GAA Football

Monarch of the Glen: The Dermot McNicholl story

As a schoolboy, Dermot McNicholl's achievements were unparalleled. An Irish international, the GAA's youngest ever Allstar to this day, a five-time MacRory Cup finalist, all while still at St Patrick's Maghera. The Glenullin man is also the AFL's oldest Irish recruit, and returned to help Derry win their only All-Ireland title in 1993. He sat down with Cahair O'Kane…

Dermot McNicholl pictured at his home club, Glenullin. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

FIFTY-thousand vertical red, white and black tricolours bake beneath the sunlit Melbourne sky as St Kilda’s new head coach Kenny Sheldon turns to his interchange bench.

Out springs his new number 60, the sleeveless geansai and the tiny shorts glued to his powerful frame, the hair flowing down to his shoulders like Patrick Swayze.

At 24 years and 215 days, the VFL club’s first ever Irish recruit is a man, not a boy.

From the first of five straight MacRory Cup finals at just 14, through becoming the youngest ever Allstar (a record that stands to this day) and playing for Ireland in the Compromise Rules while he was still at school, Dermot McNicholl had never been too fazed.

Physically, he was always a supreme specimen. Only 5’10”, he had huge broad shoulders, bulging arms and powerful quads.

“The rest of the boys used to look at his physique in awe,” Adrian McGuckin minds.

McNicholl won every sprint back home at Derry training, buried his way through big men.

But this is a new world.

Sheldon pulls him over and, through the cacophonous surroundings of the old Waverly Park, delivers his instructions.

‘You follow Paul Couch, he will lead you to the ball.’

On he went.

Geelong’s Paul Couch was the reigning Brownlow medallist from 1990, the best player in the whole of Australia.

“He said to me ‘right, Irishman, let’s go’. He took me to the top of the ground, he took me to the bottom of the ground, he took me to the top of the ground and he took me to the bottom of the ground,” laughs McNicholl, pointing to the four corners of Glenullin’s home changing room in the grip of the damp Irish winter.

“My tongue was hanging out. He never even looked for the ball. Then he winks at me, I’ll never forget it. ‘See you later, Irishman’.”

This was a debut long overdue, in more ways than one.

Australia had first been waved under his nose by Hawthorn when he was 18. Then again a year later. Between leaving Maghera, starting out at Jordanstown and playing for Glenullin and Derry, he didn’t even really think all that hard.

But when they came back for another nibble at 23, things had changed.

Playing with a badly torn hamstring in the 1987 All-Ireland semi-final, when he literally limped through the game, Derry were well beaten by Meath.

Glenullin had won a Derry title in 1985. Practically their whole forward line was between 19 and 21, except for Ronan Bradley, who was just 15.

But emigration tore them apart and from a side that he believes could have dominated Derry football, there were no more championships.

Derry had talent on the way through but in his heart of hearts, he didn’t foresee it ending up how it ultimately did in 1993.

So when the call came a third time, this time from Melbourne, he thought a bit harder.

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FROM old palatial mansions to the fairy penguins on the pier, St Kilda is a bohemian paradise.

But when Dermot McNicholl landed there in 1988, he found that it just wasn’t home. There wasn’t the Irish community that exists now, but rather a collection of individuals doing their own things.

And so just weeks after arriving off the plane, he found himself sitting alone in his bedroom celebrating his 23rd birthday, curtains drawn, lying on top of the bed.

“I remember sitting and nobody there, thinking ‘what the f*** am I doing out here?’”

“The homesickness was shocking.”

Sean Wight had been the first ever AFL recruit from Ireland in 1982, and Jim Stynes followed him out to Melbourne two years later.

Wight would have phoned McNicholl frequently and Stynes called out an odd day to go kicking. They were a great help, but they had their own lives too.

Every so often, unbeknown to St Kilda, he would go out to Gaelic Park and play a game of Gaelic football. It was more social than it was sporting.

This star, born and reared on the Flough Road, who walked or cycled down to Glenullin club to learn the basics under Danny McIlvar, was now the young Irish man in the big city.

By his own admission, he was too old. The GAA’s youngest ever Allstar also remains the AFL’s oldest Irish recruit.

Cathal McShane came to Glenullin prior to Christmas to present underage medals, just before the news broke of Adelaide Crows’ ultimately unrequited interest in breaking that record.

