GAA Football

How a trip to San Francisco kick-started Dungannon's revival

Dungannon Clarkes are still second on Tyrone's roll of honour, but haven't won a senior championship since 1956. The club spent generations in the wilderness but some of the links to their rich heritage are unmistakable. Cahair O'Kane spoke to club stalwarts and discovered how a trip to America 12 years ago was one of the key building blocks on a revolution that has led them to Sunday's county final...

Padraig McNulty celebrates after Dungannon's breathtaking win over Errigal Ciaran two weeks ago. He was one of a handful of players on the current team that were brought as minors to San Francisco, creating a bond that has filtered down through the club. Picture by David Fitzgerald / Sportsfile

“I TELL you what it’s like. It’s like Tyrone in 2003. It would nearly make you feel ill watching the games with the trauma of it.”

Adrian Logan’s voice crackles down the line the way it long has the airwaves. To a certain vintage his is the face of the GAA in Ulster, having been the flagship presenter for UTV’s coverage.

The last time Dungannon Clarkes won a Tyrone championship, he had just blown out the candle on his first birthday cake. A former captain of the club, his work took him out of the game before they reached their last county final in 1986.

He is just one of the background men now, the same as Mickey Kelly and Dick Cahalane and Ollie McHugh. They, and others with them, have pulled the club through near 60 years of wilderness.

Tyrone’s championship roll of honour still has Dungannon Clarkes joint-second with ten titles, but 14 different clubs have lifted the O’Neill Cup since it last came back to O’Neill Park in 1956.

No title in 64 years and no final in over half that time, it’s safe to say that few people even within the club would have predicted they’d be lining up beside Trillick tomorrow evening.

There’ll be no band to march behind, no feverish anticipation in the packed Healy Park stands, no outward sense of a county final really. But inwardly, they know what tomorrow is.

“I’m 47,” says manager Chris Rafferty.

“If we take another 34 years to get to a county final I’ll be 81.

“We are very acutely aware that these things don’t come along that often and that this could be a once-in-a-generation thing.

“It wouldn’t be something we need to shove down the players’ throats.”

He was the goalkeeper when the club won an Ulster minor title in 1989 and on the first Dungannon Academy team to win a MacRory Cup two years later.

He was following a family tradition that goes back to his grandfather Paddy, who did goals when the Clarkes won the championship in 1951.

His father Jim, who played Irish League for Portadown, and uncle Aloysius both corralled the number one jersey in their day.

One of the abiding features of the club is just how strongly linked they are to their past.

The great Iggy Jones, whose own father Eddie came to engross himself in the club after moving up from Cavan and getting work in McRory’s drapers, has grandsons Ryan and Dalaigh on the current side

Despite the ever-changing face of the town’s population, the Raffertys and Mallons and Barkers are names that can be traced right through their lineage.

Many of those ancestors were friends of Tom Clarke himself, the first signatory of the Irish proclamation who was reared on the town’s streets, and whose name is now given to the club.

“We’re like a small club in a big town,” says Logan.

The playing population, having almost exclusively come from the west end of the town during his playing days, is spread to every fringe.

At underage level, the young second generation Portuguese, East Timorese and Lithuanians whose parents came to work in Moy Park or Dungannon Meats now fill the green and yellow jersey that is their own.

It is a very different club now, and one that had to change.

* *

WHEN Trillick had beaten them in 1986, everyone knew that the great Macartan’s team hadn’t many finals left in them. Nobody predicted that Dungannon wouldn’t play in another.

Captain and current assistant manager Terry Loughran, and Audi Hamilton, both had a spell in America soon after and the loss of Railway Cup player Declan Muldoon to a cruciate injury in the first round in ‘86 – not so easily fixed back then – meant they never properly built on it.

There were other factors too. Dungannon was forever caught up in the Troubles. At one time, Scotch Street was the most bombed street in Europe.

A brand-new pavillion at the club was destroyed by a bomb in 1971, just four years after its opening.

Being involved in the GAA was unfashionable to the point of dangerous, and so they spent a generation bobbing along before the thump of a drop to junior awakened their senses.

That came in 2008, the same year that Logan, Harry Óg and Nigel McBride took a group of 50 boys and parents to San Francisco.

Paddy Devlin was a member of the 1956 team living out there and along with Seamus Kenny from Coalisland and Killeeshil man Sean O’Neill, they acted as tour guides to the young Clarkes.

“The spirit of Frisco has remained with the club officials and the Mummys and Daddys who went, and with the players,” says Logan.

“We had stacks and stacks of those players on the senior team, and those that are no longer on it are supporters, they’re committee members or contribute financially.

“That bond is very much there. It was just one of many stepping stones.”

Jimmy McCallin went on that trip. He was the 19-year-old goalkeeper in 1956 and is one of six remaining members of that team, along with Paddy Devlin, Tony Byrne, Mickey Donaghy, Frankie McHugh and Michael McLaughlin.

“Jimmy was in San Francisco that time and even though he’s in his 80s now, he still has a great bond with those young lads. They would regularly go up and visit him,” says Dick Cahalane, whose name gives away his Cork heritage.

Walsh brothers Matthew and David, Padraig McNulty, Patrick Quinn, Kiefer Morgan and Johnny Toal were on that trip and they lend the relative experience to a team that knows not yet what its limits are.

With an average age of just over 22, and without a single starting player over 28, one side of the coin glistens while the other sits where they hope it stays, hidden from light.

Like many clubs, this is the first time in forever that Dungannon have had nobody away travelling. Australia, America, wherever, it’s all off the table. All there is is football and home, and that has allowed the club to flourish.

From where it has come in the last decade, their progression is remarkable. A sleeping giant that fell with a thud when it was toppled into junior football just over ten years ago, it took them a while to get over that hurdle alone.

It was only when Shay McKeown and Gary McConville stepped up from coaching underage that they got out.

The winter previous, Chris Rafferty had taken over as chairman and was heavily involved in coaching underage, taking on the role of Football Development Officer at a time.

To go from chairman to manager is not the traditional path but Rafferty, a solicitor by trade, has always been mad about coaching.

“I felt that there was a bit of a vacuum in the structure in relation to coaching, and it was easier to do it from the top.”

A Grade Two U13 tournament around that time was their first underage success in a decade, and that team has provided a third of the current senior crop.

James Slater, now in Magherafelt’s backroom with Adrian Cush but still resident around O’Neill Park, took over and out of nowhere, he guided them to an intermediate championship in 2014, hammering Trillick in the final.

“Retrospectively, James probably overachieved that year. The nucleus was there but the support and depth probably wasn’t. We went up and the first year we struggled and got relegated, while Trillick won the O’Neill Cup.

“There’s always more truth in the league. In championship you have a puncher’s chance, but the league is a more measured view of where you are. Looking at in that context, 2014 was a spike as opposed to an indication of where we were.”

Chris Rafferty was on that San Fran trip with his son Tiernan, and the memories of Alcatraz and the fun parks and the football sustain them yet.

The legacy of it sustains Dungannon Clarkes. That trip is the mortar with which this remarkable run, with its three extra-time victories, has been built.

Emigration, work, life. If and when normality returns, it could all come back for them as it did after ’86. Nobody knows, least of all in this terrain.

“We just have to make hay while the sun shines,” smiles Dick Cahalane.

Come what may, 2020 is a year Dungannon Clarkes will never forget.

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