"The atmosphere inside was one of total and absolute contentment. We’re not supposed to feel it in this lifetime. There was no need for a word to be said between each other. The downside was you knew that there never would be a day like that again but it is a feeling that will last forever." - Ger Loughnane
Eyebrows might be raised that this isn't included in our top 30 sporting moments of the year post.
In the first round of the 2016 Irish media 5-a-side which is actually 6-a-side, Balls.ie were drawn in a group with the Irish Independent, PSG Sponsorship and a team of freelancers.
Our first game was against the mighty Irish Independent, the 2015 champions and the most feared outfit in the competition.
It was a terrifying prospect. The year before, the Indo had swaggered to victory in the inaugural tournament, demolishing all and sundry en route to the final where they would dispatch the Irish Sun 4-2.
— Independent Sport (@IndoSport) February 21, 2015
Balls.ie, meanwhile, endured the sort of tournament which would make Ireland’s efforts in Euro 2012 look respectable. In the absence of any supporters, the players were obliged to carry the rendition of ‘The Fields of Athenry’ themselves as we exited the competition in the first round.
— Mark Farrelly (@MarkFarrelly131) February 21, 2015
It was clear that these Indo boys meant business.
We have it on good authority that an influential member of their team had been in the pub the night before but had refused any alcohol on the grounds that he was playing in the tournament the next day.
In Balls, the atmosphere in the lead-up was rather different. Thoroughly chastened by the series of lickings we had taken the year before, enthusiasm hit rock bottom levels.
Our management was faced with the kind of opt-out rate which might make Denis Connerton or Kevin Walsh wince.
On the line, the Indo had an army of reservists, who rolled on and off at will, allowing everyone on the team to remain fit and fresh.
Balls.ie, on the other hand, boasted a full squad of six members. We are now in a position to confirm that participating in a day-long six-a-side tournament with a full squad of six can be a tiring exercise.
Indeed, Balls were lucky they had six. One of their number, who, unlike our friend from the Indo, had been drinking heavily the night before, made the arduous trip all the way from his home on the northside to the UCD Sports Campus in Belfield, the venue for the tournament the previous year..
It was only when he got there that he remembered that the email had said that the competition was being held in the Sportsco in Ringsend this year. He frantically hailed down a taxi, ignoring the volley of calls from his teammates demanding to know his whereabouts, and arrived with roughly 40 seconds left to spare before kick-off.
Lined up opposite, the Indo were an intimidating prospect. All dressed in pristine green jerseys, they performed their drills and barked out instructions to each other with the urgency of trained professionals. Shut your eyes and the soundtrack was reminiscent of a top level League of Ireland team going about their warm-up.
Balls had no specific kit requirements in 2015. This, we concluded, had made passing the ball to one another more difficult.
In 2016, we were resolved to correct this error and an executive order went out the night before that we should all wear black.
This was all fine until captain Donny Mahoney, the very man who had issued the wear black directive, proceeded to turn up in a bizarre pinkish red jersey with matching bandana, a spectacle which provoked consternation among the other team members and, we feared, amusement on the part of our opponents.
The game began and the Indo quickly took effective ownership of the football, which they remained in control of for a good 80% of the match.
We fell back into a defensive posture, occasionally robbing them of possession and engaging in frenetic attacks which typically fizzled out within seconds.
Towards the end of the first half, we managed to hustle the ball in the general direction of their penalty box.
The ball was laid off to Balls.ie’s creative midfielder, their Andrea Pirlo figure, their subtle playmaker and their greatest writing talent (internal objections noted) - Conor Neville - who hit a fizzer of a shot goalward.
The Irish Independent goalkeeper - we shan’t name him but he used to hurl for Offaly - allowed this shot to slip between his fingers and over the line.
Amazingly, Balls led 1-0. By half-time, the scoreline remained the same and belief was beginning to grow. We had something to protect and there was suddenly a note of seriousness about our team-talk.
It’s not stretching it to say we were 10 minutes from immortality here. (It was only ten minutes a-side).
