GAA Legends - Barney Rock
By John Harrington
If you’re lucky enough to have purchased one of the sold-out tickets for Barney Rock’s Bord Gáis Legends Tour of Croke Park this Sunday, then you should be in for a treat.
It’s hard to imagine many people know more about the stadium than Barney considering his family’s long connection with the place.
His Grandfather William was a ground steward there on Bloody Sunday in 1920, an event he never talked about, and by the 1930s was 'custodian of the balls', which gave him the responsibility of looking after the footballs and sliotars used in the All-Ireland Finals.
His father, Will, worked on the Croke Park stiles as did his uncle Christy. His Uncle John looked after the scoreboard at the Canal end while his Uncle Joe looked after the dressing-rooms for many decades.
So, long before Barney became a darling of Hill 16 for his performances for Dublin in the 1980s, he was a regular in the stadium and as a child often found his way into team dressing-rooms after matches, most notably after the 1973 All-Ireland Final when victorious Cork footballers Denis Long and Ray Cummins gifted him their shorts and socks.
“It's a special place for our family,” Rock told GAA.ie. “My father worked the stiles and my Uncle Joe was in the dressing-rooms for so many years. He just passed away two years ago.
“His son, my cousin Joseph is still there. And my Grandfather would have been the man with the bowler hat who carried the ball out to the middle of the field for All-Ireland Finals.
“They held the keys of Croke Park for years. I suppose the history of our family's connection with Croke Park is going right back to the 1930s.”
Rock would earn fame as one of the greatest Gaelic Football forwards of his generation, but had his life taken a different turn he could just as easily made his name for stopping goals as scoring them.
He was a talented soccer goalkeeper in his youth and was invited for trials by both Arsenal and QPR, but in the end the decision to focus on playing Gaelic Football for Dublin was an easy one.
“I would have played with Stella Maris and got an U-17 international cap with Ireland in Richmond Park,” said Rock.
“In and around that time I was asked to go over to England. This was when I was playing minor for Dublin, in 1978.
“Brother McDonald at the time turned around and said, 'You can't go, you're playing with Dublin minors'. There was a story that I was given expenses to go over, so when I didn't go over I ended up buying a racing bike. You can take that as a story or the truth!”
Rock’s Dublin minor team ended up losing the All-Ireland Final to Mayo that year despite leading by eight points with six minutes to play.
The following year, 1979, they made no mistake though, beating Kerry in the All-Ireland Final.
Rock looked then like he was on a fast-track to the Dublin senior team, but knee ligament injuries proved to be a speed-bump, and it wasn’t until 1982 that he made the step-up.
He didn’t have to wait long after that for the ultimate glory, as Dublin defeated Galway in the infamous 1983 All-Ireland Final.
Dublin had three players sent off on the day and Galway had one, which posed obvious challenges for Rock and his colleagues in the outnumbered Dublin forward line.
“You just had to get on with it and every ball that came your way you had to fight to win it,” he recalls.
“At certain stages I know we probably kicked some ball away but so did Galway, that's the way it was. There was no holding possession like there is now.
“But, definitely, on that particular stage we were fortunate that we got into a lead. I think we were six up at half-time and we held it for a good while until Stephen Joyce ended up scoring a goal. Mick Holden nearly got his foot to it.
“And then after that everybody was back behind the ball bar one lad, and we just grinded it out really, and were probably lucky in the end.
“As history will have it, it's an All-Ireland that will probably never be repeated. To win it with 12 men against 14 tends not to be done and I can't see it being done again.
“It was satisfying that we won it because the following two years we got to Finals and were beaten by Kerry. You had to take every opportunity you get when it comes.”
He’d have loved dearly to win more than one All-Ireland medal himself, but it’s definitely been a consolation to watch his son Dean strengthen the family’s close connection with Croke Park by winning four All-Irelands there in the past five years.
“It is, yeah. Everybody likes to see their son play at the highest level and thankfully Dean has gotten that opportunity. He had to wait a little bit of time between injuries and that as well.
“He's gone in and made his mark, and, touch-wood, everything has gone well for him. And, please God, he'll have another few years left in him.
“Since 2015, last Sunday's match against Roscommon was the only game he's missed for Dublin. He was involved in 63 matches in a row right up to that and was only a sub three or four times.
“It's great for him when you consider that he had to wait until he was 23 or 24 to start his first National League match.
“It's all solely down to his own dedication. He just goes in, puts the head down, and keeps going. There's no point looking back. You can look back when you're finished.”
The Rocks have long been part of the fabric of Croke Park, but they’re not finished making history there just yet.