Hurling and camogie

Sean McGuinness selects the top 15 hurlers he managed

Sean McGuinness (second from left) launching a cancer centre fundraiser several years ago with former Antrim hurler Ger Rogan, Elaine Hogwarth, and ex-Down stars Noel Sands and Danny Hughes.
Picture Mark Marlow.

CHARACTER and characters make up the top 15 hurlers chosen by Sean McGuinness, the former Antrim and Down manager, who famously led the latter to Ulster titles in 1992 and 1995.

“I know people will be lifting this on the Ards saying ‘What the f—k is he talking about?!’ – and it’ll be worse in Antrim,” he said with a laugh. And he provides plenty of those.

There could have been more Saffrons on his selection (and he gave a glowing mention to Dominic McKinley), but he explains “most of those boys only played one year for me.”

Down memory lane he goes…


1. Noel Keith (Ballycran & Down)

What a performer. Seventeen years in goals for Down. He could nearly fall into the training ground but he was always the last there. He would have stayed behind with boys taking shots at him from all angles. He controlled the defence, super at that. ‘Kerby’ was his nickname.

The number of times he saved Down was unbelievable. So proud when he put that Down jersey on. He captained the team in ’95 and when he was standing waiting for the Cup he was shaking like a leaf. He’d been there for so long, in the bad years.

Noel said to me one week, ‘Give Graham [Clarke] a run’, so I did – and Graham gave an exhibition. The following week I picked Graham again, but he hurt his fingers at work. Noel said to me ‘I believe Graham’s hurt – and, by the way, I told you ‘one match’.’

But the nicest fella you could meet. The skill he had, he used to stop balls and you’d wonder how.

2. Kevin Coulter (Ballygalget & Down)

The full-back line are all Ballygalget men. The battles they had in Division One hurling with the best forwards in Ireland, they were unbelievable.

‘Cody’, that’s all he was known as, was known for his long striking. In the Ulster Final when we got a couple of 70s, he near hit them into Musgrave.

He was the slagger on the team, always chittering. Donal McCormack was the chairman at the time and he used to give him dog’s abuse. Donal wasn’t married at the time – and one day he got on the bus with a pink sweater on, now you’re talking about 25 years ago, the abuse he got.

I remember ‘Kloot’ [Olcan McFetridge] getting his Allstar, which he deserved – but the next match, ‘Cody’ never gave him a look at it. He was doing triathlons and I told him he was losing his speed’; he told he had packed them in – whether he did or not…

3. Gerard Coulter (Ballygalget & Down)

A great full-back. He didn’t stand out like ‘the Rock’ [Diarmuid O’Sullivan of Cork] but he did a job for you. No matter who went in at full-forward he was the man.

I remember he packed it in, said he wasn’t coming back. I rang his house, and his wife Eleanor answered, he wasn’t there. I said ‘I hear he’s packed it in.’

‘He’s what?!’, she said. ‘Do you think I’m going to be sitting here on a Tuesday and Thursday night listening to him saying ‘I wish I was up at that training’? He’ll be at training on Tuesday night’. And he was. I made him captain of Ulster that year. A real nice guy.

There were no fancy things about him. He got there – or, if his man got the ball, he knew all about it. In tackling, shoving, pushing, typical full-back.

4. Paddy Braniff (Ballygalget & Down)

As good a corner-back as there was in Ireland. He was really dogged. Never said a word, just played away. Unfortunately he got injured in London two weeks before the semi-final of the All-Ireland; a hosepipe ban, it was like playing on concrete. He was a terrible loss because we had to re-adjust that full-back line. We had him everywhere trying to get him sorted.

In the first year we beat Antrim and we had a man put off; Paddy just swept across between the half-backs and the full-backs. The ball went down and you just saw him pulling out, with the green helmet, coming out and clearing the ball. No matter who he played against it didn’t make any difference. He was one of those fellas you’d hate to be playing against as a corner-forward.

5. Marty Mallon (Portaferry & Down)

One of the most skilful hurlers in Ulster at the time, respected right throughout the Ards for his skill.

