By Ronan Scott
Casement Park is Brian McFall’s front garden.
He lives across the road from the vacant stadium, and stares at it every day as the venue sits in redevelopment limbo.
“At the start I was angry with the way it was dealt with. But now I just hope that kids who are growing up will have the opportunity to get into it and play in it because it’s been a long time since a ball has been hit in it.”
It’s hard for McFall to handle Casement Park being closed, as it was that stadium that made him into the player he was.
“I was on that pitch since I was a kid. Every day that was part of my growing up,” McFall said.
“I brought my young fella over there a while ago. He’s never been in it. He’s seven. I have to go over and show him that there were games played in there. It’s not a pretty site.
“All my childhood memories are there, and playing for the club and the county. PE days at school were in there.”
McFall hurled for Antrim from juveniles right through to seniors. He was a senior county hurler from 1999 to 2008, and he loved every minute of the experience.
“The craic is what it should be all about. The slagging and the camaraderie with the boys that are there. I am still in contact with all those boys. That was the most important thing for me.”
McFall’s reputation was the messer of the group.
His former team mate Johnny McIntosh, who now coaches the county’s u-20s alongside Karl McKeegan and McFall, said that he could tell loads of stories about McFall playing for Antrim, it’s just that none of them are printable.
McFall was always the joker, always the one that wanted to have a laugh.
He recognises that the reputation might not have helped him in the early days.
“I enjoyed the craic a little bit too much, and maybe they didn’t think that I gave a f%%% about it to tell you the truth.
“Hurling meant everything to me. Nothing else mattered.
“When you are young, you want to go out and enjoy yourself. But i knew there was a serious side of the game.”
Those who thought he didn’t care were the early managers that he played for.
They perhaps didn’t realise how close he is to hurling.
The house McFall lives in now was his parents house where he grew up. So he has always lived across from Casement Park. He has always felt close to the epicentre of GAA in Antrim.
His brothers were all a lot older than him, Pearse and Colm both played for the Saffrons years before Brian got there.
McFall sharpened his skills in the underage hurling battles in Belfast.
“Juveniles in Belfast at u-12, u-14 and minor had healthy competition. All the clubs were able to field underage teams. That has dwindled.
“The competition when we were younger with your club and at school was strong.
“But for me, competition wasn’t that important. I just loved it. I just loved playing the game. Nothing else really bothered me. I didn’t care about football. I just wanted to hurl, on the corner of the street, in Casement.
“When I was a kid sitting watching the matches, I knew that I would love to get out and play.
“I always hoped that I could play.”
His love of playing meant that he would take every opportunity that he could to get out onto the field at the west Belfast venue. He became something of a nuisance to the caretakers, and the gatekeepers at Casement.
“Finty Graham, god love him, he would have chased me off. He used to chase me up through the estate. Sometimes he would have let you off, and sometimes when you were on your own he would have let you plough on. As you got older he let you plough on. Jim Duff took over, and there was never a problem. I used to get a bag of balls and head over after work.
“I used to climb up the side wall. My ma would be mad because I would ruin my clothes. But it got to the point where I was a bit too old for climbing walls, and then Duff ended up giving me a key. I would go in, lock the gate and play away.”
McFall said that it was always his intention to play for Antrim. He was good enough to make it onto the juvenile teams, but when he reached adult level he struggled to get a steady spot.
Antrim had a terrible season in 2001, as they were relegated out of Division 1B and were knocked out of the 2001 Ulster Championship by Down.
McFall’s problem with county managers was that his reputation preceded him, and managers were unwilling to give him a chance.
That was until Dinny Cahill came on board, in 2001.
“Dinny Cahill gave me my chance. I had been about before him, but I was young. And I wasn’t doing myself any favours on the social side of things let’s just say. No one gave me a shot.
“But when he came in he brought us all in. He gave me an opportunity. He said to me later on. ‘If I listened to people who said things in regard to yourself, you mightn’t have been on this team at all’. He didn’t listen to anyone.”
In 2002, their fortunes turned, as Antrim reached the Division Two final but lost to Laois, but got revenge on Down by beating them in the Ulster final.
McFall said of Cahill: “Dinny wasn’t really interested in egos or who you were. If you could hurl, and you wanted to hurl that’s all he cared about. He didn’t care about anything else.
“He had all the players. He wanted everyone to commit and they did. He had that team going well.”
They did even better in 2003 as they won the Division Two title and got themselves back to the top tier. In the Ulster final, Antrim beat Derry by 3-21 to 1-12 and McFall scored 2-9.
Brian McFall believes that the 2002-2003 Antrim team was not only the best that he ever played on, but perhaps the greatest team that the county has ever produced, and he accepts that there will be those who point out that the 1989 team reached an All-Ireland final.
