Fifty years on Martin O'Neill reflects on the day the GAA threatened to ban him from the MacRory Cup
GRAINY footage of the 1960 European Cup final between Real Madrid and Eintracht Frankfurt at Hampden Park was the start of it.
If Ferenc Puskás and Alfredo Di Stéfano didn’t fire the imagination of a child, nothing would.
Kilrea native Martin O’Neill was eight-years-old and entranced by the blinding white jerseys of Real Madrid that buzzed around the family’s brand new television set.
“When television became less rare in people’s households you started to see football games,” O’Neill says.
“I think the first year we got a TV was around 1960. I would have watched Real Madrid versus Eintracht Frankfurt.
“I remember watching a bit of the 1962 World Cup from Chile and the ’66 World Cup and all those great games. The FA Cup finals were always 'live' on TV. So there was always an interest there.
“Growing up, I played Gaelic because that’s what we played. My father was one of the co-founders of the Gaelic club in Kilrea and my two older players played for Derry, so we were strongly entrenched in the GAA.
“I loved Gaelic football,” O’Neill adds. “When Gerry and Leo started to play for Kilrea and at county level with Derry we would’ve gone to watch them. Leo played in the All-Ireland final in 1958 [against Dublin].
“We attended that game in Croke Park. I was only six-years-of-age. Gaelic football wasn’t just another sport. I absolutely loved the game.”
In 1967, the O’Neill clan moved to Belfast.
Martin left St Columb’s College and finished his school days at St Malachy’s College on the Antrim Road, Belfast.
“I was at St Malachy’s for three years and it was great, it was a fantastic school,” he recalls.
“I’d been a boarder at St Columb’s - it was tough enough being a boarder. So at St Malachy’s you were home every night and it was great. Both were fantastic colleges.
“I came to St Malachy’s when I was 15 or 16 and, of course, Belfast opened up possibilities and [thoughts of] maybe playing for some of the teams – like Cliftonville, Distillery, Glentoran – if, in fact, you were good enough.”
In September 1967, around the same time O’Neill enrolled for St Malachy’s, Phil Stuart landed a teaching job there. Stuart had played alongside O’Neill’s brothers with Derry and partnered Jim McKeever in the ’58 final.
Stuart was universally recognised as one of the finest players ever to wear the Oak Leaf jersey.
Stuart had no sooner walked through the gates of St Malachy’s that Mick McCormack, head of PE, asked him would he mind taking charge of the Rannafast Cup team in the school.
It was during those early days at St Malachy’s a couple of pupils came running to Mr Stuart to tell him about the new kid kicking ball around in the handball alley.
‘What’s his name?’
‘Martin O’Neill, sir.’
“I’d been at Queen’s with Martin’s two older brothers, Gerry and Leo,” Stuart explains.
“They used to come up on holidays to our house in Ballinderry, so I knew Martin when he was younger and I knew of his potential.
“So I said: ‘Boys, get him out on the Gaelic pitch for practice tomorrow after school.’
“True enough, the following day at half-past-three Martin was there. He was a very affable young fella. There were no problems with him and he was very popular among his class-mates. He was obviously a leader on and off the pitch.”
Under Stuart’s guidance, St Malachy’s won back-to-back Rannafast Cups in 1968 and ’69
“I always remember winning the Rannafast in '69 and Brother O’Doherty from Omagh, who was in charge of the Ulster Colleges at the time, said to me after presenting the cup: ‘I’ve just seen the MacRory Cup champions of next year.”
And he was right too. The St Malachy’s boys ended the school’s 41-year wait for a second MacRory Cup crown in 1970.
The O’Neil brothers – Martin (0-5) and the younger Eoghan Roe (1-1) – shared 1-6 of their team’s tally of 2-6, with the other major coming from Kevin Young of Creggan Kickhams, in what was described as a bruising MacRory decider with St Michael’s Enniskillen (2-6 to 0-6).
“Martin was part of those teams along with his brother Eoghan Roe. Eoghan Roe was a real poacher. He’d outscore Martin sometimes,” Stuart says.
“Martin was a brilliant player. He was the star player on our team. The rest of the team were made up of very good footballers and I’d like to think I managed to form a bit of coherence among them. But Martin was always the stand-out player.”
Later that season, on April 19 1970, St Malachy’s agonisingly missed out on becoming the fourth school in Ulster colleges’ history to bring home the Hogan Cup when Noel Millar grabbed a last-minute goal that gave Coláiste Chríost Rí of Cork an unlikely victory.
