On the threshold

November 29, 2002
Clones GFC chairman P.J. Smyth believes that very little divides the winners' enclosure from the also-rans' stable at intermediate level in Monaghan. The club needs to bridge the divide sooner rather than later though, he opines. P.J. Smyth doesn't beat about the bush. Gaelic football in Clones needs a boost. The local club could do with winning a major title to help energise the sort of interest in the town which becomes a club of its potential and facilities. Support for the promotion and development of our native game in the border town is unfortunately thin on the ground, P.J opines, and the lack of a winning tradition only fuels such apathy among the general public. Success in the 2002 junior championship would have been timely, encouraging and maybe just the shot in the arm the club needs, he surmises."Like a lot of other clubs who can get so far but invariably miss out on the trophies, our lack of a winning tradition hasn't helped us in developing a stronger support base or keeping the young fellas interested enough to keep playing for as many years as they can at adult level. " Although we're not on our own in searching for the break, that's no consolation. We have to do our own thing and try and turn things around." Needing to achieve that special something which would launch Clones GFC into better times, the club's premier team failed to hit the jackpot in 2002 despite showing a lot of promise in the early rounds of the intermediate championship. "We had a poor time of it in the league although we lost quite a few of our matches by just a one or two. We also played very well at times in the championship, playing seven matches altogether, including two draws and two replays. Seven matches would normally be enough to see you home and dry in the championship but it all unravelled for us in the end." The omens weren't good for Clones from the word go in the championship with would-be championship finalists Carrickmacross (managed by Armagh supremo Joe Kernan) coming out on top by 1-7 to 0-7 in an absorbing first round clash at Clontibret in late May. Clones gave it their best shot on the day though the writing was on the wall at the interval when they trailed by 0-3 to 1-5. Ultimately Clones fell short of hitting their target of catching their fellow town team cold. The border side had their chances to spring a surprise but poor finishing saw good possession invariably wasted. "We could have beaten them (Carrick) but we were missing the likes of Declan McKernan and Colin McCaughey, had a disputed penalty award go against us and had two players sent off in the second half which didn't help our cause either. Also their goalkeeper brought off a vital save in the second half. They were odds-on favourites to beat us but I would have liked to have seen what would have happened had we got our full squad available. Granted Carrick improved a lot after they played us," P.J. reflects. Thereafter the return to action of former countyman Declan McKernan helped Clones to rebound from the Carrick result to beat neighbours Eire Og by 1-11 to 1-5 at Aghabog on July 20th. While McKernan was the dominant figure in the game for Clones, it was a fine all-round team performance from the town team which stood out. Clones seemed to grow in confidence and self-belief as the game progressed, leaving them full value for their six point win even if the destination of the spoils looked anything like clear at half-time with the sides deadlocked. However within a minute of the second half, Clones had dramatically marched in front when Colm McKernan crashed the ball to the back of the Eire Og net within seconds of the restart. Although the Smithboro-based side rolled up their sleeves in determined fashion, it was Clones who proceeded to acquire the firmer footing in the game. Gaining a vital edge in the battle for good possession around the vital diamond area of the field, the white and blues counter-attacked in clinical fashion with points by Fergal Nugent in the 18th and 21st minutes of the second half preceding insurance points from dead ball situations by Declan McKernan. "The lads did well to come back from the defeat against Carrick and beating your neighbours does no harm for a team's morale either." A dramatic tussle with Monaghan Harps in August ensued with the sides finishing level, Clones 0-11 Monaghan Harps 1-8, in their first meeting. "That was another game we should have won. We were three points in front with just a couple of minutes left in the game but then allowed the Harps to come back and go in front in injury time with a goal. Fortunately we got an equalising point which we definitely deserved. Having been two points in front at half-time, I thought we were going to go on and win it but we just didn't hammer home our advantage," the Annalore Road resident explains. Clones went on to finish the job second time around, beating the county town side by 1-20 to 2-13 after extra time at Scotstown in another thriller."The fact that they (Harps) got off to such a flyer in the replay by scoring 1-2 in the first few minutes meant that our lads had to show a lot of character and determination to come back, get on top and stay there 'till the end. They did themselves and the club proud by winning the replay," P.J. concludes. Indeed, Clones played some of the best football in the intermediate championship in 2002 in cancelling out Monaghan's early 1-2 blast to go 0-8 to 1-2 in front after 25 minutes. The teams subsequently battled it out to finish all-square at 2-9 to 1-12 but once Clones engineered a 1-16 to 2-10 lead at half-time in extra-time, it always looked like Clones had the bit between their teeth. And so it proved with Declan McKernan's personal tally of 1-11 meriting a special mention. A quarter-final tie with Rockcorry duly beckoned. Once again, Clones answered the challenge with a sterling display which yielded another bite of the cherry and, ultimately, a passage through to the semi-finals. In a brilliantly entertaining clash at Scotstown in late August, Clones looked down and out in trailing by six points deep into injury time but a goal apiece by Declan McKernan and Joe Tackney got the white and blues out of jail, leaving the full-time score reading; Clones 2-10, Rockcorry 0-16. "It