'I looked up and standing there with broad grins on their faces were Mick O'Dwyer, Donie O'Sullivan and Denis O'Sullivan who had travelled all the way up from Kerry. They were delighted we were gone'
In part two of his feature on Down's 1968 All-Ireland win, Neil Loughran hears memories of marking Mick O'Connell and conquering Kerry to the long road home, steering clear of Paisley's protest and why the dream of another All-Ireland was never realised…
“The referee’s checking his watch annnnd... the game is on. The first to get it are Down, this is James Milligan with the ball... Milligan, 70 yards out from the Kerry goal, right down into full-forward Sean O’Neill... Sean O’Neill with the ball 20 yards out... it’s high... and it’s a point! Well that’s the quickest start we’ve seen to an All-Ireland final in a long time, a point by Sean O’Neill after 10 seconds of play...”
Michael O’Hehir, RTE
Neil Loughran: September 22, 1968 – the big day itself. The build-up to the All-Ireland final was something that was so new for quite a few of the players on that Down team. How did you deal with it?
Mickey Cole: It’s funny, but one of the main things I remember is two weeks before the All-Ireland final we played a challenge match against Dublin in Newcastle and they beat us. We were very despondent in the dressing room afterwards.
Colm McAlarney: But it was probably a good thing...
Peter Rooney: Probably. The older guys kept a lid on things. In a way we were protected from a lot of the hype. At training we all got together and spoke. We had self belief, and it was an exciting time. We were encouraged to believe in ourselves.
Neil Loughran: There’s always been a fascination with Kerry, and it was no different back then. They had the likes of Mick O’Dwyer and the great Mick O’Connell among their ranks…
Peter Rooney: I remember you saying you’d never heard of Mick O’Connell?
James Milligan: Well, I’d heard of him. I knew the name but that was about the height of it.
Colm McAlarney: I remember reading some of the papers before it, and that was probably a mistake because I kept noticing these stories coming up from Kerry. In one the image was of people on a pier somewhere, waiting for this guy rowing across from Valentia Island – rowing himself! – and it was Mick O’Connell. If you had been reading that and digesting that, you could have thought you weren’t going to be playing a human being here, you’re going to be playing Cuchullain or something...
Neil Loughran: Yourself and James were up against him and Mick Fleming in midfield that day. What was the conversation before the game?
Colm McAlarney: Funny enough, James and I, right from the beginning, just had a telepathic understanding. Honestly, we wouldn’t have had that chat.
James Milligan: We did switch the jerseys though…
Colm McAlarney: That’s right! Because we were both of a similar frame we switched them around so if I was listed in the programme at number eight, I’d put on number nine. The commentator, poor old Micheal O’Hehir, if you listen to the broadcast of that All-Ireland final, very often James will be on the ball and he’ll be saying ‘Colm McAlarney’s coming up the field…’
James Milligan: Sure we were at a funeral not so long ago and a fella who would’ve known us back then came up to me and said ‘well Colm, how are you?’
Colm McAlarney: Haha. But no, there was no such thing as Gerry Brown coming over to us and saying ‘look, you’re playing against this legend Mick O’Connell on Sunday, you have to be thinking this way’ or whatever. In his own quiet way, he gave us total belief to go out and play our own game.
James Milligan: Just before the last training session, Jarlath [Carey] was up, PJ [McElroy] was up, they played midfield against Kerry before and they were saying ‘you have to get in and do this and do that’, but we were a different shape to them.
Gerry asked ‘what way are you gonna play it?’ and I remember Colm saying ‘just leave it to us, we’ll sort something out’. We said then we’d just play our own game, and take whichever one’s nearest us, [Mick] Fleming or O’Connell. That was it, and I think that’s what made it easier for us. Everywhere else, Mick O’Connell would’ve been marked tight so he didn’t have to look for his man, he knew his man was going to be beside him. But because I would’ve taken him up, or Colm would’ve taken it up, it would have given us that wee bit of an advantage.
Neil Loughran: Down made a blistering start, 2-7 to 0-5 ahead at half-time. Kerry tried, but there was no coming back from that...
Colm McAlarney: It was an absolute blitzkrieg – we just hit the ground running, and really that probably summed up our year. It was a blend of youth and experience coming together to create the perfect storm.
Peter Rooney: We also had the plan…
Colm McAlarney: That’s right. We had the plan.
Neil Loughran: What was the plan?
