OUR FINEST HOUR
It was about one year into Pascal’s reign that we began to see visible improvement. Despite his many detractors, it was difficult to argue that his controversial training methods weren’t getting results. We were the fittest team in the county, regardless of how many cans of Dutch Gold were chugged down by the pitch-and-putt course every Friday night.
The whispers began around town after we’d won our third game on the trot – the word being that the current batch of U-16s might just have the makings of a Championship winning team. The interest in our undertakings seemed to steadily grow with each passing game from then on. Every time we trotted out onto the pitch, there seemed to be more faces in the crowd and more grumbling auld boys standing behind the goals. There was a sense of anticipation and we were made aware of it. Pascal’s team talks had become increasingly passionate and hyperbolic. He would tell us to do it for our families, the parish, the recently deceased, even our ancestors were mentioned in one of the pregame huddles.
The crux of our success was a three man axis in the centre of the park that I’d heard referred to as the “holy trinity” by some of the more fervent members of the fan base. The “trinity” consisted of three lads with very different strengths. There was Thomas, the captain and arguably the most dedicated football player in Longford with a seemingly insatiable thirst for all things football. Next was Gary, our chief physical presence, a boy that was 6’2 with Tom Jones-esque chest hair who was subjected to “gorilla in the mist” jibes every time that he went for a shower. Finally, there was Willie Brady, the wildcard, as liable to score a point out of nothing as he was to assault the referee. He was touched with that infuriating mixture of genius and madness that had plagued Eric Cantona and Paolo Di Canio throughout their careers. He was regarded by some as the most naturally talented footballer in Longford history but his hard living ways always seemed to impede him when it came to actually fulfilling this vast potential.
We won the semi-final on a cold night in Ballymahon and were pencilled in to play the final in two weeks against Balinalee. For brief moment we were celebrities around town. Everywhere we went people were wishing us good luck and demanding that we take it home for the town. The evening before the match, Pascal had us gather in one of the pubs up town and we watched the film ‘Any Given Sunday’ on the plasma screen. I looked around at the faces of my teammates after Al Pacino had delivered his climatic speech. There was a mixture of determination, anguish and belief.
The final took place on a Sunday evening in Pearse Park. I was playing corner back as usual having rarely moved from the position since being installed there in U-10s. Our opponents were the bookies favourites possessing a number of county players and one lad who had allegedly had trials with Leeds United. Against all odds, we cruised into a five point lead in the first 30 minutes. Despite our good performance, there was a nervousness present. The feeling was that things were going a little too well. It was just before half-time that disaster struck. Carl, our goalkeeper, had raced out to close down one of their half-forwards who had broken through the centre. Both of them were running at full tilt, each one daring the other to reveal themselves as chicken. In the end, neither proved themselves as a coward and as result both were stretchered off the field with concussions. I could see a debate breaking out on the side-lines. We had a small panel that year and no substitute keeper. I saw Pascal staring across the pitch and it dawned on me in a terrible moment of reckoning what was about to happen.
I had never played in goals prior to this match, other than in schoolyard games where literally everyone was forced to take their turn. Pascal told me that it was because I had a good strong kick-out. This much was true. I was much better at soccer than I was Gaelic and was comfortable enough booting the ball fifty yards in the air – it was every other aspect of the role that made me uncomfortable.
What transpired over the next forty or so minutes is still unclear to me. I know that we conceded three goals and I know that we scored three goals, but everything else is a blur. I made one save at the death that must have been important as I got plenty of pats of the backs from the surrounding defenders and the auld men behind the goals even stopped cursing me for a few moments. Finally, the whistle went and the celebrations erupted. There was probably less than a hundred people watching the match, but it felt as though we were in Croke Park. In the dressing room after the match, Pascal delivered an emotional speech. This was what we had been waiting all these years for.
We sped back home hanging out the windows of our parents’ cars while they honked the horn incessantly with pride. We were treated to a two course meal in the Greville hotel and as many Cokes as we wanted. There were plenty of whispers of alcohol, but anyone gutsy enough to attempt ordering a pint was reprimanded sharply. This would be the last football related celebration that wasn’t centred on booze. Pascal stood up at the end of dinner and told us how important it was that we kept this group together now that we were moving up to the next age group. He told us that there was no reason that we couldn’t challenge for the minor Championship. He had no idea how different things would be the following year.