Tuesday, March 04, 2014

 

Niall Browne lifts the cup

Niall Browne lifts the cup

An epic moment in the life of one club, it was a milestone in the history of Kildare GAA. Niall Browne, Des Healy and Fr Paul Dempsey – captain, chairman and curate – relive the day Two Mile House won the county’s first ever All-Ireland club football title at Croke Park.

9 FEBRUARY 2014 – 6.30AM

“I wanted to have the Irish flag up. It symbolises our country and we were in an All-Ireland final.” Fr Paul Dempsey

IT was wet and windy outside when Fr Paul Dempsey rose from his bed. From the presbytery house beside the church, he stepped out into the dank, dark morning. Alone, he ran a Tricolour up the second flagpole at the entrance to the churchyard.

Bleep, bleep.

At 8am, the silence of a Sunday morning was broken by the sound of his mobile phone.

It was a good luck message from his boss. Word of what was happening in this small, rural village had reached the Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin.

Breakfast was brief. And so was the 8.30 in Naas.

In the parish next door, Fr Dempsey divides his time. After morning service with his neighbours, he rushed home to greet locals arriving at St Peter’s in Two Mile House. They had good reason to come early – today their mass was at 10am instead of 11am. Every Sunday is precious but today was sacred.

****

7.30AM

“We were looking forward to the day because we prepared, we felt, meticulously.” Des Healy

As soon as Des Healy turned upright to face the morning, his mobile was pressed to his ear. Over coffee, he made phone calls and last-minute checks.

Sandwiches for the players.

Garda escort for the bus.

Blankets for the subs.

By now the he was feeling at ease. Ten days earlier, he had penned an action plan. The footballers had qualified to play in an All-Ireland football final at Croke Park and the chairman wanted every stone unturned beforehand. From an original list of 30, there were now just a handful of jobs left to do. There was even time for more coffee. At Swan’s in Naas, three nervous men looked forward to the day ahead.

Apprehensive, yes – Des Healy and Paul Burke had sons on the team, Shay White was part of the management – but they felt confident too. They had prepared so that they would conquer.

White collected the sandwiches – chicken and stuffing on white bread for a healthy dose of protein and carbohydrate three hours before throw-in – and then they headed for the Brown Bear. Mass was getting near and the morning was moving fast.

****

8.30AM

“It didn’t feel like we were going to play a big game.” Niall Browne

Not far from his father’s farm and 150 yards from the centre of the village, Niall Browne horsed into breakfast. Eggs, bacon, bread, cereal, juice and coffee. Fed and watered, he tucked into a Sunday paper.

The morning had cleared by the time he stepped out into the fresh air. Around his father’s fields, he walked away his spare minutes. His thoughts were of football and Croke Park. Not much had changed since he was here as a child, kicking a ball with his brothers.

It was getting on for 9.45am when he joined the rest of the Two Mile House players at the Brown Bear pub. As they waited to walk the hill for 10am mass, they busied themselves with chat and craic.

Although he was on the other side of the world, their friend and former teammate, Don Casey, was to the front of their thoughts. He would be married in a few days and tomorrow, Derren, his brother, would be travelling to New Zealand for the wedding. Once there, the Two Mile House midfielder would unwrap a special gift for the groom, which the rest of the squad were now filming. A mixture of good luck messages and bad language were spoken into a camera. Among this group, no one would get away with being serious but you could never doubt their sincerity.

At the entrance to the churchyard, Maurice Colbert Snr greeted Niall Browne and the rest of the squad. 30 years earlier, Colbert had started the first underage football team in Two Mile House. No longer a coach and now a member of the Parish Council, he ushered them inside.

Few of them were born in 1984 and none had ever been at a mass like this before.

****

10AM

Des Healy, standing at the back, reckons it was like watching ‘a couple come up the church on their wedding day.’

Mass had not yet begun and the congregation were acting like the risen Lord had come to pray with them. Fr Paul Dempsey stood at his pulpit, watching it all unfold.

