed, he turned up.

For the (still) reigning Ulster Club champions Kilcoo, it’s Niall McEvoy. In a changing room full of teak-tough, ultra-committed footballers, there is nobody they think more of.

He had retired a few years ago but came back under Mickey Moran and in a new role as sweeper, was magnificent in guiding them to the All-Ireland final.

You need that bit of madness too. After going slightly ballistic one afternoon he was pushed out over the line into the wire, McEvoy couldn’t be tamed and earned the nickname ‘Hank’ after Jim Carrey’s split-personality character in Me, Myself And Irene.

When Sean Pol Begley lines out for Carrickmore hurlers on Saturday, he will be playing a county final in his 24th season.

He’s captained club and county, won trophies, all the rest. And he always turns up.

There was one evening he had to jump ship, though. Carrickmore were in Swatragh for a league game, a first under new management.

Sean Pol is a solicitor. He hands the phone to the manager before the game and says ‘if that rings, you need to let me know’.

And doesn’t the phone ring just before half-time. A client in urgent need of legal advice was on the other end. Begley had to be subbed off and bolted out the gate.

Other men might never be forgiven, but when you have a credit rating built up over two decades, nobody questions you.

In Ballymaguigan, they had two at once. Ciaran ‘Papa’ McIvor is still playing yet at the age of 41, as well as managing the reserves. Tony Walls did his knee four times and played a lot of his career with no cruciates.

Everyone wants to win trophies and medals and accolades.

But when those men retire, they’ll be immortalised in their club’s history. The young boys of the young boys will be fed bedtime stories of Plunkett Kane and Sally Burke.

There must be no greater reward than to be held in that regard.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access