Tommy Freeman had the Hill towering over him
BY SHANE STAPLETON
Tommy Freeman had the Hill towering over him, the weight of a county on his shoulders, and just 14 yards between himself and All-Star goalkeeper Diarmuid Murphy. It was the All-Ireland Quarter-Final of 2007, and Ciaran Hanratty had just been bundled over in the box, giving Monaghan a chance to build a strong lead against Kerry.
The Farney men hadn’t won a championship match at Croke Park since 1930 when they beat Kildare in an All-Ireland Semi-Final, but Freeman had the entire stadium now focused on him, as he looked to put his side 1-2 to 0-1 ahead in the opening minutes.
“I was very nervous, but I was the penalty taker and I had been hitting them well in training,” Freeman tells AIB GAA. “But look, nothing compares with hitting them at Croke Park in front of a big crowd and the pressure on.
“So, I just focused on hitting the ball well and low, and thankfully it just about crept in. I was delighted with it, because it was big for my confidence.”
Unfortunately for Monaghan, they would lead for the majority of the game, but still the then All-Ireland champions would not be denied. Defender and footballer of the year that season, Tomás Ó Sé, fisted over what was the match-winning point in a 1-12 to 1-11 win, and Kerry would go on to retain Sam Maguire.
“It was the hardest defeat I suffered in my 13 years playing for the county, and the dressing-room was a tough place to be afterwards,” the corner-forward says. “To be underdogs against the mighty Kerry but to lead for more than an hour and then be pipped by a point, it was tough to take. We felt we could beat them, especially the way we bounced back from losing the Ulster Final by beating Donegal.
“We played really well but I suppose the difference that day was the bench. They were able to bring in Sean O'Sullivan, Bryan Sheehan and Darren O'Sullivan.”
The two counties have met just six times in championship history — 1930, 1979, 1985 x2, 2007 and 2008 — with Freeman playing in the latter pair of games. After hitting 1-3 in ’07, the Magheracloone man added another 0-5 (0-3f) a year later as the Kingdom again edged it by a score, this time 1-13 to 0-13.
One of the most intriguing aspects of both games were the tussles between Freeman and Marc Ó Sé.
“I had a goal chance (in the 2007 game) and when I hit the shot, I remember seeing it going straight for the corner of the net. But Marc dived across and somehow got a fingertip to it. I think that was the turning point.
“We were left with ‘what ifs’ and whatnot, but we left it behind us. We played the better stuff over the 70 minutes, but it’ll always be a case of what might have been.”
Freeman had some great days in the career, with the highlight being his sole Ulster title win in 2013, in his last year on the county panel. He never managed that elusive win at Croke Park, a hoodoo that was finally banished after extra-time against Kildare in 2014. This past weekend, the Lilywhites were again put to the sword, meaning a win over Kerry in Clones this Sunday would all but put Monaghan into the final four.
“One more win and we’re back in the All-Ireland Semi-Finals for the first time since 1988,” says Freeman.
“Kerry obviously need the win after losing to Galway because their season is on the line, but we need to prove ourselves too. It’s a serious opportunity now, but we’ll have to be ready for an onslaught. We played well in patches against Kildare, but one of the big areas we have to improve on is shot selection, especially when there’s a man free on the inside. We need to be on our 'A' game.”
This is a Kerry team in transition. They breezed through Munster with comprehensive wins over Clare and Cork, but reality set in against a hardened Galway last weekend. David Clifford shone in the rain, but few others showed the level of performance needed to take the Kingdom to the big dance. Freeman recalls the seasoned Kingdom side he came up against, and name-checks the Ó Sé brothers, Paul Galvin and Colm Cooper as proof of their quality. He knows that the new brigade will come all guns blazing this weekend, but perhaps the biggest weapon on show will be in white.
Freeman played alongside Conor McManus for his last number of seasons, and is in no doubt as to the quality of the Clontibret man.
“The game has changed but I still think that Conor is the best forward in the country. His record speaks for itself, and he’s been our talisman for years now. When he came on the scene under Seamus ‘Banty’ McEneaney, you could see the big interest he had in terms of how he committed to it, and how he was always looking to improve.”
McManus has scored 1-26 in this year’s championship, and the 31-year-old could well be the match-winner at St Tiernach’s Park this weekend. As Freeman explains, there is no time to lose for a Monaghan side with a number of players now in their thirties, including McManus and Vinny Corey.
“The time is now,” says the 2007 All Star. “There’s no doubt about it. Dessie Mone, Vinny, Conor, Kieran and Darren Hughes, they have all been there a long time and now is as good a time as any. We have a blend of good young players too, and we’re not getting carried away. But you have to take the opportunities when they are there.”