The all-conquering St Mary's, Belfast gang of '71 still fondly remembered
In 1971, the footballers and hurlers of St Mary's Belfast left an indelible mark on college GAA by claiming an incredible MacRory and Hogan Cup double before adding the All-Ireland O'Keefe Cup in hurling.
Brendan Crossan takes a trip down memory lane with some of the class of 71 - Gerry McHugh, Canice Ward and John McKiernan - about an unforgettable school year...
IT’S not the texture of the lush green surface of Croke Park or the high-pitched screams from the St Mary’s contingent in the Cusack Stand.
It’s not even about a glorious point one of them scored during the MacRory, Hogan, or O'Keefe Cup finals.
In fact, the things that stand out for the heroes of '71 are rarely about the games themselves.
Yes, some players can recall big moments in those famous games that paved the way for each of them to enter the west Belfast school’s Hall of Fame – but the mind’s eye sometimes has a different kind of radar.
It’s the bus trips. The sing-songs. The party pieces. But most of all, the unbreakable friendships.
Fifty years on, Canice Ward remembers the St Mary’s boys being treated to chicken and chips in the Glen Barbecue just as the Glen Road meets the Falls.
Fifty years on, big John McKiernan remembers Brother McGreevy delivering a rousing rendition of the West’s Awake on the bus home after they’d clinched the O’Keefe Cup [All-Ireland Hurling ‘B’] at Croke Park.
Fifty years on, Gerry McHugh, the MacRory and Hogan Cup-winning captain, remembers Peter Crummey getting the party started with his guitar and Tom Breslin’s hilarious one-liners.
Mention Frank Toman to McHugh, Ward or McKiernan and they turn into poets.
“Ah Frank Toman,” sighs McKiernan, as if searching for the right words to do the Armagh man justice.
“The two things I remember about Toman were his hips and the second thing was when he got the ball you didn’t have to look, the next thing you saw was the net bulging.
“Toman was dynamite,” adds McKiernan, who packed a considerable punch himself during his midfield days with St Teresa’s and Antrim.
“Toman just couldn’t be stopped. He was so strong.”
“What linked us all together was when Frank Toman came in our final year because here was just an outstanding footballer,” says Canice Ward, who enjoyed a great career with Gael Uladh before they merged with Sarsfields in the early 70s.
“Toman could pull strings. He wasn’t a tall boy but he was very strong. He could win a ball, feed it to you, take a return and just go straight through. He just knew when to release the ball, when to hold onto it and when to take a shot. He was just an all-round player for one so young.”
Toman, of course, knew the MacRory and Hogan Cup terrain better than most. At the tender age of 15, he helped guide St Colman’s, Newry to a 1967 double before taking the Lurgan to Belfast train to study for his ‘A’ Levels at St Mary’s in 1970, just a couple of years after the school had moved from Barrack Street to its new home on the Glen Road.
Kevin and John O’Loan and Peter Haughey were others who headed for the big smoke to complete their studies at St Mary’s, while it wasn’t lost on the Orchard men that there was more than a whiff of revolution in the air at the sports-mad west Belfast school.
At the beginning of the 1970/71 school year, Brother Nolan and Brother O’Mahony knew a special team was forming and that the St Mary’s boys could perhaps compete with Ulster’s elite that included defending champions and city rivals St Malachy’s, St Michael’s Enniskillen, St Pat’s Armagh and St Colman’s, Newry.
John McKiernan spent most of his school years across the road from St Mary’s Grammar at Glen Road CBS.
The CBS boys called the St Mary’s boys the “big think”.
“I only had two years in St Mary’s because I was in CBS,” McKiernan recalls. “Myself, my brother Paul, Ciaran Donnelly and Paul Growcott came across from CBS to St Mary’s.
“We’d be looking across the road at these ‘highly intelligent’ guys in the grammar school, whereas we went to the secondary school. We used to call them the ‘big think’. We all thought they were highfalutin boys but they turned out to be all down-to-earth, great guys.”
“We were very well aware of just how talented the St Mary’s footballers were,” says Ward, who also moved across the road to study for his ‘A’ Levels.
“But we had a team at CBS who was used to winning – some great players like John and Paul McKiernan, Paul Growcott. Whenever we went up to St Mary’s, the mix of St Mary’s and ourselves was just fantastic.”
If the school had stumbled across the perfect blend of players in ‘71, Gerry McHugh says it was mirrored on the sideline by Brother Nolan and Brother O’Mahony.
“Brother Nolan was a disciplinarian, Brother 'The Boot' McGreevy was more pastoral along with Brother O’Mahony, but I can’t mind at any stage a heavy hand being used,” McHugh says, who went on to represent Antrim seniors between 1971 and ’81 while also winning four club championships with St John’s.
“The Brothers actually went into an awful lot of detail before our games. It’s the first time I was involved in a team where you discussed opposition and talked tactics. They did a lot of thinking about it and I think it paid off.”
Ward recalls that the football and hurling management teams at the school had the players “fit as fiddles” and remembers climbing ropes and engaging in all sorts of gym activity before their feet touched grass.
The football and hurling management teams also shared around nine players during that epic season which yielded two All-Ireland titles and their first-ever MacRory Cup.
After breezing through the pre-Christmas group stages of MacRory, St Mary’s felt equipped to mount a serious challenge.
