No need to ask Neil Diamond’s question!

Did you ever notice how nearly every Irish function ends up in a sing-song? Wedding, christening, significant birthday, even a funeral, it doesn’t matter. And nobody escapes the crooning call. If one is pressed into action Beautiful Meath or The Wild Rover are the go-to solutions. Others could be attempted, but perhaps best to leave butchery to Kepak!

Another individual known to yours truly nearly always goes for Sweet Caroline…”Where it began…”. Emotional events of the last while have got me thinking. Some of them have been extensively covered already – a harrowing experience – and will appear elsewhere in the not so distant future.

However, in terms of my GAA journey, there’s no need to ask Neil Diamond’s question. Though that in itself needs some qualification too. April 1990 was the first time wheels transporting yours truly pitched up at a game – a National League semi final between Meath and Cork. It was a great time to be joining the scene. Meath were still on the crest of one wave and another came lapping in during 1996.

Home really is where the heart is however and during the early part of that summer (We know what occurred that autumn!) something came about which was, in fact, even more life changing. I began submitting match reports to the local press on underage games. Particularly pertaining to an U-14 team containing the likes of Michael Reilly, Alan Dowdall, Ger Robinson, Neil Mangan, Kevin McDonnell, the Barron brothers et al.

That was a really talented panel which garnered county titles at U-14 and U-15 and would surely have amassed even further honours were it not for the fact that their main opposition at the time happened to be the best bunch of underage footballers this one seeing eye has ever seen – a Navan O’Mahonys combination trained by Cathal O’Bric which won every county title from U-12 to Minor, multiple times.

In fairness, most of our lads won a Leinster Colleges title with St Peter’s at that time too. On a snowy March day in Croke Park when Mr Robinson did what he always did – resemble a one-man orchestra – scoring 4-3, including one shot which was so powerful it drove the Wicklow De La Salle goalkeeper back over his own line.

An interesting aside to that game: for large parts thereof, Dunboyne appeared to be in major trouble. With the perceived wisdom being that if we didn’t put Alan Dowdall back to centre back and curtail their lively centre forward, we were bunched. If only we’d known what we were up against – their dynamo on the ‘40’ turned out to be a man who went on to star for Rathnew, Wicklow and Ireland, Leighton Glynn.

To go forward, you must often first go back. So goes our story here. December 9th, 1995 was a Tuesday. Thus you’d think there wouldn’t be much of relevance to GAA going on, especially at that time of year. Except for this – it was the day I got my first powered wheelchair. Now that was life changing!

What started out as going to underage games escalated to a point where attending training sessions – regardless of what team it was – gave every day a purpose. I think a very talented but luckless Minor team managed by Brendan Mac Namee and multiple others was the first stop. The shirt presented by Mel Conefrey prior to the 1996 Final is still like in the wardrobe. Like many things in life, the next chapter began by accident. A case of going up to watch a match one evening, said match being cancelled and so staying to watch senior. Sessions were attended for a dozen years thereafter.

With all that going on, it didn’t take much encouragement for me to put my name forward for Club P.R.O. Not for the first time or the last, the rules had to be bent a little bit to accommodate such a move but even I don’t have the words to convey how it important it was that they were.

So began the best 11 years of my life. Though looking back now, after that first season, many must have thought I was a jinx given the amount of finals we contested and lost that year. We all know what happened the following year, but, rather than re-hash the whole campaign here again with a fresh piece, here’s a piece keyboarded at the end of that 1998 season:

Memories of 1998 Championship season

My first inclination that something big might be afoot in 1998 actually came the previous December. It is said you often learn more in defeat than in victory and that was certainly the case after the two epic U-21 FC Final jousts with Summerhill. Any thoughts of claiming the Keegan Cup seemed light years away as we firstly unconvincingly overcame Slane before being stunned by Oldcastle 0-08 to 0-09 six days later. At that stage we were rank outsiders. How that would change… would change… It is often said one game could change a season. In Dunboyne’s case I have always felt it was a two week period in the midst of summer. A thrilling challenge game against Tyrellspass of Westmeath is recalled which was three days before we played in what still ranks as one of the greatest games of Club football I’ve ever seen, the Feis Cup semi final against Oldcastle at Kilberry. They too were showing signs of going places at that stage. Several things stand out. Falling 0-02 to 1-05 in arrears, the second of three outstanding duels between Jack Dowdall and Ronan Farrelly and Ken Gannon’s magnificent score that sealed a 0-18 to 1-14 win. From there the season just took off. St Michael’s were taken care of, 5-16 to 1-03. One sided as the game might seem, the great Martin O’Connell still stamped his class all over the game.

What then followed were two of the most bizarre games of Championship football encountered. We led Carnaross by 0-08 to 0-04 at half time. That margin could’ve been far great had a ‘goal’ not been disallowed after Martin O’Toole fist passed the ball into the net. Such a thing was never seen before or since. Not much was thought of it at the time, but with Ollie Murphy catching fire after half time, it took eight Andy McEntee points and a last gasp winner from Brendan Reilly to see us home.

Three things dominated my thoughts before our next outing against Kilmainhamwood. We’d never beaten them in the Championship, we would be without Brendan Reilly, and in Ray McGee and Ray Cunningham they had the two best forwards in the county at the time. There were only two points in it at the break, but when Cunningham sent a screamer to the net midway the second period all seemed lost.