Two pews at the front of the church lay vacant, awaiting Niall Browne and the rest of the squad. Dressed in club t-shirts, they walked down the centre aisle. The Two Mile House colours, green and gold, were everywhere – on the miniature flags that stood in the church windows, on the painted faces of children at mass, on the scarf Fr Dempsey had draped across the altar.

The scene had been set long before they arrived but their presence caused a sensation. Suddenly and spontaneously, there was a massive burst of applause, and somehow this seemed entirely appropriate. After what seemed like an age, the clapping subsided. Mass began with a welcome for the team and then Fr Paul read out the text message he had received from Bishop Nulty two hours earlier. The curate was in full flow.

“There’s a sense of nervousness and anxiousness and stomach-churning,” he told the congregation. “And that’s just the priest.”

By now it was less than four hours until the team would run out at Croke Park in an All-Ireland final.

“It has been an extraordinary journey,” said Fr Dempsey, at the start of a sermon, which was primarily about football and a little about Our Lord. After four final defeats in six years, the team had finally won the county title in 2013. By winning a Leinster championship and surviving an epic All-Ireland semi-final, they had inspired a whole community.

“What I saw in this team in some of those matches, they didn’t let the head go down,” Fr Dempsey told his parishioners. “They persevered and there’s a little bit of a lesson for life in that too. Sometimes we can have the odds going against us but the message the lads are giving us is: You never give up.”

His sermon complete, Fr Dempsey had one final blessing to offer: “C’mon the House.”

After the words were repeated back to him by some 300 people, the team were treated to another standing ovation. During the closing hymn, Fr Dempsey led the players out and in the church yard, they shook hands with their spiritual leader.

“I felt this was a team that was going to come back with the All-Ireland,” Dempsey recalls.

The players left in high spirits but their heads came down from the clouds when they spied a Garda car across the road.

“Probably no one had paid their car tax in six months so most of the lads were probably a bit nervous about that,” says captain Niall Browne but the good humour returned over tea and sandwiches in the Brown Bear. The very notion of a Garda escort seemed comical yet here they were, at 11.25am on a Sunday morning, being shepherded out of Two Mile House by state security officers.

If the mood was skittish among the players, it was deadly serious among their supporters. After mass, the crowd flowed out into the yard but they had no great desire to leave. There was an energy in the air, the raw emotions expressed during mass still tangible as people shared hugs and shed tears. There was a buzz about this small place that hadn’t been felt before. Two Mile House were on their way to Croke Park to play in an All-Ireland football final.

****

12.30PM

Before they knew it, they were outside Croker, but their journey stalled at an entrance gate – the bus was too big to pass through. For the first time they started to feel edgy, like cattle locked inside a pen.

Released, they attacked the dressing rooms like children set loose in a sweet shop. Most of them had never been here before and would never be here again. They marvelled at the five-star showers but 90 minutes before throw-in, the pitch was off limits. They walked the tartan track that runs in front of the Hogan Stand and every so often, someone would make a mad dash onto the playing area, temporarily evading the clutches of a security guard.

“It was like trying to keep sheep off grass,” says Niall Browne. “Mick Burke robbed one of the umpire flags. It was like a day trip to the zoo for a crowd of baby infants.”

Fresh from their antics running around the pitch, the players were back in the warm-up area at 12.50pm. For half an hour they went through their routines, gently stretching each sinew and slowly increasing the tempo. Then it was back to the dressing room. After manager, Jarlath Gilroy, issued his instructions, it was time to run onto the pitch for real.

“I couldn’t believe the amount of people there from Two Mile House,” says Browne. “There were two sections of the Cusack Stand full. It was amazing just running out with the lads.”

Browne couldn’t have known it at the time, but Fr Paul Dempsey was thinking the exact same thing.

