GAA Football

We should have been allowed to grace Casement Park 50 years ago: Martin O'Neill

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill (centre) and assistant manager Roy Keane (right) celebrate against France during Euro 2016

DOUBLE European Cup winner Martin O’Neill has recalled the time he was thrust into the eye of a MacRory Cup storm over the interpretation of a GAA rule that barred him from playing at Casement Park.

In 1971, O’Neill was part of the St Malachy’s College team that was told by Antrim GAA they weren’t welcome at the west Belfast venue for their upcoming MacRory Cup semi-final with St Mary’s, Belfast because the teenager was playing soccer for Irish League club Distillery.

Speaking to The Irish News on the 50th anniversary of the abolition of the GAA’s foreign games ban, O’Neill recalls the controversial episode as “unfair” after the two Belfast schools were forced to travel to a training pitch in Omagh to play the game.

The Kilrea native, who went on to have an incredibly successful career in football, lamented the fact that the two sets of players should have “graced Casement Park”.

“For a schoolboy, it was wrong,” O’Neill said, who also fondly recalls his early soccer days playing under the hugely influential Distillery manager and former Belfast Celtic legend Jimmy McAlinden.

“The Antrim GAA were unbelievably strong – they were pro-ban the whole way through – and 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 the reason for that was me playing soccer seemed really unfair – unfair on both colleges.”

St Malachy’s subsequently lost the game to their city rivals St Mary’s who went on to claim a MacRory and Hogan Cup double that season.

“St Malachy’s and St Mary’s were two strong teams," O'Neill added. "People would have wanted to watch it, but the teams had to travel miles out of Belfast to play the game. It should have been played at Casement Park.”

While the rule did not pertain to schools’ sports, Antrim GAA still blocked the game from being staged at Casement Park, as was scheduled by the Ulster Colleges at the time.

Former Derry footballer Phil Stuart, who coached the St Malachy’s team in ’71, said: “St Mary’s really thumped us. It might sound like an excuse for our team but the whole schmozzle that went on distracted us because they were intelligent boys, they knew what was going on without having to be told. But Martin didn’t talk about it to anybody. He was just one of the boys.”

Rule 27, prohibiting its members of playing foreign sports, was written into the GAA rulebook in 1905 before being deleted at GAA Congress in Belfast – a mere six weeks after the ill-fated MacRory Cup semi-final that O’Neill played in.

Antrim and Sligo were the only counties who voted to retain the rule but were defeated by a landslide vote in Belfast’s Whitla Hall on April 10 1971.

A week earlier, O’Neill scored two goals in Distillery’s memorable Irish Cup final win over Derry City before signing for top English League club Nottingham Forest where he won two European Cups under the legendary Brian Clough.

Years later, during his time managing Aston Villa (2006-2010), O’Neill invited Stuart and all his former St Malachy’s team-mates to watch one of the club’s Premier League games.

“Martin had us in the press seats and after the match he took us out for a big dinner and put us up in a hotel for two days. He treated us royally,” Stuart said.

Gaelic football may have been in his family’s DNA, but O’Neill was destined to flourish in soccer.

After his playing days ended, he enjoyed successful managerial stints with Villa, Celtic and Republic of Ireland.

Reflecting on his career, the 69-year-old said: “When you consider you were in a professional sport, it was something that you wanted to do… it was a privilege, a genuine privilege to play the game.

“I never ever felt it was work. I could even say now: even the bad days were good days. But naturally the days under Clough were terrific because you were winning medals, you were at the very top of the tree and you were playing European football.

“And when I was playing for Northern Ireland, the World Cup in ’82 was special. Sometimes the games were coming so thick and fast you just didn’t have time for sentiment because you were onto the next one. From playing under Jimmy McAlinden at Distillery onwards, I was very fortunate.”

Alongside Roy Keane, O’Neill conjured a great summer for Republic of Ireland fans when they reached the knock-out stages of Euro 2016 after beating Italy 1-0 in their final group game.

The Irish eventually fell to hosts France in Lyon in the second round.

“It’s a different type of enjoyment – one as a player and one as a manager,” O’Neill says.

“It’s your team even though you’re not participating on the field. The best way to answer that is if you consider the medals Roy Keane had and he said the Euros were one of his greatest ever experiences. From that viewpoint it says a lot about it. It was really terrific.

“The day that we opened up against Sweden - obviously Sweden had a lot of support themselves but to see the Irish support and to realise this is what Jack Charlton had experienced, I think that was the moment.

“We played great. We should have beaten them. We drew 1-1. We got well beaten by Belgium which you’d maybe come to expect but the Italy game was just a night to remember, not to be forgotten.”

O’Neill, whose father was one of the co-founders of Kilrea GAC, still tunes into watch Gaelic football

“I’m still waiting for Derry to win an All-Ireland,” he smiles.

“I might be waiting a long time! But growing up and with my brothers involved with Derry I remember there was a real grudging respect for Down in the 1960’s because they were able to head down south and take those three All-Irelands. They were absolutely fantastic. Down paved the way for other six county teams to go and be able to do it.”

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).

The first evening will focus on the history of the Ban, from its introduction to the 1960s. Author and historian Cormac Moore will provide a talk titled ‘The Steadfast Rule: The GAA’s ban on rival games 1920s-1960s’.

Queen's will also be joined by the new GAA President Larry McCarthy.

The second webinar on Thursday, 15 April will include a talk by Dónal McAnallen on ‘How the Ban was broken: The Road to Abolition at Queen’s in 1971’.

Queen's will also have a discussion with former international player and manager Martin O’Neill about his experience of the Ban and the controversy surrounding the 1971 MacRory Cup semi final.

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