I stood in a crowd of bodies at Pearse Stadium in Salthill. Thousands flooded onto the field. Blue and white colours plastered across the pitch. People smiling from all directions. Some dancing, some overcome with emotion.
The Monaghan players stayed out on the field for 40 minutes after their win over Galway. Shaking hands like politicians out on canvas. Happiness written across their faces. It was a historic moment. A place in their first All-Ireland Senior Football Championship semi-final for 30 years.
It’s not often I see special days like this. It doesn’t necessarily have to be seeing your team lift a trophy. Sporting memories are unique in their own different way.
It was a day to cherish, because they don’t come around too often. Not in Monaghan. Not in a county with a population of just 62,000. The fifth smallest of the 32 counties in Ireland.
Although a loyal Wicklow native myself, my father’s side of the family hail from Monaghan. Much of my upbringing was spent there. Going to matches from an early age in Clones sparked a life-long passion for gaelic football.
From St. Tiernach’s Park to Healy Park and Casement Park, it’s been an annual ritual to point the car north from Bray to see the Farney men in action. I might see several matches a year. More bad days than good, and that invariably fills the conversation around the house for the days after.
The Ulster championship success in 2013 was a tremendous day. Tommy Freeman chipping in with a late point to steal a famous win against then All-Ireland champions Donegal. A first Anglo-Celt trophy in 25 years. A sensational day.
Malachy O’Rourke’s men repeated the feat against the same opposition two years later, firing five points in the last ten minutes to lift their 16th Ulster title.
Check out the full-time highlights between Galway and Monaghan here on GAANOW! pic.twitter.com/ScgVX4Vl1j— The GAA (@officialgaa) August 4, 2018
For all the celebrations and euphoria that comes with watching your team raise a cup, it also makes up for all those narrow defeats, poor displays and thousands of miles clocked up on the road over the years.
Gaelic Games are special for it’s strictly amateur sport played by warriors, dominating Irish summers. Football, rugby and other professional sports may have their stamp of popularity across the world, but Gaelic Games is a fundamental expression of Irish identity.
In every club around the world the values of family, community and respect are what makes the sport unique and what attracts more and more players, members, volunteers and supporters.
On that warm August evening in 2018, the match in Salthill wasn’t a classic by any means, however reaching the last four of a national competition is a serious achievement. One that I’ll always remember.
Conor McManus and Ryan McAnespie stepped up that day in Galway, contributing nine points between them as the Farney men prevailed by eight points in a contest they never looked like losing.
At midfield, Darren Hughes was a colossal figure, moving with the swagger of a man laying down his fourth ace in a late night game of poker.
Good morning Ireland and good morning Monaghan fans. What a great feeling! Galway races today! #AllIrelandSemiFinal #MonaghanGAA #Galway #Monaghan #Super8s #MONvGAL #FarneyArmy #GALvMON pic.twitter.com/4vPeLLztC2— Fintan Marron (@FintanMusicIRL) August 5, 2018
McAnespie, that industrious figure from Emyvale, put the final gloss on an impressive performance with the last point of the match, a beautiful strike from the outside of his right boot.
Soldiering around the length and breadth of the country, to see the delight on the players and supporters faces was a special feeling. It made up for those years of heartbreak and near misses, finally culminating with a semi-final showdown in Croke Park.
Favourite sporting memories are unique and personal. I’ve been spoiled over the years from seeing various Formula One and golf events, attending the Camp Nou and San Siro, to watching Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods live.
The bigger event, the better for some people. But nothing compares to your roots. That one sport where it all began for you. The one that holds your passion. For me, it’s the GAA. Nothing beats the power and what it brings to the people of Ireland.
Working in the UAE the past number of years, it’s often I look back on different memories. And as we get older and our relationships with our families get better, that triumph in Galway made all those years travelling to games with my father even more unique.