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Queen's Ashbourne Cup heroes prepare to reunite 30 years after breakthrough triumph

FOR some the love affair would have begun just four or five months earlier, for others it could have been running for four or five years. The second weekend of February was always going to be make or break.

But for most of these girls in their late teens and early 20s, Valentine’s Day weekend came and went and the dream lay shattered – for another 12 months at least. But, for a couple of dozen players in Queen’s University in February 1991, that dream was realised and camogie’s Ashbourne Cup was won for the first time ever.

On Saturday, November 27 the members of that victorious, and so far only, Ashbourne Cup winning team from Queen’s University will gather in the university for an anniversary dinner.

A Whatsapp group has been created and stories and anecdotes swapped as the excitement builds towards the reunion dinner. Of course 1991 was in the pre-mobile phone era, a point illustrated in one of the stories.

“Siobhán McErlean was our goalie, I mean our goalie right through and we never needed to use a second goalie,” recalls manager Bernie McNally.

“On the morning of our semi-final we went outside the hotel for a knock around. There was a bit of frost on the ground and Siobhán fell. I saw it happen and knew right away that her wrist was broken.

“While others worked with Siobhán, I called Lorraine [Finn[ aside to tell her that she was going to have to come into the team. Her first reaction was 'Oh God!' but within a few minutes she was up for it.

“So we turned up at the pitch and were running out for the warm up and you could hear people asking where Siobhán was. Her parents, family, friends had all turned up for the game and couldn’t see her. No one was able to get word to them.

“For others it was a big shock to see Lorraine in goals and they were worried it would upset our plans. But Lorraine did fine and played brilliantly in both the semi-final and final.

“But it was heart-breaking for Siobhán.”

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“We had been coming close for a few years before that. I think that Jordanstown’s change of status to a university helped camogie in general in Belfast.”

Social worker McNally was always able to analyse the situation clinically.

A former player with the Ulster Polytechnic at the turn of the 1980s, she looked on enviously as only universities competed for the Ashbourne Cup, the oldest competition in the camogie calendar, dating back to 1915.

“In my time, the seven universities played for the Ashbourne Cup, Cork, Galway, UCD, Trinity, Maynooth, Queen’s and Coleraine. The Poly and St Mary’s had their own championship, although they competed against the universities in the league and often beat them.

“Jordanstown gained uni status in the mid 1980s and the rivalry increased and drove both camogie teams on. I have to say that St Mary’s were very competitive as well and it meant that Queen’s and UUJ were going down to the Ashbourne Cup well prepared through training and derby matches.”

Queen’s had contested Ashbourne finals in 1984, the 50th anniversary of their entry into the competition, and again in 1986. But UCD beat them on each occasion.

Beating UCD was always going to be a turning point and that was achieved in a league game at the Dub. Indeed Queen’s won by a high score and it was a monkey off their back.

UCD was able to assist Queen’s challenge in another way.

Tipperary native Joan Henderson had been a thorn in Queen’s side during her time in Belfield, but she came north to complete a Master’s degree and her addition to the QUB Ashbourne cause was perhaps the final piece of the jigsaw.

“Joan gave us something else,” said McNally.

“She had experience of winning the Ashbourne for a start. I think that she lifted the team to a higher level of achievement.

“She was, and still is, a gregarious person and she fitted right in from the start. She was able to convince the rest of the players that they were good enough to win. You could have played her in most positions on the team and she was a hard worker during games and on the training pitch. She was the first to training and last to leave it.”

Tobin, now Joan Henderson, recalled those days earlier this year in an interview with the Irish News.

“Bernie was a very innovative coach. We would have played a lot of challenge games in preparation for the Ashbourne, like going down to Dublin and playing two or three games against county or club teams, a game on a Sunday morning and then stop-off at Clogherhead beach on the way home for a full training session," she said.

“We needed that stamina built up for a weekend tournament. It was a really tough Ashbourne in Galway. I was double-marked all weekend. I suppose I was one of the few Queen’s players other university teams knew, but they soon found out that we had a super team.

“Deirdre O’Doherty was a great leader – she was the first camogie player I saw catching high balls wearing black leather gloves! You had the McCorry sisters, Mary Black, Monica McCartan. Great, great players.”

The Ashbourne Cup quarter-final was played at the end of January 1991. UUC came to the Dub and departed a very subdued group with a margin of 20 points between the teams.

“Bronagh McCann was our full-forward. She scored three or four goals that day. She hadn’t been a camogie player before she came to Queen’s. She was and still is an excellent golfer. She had a very quick ground strike. The game in those days was very much a ground game and she was the quickest player around.

“Anyway we headed down to Galway on the Friday for the semi-final the next day. That game was also a lot easier than we had planned and we beat UCD fairly comfortably.

“The other semi-final was being played at the same time between the host club UCG and Jordanstown and it went to extra-time before Galway came through.”

So Galway and Queen’s arrived in Claregalway for the final the next day only for McNally to discover that the pitch had been 'doctored' to suit the home team.

“These were the days of 12-a-side with the shortened pitch. Not only had Galway shortened the pitch to the minimum length, but they had also narrowed it by bringing in the side lines. Our game had been about pace and space and we wanted at least the full width.”

The result was a stand-off that lasted about half an hour. McNally, a member of the Higher Educational Council, put her case and stood her ground. Eventually the Council relented and had the pitch widened and relined.

“When the game started we were up for it and Mary Black scored a free very early on. Bronagh (McCann) got a couple of goals and we won by 3-6 to 1-3," said McNally.

“Galway in my mind got it all wrong. They pulled their full-forward back into defence. They came out to stop us playing and Róisín O’Neill was left on her own at full-back. We won well in the end.”

Queen’s went on to win the Higher Education League with victory over Waterford IT. But there was a muted acknowledgement of their achievement from the University itself.

“We got a letter from Gordon Beveridge, the vice-chancellor, to say he had read about our success in the Belfast Telegraph. None of the players got 'Blues' that year. We still hadn’t got to a point where camogie was recognised within the university.”

However, QUB’s success had a positive impact on camogie in the province.

The next two Ashbourne Cup finals were Ulster derbies which UUJ won. The 'Poly' were in another final before they took their third title in 1997 under Jim Nelson.

McNally, who also doubled as Down manager, felt that the Queen’s success really helped her as a coach.

“I kind of half-believed in what I was doing before that Ashbourne. But winning really helped my confidence as a coach," she said.

Down, under McNally, went on that summer to win the All-Ireland junior title in Croke Park, beating a Tipperary side that included Joan Tobin. Then Armagh followed them with junior and intermediate titles and Antrim won the Junior in 1997, Jim Nelson replicating McNally’s double of Ashbourne Cup and All-Ireland in the same season.

“It wasn’t a matter of really good players coming from any one source. They were coming from all over Ulster – and Tipperary as well. They just came together at the same time in Queen’s, in Jordanstown, even in St Mary’s and Coleraine as well. Coleraine won the Dúthracht (the Shield) the same day we won the Ashbourne in Galway.

“Those players then went to their county teams and success followed, probably because the level they achieved at university camogie gave them the confidence to compete at inter-county level.”

That is Bernie McNally’s take on the events of February 1991 and their impact on the years that follow. When the players of that Ashbourne Cup winning team gather on Saturday evening they might well have a different take.

They will come from abroad, from far flung places in Ireland. All of them treasure their medal, the memories that weekend delivered. Stories will be told, many of them embellished after the gap of 30 years. There is little doubt that they left the camogie club in Queen’s in a better place, that they broke new ground.

Is there any chance that the heady days of the 1990s could be replicated by players coming through the underage system at present?

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