Brady finally plants the flag at the summit
Ballina Stephenites win All-Ireland crown
By Terry Reilly (c)
ISN’T life strange! Ten months ago county champions Ballina Stephenites did not have a manager, and the dogs in the street had it that training sessions were being sparsely attended. The portents were not good.
Fast forward to the evening of March 17th ‘05 and the Stephenites are All-Ireland club champions. What a turn around! Sometimes sportsmen have to be invited to look into their souls when the chips are down, and that was what new manager Tommy Lyons did when he took over the reins with former playing colleagues Gerry Leonard and Jim McGarry and Paddy Ruane, father of sturdy captain Brian.
The cobwebs were swept away from the skills and talents and the appetite of probably the best panel the club has assembled in forty years was honed. In their subsequent wins over Crossmolina and Knockmore in the championship there was a calmness and resolve so impressive that I know a few wise old heads who went out and placed large wads on the team to win the national crown. They spotted the promise while the bookies were looking to Cheltenham!
Mind you, though Brian Ruane led his charges through Connacht without a hiccup, the team has not performed as impressively since. But, far more importantly, it has worked off an inner belief that atonement could be exacted for a title left behind in 1999 when Crossmaglen, after being outplayed for 55 minutes, came at the death to snatch the jewel. They were right for though the burden of expectation and the baggage of previous green and red onslaughts on Croker slowed down their natural rampaging tendency it did not unhinge their ambition
There has always been great rivalry between the three dominant clubs in Mayo over the past few decades, Ballina, Knockmore and Crossmolina: that razor-sharp North Mayo rivalry has helped two of the three to win the Andy Merrigan Cup. And to underline the strength that lies within club football in the county look no further than the next sentence. In the past 6 years Mayo clubs have won 2 club senior titles and could well have made that 4. And there are still people in Mayo who argue that we just don’t have the footballers to take Sam Maguire to our homeland!
Today I won’t go there, other than to say that such defeatist attitude does our footballers no service. Look elsewhere than our players, my friends, for our lack of success at intercounty level.
Back to Croke Park on St. Patrick’s Day and to a team that ‘shook the whole of Ireland,’ as James Wallace Melvin had predicted way back in 1886 when he was establishing Ballina Stephenites. Within twenty years the Green and Red clad Ballina men were doing just that, writing themselves into the history book by contesting four Croke Cup finals and winning two of them, in 1908/9. The Croke Cup was akin to the All-Ireland club championship of today, and Andy Corcoran and his men became legends: their names were passwords wherever Ballina men and women congregated, at home and overseas.
“And God save the green, let that flag be unfurled, A patriot’s colours no wonder we brag, And we, like true Irishmen, over the world, To victory follow the Stephens’ Green Flag”.
Well, we followed the Stephens’ flag again last week and saw our gladiators do the business in some style, and how appropriate it was to see David Brady making the final rush forward to defend the old flag. Here was a man, in his own words, who had reached the summit eight times previously only to discover that someone else had planted the flag, finding the resolve to go up one more time and this time finding he had outstripped the opposition. And in the vanguard two of his brothers, plus the two Devenneys, various cousins, neighbours and friends.
It was the self same Brady, he who wears his football heart on his sleeve, who looked into the eyes of all his team-mates in the dressingroom at half time and called for the supreme effort, reminding all of their roots, their ancestry and what the town meant to them. It was an inspirational speech that moved him to tears and his colleagues to redoubled effort.
Then Tommy Lyons pulled an All-Ireland club medal out of his pocket and reminded his team that that was what they had come for and now had to reach out and grab it over the next thirty minutes. “Do ye want it? he asked.
And then there were the calm words of advisor John O’Mahony who said the team would meet a sign in the second half and would know what it meant. David Brady interpreted Portlaoise’s second goal as that sign, a kick up the transom and a launch pad for victory. “It was the turning point,” he acknowledged.
The presence of John O’Mahony in the Ballina camp post Christmas was interesting. It was testament to the careful planning of Lyons and his colleagues: they were prepared to turn over every stone to gain the extra inch. Lyons, in a tribute to the former Galway and Mayo boss, said that if that inch was the winning point then the alliance was forged in heaven. It surely was!
Another lovely anecdote from the game …. absent from Croke Park was one of Ballina’s greatest legends, Willie Casey. He was watching the game from his bed in nearby Mater Hospital and the team, naturally, brought in the cup afterwards.
“What did you think of my point, da?” enquired utility player Eanna, to which the jaunty Willie responded “And where was your man?” It was a throw back to the old days in football when backs rarely attacked, not to mind attempting scores, but it so succinctly underlined the feet-on-the-ground approach in the Casey household which has seen young Eanna mature into such a fine player. Get well quick, Willie.
And a final thought from the game: Sport can be real cruel‹Liam McHale, one of the finest players the club has produced, gave close on 25 years playing service before retiring only after last year’s Connacht club championship campaign that Curry ended so unexpectedly. He would have loved to have won a senior All-Ireland medal but it was not to be. However, many players on this team, including midfielder Ronan McGarrity, were attracted to the game by McHale: he was their role model. So, though he was not part of the team he played a huge role in attracting many of the talented players to this team. That is his reward, and the reward of others. And that is the way a club is built, brick after brick piled on the foundation stone laid by James Wallace Melvin all those years ago with his accompanying rallying cry “Forward to the Goal of Victory”.
Now a few weeks to savour the win, and then will come another test: how to push on to replicate the feat of the men of 1908/09!
* At the homecoming on Friday evening there were links with the aforementioned Croke Cup team, including former club captain and All-Ireland medal winner Tom Acton, nephew of the great Boshell brothers, and Fr Gerry Courell, son of Gerald and nephew of D.F. Courell. There too was another great Ballina hero of the past, John “Denny” Forde who personally knew many of the Croke Cup heroes.
**Article first appeared in The Western People, March 2005.