By Shaun Casey
IN a bygone era of baggy jerseys and man-to-man battles, Ulster football was truly spoilt with attacking talent. Steven McDonnell, Brendan Devenney, Paddy Bradley, Stephen O’Neill, Benny Coulter, the list is endless. And of course, Peter Canavan.
Tommy Freeman was Monaghan’s go-to sharpshooter during that time and more often than not the Magheracloone clubman stood up to be counted and deservingly ranks as one of the best of his generation.
He soldiered with the Farney County for 12-years before finally getting his hands on an Ulster medal in 2013. That was the breakthrough success his side had been yearning for, but Monaghan’s story was mostly one of heartache and near misses.
Freeman’s Monaghan journey started and ended in the same way – against Tyrone. Just out of the u-21 grade, the fire-haired youngster was called into the Monaghan squad to face the Red Hand County in a challenge game.
“I played one year at minor and then I went on to play u-21 and then I was drafted into the senior squad all within the space of a few months,” recalled Freeman. “I was after playing an u-21 championship match against Tyrone.
“My brother (Damien) came in the following morning and told me I had to get out of bed pretty early, that I was called into the senior team for a challenge game against Tyrone in Omagh.
“At first, I didn’t believe him but when he shouted at me again to come on, I wasn’t long springing down. It was fantastic, it was a great call to get and as they say the rest is history and it just took off from there.”
Coming in as a second-half substitute that day, Freeman got to share the field with his “idol” and “hero” Peter Canavan and put on an impressive display.
“My idol was playing at the opposite side of the pitch. I was brought on at half time and all I could see was Peter Canavan. I idolised Peter from a young age, so it was a surreal moment for me. I would have focused a lot on him.
“I suppose DVDs were only coming out at that time, but I had a few videos. I’d just try and take a few skills off him and have a look what he did. The solo dummy would have been one thing I’d have taken from him and seen him doing.
“He was a fantastic player and I looked up to him. He was my hero basically, so when I ran on to that pitch in the challenge game and saw him up there, I thought, ‘right this is the start of it.’ And I ended up playing against him a number of times.”
It wasn’t long before Freeman donned the Monaghan jersey in the championship, making his competitive debut in the first round of the 2001 Ulster Championship, although it was again from the bench.
“I was young, and I hadn’t really many nerves. I was going well in training, and I suppose it was like everything else, as young as I was, I was still expecting to be in with a chance of getting a start.
“But it didn’t happen. I came off the bench and I scored a point. We got that win in my debut year against Fermanagh and we would have struggled against them, especially in Brewster Park but we got that one over them.
“We went on to play our next-door neighbours Cavan in the Ulster semi-final and we were beat by a point that day so that was very disappointing.”
It was a mixed bag in the years that followed. Big wins against All-Ireland champions Armagh in 2003 were often overshadowed by devastating lows, like the eight-point home defeat to Longford 12 months later. But when Seamus McEnaney became the Monaghan boss things changed and some success followed.
“He brought a belief at the time,” Freeman said. “We won the National League Division Two title against Meath in Croke Park, and it was a ding-dong battle. We got the rub of the green, which Monaghan doesn’t normally get very often.
“It was great to get over the line and it just took off from there. ‘Banty’ brought a real professionalism to the whole set up and the players responded.
“He took in a different backroom team after we won the National League. He wasn’t afraid to make a few changes and he felt he had to do that to try and get Monaghan on to the next level and that’s what he done.
“Croke Park was a dream to play in and I’ve played there on many occasions since. Monaghan were starved of success; it was long overdue. I think the Ulster title in 1988 was their last success. It was great for the people of Monaghan and the supporters; they flew onto the pitch and it was an awful job trying to get them off it.
“We might have celebrated that league title a little too much because we suffered a first-round defeat to Derry in the championship. We learnt from that, and we came back stronger, and we got to our first Ulster final then in ’07.”
Freeman, in the form of his life, excelled as Monaghan went on an unforgettable journey the following year. They reached their first Ulster final since 1988 and took on the Kingdom of Kerry in the All-Ireland quarter-finals. Despite giving it all they had and showing they could mix it with the big boys, McEnaney’s men still came away empty handed.
“We gave Tyrone a seven-point lead at the start of each half, and we clawed them back in the second half and we’d a ball cleared off the line as well. We were beaten by two on the day.
“After we lost the Ulster final we went on a good run. We beat Donegal up in Omagh in a full house and then we were drawn against Kerry in the quarter-finals and that was one game I’ll never forget, especially the dressing room afterwards.
“To lead for 65 minutes and to be pipped at the end by that mighty Kerry team was very disappointing. We got off to a good start, I got a point and then Ciaran Hanratty won a penalty, and I stepped up and thankfully I stuck it away. I suppose it was the experience Kerry showed in the end and maybe their strength in depth.