“If he’d asked me about going to Australia, I’d have said ‘Cathal, 24 years of age, don’t touch it with a barge pole’. It’s too old to go over and pick up the game.

“You can pick the skills up very quickly, but it’s the intricacies of the game.”

That’s the 55-year-old McNicholl telling it to his 23-year-old self now. When he was there, he viewed the opportunity with relish.

He played for Prahran in the old VFA league in his first year. For his debut, played in front of Wight and Stynes, the club renamed their ground Toorak O’Park and handed out free shots of Baileys Irish Cream to the crowd in honour of their new recruit.

McNicholl moved into the St Kilda first-team squad at the end of the year and for pre-season training, they went to Bacchus Marsh, where up until 1985there had been a lion safari at which three people were mauled to death by the animals.

Its original function has desisted and when St Kilda travelled out of the city to it, an ex-SAS soldier was lined up to put the players through “hell on earth”. McNicholl would nearly sooner have taken his chance against the lions.

“We were put through three or four days. I would never want to put anyone through it.

“You had to carry a big log or a sandbag across the back of your neck for 10km, over gorges, up hills, down hills, through muck, through water.

“We were put into this big assembly hall, no sleeping bags, nothing, you just lay on the ground. Outside, you’d a big pool of the dirtiest water you’ve ever seen. We were up at 6am and bang, into it to wash yourself.

“You cooked your own breakfast and then you had three of these different tasks every day. Another one was a boxing competition… It was murder.”

Despite leaving with the blood pouring from his shoulders after carrying the log, he survived and having done well in games against Tasmania and Brisbane, McNicholl was on course to make his debut in the opening round of the 1990 season against Footscray, now known as Western Bulldogs.

The last big session before the wind-down began, they lined up to start sprints around the centre square in Waverly Park, which was noted for its abnormally large playing surface.

Kenny Sheldon pulled them together before they started and told them that any man that pulled out of the sprints was weak.

“I went to go for my first sprint and popped the groin. Instead of putting my hand up, I ran on. Complete stupidity. Ripped it to shreds.”

It was round 11 before he made his debut against Geelong, on Saturday June 9, 1990. He would play just two more games, with a broken collarbone after Essendon the following week taking him out again.

When he returned, he moved back into the first team after one game but broke his wrist in the final-day defeat by Melbourne, in which he kicked his one goal.

Still, St Kilda wanted to retain him and work with him. But when he received a letter from Professor Eric Saunders, “a very honourable man”, it was all over.

He’d started his studies in Jordanstown and was continuing them at Footscray Institute of Technology with his native university’s blessing, only for the Ulster University charter to get in the way.

The letter told McNicholl that he had to complete his studies in the university he’d started them in. Between his age, his injuries and his future career prospects, he weighed it all up and boarded for home.

“Being forced to leave is not the regret. If I’d been smart, I should have gone when I was 18 or 19.”

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A BAG at home contains all of Dermot McNicholl’s medals, all the jerseys, anything of any significance.

As the sounds of Glenullin’s underage boxercise class bouncing through the walls from their main hall into the changing room, he resolves to himself: “You know what, I will get them up some day.”

The All-Ireland won with Derry in 1993 would jump out at most, but for McNicholl, it’s the small green, red and silver county medal from eight years previous, when he captained Glenullin to a first championship in 57 years.

“The most precious medal I have? The championship. Here,” turning his index fingers down to the cold floor beneath him.

“Until the day I go into my grave, it’s the one medal that is…” he says, pausing to clasp his hands like a chef that’s just produced an award-winning dish.

“If I was putting a medal at the centre, the heart of what my career was about, it’s that medal.

“It’s remembering where you came from. It’s remembering bringing the cup back here.

“Coming home on the bus, we drove to the crossroads where I live. I got out of the bus and walked with the cup and met my father outside the house. That’s something I’ll never forget.

“I could go through that team now and we came from the same Flough Road.

“We travelled in Danny McIlvar’s van together and battered the hell out of other in the back. We toiled together.

“Those things are priceless. The craic, the fun, you can never change that. You look back on that team and people ask about regrets. The regret I have is that our championship team split. People emigrated and moved.

“This would have been a serious, serious club if we hadn’t lost those players, through no fault of their own. They had to seek employment. But that was just the way it was.”

