Remembering Peter Withnell - the man who came from nowhere to help Down land Sam
In the first of a two-part feature, Neil Loughran looks back at the rise of Peter Withnell from virtual obscurity to forming part of the devastating Down forward line who ended the county’s 23-year search for Sam Maguire…
THE men’s toilets of any hostelry aren’t normally the place you would want to spend too much time of an afternoon, but on Sunday, August 11 1991 the restrooms of the Carrickdale Hotel outside Newry are like a Wall Street trading floor.
Amid the sound of running taps and the whirring of hand-dryers, groups of men happily stand and shoot the breeze. Cigarettes are lit, smoked and stubbed before another is swiftly unfurled from the pack.
The thronging crowds outside can wait, the pints will still be there when they come back. For now, serious business is under discussion: ‘Unbelievable… just unbelievable’
‘What about Witherall’
‘Big Witherall… isn’t it Witherall?’
‘Aye, the big lad who got the two goals?’
Just hours earlier, 60 odd miles down the road, they had watched in awe as Peter Withnell trod all over Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final. If some of those Kingdom stars were already seeing the light go out on their careers, they were plunged into near darkness that day.
The Down support didn’t care. At long last, the red and black were back in an All-Ireland final for the first time since 1968. Then, young men like Brendan Sloan, Mickey Cole, Ray McConville and Colm McAlarney strode fearlessly onto the hallowed turf at Croke Park to secure instant legend status within the county.
Now, they had another. Just 21-years-old, Withnell was the wrecking ball forward Down had been crying out for. Chest puffed out, shoulders as broad as the Mourne Mountains and sporting a crew-cut hairstyle that saw him bear closer resemblance to a US marine than a Gaelic footballer, he didn’t like the big stage - he loved it.
And once you saw Peter Withnell, you never forgot him: ‘I’d never heard tell of him before this year and then he goes and does that’
‘Ah, it was unreal. Spillane couldn’t handle him, couldn’t get near him’
‘Witherall had his number from the start’
‘Aye, that’s right…
'They’ll not forget his name down in Kerry any time soon, that’s for sure…’
LOOKING out the window of Costa Coffee on a mizzly November afternoon in Newry, Peter Withnell furrows his brow as he pauses for thought.
The conversation has turned to the reunions that took place during the summer to mark that momentous All-Ireland success 25-years-ago: “The sad thing is,” he says, “when we all finished our playing careers, we went our separate ways. I feel we all should have stayed in contact, even if it was only once or twice a year.”
They were a band of brothers that summer, no doubt. But Withnell was always different, right from the very start. While the likes of James McCartan, Mickey Linden and Ross Carr were honing their skills in the hot and heavy environs of schools’ football, Withnell was messing about with his mates on the concrete jungle out the front of Ballynahinch High School.
Gaelic football couldn’t have been further from his thoughts. A couple of sessions with the Loughinisland U10s wasn’t enough to reel him in and, besides, he was already receiving admiring glances from Irish League soccer clubs after starring for the underage teams at Drumaness Mills.
But when some of his friends started going to Drumaness GAC training a couple of nights a week, Withnell decided to give it another go not long after his 15th birthday.
“We used to go out to the local field, Paradise Park. If you’d seen it, it was far from paradise. It was like something from The Jungle Book. If you were playing in the forward line, it had a slope like that,” he explained, holding his hand at a 45 degree angle, “and then it levelled itself off.
“There were two electric poles at either side that went right across the field, the sheep were the grass-cutters, they grazed on the field so you had sheep’s sh*te all over the place. The changing room was an Ormo bread van.
“You might have been able to hear all the action, but you couldn’t see it because of the slope. Then all of a sudden you saw this clatter of heads, then the ball, then the shoulders and the chest and the legs would all appear - suddenly there was a stampede coming and you had to get ready for action. That was Drumaness.”
Work, or a lack of it, took Withnell to England towards the end of his teenage years. A trial at English league side Reading showed promise, but he wasn’t in the mood to wait around at youth level for a chance to prove himself.