I was just looking at old tapes – every so often I look at them, particularly when we won – and one time he had lost his stick, but he just threw himself on the guy’s stick as he went to hit the ball. Courage was no problem to him.

People talk about it yet, he got a ball at the flag at Casement and put it over the bar at the far end; you’d have thought the ball was never going to stop.

Noel Sands played top of the left and Marty was right half; as soon as Marty had the ball ‘Sandsy’ was away, moving because he knew Marty was going to hit it to him. They had a great understanding – they married two sisters, for a start; I think they ran the team, never mind those boys, two smashing girls.

He was the first player I saw playing with a 34” stick, not a 36”… His stroke was so tight and so quick. Could read a game. He and ‘Cody’ were great on the same wing.

He runs a butcher’s shop in Portaferry, but he’s never ever threw me a few steaks…

6. Gary Savage (Ballycran & Down)

‘Gazza’ – a character. He used to dance up and down the bus coming home, singing. His top song was ‘Wanna be in my gang’. ‘Gazza’ would be half-sleeping and Big Hugh Gilmour would wink at me, start singing it, and ‘Gazza’ would be up, dancing up and down.

At my 70th birthday party, I went to have a meal with my family and there were about 200 at it, we finished the night with everybody round and ‘Gazza’ giving the message in the middle of the floor. That flaming red hair.

He may have come on as a sub in one match, I don’t know why he wasn’t starting, but in the six years that I was there I think he played every match. He played everywhere bar goals. You could stick him in anywhere.

He could hurl and he was a great competitor. My wife thought the world of ‘Gazza’. He gave you everything; when he came off you could wring his shirt out.

7. James McNaughton (Cushendall & Antrim)

Rest in peace, James. A solid player. People might be surprised by this choice; I don’t think James was making the Antrim team when I took over but see after his first match? He was never off it. A very good hurler and a nice guy. Didn’t say much, just hurled away, a fantastic wing-half.

When Antrim were on the way up he played some matches. They played Laois in the Open Draw Cup [1985], in Laois, had never beaten Laois – and won by a couple of points. Just before the end one of the Cuddys drove a ball and the rim of it caught James on the eye and opened him. Sean, his brother, got a hold of him by the neck, lifted him and said ‘There’s only a couple of minutes to go, it’s not even cut’ – you wanted to see it!

When I went down to Antrim matches [as Down boss] some people would have ignored me; not James. It was very sad when he passed away.

8. Danny Hughes (Ballycran & Down)

He wasn’t there at the start and I brought him in. Great guy, great hand, he’d jump and catch the ball no matter who was swinging. I think he got ‘man of the match’ in the ’95 [Ulster] Final. He was another who never stopped running – running, running, running. He was the biggest of a few brothers; the rest weren’t that big but made up for it by using the stick.

He was tall, well-made, a real athlete, big long stride. He’d give you everything, but he was never early. See if training was at 8 – ten past eight; at half eight, 20 to nine. Never early.

His shooting wasn’t brilliant; we were a point down at home to Laois in the last minute, a draw would have kept us up. Big Danny catches the ball in midfield, runs forward, and I’m running along the line shouting ‘Pass it! Pass it!’ He shot and scored – and turned round and gave me the fingers.

We used to do penalties against Keith; Danny took one, goal, ‘That’s me done. 100 per cent’.

9. Paul McKillen (Ballycastle & Antrim)

‘Humpy’ – in my first year with Antrim I needed a half-forward and somebody told me about him, still last year of minor. I went up, didn’t know him, and stood on the hill (which I did to be out of the road so nobody could annoy me). I asked this wee man in a cap to point out Paul McKillen and he did. He was terrific, only a kid; after the match I stopped him, asked him to join the Antrim seniors and he was so proud. I thanked the wee man, who said ‘Paul McKillen’s my son’.

Strong as an ox, he eventually made a midfielder, I thought he needed to be on the ball more. He held his own with anyone he ever played. He would have put his hand where you wouldn’t have put a spade. Talk about tough, playing away.

The first time we – by that I mean Down – beat Antrim the Championship, the first man over to shake my hand was Paul McKillen. I had a lot of time for him, a nice lad.

