The last great blaze of a fading autumn

Guinness kicker

What the fuck does he want?”

The familiar low-arsed heft of coach Hauley O’Brien was silhouetted against the autumn dusk as he picked up the last stray football from beneath the wire mesh behind the town goal. He squeezed it into the frayed old ball bag and pulled the drawstring tight as he stood up and called Grady over to him.

Grady was not in the humour for any more talk tonight about the big play-off game against Coolderragh on Sunday. Relegation for the losers.

The pain in his left ankle was worse than ever and the aching in his right knee was a right bastard. Nagging away like an auld wan.

What the fuck does he want?

Most of the others were in the dressing room by now, just a few of the younger lads thunking a few balls at each other down at the far goal. Nothing to be hurrying off for and still mad for it — they would learn soon enough.

“How’s the ankle, Billy?” said O’Brien, the heavy furrowed brows discernible now as Grady drew near.

”Yerra, it’s getting there … it’ll be all right for Sunday …”

“Listen, I want a word with you inside in the room. Get togged off and showered and I’ll see you in 10,” as he hooshed the ball bag up behind his right shoulder and headed for the clubhouse.

Not a man to waste words was Micheál “Hauley” O’Brien, coach now, but buddy and team-mate down the years.

Christ, they would have been brothers-in-law if Grady had married Pauline. Three years together before she ended it. An abortion will do that to a relationship. Even if they both agreed it at the time. It cut her in two afterwards, and he just wasn’t able to handle it.

Her fine cheekbones were stretched a little tighter these days and those dark olive eyes once spark full of candour and devilment, had been dulled by disappointment and possibility denied. They had clung on together for a few months afterwards but the heart was gone out of it, and she was back living with her mam.

Billy was drinking more and more but he could handle that. Trained harder to sweat the beer from his slackening gut. And an extra half-hour in the field on his own now and then to further refine that purest of kicking actions. There was nothing like a sly, sharp elbow to the ribs, though, to let the younger bucks know he wasn’t there for the taking yet.

Some evenings were tougher than others, however, and more than once the sudden retching sourness in his gullet had him bolting leaden-legged to the far side of the training field, like a milk-doped calf stumbling across the yard.

He was there one evening wiping the spittle from the cracked corner of his lips as he stood up again, knowing well they were all looking at him, but he kept his head up as he swigged away on the bottle of water Dwyer, the young corner forward with the cobalt blue mohawk, threw to him.

Back to the dressing room. Fuck them all — he could still do the business on Sunday.

Billy Grady and Hauley O’Brien had played on all the best Kildromey teams down the last 20 years and more .… right from under-sevens, their first time to wear the dark green jersey with the broad purple band running from left shoulder across to right hip. The jerseys were belonging to the under-nines and  they were massive on them, and the ball has enormous too as they all swarmed after it, with O’Brien’s dad Joe, who looked after them, in stitches.

On up the years … minor — Christ,  how did they lose that county final to Ardroe? —  under-21s … those first hard years at intermediate  … and the scorching summer’s day they won promotion to the seniors. 

What unaccustomed jubilation for this uncelebrated little dot between slightly bigger dots on the northern reaches of the county map, with its main street, three pubs, pharmacy, undertakers, church and Spar. Enough for some.

In the lead up to that promotion decider against Dunamanny, the whole town’s pulse had shot up, everyone, it seems, even the older folk, caught up in the big match jibber-jabber.

Even old Danser Boyle who usually simmered alone in his corner pew in O’Brien’s pub, and who despised the Grady’s more than he despised most families in the town, was at it.

“Will ye do it on Sunday, Grady? — will ye fuck! Ye haven’t a fuckin’ hope,” he offered as Billy ambled into pub with a thirst on him after his shift at the bottling factory out the road, Danser’s rheumy old globs of indeterminate colour glinting.

“Fuckin’ sure we will, Danser!” he had shot back as he sauntered on up to the counter.

Fuck you, ya old bollocks

And when the ref blew the final whistle, Billy’s feet were nearly swept from under him as the winning team were engulfed in a delirious surge of family, friends and townsfolk. His late goal had played a huge part in the win, but O’Brien and the rest of them had all done their bit.

O’Brien, for all the fine arse on him even then, was a craggy hure of a centre-back with a deceptive dash over those vital first 10 yards, and well able to give it tough when he had to.

