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The greatest showman

Gerry McElhinney was one of the most complete Gaelic footballers of all time

The greatest showman

Mick O'Dwyer said Derry's team of the 1970s was the best never to have been graced with Sam. The power and panache of Gerry McElhinney would have figured prominently in the Kingdom supremo's thoughts. This week, Michael McMullan spoke to the all-star forward and former international soccer star.

Thank God for YouTube. Gerry McElhinney's wonder point against the Dubs in 1975 was 13 seconds of bliss. From his first solo until the ball cannoned off the wall behind the Hill 16 goals, it's impossible not to be energised by watching it.

For those who remember him playing, the memories came gushing back of one of the game's greatest artists. For the rest, it makes us appreciate what a 'big game player' actually is.

It was like the parting of the Red Sea, a Derry version of Maradona '86. He was just outside his own half, but distance was no obstacle It was All-Ireland semi-final day, but Derry's 18 year-old secret weapon played with expression.

Termed by some as a 'pop star' footballer, three months younger than Björn Borg, McElhinney was inspired by the Swede's headband. It wasn't a spice-boy image without substance. Derry's sorcerer could also walk the walk.

He was a boxing champion in his youth and his soccer career, as a centre-half, took him to Northern Ireland's 1-0 1984 European qualifier win over West Germany.

“It was the fastest 90 minutes, it just went past in a flash. It was just a game...all I wanted to do was play football,” McElhinney said of that night in Hamburg.

He held captain Karl-Heinz Rummenigge scoreless and on the periphery. McElhinney's shuddering tackle put down a marker early in the game.

For all the stages he performed on, he was as modest as he was magical. No airs or graces, just fanatical about playing. Growing up, playing two games every Saturday and Sunday was the grounding that made him.

The 1975 All-Ireland semi-final was just an extension and commentator Michael O'Hehir's exhilarating tones announced Gerry McElhinney to the nation.

He took one solo before thundering through a Dublin midfield who were clutching at straws. An explosion of power careered past four Dublin players. Nobody could get a hand on him. He was electrifying. He kept the ball under perfect control, while in full flow. As goalkeeper Paddy Cullen came into view, Gerry squeezed a shot through two helpless defenders before it went over the bar.

It wasn't enough to prise Sam Maguire away from the Dubs, but unbeknownst to him, it was another reason for the all-stars to select him in his debut season.

“I was fit and I just went out and enjoyed myself,” McElhinney said, from his home in Draycott – between Nottingham and Derby - where he has lived with his second wife Val for the last 26 years.

“I was training about six nights a week. When I say it was easy...it just came to me. I learned a lot from experienced men around me, about what to do and where to go. I was no longer a baby, I was coming 19.”

He teased opponents as much as he did the Derry fans, who had to be satisfied with four seasons at senior level. As his soccer career tapered to a conclusion, Fr Sean Hegarty recalled him for the 1990 Ulster championship. He was sent on as a sub to try and save a lost cause in the semi-final with a rampant Donegal.

With his head stitched up from colliding into a goalpost, he drove away from Clones that day, heading for Dublin to catch a boat. He was Peterborough bound, where he played his last years under manager Mark Lawrenson.

“He was a big loss to Derry, he was talented and as tough as they come. He was a great player, even from a young age – a man before his time,” remembers former Derry manager Paddy Crozier, who played with McElhinney on the 1974 Derry minor team beaten by Cavan in the Ulster final.

Another Derry all-star, Johnny McGurk, was inspired by him and mesmerised by his dummy, calling it the 'McElhinney tip' – one Owen Mulligan would later tease defences with.

Gerry would win his only club championship in the colours of Craigbane. Their 1987 winning goalkeeper Gerard McLaughlin, who would have been directing kick-outs to him, made the comparison to Anthony Tohill.

“He was the most complete player I remember, he had everything...until big Tohill came along.”

Much water would pass under the bridge first.

***

The late Mickey and Annie McElhinney raised their family in the townland of Dreen, outside Park, under the shadow of Sawel Mountain. Gerry is the oldest of 11, with five brothers (Maurice, Eddie, Brian (Ned), Colm, Kieran) and five sisters (Marie, Carla, Marcella, Donna, Sinead).

“We always played football in the field,” he recalls of his childhood. “The girls were the goalkeepers and the boys were playing out the field. We got neighbours over to play and it was always great craic.”

The family home outside Park

Gerry would walk half a mile across the fields to attend Moneyhaughan Primary School, a typical country school with limited facilities, an outside toilet and no football pitch.

“There was an old field beside it, but you wouldn't have put cows in it, never mind play football on it.”

His early footballing days 'stem back' to his time at secondary school in St Patrick's and St Brigid's Claudy.

“Gerry Burns was the PE teacher and there was a guy Hugh Doherty,” McElhinney states. “He was a teacher, but most of the time he spent playing football in the gym.”

