Long suffering Saffron fans take heart. Just look what happened to Man City

The past month has been a hard struggle for Antrim fans who have seen their footballers depart from the Ulster championship and then beaten in the All Ireland qualifiers at the first time of asking. Our hurlers appeared to be on a roll when they won their first two games in the Joe McDonagh Cup. We all dreamed of a day out in Croke Park later this month in the final which was set to be played before the Galway v Kilkenny Leinster final. One more win would see us through, but then the agony started. Laois beat us in Dunloy by a single point as we squandered a succession of chances. Westmeath beat us by two after having a goal disallowed for a ‘square ball’ in Mullingar and then Kerry came from ten points down twenty minutes into last weekend’s game in Cushendall to beat us by four. On top of that our minor footballers lost to Fermanagh, our Under 20s lost to Down in a thrilling game in Newry. Our Under 20 hurlers had Carlow beaten only for the Scallion Eaters to battle back and bring the game to extra time, which they dominated to prematurely end our first involvement in the Leinster championship. We looked to the camogs for salvation and though our brilliant minors won the All Ireland B title earlier this year our seniors were beaten by Derry in the Ulster semi-final in Ahoghill.

All these depressing defeats got me thinking of a brilliant article which was written by former St Comgall’s man Paddy McGinley some years ago. Paddy penned a brilliant article for the Antrim Yearbook some years back after the Antrim footballers had been beaten by Wicklow in the final of  2007 Tommy Murphy Cup final (All Ireland B football) at Croke Park. For a long time it looked like we had it won but Tommy Gill of Wicklow scored a goal with the last kick of the game to rip the hearts out of Saffron followers yet again. Paddy, who described himself as a musician and thespien was a great character, full of fun and wit. He was an avid Antrim fan who wore his heart on his sleeve, bouyed by the highs and seriously deflated by the defeats. Paddy sadly passed away in October 2011 but he will always be remembered for this great satirical piece.

Long Surrering Saffron by Paddy McGinley

3A4A5463Wicklow players celebrate Tommy Gill’s late, late winner over Antrim in the Tommy Murphy Cup final at Croke Park in 2007.

“It’s one last attack for Wicklow, we’re over the time, Tommy Gill……..” Yet another chapter written in our book of tears, and it goes on, and on and on.

In 1969 the world was cool, protest singers on ‘Top of the Pops’ and all that. Bob Dylan and Joan Baez unbelievably popular. In August of that year, what became known as “The Troubles” erupted in earnest, with the Battle of the Bogside, Bombay Street, and the arrival of the army onto our streets. Just a month later, on September 14th, Antrim faced Roscommon in the All Ireland U21 football final. We won. I was 16 at the time. At the final whistle we invaded the pitch at Croke Park, a sight not usually associated with U21 finals. As they presented the cup to Liam Boyle, we all sang “We Shall Overcome”, the great protest song made famous by Joan Baez. That was the greatest day ever in Irish sporting history, believe me. I was there.

028 copyPaddy thought it would be all wine and roses after wathing Antrim beat Roscommon in the All Ireland Under 21 football final at Croker Park in 1969.

I was there again the following year when we won the All Ireland Intermediate Hurling title, helped along the way with a bit of coaching from one Justin McCarthy.

The “terrible twins”, Hamill and McCalin featured on both sides. The fact that we beat Warwickshire perhaps lessened the joy, because who were Warwickshire? Seven years later playing for Lancashire I found out the hard way who they were, but sin sceal eile.

File2Antrim –  All Ireland Intermediate Hurling Champions 1970

In 1971 I was back at Croke twice, as my school won the Hogan Cup, and then we won the B division hurling on the same day that the county vocational schools team beat the might of North Tipperary in the All Ireland final. Heady days indeed, and still only 17. Life was going to be great as an Antrim fan. Where did it all go wrong? Perhaps that can be traced back to 1970, although at the time we thought it was part of the new beginning. In that year we beat Down in the first round of the Ulster football Championship. Now Down had been in the previous 12 finals, winning 7 of them, and two years earlier had won the Sam Maguire with a young, promising team. And we beat them, in the first round.

In the Ulster final we played Derry, at some God forsaken place called Clones. Throughout the 1960s the Ulster final was at Casement with massive crowds, usually between Down and Cavan, the aristocrats of Ulster football in those days. But it was Clones for us. Perhaps I should have known. Now Derry were a useful side, but we were doing ok, and then tragedy struck. We were awarded a penalty. Perhaps that was the start of it, the source of years and years of heartbreak. We all thought “wee Andy” McCailin will stick this away, but realised he wasn’t hitting it. My boyhood hero, Aidan Hamill stepped up, and HIT THE POST. Antrim fell apart, and although “Big Fitzy” managed to punch three Derry men and the ball to the net in one move with hand speed that would have impressed Mohammed Ali, we were well beaten in the end. Little did we know then, but that was as good as it got.

