GAA Football

There'll be tears in their eyes when they raise the glass… A tribute to Armagh midfielder Colum McKinstry

Colum McKinstry was captain when he won the third of his Ulster Championships with the county in 1982
Andy Watters

“Armagh’s Colum McKinstry, the man with the mighty reach…”

RTE commentator Micheal O’Hehir

THE team that won the midfield battle often won the war in Colum McKinstry’s day and the 1980 All-Ireland semi-final between Armagh and Roscommon is a good example of the hammer-and-tongs nature of football back then.

Today’s game is played at walking pace in comparison and one passage goes like this:

Roscommon win the ball and lash it up the field. When it breaks, an Armagh defender comes charging out and puts his boot through it, smashing it back toward opposition territory.

You watch the footage from 40 years ago, thinking: ‘Can everybody please calm down!’

At that moment a tall, bearded midfielder glides into the picture. He plucks the ball out of the air with graceful ease and, as the spectators cheer his skill, he plays a handpass to a man in an Armagh jersey.

That’s what McKinstry did at midfield for Armagh and Clan na Gael for the guts of 20 years.

Sadly he passed away before his time last Sunday aged 71 after suffering a heart attack and he’ll be remembered fondly as a hard competitor by those who faced him and a quiet gentleman by those who knew him, and his wife Nuala, their daughters Niamh, Grainne and Eimear and grandchildren knew him best of all.

Whether he was up against Jack O’Shea, Brian Mullins or Dermot Earley, McKinstry always gave a good account of himself in the midfield furnace of his day and ‘McKink’, as he was known around his native Lurgan, finished his career with a drawer full of medals.

The Railway Cup star won three Ulster titles with Armagh and played in the 1977 All-Ireland final. At club level, he won 10 senior championships with the revered ‘Clans’ as well as three Ulster clubs and an All-Ireland runners-up medal in 1974 after a replay against a star-studded UCD side.

In 1980 he was named at midfield alongside O’Shea in the Allstars.

“It’s sad news,” said Kerry legend ‘Jacko’.

“I remember him well, he was left-footer and a big, athletic man.

“He was a very good player. I came up against him a few times and he was one of the pivots of that Armagh team.”

Jimmy Smyth, one of the star pupils of the 1977 side, was a classmate of McKinstry’s at St Peter’s Primary School in Lurgan. A precocious talent, Jimmy was all skill and technique, while his friend was a slow burner whose love of the game drove him to become a top player.

At school, in the era when the lads who couldn’t play were sent to stand between the sticks, he was the goalkeeper and it wasn’t until he got to his late teens that he started to flourish as an outfield player. By the time he reached his late-20s he had matured into a superb midfielder in the ‘Allstar’ mould.

Smyth was instrumental in his development. He was captain of the 1977 Armagh team that also included Clansmen Jim McKerr and Noel O’Hagan and a burly swashbuckler from Crossmaglen called Joe Kernan who partnered McKinstry in midfield.

“I came into the county senior panel in 1971 and Colum and Jimmy were already there,” says Joe.

“Unfortunately things weren’t great then so it wasn’t that hard to get on the panel!

“In ’75 and ’76 we took two fair batterings from Derry in Ulster and the thing that got us going in ’77 was beating Cavan at the Athletic Grounds.

“We were 10 points down at half-time and Colum scored a goal – he didn’t score too many but he got one that day. That lifted us and we hammered away and won by a point and the whole thing took off – our county careers took off from then. We beat Monaghan in the semi-final and then Derry in the final.

“After two years’ of getting hammered we got our own back.”

Armagh lost the 1977 final to Dublin but three years’ later they were back in Croke Park and McKinstry’s performance in midfield laid the foundation for what should have been a famous win for an Orchard county side that had reached its peak.

“He was brilliant in midfield that day, he gave an exhibition,” says Kernan.

“But he went off injured at half-time. If he had stayed on the field we would have won and we’d have had a quare chance of winning the All-Ireland.

“Roscommon played Kerry in the final and ‘The Bomber’ Liston got his appendix out on the Monday or the Tuesday of that week.

“Kerry were there for the taking and I left Croke Park after the final saying that if Colum hadn’t have got injured we could have won that All-Ireland.”

KERNAN was the manager and Noel O’Hagan’s son Barry was one of his players when Armagh eventually captured Sam Maguire in 2002. Barry O’Hagan grew up listening to stories of McKinstry heroics told by his father and his uncle Jim.

“When my dad was first brought into the Armagh panel, Colum was his driver,” recalls Barry.

“He arrived at the house early and my dad says: ‘We’re not due at the Athletic Grounds until whatever time…’ Colum said: ‘Never you mind young O’Hagan, just get in’.

“They beat it up the road to Armagh and he pulled up outside McAleavey’s pub and Colum says: ‘Right come on, we’ll get ourselves warmed up for training’.

“A couple of bottles of Guinness and a couple of hot ports later, they went across to the Athletic Grounds. They were doing laps and my da was ready to throw up but big Colum was lapping everybody! My da made sure he wasn’t ready early any other night!

“Things were different in those days but if he was playing now, when you have to prepare yourself physically and do the training, he would have adapted.

“He would have been looking after himself and in the modern game he would have been getting his team 15 marks a game in midfield.

“Those great players would have adapted to the modern game and they’d still be the best players.”

A drop of the black stuff formed part of the diet for many footballers back in those days and it certainly didn’t detract from McKinstry’s performances on the field. 16 years after he’d first been called up to the county squad, injuries took their toll and he bowed out after the 1984 Ulster final (the Frank McGuigan final), his sixth provincial decider of which he won three.

