GAA Football

Andy McCallin: Antrim's first and last. 50 years on from his football Allstar

Andy McCallion with his Allstar Award - the sculpture was based on tackle from an Antrim v Offaly match. Picture by Mal McCann.
Andy Watters

DOG-eared and torn and yellow with age, a dusty old poster of the 1971 Allstars is uncovered during a club clean-up in lockdown.

A respectful scan over the relic rekindles memories of men who’ll all have received their first dose of the Covid vaccine by now and who graced the fields of club, county and country in their football heyday.

Nine counties (Dublin not among them) are represented including Down’s great Sean O’Neill at full-forward. But it’s the man next to him who stands out; Andy McCallin at top of the right – Antrim’s first and last.

McCallin, born and bred a stone’s throw from Casement Park, was the youngest player on that inaugural football Allstars team and, half-a-century on, he remains the only player from his county ever to have received the coveted award.

The 1971 Allstars had replaced its predecessor ‘the Cú Chulainn awards’ and the instinct that drove Andy to take his place among the best of his generation goes back further than even the ancient Ulster warrior – it’s the age-old story of a son striving to make his father proud.

The McCallin family moved to Commedagh Drive in Andersonstown the year before Andy was born. He came kicking and screaming into the world on April 4, 1950 and continued in that manner throughout his football-mad childhood.

And he came from staunch GAA stock. His mother Annie (nee Davey) had played at full-back for the Antrim camogs until she married his father, Andy senior, who accumulated a total of 35 years as chairman of the St John’s club.

Meanwhile, Andy’s uncle Joe had top-scored in the 1946 Ulster Championship which Antrim won thanks to a 2-8 to 1-7 victory over Cavan (the Saffrons took on Kerry in the All-Ireland final but lost to eventual champions Kerry by three points).

“Yes, it was in the genes,” Andy agrees.

“There was eight of us and I was the mad one! I just couldn’t get enough of it and I never stopped, I really never stopped: practicing, practising, practising and watching matches and then going home and practicing

“And I was a winner - I got in trouble for being a winner but that’s just the sort of me, if I was playing tiddlywinks, I’d be wanting to win. That’s the way I was.”

His uncle Joe’s scoring feats in 1946 eased Antrim to their ninth Ulster title and five years later, the 10th arrived but there wasn’t much to cheer about as Andy grew up. The county faded into the alsoran ranks until a team of talented teenagers exploded onto the scene in 1969.

McCallin was its spearhead. Antrim edged out defending champions Derry and then swept past Down (in the Ulster final), Cork and Roscommon to win the All-Ireland U21 title for the first time in their history.

“I always just wanted to be better and the one man that I wanted to be better for was my da,” he explains.

“I wanted to be the best for him.

“After the All-Ireland U21 final in 1969 (McCallin scored a goal and five points in the 1-8 to 0-10 win) he had me crying telling me what I did wrong. He was a hard taskmaster and all I wanted to do was please him.

“My mother told me: “Don’t listen to him”. She said he walked out of Croke Park that day in 1969 with a smile from ear to ear. So he was pleased with me – he just didn’t let me know. He knew what buttons to push – he could see what was in me, he didn’t see it in any of my brothers, and if he had said to me in 1968: ‘Andy, you’re super, you’re brilliant, you’re great…’ I might have stopped.”

There’s a trace of regret in his laugh when he adds: “Anyway he never did say it, but I kept trying to get there.”

That U21 success translated to senior level the following year (1970) when Antrim made it to the Ulster final. Andy matched his uncle Joe’s record by finishing as top scorer in the province and, although the Saffrons lost to Derry, the undoubted talent in the side was recognised by a series of coveted call-ups to the Ulster Railway Cup team of 1971.

“It was a very busy season,” recalls Andy, who won an All-Ireland intermediate hurling championship with Antrim that year.

“I had two cracking games in the Railway Cup, absolutely cracking games playing alongside Sean O’Neill. He hit the headlines on the Monday but I did the scoring (2-3 in the final against Connacht) and, at 21 years of age, I was saying to myself: ‘Why’s he getting all the plaudits?’ But I realise now that, the man he was, he probably had a lot to do with me scoring.

“He mightn’t have touched the ball but it was his cleverness around the pitch that helped me.”

And Antrim also beat the All-Ireland champions, Offaly, that year. Andy regards their performance (against an admittedly slightly hungover Faithful county side) as one of the best Antrim ever produced.

They met in Tullamore the week after the All-Ireland final in a charity match in aid of GOAL and McCallin ran amok.

“Antrim played as well as I saw them in my day,” he says.

“Everything went right for us and everything went right for me to - I scored 1-8 off Mick O’Rourke but he was telling me: ‘Stop running will ye’ because he’d been drinking all week. It was one of those days you were kicking balls over the bar from stupid angles and things like that. It just all went for me.”

He also made the Ulster hurling team that year (the first player to achieve the feat since Kevin Armstrong in 1946) and so when the nation’s GAA journalists met to decide on that year’s Allstars McCallin’s performance in Tullamore and his brilliance in the Railway Cup were taken into account but his place in the side was largely a reward for his talent.