Homesickness expedited his planned return, and soon Withnell was back out on Paradise Park. Having attended development squad trials in the past and been left frustrated, the county team wasn’t on his agenda.
Peter Withnell wasn’t on Pete McGrath’s radar either. The pair were brought together when the Down boss received a phone call out of the blue suggesting he check out the powerhouse midfielder running the show week in, week out for Drumaness.
“Despite the fact I had been managing the minor team in the county since 1982 prior to all of this, I had never come across Peter Withnell - I knew nothing about him,” admitted McGrath.
“I got a call from a man in Drumaness saying he was worth a look. There was going to be a training session in Newry that weekend and I thought ‘there’s nothing to be lost’, so I asked him along.”
By now, the likes of Linden, McCartan and Greg Blaney were household names across the county, but their status meant nothing to Withnell: “I walked into the changing room and I didn’t know anybody. They all knew each other, but I didn’t know anybody.
“My path didn’t cross with these guys because they were playing division one or division two football, and I was only back from England.”
Being a fish out of water didn’t bother him. McGrath missed the challenge game against Louth with the flu but assistant John Murphy liked what he saw and Withnell was invited back for winter training.
At an indoor training session the following week, McGrath recalls his attention being instantly drawn to the new boy: “We were doing circuits and that kind of thing, and I just remember thinking ‘this guy, if nothing else, dammit he’s athletic’ because he was just bouncing off the floor.”
“I was super-fit,” adds Withnell.
“Pete used to have us running up the mountain at Kilbroney Forest Park, it was hard going alright, ask any of the boys, but I was well able for it.”
By the time the National League hit full flow, Withnell had made the number 14 jersey his own. The Mourne men had an indifferent campaign but, as ever, expectations were high heading into the Ulster Championship.
Armagh were cast aside in the quarter-finals, and Down needed a replay before getting past Derry. Defending champions Donegal lay in wait. Withnell missed a gilt-edged goal chance but his bustling, all-action style had given Down something different, something new as his unsettling influence afforded space for the other forwards to run riot.
“He brought something that was maybe lacking in Down forward lines for quite a while,” said McGrath.
“Down always had very talented players who could play over the top of the ground but we were maybe lacking that raw physical strength to allow players to play off that.
“Peter brought that and as the season wore on he gained experience, his decision-making became better and better. He had explosive power, strength and fearlessness.”
Having got their hands on the Anglo-Celt, Down were back at Croke Park - and so too was Withnell. In 1988, as a raw 18-year-old, he was an unused sub when London fell meekly to Meath in the All-Ireland junior final. Little did he know then the memories he would create at the famous old stadium just three years later.
With each win, each surge of momentum, word spread further about Down’s new ‘bear in the square’. Not that Tom Spillane had taken much notice. Injury meant he hadn’t featured for Kerry all year, only to be drafted back in by Mickey Ned O’Sullivan for the semi-final.
A four-time All-Ireland winner and three-time Allstar, the veteran full-back was more concerned with getting himself right rather than worrying about Withnell.
“Not a bit, not a bit,” he said when asked whether he had studied his opponent ahead of that last four clash.
Ten minutes in, Spillane might have been regretting that decision. Beneath a baking hot summer sun, Withnell left his vaunted opponent in his wake as he played a clever one-two with Mickey Linden before lashing the ball low past Charlie Nelligan with his left foot.
It would get worse for Spillane. With seven minutes left on the clock, and Kerry trailing by three, Withnell beautifully read the bounce from a long Barry Breen ball to find himself in space.
Spillane desperately attempted to close the space but, just in the nick of time, Withnell fired home an unstoppable shot, this time with his right foot.
“He was a very fine footballer, very aggressive, hard but fair,” said Spillane 25 years on.
“Of course, that was a fine Down team as well. When you have McCartan and Mickey Linden and like-minded fellas like that alongside you, weaving their magic… but he was the perfect match for the players around him.”
