Clas­sic proves it must all end in tiers

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - GAELIC GAMES -

THE big man smil­ing in on the right is Sea­mus McDon­agh. It is half-time in ex­tra time of the epic cham­pi­onship game last Sun­day in Gaelic Park be­tween Leitrim and New York. New York are two points up and Sea­mus is grin­ning with de­light be­cause his god­son Dalton McDon­agh, a born and bred New Yorker, is play­ing at cor­ner-for­ward for the Amer­i­can chal­lengers.

I went over and shook hands with him and we chat­ted for a good while. Five min­utes later, he ap­proached me in the stand. “Je­sus Joe, I didn’t re­alise it was you. When we were chat­ting ear­lier I thought you were a guy who owed me money. I was won­der­ing why you were be­ing so friendly.”

I was sit­ting with Mike Carty from Leitrim, who has lived in New York for 50 years. When Sea­mus saw Mike, he smiled with de­light, hugged his old friend and threw a play­ful punch at him.

Sea­mus, who was reared in Meath, once fought the fear­some Evan­der Holy­field for the heavy­weight cham­pi­onship. The fight took place in 1990 in At­lantic City and it was a wild brawl. Some­how, it lasted four rounds, as the two men whaled away at each other in what could have been a scene from “These guys are go­ing to eat leather for what is sure to be a short fight,” said the ringside commentator half­way through round one.

The end came in the fourth as they stood in close and threw an­other bar­rage of heavy punches at each other. As the crowd went into hys­ter­ics, sadly, it was Sea­mus (him­self a blis­ter­ing puncher with a record of 14 knock­outs in his 23 fights) who got nailed. As the Ir­ish­man went sail­ing through the ropes, the commentator said: “It was short, but it was glo­ri­ous. McDon­agh sure has a lotta heart.”

Sea­mus smiles a lot these days, in that sheep­ish, in­no­cent way of many for­mer fight­ers. He told me he had flown in that morn­ing for the game. “I wouldn’t miss it for any­thing Joe.” These days, Sea­mus lives and works in San Fran­cisco. Joe Fra­zier, one of the great­est ever heavy­weight cham­pi­ons, died in penury, sleep­ing on a camp bed in his di­lap­i­dated gym in Philadel­phia, cook­ing on a Primus stove.

Fra­zier once said: “I got my brain shook, my money took, and my name in the un­der­taker’s book.” When I men­tioned this to Mike, he said: “I knew Fra­zier well. He used to come into my bar (Rosie O’Grady’s in Times Square) and sing a few songs. I’d put up his drinks and his food. A lovely man.”

The ca­pac­ity of Gaelic Park is 5,000. There were at least 6,000 peo­ple at the game, from every cor­ner of Amer­ica. Mike es­ti­mated there were around 2,000 Leitrim folk who had trav­elled out, which is 10 per cent of the county’s pop­u­la­tion. Or as Leitrim’s as­sis­tant man­ager John O’Ma­hony said to me af­ter the game: “A pop­u­la­tion of 20,000 dur­ing the week and 25,000 at the week­ends.”

It was the first time I had been to one of these games and I was blown away. It was an un­for­get­table cel­e­bra­tion, an ex­pres­sion of who we are. I met a Leitrim man who had flown in from Chicago with his two huge sons, both born in the US, both wear­ing Leitrim jer­seys, talk­ing about the play­ers knowl­edge­ably in broad Amer­i­can ac­cents. There were born and bred New York kids ev­ery­where in the ground, wear­ing their club colours, many of them car­ry­ing hurls. There was a tremen­dous buzz a full two hours be­fore throw-in, as Irish peo­ple from all over the world met and em­braced.

The game it­self was a cliffhanger. Jamie Clarke was named at num­ber 11, but when he strolled in to the square be­fore throw-in, in the ca­sual man­ner of Ge­orge Best in his prime, a fear­ful hush spread over the Leitrim faith­ful. Their fears were jus­ti­fied. By the tenth minute it was 1-4 to 0-1 and Jamie was look­ing like Lionel Messi play­ing against a pub team. The Leitrim peo­ple were shocked. O’Ma­hony looked be­wil­dered.

