Sitting in the murk of winter in a hotel lobby, a sunny day in Clones is recalled by Drew Wylie. The Monaghan full-back’s eyes go wide and he points to his arm, telling you to look at the fine hairs standing to attention.
“The Kerry game in Clones; honestly, I am getting goose bumps standing here just thinking of it. The atmosphere, a perfect summer’s day, the weather was good, the crowd, there must have been 27,000,” he glows.
“There has been that many in Clones before but maybe not ever as many Monaghan people in it. There was a roar in the second half and even now, I am getting the hairs standing up just thinking about it. It was massive.”
At the death, David Clifford’s goal denied Monaghan a first Championship win over Kerry in the Super 8s series. It wasn’t until the following week when Monaghan ran through Galway in Salthill that their place in the All-Ireland semi-finals were confirmed, and well… Scenes… “It meant so much to a lot of men. Like, there were grown men there with tears in their eyes,” recalls Wylie, getting a bit glassy at the memory.
His own county journey mirrors that of the county team over several years. In his first season of 2012 under Eamonn McEneaney, Monaghan were nine points up at half-time of the Ulster semi-final against Down in the Athletic Grounds. They lost.
After that game, midfield campaigner Dick Clerkin urged Wylie to become the Monaghan full-back for the next decade, even though he doesn’t stand six foot tall in his bare feet.
“I’m only a wee fella but the ignorance makes up for a lot of inches!” he laughs.
Monaghan have another big beast rolling into Clones this weekend when All-Ireland champions Dublin finally take off the dust covers for a season where they hope to become crowned the Greatest Of All Time, should they win five consecutive All-Irelands.
That Wylie is playing for his county, alongside his brother Ryan in the full-back line, is a sign of his county maximising their playing pool. Their family is a Protestant one. There is no history of any ancestral involvement in the GAA.
“Living next door to Kieran Finlay helped,” reveals Wylie of the late, legendary former Monaghan forward and father of his clubmate, Paul.
“We lived out the Castleblayney road in Ballybay. There is a row of about 12 houses and there were a right few footballers along that row.
I actually went to my first training session with a neighbouring club, Drumhowan, and then Kieran Finlay ended that. He wasn’t going to have his next-door neighbour playing for Drumhowan!
Whenever weather permitted, he would be out with a ball in the garden with Paul. Kieran would soon join them, throwing it up between them, grounding them on the basics.
Wylie went to Ballybay Central School. Nobody played Gaelic Games. He went onto Castleblayney College and it was the same story.
“A lot of that neighbourhood though, a lot of my friends were playing Gaelic football. And then Ryan started. There is a middle boy between us, Brent. Mad Max as we call him!
“Along that neighbourhood there were soccer matches, we’d be all gathered in one garden and it wasn’t for the faint-hearted. A few sly digs going in, slide tackles, maybe the odd box thrown and one of us running off to tell our mother someone was after hitting us!”
The Wylie parents weren’t the type to stand on sidelines. Once they got involved, they were all in too. Drew’s mother Claudine volunteered for the committee and was club PRO for a time. When the senior team need grub, she mobilises a fleet of other parents to provide food.
His father, Andy, is on the field committee.
“It’s all part of us and we are all linked into it,” says Wylie.
Andy gets excited in the heat of battle.
“You’d nearly him coughing at games!” laughs his son fondly. “My wife Aoife, she travels to the games there with them. She tells me the stories. There wouldn’t be a word spoken on the way to Clones. Just pure nerves and tension.” There’s something entirely grounded and likeable about this present group of Monaghan footballers that may owe something to the fact a sizeable proportion earn their living by the sweat of their brow.
Wylie trained as a carpenter and when work was slowing up in 2010, he left to play a summer in Boston with the Aidan McAnespies club.
“It wasn’t that I was a developed footballer or anything, you hear of people getting all these big cheques to live in luxury but I wasn’t on the end of that! I came back from that and stayed a while, worked a couple of months, but I saw an opening. Brent works with the ESB as well so I put in an application for an Electrical Apprenticeship and served my time at that.”
At training, he gets the jibes from lads about drinking cups of tea by the half dozen but when the rain is pelting down and the power is out, there is no option; into the Lineman boots, spiking up the pole, the tools tethered to his belt.
There is not as many players working in hard labour, we have a lot of students and teacher and office workers. Ryan is a Radiographer in the Mater Hospital and he probably works long hours and whatnot,” says Wylie.
“But I still think I would rather be out. It suits some and doesn’t suit others.” So much so, that he unwinds by keeping a herd of cattle on the family land.
“Suckler cows,” he laughs again. “I have great interest in that too. (Darren) Hughes would like to think he is the biggest farmer in the county!
“But I come home from work and go up to the back fields, take a look at them for an hour, maybe go onto training from there. Sometimes you know, even before big matches I find myself on a Sunday morning taking a walk up there to see the cows. It takes your mind away from it, letting yourself go and our farm, it overlooks the whole of Ballybay, has a nice view.
“It is like a therapy.” Under Malachy O’Rourke, they have become used to the big days. Almost every article about this group of footballers notes the small population they are working off.
“It gets to the stage where… Well, it’s not annoying. People have their own opinion and let them think what they want,” Wylie says. “But we are playing Division One football this past five seasons. To hear this, ‘Ah Monaghan are punching above their weight’… we have a group of players there no different from any other county regardless of the population.
You look at Dublin. They have a group of players there that are so committed. Before 2011, how many All-Irelands had that group won?
“They had a team of players who were really committed and willing to put themselves into it. At the minute, that’s where we are at.”
And following their example, who is to put a ceiling on their ambitions? “As I say, you get a group of players that have a goal and are really self-motivated, hungry every time they come back and want more, then why limit yourself?”