By Anthony Hennigan
1989 is remembered in Mayo for more than just the county’s first appearance in an All-Ireland senior football final in 38 years. It is remembered as proof why Bill Shankley’s reckoning that football is more serious than life or death really is nonsense.
Exactly seven days after Mayo’s defeat to Cork, 70 people were injured in a train crash outside Claremorris. Seven carriages had been turned sideways after the train ploughed into a herd of cattle. 400 people were on board, most of them pilgrims headed for Knock. That no lives were lost in the derailing was described as a miracle.
Six months earlier a young man from Ballinrobe, Corporal Fintan Heneghan, was killed when a landmine detonated on the outskirts of the village of Bra’shit in the ‘Green Rooms’ area of Lebanon. Also slain were privates Thomas Walsh and Mannix Armstrong from Sligo. The trio had been serving their country as part of a United Nations peacekeeping mission.
And then there was the curse of emigration. ‘ was a survey conducted by local curate Fr Padraic Brennan and from it he established that by 1989, out of 657 young people from the area who had left second-level education between 1978 and ’86, one in every three – or 38% to be precise – were now emigrants.
Alan Freeman turned 32 last month. That makes him the same age as Midwest Radio. Both have done their county some service. 1989 wasn’t all bad.
Freeman is best known for his years given to Mayo football. First appearing on a Green and Red team-sheet in the Connacht minor championship of 2007, he continued to represent his county each year up to and including 2018. It was a career that saw him appear in two All-Ireland senior football finals, a National League final and fire home six championship goals. His time since, however, has been spent performing for a very different team.
Working in Dubai for French multinational Veolia, his responsibility is to grow the company’s interests in energy efficiency and renewable energy throughout the Middle East and North Africa. There’s nine on his particular crew, each a different nationality.
“It’s some challenge,” admits the Aghamore native. “Everything is done in English but the Middle East boys might speak in Arabic from time to time, probably giving out about us!
“You have a Portugese man, a guy from Morocco, a girl from Germany, a girl from France, a guy from Lebanon, a guy from Iran, another guy from Egypt, a girl from the Philippines, and myself, the Irishman. It’s some diversity.”
But Alan isn’t just the only Irishman on his business development team; he’s the only Irishman among the near 3,500 people from 26 different countries that Veolia has employed throughout the Middle East.
“It wasn’t like you could go into the office the first day and talk GAA so it was a real eye-opener for me,” he recalls. Arriving in Dubai on April 25, 2019, his last game for Mayo had come exactly 13 months earlier, when introduced as a late substitute against Donegal in the final round of the National Football League. Those were his only minutes of that Division 1 campaign and manager Stephen Rochford informed the full-forward soon after that he wasn’t part of his championship plans. Alan Freeman was suddenly on the outside.
A rather messy end to Rochford’s tenure later that year resulted in the return of James Horan as manager and the potential perhaps of a fresh start for the player who had scored 1-1 on the occasion of Horan’s first competitive game as manager, against Down, back in 2011. But by then some wheels were turning.
A former student at DIT where he gained a masters in energy management, Freeman did so alongside Mayo teammate Tom Parsons. Jason Doherty qualified from the same course twelve months later. Now employed by Veolia at their Dublin office, Freeman had received an offer of a new role in Dubai.
“I sat on the fence for a while because it was a big shock. I was going to take it, I wasn’t going to take it, but then it turned into something I wanted to do.
“When you’re involved with Mayo, the chance to work abroad isn’t really there but I had never made a big deal about going away, it’s just that this opportunity opened up and looking back now, I’m very happy that I’ve tried it and experienced it.”
The decision, though, was compounded enormously by the death of Alan’s father, the man affectionately known in Aghamore and throughout Mayo GAA circles as ‘Black’ Tom, just six weeks before departure. But having partner, Jessica Kelly, also arrive in Dubai shortly after, was a great settler. The Ballyhaunis native quickly picked up employment in PR and Communications.
“I definitely found the first weeks difficult but what really opened my eyes was the support from the network of Irish people that are here and who are willing to help anybody that arrives – with or without a job,” explains the man known to his friends as Freezer. “They’ll try and embed them into the community and share as much knowledge as they can because the way everything happens out here is totally different. From getting the driving licence changed over to having to pay a lot of money up front for rent, you need somebody to guide and help you along the way.
“A few of the Mayo guys in the club were very helpful in particular.”
By , Alan means Dubai Celts, one of three GAA clubs in Dubai alone. And to say there’s a strong Mayo influence is something of an understatement.
Tom King, a member of the Castlebar Mitchels team that contested the 2014 All-Ireland Club senior final, plays for the Celts, so too did his Mitchels clubmate Stephen Keane until moving on recently to Singapore. Cillian Gavin and Ja Glynn are two more of Celts’ Castlebar contingent, then there’s the Belmullet duo of Tom McAndrew and Mickey Togher, the latter featuring for Mayo in the 2016 All-Ireland junior final. Another man familiar to the Green and Red jersey, Ballaghaderren’s Keith Rogers, and his brother Philip, both played too, likewise James Hunt, an Aghamore club-mate of Alan Freeman.
