IT was the summer of 2005. I was walking through the tunnel beneath Croke Park, past the dressing rooms and out through the coach exit, when there he was, standing big in the evening sun, bleached blonde hair, looking left and right. It was Owen Mulligan and the big man was restless.
He saw me and came over. “You were great today,” I said to him. He said “Never worry about that. Is there anywhere we can go for a quiet pint?” “Owen,” I said, “you look like Sid Vicious, you’ve just scored the greatest goal ever seen at Croke Park, your days of quiet pints are over.” Quiet pints maybe. Not pints.
Owen used to, as he put it “go on the beer” every now and again, and one of his go to excuses on these occasions was that his grandmother had died. From the bar one night, he rang Mickey Harte. “Mickey, I can’t make training tonight, my granny has died.” There was a silence. Mickey said “I thought she died last year.” Owen said “That was my other granny.”
On another occasion, he rang his clubmate Raymond Mulgrew, a superstar minor with Tyrone who was just breaking into the senior team and said “I’m on the beer here Raymond. I won’t make training I‘m half cut. Tell Mickey my granny has died.” “Jesus Christ ‘Mugsy’ I’m not saying that.” “Just tell him that and say I’m very cut up about it.” “Jesus Owen you’re a terrible man.”
Owen heard later that Raymond (who always travelled with him to Tyrone training) was togging out when Harte came over and asked him where Mulligan was. “He told me to tell you that his granny has died.” At which point the boys all burst out laughing.
Wind forward four years and ‘Mugsy’ was sitting in the house in the front room at his grandmother’s wake, when Mickey came in with Tony Donnelly and sat down beside him. “I’m sorry for your loss Owen.” “Thanks Mickey.” They sat in silence for a minute. Then Mickey nudged him and said “So, she’s finally dead.”
The first person in history to have died on several different occasions.
We chatted during the week for a retrospective EIR Sport are televising on the great Tyrone team of the ‘noughties’, including their emphatic All-Ireland final victories over Kerry.
In those games, Tyrone were clearly a level above Kerry, as they had been in the breakthrough year of 2003. A team of servants to a cause, with terrific communication and drive, led by a modest and driven captain (followed by a similarly modest and driven captain) whose commitment to the group and will to win was absolute.
Mulligan told me a story about their 2003 quarter-final match against Fermanagh that says a lot about Canavan.
“We were stuffing them Joe. (the final scoreline was 1-21 to 0-5) There were a couple of minutes to go and it was embarrassing. I was thinking of them poor critters going back up the road to Fermanagh.
“I went by my man and was through on goal. We had a two v one with Wee Peter on the far post waiting to palm her into the net. I didn’t want to rub it in any more and fisted it over the bar. Peter said nothing, just turned and ran back out to centre forward.
“Afterwards, we were very relaxed, chatting and joking and looking forward to going on the beer that night. I had just sat down in the dressing room when Wee Peter came over and stood over me. ‘What the fuck are you playing at?’ He said. I was shocked. I said ‘What do you mean?’ ‘What the fuck are you playing at?’ he said again. I just said ‘what?’ He was raging. He said ‘We were through for a goal and you took a point.’ I said ‘We were 18 points up Peter.’ ‘Don’t do it again, I’m warning you. We’re here to play, not mess around.’
Owen said to me “I never did it again.”
Another feature of the game then was the balance between football and life. As Mulligan put it, “every Monday morning after a Tyrone match, my mother’s kitchen was filled with Tyrone kitbags. We lived opposite the Glenavon and the team always went on the beer after the games.”
That was lost with the advent of the super manager and the destruction of club football and the ‘Super Eights’.
Last week, Tyrone’s Mattie Donnelly asked me to do a wee thing for a GAA fanatic who turned 90 this week. The thought struck me that Mattie has never known the life or death feel of knockout football, the matchless excitement, the possibility for upset.
The Derry Down 1994 first round game was shown recently (Michael O’Muircheartaigh describes it as one of the greatest games ever played). It still enrages me when I see it, after all these years.
The game was played in a frenzy of passion and excitement with Down winning it at the death with a killer goal. Nowadays, it would be played at three-quarters of that pace, with the winner not having much to celebrate and the loser getting the kick up the backside that could change everything.
Derry, a more consistent team who could handle Down, would have come back into the Qualifiers in a highly dangerous, back to earth frame of mind and I have little doubt we would have been meeting each other again in Croke Park for the real game.
What the modern system has done is to contribute strongly to the new method of playing football which I call ‘ going through the motions football.’ The underdog wants ‘a decent run in the Qualifiers’ or to get into the ‘Super Eights’ where they will be humiliated (what was sadder last year than Roscommon gloomily labouring to their doom?) and the favourite plays steadily knowing it is a long season.
Meaningless games, a long dull drawn out championship and the best players all over the country sacrificing their lives, and often well-being, to an amateur sport. For what? The GPA strongly encourages this dysfunction since it benefits so strongly from it, to the tune of around €7 million per year.
Their well-being initiatives are the opposite of well-being, the sort of phony life guru stuff that has made so many people’s lives miserable.
As Oisin McConville put it, there has been an explosion in problem gambling in the last decade due to the demands put on players. Their friends are leading a normal life, going out at the weekend, socializing, building lives off the field. Meanwhile, they are training constantly and sitting in. The lure of online gambling becomes irresistible. County players will get state of the art rehab. Their knee reconstructions will be funded at the best private hospitals. This is not well being. It is treating the absence of well-being.
Real well-being will come only from a drastically shortened inter-county season. This is a truth universally known. It is why county players are so excited about this year’s format.
When Mattie Donnelly came back to me about his friend’s birthday, I made the point that this is the first time he will feel the true greatness of championship football. After 70 minutes, he will be out of the championship or blazing on after an epic win over one of the favourites. Shit or bust.
We have a whole generation of young supporters who have never experienced what championship is. Fermanagh winning by two points against the hot favourite with five minutes to go and everything on the line. Can the favourite hold his nerve? Will he panic and go under? We should return to a short knockout format with a vibrant second tier knockout run off together. Maximum four-month inter-county season. Give the players back their lives, restore the vibrancy of the clubs and stop the insanity.
I texted Mattie Donnelly “Your first knockout championship. Very exciting and brings back the raw nerves and passion we used to have. Your first taste of real Ulster football. Hard to believe you’ve never experienced it.” He texted back “I can’t wait.” And for the first time in a very long time, neither can I.