Football and family lighting the way for Ramor

SFC final colour

They’re coming round the corner with the cup. The flames light up the way.

It’s Virginia on Sunday night. They’re coming from the Showgrounds, someone says. Throw that pint into you. And here they are, in procession, behind the piper, each man holding his own lantern. It could be 1821, not 2021.

One small act can be transformative. Each individual carries aloft a stick, a simple piece of timber, a two by one. A rag is fixed to the top, soaked in kerosene last night and again this morning to be sure. The rag is wrapped in chicken wire. And then, a match is struck and it all makes sense. It’s a torch, ablaze.

A county final is unique in Irish sport. Viewed from a distance, it’s only a game of ball. But there’s a cup to be won in a final and, like the match when it meets the kerosene, that’s the spark which ignites the fire - and it takes off from there.

There have been two topics of conversation in Virginia in the last few months. Football, and the fact there are only two pubs open. On Sunday, those subjects were not mutually exclusive.

But when the procession begins, the pubs empty as the supporters, young and old, spill on to the streets. “This club is a family,” says the chairman, Michael Maguire.

And it is, almost literally, as was the case on the Gowna side. Maguire had four sons on the panel and his nephew was trainer. The manager, Ray Cole, and the captain, Ado Cole, are uncle and nephew.

The Brady brothers, James and Jack, were brilliant. A century ago, their great grandfather captained the winning Virginia Blues team. Straight out of Lattoon with 100 years of history behind them.

More brothers: the Magees, Mark and Matthew, forged of steel. Brían O’Connell was too; his father played midfield for 20 years and captained a winning side as well. Sean McEvoy’s parents generously sponsor the team.

Paddy McNamee spent his prime football years terrorising corner-backs in Melbourne GAA circles. And here he is, picking up his first county medal at 39. Watching on with a grin is Paddy Sr, who won three of them. Club is family.

Twists and turns on the road. Damien Barkey, the genial assassin, missed a couple of years with injury. When that happens and you’re tipping over the 30 mark, it usually signals trouble. Yet Barkey was awesome, “in the best shape he’s ever been in, pure dedication” according to his manager.

Last April, Liam Brady hurt his leg in training with the county. When the phone call came with the results of the scan, the news was bad – a ruptured muscle and football seemed out of the question this year. And here he is, too, singing the Auld Triangle on stage, the cup gleaming to his side.

The match itself wasn’t quite an epic but it was memorable all the same, mostly for Ramor’s exhilarating attacking flair early on, pace and stout defending throughout. Gowna played their part and lost nothing in defeat; with a league title secured and a first final appearance since 2007, this season has been a resounding success for them.

But Ramor’s need was probably greater. In the aftermath, several of the players referenced the breakthrough win in 2016 and the sense they felt that they would be making the autumn pilgrimage to HQ an annual one. They were young and knew only winning.

In the meantime, they have, as Liam Brady said, learned how to lose. This season, they showed they had also learned how not to.

“We might have had better footballing teams in the past but I think this is the most resilient bunch we’ve had. We’re probably never beaten,” was how wing-back Adam O’Connell neatly described it.

The Ramor United players take to the stage in Virginia at the homecoming. Photo by unknown

The 2019 county final loss was referenced a few times in the build-up. That “hurt, hurt, hurt”, Ado said. A heavy quarter-final loss last year, when a perfect storm of injuries and a tough draw engulfed them, had seen Ramor’s stock fall, their bottle even questioned. Serious footballers can’t stand for that and they didn’t. They had to win this; doing so in such style was merely a bonus.

On the stage, the MC, Owen McConnon, is whipping the crowd into a frenzy now. The rain has started spilling down but no-one seems to notice.

Young and old are here, grandparents and babies. The streets are alive with kids emblazoned in the Ramor club gear, squadrons of teenagers it seems. The town has exploded in the last decade which brings advantages and brings challenges. There is a young population here. The club must now mine the potential from the next generation while preserving their identity, that of essentially a country club situated in a growing town.

Ray Cole - senior winner as a player in '92 and now as manager - doesn't forget that part of it. On the lorry, microphone in hand, he thanks each of his backroom team, the committee members and everyone who helped out.

Then, he addresses the giddy children down below.

“The players today were your age too and now they’re up here,” he says, urging them to aspire to follow in their footsteps. “That’s what it’s all about.”

A cheer erupts. The flames light up the way.