Kevin McStay: ‘It was a 100-1 shot that the ball would land on the shoulder of the linesman'

Former Roscommon manager recounts run ins on the sideline and at the army barracks

Roscommon manager Kevin McStay remonstrates with an official during the county’s All-Ireland SFC Super 8 defeat to Donegal at Dr Hyde Park, Roscommon. McStay finished the match sitting on a chair away from the dugout on the orders of a linesman. Photograph: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile via Getty Images

Roscommon manager Kevin McStay remonstrates with an official during the county’s All-Ireland SFC Super 8 defeat to Donegal at Dr Hyde Park, Roscommon. McStay finished the match sitting on a chair away from the dugout on the orders of a linesman. Photograph: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile via Getty Images

 

In an extract from his memoir the former Mayo player and Roscommon manager recounts his run in with officialdom on the sideline and at the army barracks

You shouldn’t be in here . . . Kevin’

‘I know!’ I replied.

‘Kevin!

‘You should not be in here’

‘I know, I know that,’ I admitted a second time, but I was already a fair bit into the room, and I could see the linesman sitting down to my right.

I turned slightly towards him.

‘I am really sorry,’ I told him.

But it was the referee I wanted, not the linesman. That was why I had knocked on the door. I was surprised that I was let in to be honest.

Niall Cullen was of no real interest to me. That was the linesman’s name. I gave him his apology. That was that sorted. Now that I was standing in the middle of the small room it was the referee I really wanted. Ciarán Brannigan. A Down man.

What’s a man from Down doing refereeing a game between Donegal and Roscommon?

‘Ciarán’

Chrissakes, it’s the Super 8s, it shouldn’t be hard to get referees at this stage of the season.

Get someone from Cork.

Kerry.

Anyone from Leinster.

‘It was just a complete accident. It should not have happened, I know that and I am quite calm about it now and I apologise, Ciarán.

‘I really apologise’

I gave another quick turn of the head towards the linesman. Two apologies. Twice as many as he deserved.

‘Okay’ Ciarán said, but I could see by the look on his face that he was not feeling all that okay. ‘But it’s not acceptable for that to happen to one of my officials, Kevin’

He wasn’t happy.

Suddenly, I wasn’t as calm as I had promised him. ‘Do you realise, Ciarán, we’re fighting for our lives out there.

‘And that decision you just made out there . . . it’s a killer.’

Calm it.

‘Not to give us that free is a killer.’

He could see that I was still riled. I continued, though I remember thinking to myself he looks like he’s sorry.

‘Ciarán, the whole stadium knows it was a free’

‘That’s not the way I saw it,’ he replied.

‘How could you not see it?’

He was giving me a long, sympathetic look. ‘I’m really sorry if it was a free, Kevin, I just didn’t see it that way.’

I had nothing more to say to him. But I stood there. And he stood there. I know he is a good referee, and I know also that dozens and dozens of times I have said on TV when I am commentating on matches, that if the referee doesn’t see something he simply can’t blow that whistle. Referees don’t refuse to give frees. Referees don’t have any spite in them. I think!

How many times, I wonder, have I clenched my RTÉ microphone and reminded the whole country of that little fact. That managers are hot under the collar. That supporters are mad as hell, and that the coolest person in the whole place is usually the referee who is doing his level best to maintain law and order.

But I could not help wondering as I turned on my heels. Neither could I bin my paranoia.

What’s Ciarán Brannigan doing refereeing Donegal? And that other fella? He’s an Ulsterman too . . . Fermanagh.

I closed the door behind me.

Ciarán had actually apologised to me twice.

‘If I missed it, I apologise Kevin.’

I wasn’t expecting one apology, never mind two. I had a dressingroom to get back to. We were down five points.

Our second game in the Super 8s was as good as lost.

The 2018 season was right on the brink.

He had been all of the things I was not expecting him to be. He was rational and understanding of my situation as a manager in the deep end. He was also empathetic. He had told me he was human, and that he did not see what I saw. But, as I turned my back on him, he had also promised, ‘I am going to have to take some action about what you did!’

‘Ahhh . . . come on.

‘I’ve apologised,’ I reminded him.

‘I’ve said I’m sorry’

                                                     *********

Roscommon and Donegal players scuffle at half-time during the 2018 All-Ireland Super 8 match at Dr Hyde Park. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Roscommon and Donegal players scuffle at half-time during the 2018 All-Ireland Super 8 match at Dr Hyde Park. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

The linesman wouldn’t stop to talk.

And what do you do when someone you want to talk with refuses to stop walking away from you? You reach out. You reach out and take hold of their arm.

He was entitled to keep walking.

