GAA family a comfort for Jap the son of Jap

 

KEITH DUGGANon the ties that bind Paul Finlay and his recently deceased father Kieran with the Monaghan football team both have served well

“JAP”: ALL of his life, Paul Finlay thought the nickname he had inherited from his father related to a local expression. “You know when you’d be running home after school on a wet day and you get splashed up the back,” he explains on a blustery lunchtime in a midlands hotel.

“That’s what people say. ‘You got japped’. That was what people called it at home. But someone told me since the funeral that there was something else behind it. I haven’t got to the bottom of it yet.”

The Monaghan man can smile at the memory but in the decade he has been playing for the county, nothing has been as vivid or disconcerting as the last month. When Kieran Finlay died after an illness in February, the thoughts of many people automatically turned to the county’s stellar summer of 1979, when “Jap” Finlay from Ballybay gave an exhibition and landed 1-9 on the day the county won the Anglo-Celt Cup for the first time since 1938.

That scoring record lasted until Oisín McConville’s tour-de-force some 20 years later against Down.

Paul Finlay would follow his father into Monaghan dressingrooms some 24 years later and establish himself as a key figure in the county’s football fortunes, a languid play-anywhere figure with his father’s eye for kicking from distance.

The Finlays aren’t the first family to be overwhelmed by the life force the GAA community brings in times of grief and they know they won’t be the last. For Paul, returning to the routine of training after his father’s funeral felt natural and in his first game back, against Louth, there was something warming about standing there on the field for the minute’s silence that was impeccably honoured.

Nonetheless, he has been feeling his way back.

“After the Louth game we were obviously in good form and seeing my mother Ann and my two sisters and fiancé just sitting there and he wasn’t: it hit me,” he says, wincing a little at the memory.

“I was after kicking a few points and we had a good performance and he would always have been there and had a few words of encouragement. He just loved meeting people. So that was hard.”

The Finlay contribution runs through the heart of Monaghan football. It is hard to overestimate just how far outside the gate the Farney County was considered on the May day when Down visited Castleblaney in 1979. The match turned out to be one of the toughest ever played in the Ulster theatre, with two of the Down men, Adrian McCaulfield and Emmet McGiven, finishing the day in hospital.

Finlay snr had started the match on the bench and came in after 20 minutes to chip two fine points. In the semi-final, another significant win over Armagh, 2-10 to 2-8, he kicked 0-3. The final was against Donegal and Finlay was handed placed ball duties as well.

The start of the match was a fiasco: the ball was thrown in while the brass band was still on the field. Donegal scored a quick point, which was cancelled out: the band wasn’t going anywhere until they had performed the national anthem. It was duly observed, the game was restarted and Finlay wasted no time in landing two quick points.

“The pattern was soon set for Kieran Finlay, who was to dominate the scoring,” wrote Seán Kilfeather in this newspaper. The game’s only goal soon followed when Fergus Caulfield sent a high ball in “and Finlay nipped in to catch it high over his head and without any fuss he drove it beyond Noel McCole’s reach”.

Kilfeather continued: “If the blue and white flags of Monaghan had been to the fore recently, they dominated the scene completely now.” The final score was 1-15 to 0-11; after all that time, Monaghan returned to prominence in style.

Paul Finlay didn’t see that match: he wasn’t born until 1983.

“It is more something other people mentioned in conversation. He was never one for going over his own games so he never really talked much about 1979.

“He was proud of it, surely. But I picked up bits and pieces from other people. I have seen video highlights of that game and he just seemed to have one of those days when everything was going right. There were some really impressive free-taking; some of the strikes off the ground out near the sideline were amazing. And that was when you had no option but to kick it from the ground.

“That 1979 team has had a few get-togethers recently and there was a DVD given out of the match. So it is something we will hold on to now for the rest of the days when we want to reminisce.

“I have no memory of him playing with Monaghan at all. I do have a vague memory of him playing with the club when he won his first and only championship medal with Ballybay in 1987 and I was running around aged about three or four then and I don’t recall much. But I can see him vaguely in the Ballybay jersey.

“Funny, I do have a strong memory of being out with him in 1989. He was still training and we were at the pitch one day and he was running. And he took a pain in his chest. He was calling me to pull up. He was sent straight up to the Mater for a stress test but they never let him out. He needed open heart surgery.

“So that was a big thing for him because he was keeping fit and coming to the end of his playing days and he was just 36. It was a lot to cope with because that was the end of his running and his football.”

