GAA Football

'Go for it, grab it, seize the moment...' Down star Marty Lynch stays strong in battle with Motor Neurone Disease

Legends for Lyncho (l-r): Frank Mitchell, Billy Joe Padden, Joe Cunningham, Sean Cavanagh,Stevie McDonnell and Benny Tierney with Marty at Jack Mackin Park, home of Newry Bosco
Andy Watters

HE COULD see the rider up the road ahead.

A few months ago he’d been cruising past men like him and so Marty Lynch got his head over the handlebars, switched down a couple of gears and ordered his legs to get to work.

But they didn’t.

The power wasn’t there like it had been before and, as the man up ahead disappeared out of sight, Marty searched his troubled mind for the reason.

Maybe he had trained too hard? Maybe he hadn’t trained hard enough? Maybe he needed a new bike?

Masters (Over 50s) cycling was his latest sporting vice. He’d always been gifted. In his early days, Marty was an All-Ireland champion runner and as he grew to six feet tall his muscular frame filled out and he maintained that athleticism. He came through the ranks at Newry Mitchels, played for Down minors, captained the U21s to the Ulster title and became a fixture in the senior side, he played at Croke Park, he played in the League of Ireland, he was a star for Newry Bosco, a Newry Celtic legend, a National Cycling champion…

But out on the road that day he felt like something had changed and that scared him.

It was April of last year when he first felt the pains at the top of his legs. In the first two races of the season he’d done well but by the end of the month the king of the roads was struggling to keep up.

“I was getting dropped out of races, I wasn’t even competing,” Marty explains.

“The bunch was getting away from me. I thought it was the bike and I actually went and bought a new bike for five and-a-half grand. I thought that would sort it out but boys that I had been beating going up hills were leaving me for dead… I was saying to myself: ‘There’s something not right here…’”

The pain didn’t leave him and the nagging feeling that something was amiss, that he had lost control of his body, began to grow.

One of his evergreen cycling club team-mates celebrated their 60th birthday with a trip to the Lets Go Hydro waterpark. Marty joined in the craic as always but as he pulled himself out of the water he felt something go ‘click’ in his right hip and when the boys went out in Belfast that night the 58-year-old was struggling with an “awful limp”.

A couple of weeks went by and his son, a physiotherapist, suggested that arthritis might be setting in and so Marty went to see his doctor who sent him to another physio but, after an x-ray, no arthritis was detected.

Marty knew in his gut what the problem was.

“I knew it when I started limping,” he says.

“When I was growing up I loved Jimmy Johnstone (Celtic winger ‘Jinky’) and he died of Motor Neurones so the name always stuck in my head.

“Then, two or three years ago, I saw Rob Burrow (England Rugby League international) on Breakfast TV. He has Motor Neurones and I noticed the way he was walking. The limp he had… It was the exact same as mine.

“I told them (his family) from the word go that I Motor Neurone Disease and they thought I was cracking up.”

But the doctors couldn’t confirm his fears and the not knowing took a toll on his mental health. A painter all his life, he had started a new job as a driver with Ulsterbus and to his horror he struggled to move his foot between the pedals.

“I had to lift my leg up off the accelerator and onto the brake – it wasn’t smooth at all. I didn’t have control of my movement and my leg would be shaking,” he explains, then adds with a sigh: “I was getting scared and I wasn’t sleeping at night – I had a wee breakdown.”

He had an MRI scan but nothing sinister showed up. He says he could “feel it spreading” and began to lose power in his right arm.

“It was crazy, I was sitting, staring up at the ceiling worrying and worrying,” he says.

When he was told he might have to wait 12 months to see a neurologist he told his doctor he feared would be dead by then.

Thankfully, things moved quickly and he did see a neurologist at Daisy Hill Hospital four days later. He had a Lumbar Puncture and then an EMG (Electromyography) to detect the electric potential generated by his muscle cells. It suggested what he’d suspected all along ad in April – a year after he’d first shown symptoms - a consultant in Dublin confirmed his worst fears. He had Motor Neurone Disease.