With Spillane slain, excitement levels went into overdrive, with some Down supporters excitedly getting to work on ‘Withnell tames Lyons’ banners ahead of the All-Ireland final showdown with Meath.
Mick Lyons is regarded as one of the toughest full-backs ever to lace up boots, and Sean Boylan’s Royals team was filled with fearsome opponents, men who - along with Cork - had dominated the All-Ireland scene in the late Eighties.
A daunting prospect for some, but not Withnell: “That was the good thing.
“I wasn’t deeply involved in GAA. I didn’t know all the top players around the country. Names and players didn’t really mean anything to me - it was just a game of football.
“I didn’t fear anybody. I didn’t fear the Mick Lyons’s of this world, and I’m sure Mick Lyons didn’t fear me. Tom Spillane, Tony Scullion… it was just a game.”
And Pete McGrath wasn’t about to start overloading his full-forward with information about the task ahead. Withnell was a player who acted on instinct - McGrath recognised that and let him at it.
“We had players who would have played Kerry over the years and been very aware of Kerry’s pedigree in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Peter Withnell wouldn’t really have been too impressed by that because he didn’t know a lot about it.
“To him, going in to play Kerry in an All-Ireland semi-final was just another game. Coming up against Tom Spillane, he wouldn’t have known a lot about the Spillanes, their history or anything else.
“Withnell went in with an adventurous way about him, like a child nearly. He believed he was good enough in any company, and I wasn’t going to interfere with that.
“If you start setting out parameters for a player like that you’re just going to mess with his head.”
SEPTEMBER 15, 1991. Down v Meath, Croke Park Stadium, Jones’ Road, Dublin.
The instructions issued to Peter Withnell were simple - get out there and be first to as many balls as you can. Despite being 33 and in the nadir of his inter-county playing days, Lyons remained a fearless competitor.
However, a twisted ankle towards the end of the first half signalled the end of the Meath veteran’s day. Typically, he soldiered on for 17 minutes after the break - perhaps against his better judgement, in hindsight, as the Mourne men took the game by the scruff in this period.
“I shouldn’t have come out at half-time,” laughs the Summerhill man.
And like Spillane before him, Lyons hadn’t spent too much time before the final worrying about Withnell: “Not really,” he said.
“The thing is, Down had a good team, but they had a very, very good full-forward line, right across, so you weren’t just worrying about one man. They were all dangerous.”
Withnell didn’t get on the scoresheet that day, but his nuisance factor was enough to destabilise the Meath defence and allow others to flourish.
He also provided one of the defining images of the 1991 final. On his knees, hands on the ground in pursuit of the ball, Lyons attempted to walk over the top of Withnell like he wasn’t there.
Instead, Withnell lifted his head and shoulders between Lyons’s legs like a bull at a rodeo before dumping the Meath man to the ground. Red-and-black flags fluttered as one of the loudest roars of the day went up.
Despite a stunning second-half comeback from the Royals, Down weren’t going to be defeated that day – Sam Maguire was heading back to the Mourne County for the first time in 23 years.
And after years of searching and tinkering, it was Withnell who had provided the final piece of the perfect puzzle for McGrath: “The forward line was maybe the strength of the team,” said the Down boss.
“You can look at each individual player and see a unique role they played and when you put it all together, you’re approaching the ideal forward line. Take one of them out and, suddenly, something’s not going to work. In that sense, Peter was vital.”
From relative obscurity to hoisting aloft the Sam Maguire Cup in the space of a year, his story was the stuff of scriptwriters’ dreams. It was no longer just the men gathered in the toilets of the Carrickdale Hotel who had his name on their lips - the whole country was now talking about Peter Withnell.
And as he would discover in the years after that momentous day, it wasn’t always for reasons he would have wanted...
“Peter was being pulled in different directions and it did set him on a collision course with his inter-county career” - Pete McGrath in the Irish News on Wednesday, Peter Withnell reflects on the premature end to his Down days as soccer took centre stage.