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Ulster duo relishing living their American dream

Antrim's McManus and Fermanagh man Breen chase glory in States

By Declan Bogue

Published 20/08/2016

No bridge too far: Neil McManus and fiancée Aileen in San Francisco
No bridge too far: Neil McManus and fiancée Aileen in San Francisco

Tomorrow afternoon at 3.20pm local time on the majestically-named Treasure Island headquarters of San Francisco GAA, Antrim and Ruairi Óg Cushendall's Neil McManus will slip on the black and amber stripes of Na Fianna, fasten his helmet and compete in the America Western Board 'county final' against Naomh Padraig.

Around 3,000 miles east, Fermanagh and Tempo Maguires' footballer Aidan Breen will find himself in the white of 'Sligo', facing Rockland at 4pm in the New York Intermediate quarter-final, the bleachers heaving in Gaelic Park, deep in Bronx territory.

For McManus, it's been some summer. After defeat in the All-Ireland club final against Limerick's Na Piarsaigh back in March, he and fiancée Aileen took off on their travels.

The first stop was Bangkok before moving on to Cambodia, through Siem Reap and back across the border to Vietnam.

While there, they met up with club and county team-mate Arron Graffin and his new fiancée, the Down camogie player Sarah-Louise Carr, spending a few weeks trekking around the mountains, skirting the China border.

At some stage, Na Fianna reached out to him through a contact he met while on the All-Stars trip to Austin, Texas. There are only two teams in San Francisco, and they play a best of seven Championship series.

"I thought, 'why not?' I get married in April and it is probably my last time away from home, unless it's a longer period of time. So I said I would give it a go," says McManus.

Consider the deal GAA players can get for an American summer. Flights paid for. Accommodation looked after. A guaranteed job that is largely, ahem, 'ceremonial', with little expectation of them weighing in on a Monday.

For these two Ulstermen, they found the timing was right.

With Breen, the final straw was Mayo ace Aidan O'Shea's dive that bought a penalty and ultimately led to Fermanagh's exit from the All-Ireland championship.

This was his breakthrough year, coming off the back of making serious effort and an extra night a week of weight training to give himself the best chance.

"To be honest, it was a factor in going away," he says.

"For a certain chance of winning to turn into a loss the way it does after all that effort... you just think to yourself, 'what is the point?'

"You have all this technology and still it can't be solved."

A contact from Tempo asked if he would be interested in playing for Sligo for a couple of months. An electrician by trade, he was interested in getting out of town for a while, but admitted his apprehension when he started drafting a WhatsApp message to his club manager, Sean Breen. He needn't have worried.

"I was nervous. He said, 'I did it myself. I don't blame you for going, fair play to you'.

"I wrote it into the team WhatsApp group and all the boys said, 'fair play, fair play, take me with you!' It was all good humour," he recalls. "I have no ties at home and I just bit the bullet. If I didn't do it now, I might never do it.

"From last November, you are at it four nights a week. You have to take these chances as they come to you."

Before long, he was taking a chunk out of the Big Apple. An apartment in Yonkers came with the arrangement and before long he was familiar with the environs of Gaelic Park and the lenient style of refereeing.

A few weeks ago, he and Fermanagh team-mate James Allen attended the big Carl Frampton fight in Brooklyn (below). His days consist of hanging with his Jamaican workmate on site while his evenings are spent diving into the belly of the city.

Living with a squad of lads isn't for McManus, however. Instead, he and Aileen are billeted on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge from San Fran, in San Anselmo.

Working as a final fix carpenter, he explains: "San Francisco is just filled up with fog about 60% of the time, so once you break the Golden Gate Bridge, you are into an extra 10 to 15 degrees of heat. It's beautiful.

"The place I am working in now, we are standing in the yoga room. There is a swimming pool and a hot tub out the back."

A few weeks ago he played the Pebble Beach golf course. He's been to Vegas. They spent the fourth of July holidays water-skiing on Lake Tahoe, seven months after he was there snow-skiing on the mountains.

Tonight, he will be in Las Vegas again, to see Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz. He will then catch an early morning flight to do his thing in Treasure Island.

As for the hurling itself?

"Dee McCarthy from Limerick was brought out to train the team and it is done to a high standard. What you are dealing with is a team of inter-county hurlers," he insists

"The last day, on the team I was playing on had Stephen Moylan, Paudie O'Sullivan (Cork), Conor Kenny and Shane Bourke from Tipperary, Seanie Tobin from Limerick, Brian Kennedy (Kilkenny)."

At home, Cushendall are second in the Antrim league, having beaten St John's by 21 points last Sunday. The club was in good stead in his absence.

"Myself and Aaron have been going flat out for over a decade with Antrim," McManus explains. "We gave it everything, everything went into hurling, the nutrition and fitness side we did on our own.

"That makes it easier to make the decision to go away for a wee while, because you know and your club know that you gave it everything while you were there.

"Cushendall folk have done so much travelling. There are people from Cushendall all over the world involved in Gaelic games."

On a patch smaller than a square mile, created in 1939 by the American government that looks across the bay to Alcatraz, one of their famous sons continues that tradition.

Belfast Telegraph

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