The vast Two Mile House support – which clearly exceeded the population of the village – had also travelled by bus to the stadium. Dempsey had Micheál Browne – Niall’s dad – for company on the way up. Nancy Browne cannot bear to watch her sons play football anymore so she walks the lane outside her home while her husband is gone to the game.

“Nancy tends to be a little bit nervous during these matches,” Fr Dempsey explains, who was now wearing a green and gold scarf Nancy had given him a week earlier. “I was slagging her, saying she’d have to get a new pair of shoes with the amount of walking she’d be doing.”

Nancy was not the only one feeling anxious. As the supporters reached the stadium, they worried what the place would look like when they tried to fill a space big enough to host a city. Fr Dempsey’s fears abated as he took his seat.

“We really felt like we were part of a big crowd. When you looked back, there seemed to be far more from Two Mile House than for any other team. There were people there who had never been in Croke Park before. There was one elderly woman down from us and it was over 50 years since she had been in Croke Park.”

It was 1.20pm now but it would be another 20 minutes before they got to see the team. There was enough chat and good humour to keep them occupied but the time did not pass quickly.

“My God Almighty, will this match ever start?” Fr Dempsey asked Tony Coyle, the former club chairman, who was sitting next to him.

“This is the longest half hour of my life,” said Coyle.

For the players, the atmosphere was almost suffocating. 40-yard runs left them breathless.

“Am I going to be able to play this game at all?” Niall Browne wondered.

In their pre-match huddle, they put the occasion to one side. It was time to focus on the fundamentals – use the width, make space and stay positive.

“Execute the skills well,” Browne told his midfield partner, Derren Casey, as they headed for the throw-in.

The waiting was finally over.

****

2PM

In no time at all the first half was over. Everything was happening much faster than normal. It was like they had packed a full game into the opening half hour. Within the first five minutes the House scored two goals.

“We were a bit stunned, we couldn’t believe it,” says Dempsey.

“The big thing about Croke Park is the space is there to get goals,” says Niall Browne. “We did a huge amount of work on creating space up front. It was really, really gratifying to see the work that was done in the two weeks before the game come to fruition.”

After the deluge, there was a flood of Fuerty points. The House were intoxicated by those early goals and each time they attacked, they went for the jugular. When they missed, Fuerty turned them over and in the space of 16 minutes, scored six points in a row. It was a bizarre first half and it ended with the House desperately needing a score.

“A bit of panic can set in is this all we’re going to get?” Niall Browne says, explaining the mood before half-time. “Aidan Casey scored an outrageous point and it was probably the key moment in the game. We were going in at half-time a point up (2-3 to 0-8) having not played that well at all whereas they (Fuerty) had played to their potential.”

In the dressing room the players felt drained but they knew there was more in them. They had been playing too fast, trying too much.

“Guys were sprinting on to the ball-carrier instead of just running off his shoulder. We just calmed down a little bit and slowed things down,” says Browne.

One of the problems was that full-back, Mattie Kelly, was following his man out the field, leaving space inside for Fuerty to exploit. Now Kelly would stay back to shore things up.

“If we relax, we’re going to be fine,” Browne told them.

When Fr Dempsey looked at the Two Mile House players as they returned for the second half, he got the same sense of determination he had felt earlier that day in the church yard.

“You could feel that there was a fire in the belly with these lads. They were not going to come back to Two Mile House without a cup.”

As he returned to his seat in the stand, Dempsey turned to Tony Coyle again.

“This is the 30 minutes of their footballing lives.”

****

Just like the first, the second half went like a dream.

This time the points came first. And when they went on the rampage again, there was no way back for Fuerty.

Just as they had in the opening half, Mark Sherry and Adam Burke scored goals. In the 41st minute, Chris Julian won a penalty. Chris Healy, who had netted for the Kildare minors in the Leinster final the previous July, hammered home the final nail.

“When that was in the net, it was game over, ball burst,” say his father, Des.

“After 43 minutes, we were up 15 points and we knew we had it won,” says Niall Browne.