Liam ‘Bomber’ Lyons from Ballyhaunis is manager of the Dubai Celts hurlers and up the road, former Mayo goalkeeper Kenneth O’Malley is among a number from the county involved in an equally vibrant GAA scene in Abu Dhabi.
“You could pick your own Mayo team here,” reckons Freeman.
“The first training I went to, I think it was 65 players who showed up, all different levels, from people who aren’t Irish who show up for the social aspect right through to players who have played inter-county football or to a high level of club or college. And that was just our club; there could be another 40 or 50 training at the other two.
“It was a surprise to me to see the strength of the GAA and the standard of the players here but if you think about it, the vast majority of Irish people here are teachers, probably mid to late 20s, so at peak age and fitness.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted life in Dubai but nothing to the extent it has in Ireland.
Average daily case numbers in what is the largest city in the United Arab Emirates have been around the 2,500 mark yet the workplace remains open to anyone who prefers not to work from home. Borders are closed though and planes are grounded which has denied Alan Freeman work visits to the likes of Egypt, Lebanon and Qatar.
What bothers him more however, is the lack of competitive sport, even if he’s able to while away some of his spare time on the golf course and playing 7-a-side soccer.
There was little gaelic football played last year and the fifth and final round of the 2019/20 Middle East League has still to take place. Freeman played in rounds hosted by Dubai, Bahrain, Al Ain and Sharjah but with a return to play not forecast until the back end of this year, the extent of his football activity of late has been coaching the Dubai Celts under-10s and 12s on a Saturday morning.
“I’ve really enjoyed getting down there, I’d kick a bit of ball myself which is great because it’s the only time we get to kick a few points now.
“Some of the kids are very impressive, very athletic, you can tell they play other sports.” He has even sent a couple of Dubai Celts jerseys to his nephews (and biggest fans), 14-year-old Cian and 11-year-old Odhran; such kits are a rare commodity around Aghamore.
“I do miss home, I really do miss club football,” Alan admits. The intention is to play another couple of Mayo club championships – just not this year. The idea of first having to quarantine in a hotel for two weeks holds little appeal. But already considering how he might coincide an extended summer visit with the 2022 schedule of the Aghamore footballers would suggest that Alan and Jessica have no immediate plans to bid farewell to their Arabian life.
“My mother hasn’t been out here yet and I want to show her where I am so she doesn’t think that I’m stuck in a tent out in the desert,” laughs Alan.
“This is a transient place, there’s people coming and going all of the time, and there’s good and bad in that. The good is that there are opportunities to progress your career quicker than you would at home.
“Last year was a challenge with Covid but we’re quite settled now so I’d say we’ll do another year and maybe reassess then.
“Things can change very quickly. Last year people lost jobs or lost a lot of their salaries, luckily we were okay. But there’s no social benefit to fall back on, no Covid payments, so if you’re out of work you’re on your own.”
If, after an infamous June evening in Longford in 2010, anyone had forecast that Mayo would contest All-Ireland senior football finals in two of the following three seasons, and reach semi-finals in nine of the next ten seasons, men wearing white coats would have been called for – and we’re not talking umpires.
Defeats to Sligo, in the Connacht championship, and Longford in the All-Ireland Qualifiers, brought Mayo football to a nadir never before visited. It marked an endpoint for one of the GAA’s greatest ever managers yet strangely, for so many of the players who featured on those two fateful evenings, it was only their dawning. A dozen of the team would go on to feature in the All-Ireland finals of 2012 and ’13.
John O’Mahony had first dipped Alan Freeman into the waters of inter-county football during a seven points victory over Galway in Round 1 of the 2010 National Football League. He was the only substitute used, something that has never occurred in a Mayo game since.
One week later, on Valentine’s Day, Freeman was handed his first senior start, appearing against Tyrone on the left-wing of a half-forward line also featuring Andy Moran and Seamus O’Shea. A one-point victory at Healy Park ensured the debutante’s 21st birthday celebrations the following day felt extra special.
Freeman had to settle for an appearance off the bench when Mayo contested that season’s Division 1 final against Cork, however, the full-forward position – and a senior championship debut against Sligo – was secured by the time June came around.
“Kevin Walsh watched as his team conceded 1-1 in six minutes when the height and athleticism of Mayo’s Alan Freeman seemed set to be the dominant story of the game,” Keith Duggan wrote in the afterwards.
“All the danger came from Freeman on the edge of the square. He had Sligo full-back Noel McGuire in all sorts of trouble from the start,” opined John Fallon in the .
Ending the game at Markievicz Park with 1-4, including the scoring of a self-won penalty, and adding 0-5 against Longford in Pearse Park, over the course of both matches Freeman was Mayo’s top scorer from play by quite some distance. And this a forward line that included past and future All-Stars in Conor Mortimer and Andy Moran. The newcomer was perhaps the only player to emerge from both games with their reputation enhanced.
In fact, he who as a younger man also hurled for Tooreen, scored championship goals for Mayo in four seasons running, grabbing 1-2 against Galway in the 2011 Connacht semi-final, 1-0 against Leitrim in the opening round of the 2012 provincial championship, and 1-2 and 1-4 against London and Tyrone respectively in 2013.