Peter Rooney: The plan was the creation of space
Sean O’Neill: The diamond…
Peter Rooney: We would stretch them, play off the sidelines, play off the end-line and stretch the backs. So the back had to think about it, that if you got around him you’d created that space for fellas to run into.
Mickey Cole: Sean probably won’t agree with me but, after ’66 or ’67, he went into full-forward. In the old days the full-forward stood beside the full-back – Sean was the modern-day full-forward. He didn’t stay on the edge of the square, he came out and drew the full-back with them. You weren’t static in front of the goals…
Sean O’Neill: I wasn’t the first one to do that Mickey, but what we had was the diamond. So the opposing goal’s there, the diamond came from there to there, to there to there – no-one went into that before the ball came. You moved around it – Peter could come over here, I could go out there, but always the space was there for the man down the field to run into.
Colm McAlarney: It worked an absolute treat right through that whole year. It’s nearly unstoppable.
Peter Rooney: If Sean had gone out, I’d have gone in, same with Purdy, whoever was in there.
Sean O’Neill: There was movement all the time, and that was very unsettling for a defence.
Mickey Cole: And they’d have been wondering where Paddy ‘Mo’ was...
Colm McAlarney: Paddy would have swept out around the middle, collected ball in that area too. Paddy, as well as being so accurate from play for scores, was also a superb passer of the ball.
Sean O’Neill: The brief for the half-backs was to breach the half-forward line. Generally the best defenders on a team were half-backs – they were usually the tightest, hardest markers and we neutralised them.
Colm McAlarney: That was just night after night training in Castlewellan, teams being picked, backs against forwards, and loads of football played. Instinctively, spontaneously, naturally, you got to know just playing a couple of hours at night, until it got dark. You got to know and understand each other.
“YOU know, I can remember everything about it. I can even remember who was number one in the charts at that exact time…”
There are puzzled looks around the table as eyes dart back and forth, searching for inspiration.
“Does anybody else remember?” prompts Cole again. More blank faces.
“That wee Welsh girl?”
“Who? Cilla Black?”
“She was from Liverpool…”
“Mary Hopkins boys!” laments Cole before clearing his throat.
“Those were the days my friend, we thought they'd never end, we'd sing and dance, forever and a day…”
Kerry vanquished, All-Ireland champions for the third time that decade, careers stretching out in front of them, for that moment in time they felt like kings of the world. Those were the days alright.
Little did they know it would never get so good again…
Neil Loughran: Tell me about that journey back up north…
Dickie Murphy: You’d no motorway then, so it was long. Very long.
Mickey Cole: We stopped in Drogheda, in Gormanstown, there was a meal in Newry at the Ardmore Hotel, then we went home via Warrenpoint, then Rostrevor, Mayobridge, Hilltown, Castlewellan, Downpatrick.
Peter Rooney: If you came from this end of the county, you didn’t get home…
Colm McAlarney: I remember finishing up in the Donard Hotel in Newcastle, and it was basically a breakfast. You were looking out the window, five o’clock in the morning, and seeing people still out on the Main Street. So I suppose you begin to realise what an impact winning an All-Ireland has on a county, and on the psyche of a county.
James Milligan: That was the early hours of Tuesday wasn’t it? I had to go to work that morning.
Neil Loughran: Doing what?
James Milligan: Delivering coal.
Mickey Cole: People had to get their coal.
Neil Loughran: There aren’t not too many coalmen playing football these days…
Colm McAlarney: I remember Tomas O Se quoting a fella who played for Kerry way back in the ’40s; Paddy ‘Bawn’ Brosnan you called him. And he said ‘what you need for an All-Ireland winning Kerry team is a few farmers, a few fishermen, and a college boy to hit the frees’.
Peter Rooney: Haha. I must tell Paddy Doherty that.
Neil Loughran: A couple of days after that homecoming, you became the first Gaelic football team to receive a civic reception at Belfast City Hall. The team was welcomed by unionist Lord Mayor William Geddis, but the reception wasn’t all friendly...
Mickey Cole: Ian Paisley’s wife was there, she was a councillor at the time.
Neil Loughran: You didn’t see the big man himself?
Mickey Cole: I think we just missed him. There was a protest out the front and he arrived just as we were being shepherded out the back door.
Peter Rooney: Even so, that was a really big step at the time.
Colm McAlarney: Oh it was, though the thing I remember of that day was the Dungannon march. It must have happened just prior to us going to City Hall, and Gerry Fitt was there with a real shiner of a black eye. We were maybe cocooned away from all of that, but I remember thinking then ‘things are starting to get a bit serious...’
