GAA Football

Shenny McQuillan reflects on rare summer days with Antrim and that free against Derry

Utter the name of Shenny McQuillan in Antrim GAA circles and, despite the Cargin man having played just one summer for the county at the age of 31, nobody will forget his impact. Cahair O'Kane caught up with him to talk about why his Antrim days were so brief, and his famous free Anthony Tohill grabbed from above the bar, denying Antrim a famous victory over Derry...

Shenny McQuillan celebrates scoring a penalty for Antrim in the 2000 Ulster SFC semi-final replay against Derry, but the boat had been missed in the drawn game when the Saffrons came from eight points down to draw. The day is best remembered for Anthony Tohill pulling McQuillan's last-gasp free down from above the bar. Picture by Lorraine O'Sullivan / INPHO

THE conversation ends as it probably should have begun, but it needs to be cleared up.

Shenny or Sheeny?

“It’s Shenny. I’m actually Henry VII, the first born males down the line were all called Henry. My granda got Shenny and it just became that.”

Antrim football has long dined out on the summer of 2000, when they beat Down and took National League champions Derry to a replay having failed to win a game for the previous 18 years.

Nobody is more synonymous with the year than Shenny McQuillan.

A graceful player, an ace free-taker, a warrior with a hard edge, for years, Antrim managers had tried to convince the Cargin man to give the county panel a crack.

He’d gone up once, six weeks before they played Donegal in 1997. The first night he landed, there were nine men at training.

“The only reason I stayed the six weeks was I’d get an All-Ireland ticket out of it.”

When Brian White took over after the summer of ’99, he recruited McQuillan’s clubmate JC Devlin into his backroom team along with Hugh McGettigan.

“I knew if JC was getting involved, Whitey must be doing it right. Whitey went through it all, how there’d be 30 men training every night. I said if it’d be done right, I’d give it a go. I was coming to the end of my career and always wanted to try it.

“That was the opportunity, the door opened. I’m glad I did it. It was a great year.”

Having helped Antrim win an All-Ireland ‘B’ title that winter, Shenny McQuillan made his Ulster Championship debut on May 28, 2000, three days after his 31st birthday.

He lit up Casement Park with a majestic display of free-taking, landing six placed balls and one from play.

It was packaged up as a surprise but the truth was the two trajectories were meeting. Down were an ageing force, Antrim an improving one.

McQuillan felt it coming once they went to Galway and won a challenge game against the ‘98 All-Ireland champions, after which he recalls walking past the home changing room and hearing John O’Mahoney launching verbal volleys at his team.

That was a weekend to remember for far more than football though.

What McQuillan really misses about football is the craic. He was only on the Antrim team a short time but as one of nine Cargin men on the panel, and with Devlin on the management, he slotted straight in.

Part of Antrim’s issue had been drawing the city and country boys together in the same squad. That was the greatest trick Brian White achieved, and they created stories to tell along the way.

When they landed in Galway, there was a thirst on them. White was the ringleader in looking for a night out, but that it would have to be democratically achieved in their team meeting.

“Whitey said he’d ask me in the meeting what we’d do for the night and I was to suggest we’d go for two or three pints.

“We land for the meeting and Whitey comes in, shirt, tie on, slacks on him, he’s dressed to the pins and ready for action! The meeting lasts about 30 seconds until ‘right, anybody any suggestions?’

“I put my hand up. ‘Whitey, I suggest we maybe go out for two or three pints’. ‘Right, let’s go’.

“We’re out until 4am. Enda McLernon played corner-back for us from Creggan, he was mighty on the guitar and singing songs.

“We’re in this bar in Galway and they’re playing a bit of music. We get it for Enda to go up. The owner was kinda worried, he says ‘nothing too severe here’.

“Enda gets up and strums the guitar, and next thing ‘Armoured cars and tanks and….’

“Well the whole place went nuts, everybody’s banging their glasses! What a night. There was some craic.”

It did wonders for team morale. They beat Galway, and McQuillan picked up a bit of a knock at the tail end of the game. That fed perfectly into a trap he’d laid for White months earlier.

“We were in one of the colleges training at the start of the year and Whitey comes around asking everybody for their telephone numbers. I turned around to wee Blondie [Declan] Gallagher and whispered ‘what’s the number of the barracks in Toome?’

“He knew the number off by heart because they were always phoning them, tormenting them. Blondie gives me the number of the barracks.

“We’d been down and beat Galway, and I got injured with a few minutes to go and I have to go off.

“Whitey phones me the next day to find out how I am, and the boy he answers, ‘Hello, this is Sergeant such-and-such’.

“‘F*** off ya Redneck, how are you keeping anyway?’”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

AS quickly as he’d entered the inter-county arena, McQuillan looked a natural. Pairing up with Joe Quinn at midfield, they were among the chief orchestrators in the win over Down.

Three weeks later, on a day when the blistering sun would have burned the grass in west Belfast, they welcomed Derry into Casement Park. And for 55 minutes, there was nothing out of the ordinary about it.

The All-Ireland favourites led by 0-12 to 0-4. And on a day that would remarkably come down to a long-range free, McQuillan’s mind is drawn to a forgotten effort earlier in the game.

“Anthony Tohill was something else. He hit a free that day that nobody ever talks about, and it was the greatest free I’ve ever seen in my life.

“I’ll guarantee you he was 70 yards out, underneath the stand in Casement Park. He took three steps up to it and it just went like a missile. Dropped right over the black spot.”