10. Gerard McGrattan (Portaferry & Down)

Obviously you have to go with the one and only Allstar Down ever got. McGrattan was out of this world.

Against Cork [in the ’92 All-Ireland semi-final], they moved five different men on him. Monsignor Michael G O’Brien was running their team - and I didn’t think people like that cursed…

McGrattan had a blinder. The only thing he didn’t catch was pigeons. The height he got in the air, his running. Five points from play, I think. He left fellas in his wake, running through and sticking balls over the bar.

After the match RTE wanted to interview him and me and this guy standing there says to him ‘I’ve a job for you in Kilkenny if you want it’.

Big Gerard was able to handle anybody. He did his cruciate and nobody trained harder after that operation but he was never the same again.

11. Gary O’Kane (Dunloy & Antrim)

Some may find this strange but Gary could play anywhere. He could change positions. As good a reader of the ball as I’ve seen in a long, long time. He was tough. They played him in the All-Ireland Final when he was just out of Minor…I wasn’t picking the team.

That Dunloy team he played in, he was super. He was very determined about getting to the ball. The first year they won the Championship [1990] I did a wee bit of work with them.

A very steady player and he really developed through the years, seemed to get better as he got older.

12. Tony McGrath (Dunloy & Antrim)

You’ve no idea how skilful he was. A great lad. I remember an Antrim U21 team against Derry, him and ‘Humpy’ were in the middle of the pitch, and the two of them got put off.

He was one of the younger lads I’d brought in and he’d have made you sit up and say ‘What a player!’.

He had a problem with someone in the management after me and he never went back. I told him a couple of times it was a waste, I wasn’t anything to do with the [Antrim] team then, but he wouldn’t change his mind.

The Ballycastle boys dragged him to a dance in Cushendun once and a fella came and whacked him, gave him a black eye, saying ‘You Ballycastle bastard’.

13. Chris Mageean (Portaferry & Down)

‘The Hunter’ could have played anywhere in the forward line or even in midfield. You couldn’t leave him off the team.

In Portaferry the nets behind the bottom goal were a bit low. There was a cornfield behind it and when the ball was hit in there you couldn’t find it. He had a dog, he’d have snapped his fingers, and the dog brought the ball back!

He was a big, strapping lad. Took things very seriously. He sent word he wasn’t coming back so I sent his uncle Mick to tell him I said ‘There must have been a full moon that night.’

On the boat I saw him coming down like a roaring bull, ‘Did you say that about me?’ I replied, ‘Chris, would I say that about you?’ Then he was away looking for ‘that f---er Mageean’ – his uncle!

That time we beat Kilkenny, The Hunter drew across Pat O’Neill’s hands, a dirty action. O’Neill was raging, threw the helmet off and the stick down, ‘Right, me and you’. So The Hunter clocked him with his stick on the head.

He was a great guy.

14. Olly Collins (Lavey & Derry)

I took Lavey for a year and I was so impressed with that boy’s hurling. They were beat in the Ulster Final by a great Dunloy team. Olly was a super player, big strong fella.

Whether you would play him at full-forward is another thing; he’s a fella you could play from the half-backs up, I was making a position for him.

He took stick because he was a big lad, fellas laid into him, but he just took it. I’d have loved to have had him on county teams. The game was tougher then, with the longer sticks and the swinging.

15. Noel Sands (Portaferry & Down)

Has to be ‘Sandsy’. An eager beaver, always in there in the middle of things. He’d have been in hassling goalkeepers from the word ‘go’. He got an early goal against Antrim like that.

I never saw him walking away from a tackle, he was as tough as could be. He was made of iron even though he wasn’t that big. He was in there battling. My first captain.

He was the only one of the team that wasn’t related to someone else on the team, that’s hard to credit, all cousins or second cousins; then him and Marty Mallon married two sisters.

Dunloy had some great corner-forwards, like ‘Horse’ [Gregory O’Kane] but Sandsy was the type you wanted. He was out of this world and he never died, kept going, shifting back and forwards.

You could always count on him for scores; if he got a chance, ‘Bang!’, he was your man.

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Hurling and camogie