Honestly, at this stage I’m beginning to realise that perhaps a life of professional sports may not have been for me.
The level of cringe that I attract could seriously damage the reputation of the club, team, or federation that I’d signed with.
This week’s piece tells the tale of a time where I didn’t do anything directly to embarrass myself, but a family member decided to intervene and make sure normal service resumed.
To begin this story, I must tell you about fourteen-year-old me. Fourteen-year-old me was a bit of a lost soul. I was in the second half of my second year in secondary (high) school in Saint Patrick’s College Cavan. All the seconds.
I hated ‘big’ school so far. It was too big. Plus, it was all boys. An all-boys school run by priests. It made Lord of the Flies look like an episode of Peppa Pig.
The homophobic bullying that went on in that school was ridiculous. I remember on my first day, fucking terrified as I was, I’d decided to go for a walk around the top two football pitches on the first break. Everyone else was walking in the opposite direction, and in my mind I’d made a good decision because I was trying to see if I could bump in to my older cousin for some guidance and protection. Every second person I met had a lovely greeting for me of ‘queer’ ‘gay boy’ ‘four-eyed queer’ etc. I didn’t know why they were doing this, I just assumed it was an unfriendly place in general. I wasn’t sure if I should be upset either. I was really, really confused by their reaction.
To be perfectly honest, when I was twelve, I didn’t quite know what gay meant (we’d no internet). I had an idea, it was the wrong idea, and I blame my mother for this. I remember when I was nine or ten I saw footage of a gay-pride march on the tv news. I asked mam what gay meant. My mother told me that being gay meant that you were very happy and special and she didn’t go in to any more important or vital details. She then proceeded to wrap me in another two layers of cotton wool.
I have an auntie with intellectual disabilities. My parents had always told us that she was special. My child’s brain picked up on the use of the word ‘special’ in my mother’s explanation and assumed that being ‘gay’ meant that you had special needs. I couldn’t believe that these animals in school were accusing someone of having special needs and laughing about it.
I eventually found my cousin and he informed me that I was walking around the ‘gay way’. You were supposed to walk around the same way as everyone else. He did say it didn’t make you gay, but it was best to do what everyone else was doing, otherwise you were liable to get abuse. And that pretty much summed up my first two years of secondary school, daily homophobic bullying for doing anything that was different from the crowd. Looking back, I can’t imagine how tough it must have been for anyone who was in that school and actually coming to terms with their own sexuality. It must have been absolute torture.
My decision to try and play rugby in the second half of second year gave the crowd even more ammo.
By the way, I finally learned what being gay meant when I was thirteen. I’ll thank Channel Four for that. Their late-night schedules were probably more responsible for Irish teenager’s sex-education in the 1990’s than any of the state’s educational authorities were.
Rugby. Rugby was the single best discovery of my teenage years. I loved it more than Limp Bizkit. I loved it more than a shift in the Carraig Springs. I loved it more than getting a quick glance at Lolo Ferarri on a Friday night in the small sitting room.
Finally, I’d found a sport that actually suited me. I always had fairly good hands. Catching and holding on to a ball was never a problem for me. Lightning fast pace was something I lacked though, and controlling a ball with my feet while running, well, let’s just say I wasn’t exactly proficient at it. So, rugby, where all you had to do was hold the ball and run, that bloody suited me.
I discovered something else about myself when playing the game. I found out that before I went in to a tackle, that if I lowered my shoulder just enough and drove upwards at the point of collision, I could knock my opponent on their arse. I think this was my favourite weapon in my arsenal while I played the game. Bouncing people was just so much fun. Not that I was an unstoppable force or anything, I just could do it now and again. The bigger the target the better. I loved the physical challenge. I relished it.
Playing rugby with County Cavan RFC was easily the best period in my teenage years and early twenties. It gave me huge confidence when I was in school, even though the gob-shites were giving me abuse for playing it, I knew that if any of them tried the game, I’d run over them in Swellan Park. I made some wonderful friends, I played all over the province of Ulster, and I drank a truck-load of beer every weekend. If I ever bothered my arse writing a sit-com, I could dip in to the characters from that club and it would be comedy gold. The wit, insanity and camaraderie in that club was just something else.
Just thinking of Finner, The Athlete, Kenny, Browne, Larry, The Ivers brothers, Shifty, Myles, Big Kris, Salesi, Cusky, Blackie, Hound, The King of The Wing, Winnie, Nigel, Wishbone, Fred, Eddie, Guus, The Pratts, Vance, Grant, all the Crowes, the Loughnanes, The Keenans, The Lacken darts team, Francie, The Jacksons, The Killeshandra boys, The Farrells, The Bennett & Beattie three, always makes me smile. Each one of them contributed in some way to some of the funniest stories of my early adulthood.
