GAA Football

From nowhere to Croker... How Gerry O'Neill transformed Armagh in the 1970s

Gerry O'Neill leads the Armagh team to the dressingrooms at Croke Park prior to the 1977 All-Ireland final. Included are Fran McMahon, Colm McKinstry, Paddy Moriarty and Kevin Rafferty and Gerry's sons Shane (left) and Niall (right)
Andy Watters

“My God, I think it’s the Armagh manager…”

RTE’s Michael O’Hehir commentating on the 1977 All-Ireland semi-final

RIGHT at the death, Roscommon could have won it. No Ulster team had reached the All-Ireland final since 1968 and, nine years later in the 1977 semi-final at Croke Park, the late, great Dermot Earley had the chance to send another pack of hopefuls from the wee North back up the road with their tails between their legs.

He placed the ball and was preparing to kick it when a man wearing a pink shirt ran across the pitch. O’Hehir was right, it was Gerry O’Neill, the Armagh manager.

Here’s how Gerry recalls the famous incident.

“Like hundreds of other managers I have been on the pitch many times.

“In that case, our dugout was on the far side and Joey Donnelly had been knocked down. I went over to find out what was wrong with him and if I needed to replace him. It was around the 50-yard line so instead of running around the field I decided to go across the pitch.

“When I was going across, Earley said something to me like: ‘Get off, get off the pitch’ and I says: ‘What’s your problem? You’ll not score anyway’. And he didn’t of course.”

Earley took the free, the ball drifted wide, the full-time whistle blew and Armagh lived to fight, and win, another day. The replay ended in a one-point victory for O’Neill’s side and Sam Maguire fever descended on the Orchard County.

Quick and clever. Jimmy Smyth, Armagh's centre half-forward

My earliest sporting memory is watching my father – in a brief daddy-turns-superman moment - climb the tree outside our house to nail an orange and white flag on the highest branch a couple of weeks before the final.

The stars of the team became household names and remain legends in Armagh to this day but the pivotal figure was O’Neill, the thoughtful, studious manager.

Forty years ago, the softly-spoken 83-year-old gentleman on the other end of the phone was a driven, arch-competitor with the cutting edge all good managers need and he didn’t go to Dublin, or anywhere else for that matter, to lose.

Armagh had appointed him hoping to win “one match, not one Championship match, just one match” but O’Neill found players, trained them, organised them and then inspired them and dragged a county that had struggled to field a team in the early 1970s to the Ulster title and the pinnacle of the game in just a few years.

He’d played his club football for Kilrea Pearse’s (his father had been a founder-member) and, like his brothers Leo (a member of the 1958 Derry team), Martin, Eoghan and Shane, he wore the red and white jersey of the Oak Leaf county.

“We didn’t win many trophies in Kilrea,” Gerry explains.

“One of the trophies we did win was the Sean Larkin Cup. On that day myself, Leo and Martin, who was much younger than us, got all our scores. It was the only time the three of us played together.”

At school he was a boarder at St Columb’s in Derry where GAA ruled supreme.

“The Derry city boys would have been running around talking about some team called Man United and another team called Liverpool but it didn’t concern me and it still doesn’t,” says Gerry, whose brother Martin (one of the scorers in that Sean Larkin Cup success) would go on to carve out a brilliant soccer career which included winning the European Cup twice with Nottingham Forest, captaining Northern Ireland to the World Cup in 1982 and then success after success as manager of Leicester City, Celtic and the Republic of Ireland.

During Gerry’s time St Columb’s were banned from the MacRory Cup. A team from the school had misbehaved on the way home from a match and the Bishop of Derry decreed that the punishment would be expulsion from the competition.

“They were on a train journey and they didn’t do themselves any favours,” Gerry explains.

“They were quite mad – mad and bad – and that’s what happened. So we didn’t play in the MacRory but we played a match every year at Celtic Park against the Derry county champions and St Columb’s usually beat them, there would have been some very good players at the school.”

After St Columb’s, Gerry, and his brother Leo, were part of the Queen's University side that, in 1958, became the first northern college to win the Sigerson Cup and he put his footballing pedigree to good use when he moved from Garron Tower to teach French and Irish at St Colman’s College in Newry, which was then and remains today, a fertile GAA nursery.

