Soak it up, this may never happen again

THE Milner household in Ballinacarriga is quiet. Situated idyllically, there is a clichéd yet reassuring serenity in the Girlough townland. But Michael Milner is doing his best to disrupt all that.

It’s just past 8am and the Dunmanway Town centre forward is having a Thursday morning like no other. Busily loading his gearbag and barely touching the breakfast parents Jerry and Colette have rustled up for us, he’s a hard chap to keep still for more than half a minute.

The presence of the intrusive photographer capturing his frenzied text messaging and the reporter interrupting his all-too rushed eating is just an early precursor to what he knows will be a unique day; Milner is content to take it in his stride.

“When Davy (Hall) told us in November that he was looking at bringing Liverpool over, we just laughed at him. He was only playing with us a couple of months. Who does this fella think he is?”

The introductory niceties are going well when he suddenly hops up. “I must get my pipes for my morning ritual,” he tells us before helpfully elaborating: “I give them an oul blow before every game, it opens my lungs out, very good for second wind.”

Ah, bagpipes.

You’re a city-dwelling football snob. You’re assigned to observe a small country town welcome the might of Liverpool Football Club. Rule one: do not condescend.

So on eggshells I tread while soaking up this perfect moment. In the background are the sort of hills that sometimes we forget exist. And in the foreground, there’s Milner playing for those hills with all he has.

This is when I decided to just soak all this up. Which was rather symmetrical because Milner’s team-mates were under strict instructions to do the same, and enjoy every last second of this historic day. If there were to be a theme attached to a day which witnessed the brave minnows (if they can even qualify to be referred to as such) narrowly lose 1-0 to a talented Liverpool XI then soaking up every second was certainly a recurring mantra.

MILNER is a 23-year-old trainee guard. He’ll discover in the next three weeks what life holds next for him (“Probably Dublin but I’m hoping for something close to here.”). His first love is Gaelic football and, like many of his association football team mates, Dohenys is his main concern — the sore memory of a senior county championship exit at the hands of Bishopstown visibly rankles.

“It still hurts,” he admits. “We were talking about getting a trainer in and we had one guy who said to us, ‘Lads I’ll win ye a county but I want one thing from ye, give up the soccer’. We were doing well so no one was up for that.”

His midfield talent took root at the closer, more pint-sized Randall Óg GAA club before he switched to the Dunmanway outfit. He’s well garlanded too: a former Cork minor and U21 player, he has a senior county football medal (Carbery), a Munster U21 medal (Cork), Vocational Munster Medal (Cork) and a Sigerson Cup medal (Garda College) safely tucked away.

When playing football in New York in 2006 for Donegal New York, his bagpipes ability led to him being asked by boxer John Duddy to lead him out for his fight with Alfredo Cuevas in Madison Square Gardens.

“Páirc Uí Chaoimh is the pinnacle for me as a Gaelic footballer,” he muses as we hit the road. “But this will probably be the biggest sporting day of my life, of all our lives.”

We cruise through the narrow roads towards Dunmanway and you begin to wonder what the cosmopolitan visitors think of their surrounds on this working holiday. Milner brings me for a sneak preview of their temporary home on the grounds of the Maria Immaculata College, a secondary school he attended.

Like the rest of us, he’s played on some poor pitches, one in particular threatened to cut short his athletic ability at just 15. A badly located rock shattered his knee and forced him out of all activity for four months.

“We’ve never played on anything like this,” he points out while hopping the barrier. A couple of ground staff watch us with something approaching pride. “The ball will zip along, they want it wet, it’s just perfect for football. But we’re not used to it at all.

“We get to play here for the season too so that will be good. Teams from around West Cork will come to play us and they won’t know what to do with themselves!”

At the Parkway Hotel in Dunmanway for the 9am meet up, the rest of the players are looking well in their new green tracksuits. Davy Hall is easy to spot, he’s the one with an ear that looks remarkably like a Nokia phone.