I was very animated, but the incident between me and the linesman had passed off. There was a bit of a schmozzle on the field.

That passed off too. The half-time whistle had blown. Once the players had gone into the dressingroom we had our chat out on the field, as we always did. Liam (McHale), Ger (Dowd) and myself. We always took a couple of minutes out there, in the full glare of everyone in the ground but, at the same time, chatting out there offered absolute privacy.

I liked the players to have a few minutes alone to themselves in the dressingroom. There happened to be a ball at my feet. I don’t know why, but I scooped it up with my hand and, yes, I did notice Ciarán Brannigan and his linesmen and umpires walking away together. They were about 10, maybe 15 yards away.

Again, it was not a conscious decision, but I realised that I had lobbed the ball up into the air in their general direction.

I imagined it hopping in the middle of them.

But then – as if in slow motion – I followed the ball as it descended. And I could see it was about to hit the linesman, or go damn close to landing on him. The linesman I had been having strong words with a minute or two before. The man I had grabbed by the arm.

Christ . . . it’s going to hit him.

                                                     *********

The ball landed on the linesman’s shoulder.

I watched it slowly descend and hit him.

Shit.

It was a 100 to 1 shot – make that 1,000 to 1 – that the ball would land on the shoulder of the feckin linesman.

‘The ball hit him, y’know?’

It was Liam who made that announcement, and who also decided to look into a crystal ball.

‘You’ll be in trouble for that I’d say’

I shook my shoulders. I said it would be okay, it would be fine.

‘He’ll make something of that, he’s bound to’ The second voice belonged to Brian Carroll, the Roscommon county board secretary.

I said nothing.

But, I decided I’d go into the referee’s room. I would tell them that I was sorry, it was a complete accident! I threw the ball deliberately.

But . . . I did not throw it at you deliberately.

That’s what I’d tell them.

                                                     *********

Kevin McStay watches the All-Ireland SFC Super 8 match against Donegal away from the dugout after an encounter with officials. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Kevin McStay watches the All-Ireland SFC Super 8 match against Donegal away from the dugout after an encounter with officials. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

I walked down the sideline.

The second half was in front of me. The referee and his officials came back out.

Say nothing.

Do Nothing.

That’s what I decided upon.

The linesmen had swapped sides of the field.

Good.

The man close to me was from Tipperary. Derek O’Mahony is his name, and he was standing close enough to me and there did not appear to be any big deal.

Okay, they’ve let it go.

The ball was about to be thrown in. But the referee did not throw the ball up. He started playing with his watch or something?

What the fuck’s he doing?

‘Kevin . . . ’

The linesman had come up behind me.

‘Best thing now is, Kevin,’ he continued. ‘I’m advising you, come out of the area and sit down . . . do it of your own accord.’

He was not finished talking.

‘Let someone else manage the line for the second half.’

‘Why?’ I asked.

He looked at me.

‘No, no . . . it’s better now if you don’t make it necessary for him to come all the way across the field and have a big chat with you.

‘Cameras will be on you.

‘If you sit down there now, and let him throw the ball in . . . well, life will go on . . . for now.’

I knew he was right.

I turned around, and there was an empty chair positioned five yards behind me that, I presumed, belonged to a steward or someone else. I sat down on the chair. And, to his eternal credit, Séamus Sweeney, the chairman of the Roscommon county board took a second chair and sat himself down beside me. I would not be in danger of looking like a total idiot sitting there when the television cameras zoomed in on me during the second half.

Donegal also won that half 0-10 to 0-8.

It was a 0-20 to 0-13 defeat in front of our own people.

                                                     *********

Kevin McStay during his playing days with Mayo in 1989. Photograph: James Meehan/Inpho
Kevin McStay during his playing days with Mayo in 1989. Photograph: James Meehan/Inpho

One of the best decisions I made in my life was joining the army, and one of the best decisions I made was to leave the army.

The army made me. Certainly, it finished off the excellent work that so many good people in my life had begun. From a young age, I had thought of becoming a teacher, but I never did enough to get there.

Too much time was spent dreaming. I’m a dreamer by nature. My mother suggested the army to me. On November 29th, 1982, I was in, which was no mean feat as there were huge numbers vying for cadetships. Thirty-two years later, I was out.

It began in Cadet School in The Curragh, where I spent 18 months and where it was the army’s business to straighten out my head. There was no dreaming for those 18 months. They were torturous most of the time. Great, but definitely torturous. And not always so great either.

Overnight, I was owned.

