GAA Football

'Francie didn't mark you by the jersey, he marked you by the skin'

In a new series reflecting on some of the GAA's red hot rivalries on the field, Neil Loughran asks former players to pick three men they enjoyed/endured going toe-to-toe with. First up is the blond bombshell himself, Tyrone's Owen Mulligan - and a certain uncompromising Crossmaglen full-back unsurprisingly makes the cut…

Francie Bellew developed a cult hero status among Crossmaglen and Armagh supporters, and was a hard man to get the better of - as Owen Mulligan discovered, Picture by Seamus Loughran

Francie Bellew (Armagh)

MY old mate Francie. This rivalry started in a National League game – they came to Omagh in March 2003 as All-Ireland champions but we didn’t give them a guard of honour when they came out.

Bellew came and let me know he was there straight away and he got it back straight away. That’s probably the townie in me too; I always thought it was more difficult to make a county side if you were a Townie, so you had to meet the defender head on and that’s what I did. I didn’t mind a bit of confrontation.

We beat them in that League game [1-9 to 0-10] but it ended up getting nasty. I had a really good game but Harte took me off with about 10 minutes to go; I was raging – absolutely raging. I never do this, but I actually went over to him and said ‘what’s that about?’ He told me to calm down and said ‘he’ll keep, he’ll keep’. I’ll always remember that. He was looking at the bigger picture.

The next time we met was in the All-Ireland final and Bellew got the better of me… I just got involved too much. The thing about Francie was he didn’t mark you by the jersey, he marked you by the skin - down the side was where he held you so you had to sharpen your elbows.

This went on the whole game and I remember Peter Canavan coming over to me at half-time and telling me ‘stop getting involved, you’re not concentrating on the game, you’re concentrating on him’. He was right.

I wasn’t happy with my performance in the final, which is maybe a bit greedy considering we won, so when we got them in the 2005 semi-final, I couldn’t wait [Mulligan came on at half-time in the drawn Ulster final that year, and for the last 15 minutes of the replay in Croke Park].

Before that game I watched the DVD of the 2003 final back about four or five times to see where I went wrong and I took an awful lot out of it. Bellew, the way he marked you, he was nearly too tight and you can buy an awful lot of free-kicks from him.

That’s what I did that day – you might call it diving, I call it stupid defending. He was too tight, I rolled him a few times, scored three or four from play and should’ve had a goal. I knew I had him from the first couple of balls because any time I ran at him, he would commit. If I could get him to commit with his hand or his arm, I was always going down.

Francie didn’t go in for the verbals. I tried to get a bit going with him in one of the matches in Croke Park by saying he was gorgeous but he just looked back at me, smiled and said ‘so are you’. I was pretty happy with that outcome so I just left it.

Looking back, I’d say that battle finished up one all. Even though Francie is a man of few words, we had a beer and a bit of banter at one of the Allstars nights – that’s the way it should be. As soon as I cross the white line I would be a hateful sort of a fella, but when I’m off it, you forget about it. That’s the way I’ve always played the game.

Owen Mulligan went to school with Niall McCusker at St Pius X, Magherafelt, so the pair were well acquainted by the time they met in county colours. Picture by Declan Roughan

Niall McCusker (Derry)

ME and Niall were in school together in Magherafelt; we grew up together on the same training field from first year to fifth year, and Niall would always have been the best player in school, the best at PE.

Even then, I felt I had to prove myself. Brendan Convery took us, a Lavey man, and he used to say to me ‘you’re a different sort of a Townie, you’re not soft – I’ve never come across a townie who’s not soft’.

That stuck in my mind so when I came across big markers who would try to intimidate me, I had to stand up. Being from Cookstown, I would’ve played senior football from I just turned 15 so I was well used to going to the likes of Ardboe, Moortown, Clonoe and getting special treatment.

That helped me over the years when I got onto the big stage and was marking the likes of Niall. I always found him hard going at school and we ended up marking each other in the first round of the Championship in 2003 - the year we won the All-Ireland.

We were only after coming off winning the National League title in Croke Park, I got man-of-the-match in that game [a 0-21 to 1-8 victory over Laois] so I was on a high, the whole Tyrone set-up was on a high.

We drew with Derry in Clones then beat them in a replay in Casement the next weekend - Niall was on me the first day and gave me special attention. He was a big lad but when he held you, you couldn’t get out of it – it was sort of like a bear hug, and I couldn’t get free.

As well as that he was deceptively fast, great in the air, a great reader of the game and he was also really good on the ball, so when he got on it he was starting attacks.

Niall had his homework done on me too. If I wasn’t getting the ball, he was just holding me flat out. Unfortunately there were no verbals – I would’ve been a man to give a bit of lip but Niall just had a job to do.

The only verbals came from the crowd at half-time, somebody shouted when I was going down the tunnel ‘where’s your blond bombshell now?’ F**k, I was raging. Niall kept me scoreless from play, he definitely came out on top that day.

We got a pint after it somewhere about Magherafelt and still had the craic but in the replay something had to change. Mickey Harte played me as a third midfielder, more of a playmaker role, so I had the legs on Niall a bit.

Harte didn’t want me to get involved, and it was a bit of a masterstroke because it gave me more freedom and Niall didn’t like it as much out in the open space; he was used to marking me in a tight zone, so we probably broke about even after those two.

Kevin McGuckin held Owen Mulligan scoreless when Derry stunned reigning All-Ireland champions Tyrone at Healy Park in 2006. Picture by Ann McManus

Kevin McGuckin (Derry)

ANOTHER Derry man. Unlike now, Derry and Tyrone games back then were like Celtic-Rangers - an absolute killing match. There was an awful lot of pressure on me, I probably put in myself, because my mother’s a Maghera woman. I’ve a pile of uncles who used to phone the house before those games… I think it was a bit of a tactic to try and put me off.

Like Niall, I have absolutely massive respect for Kevin. I would still see him the odd time about the town, and he marked me in a Championship game up in Omagh and kept me scoreless [2006 Ulster Championship quarter-final, Derry won 1-8 to 0-5].

Kevin was just a sticky defender and a great reader of the game who always got the hand in. Now, if you missed a shot, he’d tell you ‘that was unlucky’ or ‘keep the head up Mugsy’ and a wee pat on the bum, but there was no dirt in him, no nothing.

Those games were the toughest I ever played in and if a Derry defender smelled weakness, they would go for it. It’s been said to me before that they were the one team I never really played well against; sometimes I would argue that but as the years have gone on, I would have to say it’s were probably right. I don’t know why that was - McKenna Cup games, League games, you’d have scored all round you, but when it came to Championship Derry were well marshalled and I just didn’t perform how I can.

Sometimes you just have to hold your hands up and take your medicine.

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