Everybody loves Raymond. Here's to all the men and women who keeping their beloved GAA running
I'LL always remember the first inter-county game I reported on: It was Armagh versus Derry at Clones in 1999.
The late Gerry Quinn, a man who had been tirelessly sowing the seeds of the GAA on very rocky ground as a freelance journalist since the 1980s, ordered me a press pass when I started out as a journalist at the County Down Outlook in Rathfriland.
When it arrived I treasured it and marvelled at its laminated magnificence. I still have it somewhere. A few weeks' later the opportunity arrived to cover a game and so I went along and presented my pass at the Clones gates. Much to my relief, a friendly fella opened it up and I made my way to the press box.
I didn't know exactly where it was, or where I should sit but luckily, I got a seat beside John Morrison, another decent man and a fine reporter who sadly is no longer with us, and he kept me right.
I've been doing the same at GAA grounds around Ireland – and Ruislip in England which (before it was redeveloped) had the honour of being the most agricultural county ground I'd ever been to even though it's in the middle of London - ever since.
It's been the same routine wherever you go: Get the car parked, show your pass and get to work and there's always a warm welcome from friendly faces on arrival which, in my case, has occasionally been a fairly close to the wire.
After games I've been the last man out of grounds from Cavan (through nobodies' fault but my own I got locked in there once and had to climb two gates to get out) to Tullamore, to Armagh.
Half-time refreshments are excellent: This year I've had chicken salad at Breffni Park, soup at Pairc Esler, tea and sandwiches in Clones and wheaten bread and biscuits at the Athletic Grounds.
And it's all thanks to the army of volunteer stewards who turn out week after week to make sure everything runs smoothly.
Raymond McSherry was among them for decades.
It's maybe three years ago now that I was driving home from a Saturday evening game at Croke Park. I'd left the motorway outside Newry at around 11pm to head for home when I saw someone crossing the road ahead of me at a roundabout off the sliproad.
As I drove towards him I recognised the unmistakeable dander and attire of the one and only ‘Raymie'. He'd been stewarding at the same game and had got a lift as far as Newry. At that stage he was in his early 80s and obviously he could have rung a family member to get a lift but – independent as always - he preferred to make his own way out the road expecting to meet a friend or neighbour going his way.
I was, so I gave him a lift and we discussed the game – Mayo versus Donegal in the Super 8s - on the way home.
“What are you at tomorrow Raymie?” I asked him when we arrived at his house.
“I'm going back down for the Tyrone game,” he said matter-of-factly.
And he did because that's what he did. I don't know how he was travelling back down the road to Dublin or how he got home but he was there, honoured to do his duty as one of the unheralded but vital cogs in the wheel of his beloved GAA.
It's a total understatement to say that ‘Raymie' has been lifelong servant to the GAA. He has an infectious passion for Gaelic Games. During his playing days he was a county minor who soldiered on in the lower leagues for season after season keeping the heart of the club beating and he was still playing well into his 40s.
He was club secretary for around 30 years, the county board delegate and the groundsman. As the underage coach and manager he would transport the entire team to matches around the county in the back and the boot of his brown Datsun, then referee the game and then take the jerseys home to wash them.
He was kitman for the Armagh Masters team throughout their legendary tour of North America and served in many, many other capacities before he turned his attention to stewarding and he has been rightly recognised for his commitment by the GAA at county, provincial and national level.
A while back, Gerry Adams spoke of his amazement and admiration that the GAA had been able to keep going throughout the dark days of the 1980s when the Troubles raged and people had to battle to makes ends meet.
The survival of the GAA during that period was down to resilient, optimistic men and women like Raymond McSherry.
I think of Raymie as unique and he is but there are others like him - anyone who has come through a club will know the type of person I'm referring to.
He doesn't steward now but Raymie is still out and about and one of his many proteges is a fella called Ciaran Savage, another regular worker at the Athletic Grounds. Ciaran hasn't been well since before Christmas and, after their mighty impressive win over Dublin at Croke Park in the first round of the National League, the Armagh players signed a programme for him which was sent to him in hospital.
The Orchard county is one of Ciaran's sporting passions, the other is Leeds United and after hearing that his fellow steward hadn't been well, Tyrone Gael Paul Maxwell thoughtfully arranged for Leeds and Northern Ireland player Stuart Dallas to send Ciaran a ‘get well soon' message.
Ciaran wasn't even in a position to look at his phone when Stuart's text came through but the good news is that he is on the road to recovery now and was delighted and surprised to read the message this week.
As you can imagine, it cheered him up no end.
“Andy, ur not going to believe this. Got txt from STUART DALLAS wishing me well,” he texted me.
Hopefully he'll return to one of the gates at the Athletic Grounds before this season is over.
If you see him, please shake his hand and welcome him back, without the likes of him you wouldn't be there at all.