“They emptied the bench and I think that’s what got them over the line. Darran O’Sullivan and the likes came on and they pipped us by a point and that was another disappointing day.
“You obviously respected Kerry, they’re a big footballing county but the confidence within the Monaghan team that year was just unbelievable. We knew we were very unlucky against Tyrone and then we beat a strong Donegal team in Omagh, so our confidence was sky high.
“We felt we were in great shape, and we gave Kerry the respect they deserved but nothing more to be quite honest. After leading for 65 minutes, to be beat in the end was just a hard pill to swallow.”
Freeman bagged 1-3 in an awesome performance, but it very nearly didn’t happen. A thumb injury at work threatened to sideline Monaghan’s goal-scoring gem, but by hook or by crook, Freeman was playing.
“It was just a freak accident on the site at work, I was a carpenter by trade. I had it stitched up but then an infection set in during a training camp in Donaghmoyne and I ended up going to Daisy Hill and on to Dundonald the week before the Kerry game. So, you can imagine what was going through my head,” Freeman recalled.
“I went down to the theatre the next morning and it had to be re-opened and drained out. I was in a hard cast, but nothing was going to stop me from playing in that game as sore as it was. We had a good physio and a good nurse, and they looked after me that day and got me patched up and I went out and played the game.
“It wasn’t the best lead up to an All-Ireland quarter-final, but I got onto the pitch the last night at training just to build my confidence up and get my hands on the ball and thankfully it didn’t bother me too much.
“Personally, I did well enough that day, myself and Marc Ó Sé had a good battle with each other but unfortunately the result wasn’t the one we were looking for.”
The game didn’t pan out as planned, but Freeman’s scoring exploits saw him named as Monaghan first All-Star in 19 years and only Cork’s James Masters scored more throughout the championship.
“It was a great year personally and I know James fairly well, I think James had racked up a few goals against Tipperary in the Munster Championship, so I had a wee bit of catching up to do. But to finish second top scorer in the All-Ireland, especially behind a man of James Masters’ calibre, is no mean feat.
“I got my All-Star and from a personal point of view that was a great year for me, but I always maintain that if it wasn’t for my teammates and the whole panel, from one to 30 that year, those things might not happen.”
With hopes high in the county the following season, Monaghan were soon brought crashing back down to earth as they exited the Ulster Championship at the first hurdle, losing to a Malachy O’Rourke inspired Fermanagh.
“We were favourites, but we were very aware of the threat Fermanagh could pose, we always struggled with Fermanagh especially in Brewster Park. It was just one of those days and they probably had that wee bit more hunger than us.
“We got another run in the backdoor and Kerry again pipped us in the Qualifiers. It was another good battle, but we came out on the wrong side of it again. Kerry are always very hard to beat when they get to Croke Park.”
They’d have to wait until 2010 to get another crack at capturing the Anglo Celt and this time McEnaney’s men simply didn’t perform on the day, with Tyrone proving the stumbling block once more.
“2010 is better forgotten about for me and for Monaghan because we just didn’t turn up and we got what we deserved to be quite honest. We didn’t show up and against that strong Tyrone team, you had to be on your game from start to finish and we weren’t, and we got punished.
“That was a bitter pill to swallow, especially suffering such a heavy defeat (10 points). There was a lot of work that went into it, and people don’t see the amount of time that is put in to play county football and the sacrifices that are made.
“And to just go out on that one day and not to perform was disappointing. Maybe if you’d have flipped a coin and played the game the following day it could have been different but how and ever, we didn’t perform like we should have and we got a heavy beating by Tyrone that day.
“It does start to creep in surely, is this ever going to come? You’re only human at the end of the day but we kept plugging along and thankfully we made the breakthrough in 2013,” added Freeman.
O’Rourke may have dashed Monaghan’s dreams in 2008, but by 2013 the Fermanagh native was in the Farney hotseat. “Tactically he was very, very well set up and he left no stone unturned.
“It was very much horses for courses. It didn’t matter who you were, whoever he thought would fit a certain game-plan for the opposition, that’s what he went with.”
A new manager, a new sense of belief and another tilt at the title, but this time around would be very different for Freeman. A broken jaw in a league game kept the Magheracloone man sidelined for too long and he had to get used to an impact sub role rather than the main man one he’d grown used to.
“It’s never easy when you go from a regular starter and playing well for a couple of years, but I had just suffered a broken jaw in a league match on St Patrick’s day against Wicklow.
“ I was starting those league matches under Malachy but that kept me out for nearly two and a half months, and I came back in time for the championship against Antrim in Casement. I came off the bench and scored a point and then I started against Cavan in the semi-final.