In an interview with Paul Kimmage in 2016, O’Neill, who played half-forward, described the 1970 Hogan Cup final defeat as: “Devastating. I’d put that on a par with losing the championship with Celtic on the final day of the season in 2005.”
By the time the 1971 MacRory Cup campaign got underway, O’Neill had attracted the attention of top Irish League club Distillery.
O’Neill says: “St Malachy’s never had a soccer team but all the Lower Sixth boys that I knew were all big into their soccer and because of that I played with them and we all joined Rosario Football Club in the Down & Connor League.
“We won the league and I remember we should have won the cup as well. I got picked for the Down & Connor team on the strength of the year that I had with Rosario that played a Dublin team of the same standard and it was played in Celtic Park. We won 7-3 and I scored three goals.”
At that time, Distillery were managed by former Belfast Celtic legend and 1939 FA Cup winner with Portsmouth Jimmy McAlinden.
O’Neill can’t be sure if McAlinden had attended the representative youth game between north and south or whether he’d received a report on his fabulous hat-trick.
O’Neill remembers: “Jimmy came to our house, he’d found out where we lived in Belfast, came to the door himself, and asked would I come and play for Distillery.”
Once he began wearing the white of Distillery, Stuart telephoned McAlinden to highlight his concerns of the teenager’s ability to play both Irish League soccer and Gaelic football at the same time.
Stuart was immediately disarmed by McAlinden.
Stuart recalls: “I realised Martin would be having matches on a Saturday and we’d be having matches, sometimes on a Saturday too. And if you reached the semi-final or the final it would be Sunday.
“At the start of our season I remember I rang Jimmy McAlinden, and I said: ‘Jimmy, there’s a problem.’
“And Jimmy said: ‘Phil, there is no problem. The boy plays for his school. That’s his priority. If he’s picked to play for St Malachy’s at the weekend we won’t use him.’
“And that was very decent of Jimmy McAlinden. I heard he was a great gentleman, and he was certainly a great gentleman with me.”
If only the rest of 1971 was as plain sailing for Stuart and Martin O’Neill.
In the lead-up to the MacRory Cup semi-final between Belfast schools St Malachy’s and St Mary’s, Antrim GAA threw a spanner in the works, informing St Malachy's that the game would not go ahead at Casement Park, as scheduled, if O’Neill played and quoted the GAA Rule 27 - the ban on playing foreign games.
“It was a complete bolt from the blue,” recalls Stuart. “I didn’t anticipate a problem. The rule was not to be applied to school sports and I quoted this to the guy in the Antrim County Board.
“He rang me up to tell me St Malachy’s would not be allowed to play at Casement Park because there’s a 'certain player' who was playing soccer for Distillery.
“I pretended I didn’t know who it was. I asked him to tell me his name, and he refused. And I said: ‘Well, I don’t go around outside school to see what other sports the boys are playing. As far as I’m concerned they could play tiddly winks outside of school. It’s none of my business.’
“My job was to promote Gaelic Games in the college and I thought he’d be happy with that, and then he hung up the phone.”
Stuart adds: “The mistake I made was I should have asked the Antrim official to put it in writing so I could send it to Croke Park because lots of Dublin schools were playing rugby and the boys were playing Gaelic for their own clubs. It wasn’t a problem. The [rule] was ignored in the schools.
“But I was told if we played this player we would not be allowed to play at Casement Park.”
Still reeling from the threat, Stuart discussed St Malachy's options with head of PE Mick McCormack.
“One of the options was pulling out of the competition but that wouldn’t have been fair on the boys,” Stuart says now.
“Mick McCormack said we should just go to Casement Park with our best team, don’t even talk to the Antrim County Board.
“The Ulster Colleges had fixed the match for Casement Park and we should’ve just turned up to see what would have happened.
“The more I think about it now, the Antrim County Board wouldn’t have had the guts to turn two teams away and a couple of hundred supporters from each college.
“We should’ve called their bluff. But that’s being wise after the event.”
The Ulster Colleges, who ran the MacRory Cup, sympathised with St Malachy’s but Stuart feels they didn’t want to “get into conflict with the GAA because they depended on playing their matches on GAA pitches. It’s incredible when you think about it now.”
At one point in the lead-up to the controversial semi-final, which eventually took place on Thursday February 25 1971, it was rumoured the rest of the counties in Ulster would rally behind Antrim’s decision and therefore a host for the game would be hard to find.
