Sport

Glen blew the sky open in Ulster - thanks to Malachy, Freddie, Vitas, and Bronagh

Glen fans celebrate at the end of the Ulster Club SFC Final against All-Ireland champions Kilcoo at the Athletic Grounds, Armagh. Pic: Philip Walsh
Glen fans celebrate at the end of the Ulster Club SFC Final against All-Ireland champions Kilcoo at the Athletic Grounds, Armagh. Pic: Philip Walsh

BLOW the sky open.

There were so many elements in the winning of the Ulster club by Glen on Sunday – including the unusual off-pitch trio of Freddie Mercury, Vitus Gerulaitas, and Bronagh Mulholland - but blowing the sky open was key to it.

Their stunning start, going five points up on All-Ireland champions Kilcoo, put them into a lead they would never lose.

Not even when Paul Devlin had a penalty kick in added, added time at the end of the first half.

Not when the Magpies pecked and pecked at them, throughout the second half.

That brilliant beginning was integral to the fairytale finish for Glen, the game won even before Alex Doherty's clinching goal.

Blow the sky open?

That was the message from manager Malachy O'Rourke after their cautious disposal of Antrim champs Cargin in the Ulster semi-final.

A message borrowed from the late lead singer of rock legends Queen, Freddie Mercury.

After that hard-fought, tense win over Cargin, O'Rourke told his players to watch the film 'Bohemian Rhapsody', without explaining why.

The important scene was before the famous 'Live Aid' concert at Wembley Stadium, when Mercury told his band-mates that they probably weren't going to have many more gigs like this one - and he says they should 'blow the sky open',

Queen duly rocked the world with a fabulous performance.

Before Sunday's Ulster Club SFC Final against Kilcoo, O'Rourke told the Glen men to 'blow the sky open.'

They duly did that, putting Kilcoo on the back foot.

You never want to chase the game against Kilcoo, the masters of game management. Instead Glen put themselves in the driving seat, and made the All-Ireland champs try to dislodge them from pole position.

For seven-and-a-half long minutes early in the second half Kilcoo tried to find an equaliser, but Glen kept them out, including a reaction save/ block from goalkeeper Connlan Bradley to deny the Magpies a second goal.

Then for an even longer eight-and-a-half minute spell, Kilcoo again tried to find an equaliser. Again, Glen defended like demons, defiant, disciplined.

Defeat was not going to be accepted by the Derry champions.

Why?

Vitus Gerulaitas.

O'Rourke has always ranged widely for inspiration. In 2018, he was the guest of honour at Glen's 70th anniversary gala dinner.

There he referenced the most famous line from American tennis player Vitus Gerulaitas, delivered deadpan in January 1980.

The three favourites for the season-ending Masters tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York were world number one, Bjorn Borg, number two Jimmy Connors, and home favourite, John McEnroe.

First of all, Gerulaitis shocked McEnroe.

In the semi-finals, he was up against Connors. No contest.

Connors have won every previous meeting. All 16 (SIXTEEN) of them.

Yet Gerulaitas ousted Connors in straight sets

In the post-match press conference he came out with this clinker: "No one beats Vitas Gerulaitis 17 times in a row."

Why did O'Rourke tell that tennis story?

Well, rather like supposed 'serial loser' Gerulaitas, Glen had never won the Derry Senior Football Championship.

As I've confessed before, nasty little man that I can be, feigning innocence I used to ask Paddy Heaney how many times Glen had won Derry.

O'Rourke was genuinely shocked to find out that the answer was 'zero'. Zilch. Never.

His message to Glen was that even supposed 'losers' could become winners if they believed in themselves.

They also needed talent, of course, and a good man in charge.

What was O'Rourke, a man who largely shuns the limelight, doing standing up to speak in front of hundreds of people at a hotel in Ballymena?

Bronagh Mulholland is the answer.

She'd already done her bit for Glen by providing one-third of their defence, Cathal and Eunan, but her friendship with Malachy O'Rourke going back to their days at teacher training course provided the link to make him manager.

Bronagh had helped Malachy out with coursework and he never forgot that friendship, those favours.

Persuading him to be guest speaker that night was the first step in getting him to become Glen boss.

But Glen still had more heartache to suffer. They lost the 2019 Derry Final to Magherafelt, pipped by a point.

The next year they were ousted in the quarter-finals by neighbours and arch-rivals Slaughtneil, who had already won three Ulsters themselves.

Paddy Heaney sent these words of encouragement this week to those in the weight loss class he runs: "When it comes to despondency and heartbreak, Glen's fans have earned their stripes. We are multiple world champions of sorrow.

"But we kept going. We kept the faith. We stuck at it.

"We got a new manager, Malachy O'Rourke, and he changed the way we played.

"And now we've won two successive county titles and the Ulster Championship."

It wasn't just the mental side that won it for Glen, of course. O'Rourke has long been interested in the physical preparation too, going back to his thesis which related to the VO2 max (maximal oxygen uptake) of intercounty players. As part of that process, he set up his own treadmill test.

Along with his trusted assistant Ryan Porter, O'Rourke has altered Glen's training methods and the way they play.

The talent displayed in winning four consecutive Ulster Minor football tournaments (2011-14, and then three Ulster Club U21s (2015-17), has been maximised, although there may well be more to come.

On Sunday in the Athletic Grounds, Glen kept going to the end, and reaped the rewards.

They never quit.

But they didn't just keep sweating away on the same treadmill. They changed their manager and their approach.

Hope springs eternal, and all those devastating defeats didn't make Glen 'losers', they just made the Maghera men wait longer for success.

Now, in Ulster club football, for Glen it's a case of 'above them only sky.' Imagine.

This column really should have a joint by-line with Paddy Heaney. Unfortunately, even our talented sub-editors couldn't fit both our heads on there. Many thanks to my old pal for all the insights shared here. #utw