Hurling and camogie

Loughgiel and Antrim hurling legend Niall Patterson on playing with his 'field of brothers'

Niall Patterson launching a puc-out for Antrim hurlers.
Seamus Maloney

ANTRIM and Loughgiel goalkeeping great Niall Patterson has written his autobiography, along with Seamus Maloney of this parish. In this extract from 'Field of Brothers', Niall recalls the 1989 All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship Final, and the boorish behaviour afterwards of some of the triumphant Tipperary players.

 

FOR MORE THAN 30 years, I couldn't think about the 1989 All-Ireland final without thinking about one split second… and nothing else.

I could remember little details from the day – the biggest day of my hurling life – and how I was feeling at different times as we played Tipperary in Croke Park. But, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't stop the whole experience being reduced to that single moment.

We were losing by three points, but hadn't long gotten our first score.

It was almost exactly halfway through the first-half and we were doing okay.

Tipp hadn't blown us away like most people thought they would.

We had missed a few decent chances too, and had shot five wides. You could tell we were a bit nervous, but you could tell Tipp were as well. They were playing Antrim. Surely the match should be over by now?

Then Declan Ryan picked up the ball about 30 yards out… and hit a shot.

He didn't get hold of it properly, so instead of sailing over my head for a point it came dropping towards my goal.

I put up my stick...

THE shot had risen just enough for the ball to get into the sun, and that's where I lost it. It spun off the edge of the stick and settled behind me in the net.

As I turned and picked it up, the umpire waved his green flag and, for me anyway, the All-Ireland final was over.

If you asked me the next day what had happened in the rest of the match, I don't think I could have told you. If you'd tried to tell me the next day what happened in the rest of the match, I wouldn't have listened.

That mistake… my mistake …was the whole story.

It wasn't until I watched the match on TV more than 30 years later that I allowed the memories of the rest of the All-Ireland final back in.

A minute after their goal, Olcan McFetridge caught a long ball into the full-forward line and hand-passed in to Brian Donnelly, who was on his own on the 20-metre line. Brian drove his shot just over the bar.

Nine times out of 10, Brian would have buried that in the back of the net but I think he decided to make sure of his point, to keep the scoreboard ticking to keep us in it. We'd hit all those wides at that stage and had only scored a point.

We needed another one.

But Tipp were starting to play like they'd had a weight lifted off their shoulders – and it was the goal I had let in that lifted it. They were getting on top and taking their scores, and we were finding it hard to get any of our own.

They threatened for a couple more goals, but I managed to stop one from Nicky English, and collected and cleared another when Cormac Bonner came through and hit me on the side of the head… although the TV commentators said I had taken a dive.

Tipp were 11 points up at half-time, and there was no way back.

They didn't slow down in the second half and got another couple of goals.

Tipp were dominant and able to cruise to the end, but our forwards gave their defence some tough moments in that half.

Aidan 'Beaver' McCarry, Brian Donnelly and Donal Armstrong all scored goals in front of the Hill and gave our big support something to shout about. 'Beaver' got the first one and set up Brian for his. I played with 'Beaver' from under-14s right until the end of my career. Whenever we were playing with the club, Paddy McIlhatton would have stepped out to the side at centre-back, the midfielders split… and 'Beaver' put his hand across his chest as a signal for me to drill the ball at him chest high.

And if I hit a ball to 'Beaver' it would almost always end up in his hand.

If a defender was giving him a hard time, he'd give me another signal… a finger up in the air. That was my cue to drop the ball down on top of him. He didn't try to catch that one. He'd pull and if he hit the ball, well enough, but if he didn't the centre-back would know he was there.

If you wanted to hurl with 'Beaver', he'd hurl… if you wanted to mix it, he'd mix it and could run through anything.

In the first few minutes of the All-Ireland semi-final against Offaly, he took a blow to the head that would have sidelined most players. But the blood was wiped from his face, he got patched up and he went out and scored 2-4 to help get us to the All-Ireland final.

We were 15 points down and I could feel the Tipperary supporters who had managed to make it over and through the Canal End fence behind me, starting to gather along the end-line. Out in midfield a ball broke to a Tipp player, who hit a long ball up over our full-back line and right into the path of Nicky English.

The ball bounced up for him and he caught it perfectly. As it hit the net, it felt like the whole Canal End had poured past me.

For God's sake, ref, I thought. Just blow it up.

After they cleared the pitch, he did… and that was the cue for the supporters to come back on and celebrate their All-Ireland.

Our All-Ireland was gone.

The supporters on the Hill stayed to cheer us, and we made our way down to thank them. I was in tears, and I wasn't the only one.

Paddy Quinn, who was the Rossa goalkeeper at the time, put his arm around me and talked to me all the way back up to the tunnel. If he hadn't been there, I don't think I would have made it off the pitch.

We were the big story going into the final, but afterwards it was all about Nicky English. He ended up scoring 2-12 – a record for an All-Ireland final that still stands. There were some Tipperary players who just didn't show us any respect; they never had, whether it was when we had played them in the league or the year before in the championship, or in the build-up to that final. And things would get even worse afterwards.

But Nicky English wasn't one of them.

After I made the save from him in the first-half he gave me a tap with the stick, to acknowledge me. He did it a couple of times during the match and you could tell he wasn't doing it to try to wind me up or patronise me.

I'd played against him enough to know he wasn't that kind of fella.

He was hurling's biggest star at the time and I know I used to look at the players from counties like Tipp, Cork or Kilkenny and think they had it easy, especially compared to us up in Ulster. We were just nobodies playing away at our hobby and they were well looked after, getting cushy jobs from the county and whatever else.

