Greats turn out to show that biggest battle of all can be won

It was cold, blustery and there were showers of rain, but not even a campaigning politician could have dampened the positivity of the spirit at O’Moore Park yesterday.

Greats turn out to show that biggest battle of all can be won

Brian Cody was there, fresh from overseeing Kilkenny’s latest national success, to make his debut as a football manager.

It was no gentle introduction either, with Mick O’Dwyer in the opposition corner, 60 years after he made his first appearance in a Kerry jersey.

All-Ireland-winning captain and manager Tomás Mulcahy and Seán Boylan provided their mentoring skills to the ladies’ football teams of Sarsfields and Baltinglass that played in the curtain-raiser, while the Artane Band provided the pre-match entertainment and Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh at his inimitable best on commentary.

Cody and O’Dywer had inter-county stars past and present to look after, such as former All Star Marty McGrath (Fermanagh), Jason Hughes (Monaghan), Derek Shevlin (Louth), Daragh McEvoy (Laois), Cian Smith (Roscommon), Martin Sherry (Down) and current Wicklow sharpshooter John McGrath.

Like Cody, another hurling legend made the crossover, but Joe Deane did play minor and U21 with the big ball for Cork before concentrating on farming All-Irelands and All Stars in hurling.

In all, there were 38 players making up the two panels for this unique encounter. It was unique because every participant, ranging in ages from 64-year-old Offaly man Tony McCormack to 16-year-old Kerry native Jonathan Myers, had recovered from cancer.

That was a key message Richard Poole wanted to send when coming up with the idea. Having been treated for cancer of the salivary glands in St Luke’s and St James’s hospitals, he wanted to raise funds which will go towards upgrading equipment in the respective cancer wards.

More than that though, the Laois man had a message to deliver to people currently suffering from cancer. You can go on to live a full life.

“It was great to see all those young men out there playing football after spending so much time in hospital,” enthused O’Dwyer.

“We have to compliment all the great surgeons and nurses that worked to put them back out on that field. It’s a great credit to the two wonderful hospitals, places that are doing wonderful work.”

O’Dwyer was McGrath’s manager when the Baltinglass clubman was diagnosed with leukaemia, two days after lining out in the Allianz League. He remembers visiting the player in hospital.

“I saw John when he was in St James’s and I didn’t think I’d see him playing football for one thing anyway. I thought it was the end of the road for him. The recovery he has made is unbelievable.”

Poole admits that reading about McGrath and getting him on board was the catalyst for this game, which also honoured Professor Hollywood, who Poole had treating him and who he reckons “saved thousands of lives” before sadly falling foul of the foe he had fought for others for so long. McGrath hasalready organised a hugely successful fundraiser himself in Baltinglass, roping a few colleagues in to participate in a ‘Full Monty’ show. He was delighted to lend a hand.

“Beating cancer is one thing but you can make a full recovery,” smiles McGrath. “You’ll have 38 boys out there that have beaten cancer.

“There are people in their beds at the moment, with thoughts in their head. Even if they know they’re beating it and their treatment is working, they’re going to have things in their head. ‘Will I get back to full health? Will I get back to playing a bit of sport? Will I get back to making a life?’ That’s what we’re trying to prove. You can.” Deane accentuates that point.

“When I got diagnosed [with testicular cancer], I obviously knew what cancer was, but you generally associated cancer with very negative stories and think that this could go wrong for you. I never went to that dark place because my doctors told me very quickly that the cure rate for the type of cancer I had was 95% chance. So that was fairly positive.

“Obviously, though, when you hear cancer first you think ‘this could go wrong’. People aren’t generally educated about it. I certainly wasn’t. I didn’t understand the different types of cancer, the treatment but had to learn very quickly. John McGrath had leukaemia and he’s back playing with Wicklow.

“It’s a fantastic story that you can go through something so difficult and come out the other side, still playing at the highest level. That will no doubt give an awful lot of inspiration to people around the country, whatever age you’re at.”

Not all of what was on show was inspirational mind you, and Ó Muircheartaigh was quick to accuse referee Barry Kelly of being colour-blind when opting to flash a yellow card instead of a black.

There was also some controversy over a dubious point, which might have made Cody smile, while the Kilkenny boss found himself perilously close to the opposition management for the second time in 24 hours, spending most of the game shoulder-to-shoulder with O’Dwyer.

As is ever the case in these affairs, the game ended in a draw and the two managers posed for photographs and signed autographs for an hour afterwards, as most of the attendance of around 3,000 people stayed around.

The “flakes” that had been threatened on social media in the build-up didn’t materialise and no surprise there. Nothing was going to spoil a day like this.

* Text MATCH to 50300 to donate €4, which will be divided evenly between the cancer wards at St Luke’s Hospital and St James’s Hospital.

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