Antrim's 'forgotten man' Peter Graham reflects on the heady summer of 2009
“Keep running Antrim” – Derry’s All-Ireland winner Tony Scullion
PETER Graham was a quiz question not long after he’d started. Eleven years on from Antrim’s first Ulster final appearance since 1970, the Creggan Kickham’s man has heard it uttered a thousand times: ‘Whatever happened to Peter Graham?’
Came from nowhere. Disappeared faster than the summer rain.
Shrugging his shoulders, he says: “I don't cringe when I see those things: 'Where are they now?'
“In fact, the year after the 2009 Ulster final I was still on the Antrim panel and I was actually running around in the background before the game during a 'live' BBC broadcast and one of the questions was: 'Who did goals for Antrim in the Ulster final?'
“This was like 10 months later - and I was forgotten already!”
Laughing at his own perceived demise, there’s not a trace of bitterness in his voice.
Peter Graham was a 19-year-old rookie when he kept goal for ‘Baker’ Bradley’s Antrim side. Spool forward, he’s still only 31 and back playing with his club again after five years away.
Not long after that dreamy summer of ’09, inter-county football went its way and Peter Graham went his.
In other words, life and work took over.
Playing for Antrim, though, was good while it lasted.
In ’09, he earned his first Championship minutes as an early substitute for the injured Sean McGreevy in Antrim’s dramatic win over Donegal in Ballybofey.
John Finucane, McGreevy’s understudy, was ruled out of contention due to a broken finger.
Fate decreed this was Peter Graham’s time.
“Funny, my niece was being christened in America that weekend and my immediate family were all over there, and my parents were almost putting pressure on me to go to the christening. But I was always hanging about for Championship – even if it meant being number 31.
“We’d a fair idea that Sean might not make it through the match,” Graham recalls.
“At Friday night’s training session Sean obviously wasn’t comfortable and I got a phone call from ‘The Baker’ on the Saturday telling me, ‘Sean’s groin is feeling a bit tender – keep yourself right and be ready to go if you have to.’
“In the warm-up on the Sunday it was clear that Sean was uncomfortable. He went for it at the start of the game and he made an incredible save – he actually made a couple of great saves early on – and on one of the kick-outs it just went on him.
“John Finucane had broken his finger. If you watch some of the footage back, you can see John coming on to congratulate me at the end and forgetting himself and pulling his hand back at the last second.”
On a beautiful Saturday evening in Clones 13 days’ later, Graham was retained for Antrim’s semi-final win over Cavan, and despite the more experienced McGreevy and Finucane available, ‘Baker’ stuck with the teenager for the Ulster final against Tyrone.
Peter Graham never played another competitive minute for the Saffrons after that final. He remained on the panel in 2010 and got a few minutes here and there in challenge games.
A friendly against Leitrim was Graham's last appearance. And that was that.
In the history of Gaelic football nobody timed a run better than him.
PETER Graham’s story is like a lot of goalkeepers’ stories. He kind of just fell into it. One day, the regular keeper doesn’t show for a game.
Graham has his kitbag but isn’t supposed to play because he’s been nursing an ankle injury for most of the school season.
But the team needs a goalkeeper.
‘Where’s Johnny? Where’s Johnny?’ the teacher says.
‘Sure I’ll do nets, sir.’
A half hour later he’s keeping goal for St Mary’s, Magherafelt in a Rannafast Cup match against St Patrick’s Armagh.
“To be honest there were no nerves. I was kind of like: ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’
St Mary’s lost the game by a point, but Graham enjoyed the experience of keeping goal.
“I was the type of underage player where I wouldn’t have been one of the shining lights but any opportunity to get on the pitch I’d put my hand up."
Graham showed enough potential to earn his stripes in the school’s MacRory Cup team the following school year alongside the likes of Justin Crozier, Kevin O’Boyle, Dermot McBride, Danny Mulholland and Michael Bateson.
In 2006, the ‘Convent’ boys crashed out to a well-drilled Abbey CBS side, managed by Jody Gormley, who guided the latter to a MacRory and Hogan Cup double – a feat that helped the Tyrone man land the Antrim job later that year.
Graham’s ascent through the Antrim ranks was steady if undramatic. He graduated to the minors but didn’t make it onto the team.
The Antrim U21s proved a more fulfilling experience, with Gormley and goalkeeping coach Sean Gallagher investing a lot of time in the Creggan youngster.
