Glory Days: Loughgiel Shamrocks break the mould to win the All-Ireland in 1983
ANY discussion of the historic wins by Ulster sides over the years should certainly include Loughgiel Shamrocks' breakthrough victory of 1983. That year, the unfancied Antrim side became the first team from the northern province to win the All-Ireland Senior Club Hurling Championship and almost half-a-century later, the Shamrocks remain the only Ulster club to have won the Tommy Moore Cup.
PJ O'Mullan, full-back on the 1982/83 champion side, recalls a campaign that included wins over rivals from Ballycastle to Littleton. Andy Watters writes…
The famine, then the crown
LOUGHGIEL Shamrocks began the 1982 season hoping to end a wait for an Antrim title that stretched back to 1971.
PJ O'Mullan had played in that '71 final as a 20-year-old midfielder and, over a decade later, he had moved into the full-back berth. He recalls a few near misses during the 11-year drought including the 1974 final loss to Sarsfields, which he regards as: “One that got away”.
“We were hot favourites, we had played them in the league about six weeks before it and we got a man sent off before the ball was thrown in - we played the whole match with 14 men and still beat them by 19 points.
“God Rest the two men involved, they're both dead. A fella called ‘The Greaser' (Gerry McGarry an uncle of Neil McGarry) was playing full-back and he went to shake hands with the Sarsfields full-forward, the late Jimmy Ward.
“When he reached out his hand, Jimmy hit him across the hand with his hurl. Gerry, stepped back and walloped him and the referee saw it and sent him off! That was before a ball was struck but we beat them by 19 points. Six weeks' later they beat us in the championship final. They played the whole second half with 14 men and still beat us! It's wonderful the way it turns out in games!”
The man with the plan
DANNY McMullan had taken over as manager of the Loughgiel senior team by 1982. A teacher by profession, McMullan had spent time at St Kieran's College, the famous hurling nursery in Kilkenny, where he had become friendly with the innovative hurling doyen Fr Tommy Maher, who was then coach of the Kilkenny senior side.
McMullen absorbed all Fr Maher taught him and when he later moved to Ballymoney he began put the knowledge he had stored to good use with the Loughgiel club.
“Danny was the man,” says PJ.
“I played on the Antrim vocational schools team in 1967-68 and he was the manager. He was the first man in any of the schools in north Antrim to put any emphasis on hurling and he was ahead of his time.
“He put a lot of work into our team and he had so much belief in us. He had some great drills and exercises. It was years before anybody else was doing them and they were all coming from Fr Maher.”
‘We'll not win much this year…'
DESPITE McMullen's input, expectations were low when Loughgiel began that 1982 season.
“We played in the Feis Cup in June,” recalls PJ.
“We lost to Glenariffe and I remember walking off the field with Dan Geary, one of our selectors. I says: ‘Dan, we'll not win much the year'. He says: ‘Here, if we get a few things straightened out, we'll win the championship son'. Him, Neil Patterson (Niall Patterson's dad) and my uncle Liam McGarry were the three selectors and they all had big belief in the team.”
When the championship began, Loughgiel managed to scrape past St John's in the first round and then played Sarsfields in the quarter-final, again scraping through thanks to two goals from Derry native Joe McGurk. In the semi-final, Loughgiel took on up-and-coming Cushendall, the defending champions.
“I was marking Terence McNaughton that day. He was only starting off then but he turned out alright!” says PJ.
Loughgiel had some promising youngsters of their own in future Antrim stars ‘Woody' (Dominic McKinley) and ‘Beaver' (Aidan McCarry). Both had found their feet at senior level and, after the victory over the ‘Dall, they looked forward to a first county senior final against Ballycastle – three in-a-row champions from 1979 to 1980.
Again, Loughgiel were underdogs.
“Getting past Cushendall in the semi-final was the turning point for us that year,” says PJ.
“We had been so long away from a final and to get to one gave us the boost and the confidence to go ahead and win it.”
Loughgiel beat the favourites 5-9 to 3-7 to end their long wait for an Antrim crown and the start of Ulster action began just a fortnight later with a trip to Monaghan to face Farney county champions Clontibret.
“That was a real tough game,” says PJ.
“We won it fairly handy (2-15 to 0-6 – both goals scored by McKinley) but we were glad to get out of there because it was one of those games that took us a long time putting to bed! They were rugged and tough. They had a Garda playing for them who had hurled for Tipperary and they put it up to us for a while.”
The school of ‘Ards knocks
PJ, who played and mentored from U16 to senior level for Antrim, was involved in no end of no-quarter showdowns for club and county but he regards that year's Ulster final against Down champions Ballygalget as the toughest match he ever took part in.
“They were hard boys!” he says.
“Tough, physically strong, big men and the ground was heavy – it was a very close, hard match. Our boys stuck in that day and we came out of it with a win.
“Going down to Ballygalget that time – even for a league match – was tight. We used to have some great tussles with the teams in Down; some great matches. Willie and Charlie Coulter, Willie Smith… they had a lot of good players and whatever way you wanted it, they would have given it to you - no questions asked!
“I was marking Charlie Coulter, God rest him. He was a big, strong man and I was pretty strong myself – that time you had to be!”
Aidan McCarry got the crucial goal in the 1-9 to 0-9 win over Ballygalget which saw Loughgiel crowned Ulster champions. McCarry was part of a forward unit that was beginning to click into gear. Aidan McNaughton posted half-a-dozen points in that Ulster decider and Brendan Laverty (uncle of Liam Watson future star of Loughgiel's 2012 All-Ireland winners) was also among the scorers.
