GAA Football

Benny Tierney: A Roy of the Rovers finish but memories mean most

Armagh goalkeeper Benny Tierney takes the Sam Maguire from captain Kieran McGeeney in Croke Park. Pic Ann McManus
Andy Watters

IN MOST discussions about the many larger than life characters in the GAA, Benny Tierney’s name will pop up.

From 1989 to 2002, the Armagh goalkeeper was as well known for his Cheshire cat grin and rapier-like wit as he was for his shot-stopping and kick-outs.

He enjoyed the game and played with a smile on his face and, perhaps because of that, some casual observers might have assumed that Tierney was there for the craic but his medal collection tells the real story. Beneath the snug, luminous jerseys he wore was the beating heart of an arch-competitor, a determined operator who hated to give opponents a single inch.

Starting with his native Mullaghbawn Cuchullains just short of his 15th birthday, he won every league medal – from Division Four to Division One – and every championship medal – minor, U21, junior, intermediate and senior - in Armagh and the run reached a peak with an Ulster club title in 1995.

As a student at St Colman’s College, Newry it was the same story as success followed success. The penalty scored by the Abbey’s ‘Diddler’ McCreesh (from just up the road in Culloville) denied him a MacRory Cup but he won a Hogan medal, the biggest prize of all, because that year it was the Rannafast Cup champions who went through to the All-Ireland competition.

Read more: Part one of our interview with Benny Tierney

As a trainee teacher wiith St Mary’s he won a Sigerson Cup in his first year and between the sticks for Armagh he won a McKenna Cup (1994), Ulster Championships in 1999 and 2000 and, top of the lot, the All-Ireland in 2002.

“I’d say a lot of people would look at me and say: ‘Jammy get, he played on good teams…’ But you don’t get where I got if you’re not putting the effort in,” he says.

“Like, Joe Kernan doesn’t pick you because you’re messing about or because you’re a character.

“You play because, like any other footballer, you’re his best option. But I don’t mind being looked on as this affable sort of person who seems to laugh his way through life. “When the game was on, I can assure you, I would have done anything to win and I would have been as competitive kick-out as anyone else on the field.”

Benny Tierney was part of the Armagh team from 1989 to 2002 and later joined the management set-up

You might assume that the unforgettable September day when Armagh beat Kerry to win their only Sam Maguire was Tierney’s finest hour. Again you’d be wrong because it’s the remarkable 10-year march from the basement of Armagh football to the very top of Ulster with his club that stands apart for him.

“People ask me: ‘What’s your biggest accomplishment in sport?’ and I would say it’s probably the club,” explained Tierney, now headmaster at St Peter’s, Cloughrea just outside Newry.

“We went from second-from-bottom in Division Four in 1985 to Ulster Club champions in 1995; we came from nowhere and went to an All-Ireland club semi-final in 10 years. “That would be proudest achievement because we were laughed at by most clubs and we went to being one of the top four clubs in the country - Ulster’s finest.”

He jokes that his dad Pius “was gutted he didn’t get a testimonial” when he retired from football in his late teens. Pius was a capable player and his talent passed on to the eldest of his three sons who fancied himself as a dashing forward in his early days.

“I still maintain I’m the best forward Armagh never had,” says Benny, flashing that familiar smile.

“I probably thought I was better than I was but I would have been decent. I played outfield for the U21 medals with the club and I played full-forward for Armagh U21s.

“When I went to St Colman’s I would have expected to be playing but I wasn’t. We had a third year pre-season challenge match and we had no ’keeper so Fr McCrory asked if any of the subs would go into goals, which was the thing in those days. Look at how goalkeeping has moved on since then!

“Everybody looked down at their toes but I thought: ‘Sure I might as well play instead of sitting here freezing’ and that’s how the goalkeeping started.

“I took to it and when I started playing senior football for the club I was in goals and I became comfortable with it and people became comfortable with me as the ’keeper.”

“I was blessed to be in some very good teams,” he adds, modestly.

“At that stage with St Colman’s you didn’t know what it was like to get beat – although obviously that defeat to the Abbey was a big one because it was a MacRory final.

“Then I went to St Mary’s and won a Sigerson in my first year so, at the age of 21, I probably thought I was invincible. The club was going great then too so it was a great time to be playing football because it seemed like every time you went on to the field you had a chance of winning something.”

Winning came, if not easily, certainly regularly and the medals piled up.

He recalls how his mother found “seven or eight of them lying in a biscuit tin one time” but, without being blasé, he says it’s memories that really count for him.