What’s largely forgotten about that All-Ireland semi-final win against the Red Hands however, is that aside from a brilliantly dispatched penalty, likewise a particularly difficult long-range free, both in the wake of an early injury to Cillian O’Connor, Freeman was also desperately unlucky to have a sensational second goal chalked off.
“Alan Freeman took on the free-taking and did so with authority, which was one of the team’s lifelines. He also posed problems in play,” wrote Sean Moran in the , adding: “In the 25th minute, he was unfortunate that referee Maurice Deegan whistled for a free (to Mayo) just as he was disengaging himself from the attentions of the defence before sending an extraordinary finish into the net.”
It seems as inexplicable now as it did eight years ago that 27-minutes is all the time Alan Freeman was given to make his mark on the 2013 final before called ashore by manager James Horan.
“I was very disappointed,” he says, diplomatically.
Introduced as a sub in the 2012 final loss to Donegal, Freeman had started all five of Mayo’s games prior to the ’13 final, scoring 2-13 in the process, and his athleticism looked to be causing Dublin’s full-back line difficulties; his replacement, Mickey Conroy, had struggled with injury to the extent that his only appearances had been off the bench against Tyrone and London.
“2013 was a tough day for me personally and that winter it definitely was a difficult one to get over,” Alan admits now.
“We definitely could and should have won that game. We got off to a very good start; I think we were 0-7 to 1-1 up. It was one that got away, a bit like the ’16 finals where we played very well.
“I think about [being substituted] from time to time and it’s obviously a disappointing moment for me but if it’s sport, if it’s work, whatever it is, I’m the kind of person who doesn’t dwell on things for too long. You just have to pick yourself up and continue on.
“When I got back playing in January and February, it was all about getting back doing the best I could for the team for the next few years so I drew a line in the sand and moved on fairly quickly.”
Indeed and he did; Freeman’s first start in 2014 saw him score 1-5 in a five points league win against Kerry, and he hit 0-5, 1-0 and 2-6 in subsequent outings against Westmeath, Cork and Derry before registering a further 0-6 against the Oak Leafers as Mayo reached that year’s Division 1 final. The end result, however, was just two championship starts, including the drawn All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry in Croke Park.
Life changed somewhat in 2015 then, when after two years sub-contracted by Veolia into the Ballina Beverages plant, Freeman was moved to the company’s head office in Dublin. It added an unhelpful dimension to his involvement in the Mayo panel.
“I was up and down from Dublin all the time and it’s not easy. It’s fine in the nice hot summer days and going to Croke Park or MacHale Park or Hyde Park but the commitment, the travel, the up and down, it’s tough going.”
The 2009 All-Ireland U21 semi-finalist remained a firm fixture in the senior squad of Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly in 2015 and again in ’16 when Stephen Rochford led Mayo back to the All-Ireland final, however, starting against Monaghan in the opening round of the 2017 league campaign was to prove Freeman’s last game that year.
“When it became a bit too difficult to manage everything, and I was up and down from Dublin and the enjoyment was gone a little bit, I took a break. I was just burnt out.
“When I was in there I gave everything that I could but I was always thinking about my career as well and wasn’t going to lose sight of that.
“I loved playing with Mayo and had seven or eight very long and good seasons. I think when you’re involved in an environment like that, where you’re pushing yourself every day and every week, I think that shapes your future as well and shapes your habits. I wouldn’t have changed anything really.”
It was after he had stepped away from the Mayo panel in 2017 that as a way of keeping fit in Dublin, Alan Freeman joined with his former county teammate Enda Varley in training with the St Vincent’s senior football team. The Vins, with Garrymore native Varley at the head of their attack, were after winning the previous season’s county and provincial titles and would go on to successfully defend their Dublin crown, all of which gave Freeman a rare insight into club standards in the capital and a better understanding as to what has driven the six-in-a-row success of its county team.
“It’s about numbers [of players] and the culture within that.
“Vincent’s can pick a senior ‘A’ panel of 26 players and 26 players will be at training. Aghamore or any of the clubs in Mayo will struggle to get 10 or 12, maybe 15, for a midweek session. It’s very different and very hard to compete with that.
“For the likes of Mayo, with lads either in college or working away, you’re rushing down on a Friday evening to make club or county training. It’s a different set-up for Dublin.
“When you see the standard that they train at, the strength and conditioning, the preparation that goes on and the amount of players they have, the more professional it gets the better Dublin are going to get,” Freeman says ominously.
“We’ve some fine players in Mayo, the same in Kerry and Tyrone, and I think there will always be a couple of teams who will push Dublin every now and again, but when you see what they have done to Leinster; nobody believes they can beat Dublin, they’ve just been demolished.
“When backs are against the wall, when you need to pull out a result, Mayo are one of the better counties at doing that, at preparing for and targeting a game. We have performed very well over the last decade, pushing the boundaries of Dublin to the limit but unfortunately we haven’t got over the line.
“I hope there will always be the few teams who are competitive and who can do that against Dublin every year.”
Few more than Alan Freeman know just how hard that is to do.