My first memory of a football pitch is from one summer evening in Kilclief in the mid-‘70s. I was either 3 or 4. My brother Garrett is a year younger than me. We moved from Strangford to Downpatrick when I was 4½ and it was before that. My father had taken the two of us to watch a football match. Other than my mother, perhaps his five favourite things in life were reading, the crossword, conversation, a cup of tea and watching a game. What he wasn’t always great at was keeping a close eye on children in his charge. Between watching his old club play and chatting to a couple of the other men on the side-line, he didn’t notice Garrett and I making a sprint onto the pitch, looking for a go with the ball. It could well be that memory through the efflux of time has us causing greater disruption that night than actually was the case. In some ways I hope that our presence wasn’t even noticed by the players. It would be awful were that to have been the biggest influence that I ever had on a football match, although there is every chance that my high point was that warm evening in Kilclief.
Unfortunately my enthusiasm for sport was not matched by aptitude. On one visit to his cousins in Listowel I was being encouraged to eat up my black pudding with the Kerry exhortation that I wouldn’t play football for Down without a good diet of black pudding. If only it that had been that easy. The biggest problem was an unreliability and inconsistency in a ball’s direction of flight after it had been propelled by my foot, hand or implement. Allied to being short-sighted before my teens and having a slight frame, the portents weren’t good.
Football was the game in the Red High and there were plenty of good footballers about. Kevin Owens, Ciaran McCabe and Patrick Kielty were in my year. Brian Burns the year behind. John Kielty the year ahead with Conor Deegan, Barry Breen, Mark McCartan and John Kelly a few years ahead. The recently-deceased Bro. Charles was teaching in the school until my 4th year and every day he’d put out a tea chest of hurleys for a lunchtime puckabout, which I often took advantage of. Bro. Charles also coached a Downpatrick team and under his patient tutelage, and presumably need for numbers, I reached my sporting apogee with an East Down U14½ medal.
What I did get from my father was the love of watching sport and going to matches. He brought me to Croke Park for the first time when I was six. It was the 1977 football final. I was mesmerised by the colour and the noise. I know that Dublin beat Armagh that day but I honestly don’t remember that. What I do remember is that, for my only time, our seats were in the Ard Comhairle box. And they were soft seats. And I remember Down winning the minor match and them being given a big silver cup and I remember Daddy holding me up in his arms so that I could see it and it being so close that I tried to reach out and touch it.
But it wasn’t all glamour. I still have yet to feel as baltic as I did one winter Sunday standing on a grass bank in the Marshes at about the age of 8 or 9 with the cold spreading from the frozen turf through the soles of my shoes and up my legs and Daddy talking and talking and talking as I futilely tried to will him back to the car and the warmth of home. Happier times included a spring and summer of going to watch club hurling matches. He was a member, along with Paddy O’Donoghue I think, of a commission on the future of hurling in Down for the County Board and there were many trips to games, particularly to the Ards. As much as he loved football, in truth hurling was his real passion. Due maybe of a Waterford father. As a young man he had hurled for Kilclief and the County. Nothing better than a good game of hurling, he’d say. Particularly one played in fair conditions on a firm pitch. He never got to the Munster Final as often as he would have liked but that was considered one of the great highlights of any sporting year.
What we did get to and what from a young age what I was lucky enough to have as a highlight were the September trips to Croke Park for the hurling and football finals. Particularly the football finals. I got to see the great Kerry-Dublin battles, Kerry’s four-in-a-row, Kerry’s three-in-a-row. With a Kerry grandmother I felt some affinity to that great team. The Spillanes, Jack O’Shea, Páidí Ó Sé, Mikey Sheehy, Bomber Liston, Ogie Moran, Charlie Nelligan. Great men. As magnificent as the modern Croke Park is, part of me will always miss the old wooden benches of the Hogan Stand.
But there were green shoots beginning to appear with Down’s Minor All-Ireland in 1987 followed by a narrow loss to Meath, my county of residence these last 17 years and more, in the 1990 National League Final. Preludes of course to the return of the good old days and Down’s second era of greatness. I have never been at a more momentous sporting occasion than the 1991 Final. ’94 comes close obviously but doesn’t match it for the sheer joy, relief and euphoria. That match in Celtic Park is another contender. I suspect that had I been in Istanbul in 2005 it might also have come close. I was in Cardiff when Leinster came back from the dead with 26 unanswered second-half points to win their second Heineken Cup. That too was an extraordinary day. But ’91 was in a league of its own. Those men of Kerry were heroes. But heroes in the same way as Kenny Dalglish, Alan Hansen and John Barnes were heroes. It’s a very different thing when the heroes are your own people. The excitement building for weeks before. My father calling in favours from all over the country to secure extra tickets. He could nearly have opened a ticket agency. My seat that day was near the back of the Upper Cusack, two seats along from Paddy Doherty. Afterwards we made our way across the pitch and out onto Jones’s Road to meet up with everyone else. At some ungodly hour on the Monday night the bus finally arrived into Downpatrick and the great Pete McGrath saying that we beat the team that couldn’t be beaten.
