Brian Conlon: a Newry man who was 'the business' on and off the field

Brian Conlon has a shot saved by Kerry goalkeeper Charlie Nelligan - but Down still won by 1-16 to 0-8 to top Division One in the 1985-86 National Football League. Pic courtesy of Ciaran Conlon
Brian Conlon has a shot saved by Kerry goalkeeper Charlie Nelligan - but Down still won by 1-16 to 0-8 to top Division One in the 1985-86 National Football League. Pic courtesy of Ciaran Conlon Brian Conlon has a shot saved by Kerry goalkeeper Charlie Nelligan - but Down still won by 1-16 to 0-8 to top Division One in the 1985-86 National Football League. Pic courtesy of Ciaran Conlon

"Eamonn Burns, God rest him, said to me at the 25th reunion of Down's 1991 win, up in Croke Park: 'Brian Conlon would have started for Down in '91 - I couldn't tell you whose place he would have taken but he definitely would have been a starter'." – Collie Bell.

Brian Conlon found fame and fortune as founder of the First Derivatives financial technology company. However, he could have been a Gaelic football great too.

Collie Bell might be accused of bias, as a fellow Newry Mitchel's clubman, but confirmation of that claim above comes from the person who picked that 1991 team.

Brian Conlon gave Pete McGrath one of the most heart-stopping moments of his managerial career – yet he still wouldn't have paused for a beat before selecting the Newry Mitchel's man on his All-Ireland SFC Final winning teams.

Unfortunately, Brian's playing career had been ended before the Nineties due to a cruciate knee ligament injury sustained played for Queen's, aged just 21.

In a much greater loss, he died after a short illness three years and two days ago, from oesophageal cancer, at the age of just 53. However, his name and fame live on, not only in the world-class company he established and built up, First Derivatives, but in the Brian Conlon Foundation, established in April of this year.

Encapsulating all that was good about Brian, it will continue offering the financial support he quietly gave to where it was needed.

Helping hand

Collie Bell set up the Kevin Bell Repatriation Trust, after his son was killed in a hit-and-run in New York in 2013. Typically, it was Brian Conlon who helped out then:

"Whenever Kevin was killed, I got word from somebody very close to Brian just to tell me that he would bring Kevin home.

"He wouldn't have been shouting it from the rooftops. He went about things very quietly.

"He was very, very proud of Newry, did an awful lot for Newry. His was a global success but the centre of it was in Newry. A Newry man. A great fella.

"Amazing man, an awful loss, not just to his family, but to Newry as well."

Brian's youngest brother Ciaran is one of the trustees of the Foundation, along with their sister Kathy and Brian's widow Julie. His other brother, Ronan, died in 2000.

The loss of Brian came very quickly, Ciaran remembers: "It was diagnosed in May [2019] and he definitely thought he had a lot more time than he did."

Brian was always someone Ciaran looked up to, literally and metaphorically. "I would have got a snapshot of his talent in later life when he was named in both the Abbey and Newry Mitchel's teams of the century.

Even with 12 years between them, their mother Josephine didn't want Ciaran to suffer in comparison to the legendary Brian: "In the end my mum sent me to the College, St Colman's, because I didn't need to be compared to Brian, who excelled at everything.

"Brian was always someone to aspire to. I was maybe too young to actually appreciate how good he was. It's only through talking to players of his generation that I get a feel for how talented he was at Gaelic."

Kane and able

One of those who knew him longest and best was DJ Kane, a member of that 1991 Down team and then winning captain in 1994.

As good as Kane was, Brian Conlon, more than a year younger, was an even better talent.

Neighbours, both went to the nearby Abbey Primary School. "At that stage, there were a lot of football competitions and the big one was the Rice Cup, played between all the Christian Brothers' schools in the north.

"Coming up Brian was part of those teams, even though he was he was younger; because of his talent and ability he would have always played on the same team. Primary six and seven, we actually won a couple of Rice Cups together.

"Brian would have been playing forward in those days, full forward or maybe, when he was a year younger, in the corner. But then it was full-forward or half-forward line somewhere.

"He always played up an age group in terms of the teams that I was involved with, primary, into the Abbey Grammar, and we also played for the same club team, Newry Mitchel's.

"That was just down to his pure ability, he was a very, very talented footballer, great athlete as well, which again helped him tremendously because he had a great engine and a real desire to win too.

"He was a winner, he didn't like getting beat, and he was the sort of guy that would give it everything. He loved his sport, he loved this football in particular. He was an extremely dedicated person at it.

"He was a stylish footballer, he was two-footed, he also had great hands, great fielder of the ball actually from a young age, just had a natural talent for high fielding. As he got older, he obviously physically got a lot bigger and stronger, so therefore then was taking up more a central role.

"I suppose a Darragh O Se type who could go up and compete in the air with anybody – and Brian could score too."

Born for sport

Bell recalls Brian's elevation to a very strong Mitchel's side: "I was the daddy of the team, into my 30s, and I remember, he was coming through school, we were very aware at the club, we felt we had somebody special there.

