In the eight days since Tyrone bridged the six year gap from Ulster title win thirteen to fourteen, there’s been much euphoria and optimism about them proceeding now to end a yawning eight year wait for All-Ireland triumph number four.
Most ignore the fact that the quality until then was pretty dire and focus on the drama and excitement of the end-to-end action in the closing ten minutes, recalling this article written for a website by my dearly departed from Brackaville friend, Pat Hughes RIP: “A couple of months have passed since the all Ireland final and Sam has returned home to the Kingdom for the umpteenth time. It was quite a day in Pairc An Chrocaigh for all Gaels – those who had a ticket, that is, and as I watched the match on TV I couldn’t help thinking how far the game had progressed in terms of sophistication, hype, public relations and facilities.
“Pre-match entertainment included a parade of past champions, two Artane Boys Bands, one tenor, multi-coloured motifs on pitch, Japanese flags, British Government Ministers and herself, the Uachtaran na hEireann. It was all heady stuff, so modern, so slick, a load of total rubbish. Then there were the antics on the field - Gaelic football is a tough sport. However, lately, it seems that the physical part of the game is being watered down. Many fair shoulder charges and body checks were blown up within seconds. Quite a few took advantage of the ref’s interpretation of the rules and went down ‘injured’ if their man as much as looked at them.
“It all made sad viewing and I couldn’t help thinking that was a far cry from the days, good days, when a footballer took his knocks like a man, handed a few back and got on with it. I wonder what those tough hard men who played Gaelic football in the 50s and 60s in our neck of the woods think of the present crop of players; not much, I’ll bet. There was no mollycoddling of footballers. If you were picked to play, you turned up, stripped behind the nearest hedge and played your heart out for the full hour. Punches and heavy tackles were taken and given, but once the final whistle went all was forgotten.
“Talking of changing behind a hedge reminds me of something which happened to me a long time ago. Never much of a footballer, reason being I was just under nine stone, very skinny and suffered from a shortness of breath through smoking 30 full strength Capstan cigarettes a day. That, plus too many late nights skipping around the dance halls of Maghery, Edendork, Dungannon and Cookstown which at the age of 19 had reduced me to a breathless wreck, and, to cap it all I was a totally committed coward. In those days there were two teams, Na Fianna and Owen Roes, in Coalisland. It was hard to make the Fianna team because of their policy of playing ‘blow-ins’ in the shape of school teachers, and doctors, etc and of course the boarders of St Patrick’s College, Armagh. If you attended that school you were a ‘penalty kick’ to get your place.
“My short two and a half years at Dungannon Academy didn’t qualify me for ‘The Blues’ so it was to Brackaville that I looked for fame. I had to wait a long time before I was picked to play my first game and oh boy, what a baptism!
“We drew mighty Moortown in a tournament at Na Fianna’s MacCrory Park. I’ll never forget it; for most of the game I avoided going anywhere near the ball for obvious reasons and, as the final whistle approached, I was thanking God I was still in one piece. Moortown were miles ahead, the crowd drifting away and then it happened. A big Moortown guy inadvertently punched the ball about twenty yards the wrong way. It landed at my feet and I foolishly bent to pick it up. The whole sky suddenly lit up.
“What appeared to be the entire heavenly galaxy seemed to explode before my eyes. When I came round I was propped against a goalpost, some guy pouring water over me. I asked him what had happened; he told me I had buckled under a fair shoulder tackle, which wasn’t surprising given my state of health.
“Back to that story about changing behind the hedge. Paddy Jackson was manager, selector and strip-minder for Brackaville Owen Roes. Paddy was a great man for detail and also possessed a very sharp eye. He knew what everyone wore on the day of a match.
“I was having a poor game and, when halftime arrived, I spotted the bold Paddy heading towards the hedge and I immediately knew what was going so happen. I closed my eyes, counted to 10 and, when I opened them, Paddy was walking towards me shaking my trousers. I was being replaced. The shame of it all was being handed your trousers at halftime. Paddy continued this practise for a long time and it became a standing joke around town and many a poor soul was greeted on a Monday morning with ‘I saw you got your trousers yesterday’.
“How to win the ball was condensed into six words: Go through him not round him. Some hard men would advise you to ‘take him out in the long grass’. Gaelic football was more enjoyable all those years ago, a bit rougher, but we played football not basketball, which it resembles today.”