Paddy Heaney: Lockdown torture of those who live for love of games

The insistence of Enda Gormley’s father, Joe, that he pay close attention to honing his football skills paid off in fine fashion as the Glen clubman won an All-Ireland medal and two Allstars with Derry. Picture by Ann McManus.
The insistence of Enda Gormley’s father, Joe, that he pay close attention to honing his football skills paid off in fine fashion as the Glen clubman won an All-Ireland medal and two Allstars with Derry. Picture by Ann McManus.

Talking to my father the other day and he told me his friend Austin Mulholland is in a bad way.

Austin played on the Bellaghy side which won the All-Ireland title in 1972.

Like his brother Brendan (RIP), Austin also played at full-back.

It was Brendan who offered the following description of his own playing skills: “I was never a powerful footballer but I kept a very tidy square”.

Austin’s square was usually spotless too but he was also a powerful footballer.

An absolute oracle on Gaelic football, Austin once told me that Sean O’Neill from County Down is the greatest forward to ever play the game. (He marked him).

This means Sean O’Neill is the greatest forward to ever play the game.

Before you get the wrong idea about Austin, there’s nothing medically wrong with him.

He is just struggling to cope without his medication, which is Gaelic football.

If the fixtures were amenable, Austin could watch three or four matches in a day. That would be great day for Austin.

People who complain about the price of tickets drive Austin insane (he can get vexed).

When I compiled the Off the Fence readers’ forum, Austin would give out to me about them.

He just couldn’t get his head around it.

For the entertainment value that’s on offer, Austin thinks admission prices are incredibly good value for money.

We were down at The Wood one night and Austin called to see my uncle. The reminiscing started.

My father recalled a night from their youth when Austin and himself were heading to the Patrician Hall in Carrickmore.

Given the events described, it sounded like a fairly memorable evening. Austin had absolutely no recollection of it.

A few moments later he was recounting a Bellaghy minor game from the 1960s. Austin could remember who was doing the umpire.

Football matters to people in this country. To men like Austin Mulholland, this lockdown must feel like a prison sentence.

Tommy Donnelly is another man who might as well be in solitary confinement.

My father worked with Tommy Donnelly in McKeefry’s Maghera.

In 2003, they had a delivery to make in County Tyrone. It was a few days after Tyrone won the All-Ireland, a full decade after Derry showed the Red Hands the way. (Ten great years they were too).

A Sacred Heart picture on the wall suggested that Gaelic football should be a safe topic.

Tommy said to the man of the house: “You’ll be in good form today.”

“Why would that be?”

“Your win on Sunday past.”

“Awwww, (big Tyrone accent) I take no interest in that.”

When they got in the van, Tommy turned to my father and said: “I heard him say it, but I still don’t believe it.”

Those who knew Tommy well maintained that his hair got a bit greyer in November.

No football.

December was an endurance test. January was survival.

In February, the National League started, the mood would pick up.

By St Patrick’s Day - the year officially started. They say Tommy’s hair got darker.

It’s the unknown aspect to all of this which is so crippling.

If we knew the games would resume on a certain date, it wouldn’t be as bad.

When I was a boy, I remember Harry Kelly telling me that every man should play football for as long as they possibly can.

Even though I was only about 15, Harry delivered this statement with such conviction that I immediately knew I was being told a great truth.

Harry was 100 per cent right.

When Enda Gormley was a pupil at St Patrick’s, Maghera, he would be trying to do a bit of bookwork.

His father, the late Joe Gormley would remind Enda not to ignore the import work, his free-taking. Enda won an All-Ireland medal and two Allstars.

Joe was right too.

If football matters to you, take heed of Harry and Joe. Play as hard as you can for as long as you can.

A few hours before I wrote this column I was running through the town and I noticed Paddy Joe O’Kane and his family standing at the end of their street.

The penny dropped. They were waiting for the funeral cortege of Freddie Joe Tohill.

Freddie Joe Tohill had been Glen’s oldest living past player.

Now that baton has been passed to Freddie’s former team-mate, Paddy Joe.

The scene brought to mind the words of Antrim hurling great Terence McNaughton.

“The lads you play with in the county team, you make friends and get invited to their weddings - but the lads you play with in your club are the lads that will shoulder you to your grave.”

The curse of this Covid pandemic is that men are even being denied that honour.

It’s a grim time.

But at least we have the stories. We need the stories.

Here’s one about a friend of mine who would totally disagree with everything I’ve just written.

A very talented footballer, this individual discovered drink and parties at 18.

For about three long years he tried to marry his twin obsessions - the partying and the football - with zero success. It was a terrible time for him.

When we discussed this period in his life recently, he said to me: “I have a lot of regrets from that time.”

Continuing, he added: “If I had my life to live over again, I would do it completely differently.”

“What would you change?” I asked.

“I’d quit the football far sooner,” he said.