PLAYING THE MAN, NOT THE BALL?Former Garrymore footballer Billy Fitzpatrick (left) and Liam O’Toole from Ballintubber are pictured at McHale Park, Castlebar last week re-enacting an incident from the 1965 Mayo Intermediate Football Championship Final.?Pic: Michael Donnelly
Billy and Liam play it again
THE director calls for action and the cameras commence to roll. Out on the wing a 69 years-old footballer gathers the ball and sets off on a solo run down the field with not an opponent in sight.
Suddenly, from the terrace springs a sprightly octogenarian heading toward the player and, like a bolt from the blue, bringing him crashing to the ground.
Stretched on the grass, the footballer shakes his head, unable to recognise the source of the tackle. Only when he rolls over does he find the fully clothed old man extricating himself from a tangle of legs . . . and scurrying back to the terrace, like a bat from hell.
When the player’s pretence of anger has subsided and the cameras are switched off, the two men smile and shake hands. They have just re-enacted an incident from a county intermediate final that took place on that very spot in McHale Park forty-eight years earlier.
But no one was smiling that day in 1965 when the unprecedented scuffle broke out between Billy Fitzpatrick, the victim of the attack, and Liam O’Toole his assailant.
In the fervent flux of the game between Ballintubber and Garrymore lay the genesis of the incident, the first intermediate competition to be held in the county in almost thirty years. It was a thrill-a-minute tussle with the outcome in doubt up to the end.
Garrymore were a point ahead two minutes from the end when their 21-years-old star, Billy Fitzpatrick, won possession out on the left flank. With a clear path ahead he commenced another of his distinguished solos.
On the terrace, Ballintubber supporter Liam O’Toole yelled for someone to take up the challenge as Fitzpatrick wended menacingly down the wing. Gripped in an irresistible urge to intervene, O’Toole impulsively barged onto the field and wrestled the Garrymore man to the ground. Fans stared in disbelief.
“We had been level and I was after scoring a point, “said Billy. “Ballintubber attacked, and our goalie saved a shot. There was a free out for us. Matt Grier the full back took the free.
“I was standing all on my own. The short free came out to me. I looked down along the sideline and it was clear. Time was nearly up and I decided to waste time by carrying the ball down the wing.
“I had sixty yards to cover and I went off like a bullet. The next thing I was grounded. It was as if something fell from heaven down on top of me. I didn’t know what had happened and then I saw this man lying on top of me with his Sunday suit on him.”
The incident won him a free and served only to run down the clock, as Garrymore held on to win by that single point. What the consequences might have been if they lost is imponderable?
Only in the following week did the two men discover that they were related. “My mother and Liam were first cousins. Liam was first cousin of the father of Dublin footballer Anton O’Toole, and I was a first cousin of Anton,” said Billy.
Liam, who was 37 at the time, said what he did was wrong. John O’Shea of Ballintubber was having problems with his eyes and wanted to be replaced.
“I was shouting for a sub to be put on, but the selectors were on the other side of the pitch. And here was this fellow (Billy) going like a hare. He was going for a goal and I got too excited. I couldn’t resist it when Billy came up the field.”
The match was regarded as a classic, with fortunes swaying from end to end and players on both sides reaching singular depths of courage and commitment that obscured the impact the incident might otherwise have had.
This reporter saw the funny side of it. “You smiled as you watched a Ballintubber supporter run onto the field to tackle a Garrymore defender in the dying seconds of the game,” I wrote. “But you did not blame him. For it was that type of intoxicating game when the scrape of a finger or the bat of an eyelid could mean the difference between victory and defeat.”
The re-enactment of the tackle was the brainchild of Liam O’Toole’s granddaughter Niamh Morley who is studying through Media through Irish in Carraroe for her Masters.
“We have to do a 10 minute short film for one of our classes. I had a few ideas and then I thought of Granddad. I had heard the story before. I knew he had run onto the pitch and shouldered Billy,” said Niamh.
She mentioned it to her lecturer and he thought it was hilarious and urged her to run with it. Some of her friends doing the same course came along to McHale Park to help out.
Niamh said she had been to matches with her granddad and knew how passionate he was about football. “And being mam’s cousin, I knew Billy.
“I have to go back to edit it and will use it as a ten-minute film for class. You¹d never know we might enter it in a competition.”
The years rest lightly on 84 years-old Liam. Lithe and nimble, you would mistake him for a man twenty years younger. The sight of his sprint from the terrace to vigorously tackle Billy in a trial run sent his granddaughter into a paroxysm of laughter.
He was a member of the Ballintubber team that beat Swinford in the county junior final of 1954 but which they lost which they on an objection. He went to England for a few years after that and played a lot of football in Birmingham.
Highly regarded for his reliability in whatever position he held, Liam returned to marry and settle in his native Ballintubber where he became a leading member of the community and of the local GAA club.
He is well known in Irish dancing circles for set dancing. “I can still run. I go dancing every week, and I go out in every set. We have a calendar and we go to where ever they are held. It can be anywhere,” he said. “I think the dancing keeps you fit.”
As he soloed down the wing in his familiar crouch Billy evoked memories of a classy footballer, the greatest Garrymore ever produced. Other than having had a couple of hips replaced he, too, is remarkably fresh.
But he confessed to being nowhere in the shape of Liam O’Toole whom he praised for his remarkable agility.
“It was the excitement of the game that got to him. Ballintubber had a chance of winning. Our goalie saved from their attack and we got the relieving free out.
“That game was end to end stuff. Sixty minutes, no let up. And where Ballintubber lost it on the day was when they changed the goalkeeper.
“We got a penalty halfway through the second half. We were two points down. Michael Corbett, who was in goal for Ballintubber, had a brilliant game. But Ray Prendergast stood in for the penalty. My brother, Martin, took the penalty. He half hit it, but it grazed in by the post and Ray could not get to it.”
Just a thought …
Whatever about their seniors, Galway underage football is flourishing. On the way to another All-Ireland U-21 final they accounted for Mayo. When is the Mayo Board going to get serious about underage football?