GAA Football

Glory Days: Brendan McKernan recalls Burren's All-Ireland breakthrough in 1986

St Mary's, Burren pictured before the 1986 All-Ireland Senior Club Football Championship final against Kerry and Munster champions, and Andy Merrigan Cup holders, Castleisland Desmonds
Andy Watters

UNDOUBTEDLY one of the greatest Ulster club sides of all time, Burren had established their dominance in Down and Ulster before their breakthrough All-Ireland title arrived in 1986. Managed by Mourne county football doyen Ray Morgan, the St Mary’s club mixed inter-county stars with talented youngsters and among them was defender Brendan McKernan who recalls those halycon days for his club in conversation with Andy Watters…

BURREN ended a 15-year drought to win their second senior championship in 1981. They were dethroned the following year but regrouped and completed a six in-a-row between 1983 and 1988. The first Ulster title was captured with victory over St Gall’s in 1983 but Meath’s Walterstown ended their run at the All-Ireland semi-final stage (the final, won by Nemo Rangers, was played the following day).

The Down and Ulster titles were retained in 1984 but once again Burren fell short – this time at the hands of Dublin kingpins St Vincent’s who had travelled to Burren for the 1985 All-Ireland semi-final. Brendan takes up the story:

Building success…

THERE were thousands at that game and it was my first experience of a big game at that level.

That St Vincent’s team had Brian Mullins and Bobby Doyle and I remember they got a controversial goal and beat us by two or three points. I was a sub that day but I got into the team the following year when I was 19 along with Malachy Murdock. ‘Shorty’ (John Treanor) and Tony McArdle had already broken into the team.

The breakthrough season…

RAY Morgan took over from Jackie McManus at the start of the 1985 season. He was one of the top trainers and managers about at that time. He had been at Burren in the 1970s and was heavily involved with St Colman’s College in Newry. He was a very good man-manager and he had experience of being in finals with St Colman’s so he prepared us in the best way physically and mentally for the challenges.

After getting beaten by St Vincent’s, our ambition was to try and get a step further reach an All-Ireland final and win it. The experience of being there for the two years previous stood to us and we had a bit of luck thrown in there too.

But we had to get out of Down first and we had some great battles with Loughinisland in Down in the mid-80s. They had Vinty Mason, Gary Mason, Damien Mason… boys like that.

So it was hot and heavy trying to get out of the county but it prepared us for trying to get out of Ulster. In 1985 we beat Downpatrick in the semi-final and Loughinisland (0-10 to 0-5) in the final and they were all tight games.

The scrapbook…

MY mother made me a scrapbook of all the games so I had to dig it out. We beat Glenullin in Burren in the first round. Augher (Tyrone) in the semi-final and we got four goals that day - you didn’t get many goals in the Ulster club – Jim McGreevy and Vincie McGovern got each. Those two, Shorty and Tony McArdle would have been our main scorers. Pat McKay and Larry Fitzpatrick were our two wing half-forwards and they were a midfielder and a half-back usually.

Last kick of the game…

1985 Ulster Senior Club Football Championship final: St Mary’s Burren 0-6 Scotstown 1-2

THAT was some game! Monaghan would have been top dogs in Ulster at that time and that was a very good Scotstown team – Gerry McCarville, Gene Sherry, Fergus Caulfield, Jack McCarville… They were all playing for Monaghan.

Our midfield that year was Tommy McGovern and Paddy O’Rourke so we had plenty of experience around the centre to win the ball.

The final was played in Armagh and it was a really, really tough game. The defences were on top but Shorty got three points for us and you had to earn your scores the hard way against Scotstown!

The pitch wasn’t like what you’d have nowadays and the conditions didn’t help matters. I have a feeling I was marking Rory Beggan’s da, Brendan Beggan, that day and I don’t remember if he scored but 1-2 was all they got so, if he did, he didn’t get too many.

We were winning 0-5 to 0-2 and they scored a goal to equalise but then Larry Fitzpatrick scored the winner with the last kick of the game.

The turning point…

All-Ireland Senior Club Football Championship semi-final: Burren 2-13 Portloaise 0-6

WE wanted to prove a point at All-Ireland level and, because it was our third All-Ireland semi-final, we knew what preparation we needed.

We had to play Portlaoise in Portlaoise and it was the coldest day I ever played football. I’ll never forget it, it was freezing-cold with a wind blowing down the field. There was snow that morning.

We stayed in a wee hotel outside Portloaise and there were phonecalls coming from home – because it was snowing at home – to see was the match going ahead.

Anyway they all came. We had a lot of support from within our own county but also outside the county. There were three guys from Moneyglass (county Antrim) who used to follow us everywhere. I don’t know why but they just took us under their wings throughout all those Ulster games and they would have come and watched us in Down games as well. They followed us all through those times.

That game was probably our best performance of the year, we played extra-well. We held our own in the first half but in the second half we took out. Tony McArdle scored 2-5 and Shorty got 0-5.

It was our best performance of the year, especially travelling down there and beating them in their own backyard.

Fever pitch at home…

THERE would only have been about 1000 people living in Burren at that time and I would say 800 of them were at the final, plus the Moneyglass boys and everybody else. The hype before the final wouldn’t be the way it is now, it didn’t get the same publicity then.