As ever in these situations, we took strength from the palpable sense of panic and frustration emanating from our opponents.
One can’t help but be reminded of Will Carling’s recollections from England’s shock loss to Scotland in Murrayfield in the famous 1990 Grand Slam decider.
“We had Plan A and we had Plan A had worked. And it will work again. And when it didn’t, you could feel a tenseness in all of us. It was like ‘Why isn’t this working? What the hell are we going to do now?’ It was like, ‘well, I don’t know.’”
With the Indo fellas becoming stretched and ragged, our attacks became more frequent. Late on, we bundled home a second. We were going to win.
The final whistle. How to describe a moment like that? Rather than Will Carling, this time we will turn to Ger Loughnane for help.
“The atmosphere was one of total and absolute contentment. We’re not supposed to feel it in this lifetime.”
In truth, the rest of the tournament was an afterthought. What Ireland’s victory over Italy was to USA 94, our win over the Indo was to the 2016 Carl O’Malley Cup - save for the important detail that our vanquished opponents didn't go on to reach the final.
Our energy sapped, we went down to PSG on a respectable scoreline of 7-2.
— PSG Sponsorship (@PSGSponsorship) May 14, 2016
But thanks to an unusual sequence of results, in our final game against the freelancers, we had the chance to top the group and condemn the Irish Independent to the shield, which we will undiplomatically refer to as the losers’ competition.
The Irish Independent squad - which was roughly comparable in numbers to Clive Woodward’s 2005 Lions - all stood around the cage watching as the final decisive group match was played, their fingers gripped around the bars.
Rumours circulated that an INM executive had promised the manager of the freelancers a bottle of champagne.
One of the Indo players was assigned to referee a game between TV3 and The42.ie which was being played simultaneously on the adjacent astroturf pitch, but it’s fair to say his heart wasn’t in it.
Eyewitnesses claim he spent most of the match huddled against the bars of the cage, his back turned on the game he was supposed to be reffing, checking to see how Balls v Freelancers was getting on.
Random conversation from that game
Passing spectator - “What’s the score, (name withheld)?
Referee/Indo player - “It’s 2-2”
Nameless TV3 player - “It’s fuckin’ 3-2 to us!”
Referee/Indo player - “Oh, yeah, yeah, it’s 3-2”
— Ger Keville (@GerKeville) December 22, 2016
Refreshed after a brief rest, we gave a confident and authoritative display and disposed of the freelancers 2-0.
We thus achieved the highly unusual feat of topping a group with a negative goal difference. But these are mere trifling details.
— Balls.ie (@ballsdotie) May 14, 2016
Like Manchester United in the Europa League, the Independent had too much self-respect to bother their hole too much in the losers’ competition, which was apparently won in the end by Joe.ie, though few cared at that stage.
All eyes were on the main event. Balls bowed out with great credit at the quarter-final stage. Our performance drew comparison with the Cameroon team in Italia 90 and the Senegal team in the 2002 World Cup, albeit only from Balls.ie.
The Irish Daily Star won the overall competition.
— Balls.ie (@ballsdotie) May 14, 2016
It was a great day and the whole event was brilliantly organised by Daniel McDonnell of the Irish Independent. Afterwards, many words were spoken about Carl O'Malley.
Carl was a respected Irish Times journalist who tragically died in February 2015, only days after competing in the inaugural Irish media 6-a-side. He had worked for many years with the Irish Times, leaving behind him a fine body of journalism. He died while playing 5-a-side football with his team FC Fathom. He was 36.
And FC Fathom competed in the Carl O'Malley Cup this year. They were responsible for Balls.ie's eventual exit, as it happens.
At the presentation in the upstairs bar in the Sportsco afterwards, Dan McDonnell gave a great speech and presented the Carl O'Malley Cup to the winners, the Irish Daily Star.
All the proceeds from the day went to Carl's young family.
— Mark McCadden (@markmccadden) December 22, 2016
— Mark McCadden (@markmccadden) May 14, 2016