Grady himself was a midfielder then, but only by number, as he showed up wherever he was needed, taking the out ball from his full-back one minute and playing a one-two with his midfield partner, the lanky, dogged Tom O’Hehir, the next, those powerful, long striding legs carrying him out to the wing, in front of his man, to take a diagonal pass on the hop, cut inside to leave his marker for dust, before pinging over a score. Or a goal if it was on at all. He was damn near as good with his left as he was with his right.

The town went mad that night, and for a fair few nights, and weeks, thereafter. The giddiness and exhilaration couldn’t last but the town didn’t settle back into itself until the first shivers of winter blew across the salmon and trout-rich Barragh river that flowed behind the town.

There were some fine bellies straining the famous green and purple jersey when Billy and the squad bounced out for the first day’s training in late January. 

Ah, great memories, and bad ones too, but all good for an evening’s banter around the blazing turf fire in O’Brien’s.

What did Hauley want to say, and why in the room, where the coach stored the usual footballs, cones and bibs, and where he brought players on their own when he wanted to do some serious talking?

The excitement this time round about the play-off wasn’t as intense — sure hadn’t they been senior these past five years? —  but you could feel it all the same, like an invading presence that had permeated the hearts and minds of the people of Kildromey. They feared the worst.

No-one, not even thin-faced, fastidious widow Florence Ryan, all twinsets and Tidy Towns devotion, was above it all.

“How will Billy do against Connolly?” she asked pretty teenage Cassie Ryan serving in Spar.

“Connolly” was Jack Connolly, the county full-back.

“Billy will be too cute for him,” Cassie beamed with white-toothed, red-lipsticked youthful certainty as she handed over the paper bag with the thin slices of baked ham.

What does he want? This is not good.

Hauley was standing, looking out the window towards the river, his right fist hand grinding into his left palm in front of him when Billy arrived in, tossing his kit bag onto the faded brown lino floor beside the scuffed folding wooden IKEA chair, as he plopped  casually on to the chair.

Hauley was still looking out the window as cleared his throat and said: “I’m starting Dwyer at full-forward on Sunday …”

“You’re moving me out to corner forward?”

Hauley turned to look at Billy now.

“We’re not starting you … ”

Billy didn’t say anything for what seemed an age

“What?  You’re fucking serious … Dwyer … on Connolly?”

“Look it Billy, we’ve  … I’ve …  been thinking about this  …. you were struggling the last day, that shagging knee … and Dwyer did really well when he came on.

“I think you could be good for a goal on Sunday … Dwyer will run the legs off Connolly, and you come on to finish off the job, steady the lads for the last push … look it, I don’t have to tell you … I have to do what’s right,  for the team.”

Billy looked hard at the old centre-back … he could read the discomfort in O’Brien’s eyes easy enough, but he also recognised a particular narrowing of the eyes, and slight jutting of his jaw. He had seen that look when O’Brien’s man had got past him too easily for a score. A look that meant trouble ahead for that man.

Billy reached for his bag and stood up.

Hauley said nothing more for a moment as Billy headed for the door, then scratching behind his left year, he added softly:

“We’ll see you on  Sunday so, are you bringing Brereton?”

Billy shut the door quietly behind him,

The old green and purple iron side-gate he had passed through a thousand times before clanged behind him. O’Brien can close it properly himself, he thought, as he spat a gob-full of bile into the grass beside the narrow roughly gravelled path, on the way to the town park that stood between him and his first storey apartment in the converted old flour mill. He remembered the giddy laugh himself and Pauline shared outside the bank after signing the mortgage contract. Only 23 years to go, he observed acidly.

The once white walls of the creamery, and the tired cluster of two-storey townhouses as he crossed Ossory Road looked washed out and weary in the now quickening rain, the pale yellow glimmer of the street lights only accentuating the gloom as he slashed at a crinkling cluster of dark brown leaves gathered against the concrete wall.

The games I have played for that town, carried the fuckers …

Coming to the wide old stone bridge in the centre of the park that spanned  the wide old Barragh, Billy threw his Kildromey bag down and leaned across the parapet to stare out over the river below, and beyond to the lush sloping banks and steadfast mainly oak and sycamore trees on either side.

The water, swollen this past week with brown churning flood water and alive with shooting silver gleams of salmon and brown trout, was reduced to a listless stream this evening, but the splattering raindrops were beginning to disturb the calm surface.

