ON FRIDAY week Ballerin Gaels will come together in Ballymena’s Tullyglass Hotel to take a look back into the archives. It is almost 40 years ago since they were crowned Kings of Ulster - on their way to Croke Park.
The 1977 showdown with Austin Stacks came just under 20 years after their previous Derry title and Ballerin will also remember the men of 1957.
On ‘Féile Monday’ earlier this year there was a fresh sense of ambition as Ballerin’s U14 team grabbed the headlines. Championship glory eluded them later in the summer but with the league title already in the bag, it rounded off the start of another generation.
Recently the County Derry Post paid a visit to Ballerin as they finalised preparations for their upcoming Ruby Ball. Despite a chilly autumnal evening, the club house was a hub of activity. The floodlights could be seen from afar as the U13 hurlers honed their skills.
Inside in the hall, the Ruby Ball organising committee had their heads together. At the other end, five club stalwarts were huddled together around cups of tea and a plate of buns. It was time to lift the lid on the memory bank and over an hour later the craic was still flowing.
It makes one appreciate the value reunions hold. The opportunity to share stories and memories cannot be underestimated – it’s the social side of sport that can often be overlooked.
“Malachy McAfee will be home from Australia, ‘The Damper’ (Peter Stevenson) will be up from Offaly,” outlined Bernie Mullan. “The late Sean (O’Connell) will be the only one missing from the 1976 team.
“Of the 18 players from 1957, 11 are still alive and Sean O’Connell would have been the only one to have played on both teams” Mullan added.
Charlie O’Kane can remember 1957 as if it was yesterday. There was no all county championship, the winners of North and South Derry played in the final.
A FIRST TITLE
“We beat Dungiven in the North Derry Final and I remember going home from that match on the bus. They used to always stop at O’Connor’s pub on the way home, Patsy Mullan got off the bus and the word came through that we were playing Ballymaguigan in the County Final.”
The final was played in front of ‘about 200’ people in Dungiven, all there to see Sean O’Connell marking Jim McKeever. The late Patsy Mullan scored three goals from full forward but as Patsy McGahon recalls, another story sticks out.
“Patsy Mullan was a ‘real tank’ of a man and ‘marked’ everybody,” joked Patsy McGahon who recalls a later meeting with Ballymaguigan goalkeeper John Doyle.
“I remember selling him (Doyle) a car one day when Patsy (Mullan) landed into the garage,” McGahon explained. “Doyle took one glance at Mullan - ‘I know that man from somewhere.’ Patsy took everything, goalposts, the full back – everything.
“Doyle confessed to ‘taking many a thumping’ and standing in the garage. ‘I’ll give it to you yet’ was Patsy’s quick answer,” McGahon added.
These are the type of yarns that will be in full flow next weekend as memories are rekindled.
There was also the first Gaelic match in Wembley with four Ballerin players in the Derry forward line, recalls Bernie Mullan: “Seoirse McKinney, Fr Michael Mullan, Brian (Mullan) and Sean O’Connell.”
“Three of the 1957 team, Dermot Mullan, Bobby Mullan and Willie Harkin went on to referee senior county finals. After that, Harkin became one of the longest standing GAA officials in the county, serving as North Derry treasurer for 52 years,” Mullan added.
When the county title came back to Ballerin in 1976, it again followed a victory over Dungiven in the final. “It was a cold, wet and windy mid-September day, at least 500 people came along to have their say,” recited Charlie O’Kane in his poem.
There was terrible snow and it was one of the worst county finals of all time but O’Kane remembers how Peter Stevenson built up their opponents.
“At that time ‘The Damper’ was teaching in Dungiven,” O’Kane recalls. “He was over here playing for us but he heard on the grapevine what Dungiven were going to do on the day of the final.
“They were like a coiled spring and the word was that when they got on the field, they’d use the scissors and then it would all spring out. Damper played on that,” O’Kane added.
Wing back on that Ballerin team was another O’Kane – Barney. He admitted Dungiven were favourites. “Dungiven were a brave team at that time – they weren’t that simple.”
Nor was the next task, an Ulster opener against reigning champions St Joseph’s Ballyshannon. It was a star studded side, with Brian McEniff and Martin Carney on the wings of their defence. Pauric McShea was full back in a team than contained ‘five or six’ Donegal county players.
After a comfortable win, it set Ballerin up for what Barney O’Kane rated as ‘the toughest game’ of their championship crusade.
“I remember Stevenson struggling to get into the game and I told him to give himself a shake. He went across the pitch to the centre half forward and sent him flying,” O’Kane explained. “It set the tone – he battered the Damper and the Damper battered him for that hour.”
As it turns out, the Enniskillen man turned out to be a priest, Fr Terry McIlvaney and it was a week after Derry had played Fermanagh in a hurling game. Bernie Mullan remembered an outburst from the crowd directed at Stevenson.
