Thursday, March 21, 2013
When Tony Scullion’s phone rang last week, he was pleasantly surprised to hear the voice of his former Ireland team-mate Paul Earley at the the other end of the line. The pair had represented their country together in the 1987 International Rules Series against Australia and Earley, who had recently been appointed as Ireland manager, was keen to rekindle that relationship nearly 26 years on.
Scullion, a four-time All Star and a legendary figure in Derry football, didn’t have to think twice before accepting Earley’s offer to join his backroom team as a selector for this year’s series, which takes place in Ireland next October.
“I was very delighted and honoured,” Scullion says in an interview with GAA.ie. “I have played the game, played for my country against Australia in 1987 and 1990, and I managed the U17s for a few seasons against the Australians and now to move on and work with Paul at senior level is brilliant.”
It’s not hard to see why Earley chose Scullion, along with Dublin legend Ciarán Whelan and former Tipperary player and manager Séamus McCarthy, for the role. His enthusiasm shines through, as does his love for a game that allowed him to represent his country with such distinction.
“When I was a young boy many, many years ago I didn’t get selected to play for my county minors. I was told I wasn’t good enough and didn’t even get a trial,” he recalls.
“I put on a hurling jersey at 17, 18. I didn’t put on a (Derry) football jersey until my last year at U21s. I come from a background where my dad was unwell for many years and didn’t see me play live in his life. He never thought he would have a son who would carry the Sam Maguire down to my home and set it on his knee just before he passed away.
“Now for me to go on at the end of my career and do this is great. When I was playing, I played for my country and the hairs stood on the back of my neck in Croke Park here and out in Australia when our national anthem was being played.
“To play for your country is a top honour and now to be part of the management team of your county, you couldn’t whistle a happier tune.”
Scullion, who played at full-back in Derry’s 1993 All-Ireland winning team and was considered one of the toughest defenders of his era, now works as a Football Development Officer for the Ulster Council. He travels up and down the province imparting his great wealth of knowledge to future generations with an infectious zeal.
He laughs out loud when he’s asked if the compromise code has changed much from his days in a green jersey. “Back in those times it was hairy enough! There were a few hairy incidents and all that, but thanks be to God the game has moved on.
“Back in those days it was still a great game to play but it’s definitely moved on and the skills are coming out more in the game and there’s less rucks and some of the others stuff, whatever you want to call that. It’s great to see that it’s all about the football now.”
Back then, Australia were represented by the All-Australian team – their equivalent of the All Stars – and were stacked with muscle-bound giants who weren’t necessarily the most suited to the hybrid game. Still, they were the best exponents of their own code and Scullion has treasured memories of beating a star-studded Australian selection on their own patch in 1990.
More recently, the Australians have hand-picked players more suited to the particular demands of playing with a round ball and a game that has evolved quickly in recent years. In 2011, Ireland recorded a record 130-65 aggregate victory Down Under against a very inexperienced home side.
Scullion hopes Australia will travel with a stronger squad in October so Ireland can measure themselves against the best players in a professional code.
“You can be very sure that they always travel well,” he adds. “There’s a stat there that of the eight times Australia have come to Ireland they have won six.
“They’ll be keen after what happened last year that they will be hurting, you can be sure that they’ll want to restore pride and you can be sure that fellas will be very glad to get on that plane this year compared to last year when the games were at home.
“Australia will be coming with a very strong panel and we are going to have a massive task, but we are looking forward to it.”
It may be counter-intuitive, but the history of the competition suggests that the home side are at a distinct disadvantage. Having been a member of a successful travelling Irish party in 1990, Scullion is aware that the Australians will have an edge when they travel to Breffni Park on October 19 and then Croke Park seven days later.
“Funny enough, when Paul phoned me last week that’s the first thing we talked about because we know we have a challenge,” he says. “We know the travelling team will bond, they will be training morning, noon and night. They will be staying together while the Irish lads will be going back to work the day after games.
“Of course, the travelling party has the advantage, but that’s the challenge and we’re looking forward to that.”
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