GAA Football

The Full Monty. Religion irrelevant in Johnny Montgomery's 30-year sporting journey from Windsor Park to Crossmaglen

Johnny Montgomery gets his hands on the Gerry Fagan Cup after Maghery beat Cullyhanna in the 2016 county final. Picture Colm O'Reilly
Andy Watters

HAVE boots, will travel.

Switching sporting codes in the north of Ireland can be easier said than done but when it came to divisions, premier or first was all that mattered to Johnny Montgomery.

He played 20 years as an Irish League midfielder and another 10 as goalkeeper for Maghery Sean McDermott’s in Armagh and, 30 years since his debut for Dungannon Swifts, 46-year-old Montgomery is now close to the end of a winding road that has taken him from Windsor Park in Belfast to Oliver Plunkett Park in Crossmaglen and almost everywhere else in between. When you’ve played as long as he has, it’s hard to let go.

“Och, I suppose… I think I’ve done my day at it,” he says, giving you the feeling that the door isn’t shut tight just yet. Born and bred a stone’s throw from an abandoned football field in Killyman, outside Dungannon, Johnny followed his big brother into hell-for-leather games as neighbour kicked lumps out of neighbour.

One of those neighbours was Rodney McAree and like him Johnny progressed through the ranks of the youth teams at Dungannon Swifts.

He was just 16 when he was thrown into first team action in the old B Division back in 1990.

The Swifts had four teams back then – firsts, seconds, thirds and U18s – and he played in goal and outfield for them all that season.

“You must have been football crazy?” I ask. “Aye, I was ready for action,” he says with a laugh but his father might have left it at crazy. Jack Montgomery had no time for football; every minute spent away from the busy family farm was a minute wasted. “Any ball that was about the house, he would have put a knife in ’er,” says Johnny.

“My father maybe came to watch one or two matches in my whole career. He just wasn’t a football man and he couldn’t understand why grown men would want to run around a field after a ball. He had no time for it. “I broke my ankle when I was about 18.

It was the worst injury I got, my foot was facing the wrong direction, I had to get a plate in it and when I got out of hospital in plaster and I was straight into the tractor the next day. I would have been ploughing or doing whatever with the foot in plaster. You had to do these things to keep the peace.” You wonder what career he would have had if his dad had actually encouraged him to play.

His father’s views on grown men chasing balls around fields didn’t put Johnny off but when he turned up for games it made him determined not to waste his time.

“I wouldn’t have had a whole lot of ability but I didn’t like losing,” he says. “I wanted to do whatever I had to do to win and, whatever it took, it took.

Winning was everything.” He established himself as a combative midfield player with the Swifts and played a typically versatile role in a crucial game against Ballymena which saw them promoted to the top flight in 1997. “We were playing Ballymena and we were nip-and-tuck with them to win the league,” he recalls. “Niall Currie was our goalkeeper, I was in midfield.

They went one-up and then Niall came out of the box and handled the ball and got sent off. “I went into goals, saved a penalty and we went on to win the game 3-1 and we went on to win the first division that year and got into the Premier League.”

In all he spent the guts of 20 seasons with the Swifts but there was a short hiatus when he followed former Dungannon manager Collie Malone to Glenavon for 18-months. Previous manager Roy Walker had gone and the bulk of the players went with him so Johnny, Conor Devine, Nevin Ritchie and Kieran Rafferty answered a Malone ‘SOS’. The new Glenavon manager needed players he could rely on and Montgomery was one.

He threw himself into battle and, although his spell was punctuated by red cards, there was plenty of success too.

“I enjoyed my time at Glenavon,” he says. “Gerard McMahon (former Spurs and Stoke City player and Northern Ireland international) came in and he took us to second in the league nearly on his own. We got into Europe and played Kilmarnock in the Uefa Cup so it was good experience.”

MONTGOMERY returned to Dungannon having switched from midfield to centre-half and then his sporting career took an unexpected turn – towards the GAA.

He explains: “There were always Maghery men at Dungannon and I would have knocked about with ‘Jimbo’ Robinson quite a bit. One day he asked me: ‘Maghery are stuck for a ’keeper, would you pull us out?’ “I said: ‘Aye no bother’ and I went down and played. I think it was against Clann na Gael, in Maghery and I’ve been there ever since.”

That natural ‘Aye-no-bother’ attitude conceals the nerves he felt going into a new dressing room when he arrived in Maghery on the Sunday of the game.

“On the football field I do a lot of talking but off the pitch I’m actually quite a quiet person,” he says.

“Walking into a new changing room is a bit daunting and I was a bit dubious going down because you think, in the back of your head, somebody will say: ‘Who’s he? What’s he doing here?’

But I never got those vibes.” And so he became one of the few, too few, Protestants playing Gaelic Games in the north. He never saw religion as a barrier and his father, who couldn’t influence his view on football, certainly had a hand in that. “It wasn’t the way I was brought up, so it was never an issue,” he says.

“Growing up I was always sportsminded and Protestant/Catholic never bothered me. Most of my friends were Catholics anyway – boys like Gary McKinstry, Jimbo… “Maybe at the start I was a bit nervous but I was made to feel more than welcome.

When we were going to Crossmaglen or Cullyhanna or wherever I might have been a bit nervous but in fairness to opposing teams, I’ve never had a word said to me: no verbals, no nothing.

So I have no complaints, in Maghery they treat you very well.” Nowadays there is much more diversity in sport in the north as the old religious barriers slowly crumble away.

Many young Catholics combine rugby with GAA and Protestant youths are moving in the opposite direction. “I think there should be a lot more Protestants playing Gaelic,” says Johnny.