"When he started playing senior football he was such an athlete: born to play football, born for sport. Indeed he also played soccer for local team Hereford FC and hurled for Killeavey.

"Fantastic, a level of fitness and commitment, single-mindedness," continued Bell. "He only knew one way to play and that was 100 per cent, going forward, getting the ball forward as quickly as possible and no messing about.

"In the early days he did stand out; he came straight into the team, at maybe 17. He was a big lad but he hadn't filled out. He was a presence, straight into the middle of the field, and immediately started to run the show.

"The type of player that would have been up and down the field, wanted the ball all the time - and you would never have gotten the ball off him if he thought he was in a better position. He wouldn't give you the ball for the sake of giving you the ball. You had to be making the proper runs.

"Even at that age he wouldn't have been afraid to shout at you; he was a leader, he really was. He had plenty of confidence in his own ability too.

"I can remember John Murphy was in the county set-up at that time and he came and asked me, said, 'We're getting great reports about Brian Conlon – is he as good as they say?'

"I said, 'He's the real deal.' He would have you would have played for the county for years, he really was that good.

Master McGrath taught a lesson

Of course, the man who would have had that final say was Pete McGrath – and he unhesitatingly agrees.

"He was with me for three years as a county minor, from 1982, when he was still under 16. He didn't make that championship team but he was championship panel. That was my first year managing the Down minors, Ross Carr would have been on that team, Brendan Mason. Brian was there again, the following year, 1983, and 1984.

"The game that I remember him most for was in '83. There was Ulster Minor League, which we won, then there was also a North East minor league which included Meath and Louth. We played Meath in the final in Dundalk and won, not by much.

"Brian was playing midfield and I'm not exaggerating, he gave a display, his fetching and carrying, he was outstanding…

"Brian in midfield for us was making these colossal catches, showing all the features of his athleticism, his running ability, catching ability, footballing ability. That's the outstanding memory I have of Brian."

Another recollection was not so sweet: "We played Derry in the Ulster semi-final in '83, managed by the late Eamon Coleman; they beat us and went on to win the All-Ireland, quite easily. They beat us with a very late Dermot McNicholl goal.

"On the morning of the match we were meeting in Boat Street in Newry, in the old Shamrocks Hall, for a cup of tea before heading on to Clones.

"I'm looking down the street and I see Brian Conlon on crutches. This was pre mobile phones. He has a crutch under either arm, hobbling.

'What is wrong with you?!'

"He said 'You won't believe it. I was out kicking about with the younger brother in the garden yesterday, wrecked the ankle, had to go to Daisy Hill, and this is what they gave me.'

"I talked it over with a number of the other selectors, 'What are we gonna do? This man Conlon is out, our midfielder.

"Finally, I said 'Right, lads, time we packed up, we'll move on.'

"Next thing, Brian gets up from the table, leaves the crutches on the table and walks down the hall perfectly.

"I said 'Ya bollix, ya!' I don't know if all the other players were actually in league with him. But, honest to God, the morning of the match!

"I could have killed him, that's the truth. Of course he played the game and played well, but unfortunately we lost by a point or two."

A certain starter in 1991

The big question then, to Pete: Would Brian Conlon have got on the 91 team?

"There is no doubt. I mean that. I'm not saying that because the fella passed away."

Where would you have put him?

"He could have been anywhere from number eight to number 15, because he was an outstanding footballer.

"He had athleticism, he had the ability to field the ball, a great standing jump, could spring almost vertically in the air and catch the ball. Then when he hit the ground, he had this pace to quickly accelerate and get away.

"His awareness. To me, scoring wouldn't have been his forte, because I always played him in a midfield position. But if DJ says he his scoring ability, never argue with DJ, it's a dangerous thing to do."

Years later Brian showed his personal quality to McGrath: "I never really come into contact with him all through those years when he was establishing the business until in the Slieve Donard there was tribute night for Pat Jennings.

"After the speeches, I was leaving, Brian approached me, shook hands, and said 'Pete, I just want to say that the three years I was with you on the Down Minors meant a lot to me, and it did a lot for me.'

"I said, 'Brian, that's very kind of you, and that means a lot to me too'.

"The injury meant he didn't reach anywhere near his potential as an inter-county senior, the injury just cut it short.

"I'm delighted to have been given the opportunity to contribute because he was an outstanding footballer and a unique individual."

Pete McGrath and the late Eamon Burns weren't the only Down senior football bosses who rated Brian Conlon highly. So did 'The Master', Sean Smith, who brought him in with the Mournemen in the mid-Eighties as a teenager.

Family pride

Ciaran Conlon, aged seven or eight, was able to enjoy his brother's exploits in the red and black:

"My main memories would have been around '86 when Down had a run to the Ulster Final

Brian was heavily involved in that, beat Monaghan, and Armagh, scored a couple of goals, in oth those games. I remember as a kid watching Ddown get beat by Tyrone in Clones, when Pat Donnan caught the ball and carried it over the line."