Joe Kernan: "When he was approaching you at speed, you didn’t bother tackling him"

The Holy Grail for the school was to win the Hogan Cup and Gerry and Fr John Treanor delivered it for the first time in their history in 1967.

“The characteristics I saw were that the Armagh boys were very good high fielders whereas the Down players were good solo-runners and smallish,” he observes.

“The forwards were Down lads mostly and the midfielders and defenders were from Armagh.”

If Armagh forwards weren’t coming through at St Colman’s then neither were defenders, midfielders or goalkeepers. The county side was arguably at an all-time low in 1970 but Armagh County Board secretary Gerry Fegan (the Armagh senior football championship trophy now bears his name) approached O’Neill to ask if he would take the reins. The county board had been doing many things wrong at the time, but they got that appointment absolutely right.

“It had been years and years since Armagh had beaten Down,” Gerry recalls.

“Burren were opening their pitch with new floodlights and Gerry Fegan asked me to come along and take charge of the squad. I hardly knew any of them but I went and we beat Down, only by a point but it was a big win for them at that time.

“So we started from there and I realised there wasn’t enough quality in the players we had. It’s a bit hard teaching players, who are 26 or 27 and used to all the habits of their childhood, how to play a different type of game.

“Nobody really had any interest in the county team. We went to play Leitrim one weekend and we hadn’t got a full team. That was a very tough day and we were playing teams like Westmeath who were calling us names; they thought we were Orangemen because of the jersey. It was laughable.”

After two years of struggle he stepped down but the emergence of a talented group of young players - Jimmy Smyth, from his St Colman’s Hogan Cup-winning team, a fearless young prospect from Crossmaglen called Joe Kernan and the likes of Culloville’s Fran McMahon, Moriarty, McKinstry and Frank Toman – sparked his interest again.

A delegation from the Armagh County Board arrived at Gerry’s door hoping to entice him back.

“I said: ‘I’ll give it a try anyway and we’ll see what happens’,” he recalls.

Results improved. Armagh won Division Three in 1975 and Division Two North the following year but Ulster Championships campaigns came and went without success. Derry mauled O’Neill’s side in ’75 and were 11 points better when the teams met again the following summer.

But Armagh’s League success did pay dividends and in 1977 the Orchardmen reached the Ulster final for the first time since their 1961 loss to Down. Once again Derry barred their way but O’Neill had seen enough in his team to be quietly confident they could shock his native county.

“We had shown glimpses of what we might be able to do but the players had no confidence in themselves and they thought: ‘This team is superior to us, they beat us well before and they’ll probably beat us well again’.

“So it was hard work changing the psychology to say: ‘Look, we can beat this team’.”

Some Derry complacency helped stoke up the Orchardmen.

“Two of the better players from Derry said they were going to America for the summer and would miss the Ulster Championship but they’d be back for the All-Ireland semi-final!” Gerry recalls

“I said to our players: ‘These fellas think they have already won this’. That spurred Armagh on and they did well and we won the match. The two boys in America must have got a shock when they heard Armagh had won!”

With Derry hammered 2-10 to 1-5 and their over-confident duo looking on from across the Atlantic, Armagh prepared for a duel with Connacht champions Roscommon.

Earley’s miss meant the first meeting ended in a draw and Gerry’s pitch incursion landed him in hot water at Croke Park.

“The GAA make a big song and dance of things, especially if there are Northerners involved,” he recalls.

“I was told to go to a meeting with a very severe-looking man from the west of Ireland, who was definitely in favour of Dermot Earley.

“I was given a serious, serious warning but it didn’t stop Mick O’Dwyer going onto the pitch umpteen times after that. It didn’t bother me anyway and that’s the end of the story.”

The drama of the first game drew an extra 10,000 spectators to the Croke Park replay and Smyth (1-5) and Peter Loughran (0-5) did the bulk of the scoring as Armagh forced their way into a final against defending champions Dublin.

Disappointingly, there was no happy ending to the momentous season. Watching the YouTube recording now, it’s obvious that Armagh had enough of the ball to win the game but they gave so much of it away that they trailed 1-3 to 3-6 at the interval and, despite two goals from Kernan, it finished 5-12 to 3-6 to Heffo’s Dubs.

