DICK CLERKIN: Celebrate league journey as much as summer destiny

April 12, 2010, Fitzgerald Stadium, the last round of the National League between Kerry and Monaghan. I doubt Killarney has ever witnessed a northern cheer like it, and may not again for a long time to come.

A last-gasp point for Monaghan maintained our status in Division 1 for the following season by virtue of a slender scoring difference. Ignoring the comprehensive defeat the reigning All-Ireland champions had just served up, Seamus (Banty) saluted our joyous following, as only Banty can.

We congratulated each other on the pitch, after a mission accomplished. I’d say the Kerry lads didn’t know what to make of it. Going into the game, both teams needed something out of the game to avoid relegation.

It was our first year in Division 1 proper, and if we were to continue our upward trajectory we felt we needed to be rubbing shoulders with the Kerrys and Dublins of this world. Colin Walshe, Drew Wylie, Kieran Hughes et al were breaking onto the scene, and this is where we wanted these lads to cut their teeth. Steel sharpens steel and all that.

Sharpening his saw for a summer onslaught, Jack O’Connor unleashed the full Kingdom cavalry. O’Sullivan, Galvin, O’Sullivan, Cooper, Donaghy, Sheehan read the forward line. Nothing left to chance.

Against these globetrotters in the sun-kissed home of Kerry football, we knew an honourable defeat might be the best we could hope for. Equally, it might just be enough to keep us up.

However, midway through the second-half, things looked ominous. Tomás was galloping forward like a thoroughbred in training for Epsom, and a textbook Donaghy- assisted goal for Sheehan had us eight points down. The 6,000 or so Kerry supporters bellowed in appreciation as they enjoyed the hiding their lads were dishing out.

To make matters worse, we went down to 14 men with the dismissal of Rory Woods. Back then, Conor McManus cut a frail image of the colossus he would go onto become, and with Woods having replaced the injured Tommy Freeman in the opening stages, our scoring threat was wilting.

If a picture tells a thousand words, the backpage spread on most of the following day’s tabloids, of myself and Paul Galvin up close and personal, tells you all you need to know about how I decided to see out the final quarter.

Paul was enjoying his afternoon… too much for my liking. “F*#k this”, I said to myself, staring down the barrel of a good trimming, “There’s no way we’re rolling over here”... So, myself and a few others took it upon ourselves to piss off as many of the Kerry lads as we possibly could, in the hope they would rise to the bait and become distracted from racking up the scoreboard. And, in fairness; it worked!

Through sheer will and irreverence we somehow managed to outscore them by eight points to four over the remainder of the match, and maintained our Division 1 status by a solitary point in scoring difference. Talk about inches!

The league always mattered to us, and that was clearly illustrated by our post-game reactions that afternoon. Appreciating the platform for sustained development a good league standing provides, we always worked hard on maintaining our position in the top tier.

There is an honesty about the league, that isn’t always found in the summer months. Based on merit, you are placed amongst your rightful peers. A championship sojourn courtesy of a favourable draw can often mask the true standing of a team. The league doesn’t lie. Division 3 teams don’t win All-Irelands. August Bank Holidays are dominated by the top flight. It is, and always will be thus.

Every team should strive to win their respective league each year. At a simple level, it’s the only competition every team in the country has a realistic chance of picking up silverware in every year.

Many players, when they finish up, will look back on largely fruitless careers, and would be glad of a few league medals for the CV if they were offered them. And might regret not having the same enthusiasm when the chance to win them was there. I have yet to see any captain or team climb the steps of the Hogan stand, after a league victory, and not show a deep sense of satisfaction and pride.

Regardless of the level or how many are in attendance. I have been privileged to do that on three occasions, and without an All-Ireland medal to trump those occasions, I am bloody glad we took those opportunities when they presented themselves.

Sadly however, no sooner than it begins, too many pundits are quick to dismiss the relevance of the league. “It will all be forgotten come championship,” they say.

Yet the championship has frequently shown a remarkable knack for reminding teams or their springtime failings. Equally it rewards Easter endeavours. I’m sure Jim Gavin, steadily establishing himself as one of the all-time great managers, will testify to the significance of the league in Dublin’s sustained development. As Vince Lombardi said ‘Winning is a habit’.

Following our Killarney escape, Banty treated us to the salubrious 5-star surroundings of the Aghadoe Heights hotel. We had gone all that way I guess! Following a heady night on the town, I woke the following morning, closer to afternoon if I’m honest, to a view you would normally only see on a postcard.

Clear blue skies, rugged mountains, glistening lakes. Taking in the breathtaking scenery, I turned to Stephen ‘Jinxy’ Gollogly and said: “Two things are certain, Jinxy; we will be playing football in Division 1 next year, and there is not a chance in hell I’m getting on that bus in an hour’s time.”

With that, I tested the establishment’s five-star credentials and rang down to see could I get a pint delivered to the room. “Make that two,” Jinxy shouted. Division 1 football is worth celebrating.”

And with a couple of other like-minded fellows, celebrate it we did. The journey home is for another time.



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