It was only when I read Nicky's autobiography years later that I realised that just because you're a big star from Tipperary doesn't mean everything has come easy. He played for a small hurling club that was mainly interested in football, and whenever Tipp were going through bad patches the press down there would be merciless with him.

You don't have to be a hurler from Antrim to have obstacles to overcome.

My sister, who lives in Ballina, was at a dinner dance he was a guest at and when he found out who she was, he introduced himself and asked if he could have his photo taken with her. I've met him a few times since the final and he's a genuinely lovely fella.

I wasn't so fond of him on the day of the final, though. They were winning everything out the field and once the ball went in to him, everything he did came off. First Gary O'Kane and then James McNaughton couldn't do anything to stop him.

And if those two couldn't, I doubt any defender could have.

BACK then, the day after the All-Ireland final, both teams met for a banquet at Kilmainham Gaol. We had had our own post-match reception with our own people and our own families already in Malahide and the last thing we wanted was to be hanging round Dublin.

We wanted to get back up the road…back home.

That's how we felt before we got there. We had lost, we hadn't done ourselves justice. It always got my goat that people were saying in the run-up to final that we had nothing to lose. We had the final to lose.

Sure, Antrim aren't expected to win, so why would they be too upset if they lose?

Brian Donnelly's reaction when Mick Dunne had asked him if we really thought we could win the final was the answer to that. I would have been the same – we all would have been the same. None of us went out thinking about anything but playing our best hurling… and winning.

Losing hurt, and we were going to Kilmainham for a banquet with a team that had just beaten us by 18 points in the All-Ireland final. And it was nothing against Tipperary – we just didn't want to be there.

It wasn't all bad.

During the match, I had asked one of the umpires to keep me a ball so I could take it home and give it to my dad, but he told me he couldn't do it. Then at Kilmainham, he came and handed me the ball. It was nice of him to do that.

I was asked to come up and sing The Green Glens of Antrim but I didn't want to do it. So, our kitman Henry McCabe got up and my jaw dropped. I had never heard Henry sing a note before and then out comes this big, deep baritone voice.

But we were never as glad to get on a bus as we were that afternoon, because it's a miracle the gaol didn't see a riot break out. They may have been great players but some of the Tipp boys were nothing but ignoramuses.

And just calling them ignorant is being generous to them.

Making jokes about us, trying to belittle us… not showing us any respect. You could have cut the atmosphere with a knife. I think at one stage PJ O'Mullan had one of them by the throat. After constant abuse, Terence 'Hippy' Donnelly offered some of them outside for a conversation with all the Donnellys.

I know who my money would have been on.

And it didn't stop there. The following month, the Railway Cup was being played over a weekend down in Wexford. I had quit playing for Ulster because I was busier with the band and just didn't have the time. Eddie Donnelly was the manager and Noel Keith from Down was the goalkeeper, and Eddie asked me if I could come down to Wexford, basically to drive the Loughgiel boys and also sit on the bench as the substitute goalkeeper.

Eddie needed a car to take boys down from Loughgiel and also someone as back-up in case anything happened to Noel… and I killed two birds with one stone for him. I told Eddie it was no bother. I wouldn't expect to be doing anything but driving the boys down and up for the weekend.

Ulster played Munster in the semi-final on the Saturday, and Noel got a crack on the head and I had to come on. We were playing well and beating them by six or seven points. James McNaughton was marking Nicky English, and this time Nicky never hit a ball. James was brilliant that day.

But then he went down with a knee injury. He had torn his cruciate ligament and the surgery ended up keeping him out for nearly a year. That day, Munster came back and got a draw… and then ran away with it in extra-time. It was the closest Ulster had got to a Railway Cup hurling final in nearly 50 years.

A Connacht team that was made up of Galway players beat Munster in the final and back at the hotel a few of us got talking; some of the Ulster players and a lot of the Galway boys, and we were just having a good time. John Commins, who I grew friendly with, was there and so was Eanna Ryan and a few others.

I was sitting talking with John and chatting about how we were coached and what way we trained. Goalkeepers swapping notes. There was a piano there too and everyone had a bit of a sing-song. And one of the same crowd from Tipperary, who had been ill-bred at Kilmainham, came up to me and just started talking to me in Irish… knowing I didn't speak Irish.

'If you're going to speak to me, speak so that I understand you.'

But he kept going.

'If you don't stop, I'll drive you out that window.'

I was raging, because he was only doing it to try and show me up. John said to me, 'Look Niall, forget about him. I was standing going to the toilet and he came in and tried to make a fool out of me too'.

We were sitting there, having a good time with the Galway lads, the craic was mighty, but someone else decides they'd get their entertainment trying to belittle someone else.

I would still have a dislike for Tipperary because of that, which is a shame because it was a few players out of a team that contained some real gentlemen.

Back at Kilmainham the likes of Nicky English, Michael Cleary and others couldn't have been nicer. They were lovely fellas who could commiserate with us, without being patronising.

Genuine men, who treated us with respect – even though they'd just hammered us in an All-Ireland final.

 

Niall Patterson: Field of Brothers (with Seamus Maloney) is published by Hero Books and is available in all good book shops and also online (print or ebook) on Amazon, Apple, and all quality digital stores.

The book will be launched at a celebration of Antrim hurling at the Loughgiel Community Association next Thursday, May 26 at 7.30pm. Everyone welcome.

For more information, search “Niall Patterson” at www.eventbrite.ie.

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