In 2008, Gormley’s last year in charge of Antrim, Graham was drafted into the senior panel as back-up.
GRAHAM liked ‘The Baker’ from the start. He liked his brashness and belief he brought to the set-up. Fresh from his own championship-winning exploits with his native Glenullin, Liam 'Baker' Bradley swaggered into neighbouring Antrim.
“‘Baker’ probably gets a lot of stick for being a shouter. You definitely couldn’t repeat some of the things he said in the changing room, like it was pure comedy, off-the-cuff stuff.
“He could cut you down to size. 'Baker' wasn’t as much a tactician as Jody wasn’t a shouter. But I remember being in Creggan at one of his first training sessions in January and two or three lads came out to train – it might’ve been Mick McCann or ‘Locky’ [James Loughrey] – and ‘Baker’ was saying: ‘Mick McCann is one of the best footballers in Ulster. Do you boys realise that? You have one of the best players in Ulster. The talent in that room is the same as the talent anywhere else.'
“It didn’t feel like he was exaggerating either.
“And I always noticed in every media interview he did, he would drop in different names probably on the off-chance of that player reading it.”
Although he was part of Baker's senior panel, Graham knew the natural order of things.
Sean McGreevy had earned the right to be considered Antrim’s number one, while Finucane offered fine back-up.
“To be honest, I was there to get experience and to sharpen myself and as the year went on Sean and John weren’t always available so I got a few minutes in challenge games.
“So when it came to the Donegal game it wasn’t the first time I was playing behind big Andy [McClean] or Colin Brady.”
THE Tuesday night before Antrim’s Ulster Championship clash with Donegal, the ‘Baker’ called in a favour by asking his Derry compatriot Tony Scullion to come up to Creggan and speak with the players. It proved a master-stroke.
Eleven years on from Antrim’s unforgettable summer, Scullion’s words still bounce around Peter Graham’s head.
“Keep running Antrim.”
“I always remember Tony Scullion’s speech. It was one of those moments where you thought to yourself, if there was ever going to be a time when we were going to turn Donegal over, this was it.
“Tony just set it up. He said all the right things. He was mentally preparing us for moments in the match when something is not going to go your way, you can’t just say: ‘F*** this, this isn’t going our way. We just have to dig deep.’
“One thing that Tony said was: ‘Keep running Antrim. You can kick the ball away, you can be getting the biggest roasting of your life, but you can control your own work-rate. Just remember my voice in those moments: ‘Keep running Antrim.’
“And that’s the way it went. We came out flying against Donegal and built up a lead and it was just a case of holding onto it...”
Once McGreevy clutched his groin in pain after nine minutes, Graham was in for his Championship debut.
“I think my first kick-out went to [Michael] Hegarty and I thought: ‘Right, that’s as bad as that could've gone. I need to settle down here.’"
Graham adds: “It’s not as if I was going out there with the task of winning the game. As the game went on I grew in confidence and hit a couple of good kick-outs late on to Aodhan Gallagher and Benny Hassan.”
Tomas McCann raised a green flag in the second half and Donegal couldn’t respond. Antrim’s hard-bitten supporters went wild at the final whistle.
The BBC showed deferred coverage of Antrim’s famous win later that evening, so the players were already in the Everglades Hotel watching it back.
“I think James Loughrey was asked in an interview straight afterwards: ‘What are the plans now?’ And James said something like: ‘We’ll go and enjoy ourselves tonight and we’ll think about Cavan tomorrow.’
“When ‘Baker’ saw that on TV, he stood up and said: ‘Boys, there’ll be no messing tonight.’ So any celebrations were knocked on the head."
Two weeks later, however, there was no holding the Antrim players back after they clinched their first Ulster final berth for the first time in 39 years at the expense of Cavan.
It was one of Antrim’s best performances on the Championship stage in a many a year. Graham was steady as a rock in the three-point win in Clones.
“We had a few beers on the bus, nothing crazy, and when we got back to Belfast I went into the Saffron Bar and I decided to bring a few beers back on the bus for the south-west boys.
“Do you know what, it was probably the one time in my life where I went into somewhere thinking: ‘Ah, they’ll know the craic here.’ (laughing)
“So I said to Baker: ‘Is it okay if I go in and get a couple of beers here for me, Justy [Crozier], Dermot [McCann] and Niall [McKeever]?’ And Baker says: ‘Aye, as long as you bring a few back for me and Niall [Conway].’
“So I bought about 12 bottles of beer and the bar man said: ‘That’ll be £30,’ or something like that.
