Derrytresk's sense of injustice turns to anger

 

ALL-IRELAND CLUB JFC:A SHOCKED sense of injustice has turned to seething anger in the Tyrone townland of Derrytresk: instead of looking forward to easily the biggest day in its 109-year history at Croke Park on Sunday, this junior club is reeling from seven suspensions, a €2,500 fine and a five-year ban from representing their county or province.

The ‘Good Luck’ signs are out and the blue and white Derrytresk colours bedeck the country roads around the clubhouse built by voluntary labour that serves as the hub of this tiny community on the shores of Lough Neagh. There, the chairman Barney Campbell has the air of a man who is still trying to figure out how a fairytale year could have turned so sour.

“We just didn’t see the onslaught coming: we put our hands up regarding what happened with our subs and said we would take the punishment but this punishment doesn’t fit the crime. I believe we have been scapegoated because we’re a wee club from Tyrone who don’t have the resources to fight back.”

The now infamous mass brawl in Portlaoise during their victory over Kerry side Dromid Pearses lasted barely a minute but has become a YouTube curiosity: 200,000 hits and counting. The video shows Derrytresk substitutes piling onto the park to join the action on the field. The media had a field day.

A female supporter from Kerry told Liveline listeners on Monday how a child had asked her “why are they hurting my daddy” as they watched him being kicked on the ground by several opponents.

The Dromid manager claimed three of his side had their testicles pulled by Derrytresk players before the throw-in; that another had suffered a broken cheekbone and stud marks on his back after he was stamped on and another was suffering from concussion. A woman struck star player Declan O’Sullivan with her handbag.

As for the fracas itself, Derrytresk officials claim their youngest player, 17-year-old Caolan Corr, was punched to the ground in front of the subs, who were sitting in the crowd because there was no proper seating for them in the stadium. They reacted on the spur of the moment to protect a young colleague; the club and its supporters admit this was wrong but insist the punishment is unjust. Further in their defence, they can point to an excellent disciplinary record (one red card and only a few yellows all season) and the fact that they are known as a small, mobile team rather than a physical one.

“We only have two boys over six foot and it would take a few of our other lads put together just to make a single man, they’re so scrawny,” Campbell said. “We are young, inexperienced and certainly wouldn’t have the cynicism or the mentality to plan what some people have been accusing us of. We have been demonised.”

Instead of countering the accusations, the club decided to keep its head down and deal with official GAA channels. It expected to be punished but what it didn’t realise was that in the court of public opinion, it had already been hung, drawn and quartered. Like many clubs, the role of the PRO is to call in match results, not to defend the seemingly indefensible on national media.

“Very few people up here take much notice of the southern papers or radio – I had hardly heard of Livelinebefore this all happened. We didn’t realise the effect it was having,” Campbell said. “We thought the GAA would deal with us fairly: we expected to be punished but we didn’t expect a witch hunt.”

The Fir an Chnoic (the Men from the Hill) club is drawn from the smallest catchment area in Co Tyrone. The townland three miles from Coalisland barely measures a square mile and comprises fewer than 60 houses. Since its formation in 1903, it has filled the role of whipping boy for the many bigger and far more powerful clubs throughout the county.

“Two years ago a group of five went to watch a match,” recalls Ciarán O’Neill, an avid supporter and former player. “Three of them ended up togging out and the two girls ran the line. That’s where we were at and that’s what we were used to until this year. Now we should be in dreamland but the dream feels like a bit of a nightmare right now.”

Over the years the club nearly folded more than once. In the 1950s, emigration took a heavy toll and during the Troubles this overwhelmingly republican area lost players to prison and violence. A large banner on the former RUC station in nearby Coalisland exhorts everyone to attend a commemoration on Sunday week for four IRA men who were shot by the SAS at the church in Clonoe, the parish of which Derrytresk is part.

Before this year, only two players on the panel had even played on the county park in Omagh and nobody has ever come within an ass’s roar of the county team. Last season Derrytresk finished 14 out of 18 in the county league. In its long history, it has won few honours – it was the county whipping boy, defeat was taken as given.

This season, though, everything has changed. This team – six sets of brothers among it – won a county final, then a provincial, which brought it 60 minutes away from an All-Ireland final. Four points to three down at half-time against an experienced, seasoned Kerry outfit, this young team rallied to win the game convincingly by 1-10 to 0-7.

Instead of basking in a once in several lifetimes’ experience, club officials and players have been making the 170km round trip to Dublin to attend disciplinary and appeals hearings into the early hours of the morning. It now looks like they will do so again one more time before the final.

Packie O’Neill, whose two sons play in the team and who has taken time from his construction job in London to attend the disciplinary appeals, has kept a newspaper scrapbook since the beginning of the campaign. Glowing headlines display a tale of a plucky little team from nowhere taking on giants and felling them. The scrapbook stops after the All-Ireland semi-final. Now newspapers don’t come into the house and the radio and television are turned off.

“I am heartbroken for the boys who won’t get to run out on Croke Park – they are like sons to me and to see young boys crying isn’t right,” he said. “They are treating us like dirt – we thought we were part of a family but now we feel we’re just not wanted.”

In the run-up to the final against Galway’s Clonbur, club officials have been trying to shield the team but the furore has been impossible to ignore. “After the game it never entered our heads what would happen to us,” said midfielder Ronan O’Neill. “I shook the hands of two elderly Kerrymen on the way out and they congratulated me on the win. We had a great night in the clubhouse: it was only the next day when I read the papers I realised it was a big deal.

“The bans have been devastating – we’ve been training with these lads all year and we’re not just team-mates, we’re best friends. You want to be running on to Croke Park with your best mates – that’s what you dream about. It has been a distraction but it has made us even more hungry.”