Antrim U21 v Cavan 60b copyThe next real blow came in 1974, the All Ireland U21 football final replay against a star studded Mayo, Minor Champs in 1971. We had beaten a Tyrone team with the mighty Frank McGuigan and all in the Ulster Final, at that miserable place Clones strangely enough. Just before the final Gerry Armstrong, the 6 million dollar man of Antrim football went to England to play soccer. Yes, that Gerry Armstrong. Anyway there we were in Croke, and got away to a flier with a Hugh McCrory goal. Nip and tuck all the way, and then Mayo won with a point that looked two foot wide. The media said it was one of the best games ever in Croke Park, little consolation to us as we trooped home. Once again, how were we to know that this was as good as it was going to be.

In 1976 we had a really impressive run in the National Football league, at a time when the league meant something. For the quarter final, Croke Park against Galway. I can’t remember who we were due to play in the semi-final. I can’t remember because we never got there, yet again a missed penalty, Pat Kane I think, before surrendering tamely to a not very impressive Galway outfit. Still we had plenty of time. Maybe next year would be the year. That was the first time I encountered “the man in charge of the parking” who seemed to be a local entrepreneur. Still in a few years we would be on first name terms with him. I spent the next ten years in Manchester, watching Man City and Salford Rugby league. It was just like being an Antrim fan.

On returning, hurling was now the game in the county. And we had a decent outfit. 1986, Croke Park, versus Cork, Jimmy Barry Murphy, Tomas Mulcahy, Tony O’Sullivan, Teddy McCarthy and the rest. Antrim scored 1-24. And LOST. One goal and twenty four points, twenty five scores against Cork, and to lose. We let in seven goals, and I have friends who have never forgiven our unfortunate keeper that day. It could only happen to us. In 1987, Dundalk, winning all the way against Kilkenny, yes Kilkenny, only to collapse in the last ten minutes. I didn’t know then that this was to be a trend for years to come.

Antrim v Tipp 89 - 160 copyAntrim captain Ciaran Barr introduces his team to Irish President Patrick Hillery before the 1989 final

In 1989 we made the breakthrough; we beat Offaly in an unforgettable game. Well to tell the truth, it is forgettable, as it was a poor enough game, and Offaly missed enough to win two matches, but we were in AN ALL IRELAND HURLING FINAL. Oh happy days. But were we the fans satisfied? Not a bit of it. This one win meant we were big shots, and it was “only Offaly” we had beaten after all, the worst Offaly team ever. Strange that once you do badly against us, you are the worst Tipp/ Cork/ Kilkenny/ Offaly team ever. They were also the only Offaly team to win three Leinsters in a row. However we were now hurling snobs, we wanted to beat one of the “big three”.

The final? Well we did score 3-9, a respectable enough tally. But Tipperary scored 4-24, and one player, Nicky English, scored 2-12. It was only recently that I realised that to Antrim supporters aged 25 to about 35 that the name “Nicky English” ranks alongside “Cromwell” in their psyche. I do know something, if Ger Rogan had played he wouldn’t have scored 2-12, but then I was not picking the team.

And speaking of hurling snobs, as above, to many an Antrim fan Nicky is considered the best thing since Barney Hughes baps. To the “snobs” it is a matter of “2-12 against Antrim? My granny could score 2-12 against Antrim”. Now think about this. Our ultimate moment of glory, marching behind the Artane band on All Ireland hurling day, and what happened. We made the Guinness book of records again, that 2-12 being the most scored by one player in a final. We also make the same book for the biggest defeat in a football final, and probably for Nicky Rackard’s 7-7 against us in 1954. You can always give Antrim that, we have a lot of mention in the Guinness book of records, and certainly more than them Johnny come latelys like Tyrone.

Our biggest day passed us all by. The team, the supporters, all of us. The atmosphere at the game had been dead, the match one sided, the whole thing resembled a deflating balloon. And drinking to excess didn’t help. Oh to be from Cork at times like that.