HE’D like to be able to say that things have improved since the diagnosis but sadly that hasn’t been the case.

“I have rocketed downhill since April,” he says.

“And I mean, I’ve been flying downhill.”

He could walk in January, in February he began to lose his balance but right up until June he could stand up and use his walker. On June 18 he walked across the pitch to the cheers of the crowd at a charity match that was held for him. Now, with the power in his legs gone, he is confined to a wheelchair.

“It’s getting scary,” he says.

“I can feel it coming into my voice now too. If I was lying in bed on my back I’d be choking, the muscles are weakening round my neck and I’d be gasping for air and I’d have to turn over on my side so I can breathe better. It’s not simple as turning on my side because my legs don’t move. It’s a horrible, horrible disease, it’s terrible.”

HIS wife Rosaleen has joined us. On the wall across from where she sits is a picture of her husband winning a race on his bike. He’s way out in front with a group chasing after him.

“From the person he was to now…” she says sadly but, like Marty, she’s strong and up for the fight.

The day after they got married in 1984, Marty led the Down U21s out for the All-Ireland semi-final against Cork and Rosaleen has been with him every step of the way since.

Marty’s GAA career began with Newry Mitchels at the age of nine and he had to prove his worth against the blue-eyed boys from the Grammar schools to force his way into the Down minor team. After the U21s he was called into the Down senior side and established himself at corner-back until he stepped away in 1988.

“Jackie McManus took over as manager and I just didn’t think I would fit into his plans,” he says.

“The boys called for me one Sunday morning to go to training and I told them: ‘Go on ahead’.”

If he’d got into that car he might have an All-Ireland medal now. Pete McGrath took over from McManus and Down went on to beat Meath in the Sam Maguire decider in 1991.

Marty bumped into the team before they left for that game.

“It was Rosaleen’s birthday and we went out and the whole Down panel was in McLogan’s having their meal before they headed to Dublin the next day for the All-Ireland final,” he recalls.

“I knew everybody in the room. Mickey Linden was stealing chips off Rosaleen’s plate! At that moment I just felt part of it, I knew them all, I had played with them all so it sank in then: ‘God I would love to be walking down the stairs with them boys and getting on the bus to Dublin…’

“But here, such is life…”

The love for the GAA came from his mother’s side. His uncle Damien Callan was the first winner of the Poc Fada and he hurled for Louth alongside his brothers Jimmy, Paul and Eamon.

But his father was a highly-regarded soccer player and Marty inherited his ability. He played a dozen seasons for Newry Celtic and won practically everything there was to win with the club: league titles, the Mid-Ulster Shield, the Bessbrook Cup, the Fr Davis Cup, the Gerard Kennedy Cup…

He had a season for Monaghan United in the League of Ireland too. The highlight was drawing Derry City in the FAI Cup at the Brandywell.

“We scored first,” Marty recalls with a smile.

“There was 10,000 in the ground - maybe only 200 Monaghan United fans - but such a roar went up when Brendan O’Callaghan scored. We lost 4-1 but the Derry fans cheered us for scoring first, it was brilliant.”

After a spell away from Gaelic Football he returned with Newry Bosco and won the intermediate championship and when the time came for him to hang up boots that had covered countless acres, he wasn’t short of invitations to go into management.

His first club was across the county line in nearby Camlough with Shane O’Neill’s who were then an unknown Division Four outfit in Armagh. Marty, a strict disciplinarian, guided them to promotion but the following year he quit unceremoniously over some of the team playing soccer the day before an important relegation match.

He returned to Newry Mitchels for two seasons and then Shane’s came back and asked if he would be interested in returning.

“They told me: ‘We’ve a train full of good passengers and we need a good driver’,” he says.

“There would have been a few boys saying: ‘This fella walked out on us the last time’ but I had learned my lesson and it was the best time of my life.

“The soccer thing was knocked on the head, the boys all knew where they stood and we went from the fourth division right up to Division One and stayed there.