What happened next is the stuff of Dunboyne sporting folklore. Gerard McGovern – the find of that season – raids along the stand side of Pairc Tailteann, is most likely going for a point but it dips at the last minute, goes over Ronan Finnegan’s head and ends up in the net. In the dressing room afterwards, Gerard thinks it was a point, others think it was a draw or we lost. Had any of those scenarios been true, we were gone. And so, it came down to a showdown with our greatest foes of that time, Summerhill. After a workman like performance, a 0-11 to 0-09 win was recorded. A last eight encounter with then Champions O’Mahonys may have looked daunting, but it was won with consummate ease. A rare and spectacular point from Maurice Finn being the highlight.

In the semi final, Skryne’s John McDermott played the best game this writer ever saw him playing, but by the end of it we knew why he always regarded Martin O’Toole as his toughest opponent! Minus Brendan Reilly through injury, we played some superb football in the first half and a McGovern goal had us clear by 1-07 to 0-03. The loss of Brendan began to tell after the break but the lads dug in and we probably got the bit of luck needed to win anything when our opponents were clean through on goal but no advantage acrued, Skryne forced to take a free and we hung on by a goal. The build up to the Final itself was hectic for me. Between Press Nights, getting stuff ready for the match programme and the sad passing of our then President, Mr. George Gilsenan, there wasn’t much time to spare. Final day itself is something of a blur. I remember being kitted out in a suit, that Ray Smith nearly netted for Oldcastle inside a minute, that there was a downpour shortly before half time and thereafter we assumed control.

There are two more personal memories also. I will be forever indebted to Davin Reilly who gave me his jersey that day and, as time has gone by, it’s great to know that Tom Yourell was alive to see our first SFC triumph. Gerry Cooney and some of the lads calling to Tom with the Cup was undoubtedly the most touching moment of the whole night. The memories and occasion as a whole will never be forgotten. I thank most sincerely Gerry Cooney, Brian Reilly, Roger Watters, the players, everybody else that made me feel a part of something that changed my life and most especially to my father, without whom the journey never would have begun.

In one sense, there’s not a whole lot more one could say on the subject but from another angle – and given some of what has transpired in the intervening years – further comment is not only needed but poignantly fitting. Mention was given above to how Gerry, Roger and the late Brian made me feel very much part of things, that included letting me have a stab at picking the team before every game. I don’t think I was ever too far out!

No secret has ever been made of the superstitious tendencies in this corner, so, with Brian Reilly also a selector upon the occasion of our second showpiece appearance hope was high that we would maintain a record we shared with the Down footballers for a long time – that of never losing a final.

Brian’s passing in September 2016 upset myself and many very deeply. Our shared interests were many and varied, from GAA to horse racing to politics. And while his loss was and still is grieved very personally – as has been the case with far too many near and dear in recent years – the impact which he had on the lives of so many continues to resonate greatly. Seemingly up to and including the last group of young players with which he was involved.

Hardly surprising, then, that at the reunion of Dunboyne’s first Keegan Cup victors held towards the end of October his loss was very keenly felt but his memory so very fondly preserved. The same could be said of several sadly missed comrades on what was a very emotional evening.

For nobody more so than myself. Simply because that season shaped what has been the best and most important part of my life for the best part of three decades. Not only in terms of the results on the pitch or, for that matter, the countless amount of people involvement in GAA has brought yours truly into contact with – some blessedly so as time has proven.

Also, however, as it necessitated a realisation of the role the organisation plays in people’s lives throughout the entire community. Now, this has never been more evident than in the aftermath of the heinous crime committed against Sean Cox on April 24th and the ordeal he and his family have endured in the interim.

All too vague recollections are held of writing about it to some degree at the time but nothing compared to what should have been the case and for that I apologise. What is all too readily recalled is the sense of foreboding which always accompanies calls at the time of night around which the one was received on April 24th which opened with the words “Did you hear about Sean Cox?”

Such statements are seldom a prologue to good news, but even that inclination would scarcely ready anyone for understanding the life-changing, unprovoked fate which befell our friend and club colleague.

I said it then and it’s worth repeating now – one of the first things that came to mind was a Christy Moore song relating to a certain other horrific event which occurred the year I was born. I’m not going to say it because it would be unfair and insensitive to even appear to be comparing such instances. Though folks of a certain vintage may now what is being referred to.

Thoughts also turned to the kindness shown to me personally by Sean during his tenure as our Chairman. Never more so than on the night our 2014 Minor Football Champions were presented with their medals. In a very humbling nod to the fact that yours truly had the honour of being a selector the previous time the Delaney Cup was won – 2002 – insisted that each and every one of the players shook my hand before gathering their accolades. A simple gesture but one which was and is treasured more than words can say.

Among them, of course, was his own son, Jack. Mention was given earlier to the leading role he played in our JFC success and though tribute was in some small way earlier, in truth, even this corner would struggle to adequately articulate how truly inspiring the strength and courage shown by the young man – and his entire family – has been truly inspirational. Perhaps matched only by that of the man whose plight has touched the hearts of so many, his dad.

For that reason, I was both proud and honoured to be able to take part in the ‘Run For Sean’ by Motoring For Sean on the October Bank Holiday Monday. It’s hard to know what would properly encapsulate what was a wonderful and highly emotional occasion. Except maybe to say that it typified everything good about the community spirit in the locality and far beyond and also underlined the pivotal role which the GAA and other community organisations play in the area.

Now, apart from Sean’s gesture being very moving to and treasured by me personally, it also espoused the values which underpinned his tenure as our Chairman – progress and development but also a sense of never forgetting from whence we have come. It recalled a particle of advice once imparted to yours truly by another great Gael, the late Paddy McIntyre Snr: “You find your good players when you’re in trouble”. There can be little doubt that the community spirit and generosity of Dunboyne and much further afield has been seen at its best since that night a dark cloud enveloped the area.

It’s been an honour and pleasure to play even a small part on Sean’s road to recovery and with your continued support I’ve no doubt he’ll get there.

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