That bright footballing force was extinguished in a Sigerson match with Queen's:

"In 87, remember going with my mum and dad when he had the serious knee injury, that's what ultimately ended his career. Just then medical science didn't have the wherewithal it does now.

"I guess without that injury, it's very much a sliding doors moment in Brian's life.

"If he had have stayed on in Ireland, Belfast, he'd have wanted to continue his county career. But the knee injury that probably expedited his decision to move to London and started working for Morgan Stanley, then subsequently Sunguard.

"He came up with this concept of 'We can do this back home' and that's what whole idea of First Derivatives came from."

Brian acknowledged he would have swapped all his business achievements for a Celtic Cross.

"Me, Brian, and DJ were having pints, and Brian said all day long he would have taken the All-Ireland medaI, because you could walk into any pub in Ireland and they'd buy you a pint.

"DJ said he couldn't walk into too many!"

Bitterness and regret could have eaten Brian Conlon up, but Ciaran saw his brother set a tremendous example: "It was life, it happened, and he moved on. One of the good things about Brian, he was very humble, even about FD, he'd always play down what he achieved.

"Same about his Gaelic football ability, he would never tell you how good he was or even talk about what he achieved.

"Down in Carlingford, where he lived for his last few years, we bumped into a few guys that were just back in the summer playing football in the States. Chicago and Boston, whatever. And they turned around and said to Brian 'Did you ever play football yourself?'

"He replied: 'I kicked a bit of ball for a few years'. He wouldn't bum and brag about himself.

A modest inspiration

Shane Mulholland, who followed Brian's path from the Abbey to Queen's, and then worked with him at First Derivatives for more than two decades, confirms that down-to-earth attitude, laughing when it's suggested that Brian 'was a bit of a legendary figure in the Abbey'.

"Funny, I came in to FD in November of '99. I had just played an Ulster Final, where Armagh gave us a hiding and so Newry was quite buzzing at that time.

"I had come into this company, not knowing if it was a placement and internship for me, and genuinely not knowing much about Brian Conlon

"Nobody knew how big or successful it was going to be… but there was immediately a sympathetic ear towards getting away early for training, just that sense of someone in the organisation who was sympathetic towards your sporting career.

"I could have been six months in the organization, in Brian's company on multiple occasions, where he never once brought up the level that he had got to, or the prowess that he had."

Mulholland did learn from the man himself how he had filled out in his teens:

"He told the story where he went abroad for the summer, and his dad [Gerry] was to leave him to the airport - and he left him to the bottom of the Drumalane Road and said 'On you go son, make your own way'!

"Brian thought he was taking him to Dublin airport. He said he stood with a bag and his thumb out…He went out a real skinny, scraggly young fella. And he went out to the States and the bulk, just the size that he grew in a summer where he was working in construction.

"All of a sudden the frame started developing and the impact that that had on us football was phenomenal, because he became a very dominating figure."

"I've only seen some grainy bits of footage of him playing for the seniors at full-forward. But DJ and Ross [Carr], around the time of Brian's funeral spent an hour in our company, talked about how good was Brian, and they firmly believe that Down would have won another All-Ireland had he been in the mix.

"The way it was described to me, he was a Tohill-like player - a big, physical man that could catch a ball but could travel, had two feet, could score. He did all of the above.

"He wasn't just a good old-fashioned stand and catch and kick. Some of the footage I've seen of him playing full forward with Brendan Mason and so on, you could see that there was something above and beyond there. Brian floated between eight and 14, played inside as well, he had that in his locker.”

The injury - and after

Even the manner in which Brian sustained his career-ending injury was a consequence of his superior football brain, says Mulholland:

“He said as he rose for the ball he was trying to turn his body in the air so that when he hit the ground he was facing in a particular direction, because that's what he was thinking about doing.

“So many players just go up to catch the ball – he was thinking about getting himself in a position so that when he hits the ground, he's off. I thought, ‘Oh, there's a higher mental state going on in there’. But as he hit the ground, then his leg remained in a position and his body twisted. And he literally ruptured everything.

“They were worrying about amputation at a point in the hours after that, that’s how bad it was. He had three major reconstructions of his knee and he still ended up with a limp, so the damage must have been severe at that point.”

Yet the will to achieve in a sporting setting never left Brian Conlon, as Shane relates:

“He took up water polo, became passionate about cycling, then started doing triathlons: FD and the Conlon Foundation still are involved in the Crooked Lake one.

“And Brian has completed it. He's actually a brilliant swimmer, brilliant cyclist. Then, rather than have someone do another leg for him, actually limped the two laps of running.

“The size of the man at that point, as Brian got older he put a bit of weight on, but he still had the big frame. Looking at him ambling along and you're saying ‘Wow, no ego, totally humble.’

“People coming past him at whatever speed – and he was determined to finish out the leg of the triathlon He ticked all the boxes to say he had done it. There's a competitive flame burning in there all those years later, he wanted to achieve that.”