GAA Football

More than a Game? The documentary that highlighted calm before the Cross storm

Joe Kernan and Ollie McEntee feature prominently in the 1995 BBC documentary, More than a Game

SOMETIMES it feels as though you can’t move for fly on the wall footage of sporting triumph and tragedy these days. Social media can be both a blessing and a curse in that regard.

All-Ireland victories for Tyrone and Kilcoo were marked with shaky shots filmed from high on changing room benches, young lads bouncing up and down, singing, shouting, swigging, lost in a moment that just might be the best of their lives.

Yet, amid the blur of controlled access, it has become increasingly difficult to detect what is real and what isn’t. The Amazon Prime 'All or Nothing' docuseries is a case in point; on one hand a window into a hitherto unseen world, on the other stage-managed soap opera guff.

Given the proliferation of sporting documentaries over the past decade in particular, it is an increasingly tough balance to strike.

The 25th anniversary of Crossmaglen’s first All-Ireland success brought back memories of a different kind of sports documentary, from a different kind of time.

‘More than a Game’, made by Doubleband films, aired on BBC NI in late 1995 and offered a rare glimpse behind the curtain in Gaelic games.

The brilliant 'A Year 'Til Sunday' - filmed by Galway's sub-goalkeeper Pat Comer for their breakthrough All-Ireland success of 1998 - came later down the track, so too 'Marooned', the documentary that captured Paidi O Se's year managing Westmeath to their sole Leinster title in 2004.

But ‘More than a Game’ still stands on its own two feet all these years later because, as well as following the fortunes of the 1994 All-Ireland winning Down team, it also provided a unique insight into the developing rivalry between Mullaghbawn and Crossmaglen sides standing on the brink.

“It’s a bit of a historical artefact now – a moment in time,” says documentary-maker Diarmuid Lavery who, alongside Michael Hewitt, was responsible for ‘More than a Game’.

“Ulster GAA never had the profile it had at that time - it was so adrenalised, on a complete high. But it required a bit of a leap of faith because there wouldn’t have been too many of those kind of documentaries around at that time… you could easily be seen as kind of a malign presence.

“Whenever a group is starting to form the bond required to achieve success, they would see anybody as having a separate motive as maybe unsettling the ambition of a group.

“We understood that, they understood that, so it was carefully worked out. If we were there, we were filming them as a team, observing them from a relatively careful distance.

“That probably marks it out as being a bit different from the modern iterations of sports access documentaries where it builds people, creates characters, you get to know them very well and it’s nearly understood that there’s going to be good guys and bad guys as the story is told.

“It’s like drama from the real world.”

From Pete McGrath addressing the Down players days out from their final clash with Dublin, the power of DJ Kane’s visceral “losers get nothing” speech seconds before leading his troops into battle, and the relief of Ross Carr as he burst through the changing room door with the Sam Maguire, ‘More than a Game’ felt at once intimate and unobtrusive.

Yet, far from the colour and prestige of the inter-county calendar’s showpiece occasion, the build-up to the 1995 meeting of Cross and Mullaghbawn shone a light on what the GAA really means to communities the length and breadth of Ireland.

“There you had a rivalry so close that there were family members playing for either side,” says Lavery.

When casting eyes back over Crossmaglen’s history and the slew of trophies that followed once the door was kicked down, it is impossible to ignore the documentary’s significance.

“The only shame is they couldn’t show what happened after,” smiles Joe Kernan, Cross boss at the time.

There were several turning points as that group evolved from boys into men – and the famous "come on the Wangers" quip from a laughing Benny Tierney towards the end of the documentary played some part, at least in the very beginning.

“Correct,” says Kernan, “the bottom line is, anything you can use when you need it, you use it. Let’s just say it didn’t do any harm.”

“Like anything else, a story like that grows legs as it gets older,” smiles Tierney, Mullaghbawn goalkeeper as they went on land Armagh and Ulster titles that year.

“Listen, people from Crossmaglen who played against me knew what I was like. It was a very casual remark, and something I would’ve done during games, something I would’ve done after games.

“It’s hardly the most insulting thing that’s been said. Now, I can see why it would’ve motivated them, but anybody who thinks that it led to the creation of that Crossmaglen team knows very little about football.

“Like, one of my last games for Mullaghbawn was a championship game against Cross. I remember we were away on a training weekend with Armagh the week before, we’re playing cards and Aidan O’Rourke asked John McEntee how he thought the game would go - ‘ah we’ll beat them by 10 points’. I’m going ‘wow, that’s motivation for me to bring back!’ They beat us by 12.

“So the moral of the story is you can have all the motivation in the world but if you haven’t got the two McEntees, Oisin McConville, John Donaldson, Francie Bellew, it’ll not matter for much. The real reason they went on to be the force they were is because they have great footballers.

“What was said has never caused me any sleepless nights, put it like that.”

Likewise, Lavery doesn’t see Tierney’s off the cuff comment as the documentary’s defining moment. Far from it.

Instead, he reflects with fondness on the eye-bulging passion of Mullaghbawn boss Peter McDonnell, or the conversation between Kernan and Ollie McEntee in the days after defeat – pain etched across their faces, yet never losing sight of what really mattered.

“The Benny comment added a bit of colour, but look at the stats! It might have fired Cross at the start of the next year, but what happened after was simply extraordinary.

“Then you had Joe and Ollie at the end, explaining that there will still be 250 kids out on the field tomorrow night, no matter what else happened. Given where they were in south Armagh, they were part of something greater and they knew that.

“That’s why it’s important that the GAA allows the games to be accessed and depicted in a way that supports the big idea. To show why, unlike so many over sports, it is more than a game.”

The audio of Down captain DJ Kane's pre-match speech ahead of the 1994 All-Ireland final was captured in all its glory in the documentary. Picture by Sportsfile

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