'I just fell down on my knees and I begged them to do bring the cup home. That's honest to God. They'd heard everything before'
Twenty years ago the Down minors gave hope to football fans across the Mourne County when they scaled the All-Ireland summit. Neil Loughran met up with John Clarke, Benny Coulter, Michael Walsh and Gerry Dougherty to look back on a magical summer and discuss why much-anticipated senior success never followed…
IN the beginning, the words would tumble forth with defiance in the face of troubled times. The glory days of the early ’90s were fast fading from view, the twin towers of Armagh and Tyrone having pulled up on the inside, leaving their Ulster rivals choking on fumes.
And while they accelerated off into the distance, Down stuttered and stalled from one Championship disaster to the next.
Yet even in the midst of such a bleak and barren period, hope remained.
“Sure,” punters would sigh en route to their cars, those same words tripping off tongues after each gut-wrenching defeat.
“We’ll be alright when those minors come through...”
Good minor teams come and go in every county but few have carried the weight of expectation that accompanied Down’s class of ’99 after their All-Ireland triumph.
Huge crowds lined the streets of Newry on the Monday night when they arrived home with the Tom Markham Cup. The last time he visited, in 1987, Down were in the middle of a similar slump.
Yet while only Conor Deegan and James McCartan would go on to secure spots on the All-Ireland winning teams, 12 of the 15 who started against Mayo on September 26, 1999 graduated to the senior stage.
That’s an incredible return by any standard, but also speaks volumes of the state of flux in which the county found itself around the turn of the Millennium; unable to stick, too soon to twist.
Fast forward to the end of the Noughties and expectation had been replaced by weary resignation following a decade spent in the shadow of Armagh and a rampant Red Hand side reaping the rewards of its own underage success.
And those words, those cursed words, once delivered with cock-sure confidence were now accompanied by an eye roll or a cynical wink on the way out the gate.
“Sure we’ll be alright when those minors come through...”
“TWENTY years boys,” says Gerry Dougherty, hitching himself up on to one of the high chairs outside Warrenpoint’s Whistledown Hotel, “where did the time go?”
Looking out as the sun shimmers across Carlingford Lough, Michael Walsh, Benny Coulter and John Clarke nod along, thoughts instantly drifting back to a special summer in all their lives.
Nowadays, Walsh owns a physiotherapy practice just across the street from the Whistledown and another at home in Mayobridge. Coulter, when he's not clocking up more reserve titles with Mayobridge, is a coaching development officer in Down and part of Paddy Tally’s backroom team, while Clarke is still playing senior football with St John’s of Drumnaquoile around his work as a regional sales manager with Q Radio.
‘Trixie’ Dougherty and his management team of Martin Farnon, Eamon O’Hare and Barry Breen were the men who brought that team together, helping forge a collective which wouldn’t be beaten.
“From April time on we’d have done serious training in the sand dunes in Newcastle,” recalls Clarke, the youngest on the panel. “As a 16-year-old, I hadn’t experienced anything like that.”
“Obviously you played against all these boys, so you knew there was quality there,” adds Coulter.
“We had a good ’Bridge team and all the schools were going well – St Colman’s had won a Hogan Cup in ’98, so you had the likes of Liam Doyle coming from that. John Fegan was with St Mark’s, so you knew if you got all these boys into the one panel you had a real good team. It was an exciting time.”
Antrim were despatched with ease, setting up an Ulster semi-final showdown against Tyrone at Casement Park.
And where the Red Hand minors had just edged past Down 12 months earlier, there was to be no hard luck story this time around as a side containing Enda McGinley, Kevin ‘Hub’ Hughes and Owen Mulligan was swatted aside, 1-2 from Coulter helping Down to a six-point win.
“I told youse in the changing rooms before that game; we are going to beat the All-Ireland champions here today and we are going to become All-Ireland champions,” says Dougherty.
“You had to believe, and that was a big hurdle for us to get over.”
“That’s not the one where you were down on your knees?” asks Walsh, prompting Dougherty to burst into laughter.
“No no, that was the All-Ireland final... I’d run out of things to say at half-time and when you’re four points up, it’s very difficult. I mean, what do you say?
“So I just fell down on my knees and I begged them to do bring the cup home. That’s honest to God. They’d heard everything before, so it had to be something different.”
There was still plenty of road to be travelled before Down would reach that point, however. After Tyrone they were taken to the well by Donegal in the Ulster final, eventually progressing in a replay.
The Mournemen also needed two games to get past a Dublin side containing Stephen Cluxton, Paul Casey and Alan Brogan in the last four to set up an All-Ireland final showdown with the Connacht champions.
“We didn’t do it the easy way,” says Walsh, that side’s stylish playmaker, “but I’m glad we did do it that way, because those replays made us the team we were; made us stronger, more resilient.”
Across the seven matches they would play that summer, Dougherty started just 17 players – with one of those, PJ McAlinden, getting the nod for the first time in the All-Ireland final.
“It was a big call, but we knew there was talent there so we persevered with him.
“We got him right for the final and he played his part like everybody else.”
Walsh put on a masterclass, scoring four points from play, while a brilliant late block from Ronan Sexton denied Alan Dillon a certain goal.
But it is the memory of Coulter’s 24th minute goal – side-stepping goalkeeper John O’Hara before finishing to the net – which remains crystal clear in Clarke’s mind.
“There’s certain things happen that you never forget and Benny’s goal that day is one of them. Who was it gave the ball in, was it Murtagh?”
“It’s not too often he passed it,” remarks Coulter, “it wasn’t even a pass - he just hoofed her in.”
“That was a big moment. Massive,” adds Clarke.