The worst, for me, was 1991, All Ireland semi-final, Croke Park, against Kilkenny. Now the media told us this was the worst Kilkenny team in history. The two O’Connors, John Power, Liam Fennelly, Pat O’Neill, Eamon Morrisey and one DJ Carey. When they won the next two All Ireland’s they were seen as one of the all time greats. And we should have beaten them. This was the day, forget beating Offaly, this was one of the aristocrats. As usual we led most of the way, and for once, I really believed we were going to do it. I could feel the tears welling up, we were going to do Kilkenny. The Cats needed a goal, and for 60 minutes or so we denied them. I am still haunted by the goal they got, Gallagher saved, the ball flew up in the air in slow motion, and Morrisey turned it in. He had got one in the first minute as well. But then we kicked against the trend. Antrim lead and then get caught and collapse.

But we came back, Sambo levelled with a cracker. We were going to do it after all, there is a God, and the world was great. Morrisey and Carey won it with two majestic points. For once the pride shown wasn’t enough. We should have won, and just might have taken Tipp, English and all, in the final. Although devastated, Frank Gallagher was in tears, Sammy was distraught and telling us what the manager should have done, although devastated I still managed to tell a few Tipp fans that the days of beating Antrim by 18 points were over for ever. How could I have been so foolish?

I said that was the worst ever, and it was from a disappointment aspect, but it was the best in terms of nearly doing it, nearly fulfilling our childish dreams of glory. The rest makes painful reading. In 1993, winning against Kilkenny at half time, the madness of it all. In the second half that turntable spinning, disc playing bloke nicknamed “DJ” destroyed us. At least we had the consolation of seeing one of the best ever goals in Croke Park, four years AFTER English scored one of the best ever against us. Being an Antrim fan has its compensations.

1994, a successful league, beating Limerick and Waterford, and drawing Clare in the quarter final. We were favourites to win. And we all assumed we would. My travelling companion Sammy “Dog Box” had us winning the next three All Irelands, another Saffron, Gallagher, reckoned two. Now this was that Clare team, the greatest team they ever produced, but this was one year before their break through. So we headed off to Croke to see us thrash these unknowns. We were stuffed, plucked, and roasted all in one. I will give “Dog Box” his due; he spotted a few Clare players who were to become legends.

The same year I was ashamed to be from the county for the first time, when Frankie Carroll of Limerick was able to show boat against us in the second half of the All Ireland semi. Limerick murdered us, and we showed no fight at all, well at least Gary O’Kane prevented a massacre when they moved him back into defence in the second half. But there was Carroll teasing us, showing the ball on his stick. At that stage I was thinking of some of the “characters” who had hurled for us, and by character I mean hard nuts. I would have given anything to see my aged cousin, one “Gun” Carabine emerging as a sub. Now “Gun” was no Tommy Walsh but at least he would have put an abrupt stop to Carroll’s antics. It was hard to take. In terms of humiliation, and being deflated after our high expectations, this was the worst ever, although younger readers no doubt have “Cork 2004” burned upon their brain. However growing bitter has its advantages and when Offaly amazingly snatched the final from Limerick, I was overjoyed. “How do you like them apples, Frankie?”

693b1941 copy‘Nancy’ Richmond celebrates after scoring a goal against Tipp in 2002, but Tip hit back to win by 8

For a few years we were on the fringe, and then a delightful surprise. Dinny Cahill arrived and got us to a quarter final against Tipp. Now this time we were expecting to get destroyed, but we led all the way. Well nearly all the way, we got caught in the last ten minutes, and Tipp pulled away. But if no subs had been allowed, we would have won. They brought on three all stars, we had no-one to bring on. But suddenly we were back in the big league. Or so we thought . . . .

The next year Wexford. Now Wexford enjoy a bad press because the Cats usually hammer them these days but this was 2003. The next year Wexford beat Kilkenny and drew with Cork, the eventual winners. In 2001 they had taken Tipp, the eventual winners, to a replay. We out hurled them, out fought them, out-scored them, until the last ten minutes. We sat back waiting to lose. It was as if the team suddenly thought “we are not supposed to win” and sat back waiting to lose. In those last ten minutes we must have conceded four 20 metre frees. Sooner or later Codd was going to score with one of them. And what about our infamous disallowed “square ball” goal. By the time McFall caught the ball he was closer to Barry’s Hotel, venue of Dublin’s best “grab a granny night” (or so I am told) than he was to the square. We all assumed he thought “If it’s good enough for Wayne Rooney”. Would the heartbreak ever cease?

