Martin Furlong: kept goals in an era when the goalkeeper was not as well protected as he is today.
When Martin Furlong took the call that changed the direction of his life, he didn't even have a phone. "I had to go across the field to my neighbours," he laughs.
This was on the outskirts of Tullamore in 1988. Furlong had retired as Offaly's goalkeeper three years earlier and was settling into the afterlife, working for the county council, watching matches from behind the wire. His brother Tom was on the phone from New York: he was opening a bar up state and wanted Martin to manage it.
Walking back across the field, he was stunned. He was in his forties and had four children. “It was never in the plans. If someone had told me I was going to do that, I would have told them to be careful what they were drinking. But Joan was 17 at the time, Ken was 16, Mark was 12 and Tom was 11. There wasn’t much future for them in Ireland at that time.”
1949: Young Martin Furlong’s first steps in O’Connor Park
At home, he relayed the news to his wife Katie. She said: “We might be sitting looking at this fire in 20 years time wondering what it would have been like if we’d gone to America.” And with that, one of Offaly’s most famous football sons emigrated, gone after spending almost 20 years minding goal for the county side and winning three senior All-Ireland titles (1971,’72, ’82) along the way.
Furlong had, like all true goalkeepers, his own way of doing things. He wasn’t pushed about the gruelling fitness regime which Offaly employed but was fastidious about his saving techniques. He was understated and modest but liked a quick nip of brandy before games.
He was the kid brother in a household containing lavishly gifted sports men and collective experiences which neatly sum up life in late 20th century Ireland. Gaelic football captured the imaginations of the Furlong boys but life took them elsewhere. Mickey Furlong was a rising star on Offaly teams of the mid 1950s but after narrowly losing the 1954 Leinster final to Meath, his application for a visa was accepted and he was gone by October. Martin was just eight years old at the time.
Tom Furlong followed the same route, the star turn on Offaly underage teams who was deeply disenchanted with the GAA after he was accused of breaking Rule 27 and headed for America at 20. He missed out on Offaly’s All-Ireland successes but was such a natural place-kicker that he was signed by the New York Giants to kick goals only for a knee ligament injury to rob him of what would have been a uniquely spectacular alternative career.
Martin stayed home to become the most celebrated of the brothers but the feeling in Tullamore was that John, the second eldest of the Furlong boys and an imposing figure, was set to eclipse them all until he contracted tuberculosis-meningitis in his teens.
This is the shorthand of a rich family life story with origins in the War of Independence – Tom Furlong senior was condemned to death for his part in an IRA raid on the post office in New Ross in 1921 and reprieved after the drafting of the Treaty the following January. (All through his life, Furlong senior refused to celebrate his birthday on the actual date: July 12th).
The family story is vividly recounted by a new book by Pat Nolan.
Although Martin and Katie have lived in America for 25 years, the family hopped the Atlantic regularly because Joan and Ken, their eldest children, decided after a few months that the new world wasn’t for them and returned to live with their grandmother in the town and resumed their old lives. It was unconventional but it worked out: Ken became goalkeeper for Offaly and maintained the family tradition.
“I was very proud – he has a Leinster medal and a national league medal, which I never had! And four county championships so that comes up in conversation the odd time.”
The idea of an Offaly footballer with three All-Ireland medals is hard to reconcile with the contemporary era. Furlong believes that the success of the 1964 minor team in the All-Ireland final against Cork was the turning point for the county. It was the first minor final to be broadcast on television and concluded in an unholy scramble in front of the Offaly goal, with Furlong protecting the ball after making a diving save on Liam McAuliffe’s punched shot, even as desperate Cork forwards tried to bundle him over the line. Eventually, a free out was awarded and Offaly were champions.
“The thing about it is that eight or nine of that team went on and Offaly had never won a football title of any sort. I am not saying that what happened in ’71 and ’72 wouldn’t have anyway but it did give us that confidence. So it was huge.”
It seems too simple now: a cracking minor team graduating to play senior within five years and then winning back-to-back All-Irelands. There has always been a miraculous aspect to Offaly’s willingness to punch above its weight. Furlong is convinced that the county can return to prominence as a football force simply by starting again, working with underage teams and demonstrating patience.
“It would take a lot of work and belief in ourselves. Supporters are getting impatient and very critical of players, particularly on blogs and comment lines. We are a small county, not a big industrial county and we don’t have the same resources as other counties.”
He served his goalkeeping apprenticeship during a period when the position was regarded as fair game by marauding forwards and referees alike. Tall and lithe, he decided that the best means of protecting his square – and himself – was to boss any high ball that came into his square. It meant clearing players in his wake like skittles, irrespective of their colours: he once left John Smith, the Offaly full back, with broken ribs after coming to collect a ball in a league game.
Brian McEniff, whose Donegal team played Offaly in the 1972 All-Ireland semi-final, is quoted as saying: “Furlong in goals, he was a great one. He was a huge shot stopper and he was brave to a degree where it was dangerous.”
Elsewhere, Pat Nolan recalls Colm O’Rourke’s anecdote about trying to pick an All-Star Dirtiest Team of all time in a pub with friends one night and quitting after discovering that five of the six defenders played on Offaly teams in the 1970s. It was in jest but they had that reputation.
"I felt it was exaggerated. Football was tough then – Kerry and Dublin and Meath were very tough. You had to be to survive. I think it is a totally different game now. You wouldn't get away with the same challenges now. They were seen as par for the course then. One of my jobs was to keep my backs informed of what was happening – shouting and roaring at them.
“But if a ball was coming in and I thought I could get it, I would go for it. I was looking at the ball, not at these other guys. That was my philosophy. You had to stamp your authority around there. And when I started out, it was never a problem to bury the goalkeeper in the back of the net. That is how I learned my lesson. Players held their line.”
In the 1982 final, Furlong’s penalty save against Mikey Sheehy
has been obscured a little by Séamus Darby. He was 35 years old then and it was his 56th championship match for Offaly: by season’s end he had been voted the
Texaco Footballer of the Year. The celebrations carried them through most of the winter. “It was hectic. Serious stuff going on. We survived. Not too well. But we survived.”
He retired three years later and then the family embarked on their New York adventure. Nearly 30 years on, he remains a household name – and familiar face – in Offaly. These days, he is content to be a supporter of Offaly football and New York Rangers ice-hockey. He is fascinated by the evolution of the Gaelic goalkeeper, which has moved from self-protection to self-expression but reckons his golden rule for penalty saving still holds true. “Don’t look at the kicker because he can throw shapes. Just keep your eyes on the ball.”
The Furlongs: The Story Of A Remarkable GAA Family
by Pat Nolan is published by Ballpoint Press. All proceeds go to Dóchas, the Offaly