“The sweeper systems and the blanket defence were well and truly coming in and I would have played most of my football in the natural way, man-on-man. That day, I didn’t do a whole pile wrong but with the sweeper systems, I wasn’t getting on much ball. It wasn’t easy, but you have to be a team player and that was it. Of course, everybody wants to be starting but I put my head down and kept working hard and whether it be starting or coming off the bench, I just wanted to do what I could to help Monaghan get over the line.”
And while it was difficult for Freeman, it all paid off in the end. In the last few minutes of their Ulster final against All-Ireland champions Donegal, Freeman was subbed on and fired over the insurance score as Monaghan finally reached the summit of Ulster football.
“I was itching to get on, but the boys were doing the job, Monaghan played very well that day so all credit to them. Christopher McGuinness was brought on five or ten minutes before me, and he got on the scoresheet and then he got on the end of a kick-out, popped it off to me and thankfully I put it over the bar.
“It was great, it was a relief. When the final whistle went and I finally got my hands on an Ulster medal, it started to creep in that the likes of my own brother Damien, he had just missed out as well as a lot of other boys.
“Rory Woods, Dermot McArdle, John Paul Mone, many of the other boys that had soldiered with Monaghan, they had just missed out. I was lucky that I hung on, I kept persevering with it, and I felt I was still fit to make an impact on the team so that’s why I kept playing and to get the Ulster medal was just perfect.”
That was Freeman’s last score in a Monaghan shirt and from the outside it looked like he walked off into the sunset, Anglo Celt in hand and an Ulster medal safely tucked away in the back pocket.
But as is often the case, it wasn’t quite as picturesque as that. Tyrone ended Monaghan’s season at the All-Ireland quarter-final stage and Freeman was determined to give it one more year.
“To be honest I wanted to go for another year. I got a new job, and it involved shift work and the job is very important because we were coming through a recession, the Celtic Tiger was after collapsing.
“Myself and Malachy had a bit of a chat and I wanted to give it another year, but I understood where Malachy was coming from. When you’re playing county football you have to be there every night at training. We had a chat and decided it wouldn’t work out.
“I was disappointed, I felt there was another year in me, but it wasn’t to be and there were no hard feelings. But I suppose it ended up I retired after that Ulster title, and it was the best way to go out and call it a day with an Ulster medal.”
At club level, there were plenty more hard luck stories and heartache in the black and white of Magheracloone. The club created history in 2004 when they won the Monaghan Senior Championship title for the first time ever. But a second county medal escaped the team despite appearing in five more finals.
“We got to our first senior final in 2002 and we were beaten in a replay. We were annoyed that we didn’t get across the line the first day and we were beat by a point in the replay. We were back in ’04 and we won our first county title against Scotstown.
“Losing those finals was very tough. We’d a good team and we have one championship and it’s great to have one, but I think we definitely should have had another two if not three, but it wasn’t to be.”
In September of 2018, the club hit rock bottom. A giant sinkhole engulfed the playing field, but Magheracloone are getting back on the right track slowly but surely.
“Losing our grounds to the sinkhole, it’s been a tough time to be quite honest. We’re back on one of our new pitches at the minute in our new facilities so that’s a big help.
“Where we’re situated, we’re very lucky with the neighbouring clubs from every county. Cavan, Meath, Louth and Monaghan. Every club helped us out brilliantly with their pitches until we got our own setup.
“We’re on the right road now, we’re back in one of our new pitches this year and our clubrooms and all are done. We’re hoping for another couple of pitches to be done and a stand as well so when that’s all finished, it’ll be great.”
Freeman and his teammates helped bring some much-needed positivity to the club the following year as they embarked on another incredible journey. Magheracloone won the Ulster Intermediate Championship and made it all the way to the All-Ireland final.
“We won the intermediate (title) and then went on to win the Ulster Club final, we beat Galbally from Tyrone and there were great scenes. We went on to the All-Ireland final where we played Oughterad, and it was tit for much of the game but I feel we lost it in that first half.
“Matthew Tierney is a brilliant player, he went and scored a goal in that last ten minutes and that could have been the losing of that game for us. It was a great run all the same, it was great for the club.
And so, time moves on. As Freeman alluded to, the game has changed an awful lot since that young fella skipped onto the field against his idol back in 2001. Sweeper systems and blanket defences have become the rage and maybe the former All-Star got out at just the right time.
“I wouldn’t change it for the world and I’m not going to hold back on this, I would not like to be playing in today’s game. I know people are saying it’s starting to open up a wee bit but it’s not and it’s even crept into club level as well.
“I’d say if you asked the spectators what they would rather see it would be a no-brainer for me, they’d love to see the era of football that the likes of me and many other boys played in, the man-to-man style.
“Listen, there was always a few boys that would filter back but now there’s 15 men behind the ball and you’re over and back and over and back and I just think the day of the natural corner forward is kind of gone.
“I wouldn’t have liked to play in today’s game, you have to be at corner back or half back and then try to be back up the field and attack as well. I’m definitely glad I played in the era of football that I did.”