On their way home last Sunday, a couple of hours after securing promotion, the Wicklow footballers took a detour and stopped for a quick drink.
Heads up and chests out, in they trooped. On the TV, Kilkenny were out-hurling Cork. Same as ever. The locals swung around, cocking their heads in that quizzical way only folk with years of barstool experience can manage without pulling a neck muscle. Who are these lads?
A couple of hundred kilometres away, somewhere in the northwest of the country, Tony McEntee was about to start making his way back to Crossmaglen. His neighbour and friend would eventually be doing likewise, but at that moment Oisín McConville was in some random watering hole in the southeast of the country, soaking in promotion with the Wicklow footballers.
“I actually text Tony after the game,” recalls McConville. “He text back and then he rang me later on. It was a quick conversation, he was delighted for me, I was delighted for him. ‘All the best, see you in Croke Park,’ kinda thing.”
On Saturday, two boys who grew up a couple of hundred yards apart in Crossmaglen will manage against each other at Croke Park in their current roles as bosses of counties from different provinces – McEntee with Sligo and McConville with Wicklow.
Some of McConville’s earliest memories are of kicking a ball around the square in Crossmaglen with whatever crew of kids assembled on a given day, though it usually included the McEntee twins – Tony and John. Jumpers for goalposts, fly keepers, next goal wins, the best of times.
“We lived 400 or 500 yards apart all our lives,” says McEntee. “Oisín was a year above me, but we played football together right the way through with the school, the club and with Armagh. I then actually managed Oisín with Crossmaglen, not that he paid any attention to me!”
But it was a bountiful partnership – with McEntee as manager and McConville on the field, Crossmaglen Rangers won back-to-back All-Ireland club titles in 2011 and 2012.
The dynamic between the pair continues to evolve. These days, the calls are usually to discuss what is arguably the most important football team in the McConville household right now – the Crossmaglen under-12s.
“One of my kids is with the under-12s, you’d be going to the games anyway, so you might as well get involved,” says the Crossmaglen under-12 and Wicklow senior football manager.
McEntee is the club’s coaching officer. Need any jobs done, ask busy men.
For Wicklow to snap up Division Four promotion last Sunday, they needed to beat Waterford and hope Sligo defeated Leitrim. In the days beforehand, McConville and McEntee were in regular contact. They talked bibs and balls and pitches; they talked about wishing the rain gods would take some time off. But they didn’t talk Sligo or Wicklow.
“There have been plenty of conversations recently, because of the way the weather was we were trying to get spaces for teams to train and that sort of thing,” says McConville.
“We never talked about Sligo or Wicklow. It was obviously an important week for both of us but there was no point going there, they needed to win and so did we.”
Before throw-in at Fraher Field, McConville instructed the Wicklow backroom team and subs not to take out their phones or be checking on events in Páirc Seán MacDiarmada. The message was clear: focus on the task at hand.
But as the Wicklow game entered injury-time, and with visitors in control, McConville turned around to be greeted by a scene that resembled a mobile phone convention. “So much for listening to me,” he smiles.
“Immediately after our match a reporter came over and told me Wicklow had won,” recalls McEntee. “I was delighted for Oisín. To take Wicklow up is a marvellous achievement, because that first year of intercounty management is very difficult.
“The people in Crossmaglen are getting a great buzz out of the game this week, I suppose because of the novelty of it really.”
In their playing days, they pretty much won the lot together – Crossmaglen conquered Armagh, Ulster and Ireland. If club football was a computer game then Cross’ completed it, quite a few times. They were key players on Armagh’s iconic 2002 All-Ireland-winning side as well, while Oisín was also joint Crossmaglen manager with Tony’s brother, John, for three years.
“It has been good craic around the town, the final has definitely generated plenty of chat,” adds McConville.
The sides have already met each other this season, when Sligo ran out 0-18 to 0-12 winners at Aughrim in round two.
McEntee has a much deeper intercounty back catalogue than McConville as he was part of Stephen Rochford’s management set-up in Mayo and this is his third season as Sligo manager. McConville is in his first senior intercounty management gig.
Both teams are also in championship action next weekend, with Sligo off to London for a Connacht quarter-final.
“Right now, for me I want to get a result this weekend, that’s our aim,” says McEntee. “The London thing becomes a challenge afterwards, so we’ll have to manage that through the training load next week.”
Wicklow face Carlow in the Leinster SFC next Sunday.
“Promotion was everything for us, but then when you get to a league final you want to win it,” says McConville. “Aspirations sort of change as you go along, but we won’t risk any players who have niggles.”
The rat-a-tat-tat nature of the season doesn’t allow much time for reflection or self-analysis, but the last few weeks have been encouraging for McConville. Promotion at the first attempt. Not bad at all.
“Confidence is something you get from winning games, players and management gain confidence from winning,” he says. “You find a little bit of trust in what you are doing yourself and whenever the players trust you and you trust the players, it just opens up more opportunities.”
McConville is not one for piseogs, he doesn’t carry a Crossmaglen teddy in his gear bag and he doesn’t insist on wearing lucky black and yellow jocks on matchday.
“No, it’s almost like I’ve done the Cross’ thing, played for 20 something years, managed them, coached them. I’ll always be Cross’, always, but I suppose I don’t feel the need to keep reminding myself of that.”
Still, he’s looking forward to glancing down the Croke Park sideline on Saturday and watching his old buddy issuing orders, hellbent on taking down McConville’s charges. They’ve been friends and team-mates and competitors all their lives, from the small square in Crossmaglen now to the big house of Croke Park.
The goalposts won’t be a bundle of jumpers on Saturday, but we might well see fly keepers – given how Gaelic football has caught up with 1980s playground goalkeeping practices. All that’s left is for McConville, in the closing minutes, to start roaring down the sideline: “Tony, Tony, next goal wins?”
No matter how it all turns out, the boys from Crossmaglen will chat afterwards. Probably about the under-12s, mind.
“I wouldn’t see Tony much on a day-to-day basis, but we’d be in regular contact over the underage stuff,” says McConville. “Tony oversees everything in relation to that, he’s brilliant at it, and we are lucky in the club to have him as coaching officer.”
Rarely has there been such chatter around south Armagh about a Division Four final involving teams from Leinster and Connacht.
The Wicklow and Sligo managers have been busy fielding requests this week from family and friends about tickets for the game. Complimentary ones, no less. Perhaps in the soft seats too, if possible. Thanks.
Up Wicklow. Or should that be Sligo?
Either way, up Cross’.