We had never got to a final before and we were determined to take that extra step and to perform on the day and get enough scores to get over the line.

Tommy, Brendan and Vincie (McGovern) and Paddy (O’Rourke) had all played in Croke Park before with Down and they gave us that experience so we weren’t really worrying about what was ahead of us. I knew we just needed to give a good performance and see where it took us.

The final…

All-Ireland Senior Club Football Championship final: St Mary’s Burren 1-10 Castleisland Desmonds 1-6

WE stayed over at the Clayton Hotel at Dublin Airport the night before the game. It was my first time playing at Croke Park and I was looking forward to it. We had been through a lot of tough games and we were just trying to treat is as another game of football although obviously we were playing against the reigning All-Ireland champions.

I don’t think Ray (Morgan) or the management went to see Desmonds playing, I think we got a video of their Munster final or their All-Ireland semi-final. That’s all we would have seen of them because it wasn’t live on the TV then.

On the day we played to our strengths, we had a very strong midfield and the Desmonds hardly got a ball in middle of the field.

We played with the wind in the first half and it was 6-2 at half-time. Brendy McGovern scored an outstanding point that day from under the Cusack Stand – I can still see him soloing up the sideline and winging it over the bar.

Obviously they had the wind in the second half but midway through the half Shorty got a great goal – right into the top corner past Charlie Nelligan. That really gave us a bit of a push and it put us 1-9 to five points up. They got a late goal, it scrambled in between me, Declan Murdock and Willie McMahon into the corner which left three points in it with maybe five minutes to go. But Charlie Doyle got a point to leave four in it at the finish.

That winning feeling…

NEARLY the whole parish was there and it was just a phenomenal occasion for us all. To be top of the tree… It was phenomenal for the whole club when Tommy McGovern went up to lift the cup.

A lot of work had been put in over the years and winning it didn’t really matter personally to me, I was just delighted for the club because of all the hard work of the committees and different people had done. We put the hard work in on the field but there is a lot of stuff that goes on behind the scenes in preparation for these games.

When we got back up the road after the final we were paraded through Warrenpoint on a lorry to our youth club to meet all the children and supporters who had cheered us on. Then we went over to the social club for the celebrations.

Remembering Sean Murdock…

LORD rest Sean, he was part of the management with Ray (Morgan), Jimmy McAlinden and Jim McGovern and he went to watch Portloaise in the Leinster final but the poor man passed away before we played them in the All-Ireland semi-final. It was a big shock, he was buried on New Year’s Day and we played Portlaoise on the 23rd of February.

Sean Murdock would have been ‘Mr Burren’ and he was Declan, Malachy and Gerard’s father. He was the man who would have been driving around in his wee Sherpa van, collecting us to go to all the underage games. He was the driving force from those years and he didn’t even see us win the All-Ireland. That was the extra-motivation that we needed to get over the line and we remembered him when we won the final. He was a great man.

The star man…

OUR full-back line was myself, Aidan Murdock and Malachy Murdock. Aidan was the eldest of us at 21. I was 19 and Malachy was 20. We were young!

There was no outstanding individual in the team but you had the likes of Shorty, who always came up with scores, Tony McArdle, Paddy (O’Rourke) and those guys.

Defending the crown…

IN October 1986 we went on a tour to America. Jimmy Heaney (chairman) and a special club committee organised it for us. We went to Philadelphia, Washington and New York. It was just after we had won the Down championship again and we went to America as a ‘thank you’ from the club. It was the holiday of a lifetime.

It was some craic! 10 days of partying and we played two matches. We came home on a Tuesday and the Sunday-week after that we went to Ballyshannon to play them in the Ulster club.

We beat them and got to the Ulster final again but Shorty was involved in a car accident a couple of weeks before the final so he didn’t play that day. We were short of a left-footed free-taker and we lost that final 4-3 against Castleblayney.

If that car accident hadn’t happened we might have had three All-Irelands in-a-row? Who knows?

Losing that game was hard to take and it probably gave us the motivation to come back the following year and try to get the All-Ireland back again.

Vincie McGovern (Tommy’s brother) was the captain for that second one (1988) and we got some lads in the panel who had been playing for the St Colman’s team that had won the Hogan Cup – Tom Fegan, Ronan Fitzpatrick and Larry Dougan. They came straight into the team and gave us another bit of scoring power up front. It was another great success for the club to come back and win it for the second time.

Looking back…

WHEN you walk into the clubrooms, the photos of the two All-Ireland club teams are just to your right-hand-side. Every time you go into the club you see them. Sadly two of the panel – Malachy Murdock and Pat Murtagh – have passed away and a lot of faces have changed and the hair colour has changed (or gone) but photographs are still up on the wall and nobody can ever take that away from us.

We had some great nights, some great celebrations after those games and there’s still an odd night that we replay them.

Path to glory:

Down SFC final: Burren 0-10 Loughinisland 0-5

Ulster quarter-final: Burren 0-14 Glenullin (Derry) 1-4

Ulster semi-final: Burren 4-5 Augher (Tyrone) 0-8

Ulster final: Burren 0-6 Scotstown (Monaghan) 1-2

All-Ireland semi-final: Burren 2-13 Portlaoise (Laois) 0-6

All-Ireland final: Burren 1-10 Castleisland Desmonds (Kerry/Munster) 1-6

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