The ball’s arc is about to turn under the crossbar down at the Railway End goals. The raindrops will soon be shaking from the net. Charlie Nelligan will be on the ground in a heap and the umpire will reach for the green flag.
Seamus Darby will launch into a joyous jig and the man in the yellow oilskin jacket in the old sideline seats in front of the Hogan Stand will join him. The man in the yellow oilskin jacket is my father. Beside him is my younger brother David. The two of them are already standing as the ball enters the goal.
All around them, others are climbing out of their seats. This is the goal that will win the 1982 All-Ireland SFC Final for Offaly: the most famous one-in-a-row in GAA history.
Colman Doyle caught the moment in a photograph taken from in front of Hill 16. I’ve brought that photograph to every place I’ve lived in.
It is that most rare of things: a moment caught in time when you see your dreams about to be made real. That my father is in the photograph makes it all the better.
A few minutes after Seamus Darby’s goal, the final whistle has blown and Offaly fans have breached the wire in front of the Hogan Stand.
There’s a glorious madness to the crowd as the RTÉ cameras pan across the pitch. The man in the yellow oilskins is spinning round in a manic state: who knows what he’s trying to do, but it’s great fun watching him do it.
It’s also great fun looking for my brother and not seeing him: my father has lost him (or better still forgotten him) in the clamour. No harm: that should have been me in the sideline seat beside my father!
Instead, I’d been sitting on my own up in the back corner of the stand, delighted to have the freedom to be with myself, but disgusted a younger brother had bested me. Now, though, the game is over and I’m out on the pitch. I see my mother and I head towards her. Before I get there Seamus Darby picks her up and throws her in the air. And then he does it again. He’s from Rhode and she’s from Rhode, and no further explanation is needed. Seamus Darby has just scored the greatest goal of all time to win the greatest match of all time on the greatest day of all time. And there it ends. I don’t remember the presentation of the cup or the speeches or leaving the pitch. All I remember is my mother driving myself and my brothers out to Finglas on the northside of Dublin.
My grandfather, Dick Conroy, lived there. Dick Conroy was known in his home village of Rhode and in certain parts of London as ‘The Boiler’. He was a huge man, great fun and recklessly devoted to the GAA, especially to Offaly football.
He had played on the first minor team fielded by Offaly in 1928. Later he played for the senior team and had been a selector on the Offaly team defeated by Kerry in the 1969 All-Ireland final. He was my hero and I was definitely his favourite; he spoiled me magnificently.
When we arrived to the house, he was overcome by emotion, great tears streamed down his face, one after the next. He hugged my mother and hugged all of us.
I was 12 and I couldn’t understand why he was crying; I understand now and I think of him whenever I see people crying after winning a match. It’s about the match and it’s about much more than the match.
He died two summers later, in 1984, of a broken heart. My nana had died eight weeks previously and he just didn’t have any interest in living without her.
He was brought home to Rhode to be buried. Generations of footballers came up to pay their respects in a long, snaking line. In that line were men he had played football with and brought to football matches and given jobs to — and men from the Offaly ’82 team. When the coffin left the backdoor of the church to be brought to the graveyard, a small group of men — among them Dermot O’Brien, draped it with the flag of Round Towers, the club my granddad had been so involved in when he lived in London.
Dermot had come over from London for the funeral in the middle of the week when it wasn’t cheap or easy to do so; the more I remember that act, the more wonderful I think it is. The Round Towers flag now lay beside the Offaly and the Rhode jerseys on that last journey.
That evening, after the funeral, the pubs of Rhode overflowed with drink. All the while, myself and my brothers and my cousins and other boys from Rhode played football on a lawn in the village beside the Murphy’s house. Many years later, when myself and my brothers played championship football for Tullamore against those same cousins and their friends, no victory tasted more sweetly and no defeat hurt quite as badly. Nobody else may have cared too much about our connection to Rhode, but it really mattered to us.
The evening after the funeral was a different type of football, though. The heat of the day had faded to the warmth of the night and the village was framed by a soft darkness. We played on for hour after hour, the sounds of the pubs hanging in the air around us.
As the leather flew back and across, we weren’t dreaming of the future or thinking about ‘The Boiler’; we were just playing football.
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