And he enjoyed the craic on the team as well.
They partied just as hard as they played.
“They are having recovery sessions now. I’ll tell you what the recovery session was in our day, The Rock Bar after championship games.
“Now they are in the pool doing sessions there.
“They have ice baths now, but the ice we had went into the Magners glass. That’s where it went for us on a Monday.”
McFall said that he doesn’t understand the approach of modern day hurlers.
“Reading between the lines of the way things are going now, lads are not going out. You hear boys are training twice a day. They are selecting careers around their playing. You hear boys who don’t go out during the season. No holidays, or weekends away or going out. Weekends are gone. It is run on a professional basis. But professional sportsmen will go out.
“But that’s what they want to do. No one is putting a gun to their head. If they want to do it.”
For McFall, he said that the success of the Antrim teams back in those days, when they were able to compete with the best proves that there is space for county players to have fun.
“I don’t think that the lads on the Antrim team now, in the current panel would do what we do in the early 2000s. In regards to the way we enjoyed ourselves. We trained hard don’t get me wrong. We did bust ourselves.
“When you finished work on a Friday you were heading up to train in Cushendun on a Friday night, then you could be heading back up to train in Cushendun on a Saturday, then again on a Sunday. That’s the way Dinny did it when he was training. And then he came back up on a Tuesday night. It wasn’t all enjoyment. But you had to, you were playing against the top tier in the country. Antrim haven’t been.
“If you weren’t training that hard then you could have been put on your arse very quick.
“Before Dinny came in we were getting beat by the top teams. We were getting hidings of 20-30 points. It was the old roads back then, there was no M1 back then. You were spending five or six hours looking out the window.
“Some of the beatings we got were hard to take. We were questioning ourselves as to why we were trainng.”
However, Dinny’s run of success did not last long. Playing at the top tier was not easy, and in 2004 Antrim lost all five games they played in Division One.
McFall said that the team struggled as there was a change in personnel.
“That team was there for two years, and then we lost players and things didn’t go that well.
“When things weren’t great at the end of Dinny’s run we went back to getting a thumping.
“I knew we lost players and we didn’t replace them. We were on a down turn.
“We were division one, in 2004, when he was still there, all the work went downhill. The numbers were dwindling. We were going down to play teams and we knew we were going to get a hammering. We were coming back after getting beat by 20 something points and it was hard to take.
“We had some good players coming through but there wasn’t as strong a team as there was in previous years. But I wasn’t too down about the whole thing. There were ups and downs.”
Dinny departed in 2005, and then Antrim went through further transitions. New players came in, but they couldn’t find the spark again.
By 2008, McFall’s county career was coming to an end, though he didn’t realise it immediately.
He said that it was the introduction of Sambo McNaughton and Woody McKinley, and their practice of opting for younger players that made him realise time was up.
Though in one of his final few games he got to play on the same team a his nephew Barry, who was part of McNaughton and McKinley’s minor team.
“When they became managers that was time to call it quits. Game over. I went through the year as far as I could go. I think it was before a game against Laois, a Qualifier. I told Sambo before the game, ‘I’m not going to waste any more of your time, or any more of my own time’.
“They had their own ideas. Some say that the older lads on the team were pushed out. But I could see the writing on the wall after a few weeks when they took over.
“I could see that my face wasn’t going to fit. That was the finish of it. At the time I thought there was a bit left. I was disappointed with the way it was left.
“Life goes on. I was pissed off at the time, but they were there for the good of Antrim hurling. They had their own ideas and I didn’t fit into them. There’s no animosity. You have to give it to them, They did put in some graft.”
McFall is back on the county scene now as part of the u-20 management team along with Karl McKeegan and Johnny McIntosh, his old team mates.
“I am enjoying being back involved. They are a great bunch of lads. “
The concern now is if they will get to hurl at all this year in the current situation of lockdown and social distancing due to the coronavirus.
But more pressing for McFall is the absence of Casement Park.
Nobody knows what is going to happen now.
“I’ve had that many arguments about it. The way that it was left. Why games weren’t played till diggers were outside. Closing it too early. I open my blinds every morning and there is a £25 million leisure centre built here and slides coming out of it. It’s near enough the height of what the stand was going to be.
“I look a the scale of that, and then look at Casement.”
He said that he felt a glimmer of hope about Casement when the new Stormont executive came in.
But that has fizzled out and now any hopes of seeing the ground open, have been replaced by memories of the great days he had playing there.
“There’s a generation who have lost that. Some kids have never got to go on it. I was able to go on anytime I wanted. Kids now have not got that opportunity.
“I hope to God that one day something positive comes out of it.”