They probably had eyes for cross-city rivals St Malachy’s in a possible semi-final meeting – and almost got caught by MacRory Cup new boys St Pat’s, Maghera at the quarter-final stages at Cherryvale.
“In that whole MacRory Cup and Hogan Cup run the only team that gave us any sort of a fright was St Pat’s Maghera,” says McHugh.
“And I think it was because we took them for granted. They became a force in the 80s and 90s and we really didn’t give them any consideration at all, so we went out unprepared and we nearly got caught.”
Despite suffering a narrow defeat, the south Derry school acquired a taste for the provincial stage and would go on to claim their first MacRory in ’77.
The scare over at Cherryvale and a mouth-watering semi-final meeting with defending champions St Malachy’s was the perfect launch-pad for St Mary’s.
Of course, in a much-publicised affair Martin O’Neill’s involvement with Irish League soccer club Distillery at the time and the perceived flouting of Rule 27, the GAA’s ban on foreign games, prompted Antrim GAA to stop the game from being staged at Casement Park.
Consequently, St Mary’s and St Malachy’s were forced to make a 140-mile round trip to play the game on a small practice pitch at Christian Brothers in Omagh.
In an Irish News interview earlier this month, O’Neill speculated that the wide open prairies of Casement Park might have suited St Malachy’s rather than the claustrophobic environs of Omagh.
As it turned out, St Mary’s hammered the defending champions 4-9 to 1-8.
“We were looking forward to playing St Malachy’s,” recalls Ward, “because the year before our U17 team had beaten a very good St Malachy’s team at Casement Park.
“Now, obviously Martin O’Neill and some of the other senior players weren’t on that team, but we always felt that we were good enough.
“When we were told the game couldn’t be played at Casement Park there was the whole frustration in the school. We were told it had to be played in Omagh. We didn’t care - we just wanted to play a football match.”
McKiernan, who marked O’Neill, was slightly more emphatic in his recollections of the game than Ward.
“Martin O’Neill mentioned that they could have beaten us on a bigger field – I just don’t believe that,” McKiernan says now.
“I don’t think there was a team in Ireland that would have beaten that St Mary’s team. We were completely unbeatable that year. St Malachy’s, on that particular day, didn’t come within a Bagel’s Gowl of us.”
O’Neill, a renowned wing-forward, was forced to play midfield that day and never really escaped the clutches of the big St Teresa’s clubman.
Nevertheless, McKiernan still remembers being in awe of one thing O’Neill did on that bumpy surface in Omagh.
“Martin O’Neill wasn’t a midfielder, but maybe St Malachy’s had lost players from the previous season and maybe they didn’t have midfield options, but I remember he got this ’50.
“Martin had incredible power. He set the ball down, took about two steps back and kicked it with all his force. The ball went clean over the bar and it was still rising.
“For a lad of 18, he could strike a ball. He hit it clean out of the ground.”
The delay in playing the MacRory semi-final enabled Ward to win a place in the St Mary’s forward line at the expense of Steve Prenter who suffered a broken collarbone during a challenge match against the Priests of Dromantine.
Prenter would recover in time to play some part in the Hogan Cup final against Cork side Coláiste Iosagáin, Ballyvourney at Croke Park on April 25 1971.
For all the controversy surrounding the St Malachy’s semi-final and almost exiting at the quarter-final stages to Maghera, their MacRory and Hogan Cup finals – both 13-a-side in those days - were unbelievably straightforward affairs.
Played at Davitt Park, Lurgan, St Mary’s dismissed Abbey CBS, Newry in the MacRory decider on a 1-11 to 1-7 score-line that slightly flattered the runners-up.
Brother Nolan’s charges overcame some free-taking issues to brush aside St Mel’s, Longford in the Hogan semis before negotiating the final with the minimum of fuss.
“If somebody was having a bad day, there were guys with great ability in that team who would step in,” says McKiernan.
“If Pat Armstrong was having a bad day, Paul Growcott would take over, if Frankie Toman was having a bad day, Pat Armstrong would step in. If Gerry McHugh was having a bad day, Sean Sands would take over. Even in goal, Paddy O’Neill would have stepped in for Kevin O’Loan and been equally as good.”
McHugh adds: “We weren’t really pushed in either final. We got off to a flying start and just continued and kept ourselves well ahead in both games.”
McHugh went on to have a great career with club and county but maintains Antrim missed a trick by not building their senior team around the all-conquering St Mary’s side of ’71.
As captain, McHugh received a gold Hogan Cup winner’s medal – his team-mates received silver. He doesn't know where any of his medals are today, except the Hogan one that still hangs on a necklace he gave to his wife 50 years ago.
On Sunday night, the MacRory, Hogan and O’Keefe crew got together via zoom to celebrate their incredible exploits of 50 years ago.
Noel Carlin, the O’Keefe Cup final goalkeeper, tuned in from Perth, Australia.
Frank Toman tuned in from England and Prof Dermot Diamond joined the gang from his home in west Donegal.
St Mary’s never again scaled the mountains they scaled in ’71.
“I was delighted to win the O’Keefe Cup,” says Ward, recognised for his hurling prowess, “but as time passed you realised what we achieved in the football that year. It was great what we did.
“There were great celebrations within the school itself but winning the Hogan Cup in Croke Park, that was the pinnacle.”
Like trying to grip sand, the years ceaselessly fly by.
But what the St Mary’s class of ’71 achieved all those years ago will never be forgotten – no matter how much time passes.