Snow on their boots
WITH the secured by late October, Loughgiel faced the long wait until mid-February for their All-Ireland semi-final against Tipperary and Munster kingpins Moycarkey-Borris. Throughout that harsh, cold winter, the green glens of north Antrim were covered in a blanket of snow but that didn't put the Loughgiel men off.
“We trained through it, we trained through everything!” says PJ with a chuckle.
“We played hurling in the snow. It was good fun and of course plenty of boys got down and rolled through it. I remember us training one Sunday and there was three or four inches of snow lying on the field – we played away. We ran through it at night with the lights on in the cars – there was no such thing as floodlights then!
“Paddy McIlhatton (centre-half back) would have run three or four nights' a week and I don't how many times he ran round that field! Mick O'Connell was very fit too.”
AS winter turned to spring the snow melted away and on a bright February Sunday, Loughgiel sprinted out onto their home field to meet Moycarkey-Borris. The visitors had the ball in the Loughgiel net in the first minute but the underdogs regrouped, settled and began to realise that the game was there for the taking.
“It was a tight, low-scoring match but we were back level before half-time,” says PJ.
“There was some great defending done – some of it was a bit unorthodox and I got away with one myself! There was a scramble in the square and I was down on my knee. The ball came across and I reached down and lifted her and went for the corner flag. The ref didn't see it and I got away with it.
“The Tipperary boys were shouting about grass and they were still talking about it for years after it. I met a boy from Moycarkey up at the field in Loughgiel one time and he says: (Tipperary accent): ‘Ah, you're the man with the grass on your fingers'. I said nothing.
“Our half-back line that day was powerful – McIlhatton and Aidan McNaughton and Eamon Connolly. They did a powerful bit of hurling.”
The final countdown
McCARRY'S goal was the key score as Loughgiel sent Moycarkey-Borris off on the long road back to Tipperary with a four-point defeat to mull over.
“You don't really realise you're in the final until you got back to training and then you think: ‘We could win this now',” says PJ.
But the omens weren't good as Loughgiel spent another two months waiting for the final.
The decider was scheduled for St Patrick's Day but it was put back until April 17 due to a dispute in the other semi-final, between Kiltormer (Galway) and St Rynagh's (Offaly), which was eventually settled in favour of the Offaly club.
The week before the final, Loughgiel struggled against Belfast's Rossa at Shaw's Road in an Antrim League match. The Shamrocks scored a goal at the death to win but their performances raised doubts over their prospects the following weekend.
“People were saying: ‘You'll have no chance next Sunday – you'll get stuffed!' PJ recalled.
But manager McMullan was having none of it and behind closed doors in the dressingroom after the game he lifted his disappointed players, telling them to forget what had just happened.
PJ still remembers his words: ‘Don't you listen to them boys. The people who are looking after you have great belief in you and we can win the All-Ireland next week. Today is gone, concentrate on next week.'
“I always remember that. He was a great motivator and when he said it, we all believed it.”
Keeping the Faith
ST Rynagh's included four of the players who won the Liam MacCarthy Cup with Offaly in 1980. Many of the Faithful County natives were regulars at Croke Park but Loughgiel's squad included only a handful who had played at the stadium – or even been in it – before the final.
Despite that, Loughgiel led way for most of the game but St Rynagh's battled back and levelled to set up a thrilling finale. Then, with time almost up, they won a free and Offaly deadball specialist Padraig Horan stood over the sliothar roughly 50 metres from the Shamrocks' posts.
He scooped the ball up on his hurley, then struck it sweetly but Loughgiel prayers were answered as his shot drifted just wide and referee Noel O'Donoghue blew the full-time whistle when Niall Patterson pucked the ball out. The replay was fixed for Casement Park.
“We had missed two or three frees ourselves but at the end we were probably lucky to get a draw out if it,” admits PJ.
“But getting the draw and seeing we could compete settled us for the replay and getting it to Casement was a bonus. Hugh McPolin was the Antrim county chairman at the time and he made the argument that by going to Croke Park we had come to their backyard in Leinster and so they should now come into Ulster and play us in our backyard. That's the reason the replay was played at Casement.
“They agreed to it, the must have thought they could take us second-time-round. They had a good side – they had four boys on the Offaly team that won the All-Ireland in 1980 and quite a few ex-Offaly players.”
My home in sweet Loughgiel
TEN thousand supporters - from right across Antrim and Ulster - turned out for the replay at Casement to cheer Loughgiel on to victory.
“Casement was a great place to play with the crowd behind you,” says PJ.
McCarry and Laverty got the goals and the Carey's – Paddy junior and his uncle Paddy senior – also scored in the 2-12 to 1-12 win.
“It was relief but joy at the same time when the whistle went,” says PJ.
“We should actually have won the match by more. They scored a goal with the last puck of the game and we had missed a few chances.
“When we heard that final whistle… It was great, it's still great! It was a great time for Loughgiel and for Antrim hurling.
“It's a brilliant memory, it was brilliant looking up into the stand and seeing everybody. There's a song ‘My home in sweet Loughgiel' and after the match they played it over the loudspeaker.
“It brought a tear to my eye – it brought tears to a lot of eyes!”
Celebrations went on… and on.
“We had a big dinner a couple of weeks after the final and everybody was at it,” says PJ, whose son PJ junior managed the 2013 side to the club's second title.
“We know how to celebrate down round Loughgiel!
“They were the days of our life. A whole lot of great memories and it's only when you get older that you look back and think of the things you got out of playing hurling and being involved in it.
“Wherever you go in Ireland and you say you're from Loughgiel, people will say: ‘You are the boys that won the All-Ireland club', it always makes you feel good…”