“They were so far ahead but still you wanted it to be over,” says Fr Paul Dempsey.

Despite the gap, there were some nervy moments. Fuerty missed two good goal chances but they hardly registered at the time. For Browne the final quarter was almost an anti-climax. His career, for both club and county, had been plagued with uncertainty yet here he was in the middle of his own fairytale already sure what way it was going to end.

“It was weird because up to that point, we’d been winning games at the death. I remember just being very thankful. I thought of all the years of no real achievement in the club and to see us in Croke Park and to see the crowd going wild – there was a genuine disbelief that this was actually happening.”

Des Healy spent the closing stages in a quiet part of the Hogan Stand. Beside him stood Padraig Cuddy, the Fuerty chairman. When the final whistle sounded, they shook hands and then Healy stood there alone.

“This feels good,” he thought, watching it all unfold. When he eventually made his way across the pitch to the Cusack Stand side, Jarlath Gilroy spotted him.

“Thank You,” was all Healy said to the manager as they embraced.

Around them, players hugged each other, and in the stand, supporters wept.

As Niall Browne waited to collect the cup in the middle of the Cusack, he spotted John Burke.

“He’s the heart and soul of the club. I saw him looking up just shaking his head at me and there were tears streaming down his face.”

For the captain, the moments between the final whistle and the presentation were like an out of body experience. A steward took his arm and escorted him up the steps but there was so much significance attached to this moment, his mind couldn’t process it quickly enough.

“I chilled out when I met Liam O’Neill and I thanked him for giving us the opportunity to be there,” Browne recalls but at this stage no words could equal their deeds. In any case there was another match to played, the All-Ireland intermediate club final, so the House didn’t have much time to linger.

For their supporters, it was a bittersweet moment. They weren’t allowed on the pitch so they had to watch and wave from the stands as the players headed back across the pitch to the dressing room. On the concourse area at the back of the Cusack, the fans stayed put.

“There was a lovely warmth and togetherness,” says Fr Paul Dempsey. “The kids were running over to me and hugging me and holding me and I thought that was lovely. Thankfully we’ve moved on as a church that I’m not seen as some fella that fell out of the sky. People realise that we’re all in it together. I’m one of the crowd the same as anybody else. I became a priest to serve people and try to be there with people in the good moments of life and in the sad moments of life. To have the privilege of being a part of that, being a part of people’s lives, that’s what makes it all worthwhile for me being a priest.”

Spirits were just as high in the dressing room but the talk was not merely of what they had just achieved.

“This is not the end of something, this is the start of something,” said the captain, Niall Browne. “There’s a lot of good energy in this room, there’s a lot of good people in this room. This is a great achievement but it’s not a destination.”

After the Fuerty manager and chairman congratulated them, Des Healy and Jarlath Gilroy headed for the losing dressing room.

“By Jaysus lads do I know all about this,” Healy began when he addressed the devastated Fuerty players. “I know all about this from all the years in St Conleth’s Park when our dressing room would be like a mortuary after losing in the last few minutes. You’re some bunch of lads to come back from two goals down, a lot of teams would have thrown in the towel.”

Having tasted defeat at the death in two county finals, Healy was speaking from the heart, so much so that he vowed to bring his club to Fuerty for a challenge game. Meanwhile the House party was in full flow. As the players moved from the dressing room to the players’ lounge, the captain slipped away unnoticed.

“After games, I like to go away on my own for a while. I remember going over to Jury’s (the Croke Park Hotel across the road), I just had a couple of minutes to myself. It was nice to soak it all in. I love where I’m from and I love all the people I’m surrounded by and I love football. I love Croke Park. All those things came together on one day. It was as close as you were going to get to a perfect day.”

****

5PM

All roads now led to the Brown Bear.

Des Healy was back about 5.15pm, in time to meet the first wave of supporters. A marquee had been set up at the back of the pub to accommodate the bumper crowd and the place was hopping.