“Stevenson - last week you hit a boy with a hurl and this week you hit a priest.”
For all the excitement and honest endeavour it took a late goal from substitute John Montgomery to take Ballerin through to the final.
The opponents were Clann na nGael of Lurgan, who had completed a three-in-a-row in Ulster (1972-1974), with Gerry French, Colm McKinstry and Jimmy Smyth in their ranks.
“I remember the Friday night before the Ulster Final, UTV when they put a bit of effort into the GAA,” explained Charlie O’Kane. “They had Sean O’Connell and Jimmy Smyth on the show. Armagh were the county on the rise at the time and Smyth played this up whereas O’Connell played everything down.”
In the absence of regular goalkeeper Seamus Deighan, Patsy McGahon stepped into the breach. At the other end goals from James McAfee and Sean O’Connell saw Ballerin lift an historic first Ulster title.
“Then on the Monday night, Smyth was back on UTV but O’Connell was absent,” continued Charlie O’Kane. “After admitting to being well beaten, Smyth stated the fact that he had known O’Connell all his life but he would never believe another word – O’Connell was ‘auld' fashioned".
“Ballerin go confidently into the unknown” was the heading in the papers as Ballerin headed west to meet Killererin in the All-Ireland semi-final.
Willie Joyce (father of Padraic and Tommie) was at midfield. The game was played in Tuam but was effectively over after 15 minutes with Ballerin easing home through by 17 points.
Four decades later, sitting around mugs of tea in their club house, what was the consensus of Ballerin falling at the final hurdle? Where did it all go wrong?
“We forgot to play. Kerry were a bogey team for Derry. Once we heard it was the Stacks was the day we died. Mickey Sheehy was putting them over from everywhere.”
There were a couple of key moments. One came before half time when Ballerin were in control. Sean McGahon took a ball at full back and as he cleared the ball, he was pulled on the back and the ball went out over the sideline. From there Stacks engineered a vital goal.
Selector Cahir O’Connell recalls Sheehy’s kicking and punishing every foul. Bernie Mullan recollected an incident in the second half.
“We were through for goal and Seamus Aldridge (referee) called the play back and gave us a free. We pointed the free but at that stage we had a chance of a goal.”
Like many other encounters with Kerry down the years, the Derry champions had a ‘long run home’ pondering at what might have been.
With no runners up medals, Ballerin commissioned their own ten years later and none other than Mickey Sheehy made the journey to Garvagh’s Imperial Hotel to make the presentations.
“Sheehy said that one of the greatest disappointments of his life was that Sean O’Connell was denied an All-Ireland medal,” Bernie Mullan explained.
Two years ago when Patsy McGahon was on holiday, he called into Sheehy’s Tralee office, there was Sheehy sitting with fellow auctioneer and long serving Kerry midfielder Dara O’Sé.
“You never told me that Sean O’Connell died,” Sheehy stated. “If I’d known, there would have been a load of us up at it (funeral) for Sean O’Connell was my childhood hero.”
As the years have passed, Ballerin still recollect these fond memories from their history. Was there a point in the season when there was a realisation of how far the 1976 journey could go?
“There was no coming together,” indicated Cahir O’Connell. “There was no point where we said ‘this is our year, we need to get organised.’ It was just the same as any other year, getting ready to get out and play in the first round.”
There was no training until they beat Dungiven and once the Ulster title was secured the harsh winter didn’t lend itself to ideal preparation.
“We played Queens one night up near the Mary Peters track (in Belfast), a night you wouldn’t put sheep out,” O’Connell added.
There was a 50 point win over Coleraine University, there was training under car lights and getting washed in the jaw box in the old hall. The young ones wouldn’t do it today.
Back then carnival football was the key component of team preparation and looking back on it now, there is something the modern game can learn. More games, more enjoyment, a greater concentration on the basic skills and helping a greater retention of players.
“Ballerin played 57 senior games in the 1957 season,” stated Bernie Mullan. The typical week involved three carnival games in mid-week, a league game on Sunday and a carnival final (if you qualified) on Sunday evening.
Ballerin beat Enniskillen 1-18 to 4-6 in the semi-final of Aghyaran carnival in 1967, with the late Mick Brewster playing at centre back. A decade later the sides would meet in the Ulster championship.
There were countless other carnival stories. Memories, successes and hard luck stories that will echo around Tullyglass next Friday. The tradition from yesteryear will fuel the next decades as those who follow in Patsy Mullan and Sean O’Connell’s footsteps strive for greatness.
On a Tuesday night on October, the U13 hurlers finished their coaching session, the Ruby ball organising committee have everything in place. The lights outside shine brightly - brighter than the car headlights of 1977.
But those memories live on. The men of 1957 and the Ulster champions of 1976 will take centre stage as Ballerin look forward - with tomorrow’s ambition in their sights.
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