“We lost the All-Ireland final – not in Croke Park – but in Parnell Park,” Gerry explains, with an air of resignation.

“Some of the county board thought it would be a good idea for us to have a really tough match before the final and they got us a game against Dublin, the full Dublin team.

“Armagh led all the way until the last minute or two but that taught Dublin that this Armagh team were no mugs. They were ready for us when we got to Croke Park whereas we might have caught them on the hop if they hadn’t known anything about us. But that’s the way it was.”

Dublin, in their fourth All-Ireland final in-a-row, were streetwise and confident and, of course, they were playing on home soil. Armagh, meanwhile, made the trek south in the pre-motorway days through Newry, Dundalk, Drogheda, Castlebellingham etc and, when they finally arrived on Jones’s Road, things refused to go to plan.

“Against advice, most of the players wore new boots supplied by one of the benefactors,” Gerry explains.

“Then the referee insisted, despite the fact that there had been a downpour, that Armagh come out onto the pitch. Dublin stayed in their dressingroom for another 10 minutes.

“With the new boots and the slippery pitch the first thing that happened was a goal for Dublin and that just knocked us flat. The southern papers described it as a one-sided game but we scored three goals, which other teams hadn’t done, and, if we had started earlier, you never know…”

Despite the setback, Armagh came again. Fresh talent was brought through and the Orchard County won the second Ulster title of O’Neill’s tenure in 1980.

And although Roscommon avenged the defeat of three years previously in a nip-and-tuck All-Ireland semi-final, Armagh returned to Clones for the 1981 Anglo-Celt Cup final against Down confident of retaining their crown and getting another crack at the Sam Maguire.

“That was the biggest disappointment,” says Gerry.

“Armagh played none that day, I don’t know why. It was one of those flat days.

“I expected to beat Down but it didn’t happen and after that I thought: ‘Maybe I’ve had enough of this?’ I thought I had better spend some time at home, so I let it go at that.”

Looking back, he recalls the men who stood with him: Charlie Sweeney, his trainer, Tommy Lynch, John O’Reilly, Fr Sean Hegarty, Joe Canning and Gerry Fegan and the many fine players from those great days.

“Joe Kernan was well built and when he was approaching you at speed, you didn’t bother tackling him, you just said: ‘I’ll let him get on with it’.

“He was a good fielder of the ball and there were several in that team – Larry Kearns, Thomas McCreesh, Colm McKinstry…

“Another good one was Frank Toman, from Lurgan. He probably had the best left foot that I have ever seen. He was so accurate, he was a small fella but a very sturdy player.

“Jimmy Smyth was a clever player and one of my favourites was Martin Murphy, from Silverbridge; I always thought he was tremendous but he didn’t play long enough for Armagh unfortunately.

“Fran McMahon was another good player, Brian Canavan could have played anywhere and then you had some small men with hearts like lions. Dennis Stevenson at corner-back would have gone into anything and he was a very good fielder of the ball. Raymond Kelly was another one and he always did what he was told.

“Some players didn’t. I remember one fella, he was a good player too, and I said to him: ‘When you get the ball at midfield, we have arranged that our corner-forward will fall back to entice their back to go along with him. Now, our man is faster than their back so I want you to lob the ball into the space and he can race in, pick up the ball and get us a score’.

“He got plenty of the ball but none ever went into the area and at half-time I said to him: ‘I thought you were to knock the ball into the space?’ He said: ‘Yeah, but there was nobody in there…’”

Football has changed since those days and Gerry was there in Croke Park in 2002 for the Orchard county’s finest hour: “It was a great day when they won the All-Ireland,” he says.

Joe Kernan’s men took the step that had eluded him but the success he conjured up from nowhere puts him there with the best managers Armagh have ever had and the standards he instilled set the tone for the success that followed.

“When I was asked to do the job, the aim at the beginning was for Armagh to win one match - not one Championship match, just one match,” he explains.

“Armagh did well in the League and from that they started to improve and evolved as a great team from then on.

“Getting acclaim for anything doesn’t concern me at all. I’m far too old a man now to worry about all that. If you can do a decent job, that’s all you care about.”

That tree, the one outside our house, is gone now but memories last forever.

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