693B1894 copyAntrim fans were on a high when the Saffrons lead Wexford in 2003, but a very dubious free saw Paul Codd fire in a late winner

In 2004 it did, at least in regard to nail biting finishes. But not in a kind way, to put it mildly. In the quarter final against Cork, after about 25 minutes I felt ashamed of the county jersey I was wearing, and began to nearly cry, contemplate suicide, and have a panic attack. WE WERE NOT GOING TO SCORE. I honestly thought “Oh dear God, we are not even going to get a point, in the whole match”. I thought back to 1991, nearly beating the Cats, and now this. Say what you like about Brian McFall, but when he scored our first point that day, I could gladly have had him canonised. And him a Johnnies man, sacrilege. The least said about that day, the better. Battle hardened, seen it all, Antrim fans were walking about as though they had just had their first experience of a well known herbal remedy. We satisfied our egos in the end by shouting at celebrating Cork fans “what would youse know about rebels?” At times like that, any victory will do, however small. And Dinny was right, Corcoran was done.

Add in the club finals at Croke, Dunloy losing four times after beating better sides in the semis. I mean Mount Sion, a who’s who of the current Waterford team; Dunloy beat them, but lost to Newtownshandrum. Rossa losing in 1989, St Gall’s last year, when they gave their worst display for years, brought CJ on too late, and still lost by a point. ONE LOUSY POINT. Why can’t an Antrim man get an even break?

And so to last Saturday. I wasn’t there, saw it at home on the TV, and wished I was there. Wicklow looked the better team for most of the match, but suddenly the boys were showing pride in the county jersey, and we fought back. Extra time there was only one team in it, but again we seemed to freeze. However all was to end well wasn’t it? With twenty seconds left we kicked a wide, a slow kick out would have brought the final whistle, but a quick one didn’t. So the referee decided to play until the ball went dead, and it did, in our net, and we were dead. When the ball went to Tommy Gill it was no good crying “Dear God no” because after all that heartbreak we no longer believe in God. And we were right not to. Goal! It was inevitable, as sure as Sunday following Saturday, but still, it couldn’t really have happened, could it? The last kick? What did we ever do to offend the gods on high, those Gods we have to believe in, despite all this evidence to the contrary.

All of those years spent in Drumcondra, visiting Quinn’s, Fegan’s, Kennedy’s, “The Cat and Cage” speaking to fans from other counties, sharing the craic, but they always stare at you with a cagey look, as if we are on the edge of hurling, always will be, so why do we bother, or are we just masochists, gluttons for punishment, in short, mad? Of course they are too polite, or afraid, to say that, and give us the old “you are keeping the game going in the north, lads, fair play”. That’s when you want a referendum on a united Ireland, so that you can vote against, the condescending, arrogant….fellow Irishmen. In Drumcondra, the only Antrim success is the “Antrim Arms” guesthouse, which still does a roaring trade.

But there is a happy ending to this, although not in Croke. It was in Casement, 2000, the Ulster championship against Down, in hail stones and pouring rain, and we won. After 18years of failure. I remember trying to explain recently to a Tyrone man that after not having won a championship match for 18years, to beat Down, and it had to be them, the aristocrats of Ulster football in my lifetime, well winning that game was better than winning an All Ireland or two. He just couldn’t understand what I meant. Mind you, it was probably the thought of Down as THE team in Ulster that done his head in, the arrogant so and so. Probably never heard of the GAA until 2003!

BT22-ANTRIM 11Antrim ended a nineteen year drought when they beat Down in the Ulster Championship quarter final at Casement Park in 2000.

Two weeks ago I sat in Croke watching the minor hurlers against Kilkenny, 2-31 to 0-6, and not a great Kilkenny team. I mentioned Manchester City earlier. Now the City fans have one great, defiant song, reserved for matches against United, directed at the United fans who come from London, Norway, China, Ireland, anywhere but Manchester. It is 31 years since City last won a trophy. The fans, to show their undying love for the local team, defiantly sing “31 years, and we’re still here, 31 years and we’re still here”. Now during that minor game I remarked that we had made the minor final in 1940. Suddenly I heard myself humming, and then broke into “67 years, and we’re still here, 67 years and we’re still here”. The two work mates with me are only thirty, they have years of suffering to look forward to, and obviously thought I was mad. Would those Kilkenny fans suffer as we do, uncomplaining, coming back year after year for more punishment? I doubt it. That’s the great thing about supporting a losing cause, it gives you a feeling of superiority over others, who are obviously only there because they support a winning team. Well that’s what you tell yourself, “Saffron ‘til I die” which might be sooner than expected if we ever WON at Croke, thereby bringing on a heart attack with the shock.

So let’s look forward to next season, and our next visit to Croke. And if you here a faint sound of a catchy tune, please join in. “68 years, and we’re still here…”

 

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