GAA Football

'I had the boys playing tig – basically Cowboys and Indians. People would laugh at that now, but the players loved it'

Jackie MacManus crossed paths with the likes of Charlie Tully, Kenny Dalglish, Ricky Villa and Louis van Gaal during a soccer career that took him from Bangor to Boston and far beyond. But, as Neil Loughran finds out, it was an unlikely love affair with Burren that created a bond which wouldn't be broken…

Despite having only taken school teams at Bearnageeha, Jackie MacManus would go on to help Burren become the dominant force in Ulster football, as well managing Down before Pete McGrath. Picture by Hugh Russell

A GENTLE breeze picks its way through Ballycastle on this beautiful summers day but the courtyard out the back of the house, surrounded by high white walls, entertains only sun as morning turns towards afternoon.

For two weeks this one-time guesthouse on Quay Road, just a few hundred yards away from the marina and views out towards Rathlin and Fair Head, has been home to the MacManus clan. Grandparents, children, grandchildren, all under the one roof, with all the time in the world.

“Mum and dad love it here,” says Donal MacManus, shielding his eyes from the glare, “just having everybody together in the one place. You couldn’t beat it.”

Donal and brother John sit at the garden table. Their kids are already wearing wetsuits, patiently waiting to go out for one last leap off the pier before heading back to Belfast after lunch. It is always with a heavy heart that the family bids Ballycastle farewell.

At the head of the table is Jackie MacManus. For the guts of the past two hours he has been retracing the steps of a remarkable sporting life – a game of two halves if ever there was one.

From fearsome striker in his youth to stopper supreme, a 20-year soccer career brought success on both sides of the border, took him to Boston and saw the north Belfast schoolteacher rub shoulders with some legends of the game.

Yet the days that defined him would come in another code, and by accident rather than design.

Burren had just one Down championship to their name by the time MacManus was asked, at late notice, to take a training session in early 1981.

Still turning out for Coleraine in the Irish League, outside of St Patrick’s, Bearnageeha he hadn’t coached a soccer team, never mind a Gaelic football side with ambitions to go right to the top.

As he hopped in the car that Tuesday evening, MacManus wasn’t completely sure where he was going, and could have no idea just where the journey would end up.

Across his two spells at the club – 1981 to 1985 (he became manager in ’83) and 1992 to 1996 – they won seven county titles and were crowned kings of Ulster three times. TV weatherman and former St Mary’s forward Frank Mitchell jokes that when you bought a pint in the clubhouse during those days, you’d get a championship medal in your change.

“I’ve already made my arrangements,” smiles MacManus, “that’s where my ashes are going to be sprinkled.”

He loves Ballycastle and, on days like this, there is nowhere else on earth he would rather be. But his heart will always belong to Burren.

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Dundalk captain Jackie MacManus prepares for the 1977 FAI Cup final against Limerick at Dalymount Park

IT was 1957 and Jackie MacManus can still remember staring up at the hulking figure at Solitude, a short walk from his home on the lower Antrim Road.

“Duncan Edwards,” he says, “just this giant of a man.

“I was about 10 or so, and the English league were to play the Irish league at Windsor Park but the night before there was a game at Cliftonville. A few of us went down and I got his autograph – I remember it because it was perfect. No scribble, just beautiful.”

The autograph book is long lost but the memory remains, clear as day. As a young boy, MacManus too dreamed of appearing on the big stage like the Manchester United star, who tragically lost his life in the Munich air disaster just months later.

Yet his soccer ambitions remained largely confined to the park outside of school hours, with Gaelic football taking top priority at St Malachy’s College.

“When you went there, you were told you had to go out and play Gaelic. Fr [Frank] ‘Beef’ McCorry wouldn’t have it any other way, so there you were trying to hand to toe… it was totally alien to me.

“He was fantastic, the first person I ever saw who had a set piece. I remember playing on the big field and him setting up a full-forward and the centre three-quarters, and the centre three-quarters played the ball to the full-forward, he laid it off, bang – goal.

“And I did that with Burren.”

Although soccer was played “in secret” at the school, MacManus was 16 before he played an organised game with Star of the Sea.

In his under-18 season he scored 95 goals and earned an international cap at schoolboy level, but it was when he ended up at Bangor – after short stints with Glenavon, Distillery and Queen’s University – that Celtic legend Charlie Tully converted him into a defender.

“I was beginning to get cheesed off with the whole thing, if I’m being honest,” says MacManus, who was offered a trial at Tottenham during his Queen’s days but didn’t want to leave home.