“People would have been saying: ‘Who’s these wee boys from Camlough?’ But we were standing up and beating the likes of Cullyhanna and Armagh Harps. It was a fantastic season.”

He left the club in a good place and they’ve never looked back. Marty Lynch is still revered in Camlough and last weekend when the players celebrated promotion they asked him along to enjoy the moment with them.

He took his former club Corrinshego to promotion after leaving Shane O’Neill’s and then fell in love with cycling and mountainbiking.

Along with Des Woods and Henry O’Neill, he won an Ulster team medal and went on to the national championships where the trio won an Irish Masters (Over-50s) title as well.

“To get a national title so late in life was brilliant,” he says and then reality comes crashing home: “But then the disease kicked in and this is where we are now.”

SPORT – watching or talking about those glory days - is a welcome release, a distraction from the medication, the wheelchair and what the future may hold. He has had to learn to take each day as it comes.

“It was very hard to get your head around it,” he says.

“Your mind still thinks you can jump out of bed. When you wake up in the morning you think you’re still what you were a couple of years ago.

“Then you realise you can’t. Getting assistance, carers coming in to help you… It’s hard, it really is hard but friends call and take me for a spin or out in the wheelchair and you start talking and all the things that I can’t do go into the background.

“Everything everyone has done for me has been brilliant – it just gives me a massive, massive lift to think that there’s people out there who are so good. The support I’ve got is fantastic, it really is.”

Former team-mates and friends have rallied round to do whatever they can. There have been fundraisers for Marty held in New York and Australia and Newry Bosco, Newry Celtic and Shane O’Neill’s have held events him for him recently. Next weekend he’ll manage the Celtic Legends team against Warrenpoint Town. Marty’s grandson Lorcan will be among the Celtic greats like John Collins, Danny McGrain, Joe Miller and Brian McClair playing that day.

He has been overwhelmed by the goodwill and kindness shown to him. His former employer Joe Fox gave him a specially-adapted van to use and his friends have installed ramps, changed the house around and are raising funds for an extension of his home in Newry.

“It gives you a reason to live,” he says.

“There’s so much good out there.

“It’s the finger of fate. I’m not going to complain about it. I have no regrets, I’ve had a great life – how many people have played at Croke Park or played at the Brandywell? I’ve played League of Ireland football, county football, I’ve got national medals in cycling, when I was a kid I won All-Ireland medals as a runner... Not too many people had all that and I’m very grateful that I did.

“I’ve got a brilliant family. My sons Kenneth and Ryan are reared and they never brought trouble to the door. I have grandchildren now and I’m spending time with them making different memories. I go with them round to the park – I can’t kick the ball back to them but I have great fun with them and it gives me a quare lift to see them getting on with life.

“Lorcan is coming 15 and I go to every match he plays. He’s in the Down U15 team and he plays with the Bosco and Warrenpoint Town.

“If I had been at myself I probably would have missed a lot of it because I’d have been saying: ‘I’ve a race today’ but now I build my day around them.”

WHAT does the future hold? He’s on the list for a treatment which, while it won’t reverse the damage MND has done to his nerve system, could slow it down.

“They say what’s lost is lost, the nerves won’t re-generate,” he says.

“But if it slowed things down and that helped somebody else to get a cure down the line, I’m more than happy to do it. If there is a breakthrough it would be good to know that you have contributed in some way. I know I’m not going to get better, I know I’m never going to get on the bike again but I would love to be able to walk the dog around the block again. That’s my ambition.”

We’d all love nothing more than to see that happen and while he waits to find out whether he’ll be suitable for the treatment he reminds himself of the life he’s led up to now and the things that make him happy. He looks at that photograph on the wall – the cyclists chasing him as he breaks for the finishing line – and smiles.

“One thing I would tell anybody now,” he says: “If you have a chance to compete and be the best, you should go for it - grab it, seize the moment.”

Because none of us know what’s up the road ahead.