Life is too short to miss watch­ing Cross­ma­glen play

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

IWAS in Ber­lin for a few days over Halloween and was happy enough un­til I dis­cov­ered the Cross­ma­glen match had been fixed for the Satur­day night, not the Sun­day. Sit­ting in a bar in the old East Ber­lin filled with cig­a­rette smoke (they can smoke in the bars there and there is no cur­few), I said, “Look, can we go home a day early for the Cross­ma­glen match?” The glamorous brunette took a sip of her beer and said “Yes. Let’s do that.” Cross­ma­glen have that ef­fect on peo­ple.

The fol­low­ing evening, it was hard to quell a feel­ing of tri­umph as I walked through the gates of the Ath­letic Grounds. The older I get, the more I am on the hunt for au­then­tic­ity. Things that mean some­thing. Some­thing that gives you a real boost.

Watch­ing the Amer­i­can elec­tion coverage last week makes you de­spair for hu­man­ity. It is all so false. It’s hap­pen­ing here too. Brexit is an un­known thing based on false in­for­ma­tion and emo­tional pro­pa­ganda. No one knows what will hap­pen if Brexit hap­pens. Yet we have politi­cians on TV all the time go­ing around talk­ing about how good it will be for us. Those crit­ters from the DUP are a par­tic­u­larly em­bar­rass­ing ex­am­ple of this.

In foot­ball, which we used to al­ways be able to rely on to give us a lift, we are stuck in a rut of hand-pass­ing, zonal de­fend­ing, cyn­i­cism, play­ing for frees, look­ing for cards to be shown to op­po­nents, hold­ing pos­ses­sion to run the clock down, pass­ing back and forth with the ’keeper and all the rest, leav­ing us more de­pressed af­ter­wards than we were be­fore. We have hurl­ing of course, which is a mon­u­ment to ev­ery­thing that is good and coura­geous and true in us.

And we have Cross­ma­glen. Ev­ery­one should see Cross­ma­glen at least once in the flesh be­fore they die.

When you do, you will un­der­stand the phrase “such and such does the heart good”. It is why so many neu­trals go to watch them at this time of year. At the Ar­magh county fi­nal I was sit­ting be­side two lads from Bal­li­namore, who fol­low them every cham­pi­onship. Last Satur­day night in the Ath­letic Grounds, there were peo­ple from clubs all over the North sit­ting around me in the stand.

I bumped into Sea­mus Hef­fron at half­time, who gave the glamorous brunette his trade­mark wink and shimmy. That one used to knock the girls over. As a school­boy at St Pat’s Maghera, when he went through the doors of the Slaugh­t­neil disco, the ladies had to form an or­derly queue.

A skilled foot­baller, he was also a su­perb soc­cer player and a Fran­cophile. Soon af­ter star­ring in the first St Pat’s team to win the McRory Cup in 1977, he was signed to play pro­fes­sional soc­cer in France. When he came back, he played se­nior Gaelic foot­ball with the Watty Gra­hams.

A flu­ent French speaker, his party trick was to be­rate Derry’s ref­er­ees in flu­ent French. “Ar­bi­tre, ar­bi­tre,” he would shout at the be­mused official, “c’est in­croy­able” (ref, ref, that’s un­be­liev­able). “Va te faire en­culer,” (a French in­sult re­quest­ing the sub­ject to put his pri­vates some­where they wouldn’t nor­mally be put). “Pu­tain de merde,” he would say, spit­ting on the turf con­temp­tu­ously and shrug­ging his shoul­ders in the ooh la la man­ner. Af­ter one game, the pop­u­lar ref­eree Oney O’Neill came off the field say­ing, “That Hef­fron man isn’t right in the head”. The beauty of it was that be­cause no one knew what he was say­ing, he couldn’t be sent off.

Hef­fron has no link to Cross­ma­glen. He just loves watch­ing them play. The rea­son so many neu­trals fol­low them is be­cause watch­ing Cross re­stores our faith in the game. By that I mean the core of Gaelic foot­ball, our es­sen­tial val­ues. The game is in our blood be­cause and only be­cause it re­flects those val­ues. The rea­son it is in such a cri­sis now is be­cause in the last decade, un­like the hurlers, we have slowly de­serted and for­got­ten those val­ues. This is why we have be­gun to lose faith.

This does not in­clude Cross­ma­glen. They have stood against th­ese mod­ern trends. Not for them the 14 men be­hind the 45, triple de­fence, blast off tran­si­tion mul­ti­play so on and so forth bull­shit. Game man­age­ment? In Cross­ma­glen the con­cept is scorned. Hand­pass­ing the ball about the de­fence and back to the ’keeper for the last four min­utes to pre­serve a 0-6 to 0-5 vic­tory would be a source of hu­mil­i­a­tion for them.

As John McEn­tee once said when I re­marked that Cross­ma­glen play­ers never lie down or look for an op­po­nent to be carded, “Why would we em­bar­rass our­selves like that, Joe?”