“We didn’t drink a whole lot Sunday night because we didn’t want to miss a moment,” says Healy.

The team were still supping away in Croke Park but Fr Dempsey was en route to Nancy Browne’s. Michéal had called in their order for dinner on the bus home.

“The spuds are on,” Nancy told her husband over the phone. For the night that was to come, a big feed was essential. They were still eating by the time the players returned to the village around 6.30pm.

The team bus had two important stops to make before reaching its final destination. On the M7 near Castlewarden, they pulled in alongside the sign that says: “Welcome to Kildare.” At Willie Burke’s suggestion, they crossed the border, walking the cup from one side of the sign to the other. They took photos for posterity, and a pee for practicality.

They stopped again at the entrance to the village. This they walked the cup past the sign that tells strangers they’re in Two Mile House. This was the moment the supporters had missed after the final whistle so it took 20 minutes to cover 50 yards.

In the Brown Bear, they each enjoyed their own special moment. In the company of John Burke, a former chairman and Tony Coyle, a man synonymous with the club, Des Healy cried.

“To see the joy on those two men’s faces, that was very, very special. There were tears. I think it was the most emotional moment.”

Fr Paul Dempsey was chatting with Tony and Liz McLoughlin when their son, Niall, a half-back on the team, joined them.

“Of course Fr Paul,” Liz began, “17 years ago, Niall served your first mass.”

Dempsey was stumped.

“Niall McLoughlin, who was standing in front of me and after winning an All-Ireland, had served my first mass. That was an amazing little moment.”

Earlier that morning, just as he was heading out for a walk, Niall Browne opened his postbox. God knows why he checked but there was a card inside. His old school principal, Noel Merrick, had sent it. He wished Niall and the rest of the former Naas CBS lads all the best, which included the manager Jarlath Gilroy, the oldest, and Chris Julian, the youngest.

Browne showed them the card before the game so he was chuffed when he met Merrick in the pub.

“It was very nice of him to come out and take an interest. It was a bit of class.”

Adrenalin kept them going until the small hours. They all remember being interrupted by a sheep at some stage – Paul Lynch had died one of his flock green and gold for the occasion – but Fr Dempsey doesn’t know when he left the place. It was after 3am by the time Des Healy got home and the last thing Niall Browne remembers is watching James Burke play the spoons at half four.

“It was one of those days that comes that…you certainly can’t plan for it,” says Fr Dempsey. “It was such a unique and special day, it goes beyond just the football end of it. GAA represents more than just those lads out on the pitch, it represents your community, your parish, what we’re about as a people. I think that’s what was so special about it, that it touched something deep in us all. That’s something you carry in your heart afterwards.

****

The celebrations continued on Monday, players and supporters piling into McCormack’s in Naas to watch the final on DVD, but reality returned the following day. Some went back to work and some, like Chris Healy and Chris Julian, began mock exams for their Leaving Cert. Derren Casey was already in New Zealand for his brother’s wedding. And Fr Paul Dempsey was struggling to say mass.

“In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” he began hoarsely at 10am in Naas on Tuesday morning.

“The Lord be with you.”

“And with your spirit,” the large congregation responded.

“I’m sorry, you’re going to have to excuse the voice but we just happened to win an All-Ireland on Sunday.”

For the third time in three days, a round of applause echoed around the church in which Fr Dempsey was saying mass.

By now plans were already in place for a visit from the Bishop. By a neat coincidence five new classrooms in the local school were ready for an official blessing. Having only been ordained in August, Denis Nulty was keen to get around the diocese. And so it came to pass, on 23 February, 2014, the Cup met the Crosier.

“We all have tough times so when you get moments like this that are positive, are life-giving, are joyous, it’s just so lovely to grasp that moment and go with it,” says Fr Dempsey. “That’s what life is all about.”

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We all have tough times so when you get moments like this that are positive, are life-giving, are joyous, it's just so lovely to grasp that moment and go with it. That's what life is all about"

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