Anyway, enough of the sentimental shite. Let’s get in to what you all read this blog for, and it’s not my awful poetry! Yes, ladies & gentleman, here comes my single most embarrassing moment on a rugby field. And for once, it wasn’t my fault!
Monaghan are a shower of bastards. It’s not their fault really. They’re a poor man’s Cavan, or maybe even a rich man’s Longford. Anyway, they hate Cavan for some reason. Jealousy? I doubt it. That season we were probably on the same level as them. I think they just wanted to be better than us, and the day of The Battle of Swellan, they really let themselves down.
The Battle of Swellan was the first of many skirmishes in the wars between Cavan and Monaghan rugby clubs that season. It all started because of a nasty box received by our second-row, Blackie O’Reilly. Blackie is the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in this analogy.
Blackie was, is, a very powerful human being. A genius on the pitch, and a plumber off it. He was devastating with the ball in hand, and even more devastating in a pub quiz.
That day he was doing his usual bullocking through the Monaghan defence, and mid-way through the first half one of their centre’s finally snapped. With three Monaghan men trying, and failing, to pull Blackie down, the centre drew back and hit him an awful box in the jaw.
The shot heard around the world.
Blackie’s brother Paul Paul, so called because he loved repeating jokes, took umbrage to this assault and pummelled the Monaghan centre.
The ref was very inexperienced, and had the authority of a young substitute teacher. He had come in to our dressing room before the match to check our studs and was asking us if he could join us for pints in the town later that night. I never have, or since had, heard of a referee asking a team out for drinks before a match started. Surely it was a conflict of interest?
I think it was this invitation that led us to believe he may have been a bit of a soft touch. The way the Monaghan guys behaved that day, he must have invited them to his wedding or something. Because after Paul Paul threw that retaliation, the war of attrition turned nuclear.
Salesi, our Tongan super-hero, had pulled the jersey over the head of his opposite number and was dishing out some NHL style beatdown. Paul Paul and Blackie were cleaning house.
A disgusting incident occurred when the Monaghan full-back ran twenty yards and kicked Pierre, our full-back, in the face as he was lying prone on the ground.
I had been mostly trying to separate lads and fight fires, I’m not much of a fighter, but when I saw this all my conscientious objections washed away. I jogged over to the Monaghan full back and fore-armed him as hard as I could in the face. Buckled the prick. Pierre was a good mate, and he wasn’t a violent guy. He was a gentle, artistic soul – brilliant story teller. He wouldn’t have been up to any nasty shit and didn’t deserve a broken nose for losing his balance while trying to break up the kerfuffle.
As soon as I knocked over the Monaghan man I got clattered from behind. Cowards. I picked myself up, dusted myself off and turned around to see a familiar face on the field with my attacker by the throat.
“You’ll not hit my son!”
On the pitch.
With a lad.
By the throat.
Every time the guy struggled, Dad lifted him higher off the ground. His feet were dangling in fresh air.
Later on, in the bar, I had learned that he had jumped the fence cleanly to get on the pitch. A five-foot box-jump. Not bad for a fifty-four-year-old man.
The ridiculousness of having a twenty-six-year-old man’s father run on the pitch to defend his son diffused the situation somewhat. That, and everyone was getting tired. I’d say at least 75% of the players had been on the beer the night before.
After getting a good scolding from the ‘oul-boy, the referee sent off the Monaghan full-back. (On a side note, this guy got banned for life for what he did). We went on to win the game in the end. Monaghan had a new kit the next time we played them. Salesi had torn off at least five player’s jerseys in the brawl.
We went for pints with the referee that night. I never saw him referee a match again. One of the lads must have thrown him in the Kenny Pottle river.
A few years later the French rugby player, Imanol Harinordoquy, found himself in a similar situation. His Dad ran on the pitch too to dispense some justice on his son’s behalf. I received a lot of texts that day asking if the ‘oul boy was on holidays in France.
People sometimes ask me; did I give out to my Dad for what he did that day? I always say no.
Sure the fucker had lifted a grown man with one hand! I’m not going to challenge a man capable of that.
I hope to instil those feelings of pride and fear in to my own children someday.
Next time on A Brief History of My Sporting Failures – hurling.
The ultimate embarrassment.
read previous chapters in the series here: