‘Only for the football field, most of our team would’ve emigrated’

James McGivney

Something in the region of 17,000km separated James McGivney from his home place of Mullinalaghta when he pitched up in Australia four years ago. Truth is, his mind never left.

A full-time beef farmer now, he spent the first three months of his stint in Oz milking on a dairy farm between the Victoria towns of Tatura and Murchison for Tony and Sharon McCarthy, who had made a permanent move from Cork in 2005.

Six months on a Sydney building site followed but, though the plan was to stay for the year, McGivney knew deep down he would be back in Longford a few months earlier than that to lend a hand to his club’s county campaign.

It’s very hard to leave lads you grew up with and say, ‘look, I won’t be around this year’. So I took the decision to come back and play for the club because I know the amount of work lads put in. I didn’t want to be the reason to cost them success if I was not at home.

A last-minute goal cost Mullinalaghta a place in the semi-final that year but they have warehoused three Longford titles since that day and now find themselves 60 minutes from what would be a first provincial men’s title for a Longford club at any grade.

McGivney isn’t the only one who has made sacrifices.

A handful of others have turned down offers to play ball in America in the past while those based in Athlone, Dublin, and Limerick are assiduous in their commitment to training. They have to be, given the club’s meagre playing base.

Mullinalaghta is only half a parish. The other 50% lies across the Cavan border in Gowna. It is a dot on the map. There were seven kids in McGivney’s primary class. Three were boys and he is the only one still playing football.

There is a church, a community centre, a school with 44 pupils, and a football field. The post office closed down two months ago and McGivney lets out a wistful chuckle when asked about the broadband; he says, laconically, that it “isn’t the best”.

Only for the football field, I’d say the majority of our team would’ve emigrated by now.

They don’t need telling that this is the time to make hay; that clubs like theirs see cycles of success such as this one only once every couple of generations. If that. Their last county title prior to 2016 was claimed in 1950 so they like to celebrate accordingly.

Mullinalaghta St Columba's captain Shane Mulligan celebrates after the 2017 Longford County Senior Football Championship Final match between Abbeylara and Mullinalaghta St Columba's at Glennon Brothers Pearse Park in Longford. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

All three of their recent county titles have been processed identically. Straight back to Gowna for grub in Piker’s Lodge. Back on the bus. Drive by the graveyard in Mullinalaghta. They said a few prayers the first year, lit a few candles, and a priest said a few words.

“I suppose we just wanted to stop off at the graveyard in memory of those lads who did win it back in 1950,” says McGivney. “We just wanted to show our respect to them, that they were still being thought of as highly now.”

Relatives were thought of too. Respects paid, they make for a cross in the middle of the parish where a welcoming bonfire guides them home. The sky will be ablaze again on Sunday night if they can upset the odds and see to Kilmacud Crokes.

The narrative is a familiar one. David vs Goliath. Rural backwater against city clickers. Mullinalaghta know how people perceive it. They are the first Longford club to even make it this far and came through the weaker side of the draw. Easy meat, some say.

Crokes had to account for Portlaoise, who themselves had seen off reigning champions Moorefield. It’s hard not to preempt the decider in Tullamore and prep a script that sees the Dublin champions triumph and go on towards the All-Ireland series.

McGivern understands that. But he has faith in his team and in the management led by Mickey Graham. He knows there was just a point and a spurned goal chance between them and St Vincent’s with a few minutes to go in the semi-final in 2017.

They won’t lack belief.

“Diarmuid Connolly only scored a point from play against us last year,” he says.

“Donal McElligott was marking him. These things are in one ear and out the other with most of us. We know Kilmacud are a serious outfit. They bring a lot of different aspects to the game, whether that be physicality, skill, height. We know we have to match all their strengths and out-perform them where they are strongest. We know that they are a running team. We just have to try and match that.”

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