The last time that I went to Croke Park with my father was his last visit, 3½ months before he died. It was the hurling final between his father’s county of Waterford and Galway. He had been there in 1948 and 1959 when they had won their two All-Irelands. He had spent childhood holidays with cousins near Dungarvan, which is where he had learnt to speak Irish. In 1948 he had a lift by horse and cart into Tramore for the train to Dublin to watch the match. His lungs weren’t great at that point and I think he had greater clarity than the rest of us about how long was left. He had said to me one evening in France the month before, “You know that this is going to do for me”. I knew it was, but I thought there was still a good bit left to go. It was forty years since he had brought me that first time to Croke Park when we saw Down an All-Ireland. It would have been nice symmetry had Waterford won on his last visit but it wasn’t to be. The day still finished with him standing chatting to friends on Jones’s Road for as long as he was able. I was happy to have been with him on that last trip.
At some point in the ‘90s my father stopped driving. He was probably happier with the greater opportunity for the crossword or the newspaper. My mother drove him about but often there’d be a lift to a match, usually with Joe Leonard. I think he went to more matches with Joe in his last couple of decades than with everyone else combined. We had started going on holidays to France in the ‘80s and by the mid ‘90s, by which time he had retired as Ombudsman (although he only really retired when he was in his 90th year), he and my mother were spending most of the summer there. They loved it (my mother still does) but, if there was one downside, he missed a lot of football and hurling. Initially he relied on match reports by telephone from any of us still in Ireland. The urgency of the reports eased as his access to the internet grew but he still appreciated a call at some point to be told how the match had actually gone. The real salvation though was when their great friends, the McQuaids from Dungannon, started to come on holidays to the next town. That in itself was a good thing but the real boon was Jim’s technical wizardry and ability to use a satellite dish to get RTÉ. Thereafter Jim and Maurice spent many Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons watching Jim’s television.
I don’t know when I first knew of the great feats of the ‘60s. I don’t ever remember not knowing. Whether it was the flag that my mother kept in the house with “Up Down” stitched across it that she had made for one of her brothers in 1960 that my brothers and I loved to take out and wave in the garden. Or my father’s watch that had been given to him by Brian McCartan and Charlie Carr, which was engraved “To Maurice Hayes, Secretary of the Down All Ireland Football Team 1960. From B. and C.”, which fascinated us as children. A watch he wore for the rest of his life and which I am wearing now as I write this. That watch made it clear that this had been something of very great import. I often think of James McCartan’s story of meeting his father on Jones’s Road after the 1960 Final, his father was in floods of tears and said to him, “You kept your promise.”
The names were as familiar as our own. The McCartans and the O’Neills. Paddy Doherty, Joe Lennon, Kevin Mussen, Jarlath Carey, Leo Murphy, Eddie McKay, Tony Hadden, George Lavery, Breen Morgan, Pat Rice, Patsy O’Hagan, PJ McElroy, John Smith and Kieran Denvir along with names like John Murphy, Peter Rooney, Larry Powell, Danny Kelly, Ray McConville, Jim Milligan and the great Colm McAlarney from later in the decade.
As a boy, when people heard that I was a Hayes, I’d at times be asked if I was Maurice’s son and then told that Down wouldn’t have won an All-Ireland but for him. And when I’d ask him about it he’d say that Down wouldn’t have won an All-Ireland without the players, that he’d never kicked a ball. He spent the best part of six decades holding those men in the highest esteem, as footballers, as people, and as friends His view was that every one of them had lived constructive lives in which they had contributed to their families, their communities and to society. And for all their achievements, they were modest men. Paddy Doherty recently selected his best Down team of all time for the Down Recorder. He didn’t pick himself. Paddy Mo is the only person in the entire country that wouldn’t have Paddy Mo on that team.
Above all, he loved their company. He loved meeting up with them over the years at matches and various functions. Usually wearing his Club Down tie. Part of the pleasure of going to a match was the halftime cup of tea and the chat with friends afterwards, whether on Jones’s Road, in Newry or whatever ground the match was in. There are two photographs from the GAA Congress in Newcastle ten years ago that show it well. One is a formal photograph with President McAleese and various dignitaries. He’s sitting at the bottom left deep in conversation with Kevin Mussen. In the other, there’s a group standing on a set of steps. He’s at the back having a chat with James McCartan. A third photograph from that Congress showed him standing in front of the huge poster of the 1960 team calling them “The History Makers”. That photograph was used on his memorial card. When it came to his funeral, he was buried in his Club Down tie. Nothing else would have been appropriate.
His last visitor before he died was Dr Walsh, who held his hand and chatted to him. Their last words together were, “We had good times.” They certainly did.