We hop on the bus and straight away the question is popped: “Will it be like this for every game?”

The footballs are almost left behind, and then we’re away.

I’m not sure about sing-song etiquette. Milner, who is quick to grab the bus’ microphone, clearly doesn’t seem to think 9.25am is too early for Backstreet Boys with improvised (unprintable) lyrics. Then again, he was on the bagpipes an hour previously.

As we hurtle through Ballinagurteen, bus driver Teddy Crowley steps up to the plate. There must be a law against yodelling and driving but he’s well in control and as pointed out before, this is a very different day.

Manager John Buckley is immune to all this, tapping away at his laptop, only looking up to clarify my queries about the all-important next game. Tomorrow morning at 11am in case you’re wondering. Clonakilty Town will be the hosts for a Carling Cup tie and no doubt will be keen to take Dunmanway down a peg or two.

As if on cue, Clon Town gaffer John Leahy is spotted painting a house. “There’s Mousie,” they laugh, waving furiously. His first instinct is to wave back but there’s more than a hint of a wry smile. I’m sure I saw gritted teeth.

Panic spreads as we get closer to the Inchydoney Island Hotel. There’s a hole in one of the nets. It was noticed at training the night before but only now is it being brought to the attention of the beleaguered organising triumvirate of Buckley, Hall and physio Steve Kearney.

Someone shouts from the back of the bus: “What do we do when we get there?”

“Just soak it up, let it all sink in,” a slowly relaxing Davy Hall advises in response.

Calls made and another wrinkle ironed, we pull into the hotel. Cameras roll and the first autographs of the day are signed. There will be so much more of this to come.

A kick-around on the beautiful beach follows before they retire to the Residents’ Lounge on the first floor to stew in their own nerves. This is the first of many “small glimpses”, as Milner describes it, of what it is like to be a professional footballer. The sheer boredom of waiting around with nothing to focus on but the game ahead.

I leave them in peace and head back for Dunmanway with just two hours to go before kick-off, free to soak up the building atmosphere.

CLOSE to kick-off now, and the Liverpool players are going through their stretching routine. A young Dunmanway player fresh from an U14 game which served as a pre-match build-up stands up and shouts to his friends: “Watch the warm-up, lads!”

Dunmanway’s bold initiative is part of a grander scheme. This was not just a one-off cash-in but rather the seeds of something tangible. The club has effectively put itself in the driving seat to be considered as a west Cork centre of footballing excellence.

Milner would eventually come on as a 58th minute sub for Limerick FC player Keith Hartnett. Of course for the purposes of this piece, I needed Milner to make his mark. We had got past the stage of a sure-everyone-got-a-run angle. This was game on.

Stifled by his over-eager flirtation with the offside line, Milner did eventually win a free of his own in the 90th minute leading to the biggest roar of the day — temporary seating is great for a racket as it turns out. Milner and I later bumped into two Liverpudlians, Paul Wise and Tim McInally, who had travelled over especially for the game. Even they were praying for a Town goal but of course none arrived.

“It was a nice to get a run,” a still buzzing Milner tells me in the media mixed zone afterwards. “They were technically very good, they moved the ball quickly. We’re happy with the scoreline. It’s a great start to the season.

“I’m a bit sore, my ankle is swelling up a little so I’ll probably have to put the call up to Templemore, I probably won’t be able to drive on it. But this was a special day, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance, we may never get that opportunity again. It’s still sinking in.”

After the post-match festivities die down, we march out en masse, me feeling a little self-conscious in the midst of these green tracksuited heroes. All along Prospect Lawn, they are applauded, saluted and kissed. Shy eyes avert and horns honk on Park Road.

“We have to soak this up,” smiles a visibly chuffed Milner as we approach East Green and the West End bar. “It won’t be long before they’re giving out about us again for whatever we did wrong with Dohenys.”

More media and more autographs. More post-mortems and the first of many satisfied drinks. Flags flutter, half-green half-red, as a blazing sun sets.

It’s starting to sink in, finally.

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