But even though Finlay snr’s football life was ending as Paul’s was beginning, Monaghan football remained a big subject in the house. Kieran took Kevin, his oldest son, and Paul to kick a ball on the pitch in Ballybay and when Paul began to make an impression on Monaghan underage teams, he would offer him coaching on taking frees.

“I think we both had a serious relationship with him from that point of view. But I never had that skill he had of kicking the ball from the ground. I do take the odd 45 but I am more comfortable with the ball in hand. It’s a dying art. You can count on one hand the guys that can still really to that. Bryan Sheehan would be the pick of them. But he gave me a lot of tips and it was great to have that influence.”

Finlay made his championship debut against Armagh in 2003 in a match that represented Monaghan’s biggest upset in Ulster since that 1979 clash with Down. Armagh were the All-Ireland champions and were trading on an aura of invincibility. Monaghan were considered canon fodder that day in Clones.

Instead, they managed to suspend reality for 70 minutes and frustrated Armagh on a scoreline of 0-13 to 0-9. Finlay took frees and just had one of those dream days when the ball seemed to sail over.

“I was 19. We were coming from nowhere that day but we had been well prepared by Colm Coyle. The funny thing was I wasn’t nervous or whatever. I just felt that this is where I wanted to be playing. And I seemed to be able to kick the ball from serious distances that day that I’m not kicking now! But that day stands out and I think it was one that Dad enjoyed a lot.”

Finlay has lost four Ulster finals at senior, U-21 and minor level. The bare facts suggest a career defined by disappointment but the reality has been more complex.

Few counties improved as dramatically as Monaghan over the past eight years, driven by Séamus McEnaney’s energy.

When the Ulster champions of 1979 went to Croke Park for the All-Ireland semi-final, Kerry were waiting and they gave the newcomers an infamous lesson on the big time. When Paul Finlay got to play his first championship match there 28 years later, Kerry were again the opposition.

But this time, the Ulster men played with verve and conviction for the entire match; they might have won and were left heartbroken to not at least earn a draw. Monaghan football people headed north with mixed emotions. The 2007 match drew comparisons to the famous meeting between the counties in 1985, when Monaghan had taken Kerry to an All-Ireland semi-final replay. Kerry-Monaghan games was not a subject the Finlay boys spoke about much.

“There was no reason to talk about those days. You couldn’t look back on them with any satisfaction because we failed to get over the line. He just didn’t see the point in that. It was all about going forward.

“So even though the Kerry game was probably the biggest game in my career, we didn’t talk about it much. I have never looked at that game. Maybe when I am finished playing I will do. And Dad hated watching videos of his own stuff.

“Maybe it doesn’t seem as good when you look back but he just wasn’t into it for whatever reason. He preferred to look ahead. We did have a lot of good days, even though he was frustrated as much as me that we didn’t get over the line in those Ulster finals. But I know I made him proud. We were all happy going home after the good days.”

And so it went. Football remained the abiding interest of the family even after Kieran became ill. It helped that Eamonn McEnaney, the Monaghan coach, had played on teams with Kieran and they became friends in the years afterwards.

In the days around the funeral, the Finlays met countless footballers, obscure and well known, who had come across Kieran at one time or another.

Paul was taken aback by how many players of his own generation turned up to pay their respects. When he returned to training, it helped too it was McEnaney’s voice he was hearing through the fog. Every training session felt a bit more normal.

“Although it has been a really difficult time . . . I certainly wasn’t expecting to experience this at this stage in my life, it has been hard to hold your focus and concentration in different aspects of playing. But it was still an easy decision to make because knowing my father, even when he was sick, he was always talking about the game and asking about training.

“So he wouldn’t have wanted me to be out of the game. I have no regrets about playing away and getting stuck into it.”

Already, they are reaching the critical part of the season. Monaghan, like most teams, are desperately trying to tap into some kind of consistent form before they enter the hard-running days of championship. It is proving elusive.

Tomorrow, they face Galway in the neutral venue of Pearse Park, punishment for their part in the half-time pushing-and-shoving against Kildare. The return of Tommy Freeman, one of the most lacerating forwards of the last 10 years, has been a bonus.

Other senior men like Gary McQuaid and Conor McManus are also returning. Finlay is convinced they have the depth to make a bit of an impression. And he still has a good few seasons in which to add to the Finlay family collection of Ulster medals.

“I hope so. But the game owes you nothing. I just want to enjoy playing. If I can go and win something with Monaghan, all the better. And even if I don’t, it is all still worth it.”