Neil Loughran: You were probably in a world of your own that whole year...
Mickey Cole: Oh you were. The whole thing was whirlwind stuff. I was the last of the six minors to come on to the team and to go through that whole year undefeated… then we went to America two weeks after winning the All-Ireland. Two days after getting back from America we played an Australian Rules team at Croke Park. We played Kerry at Wembley in the May of ’69 then, the weekend after the FA Cup final. That’s a lot to happen young lads in in the space of basically a year-and-a-half.
Peter Rooney: We were actually invited to Australia but the county board put the kaybosh on it. I thought if we’d gone in that spring of ’69, it would’ve galvanised us. Unfortunately, after winning the All-Ireland in ’68 we were feted, not only throughout our own county but, honest to God, you were invited to places like Ardboe, Moortown, Fermanagh, through the whole winter. So you lost your focus for a bit, but I think if we’d gone to Australia for three weeks…
James Milligan: It would’ve wrecked us…
Colm McAlarney: Haha, probably. It might have bonded us but it mightn’t have done us any good.
Peter Rooney: Half of us probably would’ve stayed there.
Neil Loughran: It didn’t work out in ’69, and that Down team would never reach those heights again. How much of a source of regret is that?
Sean O’Neill: There was definitely two All-Irelands in that team.
James Milligan: Things just weren’t right. The hunger, the focus we had the year before, it wasn’t there for whatever reason. I remember Sean saying before the Ulster final Sean said ‘who are we playing on Sunday?’
Mickey Cole: Fair play Sean, you had realised.
Colm McAlarney: There’s no doubt there was more in that team. Had there been a back door system as there is now...
Cavan ambushed us in the final that year. Despite Sean’s warnings to us prior to that game, we weren’t mentally set for that, and you had to be for Cavan. I recall coming off the pitch at Casement devastated that we’d been beaten. I looked up and standing there with broad grins on their faces were Mick O’Dwyer, Donie O’Sullivan and Denis O’Sullivan who had travelled all the way up from Kerry.
They were delighted we were gone. That same Kerry team that we had beaten in ’68, with pretty much the same personnel, won the next two All-Irelands.
Neil Loughran: Some of that team started to drift away too…
Colm McAlarney: John Purdy was a free spirit in many ways but a wonderful footballer, and had he still been around in the early Seventies I could’ve seen him moving into a position like centre half-forward. And then James…
James Milligan: I didn’t quit. I was on the subs’ bench in ’71…
Colm McAlarney: I find that astonishing.
James Milligan: That year I got a wee letter just to tell me training starts on the third of October, all members are expected to attend. Then I looked down at the bottom of the letter where it said ‘PS, as you are no longer on the panel, it is not necessary for you to attend’.
Colm McAlarney: It’s just unbelievable, isn’t it?
Peter Rooney: You’re lucky you got that!
James Milligan: Remember the Ulster medals you got? I didn’t get one for ’71 either. The boys got me the ’68 Ulster medal, I think I got that six or seven years ago, but I still don’t have a ’71 medal.
Sean O’Neill: It still sticks in my craw that the medals we have from ’68 say ‘Kerry v Down’ instead of ‘Down v Kerry’. I actually raised it with [former Down chairman] Paddy McFlynn but nothing was ever done about it.
Mickey Cole: I remember in ’71 Paddy Doherty was player-manager. I got married that year and I wasn’t picked for the All-Ireland semi-final against Galway, but after half-time things weren’t going well and Paddy told me get warmed up. I was getting ready to come on and Paddy turned round to me and says ‘actually Mickey, I’m going to put myself on’.
Colm McAlarney: Mickey did the warm-up for Paddy.
Mickey Cole: I’m still warming up!
Laughter breaks out for the umpteenth time as afternoon turns to evening. Absent friends are toasted and talked about with fondness as though still here in the middle of it all.
“This, us here today, is a reflection of what it was like in those days,” says John Murphy. “We were a team, we looked after one another. There’s a bond there.”
“There’s a massive bond,” adds McAlarney. “It’s probably the same with every team that wins an All-Ireland. It’s a lifelong bond – these are like brothers.”
“That said,” chips in Cole, eyes full of mischief once more, “Dan and Sean are still pretty lucky to be invited along with us…”
Conversations carry on out the front and in the car park, just where they had begun hours earlier, before everybody heads off in different directions.
Until next month, of course. Same time, same place. Same as it ever was.