GAA Football

Still a Rossa: Mickey Niblock on Magherafelt, New York, Pele and Nemo Rangers

Mickey Niblock broke the rules and was denied the chance to play for Cork after driving from Cork to help Magherafelt win their last Derry SFC in 1978. Following after his uncle Frank, he seemed destined to be the newest star of Derry football in the late 60s but instead opted for America, and then returned home to Cork and won two All-Ireland club titles with Nemo Rangers. He spoke to Cahair O'Kane…

Magherafelt and Derry legend Mickey Niblock takes a step out to wave to the crowd at the Ulster championship opener in 2015 at Celtic Park. The 1965 All Ireland winning Derry minor team were recognised for their success 30 years later. Picture by Mary K Burke

“Ask any of the hundreds of 8-year-olds who have played before or at half-time of the Cosmos’ home games this season and they will tell you that the New Yorkers, although an offense-minded team, don't score enough goals. The Cosmos know it themselves, of course, and have searched everywhere for a striker except in the want ads in the newspapers. Last Friday morning they went as far as signing a former Gaelic football player and they will start him against Veracruz of Mexico at Hofstra Stadium this afternoon. The new player is Mickey Niblock, a 24-year-old center-forward. He was so good at Gaelic football that his Ulster team had him flown back and forth on weekends for games. But how good is he in soccer?”
New York Times, June 24, 1973

* * * * * * * * * *

“THE boys in Magherafelt can’t believe Mickey Niblock’s a sheep farmer.”

On the hills that climb every side of Glenflesk in the heart of Kerry, the wind cuts through the line. Mickey Niblock, 71 years of age now, is out checking on his 100-or-so Connemara ewes.

A relative of his wife Dolores was looking to retire and implored them to buy the farm in the shadows of Killarney National Park 20 years ago. They obliged.

They travel the hour and ten minutes up from their home in Cork at least once a week. Maybe stays a day or two or three at a time.

The travelling was always in him.

An All-Ireland minor (1965) and U21 winner (1968) with Derry, Niblock was earmarked from very early on. His uncle Frank was a leading light on the 1947 team that won the county’s first ever National League title.

Mickey was playing senior county football by 1966 and won a Railway Cup with Ulster soon after.

It was a gifted generation which provided a host of players to the Oak Leaf senior team very quickly. That translated into an Ulster title in 1970, but the manner of the All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Kerry left Niblock “disillusioned”.

With 20 minutes to play, Kerry led the outsiders 0-10 to 0-9. It was sitting there. But then the Kingdom blew them off, kicking 13 of the game’s last 14 points to win by 0-23 to 0-10.

“Truthfully, a few lads came to training, they were injured and sitting it out, and then you’d go to Croke Park and get blown away in the last 15 minutes,” he recalls.

“We had good players but they didn’t have the stamina and we usually got beaten in the last 15.

“I’d been invited out to America and thought I’d go for a few years, and that was it.”

In 1971, after Derry had been beaten by Down in the Ulster final, he packed his bags. He flew home briefly to play for Derry in a National League game against Kerry at Croke Park but by 1972, just four years off the U21 All-Ireland success, the county had lost one of its brightest prospects.

The team had lost not only a friend, but one of the key components of what they were.

Every Saturday night, Adrian McGuckin and the two Niblocks – Mickey and his brother Hugh, who was also on the Derry team – would go up to Eamonn Coleman’s house in Ballymaguigan.

Mickey Niblock gets a shot off during Derry's 1970 All-Ireland semi-final defeat by Kerry. He was "disillusioned" by the manner in which Derry fell away and decided to go to America soon after.

“We went down to Eamonn’s, God rest him, to watch Match of the Day and discuss the next day’s game,” recalls McGuckin.

“And we would have been sitting discussing the county game the next day. Mickey would have been laying it out to us where he wanted us to be, he gave us the gameplan every Saturday night.

“He thought that wee bit deeper about the game than the rest of us did at that time. We’d have been looking up to Mickey for the ideas.”

Magherafelt suffered even more greatly than Derry. Had Niblock stayed about home, their one county title from five finals between 1967 and 1983 could well have been an improved haul.

Of the four finals they lost in that period, two of them were by a point and the other two after replays.

