Armagh football legend Oisín McConville revisits the 2007 AIB All-Ireland Club Football Final where it took a replay to decide who would lift the cup; Crossmaglen Rangers or Colm Cooper’s Dr Crokes of Killarney.
Going up to lift the cup for Crossmaglen after the All-Ireland Club final replay in 2007, there was one word that was on my mind the entire time – “Redemption”. I felt as if I owed my family something because of what I put them through for the previous 16 years with my gambling.
When the shit hit the fan in my life, people in my family and community were there for me, so now it was a big chance to give back.
That’s what that final was all about for me, that big chance to stand up, look people in the eye and say, “This is what I’m about. I’m not about that other stuff.”
I know it’s about football, but for me, in that moment, it was about more than that.
If you want to compare that All-Ireland to the previous ones, it’s like apples and oranges. If you count the previous four All-Irelands, including the one we won with Armagh in 2002, I was in a very different place, and a lot of it passed me by.
”I was playing football because it kept me alive at the time, it gave me direction.
In 2007, I wanted to spend time with people and enjoy it with the club and community. I wanted to soak it up and have memories that would last a lifetime.
My earliest memories of growing up in Crossmaglen are all about The Troubles. I was born in 1975, so I grew up in the height of it. Bombs would go off, the windows in the house would shatter, and the glass would come into the sitting room. You sweep the glass up; the glazer comes and puts in a new window and you carry on. When I look back on it now, it was total madness, but it was normal for us at the time.
”Despite The Troubles, my life was very uncomplicated, all I wanted to do was play football and be the best Gaelic footballer I could be.
Crossmaglen Rangers is literally in the heart of the town. When I first came to the club it was a great way to make friends. I felt like I belonged from the time I was five years of age running down the sideline to try and get a game in under-10 matches.
The group of players we had growing up were a special group, we won everything from U12 all the way up to minor. Then we won five U21 titles in a row, so winning was something we were very used to.
However, my first three years with the senior club team were a different story. I remember coming off the bench as a 17-year-old in the county championship. Our free taker was subbed off, so I had to step up and take a free to win the game. I miss it – we lose. The following year in the county championship, I have a penalty late in the game. I miss it. Again – we lose.
If I’m honest, it was those early years that were the driving force behind our success that followed. More important than the trophies and medals, it was that success that helped to change the perception of Crossmaglen and its community.
There was a local man Paddy Short who owned a pub in the town, and anytime there was a bombing or shooting the TV cameras would go to him to get a quote off him, he’s a bit of a local legend.
I remember after we won our first All-Ireland in 1997, he said “Crossmaglen will no longer be known as “Bandit Country”, we will be known for our football.” That struck a chord with everyone. It was something which we used as fuel in the changing room in the years that followed.
”We weren’t just playing football to win; we were playing for our identity.
We saw a different side of the community when we started to win county championships. The clubhouse was absolutely packed in the evenings that followed the games. It wasn’t just people from Cross, it was people from surrounding areas who got behind us because they liked the way we went about our business.
For the celebrations after the first All-Ireland, we got on to the trailer at the back of the truck. We didn’t know what we should be doing, what way to be acting, should we be singing or dancing? There was something very innocent about the first time we won it. I remember we all had new white Adidas t-shirts underneath our suits, we thought we looked the business, seeing photos now we all looked ridiculous. But we were uniform, we looked the part, and we were ahead of our time as far as club teams are concerned. That team set the tone for the next two decades.
The team in 2007 were a very special group of players. We were a big physical team, we used to bully teams, we had plenty of skill and players who could play. We won a lot of games in the last five minutes by wearing teams down. We had defenders who wouldn’t be beat, we had three big lads across the middle of the park and teams found it hard to get past us.
In 2006, I finished treatment for a gambling addiction and was still in the early stages of recovery. I was asked to be captain of the senior football team. For me, being made captain was a massive thing. When you lead out a Crossmaglen team you’re expected to win the All-Ireland when St Patrick’s Day comes around, that’s the standard we set for ourselves. The players and management all bought into it, and that’s what made it work. My job was to lead and to be open and honest in what I do on and off the field.
We played phenomenal football that year. Going into the All-Ireland final we had every reason to believe we could win it in Croke Park, but for some reason we were a bit complacent. We played like we didn’t expect Dr Crokes to put it up to us as much as they did.
Croke Park suited them, they pulled and dragged us in all directions. Our physicality counted for nothing; we were left chasing shadows. They were moving the ball before we could even get a tackle in and the Gooch was pulling all the strings.