Up at 6.15 in the mornings, and lucky to get back into my bed by 11.0 that night. We had no idea when, or if, we’d ever get home. Every day took a physical toll. There was the constant training, and there was also the academic side, and at the end of it I got to go back to college, to UCG, which was a fine prize for everyone, and which for someone like me, from a huge family, was an extra fattened prize. Of course, I got to UCG and mostly messed up my opportunity there.

Slobbering, as my father might have put it.

Fluting around and dreaming.

I spent three years in UCG studying for my engineering degree, but after being locked up for 18 months, I was also out of control. I was dreadful. I let myself down. I was playing Collingwood soccer and Sigerson football, and basketball. I was playing snooker, and drinking. I was doing everything and I was doing nothing very well. I never applied myself, and didn’t qualify, and two decades would pass before I made up for that . . . that slobbering, and stood in full military uniform, my wife on one side of me, my mother on the other, with a Master’s.

For those 18 months, we always seemed to be carrying some load or other. A rifle and a pack, or some other load. Every day, we were owned by someone. Even when you got home, you were still army property. You had to leave the barracks in a blazer. I’d feel an arrow pointed straight down at my tight shaved head, as I sat on the train home to Ballina.

Before heading anywhere near the train station, you’d have to parade. And if you were not spotless, then you were not getting on any train. You would be presented with another 24 hours to turn out spotless.

As the army was going about its business of straightening me out, it was no surprise really that I became one of the best footballers in Mayo. I won an All Star award within three years.

Typically, I was sitting on a chair getting my head shaved, which was a fortnightly ritual in The Curragh, when the barber told me to pick up a copy of the paper to one side. It was the Evening Press.

‘Is that you?’ he asked. ‘It’s you, isn’t it?’

BIG SURPRISE AS McSTAY SELECTED FOR MAYO

There were no phones in sight very much in the early 80s.

There was no letter sent to me to say I’d been selected on the Mayo team for the Connacht final in 1983. I had never trained with the team. Though Liam O’Neill knew about me and he wanted someone who could shoot the lights out, and he chose me. He pitched me in and I did more than all right on Johnny Hughes.

We lost 1-13 to 1-10. By the end of the year, however, I had my All-Ireland medal when the Mayo under-21s drew with Derry in the middle of October, and then went up to Irvinestown and defeated them two weeks later, 1-8 to 1-5.

I never got a chance to celebrate the win as the army had decided that I needed an extra lesson in life.

It wasn’t slobbering that led to me being disciplined.

It was a green biro.

In the army during my cadetship, if you wished to do anything or go anywhere, you needed to make a written application.

A ‘scrianta’, it was called commonly by us.

If you wanted to pop down to the shop to buy a pair of laces, you needed your scrianta. Without that piece of paper, you were going nowhere.

It was the final weekend in October, a Bank Holiday, and we were all being let out on the Saturday morning. We didn’t have to hightail it back to the barracks until Monday evening. A whole weekend, and on the Sunday I was playing in the All-Ireland under-21 football final replay.

I’d spent the week learning how to ride a horse. A week in Equestrian School was one of the easier weeks in a cadetship, and I was fluting around on the Friday afternoon when one of the other cadets told me that ‘they’ were looking for me.

‘Your scrianta . . . it’s not in,’ he shouted over to me.

I knew how to write one in double quick time.

I ran into another lad’s room, and found a pen. I ruled out the sheet of paper, perfectly, and just as ‘they’ liked and I slept happily that night, awaiting a full three days out of sight of the army. The next morning, on parade, with everyone bursting to go and everyone spotless, my name was called out.

The training officer was not happy with me.

Though all I heard were the words ‘green pen’

What?

What’s he just said?

‘Now . . . Cadet McStay’

I tried to stand as tall as I have ever stood in my life.

I stared straight ahead.

‘Now’ he continued.

‘Cadet McStay, you will not be going to any All-Ireland final . . . until Sunday morning.

‘You, Cadet McStay, you will also be back here at 10 o’clock on sunday night’

Dermot Earley, as decent a man as ever walked into the army, did all he could for me but there is no shifting a decision in the military once it has been made. And when we won the game and I wanted to join my team-mates for our celebration, Dermot tried again.

The bonfires had to be lit without me.

Dermot had picked me up in The Curragh and drove me to the game, and he also brought me back to the barracks by 10 o’clock on the Sunday night.

Bank Holiday Monday morning I met a NCO with a bucket and scrub at his feet.

There were four of us. And four buckets, four scrubs.

He pointed at the metal staircase.

‘I want it shining!’ he ordered.

The Pressure Game by Kevin McStay (€20) is published by Hero Books and is available in all good book stores, and online at Amazon (printed book) and Apple, Kobo and all digital stores (ebook).

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