The season was nearly over, and three tired looking fishermen were traipsing home, their landing nets empty, as the rain was transfigured by the street light above them into an unending iridescent shoal of darting minnows.

How many games had he played as boy and man with Kildromey … how could he begin to count them? He just knew every important moment in his life usually had some connection with Kildromey and with football.

His Confirmation? That was the day they lost to neighbours Coolraine, when, with minutes to go, they had worked the ball upfield one last time, and Billy shot wide from right in front of the goal.

And the unspoken camaraderie and companionship of O’Brien and the rest of the under 14 team when he showed up for his first training session after they had buried his dad. Didn’t spare him either, O’Brien putting him on his backside with a shoulder dunt in the game afterwards.

His dad was only 47 years old when he had dropped dead with a heart attack going out to  the old brown Ford Laser to buy a pint of milk. A pint of fucking milk!

Playing for Kildromey he was playing for himself, for his dad, for all the Grady’s who lived and died in this bloody town. This all he had ever known town. This ungrateful town he could never leave.

Into the last 10 minutes and there was nothing between the teams. Billy was torn between willing the lads to stay composed and eke out those few scores that would swing it for them, and the burning desire to get out on that pitch and get those scores himself.

Dwyer had done really well, even if Connolly was well in charge there now, and was even pushing up these past few minutes to try and create or take those vital scores.

Dwyer had run himself into the ground, picked off three terrific points, but he was still giving his all.

O’Brien had shot Billy several looks in the few minutes as despite the churning in his gut, the town’s old go-to guy faked nonchalance and studied intent even as he willed the coach to give him the call to arms.

Billy could hear the individual voices in the crowd.

“Bring on Billy, for fuck’s sake

“No fucking way, he’s finished”

Dwyer went down after a big shoulder from Connolly, and Billy pulled at his socks and tightened his laces, ready to go on.

Dwyer was up.

Eight minutes to go.

Centre back Paul Ryan went down, and Jim Rogers got the call … only two subs left.

Five minutes. Connolly grabbed one out of the sky and thundered upfield, like a Curragh racehorse, past one, past two, played a one-two, and released their corner forward on goal, He kept his cool to drive low and hard to keeper Joe Searson’s net. Coolderragh were two points up.

O’Brien shouted over: “Billy …”

He handed the official paper to the ref and dunted Connolly with a shoulder as he ran past him into the town goal.

“I’ll fuckin’ sort you, ya fuckin’ has-been,” Connolly grunted, but he ran back with him. No more glory-hunting  runs down the middle now.

One minute left. Less, more, it was up to the ref.

There were no thoughts of aching knees or ankles as Billy pushed and harried with all he had in him, arsing Connolly out from under the flight path of a high diagonal ball out to his left, as he caught it and turned away. He spotted Liam Reynolds, the right wing forward and hit a peach of a foot pass thirty yards right into his stomach. Reynolds didn’t have to break stride as he turned to go outside, but was wrapped up by not one, but two Coolderragh men, and his shot was smothered.

There could only be seconds left.

Coolderragh were chasing everyone and everything  and running down the clock, slapping the ball out of players’ hands as they tried to take another desperate free conceded, and still Kildromey kept coming. Even goalkeeper Searson was thirty yards off his line. He was there when a frantic clearance landed in his lap and he started to run up field … making twenty, thirty yards before he found corner forward Jim Brereton running in off the right endline with a great ball.

Billy weighed the situation up in an instant and broke away from Connolly to race towards the goal

“Give it, Towser, fuckin’ give it,” he roared, pointing his index finger to where he wanted the ball played, five yards in front of him.

Referee Joe Suggs looked again at his watch, as Towser let the  ball go with all his might and it sprang off the browning grass seven or eight yards in front of Billy …

Billy could see their powerful keeper coming out at top speed, but he focused on that ball.

“Get there, get there” he commanded his legs and straining body.

Billy just got there a fraction before the goalie and flicked the ball first time with his right foot.  The collision duly arrived  but even as Billy went up into the air and thumped sprawling to the ground, he could see the ball take one bounce before it nestled just inside the far corner of the net.

Billy lay on his back, flattened. The autumn sky gleamed vast and heavenly above him, before it suddenly darkened under a total green and purple eclipse of reeking, steaming, writhing, weighty, weightless happiness.

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