“I was playing with Queen’s and our last game of the season was at Bangor. When the match was over their manager, the great Charlie Tully, comes over and says ‘well, what are you doing next year?’

“I’d already agreed to sign for Crusaders but I was a big Celtic fan, and he worked it in such a way I ended up at Bangor. One night we were to play Derry City at the Brandywell – now, this was 1969, the Troubles were just kicking off. One of our centre-halves was a policeman, and he wasn’t going to the Brandywell.

“When we got there, Tully told me I was playing centre-half. That was the faith he had in me. I played quite well, and that was me.”

A couple of years after Tully’s untimely death in 1971 at the age of just 47, MacManus was snapped up by ambitious League of Ireland outfit Dundalk.

A league title, FAI Cup and two Leinster Cups followed during an exciting time at Oriel Park, which also saw MacManus pit his wits against Kenny Daliglish in a pre-season friendly against Celtic, as well as a PSV Eindhoven side containing a host of Dutch stars including the Van de Kerkhof twins – Rene and Willy – during a European expedition.

It was during his days at Dundalk that MacManus also seized a transatlantic opportunity, after being offered the chance to play for North American Soccer League' outfit the Boston Minutemen in the summer of 1974.

“I had gone out first and then Dinah came out around mid-June - John was only young and Donal was in his mummy’s tummy at the time.

“The Minutemen were owned by a guy called John Sterge - a multi-millionaire who had made his money with Wildcat Oil in Oklahoma - and managed by this Austrian guy, Hubert Volgelsinger. All the international players lived in a complex and we were treated brilliantly.

“You were training every day, playing against really good players… it was great. But I could never have stayed out there. Before we were due to leave Sterge actually came to me at a BBQ and asked what I was doing next year.

“He offered to buy me and give me to his son’s school as a soccer coach – ‘you’re going to… buy me? No’. The next year Eusebio was playing with the Minutemen and Pele was with the New York Cosmos, so maybe that was a mistake.

“But I never regretted coming home.”

Jackie MacManus signs autographs during his stint playing for the Boston Minutemen in the North American Soccer League

After moving to Drogheda in 1977, MacManus eventually grew tired of travelling up and down the road and was persuaded to come back up north to play for Larne.

“What I call the wilderness years,” he laughs.

When hepatitis kept him out of action for three months, it looked as though his playing days could be drawing to a close before Coleraine manager Bertie Peaccock came calling for the 34-year-old in 1981.

An Indian summer saw MacManus star for the high-flying Bannsiders, with further European adventures pitting him against a Tottenham side containing Ricky Villa, Steve Archibald and Garth Crooks, as well as Louis van Gaal’s Sparta Rotterdam.

“We had the pleasure of going to Solitude to watch him playing for Coleraine,” smiles son John, “being from north Belfast, teaching in north Belfast, you can imagine the abuse he got.”

Jackie needs no invitation to take up the tale.

“I remember coming off the pitch one of those times and this young lad was standing there abusing me – I looked at him, then walked over,” he says, his eyes narrowing, “I’ll see you on Monday morning.”

By then, though, his focus had begun to shift to beyond whatever Saturday brought, with another even more unexpected chapter already starting to unfold.

Coleraine captain Jackie MacManus with Tottenham Hotspur skipper Steve Perryman before their Uefa European Cup Winners' Cup clash at The Showgrounds in 1982

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IT was a clash of schedules that led to Charlie Sweeney knocking on the door. Already involved with Gerry O’Neill’s Armagh, Sweeney found himself double-booked after agreeing to take a session with Burren on the same night.

Realising the spot he was in, Sweeney asked MacManus - a neighbour and great friend - to help him out, just this once.

“I went down, did the session, and they asked me to come back. That was how it started.”

Johnny McGovern, who had played in the only Burren side to lift the Frank O’Hare Cup back in 1966, was over the St Mary’s at the time, with MacManus helping out at training.

Despite his lack of experience, particularly in terms of GAA coaching, he proved an instant hit. And while some outsiders sneered at the deployment of methods drawn from his soccer career, the emerging group of players had no issue at all.

“Jackie was an exceptional man around this club,” recalls Paddy O’Rourke, a cornerstone of that Burren side and a man who would go on to captain Down to the 1991 All-Ireland title.

“He came in with very modern thinking - completely different to anything anybody else was doing. He had a great way of getting you fit without knowing you were hurting that much.

“I’d have the highest regard for Jackie still.”

“I had the boys playing tig – basically Cowboys and Indians. People would laugh at that now, but the players loved it,” added MacManus.