Doherty pointed him in the direction of Dungiven Celtic, which started his soccer career. Gerry also mentions his former French teacher Seamus Mullan, who was also a local GAA reporter.

“Sometimes he wrote good things about me and sometimes he wrote bad things about me,” Gerry laughs. “Seamus wrote about me because I think he wanted me to stay and play for Derry until the day I died.

“Hughie (Doherty) would take us to the hall. We'd play football and basketball there after school. My mother thought I was never coming home, I was never home to about six o'clock at night.”

There was no electric at home until Gerry's early teens. The first game he remembers watching on television was the replay of the 1970 FA Cup Final.

Having received a full blue kit as a present, he began to support Chelsea and after drawing with Leeds in the final, the replay at Old Trafford went to extra time. David Webb headed in at the far post from Ian Hutchinson's throw-in to win the cup for the blues. It lit a fire in McElhinney.

“I thought 'I want to play at Wembley' and I fulfilled my dreams,” he said, having later played at the famous stadium in Northern Ireland's 1-0 defeat to England.

He could have turned his hand to any sport. A natural, but his Gaelic football career would come first.

***

Every Saturday morning in his teenage years, Gerry McElhinney would play for Derry City, before turning out for Dungiven Celtic in the afternoon. He played for Banagher on Sunday and he'd squeeze in a game for Dungiven's Sunday league team in the morning.

“Banagher came first, but if I could I would play (soccer) in the morning. In the evening, we would maybe even have went off somewhere to a carnival and play a seven-a-side game,” McElhinney explains.

“That was our weekend and during the week we trained. A lot of players did that. Mickey Lynch and Laurence O'Kane would have played for Derry City after they left the Irish League.”

On the GAA front, Banagher knocked on the door of county finals, but never managed to squeeze into the winners' enclosure. McElhinney had signed for Bolton by the time their 1981 defeat to Ballinderry came around and an ankle injury in a soccer game the week before the 1974 decider hampered his progress.

The Banagher squad pictured before the 1978 Derry SFC Final.
Gerry is fifth from the left in the back row.

“I ended up playing corner-back,” he remembers of the decision to start him, in the hope he would run it off.

“I borrowed big Liam Hinphey's boots. He wore the rugby boots and I thought it would give my ankle some support.”

He didn't last the game and Ballinderry edged home. In McElhinney's opinion, their best chance was against Magherafelt in the 1978 final.

“I remember both finals, it pissed down with rain. The Magherafelt game was in Swatragh and we definitely should've won that one.

“We had three county players – Mickey Lynch, Fintan McCloskey and myself. (Goalkeeper) Seamus Hasson had just retired from playing for Derry. Seamus (Packie) Stevenson was a dual player and played for Derry, so basically Banagher had five county players.”

By the time his next championship run came around, he had crossed the county border. His first wife hailed from Gortin and he played with the club for four seasons, during his time with Bolton.

He wasn't the only newcomer. Liam Reilly – who also played in the 1978 final - also moved to Tyrone and joined Gortin.

Gortin reached the senior final in 1985 against Augher, who had brothers Eugene and Dessie McKenna in their ranks and were champions three years earlier. It was Gortin's first decider and McElhinney's absence was colossal. He had been known for getting the ball at midfield and rampaging all the way forward before hammering to the net.

“I was with Bolton at the time and our pre-season had started, so I couldn't get over,” he said of their five-point defeat.

It was time to head back to his roots and his brothers who had joined the emerging Craigbane. In 1986 they beat Loup to win the first of seven intermediate titles, the record in the county.

In 1987, they were back in the final. This time it was against neighbours Claudy and Gerry McElhinney was in the team.

“I was playing soccer and in the summer, at that time, I came home to visit my family and would stay for six or seven weeks. I played during championship time and won a few Dr Kerlin Cups,” he remembers.

Craigbane were seven points down with seven minutes remaining and missed a first half penalty. The title was slipping away, but Conrad McGuigan found the net before player/coach Paul Dixon hit a second goal to salvage a draw, 2-5 to 1-8.

“Tommy White and Charlie Kerrigan were playing, Claudy had a good side,” McElhinney explains.

Craigbane's winning team of 1987.  Gerry has his head bowed on the back row

Dixon trained them 'like dogs' for the two weeks before the replay. 'Six or seven' sessions were combined with a challenge game with Donemana to sharpen their attacking game. The replay was a different story, with Craigbane in control, winning 0-11 to 0-9.

Gerry scored a point in the game. He later pulled his hamstring, but played on and later went to full-forward, as he picked up his only club championship medal.

***

When Derry came knocking in the early 1970s, McElhinney was in his prime. On top of an already bulging schedule, he boxed 'off and on' for two years with Draperstown, under Jim Noonan. He holds a Mid Ulster title and was balancing the spinning plates. He had a spell in Glasgow Celtic's reserves while playing at home with Derry minor footballers.