A Ca­van woman be­hind me had greeted me by say­ing: “Joe Brolly, you look far bet­ter in the flesh than on TV. You don’t look healthy on the box.” “Maybe it’s the make-up?” I said. “Tell them to put more on, so.” The woman never stopped talk­ing. She tapped me on the shoul­der every minute or so, like the bishop with Fa­ther Jack when they were con­se­crat­ing the Holy Stone of Clon­richert. Af­ter the early New York blitz, she tapped me and said: “In fair­ness, Leitrim in the warm-up.”

This was true. Leitrim’s drills were a thing of beauty, par­tic­u­larly their kick-pass­ing prac­tice which was a work of art. How­ever, they did not trans­late this into the match.

Clarke’s bril­liance fright­ened them into their shell. Sev­eral years ago, af­ter I had watched a train­ing ses­sion at Cross­ma­glen, I went over to chat to him as he stayed on to kick about. As he rained balls over the bar from all an­gles, he said: “Joe, I’m go­ing to be the first Gaelic foot­baller in his­tory to score an over­head kick in a cham­pi­onship game.” Last Sun­day, you could have be­lieved it. looked a lot bet­ter

Leitrim re­cov­ered as the half wore on and by half-time were right back in it. At full-time they were level and ev­ery­one was ex­hausted, on and off the pitch. The New York lads went at it like dogs in ex­tra time. They won every 50-50 ball, and with just a few min­utes re­main­ing they were two up. For those fi­nal few min­utes, the crowd was on its feet, scream­ing. My heart was thump­ing.

Some­how, Leitrim kicked three points, in­clud­ing a clas­sic at the death to win it. At the fi­nal whis­tle, their play­ers jumped and ran into each other’s arms, punch­ing the air in ec­stasy. The New York­ers slumped to the ground. The crowd gave a stand­ing ova­tion. Sea­mus McDon­agh came over and hugged us both again.

Who says a lower tier cham­pi­onship wouldn’t work? The rea­son this was such a bril­liant con­test was be­cause both teams were play­ing at their level. A level they can en­joy hugely. A level they can com­pete at with hon­our. A level they should be com­pet­ing at every year with teams in their pool. This is why it was such a great oc­ca­sion and a great game. After­wards, I got the oblig­a­tory ‘What do you think of that Joe Brolly?’ pic from the Leitrim squad, cel­e­brat­ing as though they were All-Ire­land cham­pi­ons. I capped a per­fect day by eat­ing pizza in Broad­way Joe’s in the Bronx. The last time I had pizza there I was seven years old. My Great Un­cle Pat, who had em­i­grated from Dun­given when he was a teenager and be­came a pro­lific bare-knuckle fighter in the Bronx, was an old man by then. But his fire was undi­min­ished. He would sit on a chair on the side­walk in Riverdale in his string vest, shout­ing abuse at any­one who wasn’t Irish.

Some years later, he had a stroke that de­prived him of his speech, which came as a re­lief to his fam­ily, and to the non-Irish res­i­dents of Riverdale.

The GAA com­mu­nity needs to get real quickly. Leitrim lost 15 play­ers from their panel be­tween last year and this. It is the same story in most of the smaller coun­ties. We need a proper tiered cham­pi­onship where each tier is shown the same re­spect, gets the same priv­i­leges and has the op­por­tu­nity to win their cham­pi­onship on All-Ire­land fi­nals day in Croke Park in front of the peo­ple of their county. In­stead of Leitrim’s year peak­ing in Gaelic Park, it should be just the be­gin­ning.

Leitrim pa­rade be­fore the start of the game againbst New York and (in­set) for­mer boxer Sea­mus McDon­agh

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