He relocated to wife Nuala’s native Armagh City but continued to line out for the Clans. Barry regarded him as a “mythical” figure around the club whose exploits in the biggest, most important games will go down in folklore.

When the team was in trouble and a ball had to be won in an important game, McKinstry was the man who got his hands on it.

“He just had that habit of being man of the match in county semi-finals and finals, Ulster semi-finals and finals… In the big, big games you could always rely on Colm to get a nine out of 10,” explained ‘Bumpy’.

“Jimmy (Smyth) could do much more with the ball but every time it was kicked out in Colum’s direction, he won it. In the big games he delivered every time.

“When I was a young lad, I remember him being about the club just because of the sheer size of him. He was 6’2” or 6’3” but he was very thin and he probably looked taller and he had big, long arms that made him look much bigger than everybody else because when he jumped and put the hands up he was massive.”

McKinstry had worked in the Goodyear factory in Lurgan and after his Armagh career came to an end he spent a couple years work on building sites in London. He returned home and worked for the O’Hare and McGovern firm for many years and was back in the blue and white jersey of his club for the 1987 county final. Victory against Armagh Harps earned him a 10th county championship medal.

“My uncle Jim told me about one time when he was playing full-back and taking the kick-outs for the Clans,” says Barry.

“He went to Colum before a big championship match and asked him where he want him to put the kick-outs.

“He thought Colum would say to the left or the right, or I’ll make a run or whatever but his reply was: ‘Just kick it up in the air Jim’.

“That typified Colum. He wasn’t trying to be funny but that’s how he saw it – just kick it up in the air and I’ll do the rest.

“Stories like that inspired me to be like him. I played in midfield and I would have been practising throwing the ball off the wall pretending I was Colum McKinstry.”

In later years, McKinstry gave way to Mark Grimley in Barry’s backgarden games. Grimley took over the mantle of the ball-winner in midfield and that tradition has passed on through Jarlath Burns and Barry himself to Paul McGrane and on to Niall Grimley and Oisin O’Neill in today’s Armagh team.

“He was a great footballer and a brilliant midfielder,” says Brian Canavan, a team-mate with Armagh from the 1978 season on.

“He was absolutely outstanding in the middle of the field in 1980 and he's one of Armagh’s greats. Looking back over the years, Colum and Mark Grimley would have been the two best high-fielding midfielders we ever had. In those days every team hit the kickout into midfield so it was dog-eat-dog to win them and Colum could have fielded balls with the best.”

KNEE injuries (he eventually needed reconstructive surgery on both) brought his career to an end but McKinstry’s knowhow and status meant he was always sought after by Armagh’s clubs. He managed Tullysarran and Middletown with success and was enticed back to his beloved in Clans to form an all-star management trio with O’Hagan and Diarmuid Mardsen in 2005.

“I approached him to see if he would come in to help us,” says Barry.

“I thought I would have to persuade him and twist his arm and go and meet him and try to sell it to him because he was living in Armagh city and he was about 55 or 56 at the time.

“I didn’t think he was overly fussed on management but 10 seconds into the conversation he said: ‘If Clan na Gael come calling, I’ll answer the call’.

“Over the next couple of years I got to know him much better.

“He was old school but he was a deep-thinker about the game and when he walked into the dressingroom for the first team meeting he had an aura about him – a legendary figure who everybody respected. Me and Diarmuid were in awe of him as well!

“I would probably be a more serious individual in the dressingroom and the training pitch but you could watch Colum going round having chats with different players, giving them tips… He was a great balance with me and then Diarmuid was somewhere in the middle.

“We lost the county final to Cross but we won a couple of leagues and he told me afterwards they were some of his most enjoyable days with the Clans. He was a great man to be around and that’s why everyone is in such a shock that he is gone.

“Seamus McKenna ‘JJ’ was a big Armagh fan and when Colum moved to Armagh they became friends and he ended up supporting the Clans as a result of Colum.

“JJ has been the club’s number one supporter for decades – he wouldn’t miss a match and he’s on our committee. That’s the sort of influence Colum had on people.”

HE had been treated for skin cancer but McKinstry was seen regularly out and about around Armagh and, just last week, had been on holiday in Ballycastle.

The last time his former team-mates had met up with him was at the funeral of another quiet and unassuming servant of Armagh GAA – the respected county treasurer Joe Canning.

Kernan, Smyth, Canavan… They were all there at Whitecross that day and the Orchard stars of the 1970s and ’80s formed a guard of honour on Wednesday when their old comrade and friend was laid to rest in the Cathedral City.

“He was a quiet lad, he just went out and played and gave everything he had and in all the years playing with him for the county and against him for Cross, I never heard him losing his temper or falling out with anybody,” says Joe Kernan.

“He was just one of those boys who loved to play the game and as soon as it was over it was: Where could he get a pint of the black stuff.

“He loved a pint of Guinness and he would nearly epitomise that squad. We’re all friends to this day, every one of us and the wives as well. Colum’s wife Nuala, my wife Patricia and Jimmy’s wife Mary… We used to go on one bus, the wives would go on another bus and we had a few fantastic years together.

“At Joe Canning’s funeral he was looking great and he was in good form. We have a reunion every few years and Jimmy and Colum were saying that day: ‘We must be due another one.’

“Little did I think that when we do meet again Colum won’t be there.”

There’ll be tears in their eyes when they raise the glass…

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