He recalls, too, Joe Quinn’s “immense” performance on Tohill that day. And while Kevin Madden’s introduction and Kevin Brady’s opportunism were the headlines behind the eight-point recovery, it was built on Antrim taking over at midfield for the last quarter of the game.

Derry couldn’t get out, and Brady’s two goals off long balls brought Antrim level and the Andersonstown Road to the point of crescendo.

“Paul McFlynn was marking me at this stage, I was moved out to right-half forward. He was saying ‘Shenny, see the atmosphere at this?’

“Being on the pitch, you felt as if the whole stadium around you was shaking. The atmosphere had gone to fever pitch. It was a class day.”

And with seconds remaining, Antrim were given a free out after a late tackle in their right corner-back position. The ball would be taken to where it landed only as it fell out wide in midfield, Tohill met it sweet on the volley and drove it back up the pitch.

John Bannon added an extra 13 metres, taking it to the very perimeter of what McQuillan’s right boot could do. It was still the most of 60 yards if you take the angle into account, an uneasy angle for a right-footer, but conditions could not have been more perfect.

“I knew it was on the edge of my range. There was a slight breeze behind me and I remember trying to walk it forward. John Bannon was refereeing, I mind him roaring at me to take it back.

“I was looking and thinking if I could get two yards out of it, she’s gone. I was confident. I knew when he was putting me back that it was right on my limit. I was hoping if I got it up high enough, the breeze would carry it.”

McQuillan takes a big run at it. Off it goes. As the ball sails towards the posts, Antrim is braced for utopia.

Anthony Tohill had other ideas. It’s heading over but the big Swatragh man gets up and stops it going over. Even then, he needed the bit of fortune. He can’t quite get high enough to catch and when it comes off him, it falls on to the crossbar and away.

McQuillan’s connection couldn’t have been much sweeter but it’s always there, nagging.

“I’ll always have that wee thing that I could have given it a wee bit more. I might have had another yard or two. I’ve seen me score them. I’ve seen me miss them too.

“Don’t get me wrong, I hit it pretty sweet. As soon as I hit and I saw it going up, I thought ‘the wind will take that’. I genuinely thought it was gone.

“Then I saw Tohill going up, f*** me. He flicked it on to the crossbar of all things. An inch higher it’s over and an inch lower it’s in the net, either way we win. But it didn’t.”

Derry survived and from the moment Tohill burst out on the changing room and slammed the ball into the turf before Derry’s team photo ahead of the replay, it was clear Antrim had missed the boat.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

SHENNY McQuillan played three championship games for Antrim. He made his mark to the point of assuming a cult hero status that embarrasses him.

“I know the truth. It’s nice when people mention things to me, but see the embarrassment I feel inside? I know what you’re saying but I don’t get it. It doesn’t sit well with me.

“I get a bigger thrill out of seeing Cloot McFetridge, Sambo McNaughton, Niall Patterson, meeting people like that.

“I met Jack O’Shea one day when I was almost 30 and I ran about like a 12-year-old kid, trying to get Adrian Craig out of the room so he could come up and see Jack O’Shea in this hotel in Donegal.

“We were at a golfing thing and I remember grabbing Adrian and going, ‘Get up, Jack O’Shea’s in here!’ Me near 30 years of age!”

He would have played on for Antrim but the infamous events of that autumn brought not only his inter-county career to a halt, but also turned out to be an unwitting curtain call for the club too.

The county final row between Cargin and St Paul’s, which began in the depths of stoppage time with the Toome men 0-9 to 0-5 ahead.

They were chasing back-to-back titles against their fiercest “rivals at the time, but as McQuillan looked up to take a free in what was meant to be the game’s last act, all hell had broken loose.

Cargin lifted the trophy but it had been spoiled, and as someone who now lives in the neighbouring parish of Bellaghy, being robbed of an Ulster Club tie against them was the sorest punishment of all for McQuillan.

“The year before we’d played Crossmaglen in Clones. They were All-Ireland champions and went on and won it again that year. They beat us by two points. We realised we weren’t far away.

“For that opportunity to be taken off us the following year against Bellaghy… Imagine the crowd would have been at that game. We all hung with each other. We played soccer together over the winter.

“The relationship we had with Bellaghy, the slagging, it would have been great to get that match at the time.

“You can’t bring that back. There’s memories lost. I’ll go into Bellaghy now and we’ll still talk about who would have won that game, but we never got the chance to find out.”

The nine Cargin men all boycotted the county team in the coming years over the punishments handed down, which included them being barred from the following year’s championship.

Hit by suspensions as well, McQuillan led a young team to a remarkable Antrim league title. He’d had a phone call from Gregory McCartan to relay an offer of good money to go to America for the summer, but he felt obliged to stay and guide Cargin.

And then he tore his cruciate knee ligament in a league game against St John’s at the end of the year. He missed the 2001 season and when Danny Quinn came in as manager the following year, Cargin went the way of youth.

“He said in pre-season he’d be going with Mick McCann and the younger boys this year, that my time would be limited. I told Danny ‘no problem, I totally get that, I’m happy enough playing away with the reserves here’. That was it.”

And so it turned out that not only was the summer of 2000 McQuillan’s sole year in the Antrim jersey, but it would also be host to his last championship game for Cargin too.

Shenny McQuillan wasn’t with Antrim for a long time, but he was there for a good time.

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