Benny Tierney won a Sigerson Cup medal in his first year at St Mary's. He is pictured with team-mates - John Rafferty, Ollie Reel and Jarlath Burns - who also played alongside him for St Colman's and Armagh

The evidence of his glittering career lay scattered here and there until his wife Nicola decided to bring it all together.

“Only Nicola got a thing made to put them on, I wouldn’t know where any of them where,” he explains.

“I actually lost my All-Ireland medal the night I got it – I left it in the Carrickdale. My brother-in-law was working there and he brought it home for me.

“I don’t put much stall in medals, when you’ve won it, you’ve won it. The medal is there and it’s nice but it wouldn’t be something I’d go to – it’s the memories I go to rather than the medals.

“When my wife went and got the plaque made up for them it was lovely but I felt a bit… I dunno. I probably didn’t give it the merit it deserved for her efforts because I just don’t keep stuff, I’d be a bit through-other, I don’t keep momentoes or scrapbooks. I don’t have a cutting, I don’t have a jersey left… I’m quite content to know that I was very lucky and that I had a career that gave me a lot of enjoyment, a few medals but a lot of memories.”

Read more: Part one of our interview with Benny Tierney

It may not be number one for Benny but the memory of the 2002 All-Ireland-winning campaign will always bring a smile to face of any Armagh fan who was lucky enough to be around to see it.

The Orchard county had been Ulster champions in 1999 and 2000 but fell short at Croke Park three years in-a-row until Joe Kernan was appointed manager after the 2001 season. A little luck here and there came in handy as Kernan teased out the extra couple of per cent that was needed for Armagh to finally land the Sam Maguire.

Armagh legend Benny Tierney 

And for Tierney – who’d been around longer than any of his team-mates - it almost didn’t happen. He’d been dropped during the 2001 campaign and had decided he’d reached the end of the road.

“When you start everybody loves you, everybody thinks you’re great,” he says.

“But when you get towards the latter end of your career it’s: ‘Ah, it’s time he was gone…’ I’ve heard that said about players when I’ve gone to watch matches: ‘Ah he’s done, it’s time to move on…’ I’d be saying: ‘What! Are you actually serious?’

“I was getting it from I turned 30 and you’re hearing the dispatches about different goalkeepers playing very well and ‘It’s time Tierney was gone and he was in’. Paul Hearty came along and was an exceptional goalkeeper and in 2001 we played Tyrone in first round of Championship, we were beat and I was dropped for the backdoor.

“We went on to play against Galway, we were eight or nine points down and came back to level it and then they got a point and won and went on to win the All-Ireland. I wasn’t playing and that day was one of my lowest times as a county footballer.

“The dugout was full and I had to sit along the sideline. I was asked by a steward to move because I was blocking one of the letters on an advertising hording.

“I thought: ‘Mmmmmm, I’m not playing, there’s no room in the dugout for me and I’m not even allowed to sit on the sideline? This isn’t going too well for you Mr Tierney’.

“I had a young family as well and I thought Paul was naturally going to take over and I was quite happy to move aside.”

As far as we concerned, that was it but then Kernan was appointed things began to change. When Big Joe wanted something, he was a hard man to turn down.

“He phoned me and said: ‘I’m drawing up a panel and I’d like you to be part of it’.

“I said: ‘Joe, you’re alright, thanks for the invite’ because I thought he was doing it out of courtesy really and he wanted me there to keep the craic going in the changing room moreso than playing but I have to be playing or the life is sucked out of me.

“He called at the house one day and we chatted. He said: ‘You’ll regret it if you pull out because, this time next year, Armagh will win the All-Ireland and you won’t be part of it’.”

Kernan phoned on a Saturday morning.

‘Are you in or out?’

‘Ah, I dunno…’

‘In or out Benny? Make a decision!’

‘Stick me down Joe. We’ll see how it goes.’

The rest, as the say, is history.

“Obviously I owe Joe a debt of gratitude,” says Benny.

“Things worked for me as they did throughout my career.

“We were alternated in the League and then Paul hurt his shoulder which meant I got a run of games and was fortunate enough to hold down my place for the year that is was.

“I wouldn’t be big-headed enough to say Armagh wouldn’t have won the All-Ireland without me but I like to think I contributed in some way.

“I was able to walk away the following year and realize that, regarding football, I’d achieved everything I could ever have wanted and I was able to hold down a social life as well. It was Roy of the Rovers stuff.”

Read more: Part one of our interview with Benny Tierney

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