It is up­lift­ing and ex­cit­ing to watch them, win, lose or draw. In the man­ner of a vi­brant club hurl­ing team, they give it 100 per cent from first whis­tle to last, fight for every ball, stand tall in their per­sonal bat­tles (whether they win or lose them), ig­nore the ref­eree, give no quar­ter and ex­pect no quar­ter. They are not a mod­ern cliché, a drab copy­cat out­fit play­ing pseudo-foot­ball. They are orig­i­nal and prin­ci­pled. Which means that in the mod­ern game, they stick out a mile. Their county fi­nal against Bal­ly­mac­nab was riv­et­ing, like go­ing back in a time ma­chine.

The game against Coal­is­land was nowhere near as good, but still there were thrills and spills com­ing thick and fast, even if, like the Bal­ly­mac­nab game, the re­sult was some­how in­evitable. At half­time Stephen Ker­nan said, “This is one of those games we’ll just get through.”

Un­like the county fi­nal, where Bal­ly­mac­nab knew what to ex­pect and the ref­eree was com­fort­able to let the lads play, this was very dif­fer­ent. At the throw-in, I was smil­ing to my­self, think­ing of how the Coal­is­land ones would re­spond to what Cross were about to un­leash. Cross play at 100 miles an hour from the start to the end. They are res­o­lutely man to man (in the county fi­nal when young Jack Gru­gan took their full-back for 1-4 from play in the first half, Cross just left the full-back to fight his own bat­tle). They tackle hard, no shad­ow­ing, in­stead get­ting phys­i­cal con­tact on the ball and man. Each man fights his own bat­tle and doesn’t look for ex­cuses. They do not like to solo or hand­pass, in­stead kick­ing 50-me­tre passes at blis­ter­ing speed. This doesn’t al­ways work, but it sure keeps the op­pos­ing full-backs on their toes and the crowd on their feet.

Coal­is­land, who have never ex­pe­ri­enced the Cross­ma­glen ef­fect, were taken aback. Im­me­di­ately, they were com­plain­ing to the ref­eree. Damien O’Ha­gan on the side­line was roar­ing for cards to be given and re­mon­strat­ing with the lines­man. The play­ers were ly­ing down and look­ing for cards to be awarded. One was sent off re­port­edly for trash talk­ing. Even Pádraig Hampsey was look­ing for cards to be given, in­stead of lead­ing his team.

It got to the stage it was very frus­trat­ing try­ing to watch the game be­cause every time a Cross man came in con­tact with a Coal­is­land man, the Coal­is­land sup­port was in uproar, scream­ing for cards. You would have thought men were be­ing shot. Be­tween the ly­ing down and look­ing for cards and all the rest of it, they left Cross­ma­glen to go on and win the game. Nearly all their scores were frees (bar 0-2) and they could and should have lost by around 10 points, with Cross miss­ing three su­perb goal chances (in­clud­ing one point-blank save by the ex­cel­lent Peter Don­nelly).

The prob­lem Cross have is that the cul­ture of foot­ball has be­come so cor­roded in the last decade that ref­er­ees tend to panic when they see an hon­est-to-God, hard-hit­ting team that gives it ev­ery­thing they have. So, on Satur­day, the ref­eree pan­icked in­side the first quar­ter, and ended up send­ing off four play­ers (three of th­ese were to­tally un­de­served) and giv­ing yel­low card af­ter yel­low card, a sit­u­a­tion that wasn’t helped by the con­stant whing­ing and groan­ing of the Coal­is­land ones.

Only when the ref had suc­cumbed to the mob and fi­nally sent off two Cross play­ers did the game have any rhythm. That last quar­ter, when it was 13-a-side, Coal­is­land were lucky they didn’t get stuffed. Cross, as is their wont, kept play­ing with fe­ro­cious com­mit­ment, hunt­ing down every ball like rot­tweil­ers.

The last play of the game was in­struc­tive. From a break, a low rolling ball came loose. As the Coal­is­land man came in for it, Aaron Ker­nan dived in along the ground with­out any re­gard for his own safety and won it against the head. The Cross ones didn’t even cheer. It is, af­ter all, what they do. They wouldn’t think of com­mend­ing one of their play­ers for that. It would be like con­grat­u­lat­ing a fire­man for turn­ing his wa­ter hose on a fire.

Af­ter­wards, we shook hands with the peo­ple we had been sit­ting with from Forkhill and Lur­gan and Maghera and Sligo and said we would see them at the semi-fi­nal. All other com­mit­ments were im­me­di­ately post­poned. As the glamorous brunette can at­test, life is too short to miss Cross­ma­glen games.

The play­ers were ly­ing down and look­ing for cards to be awarded

Photo: Oliver McVeigh

Cross­ma­glen’s Cian McConville dur­ing the Ul­ster quar­ter-fi­nal against Coal­is­land.

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