was a tremendous game to watch. They looked to have us dead and buried but we got those two goals that gave us another bite of the cherry. The lads showed a lot of character once again to get the draw. We were six points down in injury time and produced a grandstand finish as good as you're ever likely to see," the 1955 intermediate championship medal winner with Killeevan added. In a game in which the spoils were in the balance for most of the 60-odd minutes, the individual performance of Declan McKernan was crucial in steering Clones to a well-merited 3-10 to 1-13 win in the replay. Also the performance of James McKernan in doing a man-to-man marking job on Rock's Mickey Conlon was vital too in the overall scheme of things. It didn't look particularly rosy for Clones though when Rock recorded a 1-5 tally without reply between the 6th and 19th minutes. Indeed it could have gotten worse shortly afterwards but Manus Quinn pulled off a great save, one of a couple of point blank saves by him that kept his side on course for victory during what was a trying first 20 minutes. Indeed, Quinn's heroics seem to inspire his colleagues. And in the last four minutes of the first half, Clones sowed the foundation for ultimate success by hitting a goal and three points without reply through Fergal Nugent and Declan McKernan respectively to leave the town team 1-6 to 1-5 ahead at half-time. Thereafter arguably the most crucial score for Clones came about in the 22nd minute of the second half with the sides locked together. William Gillard gathered possession and delivered in a teasing high ball into the Rockcorry goalmouth. Up jumped Declan McKernan and he connected superbly with his fist to give his side a vital three points lead. Further points by Fergal Nugent and McKernan (bringing his personal tally to 2-7) turned the screw on their opponents with three minutes remaining. Although Rock battled to the last, they couldn't prevent Clones from making it to the semi-final and a meeting with Sean McDermotts at Scotstown on September 14th. Sadly the game against Seans was one to forget for Clones as they lost by 1-5 to 3-24. "The lads had a completely off-day against Seans. We just weren't at the races. Having said that, they (Seans) looked even then as if they had the potential to go on and win the championship. We didn't do ourselves justice though," P.J. explains. Captain of the Killeevan junior team which won the county title in 1967 and a member of the club's Dr. Ward Cup-winning side five years later, P.J. insists it is not all doom and gloom around Clones though. He points to the excellent work being done at juvenile level." If we can unearth another few good players from underage level in the next few years to add to the fellas like Declan McKernan, Manus Quinn and Colin McCaughey who graduated from very good minor teams in the early nineties then I think we can keep knocking on the door. With a bit of luck the door will eventually open for us." All-Star makes his World Cup debut! Former Monaghan, Ulster and All-Star footballer Ciaran Murray acted as physio to the Irish soccer team in last summer's World Cup. Here he reflects on his time in Saipan and his still razor-keen interest in GAA matters. Words: Kevin Carney "I felt like a fly on the wall. There was a lot of people in the dressing-room but there were only two people speaking. It was between the two of them. "When Roy left, some of the senior players spoke up and said that they were backing the manager. It was an amazing meeting, the most amazing I've ever attended. "Everyone present was extremely disappointed with what happened but it was obvious from the way the conversation started off that it was only going to end one way. "Morale in the camp took a real dive from there on." Months on and Ciaran Murray's recollections of one of the most famous rows in the history of professional soccer in these waters remain vivid and illuminating. From where the rest of us stand, the former Monaghan and Ulster GAA star was privileged to be present at such a momentous tete-a-tete. However the Clones-native himself says however memorable it was, it wasn't pleasant. "I'd rather it hadn't happened at all. It was an amazing experience to be there when things did finally come to a head in that room but it was a pity it had to happen at all. "We were aware of the hype back home because we'd ring home everyday to our families but actually being there was something else and something I'll never forget." Fortunately for the erstwhile All-Star, such a fractious moment stands out like a piece of coal in newly-fallen snow set beside all the time he has spent with the Irish soccer teams in not alone Saipan but in far-flung places like Turkey, Liechenstein, Iceland, Romania, Malaysia and many other countries besides. Indeed most of the people who recognised the Dundalk-based physio on the telly will hardly forget how he turned back the years in sprinting from the bench like a 22 year- old to embrace an equally animated Mick McCarthy when Robbie Keane knocked in Ireland's late, late equaliser against Germany. Certainly, for the former Irish Universities soccer player, the good times with the Irish team have far out-weighed the bad. Despite the rollercoaster of emotion he experienced in Saipan last summer, Ciaran says he wouldn't have missed it for the world. It was the first finals he had been at with the Irish team and although it was tough being away from his family for 37 days he has no regrets about immersing himself in the body soccer. Murray's work with the Irish seniors has been an ongoing affair for close on seven years now. As was his wont when he starred for Monaghan seniors, Ciaran was in the right place at the right time when, in 1996, Dr. Martin Walsh, the Football Association of Ireland's senior medical officer decided that his medical team needed enlarging. Walsh went in search of a chartered physiotherapist armed with the sort of experience which would enable that person to cut it with the Irish senior soccer squad. The St. Tighernach's clubman and Trinity College graduate was, in all respects, a shoe-in for the job. His qualifications were spot-on, his sporting pedigree indisputable, his innate interest in sports medicine well-documented and his earlier time with the Ireland youths