Celtic was fitted in around his work, on a semi-professional deal. He failed to break into the first team, but would come for the weekend to play for the reserves. While Noonan urged him to keep his weight down, Jock Stein wanted him to bulk up.

“My diet, every other night, was four pints of Guinness in the hotel,” McElhinney recalls of his time in Glasgow.

“I was only 10 stone 2 and boxing welterweight, by the time I came back from Celtic to play for Derry, I was 11 stone 6...I went from welterweight to middleweight.”

In 1975, his first year out of minor, Frankie Kearney called him up to a Derry senior team gearing up for one of of the most successful eras in the county's history.

“My Dad lifted me at the airport on my way back from Celtic and took me straight to Magherafelt for a McKenna Cup game with Antrim and Gerry Armstrong was playing for them.”

The season snowballed into a march to Croke Park. In Ulster, Derry needed a replay to see off Monaghan in the semi-final. They were staring defeat in the face when Eugene Laverty won a penalty that Peter Stevenson scored to give the Oakleafers a second chance.

Five McElhinney points and his influence at midfield tamed the Farney men in the replay. In the final with Down, Gerry's early goal set Derry on their way to the first of their back to back titles. Man of the match was his Banagher teammate Mickey Lynch with 0-5 to his name.

The Dubs ended their All-Ireland dreams, but the following year they retained the Ulster title and were humbled in the All-Ireland semi-final by the Kerry team at the beginning of their golden years. Mickey O'Dwyer rated Derry as the best team never to have won an All-Ireland. Did McElhinney think they were serious contenders?

“We knew we were close when we ran Dublin to a point in the 1976 league final. If we had won that 1976 national league, we would've given the All-Ireland a run for it,” he remembers.

“It is hard to pick it up after being beat by a point, especially in Croke Park on their home patch.

“We had some great players on that team. Anthony McGurk was an all-star by that time. Sean O'Connell and Seamus Lagan, sadly not with us anymore, they were all big guns then.

“Tom McGuinness, Johnny O'Leary and Mickey Lynch...Mickey was my team mate and we travelled everywhere together.”

Eight points from Brendan Kelly and a man of the match performance from Anthony McGurk helped Derry to an extra time win over Cavan in the 1976 Ulster final.

Derry led by four points after 10 minutes of the All-Ireland semi-final final, with McElhinney in fine fettle at midfield, against Jack O'Shea. The Ulster champions led Kerry until early in the second half when super sub Seanie Walsh found the net. The wheels fell off the wagon as the Munster men rattled 5-6 in the second half.

***

Wins over Tyrone and Donegal took Derry back to an Ulster final in 1977. On the cusp of a third Ulster title and with the Connacht champions to come in the All-Ireland semi-final, they would avoid the Dubs and Kerry until the final. Armagh had other ideas.

“Paddy Moriarty destroyed us and we just ran out of steam...that was a bad result.” said McElhinney of their 3-10 to 1-5 drubbing.

He would return for the 1978 season. Barring his late cameo in 1990, he bowed away from the county scene. All too early, but his soccer career came calling.

Also at that time, Mickey John Forbes ran charity football weekends and players from all over Ulster would play.

“They came up from Kerry. It was a couple of times a year and you were getting as many at it, as you'd get any many club finals.

“There was a hooley after with singers like Susan McCann, Eileen Keane and Philomena Begley. All the top names turned out, it was almost like two all-star selects.”

McElhinney's passport was well-stamped and he has been to USA 'over a dozen times' during his career.

“If Derry were ever knocked out of anything, I used to just go to America to play Gaelic. I played in New York for Sligo. A Banagher man, Martin Murphy, was manager there and he put me up.

“They would fly me over for the weekend to play in Gaelic Park. I always remember the trains going past every ten minutes, alongside the pitch almost.

“I played with Cavan in Philadelphia after Armagh beat us. Tom Farrelly was heavily involved in the GAA out there and I worked for him as a landscape gardener.

“Tyrone were a big team out there most years with Frankie McGuigan and boys like Brendan Donnelly and Dominic Daly. We played against each other, but all met up and were the best of friends.”

The summer of 1979 was his last footballing foray across the Atlantic.

“We won the championship in Chicago for Connemara Gaels. I worked out there and played out there.

“There wasn't much training involved. They got you work on building sites and there were plenty of contractors out there, Irish guys who were trying to make a buck.

“I remember having a car, it only cost me $200. I parked it up in the car park at O'Hare Airport and home I went.”

Is the wagon still here, I ponder?

“It might be,” McElhinney says with a laugh.

With the 1980s around the corner, it was soccer time.

In part two, McElhinney rolls the clock back on Billy Bingham handing him his debut against the Germans and the trials and tribulations of transferring to the English leagues. Click here...

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- McElhinney thought Derry had missed the boat for an All-Ireland senior title.  Click here...

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