The GAA's Liverpool fans: Steven McDonnell, Dara Ó Cinnéide, and Brian Hurley explain why their Anfield allegiance runs deep

The GAA's Liverpool fans: Steven McDonnell, Dara Ó Cinnéide, and Brian Hurley explain why their Anfield allegiance runs deep
Steven McDonnell with his son on a visit to Anfield. Both are passionate Liverpool fans.

The Mrs Merton Show spanned over 30 episodes across four years on the BBC in the mid-1990s but it peaked in episode one when Caroline Aherne, playing the role of the eponymous mock chat show host, asked a question of Debbie McGee that would be voted one of the best one-liners in British television history.

“So, what first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?” Aherne wondered. Kris Akabusi, the multi-medalled sprinter and hurdler, collapsed in a heap of laughter on the sofa alongside. Steven McDonnell, who has just been telling the Irish Examiner why he started supporting Liverpool, lets out a laugh when reminded of the story.

“I actually met Debbie McGee and Paul Daniels with the Armagh team,” said the three-time All Star and 2002 All-Ireland winner. “We met them in an airport in Salt Lake City one time. They were great, he even did a trick for us.”

Let’s be honest here, there are few among us in this country who nailed our colours to Swindon Town’s mast. Declare a grá for St Mirren and you want to ask yourself some hard questions, pal.

Dara Ó Cinnéide still scratches his head when he explains that his old teammate Aodhan Mac Gearailt is an Ipswich Town man.

Your choice is basically a hostage to timing. A lifetime of thrills and ills dependant on some spur-of-the-moment punt as a child. Some of us have friends still shackled to the cause of Blackburn Rovers decades after the glory days of Kenny Dalglish and Jack Walker. Chelsea and Manchester City jerseys now proliferate where before there were none.

There are a few constants in all this, clubs whose Irish bases remain resolutely stocked through thin as well as thick. Celtic, for obvious reasons, retain a hold on hearts.

Likewise Manchester United and Liverpool and the latter of those will pay out massive dividends on that loyalty when capturing a first league title in 30 years this season.

What’s fascinating chatting to some of our GAA stars who declare an allegiance to the Kop is how most of them followed their own singular path. McDonnell, Cork’s Brian Hurley, and Kerry’s Ó Cinnéide all plumped for Liverpool when their fathers and/or brothers had a leaning towards United.

It’s almost as if, with their GAA allegiances decided at birth, here was an opportunity to declare some independence. Coincidence or not, the only one to hug the family tree was Mayo’s Conor Mortimer who would prefer a good soccer game over a Gaelic football match.

Unlike his brothers Kenneth and Trevor, Mortimer has no memory of that last league title but, while the rest of the 90s tailed off into an ever less profitable venture for the club, it doesn’t always take success to earn another disciple. Sometimes a single player can seal an engagement that lasts long after he leaves or retires.

For Brian Hurley it was Steven Gerrard who caught the eye when the Scouser first emerged in a midfield chaperoned by Gary McAllister.

McDonnell was first bewitched by John Barnes. For Ó Cinnéide it was the sight of Ireland’s own Ronnie Whelan scoring twice against Spurs in the 1982 Milk Cup final.

“I played in goals when I was younger and I was a big fan of David James at the time,” says Mortimer. “I changed my middle name for my confirmation to James, believe it or not. I don’t think it was to do with being such a huge fan, it was more a case of being a bit of a rascal at that age but it went from there. I bought as much of the kit as we could afford to buy and I’d wear it playing soccer. I preferred the soccer all the way through until I had to change at 18 or 19 to go down one route or the other and, look it, the chances of making it at soccer are quite slim.”

People talk of tribes in football and in life beyond but such generalities rarely fit uniformly over any collection of people. Everyone’s connection with the game and with a club is different. For some it permeates their life like lines through a stick of rock. For others it ebbs and flows, or even evaporates.

Ó Cinnéide, though born into a tradition and an area where Gaelic football ‘s pre-eminence was unquestioned, was obsessed by the association version at one point. He still remembers making for home after “setting spuds” to watch the 1985 European Cup final when a neighbour told him what had happened in Heysel.

He can recall where he was for the Hillsborough disaster, or when Keith Houtchen’s diving header won the FA Cup for Coventry City in 1987. And he was devastated when Ian Rush left Liverpool for Juventus. It was only when he turned 18 that the game’s, and Liverpool’s, spell was broken.

“The Robert De Niro movie, A Bronx Tale, came out,” he explains. “It was his directorial debut, and there’s a scene where Chaz Palminteri says to the kid: ‘Why do you give a damn about the Yankees? Do you think they give a damn about you?’

“I just thought: ‘What am I at here?’ Kerry football was in the doldrums and I nearly wouldn’t be that upset when we lost to Down in an All-Ireland semi-final. I prided myself in my disinterest in soccer for a few years after that.”

A sublime performance by Gerrard helped soften that stance when he went over to watch the 2007 Champions League semi-final against Chelsea and one thing all four men we spoke to held in common was the frisson that comes with watching Liverpool play in Anfield.

Mortimer, who was in Istanbul the night they traumatised AC Milan in the 2005 Champions League final, struggles to find the words for how his first trip over solidified the bond.

For McDonnell, it is a combination of a ground that retains its compact feel after extensive renovation and the passion and approach of the locals.

Huley feels exactly the same.

“You really get the sense of it when you go over there for a game. Everyone asks you the same question: Are you a red or a blue? It’s like home and the way football is down here in West Cork. It’s all everyone talks about. I love that and I love the local guys like Carragher and Trent as well.

“Liverpool actually remind me of Cork a bit: They’re a very dangerous team when they get it right and they’ve come so far to get to this stage. You look at lads like [Jordan] Henderson who were there for ages and weren’t considered top players and look where they are now.”

They’ll say that the European nights are that bit extra special and there’s no doubt but that much of the fizz from this league title has been flattened through three months of shutdown and the ersatz product we’ve had to make do with behind-closed-doors since the restart.

The league has more or less been ‘won’ for months now. There will be no parade through the city thanks to the virus and there are no big plans among any of the four for the night it is officially recorded in the history books.

Hurley will do what he always does for a game and pop down to his friend Alan Leonard’s house. Mortimer plans on having some friends around for a few beers. None of them even seem all that bothered about rubbing it in the noses of their United tormentors though that could change.

“I wouldn’t be United’s biggest fan,” says McDonnell who has already succeeded in converting two of his three sons to the cause, “but you had to respect what they did all those years. If you’re a fan of football you have to respect what Liverpool are doing now.”

A new generation of Irish Reds await us. And who could blame them.

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