Cahair O'Kane: No great team means a great journey for everyone

The journey is where it's at for supporters, and the fact that there's no outstanding team in this year's championship is allowing everyone to dream a little. Picture by Philip Walsh
The journey is where it's at for supporters, and the fact that there's no outstanding team in this year's championship is allowing everyone to dream a little. Picture by Philip Walsh The journey is where it's at for supporters, and the fact that there's no outstanding team in this year's championship is allowing everyone to dream a little. Picture by Philip Walsh

THERE’S a lovely Audi Q2 in front with two collie dogs in the back seat.

One staring out the back window, its head tilted to the side, a kind of a cross between ‘hmm’ and ‘what are you looking at?’.

The rear window on the driver’s side is screwed down just enough for the other dog’s head to fit out through.

Eyes closed, the cool breeze billowing through its hair, the contentment dripping like the slabbers from its flapping smile. It wouldn’t have looked out of place on the strip in Las Vegas, headed for the Bellagio in a limo.

But this is not Vegas. This is Athlone on the return leg of the run from Salthill on Sunday, having seen Galway’s All-Ireland dream brought crashing to a halt.

When Derry reached the All-Ireland final in 1993, it was to the Westmeath town that Eamonn Coleman took himself to for a few days to escape the noise.

The team had been announced a week before the game.

He had to give Danny Quinn the news that he was dropped and tell Dermot McNicholl – even though he ran riot in the last training session – that he wasn’t starting.

When Coleman returned home on the Wednesday before the game and came over the brow of the hill in Ballymaguigan, his heart stopped for a moment.

The volume of cars at his house made him think someone had died while he’d been away.

“People from across the country looking tickets, refusing to believe I couldn’t get them. I walked into the kitchen, into the chat and the madness that had been building across Derry and that was it, it never stopped from there,” he said in his autobiography, The Boys of ’93.

Every lamp-post and every kerb in the place had turned red and white.

They painted an Oak Leaf crest on to the road.

Athlone wouldn’t be the rave capital of Europe but on any given day, there’d be ten times more noise about it than would be in Ballymaguigan.

Last Saturday morning, the place was reflective of the energy that once more exists within not just Derry, but Ulster football.

The Anglo Celt cup visited. Every youngster in the village was down, getting their photos taken with it beneath a huge black-and-white photo of Coleman holding Sam Maguire aloft, or else the poster that read ‘Welcome to St Trea’s Ballymaguigan, the home of Derry football’.

For a place that measures roughly one square mile, it’s had an enormous impact on Gaelic football in the county and beyond.

Jim McKeever’s hands plucked ball from the skies above every ground in Derry and Ireland with the same deftness they showed in guiding young footballers and educators through the halls of St Mary’s teacher training college in Belfast.

Gaelic football’s first ever Player of the Year (1958) took his Masters in Sport from Loughborough University and combined it with his own ability to leave a lasting legacy on the lives of so many young people in the north.

When he passed away in April, the college’s statement noted that what inspired the young people most of all was his ability to gracefully and properly demonstrate whatever skill it was he was trying to teach them.

The old saying that doers do and teachers teach was never applicable here.

Then Eamonn Coleman would guide Derry to success thirty years ago with a team that contained his son Gary.

Paddy Crozier won a National League title as manager in 2008.

No man in Ireland has as many connections as Paddy Crozier.

There’s a famous story from a few years ago when Derry were looking for a challenge game, but couldn’t get one arranged high nor low. The SOS went out to Paddy.

“Leave it with me.”

Half an hour, word came back. Derry and Cork would meet halfway and play in Dublin on Saturday.

The two counties meet halfway again on Sunday, thirty years after the Rebels and Tony Davis paid the price for Niall Cahalane’s belt on Enda Gormley.

Drogheda, Dundalk, Newry, the Moy where Plunkett Donaghy made a presentation to the new champions, loyalists blocking off the top of the street in Cookstown, it was chaos afterwards before they ever saw the first bonfire at Moneymore.

Athlone was Westmeath’s stopping point last year when they won the inaugural Tailteann Cup.

The crowd, and the reports of the discomfort in the gangways at Croke Park on Sunday, show that there’s never any let-up when it comes to the prospect of success and silverware.

There are five weeks left of the football season, yet so much still to be decided.

Every team feels so beautifully imperfect.

Tyrone could beat Kerry as handy as anything.

Monaghan and Armagh will never have another chance like it.

The well-timed rediscovery of Cork’s Corkness cannot be taken for granted. Their last three performances have pushed Kerry to the wire, beaten Mayo and Roscommon. That’s serious form.

And then there’s Dublin and Mayo.

Nobody is quite sure what to make of anybody and it’s great because it allows each and every one of us to get that little bit delirious with the excitement.

Google searches for the Skylon will have skyrocketed at 8.38am on Monday morning.

Dublin took a lot of the fun out of football for a lot of years with their brilliance. We all scrambled around for arguments to convince ourselves at the start of every year but nobody really believed that the conclusion was anything other than foregone.

It’s hard to lose yourself in football these days. The tactical side of it is great and it’s grand but it’s hard to get too visceral at a game, which is what we all really want.

That opportunity to just let go and throw every syllable out of your body at the deepest decibel you have at your disposal.

After Derry’s All-Ireland semi-final loss to Galway last year, the thing was gone but there was still an evening to be had.

The sun shining, sitting at the toll bridge with our heads out the windows like the dog in Athlone, guldering ‘Sam is coming back to the red and white’ to nothing remotely like the tune of the Two Degrees song, gatecrashing a wedding in our match-day regalia.

The destination is for the team.

For everyone else, it’s always been the journey.