He was settled in New York, married to Dolores and living in Queen’s, when the Rossas sprang a big surprise on Ballinderry in the 1975 semi-final. Niblock flew home and punched a late goal to dethrone the holders in a 2-6 to 0-11 win.

Another flight was arranged for the final but the nightmare scenario unfolded. A draw with Bellaghy. With Niblock back in America for the second game, the Wolfe Tones cruised home.

By the time they were next in contention, Niblock was back in Ireland, but had put his roots down in his wife’s native Cork.

He’d been due to go to Blackrock to play when they arrived back but opted for Douglas at the last minute. When the phone call came from the north, despite the fact he knew it was against the rules to play for two clubs in one championship year, he couldn’t resist.

And so he drove up the road for Magherafelt’s championship games in 1978, one of five brothers that helped them to a fifth – and until Sunday at least, a last – county title, beating a fancied and flying Banagher side that was unsuited to the rain that fell on the day of the final.

The Rossas met Scotstown in the Ulster Club series and were well beaten when he heard a voice coming through the crowd.

“I heard this woman in a Cavan accent saying: ‘What’s wrong with you Mickey, can you not take your beatin’?’ I looked over and it was Mrs Clancy, the Gunner Brady’s sister, and I’d played for her husband [Alan]’s team in New York. I used to go up to their house all the time.

“I says to her: ‘I don’t mind taking a beating, but it’s hard playing 16 men. The referee never gave us a thing.’ It was only the day after I discovered the referee was her brother.”

That was the last time he played for Magherafelt. While still with Douglas, he was called into the Cork squad for a National League game that winter.

“I was going into the changing room with my kitbag and was turned away at the changing room. It was a bit embarrassing alright.

“They’d discovered that I’d played for Magherafelt while I was with Douglas and they banned me from playing. I thought it’d be safe enough going up to the north, nobody would know about it, but then winning the county and getting into Ulster, there was a bit of publicity about it. I didn’t get the chance to play for Cork.”

He did, however, get the chance to play for Nemo Rangers. He made his championship debut in 1981 and they helped him achieve what he’d always been capable of.

Mickey Niblock in action for Nemo Rangers, with whom he won two All-Ireland club titles in the early 1980s.

Having always been a centre-forward, he played at midfield for Nemo. He was 36 when he won his second All-Ireland club medal in three years, beating the Jack O’Shea-managed Walterstown in 1984.

After he finally finished playing in his 40s, Larry Tompkins had him briefly as a selector with Cork, where they won a Munster title and for which Niblock smiles that he was the one that decided Graham Canty had to be brought out to quell Darragh Ó Sé, which he did successfully.

And yet to this day, the name still carries around Ireland. When his nephew Thomas, a sports reporter, introduced himself to two veteran Republic of Ireland fans in Geneva on Tuesday, they shot straight back: “Are you anything to Mickey?”

Recent years have been ones of relative leisure. He still tells young people that Gaelic football is the “one of the best sports in the world to play”, but laments now the relative absence of physicality. And boy does he hate the black card.

His sons, Trevor John – named after Trevor Francis, the first £1m soccer player, and Pope John Paul – and David took different sporting paths. David followed his father into the football, while Trevor is more of a man for the triathlon.

Trevor lives in San Francisco, has done for almost 20 years. The travelling was in him too.

His father regretted neither going, nor coming home.

* * * * * * * * * *

THEIR parents, Hugh and Longford native Mary (neé Corr), reared 10 of them on Westland Road in Magherafelt, a council estate just off the Moneymore Road.

Of eight boys – including twins, Robert and Raymond - and two girls, Mickey was the third eldest. Ever from he was fit to grow one, he always kept a black moustache. It’s a whiter shade these days, but it remains in situ.

Hugh, unlike his brother Frank, was a big soccer fanatic. And living in the town, it was the garrison game that was played around the streets.

“We played against different housing estates. [Former Derry and Magherafelt team-mate] Gerry O’Loughlin would have been from the White City as we called it, a housing estate down from us, and there was a big rivalry there.”

When he went to tech to study carpentry – which was his second choice behind becoming a mechanic – there was a strong team with the likes of Tommy Diamond (Bellaghy), Tom Murphy (Newbridge) and Brendan Quinn, who’s gone on to become a renowned country singer and whose concert in Magherafelt this week excites Mickey almost as much as Magherafelt’s first county final in 36 years.