“I remember going into the library and hoking out a book of soccer drills from Germany, and it was fantastic. I developed so many drills from that, and then I also had a Rugby League coaching manual that I took elements from.

“For me, it was vitally important the players weren’t bored – I wanted them thinking all the time.”

When McGovern left for Australia in 1982, the same year Burren were surprisingly ousted from the championship by Division Two Teconnaught, MacManus took over the reins.

From 1983 until he left in 1985, they completed a hat-trick of county and Ulster titles, providing the platform for the All-Ireland Club successes of 1986 and ’89.

“I loved the people there. If you think about it, as soon as they can walk they’re up at the football field; they were a joy to manage.

“There was never a night when anybody ever complained. Not once. Their appetite was huge. All they wanted was a championship. I remember at one stage in the 1981 championship final replay, against Saval, saying to Johnny McGovern ‘we need to roar them in here, keep them going’.

“I’d never been involved to that extent. In schools’ matches you’re telling players where to go, what to do, but the whole emotional, psychological side of it, that was something very new.”

It was an experience that left an indelible mark on his boys too.

“We really grew up down there,” says Donal.

“We’d have been going down to training every night… John always thought that nothing would happen if there was a kid in the car. At that stage travelling to a GAA match or training could be dicey enough and in the back of your head you were always worried about that journey up and down the road.

“But we loved going down as well, watching ‘Shorty’ Treanor drop-kicking with the outside of his boot - from the sideline. You were just watching going ‘Jesus Christ, did you see that?’”

“There was a really interesting cocktail of players,” adds John, “you had the more conservative types like Tommy McGovern, Paddy O’Rourke, but then you’d the ‘Shorty’ Treanors who were always up to no good, always larking around.

“There was a brilliant kind of alchemy going on in Burren at that time. The connection they had was amazing to watch.”

The decision to call time on that first spell was out of a sense of duty to John, who was coming through the ranks at Sarsfield’s in Belfast. Little did he know it would also see him bringing his boots out of cold storage.

“I was helping out with the coaching and we were playing a match against Dunloy in Rasharkin. It finished a draw and when we were analysing it afterwards, I said something along the lines of ‘I could do better than that’.

“The guy in charge said ‘go ahead’. So I did...”

At the age of 38 he scored 1-5 in the replay before picking up the man-of-the-match award in the 1985 Antrim SFC final, scoring 1-6 in victory over St Paul’s - the last time Sarsfield’s got their hands on the Padraig Mac Namee Cup.

With Burren continuing to improve year on year, even in his absence, the Down County Board were keen to capitalise on the St Mary’s success – and MacManus was the man tasked with resurrecting the fortunes of the red and black.

He took up the post in 1987 but left just two years later, following Down’s Ulster Championship exit to Tyrone. After him came Pete McGrath, and the rest as they say is history as All-Ireland titles followed in 1991 and ’94.

“Ah, it was good and it was bad.

“I never felt any pressure taking it on. I didn’t set myself a goal to say ‘we’re going to win an All-Ireland’. In the first year we were drawn against Derry in Ballinascreen, and I remember focusing completely on that game because Derry were Ulster champions at the time.

“That was a massive hurdle for Down at that time, and we won. I have some great memories of the time and of the players… my problem was just what happened at the very finish. On a Monday night I could’ve set the clock for the phone to ring and somebody would’ve been on telling me what I did wrong, who I should’ve played.

“Eventually I just got up to there with it and told them that was me finished. My number two at the time, Donal Bell, was flaming. He came on the phone to me – ‘why did you give in?’ I just told him I wasn’t taking any more.

“I felt I had brought them on, and if it hadn’t been for the sniping, I probably would’ve stayed. I don’t know whether it still goes on, or whether I was particularly naïve and should’ve just put the phone down, but you tend to think here’s somebody phoning and he deserves an answer... stupid.”

But Jackie MacManus wasn’t done yet. After taking on other club jobs in Down, he was eventually asked to return to Burren for a second spell in 1991 – and once again success followed in the form of another three county titles.

Now 74, he is 16 years retired from teaching, while it is18 since he led Mayobridge to a league and championship double in his last managerial role. His career, his methods and his medal haul speak for themselves, regardless of any sniffy attitudes that lingered on.

Sitting back in his seat, MacManus smiles as he recalls being was introduced to a well-known figure in GAA circles at a press event a few years back.

“Ah, Jackie MacManus,” he said, extending his hand, “the soccer man”

“That annoyed me at the time,” says MacManus.

“But here,” he adds, shrugging his shoulders, “I didn’t do too bad for a soccer man.”

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