GAA Football

Dungannon Clarke's captain McNulty still thrilled by unexpected triumph

Dungannon Clarke's captain Padraig McNulty (right) celebrates after beating Errigal Ciaran in last year's Tyrone SFC semi-final.

TALES of famous victories sustain clubs - but so do memories of bitter defeats.

Dungannon Clarke’s captain Paudie McNulty heard both over the years and they all contributed to the club’s fairytale triumph in last year’s Tyrone senior football championship.

The former kings of Tyrone football hadn’t won the O’Neill Cup since 1956. Indeed they’d only reached the final once since then, losing after a replay.

Although he’s only 29, McNulty spoke as if he’d been there: “In 1986, Trillick beat us, the [Clarke’s] players walked away thinking they should have won, that they should have been lifting the O’Neill Cup.

“Terry Loughran captained that team, had regrets about that. He’s part of the management team, happy that he helped us get the cup.”

Regrets? ‘Locko’ had more than a few, according to McNulty: “Oh, he’s mentioned it for years. Even in Junior football, then Intermediate, Terry would be saying ‘Boys, you have to get up to senior, you have to contend for the O’Neill Cup because this club needs to win it. I left it behind me.’

“That was something he’s always said from I’ve known him: ‘Lads, you have to win it. You have to get up there.’ That was always something he tried to instil in us, that you have to strive to get better.

“Before the final he was saying ‘You can’t leave this behind you because you mightn’t get another chance’ - and he didn’t get another chance.”

McNulty also learned from someone who had won with the Clarke’s, club president Jimmy McCallion, a teenage goalkeeper on that 1956 team:

“Jimmy took me at U16s and Minors, me any Jimmy are very good mates. He was just overjoyed by it. He’s had health issues the last while, but he made sure he got to the game. He was actually up in McAleer’s [bar] to celebrate with the boys the day after the final, he had a few half’uns.”

The joy around Dungannon was understandably unconfined after they gained revenge on Trillick for 1986, dethroning them after a dramatic penalty shootout at Healy Park.

The success, after four games which all went to extra time, really was unbelievable, says McNulty:

“I never actually thought I’d be playing in the O’Neill Cup, never mind lifting it.

“We were never at that level for years. I’ve played senior football for 12 years and for most of those years we were nowhere near Senior Championship.

“We ended up getting a lot of young players in and then with my age group as well we had the right balance to contend for it.

“It was a big experience for me…I got to lift it, I was the lucky one. It was a massive achievement for the club, it was 64 years since we’d last won it.”

The celebrations were memorable, with supporters swarming onto the pitch, then gathering outdoors in Dungannon long into the night.

“It was absolutely amazing. You’ll only live that once, it’ll be hard to match,” recalls McNulty. “The scenes in the town were crazy, the town was in joy because it had been such a long time.

“It brought people together. They’d been through a hard time with Covid and not working. They were happy to get football back, never mind get that trophy back to Dungannon.

“For some people it was a feeling of pure joy, for others it was ‘Thank God we’ve done this, I can be happy now.’

The trophy was toured around the town in the months afterwards - and further afield, for historic reasons:

“We didn’t go indoors, we sat outside. We got it round wherever we could, and we were also allowing people to take it to their family. The players got the cup. It wasn’t as strict as they are now with the ‘Sam Maguire’.

“Back then in the Fifties Dungannon took in players from the Moy and Galbally, like the Donaghy brothers from Galbally, so we took the trophy up to them as well.”

Victory was the culmination of a long journey for McNulty, who runs the family-owned fast food takeaway, ‘Big Mac’s’ in the town. It’s a popular spot, even among team-mates, at the right time of course, he says with a laugh: “A good few of the lads would be in - just maybe not the night before a match.”

Family also led him to the Clarke’s, he remembers: “My father never really played football but he has a big passion for it, he sent me along to the football aged six or seven. All my uncles played, and my cousin John [McNulty] is the chairman. McNultys have been in the club for a right while now.”

Despite still being second on the Tyrone SFC roll of honour at that time, the Clarke’s had fallen far and were low when McNulty made it into the first team: “My first senior game we were in Division Three, and we were there for three years. We’ve been up and down but hopefully this is where we’ll stay.”

McNullty’s own talent took him all the way to Croke Park in his debut season with Tyrone, having caught the eye by winning the 2014 Intermediate Championship with a shock victory over, yep, Trillick.

That 2015 campaign ended controversially in an All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry, when the Dungannon man was booked after initially appearing to be fouled by Aidan O’Mahony.

McNulty insists that doesn’t remain as one of those bitter defeats for him, although he does have regrets about not becoming a regular on the Red Hands team:

“No, the referee sees what he sees. He has to make the decision in a split-second. It’s just the way it is… I’ve left that in the past, I’m looking to the future.

“There are times I think I could have done better, that I didn’t play well enough to establish myself. But obviously it’s a massively competitive squad, Tyrone have footballers of a very high standard. I tried to make an impact when called upon off the bench and Mickey Harte just picked the team he thought was best.”

He stepped away from the inter-county scene in 2019 to sort out a back problem, a decision that has clearly benefitted Dungannon back in senior football:

“I took six months to get rid of it. I decided to go and play some football with the Clarke’s. I got a couple of injections and since then my back’s been grand, I’ve been able to manage it.”

Still, it wasn’t as if he was back fully focussed on the Clarke’s with the target of becoming Tyrone champs, he admits:

“We never really set out to win it, we just wanted to be competitive. The first year we went up our main goal was to stay in Division One. The second year the aim was to get up to the top end of the league.

“Championship came, we got over the first round, and we just said ‘Right, we’ll take that, we’ll take it game by game’. We looked at how we could get at teams and how they could hurt us.

“There was never anyone saying ‘Boys, we need to win this cup’, until we got to the final. Then it was ‘Lads, there’s a massive opportunity here’.”

Even then, the Clarke’s made a very slow start to the final, falling 1-2 to no score behind, with even the normally reliable Paul Donaghy missing frees.

McNulty acknowledges the occasion got to them at first: “Going into the game we wanted to keep it tight, to one or two points, thinking Trillick wouldn’t let us back into the game.

“The first 20 minutes we were a bit panicky - but Patrick Molloy got our first score on the board and that kinda settled us, we grew into the game.

“It wasn’t the start we wanted, but we’re the sort of team that doesn’t lie down to anybody. We showed that the whole year - we never lay down, we always fought to get back, and thankfully we did.”

Yet he knows the other senior sides will be targeting the Clarke’s now, starting with Dromore in the last first round tie on Monday night in Healy Park:

“This year, we’re going to be the ones that everybody is looking to put down. It’s a massive task. The competitiveness of Tyrone football - there are eight or nine teams that could win it. For us it’s a matter of trying to get to those heights again, taking it game by game.”

Half-forward Matthew Walsh, who made a vital defensive interception late in extra time against Trillick, is absent, due to a new job in London, and there are a few injuries, so there’ll be some new faces in.

McNulty is optimistic that the Clarke’s can click again, but there’s no over-confidence from the champions, given the cut-throat nature of the Tyrone scene:

“We lost the first two league games of the year, back down to reality. We had a bad enough start but then we settled. We haven’t hit the heights we did last year but hopefully we can in the Championship.

“The cup’s away back already. We just have to try to win it back. Nobody’s done back-to-back since Carrickmore I think it was [in 2005]. Dromore is our first task and they’ll be well up for it, it’ll be a good battle.

“It’d be great to do back-to-back but you have to take it game by game. You can’t think of a long-term project, look too far ahead, or you’ll end up getting piped.”

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