Sice hoping Corofin can recreate magic of ’98 heroes

Corofin (Galway) v Slaughtneil (Derry)

Corofin’s youngest football enthusiasts pour into John Raftery’s office.

Jerseys, t-shirts, jackets and tracksuit are piled onto every available hanger. The choice is too much. One item alone simply isn’t sufficient.

Braving the elements outside are the parents, a lengthy queue formed in front of the GAA’s official ticket van. A fortnight out from showtime and the North Galway village hums with activity.

Hidden between Raftery’s Bar and Gina’s Hair Salon in the centre of the village is John Raftery’s private office. A trustee of the club, the local businessman has offered up the room ahead of the St Patrick’s Day decider.

Stepping out of the rain and into the small corridor, Raftery’s grá for the green and gold quickly becomes apparent. Lining the walls are pictures of past Corofin and Galway successes. A framed picture of the 1998 Corofin All-Ireland club winning team sits alongside a Galway shirt carrying the signature of 1998 All-Ireland winning captain Ray Silke.

“Hopefully he’ll have cause to throw up another picture now after Paddy’s Day,” says Joe Stephens.

The former club footballer is overseeing the sale of Corofin merchandise. Also manning their makeshift counter is Brenda Rabbitte. The shop opens every Tuesday and Thursday for two hours and there’s rarely a quiet moment.

Sales, jokes Stephens, have run a similar trajectory to the senior team’s progress since Stephen Rochford took the reins at the outset of 2013.

Gary Sice remembers purchasing his green and gold t-shirt in advance of the 1998 decider, remembers attending every senior session leading up to the clash with Erin’s Isle at GAA HQ.

Watching on now as the next generation shop for gear, he sees the parallels as uncanny.

“I was a 12-year old back in ‘98 and it was such a magical time in my childhood,” recalls the wing-forward.

“I was after starting first year in St Jarlath’s, Tuam, the football school, so my life was centred on football at the time.

“My uncle, Eddie Steede, was on the team. That created extra buzz. I came up training as often as I could, kicking a ball around with corner-forward Derek Reilly and thinking that these lads are superstars altogether. The big thing about that team was their work-rate and unselfish nature. That is something we have carried through, I believe.”

Corofin created history in becoming the first Connacht club to annex the Andy Merrigan Cup and the game’s closing moment still resonates with Sice.

“There was just unbridled euphoria when that final whistle went. I can remember distinctly Ray Silke had just caught the ball when the final whistle went. He just stood there and I was asking myself ‘what is he doing?’.

“Ray turned 360 and for that moment he just took it all in. I was stood there too in fascination watching him and as a result I got knocked clean out over the boarding by the hoards of Corofin supporters coming behind me to get onto the pitch.

“To be the first Connacht club to scale the mountain was incredible. I distinctly remember walking over the bridge in Athlone the following day. Of course I took the day off school to be present as they returned west. That sticks in your mind, stuff like that you can’t forget about.

“All us young lads had only one thing on our mind after that day; that was to play senior football for Corofin. We are trying to replicate that at the moment and hopefully we will have a stream of young lads who are motivated by our success.”

Whatever about being motivated by the exploits of the current crop, Sice insists the club’s younger exponents certainly aren’t shy in making their opinions know.

“I am teaching out in Belclare, fourth and fifth class, and they are bouncing off the walls at the moment. They are a very critical bunch, mind. They don’t be behind the door in telling you what you did wrong first thing of a Monday morning. They are quite the analysts. I was told I’d let Ger Brennan off too easily on one occasion in the semi-final.”

A 16-year old Gary Sice stepped onto the senior panel in 2001 and didn’t for a second envisage he’d have to wait 14 years for a return to Croke Park on St Patrick’s Day.

His maiden county senior medal as a first-team regular arrived in 2006. Connacht glory followed in 2008 and 2009.

“There was an expectation that you would get your chance at a club title. We had a transition for a couple of years, however. A lot of young players came in and we lost quite a lot of the older group.

“We had a rebuilding period and then finally we started moving again from 2006 onwards.

“As of yet, though, we’ve still to answer our critics. In our own minds, we have yet to achieve. There’s just this final fence now left to clear.”

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