and Under 21s a distinct leg-up in going for the job. It's a long way from Clones to Saipan but Murray maintains he has enjoyed the ride so far even if the journey undulated this way and that like only the Clones to Cootehill road can. "At first, it took a bit of time, maybe the first 12 months or so for me to feel comfortable within the Irish set-up. When I started first, the squad were meeting up maybe six times a year and although I had known Shay Given and Stevie Carr from the Under 21 squad the previous year, I wouldn't have known a lot of the other fellas. "It took time for me to gain their confidence and trust as a fellow professional and for me to know how to handle them, especially when they were under pressure and tense in the run-up to the big matches. "Things came together very quickly though for us and the whole camp became very close over the years." Curiously, when it comes to getting players 100% ready for matches and treating their injuries afterwards, he claims its the same whether they're Gaelic or soccer players . "Professional soccer players are by and large a lot more outspoken and they're much more opinionated but their injuries are normally no different than those for which the average Gaelic player needs treatment. The injuries I treat when I'm with the Irish soccer squad can be the same type of injuries I had to deal with, for instance, when I was assisting Niall Rennick with the Wicklow senior team a few years ago when I was based in Dublin." And, boy, hasn't Ciaran first-hand knowledge of injuries! Back in 1991 the world of Gaelic games was shocked and saddened to learn that the then 26-year-old had called time on his football career due to persistent knee injuries. A senior championship debutant with Monaghan in 1982, he first damaged his knee in 1988, just a few months after leading his county to Ulster SFC glory. "I injured the knee in December 1988 playing for Monaghan against Derry in the league. At 25, that was the beginning of the end of my career. That and our defeat in the All-Ireland semi-final that year to Cork - when we underperformed - were probably the worst moments I had in sport," he sighs. Later trouble flared in his other knee. Despite a whole series of operations to repair all sorts of ligaments and sustained periods of training and rehabilitation, the brilliant centre-half back had had enough. "Knee injuries are common in all sports and all top soccer, rugby and Gaelic footballers are liable to them," he explains. "When a person is moving at speed, twisting and turning a lot, and with a lot of force involved, it can happen very simply. It's just tough luck and there's nothing you can do to prevent it. You can go ten years without any trouble but one day you'll know you've done a serious injury and you'll remember it until the day you die. At least these days it can be diagnosed quicker and recontructive surgery can be called upon." Reconstructing the centre-half back berth since Ciaran Murray's retirement as been a task successive Monaghan senior team managers have struggled to get to grips with in the interim. In fairness, given that the man they had to find a replacement for was an acclaimed All-Star, had been a powerhouse on the Monaghan teams that won the National League and Ulster SFC in '85 and '88 and made the Irish Compromise Rules side (1986), the managers' travails have been understandable and wholly predictable. Involved with Clontibret when they reached the Ulster club final in 1994 (also for a period in 2000) and still a paid-up member of Clones GFC, Ciaran is still very much a Monaghan man. He's still sports-mad too. When not pre-occupied with his duties with the Irish soccer team he can be found on the golf course when not working or enjoying a session in the swimming pool with his Dublin-born wife Mary and young sons, Sean and Oisin. As hinted at earlier, he still keeps an eye out and an ear close to the ground to stick with the changing times, sporting or otherwise. For instance, he has kept a watching brief on the evolution of the Gaelic Players Association and he's a gung-ho supporter of what the group hopes to achieve. "GAA players give so much commitment these days and they provide so much entertainment for so many people that they are entitled to benefit from the huge amounts of money which Gaelic games generate now through sponsorship, t.v. and gate money. Fifteen years ago the GAA wasn't so flush with money but that has changed considerably. There has to be some sort of system put in place to make the lot of players that much better. I'm not talking about players going full-time but they do need to be handsomely rewarded for their contributions to the GAA." Needless to say has a view on the state of play closer to home - on the Clones and Monaghan football fronts, for instance. In this respect, he is disappointed to see that both camps are struggling just a bit right now. In his view though, perhaps the same weaknesses may be at the core of both their troubles. "There's not a great wealth of talent there at the moment and maybe the necessary commitment among the players isn't there either. There could be a case for saying that a bit more leadership is needed too, something which there was plenty of when things were going well in the mid-eighties." Any silver lining visible at all? "Oh, I think so. The county minors and the under 21s have shown a lot of promise and potential in the last three years and things are definitely looking up at underage level. The success of the county vocational schools team also bodes well for the future too but it'll be interesting to see how many of the best of those underage players work their way up through the ranks and become major players for the senior team." And the chances of Ciaran getting involved with the county set-up once again seem about as likely as Mick McCarthy agreeing to be assistant to the new Ireland manager while rooming with Roy Keane on the team's first trip abroad. "Unfortunately when you're self-employed and have a young family, the amount of time and energy you can give to sport outside of your work is limited. It would be nice to be able to help out but it's just not on at the moment. More's the pity, roar a multitude football fans.

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