The soccer was always in him too. But when he went to America, it was to play Gaelic football, to make money and have a life.

His brother Dermot heard he was going and decided he’d go too.

“My mother wanted him to stay but unfortunately he had his mind made up.”

They were great company for each other in the early days. Life wasn’t what they’d expected it to be.

Mickey had been promised a job in site work in New York but ended up landscaping in Philadelphia. But just before he went down, Alan Clancy got chatting to him in Gaelic Park and gave him a number to ring if things weren’t working out.

“The job in Philadelphia wasn’t what I wanted. We headed up back up, the guy had a basement apartment for us and got us a job.

“It was fixing steel, the best paying job in construction.”

One night soon after, standing at the door of The Hitching Post, a bar on 204th Street on Broadway, his eye was caught by one of a group of girls going inside. Dolores, an air hostess from Youghal in Cork.

“She came up to the Bronx looking for a Gaelic player and a half, and she got one,” he laughs.

They were married in 1974 and less than a year later, a drunk driver ploughed up the East River Drive in Manhattan and killed Dermot Niblock.

“Dolores and I were in Queen’s living and he was in the Bronx, and I remember the last time he went out of our door. I wouldn’t usually look out, but I remember watching him going the length of the hall from the apartment until he touched the stairs.

“That was it, that was the last time I saw him alive. We were pretty close. I went out in ’69 first, I was back and forth until I went there properly in ’72, but he stayed permanently.

The Cork U9s listening intently to Mickey Niblock during a tournament in Youghal recently.

“Any time I’d go out, he’d get you work in the restaurant and maybe boss you about a bit, even though he was about a foot smaller. He enjoyed that.

“It hit me hard. I was lucky I was just married or it would have hit me even harder.”

* * * * * * * * * *

“AS I tell the lads, when I left, they had to get somebody to take my place.”

Whatever replacement Magherafelt came up with for Mickey Niblock, it certainly wasn’t of the calibre of the man that stepped in behind him at New York Cosmos.

Edson Arantes do Nascimento. Better known as Pelé.

The club was fairly new to the North American Soccer League when they signed this moustachioed, lean, six-foot striker in 1973.

He’d been playing bits and pieces across the country. Niblock and former Fermanagh footballer Tom McGrath used to go to Boston and other cities, where they were at ease during the games.

“You’d be playing with a lot of Irish-American lads who couldn’t control the ball. I said ‘Tom, we’ll keep it between ourselves’.

“We went up on a Saturday, out drinking on the Saturday night – I wasn’t drinking then – and they maybe gave you $100.

“Tom would come over and say ‘Mickey, see if you can get me another few dollars out of those guys, I’ve that money spent’. I said to the guys: ‘I’m not much good without him, any chance you’d give him another $50?’ ‘Not a problem’.

“This was their hobby, they had good jobs and it wasn’t a bother. We decided we’d keep the ball between ourselves and move down the field.”

Derry's All-Ireland winning U21 team from 1968, with Mickey Niblock pictured at the far right of the back row

Niblock also played for Aer Lingus in the Airline League, where Dutch outfit KLM were the ones handing out the pastings. A scout for the Cosmos ended up drafting a host of the KLM players, who came from England, Germany, Barbados, all over. And they brought Niblock too.

It was a one-season affair in 1973. The club was rapidly moving towards professionalism and Pelé signed soon after Niblock left, signing on for an enormous salary of $1.4m a year.

Niblock went back to the steel fixing that became his day and daily in New York, playing a bit of soccer on the side and organising indoor games to keep lads at it over the winter.

When he came back to Cork, he briefly touched back at the soccer but once he transferred from Douglas to Nemo Rangers, he had to abide by the city club’s strict adherence to ‘the ban’.

Playing for Nemo, enjoying the guidance of Billy Morgan, it was all a joy. He won Cork and Munster and All-Ireland medals.

But he cherishes 1978 every bit as much. Times it seemed like he and Hugh and Gerry O’Loughlin and the rest of that team would never see Magherafelt back in a county final.

Mickey Niblock took the train from Cork to Belfast yesterday and manoeuvred his way on up to south Derry from there.

Still travelling. Still going. Deep down, still a Rossa.

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