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Still serving the club at 39 and losing the home pitch to a sinkhole that looked like 'an earthquake'

Tommy Freeman speaks to The42 after Magheracloone played their first championship game last weekend.

FORMER MONAGHAN FOOTBALLER Tommy Freeman is still trying to adjust to playing football under the new restrictions.

tommy-freeman Tommy Freeman in action for Magheracloone. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

His club Magheracloone are a few games deep into the delayed 2020 season, but old habits are hard to rinse out. Handshakes before and after games are prohibited for now but it’s still in his instincts to reach his arm out to an opponent.

In ordinary time, people usually run on during the game with water for the players. Now, they have water breaks along with the half-time intermission. 

There’s notices up at GAA grounds containing information about social distancing, dressing rooms are still shut, and everyone has their own designated water bottle.

The threat of contracting Covid-19 is never far away. Freeman’s wife Fiona is a nurse, which explains why he is particularly cautious about being around groups again.

“We were wondering at the start if there was going to be any Gaelic played this year and I suppose the jury is still out,” says Freeman about being back on the pitch again.

“I saw an article saying ‘are we playing championship for the sake of it?’

“You don’t know if someone has this virus coming in or will they have it in a day or two. But it’s great to be back playing a wee bit of sport and get back to some kind of normality.

“You’d be concerned about picking something up when you are back. People are on about social distancing and sterilizing your hands. But when you’re in the heat of the action, you’re close to your man I suppose the last thing you’d want is to pick something up and bring it back to your home.”

Magheracloone’s senior championship campaign is up and running after their win over Inniskeen last weekend, and they have a quick turnaround before their next outing against Ballybay Pearse Brothers this Saturday.

They’ve also played a few challenge games to help shake off the lockdown rustiness.

Freeman has tried to retire before, but at 39, he’s still lacing up for the club. The concise format of the 2020 championship, which has been revamped due to Covid-19, encouraged him “to give it another rattle.”

It’s been a whirlwind two years for the Monaghan side. They dropped down to intermediate in 2018, the same year that they lost their club grounds to a sinkhole.

With no home, and no base to train in, they relied on the kindness of neighbouring clubs to get them through the next season. The club was at a low point.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

“It was a massive crack,” says Freeman, recalling that horrible sinkhole that devastated the Magheracloone grounds in September, an accident that was believed to be caused by the collapse of an old gypsum mine.

It was like something you’d see on TV that would happen in America with these earthquakes to be quite honest.

“We had a blitz on the Saturday morning. There was an U17 match on the Sunday morning because we were playing in the senior semi-final in Clones later on that day.

“And the FÁS men who look after the field, discovered something wasn’t right on the Monday morning. There was a continuous open crack right from the juvenile pitch and along the senior pitch. A massive sinkhole in it. It was a shock to get. You just start to worry about what if this was to happen when the juvenile blitz was on, or if anyone was up there.

“At the end of the day, a field can be replaced but if any lives had to be lost, it would be a lot worse.”

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Freeman explains that a sign on the driveway is all that remains of their old home pitch. It is completely shut and will remain disused as the surface is too dangerous to play on.

They have another facility now, about a mile down the road from the original premises, where training and juvenile games can take place. 

They can’t play senior matches just yet but there’s plans in the pipeline to develop the grounds for that purpose.

“It’s [the old pitch] all gone so a lot of memories,” says Freeman about Magheracloone’s loss.

“The crack just continued right up along the wall and down through the middle of the roof.

Now we have our own training facilities. Local farmers gave us a field that was fairly flat. A lot of work was done and once you have a base to train, it’s a big help for all your juveniles and all your teams.

“We have to give massive credit to all the local clubs for helping us out. We were just very lucky.”

Magheracloone were relegated to the intermediate ranks that same year, their first time to drop from senior football in 21 years, according to Freeman.

It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. By Christmas 2019, they were county and provincial champions with an All-Ireland semi-final on the horizon.

tommy-freeman-and-liam-moran-shake-hands-after-the-game Freeman congratulates an opponent after losing the All-Ireland intermediate final. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

They went on to reach the decider in January where they were outmatched by a strong Oughterard outfit from Galway.

“It was a brilliant, a massive achievement by the management and the team,” Freeman reflects.

“It was new territory for us. We found ourselves playing around Christmas time but all the boys rallied. We said at the start of the year when we won the intermediate championship, we were training above in a field in Meath.

We huddled in together and said ‘listen, these are competitions that can take us to places you only dream of.’ It took us to the best stadium in the country, which was a dream come true.

“It was a big boost for the parish after losing our ground. It united us even more. The best team definitely won on the night, but apart from that, it was a good day.”

Now that they have retained their senior status, Magheracloone want to stay there. And Freeman is sticking around to help out with that mission.

There’s a bit of soreness after games to deal with now, and the body takes a bit longer to recover these days. But there’s no major injuries to report and Fiona and his family are behind him in his choice to keep going.

“I’m playing football I don’t know how long and she’s been alongside me for most of it. She’s been very supportive of me.

“You have to know when to call it a day but I said [since] this year is a short championship, I’d go back and give it a go. My wife gave me the green light so there was no problem there.”

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