Having beaten Ballinderry in the final, they ran the Burren team that went on to win the All-Ireland to within a kick of a ball.

But in the years soon after they lost Raymond ‘Rocky’ Conway, Declan McNicholl, Kevin and Mark Rafferty, Danny O’Kane to emigration before Dermot himself went.

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“That announcement was made at the Slieve Russell hotel, the weekend before the final. The hardest team I ever had to announce because Dermot McNicholl wasn’t starting – one of Derry’s heroes and he was only down as a sub. But McNicholl’s reaction summed up the whole attitude in the Derry camp that year: ‘Derry football is more important than Dermot McNicholl and winning the All-Ireland is the main priority.’ A team man. My kind of man.”
Eamonn Coleman, The Boys of ‘93

HIS relationship with Eamonn Coleman stemmed back to the minors in 1983, when he used to go after training at the leisure centre in Magherafelt back to the manager’s house in Ballymaguigan for tea and biscuits along with Cathal McNicholl and Mickey Bradley from Ballerin.

“He was a brilliant man. The wee Mexican, we called him. The first time we ever saw him, he was as brown as a berry and had this big handlebar moustache.”

Their lives, their football careers, were interlinked. Coleman was in charge of the Jordanstown team with which McNicholl won his two Sigerson Cups.

When the Australian dream was starting to die, the new Derry senior manager was starting to get into his ear. Anthony Tohill would return home from Melbourne the following year.

In 1993, they would win Sam Maguire. But when high summer arrived, McNicholl was coming in off the bench in games.

Despite flying in training, he was held again in reserve for the decider.

At half-time he’s called on for Damian Cassidy, and his anger brought him a point within minutes.

As Tommy Howard blows the final whistle, he’s there, right on Enda Gormley’s shoulder. The hands head for the sky and he dives into an embrace with Gormley, Heaney and Damian Barton.

But not starting the game remains sore. His face gives the pain away. Conversation around it is brief as he mulls over his choice of words, before settling.

“I’ll accept the decision, but I’m not saying it’s the right decision.

“It’s difficult to accept. It was a serious disappointment.”

Cassidy, who was in the same year at school and played together with McNicholl from 11 years of age, offers his own take on it.

“Age gives you perspective and wisdom in all those things. Dermot came on for me at half-time. That would have annoyed you at the time, because you felt you shouldn’t have been taken off.

“But when you apply the perspective and wisdom, I’m delighted Dermot came on in that match. It would have been an absolute travesty for him not to have been involved.”

Bitterness has never been Dermot McNicholl’s way. He’s too big a character, too lively, too content within himself for that.

He’d have been wrecked by it had he been inclined, for he had plenty to be bitter about.

Completely wrecking his hamstring taking an empty step in Greenlough two weeks before the All-Ireland semi-final against Meath in ’87.

The groin injury, the collarbone, the broken wrist in Melbourne, and the fact that he was forced to come home when he was set on giving it another year at least.

He was still going in early ’95 and due to start the National League final against Donegal when he bent for a ball and had his wrist broken by a stray boot in training.

“That’s sport and you have to accept the good with the bad,” he says.

“I think I had a good career. I was very fortunate to have been involved with great teams, through club, school, university and county.

“More importantly, it was a privilege to have played with so many brilliant players and being coached by so many great men.”

There’s perspective to be had in everything, too. As a youngster, he spent every evening and weekend out in the back garden, him and his brother Seamus hammering lumps out of other.

“Like, I remember Mammy coming out pulling the two of us apart because we were absolutely killing each other. It was the competitiveness of it.”

But when Dermot was towards the end of his primary school years, Seamus was knocked down by a car. Having been in a coma after the accident but pulled through, he was left with a limp that took away his football career.

“He was a tremendous footballer, better than me. Adrian McGuckin would always say that.”

Few sons of Derry or Glenullin ever made their people as proud as Dermot McNicholl.

“But you know the proudest thing?” he says, long after the noise next door has died and everyone’s gone home.

“It’s the serious work that the entire community does. They’re so proud of everybody in this place.

“Look at the footballers we’ve produced in this wee small place.

“The population we have, we’ve three senior championships. It’s unreal.”

Sport gave him far more than it ever took away.

Derry and Glenullin were blessed that he was theirs.

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