Whenever you’re analysing Dr Crokes, you spent a good bit of time studying Colm Cooper. There was a suggestion before we played them that we double marked Gooch, we saw him as that much of a threat, but we never did in the end. We always wanted to play man on man because that was our game, but when you’re playing the Gooch there’s a case to be made. He can hurt you in so many ways.
We were flat, and when you’re flat on the pitch, it’s hard to get momentum going. We got out of jail that day. I knew if we scored a goal that we would have a chance to see the game out. The ball came into me. I dummied the shot, took it round the keeper and stuck it in the back of the net. I went wild celebrating. I was still celebrating when Crokes went up the other end and scored a goal of their own.
I remember thinking “Hang on, this isn’t how the script goes, we’re meant to close this out.” But Dr Crokes turned the script on its head.
In the last moments of the game, we were still a point down, and the game was slipping away from us.
I decided two minutes before this that if I get the ball, there’s no way, I’m passing it to anyone. I’m going to have a go myself, rightly or wrongly. In 2005 we had a free to win the All-Ireland Club Semi-Final against Portlaoise and I wasn’t let take the free, we missed it and ended up losing. On reflection, I should have spoken up, so I had regrets over that.
I wasn’t going to have any regrets that day in Croke Park. I got the ball and ran across the pitch towards the Cusack stand from the 45-meter line around to the top of the ‘D’. I wasn’t getting the room I needed. I was getting a bit of a tug on the jersey but playing on, I think that’s why the ref let me take 12 or 13 steps. I found half a yard of space and kicked it over my shoulder but didn’t see where the ball went. I saw a man in a white coat waving a white flag.
I know what the Dr Crokes players would have said about the first game. I’ve been down to Kerry a couple of times and had 70-year-old women and 12-year-old kids telling me I took too many steps, and I can’t argue with them. I know we got out of jail that day.
”We thought we were better than we were.
That was what I told the journalists after the game. Then I went into the changing room, and that’s exactly what I said to the players. It didn’t go down well with a lot of people in the club. When the quote came in the newspaper the next day, there were a lot of people that challenged me on it publicly. That didn’t bother me, I could see by time we got to the next training session that my comments already had the desired effect.
There were a lot of young lads in the squad and success had come very easy to them, some lads had never lost a game with Cross. In sport, you have to lose and feel a bit of pain before you can really appreciate the wins.
There was a change of attitude in those two weeks, we had nearly thrown away an All-Ireland and we weren’t going to let that happen again.
The replay was played in O’Moore Park in Portlaoise, a much tighter pitch which suited our physical style of play. We were psyched up for that game; the younger lads would have broken the changing room door down to get out and make amends.
Crokes were very much in the game still at half time, but I knew by the way that we started the game I knew there was only going to be one outcome at the final whistle. I had an idea what I was going to say to the lads at half time, but before I said anything, Francie Bellew spoke up.
I played with Francie Bellew for 20 years, maybe 30 years if you count underage, and not a word did he ever speak in the dressing room, not once.
But he spoke that day at half time.
You’ve no idea how powerful it is to hear someone speak that hasn’t spoken before.
I was prepared to speak at half time but after Francie spoke, nothing else needed to be said, we just ran back out on to the pitch like men possessed.
I’ve gone over this with him a couple of times, and he doesn’t even remember what he said. I know the Gooch used to give him quite a bit of trouble, he was well aware of that, so he was pretty fired up to ensure he didn’t get the better of him. It turns out he was too fired up because he ended up giving away a penalty against him.
When Gooch missed the penalty, the game was a done deal psychologically for them. We got the job done, put the game beyond them.
That was my career moment, lifting that cup as captain of the club I love so much.
For a long time in your life, you think what can the club do for me? Then it gets to the point where you look at the club and think what can I give back? That time will come for everybody.
The number of guys from those teams that are now involved in underage coaching and administration is great to see. The most important thing in the club is that the next generation is catered for as much as our generation was. They are the new keepers of the jersey.
This club was built on resilience during the time of the troubles, resilience when we were in tight corners in football matches. When your club is built on that, it’s very difficult to move it. For me, to be mentioned as the greatest club team ever is incredible because you don’t think about that or dwell on those things while you’re playing. It’s always next game, next game.
It will mean even more when I’m forcing my kids to sit down and watch those games back. After all, they’re growing up in “Football Country”.