As it transpired, the two Belfast teams were forced to make a 140-mile round trip to play the game in Christian Brothers practice pitch in the school grounds in Omagh.
Speaking to The Irish News earlier this week, O’Neill said: “For a schoolboy, it was wrong. The Antrim GAA were unbelievably strong – they were pro-ban the whole way through – and at school level I thought it should not be affecting school teams.
“If they wanted to point to something at senior level, that’s another thing, but at college level, particularly two teams from Belfast who should have been gracing Casement Park...
“To be feeling that the reason for that was me playing soccer seemed really unfair – unfair on both colleges.”
On a tight pitch, O’Neill couldn’t find the space to influence the game and was well marshalled on the day by John McKiernan, who went on to play for Antrim. St Mary’s breezed to a 4-9 to 1-8 semi-final win and went on to claim a MacRory and Hogan Cup double in the weeks after.
The ill-fated semi-final on a practice field in Omagh was O’Neill’s last-ever game of Gaelic football as things started to happen for him very quickly at Distillery.
“St Mary’s went on to prove themselves as a very, very fine team,” O’Neill says.
“It was nice of Omagh to organise the game for us. It was played in their college field – [but] a semi-final of a MacRory Cup should have been played as the warm-up game to a county match or something like that, or given its own standing.
“It certainly should have been played at Casement Park and the bigger pitch probably – probably – would have suited us. But, who is to say, because St Mary’s beat us and went on to win the MacRory and the Hogan Cup that year.
“Maybe in terms of focus we lost a bit because of the controversy. I was involved with Distillery at the time. The year before I didn’t have any of those concerns whatsoever.”
O’Neill adds: “The irony of it was the ban was lifted some weeks later [at GAA Congress in Belfast’s Whitla Hall] by which time I’d played in the Irish Cup final and won against Derry City, and actually played against some of my very good friends from St Columb’s – Raymond White and Declan McDowell – both of whom were excellent Gaelic players too.”
Stuart stepped down from coaching at MacRory Cup level to register his “disappointment and anger” at the unfolding events of 1971.
At GAA Congress on April 10 1971, Antrim and Sligo were the only counties who voted in favour of retaining the ban on foreign sports as the rule fell by a landslide.
A week earlier O’Neill, just 18, claimed two goals and the man-of-the-match award in Distillery’s 3-0 win over his native Derry in the Irish Cup final.
“Jimmy McAlinden showed great faith in me,” O’Neill says.
“I played four or five reserve games for Distillery at the start. I didn’t play particularly well in those games, but he put me straight into the first team against Portadown - and I scored a goal and never looked back.
“I played well in the next couple of games, not so brilliantly in the couple after that. So, after about six or seven games anybody would have been entitled to say: ‘Listen, we’ll take him out of the firing line now.’
“In actual fact, the Distillery trainer said to me: ‘Maybe it’s time for a wee rest, Martin.’
“Jimmy McAlinden wouldn’t hear of it, absolutely not.
“First of all, Jimmy was a brilliant man-manager and, secondly, he knew the game inside out. He was very clever – clever in every aspect, clever in tactics, clever in just about everything and he got enormous respect from all the senior players.
“Peter Rafferty, Alan McCarroll, Peter Watson – all very, very talented footballers – Martin Donnelly was a wee bit younger.
“We were made up of Protestants and Catholics. Jimmy just knew how to deal with it all. He just knew. His experiences in England, of course, were great.”
Before the 1970/71 season had concluded, Martin O'Neill was on his way to Nottingham Forest where he would two European Cups under the inimitable Brian Clough.
"Jimmy was well known because when I signed for Nottingham Forest he came over with me and their manager at the time Matt Gillies had enormous respect for him. Jimmy had obviously won the FA Cup with Portsmouth in 1939. I owe a great deal to Jimmy McAlinden, a great deal."
After an unimaginably successful playing and managerial career, Martin O'Neill still remembers that practice field in Christian Brothers, Omagh 50 years on, and wonders what might have been had Rule 27 been erased just a few months earlier.
The Queen’s GAA Past Members Union will host two online webinars to mark 50 years since the Ban was lifted at GAA Congress (held at Queens in April 1971). They will be on Monday 12 April and Thursday, 15 April (both start at 7.30pm).
Martin O'Neill will discuss his experiences of the ban and the controversy surrounding the 1971 MacRory Cup semi-final.
For more details, check @QueensGAA on Twitter to register for the various events