In 2003, Frank Browne lost his six-month-old daughter to pneumonia. The tragedy has given the Mayo ladies football manager a sense of perspective on what really matters...
You want some real perspective on how football, when all’s said and done, is just that — football? Have a chat with Frank Browne, Wexford native and manager of the Mayo ladies senior football team preparing for this evening’s TG4 All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin.
On a Saturday morning in January 2003, at 20 past 10, Browne walked into a room in Mayo’s General Hospital in Castlebar where his daughter, Emma, aged just six months and two days, had died from pneumonia.
“I knew when I went into the room, I knew her soul was gone,” says Browne.
“Some people call it a soul, a spirit. That was devastation.”
And so, win, lose or draw at Kingspan Breffni Park, he’ll hug his wife Deirdre and 15-year-old daughter Holly, kiss them both and leave the venue with the same, strong belief that some day, he’ll see Emma again in Heaven.
Football? That’s there to be enjoyed.
“We call it an All-Ireland semi-final but it’s a chance to make some memories,” Browne says. “I often hear people talking about a lad missing a penalty in a big game and they call it a tragedy, devastating.
“I held our daughter when she died and you know what that gives you? It gives you a sense of perspective on what this is, a game of football. I handed Emma to my wife Deirdre at six months old and she was gone.
“Look, I want to win more than any man but if we don’t, we don’t. I was born and reared near Curracloe beach in Wexford and I’ll walk that beach with Emma some day. I’ll see Emma in Heaven and when my time is up, Emma will be there. That gives me faith and hope and strength. I try to bring that to football all of the time.”
For the first few months after Emma’s death, Browne attempted to find solace in whiskey but, and he quotes the famous Shawshank Redemption line here, there’s another way.
“You get busy living or you get busy dying. Holly was three, going on four, and she wanted to go to the playground. Life goes on. That’s why I can’t wait for Saturday.
“What doesn’t kill you will make you stronger and you know what? If I close my eyes, I can still smell her. That’s why I enjoy football. I’ve had dark days. People get nervous about the game but why would you be nervous? It’s brilliant, it’s great.
“That’s what drives me. All that matters are the people close to you and the people you love. Within the Mayo set-up, there’s a real, special bond between us. You hear that about teams all the time but it’s unique.
“You want to be around them, you want to be in their company, you want to do well, do your best for them.
“We have a guy called John Gannon doing our stats. I rang him last October and said: ‘John, will you give it one more year?’ People were queuing up for this guy.
“He said he would and I asked him why? His reply was: ‘I want to be around these people.’
“Now, John is a scientist, he crunches numbers all day but he said they just did something for me. ‘I don’t know what it is, they did something to move me.’
“Any county team would give their right arm to have this guy, a brilliant mind and brilliant on statistics.”
Mayo’s All-Ireland quest in 2015 ended at the Gaelic Grounds last August when Kerry beat them at the quarter-final stage.
“We sat in the dressing room for an hour,” Browne recalls. “It wasn’t that we’d lost, it was the journey that was over for us. We weren’t going to see our friends and the people we spend so much time with. It wasn’t the loss of the game.”
Gannon isn’t the only key member of Browne’s backroom team. Richie Casey is working wonders as strength and conditioning coach while another fitness expert, Conor Finn, also works with the county men’s team.
And then there’s Fr Stephen Farragher, the squad’s sports chaplain. “He says a prayer for us before we play every game,” says Browne.
“Within our team, we’re trying to build a high-performance team based on real, good principles, based on honesty and being kind to each other, things that went out with the Ark. It’s based on a priest saying a prayer for us, people might laugh at that but why? If there’s an accident on the road or a tragedy in the town, it’s the priest that people look to for leadership and guidance.
“As a squad, we went to Clare Island. We could have went anywhere but we went to our own people. That’s who we are, that’s what we do. The whole of Clare Island was open to us, anything we wanted. The people there were so honoured to have a group of people that wanted to come to them. We were welcomed on the pier by every one of the people on the island, 163 of them.
“You can’t beat that. As the boys in the credit card ad say, money doesn’t buy that.
“And so that’s what’s driving me. We talk an awful lot about values, being honest with each other, sometimes brutally honest. We’ll fight like cats and dogs amongst each other but if someone steps in between us, we’ll turn on them.
“There’s an innate sense of goodness in these people, good, honest to goodness Mayo people. High performance athletes in every sense and you’re just driven by them. And, please God, we get over the line and continue to have a journey to make memories.”
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