The day I met my GAA heroes, including mighty Frank Cogan

John Arnold was recently thrilled to be in the company of three men he long admired, but never had met before
The day I met my GAA heroes, including mighty Frank Cogan

GREATS: Frank Cogan beside Billy Morgan (right) before the 1973 All Ireland Football Final against Galway at Croke Park in 1973

LAST Saturday was one of those days when heroes become, not giants of men with an aura of invincibility about them, but ordinary humble folk.

I was thrilled to be in the company of three men I have long admired, though I’d never spoken to two of them before. Maybe I exaggerate a little saying I was in ‘the company of’ - in reality I was near them, but that was enough for me.

Mingled with that hero worship coming true was also a bitter-sweet occasion, one when expectations are changed utterly.

I was on duty as a voluntary steward at the Cork v Louth All Ireland Championship qualifier game in Pairc Ui Chaoimh. The contest will not go down in the storied annals of Gaelic Football as a classic!

Many times on television, I’d watched ultra-defensive games where one side sets up parking the bus in front of their goalie, but actually being on the side-line and observing 29 players in one half of the field, well, it was weird!

The first time I was in ‘old’ Pairc Ui Chaoimh on duty as a steward was for the National Football League Final in April, 1980. Before a crowd of nearly 40,000, Cork beat the Kingdom by a point.

That’s 42 years ago, and I haven’t been active as a Steward for all of those four decades. Nevertheless, I’ve well lost count of how many times I attended in such a role. Good weather, bad weather great games, woeful games - and generally very little of what we call ‘crowd control’ problems.

Yes, there were a few scary occasions when late surges of fans meant a lot of shoving and pushing on the terraces. Those not knowing often presume we get ‘well paid’ for four or five hours of a Saturday or Sunday. No, a voluntary steward is just that - no compulsion, no ‘you must do it’, we are GAA people and serve in whatever way we can.

The cause of my upset last Saturday was the absence of an ever-present, pleasant smiling figure who was always on duty at games, big and small - from County Championships to All Ireland series matches. Just a few days earlier, all of us in Cork Gaeldom were saddened by the sudden death of Bryan O Loughlin.

A Kanturk native but Cork city dweller for many years, Bryan was one of those understated and efficient people who have made the GAA the great sporting organisation it is.

As steward and Safety Officer, he was the ‘go-to’ man on big match days, a problem-solver, a listening ear, and a fount of wisdom.

When one is involved in any voluntary organisation for years, enemies can be made - or emerge - sometimes from petty jealousies or misplaced gripes, but truly, I can declare Bryan had no person to speak ill of him. He was a friend to everyone with a smiling, welcoming face and often a roguish wink over someone’s shoulder.

I missed many a big game over the years in the Park, but Bryan was always there. In recent years, he was the welcoming face of Cork GAA at the players’ and officials’ gate. His wife Bernadette died just last December and now Bryan is gone from our midst too.

As we gathered for refreshments before the game on Saturday, we remembered our colleague, one of the best, and in the stewards’ room we paid him our own special tribute. They say friendship doubles your joys and divides your sorrows, well, being a friend of Bryan O Loughlin was a true joy.

It must be nearly 50 years ago that we started taking pigs for home curing to the Murphy’s bacon factory on Evergreen Road in Cork city. I remember Frank Cogan working there with his white coat and white hat. A Cork footballer, he was powerful cut of a man - still is, as I met him and spoke with him for the first time ever at the match on Saturday.

On St Patrick’s Day in 1972, Munster and Leinster drew 1-14 apiece in the Railway Cup Football Final in Croke Park. It was late into that autumn before the replay took place in the Old Athletic Grounds here in Cork.

 It was my first time to see Munster playing football - all the greats of the time including Mick O’Connell, Tony McTague, Billy Morgan and of course Frank Cogan lined out.

Munster won the replay 2-14 to ten points and I was thrilled. I’d gone to the match with Dave Ryan, who was fiercely involved in our GAA club, driving youngsters to matches all over the place in his banger of a station wagon.

To mark Munster’s win, Dave stopped for a pint in Glanmire, Riverstown, and finally in Watergrasshill. In the dusk of an autumn evening, we were coming on down the hilly road towards Bartlemy when a sow crossed the road in front of us.

Brakes weren’t a thing Dave believed in so we hit her broadside, killed her stone dead, and sent her flying through the air into a nearby field. I was in shock and muttered something like ‘And pigs might fly’, as Dave sped on from the scene of the encounter - that was one animal that never got to Evergreen Road!

The following year, I was in Croke Park when Frank and Co, led by Billy Morgan, won the Sam Maguire. Frank is still part of the Cork backroom team as a masseur with the footballers. 

For the first time ever, I met him on Saturday and shook those mighty hands that so often plucked the leather from the sky. 

He talked of 1967 and Red Collier and Meath and Mick Burke getting injured - ‘The one that got away’ - his recall of Cork and Nemo games is mighty.

It was so good after all these years to meet a childhood hero. With just a handy crowd on Saturday, we weren’t over-taxed with stewarding duties and I was able to sit on the side-line on a chair provided for someone or another who wasn’t there.

Next seat to me was Dr Con Murphy. Since I started following Cork teams exactly half a century ago, Dr Con was ever present as medical advisor, ‘stitcher’, blood remover and assistant selector.

I took my chance and struck up a conversation with him - oh, what a pity the match didn’t go to extra time and penalties as then I’d have gleaned more amazing stories from Leeside’s favourite medic.

He was mascot for the Cork team in 1956 and for more than 40 years served Cork GAA in a voluntary capacity. with generations of hurlers and footballers benefitting from his knowledge and skill.

We parted on Saturday promising to meet again soon and have a real chat for at least two or three hours!

Cork won the game eventually and John Cleary was warmly congratulated by the Louth team boss, the great Mickey Harte.

It was in Portlaoise back in 2007 that I first met Mickey - Cork were playing Louth that day too. We were there on Saturday to see a football match yet Mickey had to deal with and process the most awful and disgraceful conduct any human could have to contend with just a few days previously. Mocking the death of his beloved daughter Michaela - such depravity.

As I headed for home on Saturday evening, I thought of my late friend Bryan and Frank and Dr Con and Mickey - GAA men to the core. I am the better for having met them all.

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