Nowadays the net has tightened and his achievement remains possible, but totally improbable. Antrim have produced gifted footballers in the 50 years since McCallin but these days medals win Allstars not talent and unless you’ve reached at least the All-Ireland semi-final stage, your chances of winning a gong are slim to none.

“Of course I’d like to see somebody else from Antrim come through and win one because I never thought it would be so long,” says McCallin.

“But the Allstars have drifted too. There were 14 votes from the media back in 1971 and people like myself and Pat Reynolds – who didn’t play in an All-Ireland final or semi-final – were seen to be good enough to get an award.

“Mick Bermingham (Dublin) was on the hurling team and he was a bit like myself in terms of where Dublin where on the stage. But nowadays there’s no chance of an Antrim man getting one unless we got to the Al-Ireland semi-final. That’s what it has become.

“They were more open then - nowadays the Allstars seem to be closed in to the more successful teams but out there, outside of Dublin and Mayo and Kerry, there are individuals that are very, very good but don’t have the team around them.

“Back in my day Antrim had a good team. We won the All-Ireland U21, we got to the Ulster final and got beat by two points and the U21s came back in ’73 and ’75 and so on. We weren’t playing in Division Four like we are now.

“A lot of people say they did this and they did that but to get there you have to play against and with good players and all those players I played against minor and U21 football or hurling or club football, all the fellas that nobody knows about, tested me to the limit. I had to come up with something extra and that was all a learning process for me and I always learned from every match I played.”

Back to 1971 and Andy shined his shoes, brushed down his best suit and hit the road for Dublin and Jury’s Hotel for the Allstar Awards gala. As the youngest player across the two teams, he was interviewed on RTE radio and understandably admits he was “over-awed by the whole thing”.

“It was amazing,” he adds.

“My sporting success all came very early; I had won everything and done everything by the time I was 21. The funny thing about the award I got, the sculpture for the actual trophy was a player with the ball being tackled and it was modelled on a picture from the Antrim-Offaly challenge match. It was Alistair Scullion with the ball being tackled by an Offaly defender!”

The Allstars jetted off to California – just the second time Andy had left the country – for two exhibition games against All-Ireland champions Offaly in San Francisco where he and the much-missed Eamonn Colman (who was there as a replacement) were billeted with a man called Liam Spiers from Kilcoo.

“Eamonn was good craic, like everybody else he was a different person off the field than he was on it,” Andy says.

“Out of all the players who went on that trip, the one person I’ve stayed in contact with on a reasonably regular basis is Babs Keating (Tipperary hurler). If Babs comes to Belfast he rings me, if he’s looking a contact or to talk to someone, he’d ring but then he was like myself in that he was a dual player. He was a fabulous footballer so I could always relate to him.

“I was friendly with Ray Cummings (Cork hurler) when I was on the trip and we wrote letters and so on and kept in touch for a few years but I haven’t lately. I was friendly with and Pat Hartagan (Limerick hurler) and the other man, who was my hero in hurling, was Jimmy Doyle who was out with the hurling squad.

“It was amazing… I was overawed by the whole thing."

Time passes in the blink of an eye and Andy can hardly fathom that 50 years have passed since those great days of ’71. It’s no surprise when he says with a chuckle that: “I think I still could play, in my head I still think I could do it”.

He still has that Allstar jersey and his award of course and those keepsakes are among the few he has because, unfortunately, he hasn’t been able to source any footage of himself in action. Had Antrim kicked on from those days 50 years ago that would surely not be the case but somehow, despite looking primed to build a lasting platform for future generations to build on, the Saffrons’ bright promise quickly faded.

Indeed, the unexpected Ulster final appearance in 2009 was the first since 1970.

So why didn’t Antrim push on?

“In 1971 we had five Antrim men on the Ulster team that won the Railway Cup - and the Railway Cup was competitive then,” Andy points out.

“That’s never been done since. For years we were lucky to get one man on the panel.

“People ask: ‘What happened in the 1970s? A lot of people put it down to The Troubles but I’m not so sure. There was some bad management, so bad officials in the county. Jimmy Ward came in at one stage in the ’70s to manage the team – he had played in the 1970-71 team – and he was a breath of fresh air. We were flying, I definitely thought we were on our way and, next thing, he’s removed.

“I asked: Why? It was politics in the committee and us fellas, who were running about the field and doing our damnedest were never told.”

He’s still waiting on an answer…

1971 Allstars: PJ Smyth (Galway); Johnny Carey (Mayo), Jack Cosgrove (Galway), Donie O'Sullivan (Kerry); Eugene Mulligan (Offaly), Nicholas Clavin (Offaly), Pat Reynolds (Meath); Liam Sammon (Galway), Willie Bryan (Offaly); Tony McTague (Offaly), Ray Cummins (Cork), Mickey Kearins (Sligo); Andy McCallin (Antrim), Seán O'Neill (Down), Seamus Leydon (Galway)

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