“It would fairly benefit Gaelic clubs. There are a lot of soccer men out there who would be quare and handy at Gaelic. It would be some shot in the arm to get them in, especially for rural clubs with a very small panel. “I don’t see any issue in it in this day and age.

My son is 20 now and, Protestant/Catholic? He wouldn’t even know.

Thankfully the country has moved on, I suppose there’s small numbers on either side still at it but everybody would benefit from it.” Johnny agrees that the GAA should find a way to encourage more diversity in its games.

The only regret he has about playing Gaelic football is that he didn’t start sooner. “I would have loved to have gone to Maghery 10 years before I did,” he said. “I would have loved to have played outfield but it was too late at that stage.

I always enjoyed the physical side of GAA, it would have been right up my street but unfortunately I got into it too late. “The physical side is good and so is the social side – maybe too good! They’re all good lads in Maghery, top men and Gaelic is so different to soccer because you’re playing with your mates and it’s all about your community.

“When I was playing with Dungannon, you could have been playing with boys from all over the country – Belfast, Derry… In GAA it’s a community thing and I always found that togetherness can take you a long way, it’s great to have in a changing room.

“If you pull boys in from here, there and everywhere they’re there for money, they get their wages, they go home and they don’t give a shite. Maghery was like what Dungannon was when I started. “I always liked a beer after the game and the social end of it, a bit of craic but that drifted out of football towards the end of my career, it was: come, play your match, get your envelope and go home.

There’s more togetherness in the Gaelic, that’s what I found.” After that first game against Clann na Gael, ‘Montgomery’ was soon the first name on the teamsheet as Maghery developed from league challengers to championship contenders and, eventually, county champions.

Despite taking up the game in his mid-30s, he was able to grasp the skills of Gaelic football remarkably quickly but there was an occasional glitch along the way. “When I started with Maghery, I was playing soccer and then rushing over there and I found the Gaelic so intense,” he says. “In soccer the training would have been an hour-and-a-half or two hours but the Gaelic training was just more ‘bang, bang, bang…’

You were straight into it and it was intense immediately. “It took a while to adapt to that. It was quicker, there was more physical contact and different rules. When I started there was an odd time I’d have been tackling boys with my feet. “I mind we played Cross one day and Stephen Kernan came into the square. I tackled him, I think I hurt him and gave away a penalty.

Lucky enough I saved it! There was a soccer thing in me and it took a while to get into the swing of it.” W HEN Montgomery arrived to take the number one jersey, Maghery were viewed as a league team – talented but lacking the hard edge needed to challenge Crossmaglen’s dominance in the Orchard County. Gradually the loughshore men turned that around until, in 2016, they won a first ever senior county title against a Cullyhanna side that had beaten Cross at the semi-final stage.

“It was tough with Cullyhanna,” Johnny recalls. “It was nip-and-tuck. We got a goal in the second half and that was the difference. We were four points in front at one stage and looking comfortable but then they came back at us and Gerard Campbell cleared one off the line near the end.”

Kilcoo ended their run at the Ulster semi-final stage but Maghery were back in the county final the following year and looked set to defend their crown at half-time against Armagh Harps.

“I think we thought we had it won,” he says. “And we should have won it. We’d beat Cross in the semi-final, maybe we thought that was our final?

Early in the second half, Maghery led by four points but two goals whistled past Montgomery in one crazy minute and the city side streaked ahead. Maghery fought back but Harps held on to take the title. They were semi-finalists last year but were blown away by Crossmaglen and Montgomery isn’t expecting to feature in this evening’s opening round against Dromintee.

These days he works for JMW Farms arranging the movement of pigs throughout the north. It’s a complex, time-consuming job which means he finds less and less time for training. “I went to a couple of sessions and a friendly this year but I haven’t been down that much,” he says. “I go to Portrush at the weekends and I suppose I’m just getting too old for the football.” After 30 years, no-one could begrudge him a rest but his fitness levels would still rival many club players.

A keen long-distance runner, he has also completed several Spartan endurance events.

“When I was about 22, Dixie Robinson told me: ‘When you finish playing, you’ll pile the weight on, you’ll be massive’ and that always stuck in my head,” he says. “My father was a big man I suppose and maybe he was thinking of that.

When I quit the soccer I got into doing marathons and Spartan races. “I did one in Scotland, it was 32- mile up over a mountain. It was a 16-mile loop over the mountain with tyre-lifts, bucket-carries, logpulls…

All that stuff. “It was the worst one I ever did… Brutal… On top of the mountain with the wind howling you couldn’t see anything with the fog. “It was two 16-mile laps and I was thinking seriously of quitting after the first lap but I got it done. “It took me five or six hours and I had to race back to Stranraer to get the boat. I never even got a shower!”

Running up and down mountains in Scotland takes total commitment and that’s Johnny Montgomery to a tee. He’s not a half-in, half-out guy and that’s the real reason his illustrious career may have reached its end. He just can’t commit anymore. “I played last year but I wasn’t at training as often as I should have been,” he says.

“They don’t put pressure on you but I’m the kind of guy who’s either in something or I’m not in it and I just don’t like turning up on a Sunday and playing.

“I’ve told Finnian (Moriarty, Maghery manager) that I’ll not see them stuck and if they need me to pull them out, I’ll pull them out surely but it’s time-consuming, you’re talking three or four nights a week and then a Sunday and I suppose… I think I’ve done my day at it.”

Hopefully more follow the trail he blazed and if he is gone, well, nobody can say he didn’t give it the full Monty… 

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access

GAA Football