“The celebrations after, playing at Croke Park, coming back to Newry... it’s all a bit of a blur now. You were just lost in the moment.
“As a group of young lads, that summer was an education. Football aside even, it was just a great grounding in life in general. You took so much from it.”
TWO years on from their 1998 minor triumph, many of the same Tyrone players – mixed with those from their final defeat 12 months previous - were climbing the steps of the Hogan Stand again, this time to be crowned All-Ireland U21 champions.
Their cast list of future stars was being nurtured properly and by the time the big stage called, they were ready for it. Three senior All-Ireland titles by the end of the decade tells its own story.
In Down, well, that wasn’t quite the case. The 1999 Ulster final hammering at the hands of Armagh sent tremors through the Mourne County and accelerated the fast-tracking of new blood.
“That was the problem,” says Dougherty, “Down were in dire need of replacements.
“Mickey [Walsh] played the following year against Antrim [in the Ulster SFC], but earlier that day we had come off the field against Derry, they had beaten us, and Benny was called out of our changing room into the senior changing room.
“That would be unheard of nowadays.”
“We played against Tyrone as U21s,” recalls Walsh, “Cormac McAnallen, Brian McGuigan, Kevin Hughes, Enda McGinley, Stephen O’Neill... all the household names. We lost by a point up in Omagh and we hit the crossbar; there was a very thin line between how good they were and how good we were.
“There were a lot of similarities between us but they concentrated on winning a couple of U21 All-Irelands, and they had those couple of developmental years before being brought into the seniors.
“I’m involved with the Down U20s now and you can see how important it is to have that feeder system. You need that couple of years to get you ready - there’s very, very few footballers come out of minors and are ready for senior football.”
And Walsh need look no further than his own experience to put the scale of that transition into context.
“In 2001 we played Armagh in a Qualifier, and I had Kieran McGeeney marking me. Two years out of minors, you’re coming up against a man at the peak of his powers, and you were still a cub.”
Just as Mickey Harte had done, Dougherty progressed from managing the minors to the U21s. However, it was clear from early on that he wasn’t going to enjoy the same degree of control as his Tyrone counterpart.
“We couldn’t get access to the players. These guys were all on the senior panel, and the rest of the panel trained together.
“On the Wednesday night prior to an Ulster Championship game against Monaghan, these boys had to go to senior training, then they crammed into a taxi and arrived in Ballykinlar with about 10 minutes of our session to go.
“It was just… I blame myself. I should’ve been stronger and demanded, but then the county board weren’t interested in minors and U21s - it was all about the seniors.”
And where Harte’s progression from minor to U21 to senior manager aligned perfectly with the progression of a group of players that had grown up with him, Dougherty grew increasingly frustrated with Down’s short-sighted approach.
“The way things ended up in Down, I had lost a few friends in the county board along the way… it was never going to happen.
“Believe it or not, during that controversy over the U21s, we got approached by Antrim. We went to the interview, and we actually got the job. I came home and I never slept that night.
“I got the boys together the next day and said ‘we can’t take this here’. After that I got a couple of offers to go to San Francisco and I ended up going there every year after that for 10 years. That’s how I finished up.”
On the field, hope would flourish and fade over the course of a topsy-turvy decade, during which Down landed another minor crown in 2005, as well as coming from nowhere to reach an All-Ireland final in 2010.
Yet any time it felt as though something was building, as though a breakthrough was near, they would hit a roadblock that sent them back to square one.
“Ach, you had one off seasons, one off results here and there, but there was never anything consistent,” recalls Coulter.
“We could beat a Tyrone and then get beat the next week by somebody else and that was your year over. Look at 2011, after 2010 - we were knocked out very early.
“There was no consistency at all with Down from 2000-2014, and that’s frustrating when you watch the likes of Tyrone and the boys we played against.
“At that time we were sort of on a par with them, but they just went on to a different level.”
Walsh would experience frustration of a different kind too having battled injury throughout his senior career. In 2009, at the age of 27, he was forced to retire.
“I was probably getting to the bottom of the hamstring injuries I’d had for years and then the cruciate went, and five or six years down the line I was left with a big hole in the cartilage and I was never able to recover from that.
“To this day it limits me in everything I do; I was out golfing yesterday and the knee swelled up. I’ll be looking at a total knee replacement at a young age.
“But everything in life happens for a reason; I’ve turned out a career dealing with injuries and injury prevention, and if you were to say would I not go back and play football, I wouldn’t say that.
“You just have to live with these things now because you took so many special moments from football that will stay with you for the rest of your life.”
Twenty years on, plans for a reunion are already well under way. The good, the bad and everything in between will be up for discussion; shared stories from a magical summer in all their lives.
“It’s the pinnacle of what every player at that age wants to do – they want to win an All-Ireland,” adds Walsh.
“We were lucky to win an All-Ireland medal, to be the best in the country at that time. There’s more goes through their careers not winning an All-Ireland medal, so we’re among the lucky few who can say we have that at home.
“That’s something to be proud of.”
DOWN '99 PANEL
John Sloan, John Clarke, Brendan Grant, Mark Doran, Colm Murtagh, Liam Doyle (captain), Brendan Kearney, Damien McGrady, Benny Coulter, Louis Sloan, Ronan Murtagh, Mickey Walsh, PJ McAlinden, John Fegan, Ronan Sexton, Mark McNeill, Gary O’Hare, Ronan O’Hare, Gary Digney, Darren O’Hanlon, Niall Doyle, Conor Boyle, John Turley, Gary Morgan, Fintan McGreevy, Chris O'Neill, Chris Brannigan, Stephen Flanagan, Paddy Small, Peter Cunningham