“There’s me standing with the Antrim senior football jersey on, we’ve just reached the Ulster final. Jesus Christ, if there was ever a night you’d get a few free beers!
“You hear people saying: ‘You’ll never have to buy another pint again in your life.’
“If we’d any ideas about ourselves that certainly brought me back down to earth. I went back on the bus and the boys had a good laugh at me when I told them I was charged full price.”
THE bitter backdrop to Antrim’s first appearance in an Ulster final since 1970 was Sean McGreevy's omission from the starting line-up. The St Paul’s ‘keeper had soldiered through many lean years, travelled the ‘B’ roads representing his county with distinction. This should have been McGreevy’s time. But a poxy groin injury had scuppered his dream.
Despite being fully fit for the Ulster final against Tyrone, the manager wasn’t about to start messing with the goalkeeper’s position.
The number one jersey was Peter Graham’s possession.
“I knew I was starting the Ulster final because 'Baker' wasn’t going to change things."
Graham adds: “It was bitter-sweet for me because Sean was a hero of mine. If anybody deserved to play in an Ulster final, it was him. He’s a hero of mine to this day and I know it took a very long time for him to reconcile that in his own head.”
Antrim’s biggest problem facing into an Ulster decider against the defending All-Ireland champions was that they had no muscle memory to call upon. They were like fish out of water.
Tyrone were so familiar with the terrain.
“As a team we were obviously naïve because nobody in the set-up really knew how the day worked,” Graham acknowledges.
“We chose not to go to the back pitch to warm up, probably with good cause. ‘Baker’ didn’t want us coming down through the crowd and people back-slapping and high-fiving us.
“There were quite a lot of Antrim people who hadn’t been to an Antrim match in 20 years and they probably don’t get the intensity of inter-county football, so they might’ve wanted to have a chat with us: how’s it going and all the rest, whereas the Tyrone crowd would know to give their players a wide berth [after their warm-up].
“So, we get our time to go out onto the pitch. We went out at twenty-to-two and at ten-to-two we were pulled to meet all the dignitaries, so we’d a 10-minute warm-up which probably didn’t help to settle the nerves. And before you know it, the match is on top of you. All that stuff was probably second nature to Tyrone.”
The Red Hands didn’t get out of second gear and Antrim never quite got to grips with the occasion.
SIX days later, the Antrim squad are in the CityWest Hotel and Baker has his three goalkeepers - Graham, McGreevy and Finucane - out on the training pitch auditioning for the number one jersey for the All-Ireland Qualifier against Kerry the following day in Tullamore.
The manager wasn’t happy with Graham’s kick-outs in the Ulster final. He got far too much air on some of them which allowed Tyrone to get men around the ball.
“We had a kicking contest,” reveals Graham.
“Baker took the three of us and made us hit kick-outs the length of the training field. Later that day, John got the nod. I remember Sean wasn’t too happy. I was rooming with him, so we were like the spurned lovers.
“I had absolutely no ill-feeling towards John. Even though I was young, I wasn’t thinking: ‘Ah f*** the 'Baker'!’
“I did well to get as far as I did. I wasn’t going to turn around and say I should be in ahead of him. I just wanted us to beat Kerry and keep the summer going.”
As it turned out, Antrim pushed Kerry all the way and left Tullamore with their heads held high and applause ringing in their ears.
All things being equal, the summer of 2009 should have been the start of an enduring inter-county career for the cool headed Kickham’s goalie.
But a subsequent hip injury meant accepting a job opportunity in New York with Option Technology was a relatively easy decision to make in 2013.
He travelled a bit too and moved to work in London where he met his wife, a Glenravel woman.
They have since returned home and have two young children. After a five-year sabbatical, he kept goal for the club’s hurlers upon his return before opting for the footballers.
He hopes to keep first-choice ‘keeper Oisin Kerr on his toes this season.
“Oisin has a laser of a left foot,” Graham admiringly adds.
Graham’s inter-county career was effectively over as soon the 2009 Ulster final ended.
If he has any regrets about his time with Antrim he carries them lightly.
“It’s the Tony Watt thing,” he smiles, “turning up at the right time in a very famous period and then he disappears off the face of the earth. That’s just the way people see it. I obviously didn’t go on to have the career I wanted in football, but my life has gone in a different direction and that has gone well too.”
Whatever happened to Peter Graham? He's just further up the road, boots laced up again and on home soil...