Belfast Telegraph

Clones really is one of a kind

By Declan Bogue

I've had my heart broken in Clones far more often than in any teenage disco or youth club.

It's taken huge chunks of me. Left me feeling raw and grazed and dazed. And yet we dream of the day we would see our own team up on those steps, lifting the Cup.

The last four weeks, we have been there each week reporting on games. There in the quiet of the stadium, hours after the crowds have departed, your match report is filed and the Church bell lets out a few gongs, you can still feel that eerie energy that hovers for a while.

The Patrick McCabe novel 'The Butcher Boy' is said to capture Clones. But in a work of fiction so dark, existing in the shadows and margins of society, the circus has no place.

Ah, Clones! In his autobiography, Owen Mulligan tells the story of how he watched Stephen Conway slot frees over Tyrone and once he arrived back home, tried to replicate clipping the upright on their way over.

Was at that game myself, but I went home crying with pain, frazzled and scalded by the hot sun. Evidently, the Mulligans' budget stretched to the sheltered parts of the Gerry Arthurs Stand.

You almost forget the miles of cars crawling across the border post-match. This being a time of security checkpoints and before air conditioning, doors would hang open as drivers inched forward, riding the clutch. Then they might get out for a 20-yard stroll up the road.

Clones, when you were young and irresponsible; I can remember commandeering a bus for the Ulster semi-final of 2000 and the carryouts were nothing short of spectacular.

Empty wine bottles were rattling around the floor of the bus before we even left the Enniskillen boundary.

One of our group claimed to have courted a dozen women in the beer garden, and still an hour from throw-in. The same boy was in an open relationship with the truth mind you, but you have to give the benefit of the doubt nonetheless.

That same evening, a cousin of mine on the other side of the Armagh-Fermanagh divide spent a few hours in hospital after getting stabbed in the neck by one of his own countymen.

The row was over a jester hat. He lived to tell the tale with great relish.

No, it was hardly a refined location. Many a man could earn a clip for a misplaced word and indeed did.

And the catering reflected the rough and ready nature.

On those days when you had all evening to yourself, you would stop for a cindered patty that appeared scraped off the road between two cheap buns with lashings of onions and close your eyes and think it was fillet steak.

In the coming years, a new Casement Park will open in Belfast, hopefully without corporate branding, but you never can tell.

It will be swanky, the surfaces will gleam, the toilets will be pristine and the internet connection will not be a perpetual stone in the shoe of the reporters present.

The players should have the last word of luxury with the dressing rooms and if the God of turf is pleased, or even Joe Pat Prunty, the surface might be restored to former glories as one of the best pitches in the country, just behind Thurles, on the same level as Croke Park.

And we shall be grateful for the ambition and the foresight of those that make our working life easier, but you cannot replace memories.

In the last decade Clones has been smartened up but back in the late 80s, early 90s it was an unfettered theatre.

Almost every match between four or five counties could realistically lay claim to the sub-heading of potential All-Ireland final.

Yeah sure, TG4 re-runs of some of those games shows that some of them were ropey enough and that the free-kick from the hand revolutionised football.

All that though, should be weighed up against the lack of a backdoor system. It all mattered that little bit more.

St Tiernach's Park is a football place in the way that Donal Óg Cusack last week described Walsh Park as a place he could 'feel hurling.'

Games of hurling have been played in Clones, but even on Sunday, we noticed how the 65 metre lines aren't even marked out.

In the deep south, some of our southern cousins have been bidding a mixed adieu to Páirc Úi Chaoimh. They tend to focus on the usual things; the cramped corridors, the stink of the jacks, but they are hard-headed.

Will they miss it in their current guise? Not a bit of them. Will we miss Clones? For a while, anyway.

Belfast Telegraph

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