The Glenullin team pictured before the 1985 championship final win over Ballinderry at Ballinascreen
Gerard O'Kane was one of the old guard when Glenullin's 1985 season swung into action. Buoyed by an influx of talent, they navigated their way to their second senior title. He outlined the rise and fall of their team to Michael McMullan.
For the best part of two decades few, if any, footballers passed through their Glenullin underage careers without the imprint of Danny McIlvar.
As well as co-ordinating the Youth Club, he coached an all-conquering team on their journey from primary school level, beating everyone in their path.
It was just what Glenullin needed. By the early 1980s, with their senior team 'not competing', the exciting production line yielded two minor championships and an appearance in the 1983 final, a year that saw Raymond Conway, Dermot and Cathal McNicholl play in Derry's All-Ireland minor win over Cork.
“Nothing could touch them,” said Gerard O'Kane, who worked for Danny's construction business and helped him with the teams.
They would plot over teams and there was only ever one topic on the agenda.
“Danny was football on the brain. All that was in his head was Glenullin club and football,” he added of a man who would also serve as club chairman.
Danny thought outside the box. As well as the annual youth excursions, there were football trips to Dublin.
“We went at Easter and the players stayed in a hostel,” Gerard recalls. “The players got to the pictures in Dublin and things like that. He was really into youth and was the catalyst for that team.”
As they grew, the seniors were waiting in the wings for them. It was a much-needed push. But, it would be without Danny.
At the start of the 1985 season, former player Patsy McGilligan was handed the reins of the senior team. He previously broke his leg and never fully returned to play. Peter Stevenson, who had played with Gabriel Bradley in Derry's team of the mid-1970s, was brought on board as trainer.
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Danny ploughed his energy back into another batch of players, that would've included Damien Hasson and Dominic McIlvar from the 2007 winning team, added to by Liam Bradley's input in teams that followed.
“He started back with us at U12 in 1986/87,” Brian Sheehan recalls of Danny. “He was my first manager and managed all my teams up through. It was some craic, there would be about 12 of us in the back of his red Hiace van going to matches. He was a gentleman too, no effing or blinding.”
In Gerard O'Kane senior's era, a North Derry U16 title 'in 1971' was all there was to show for their efforts. Like everyone at that point, once he turned 16, dwindling numbers dictated a jump into the senior team.
“We weren't competing,” Gerard remembers. “We had won an intermediate championship in 1977.”
A Division Two league followed two years later. By the time 1985 came along, He was one of six players still there.
The others were goalkeeper Noel Traynor, Gerard McNicholl, Gabriel and Jim Bradley. Liam 'Baker' Bradley missed the 1985 season with a knee injury.
The crop of talent coming through was a Godsend. Just what was needed, when it was needed. Even by U14 level, it was apparent.
“They were exceptional,” Gerard remembers, while also mentioning an U16 final win over Lavey on a 29-5 scoreline.
“That's the sort of scores they were racking up. It was an unbelievable group of players coming through together.”
Glenullin, with Gerard as captain, were well-beaten by Magherafelt in the 1984 senior championship first round, but with their newly assembled team, they began to grow. The first two rounds of 1985 brought wins over Lavey and Newbridge.
“We struggled at the start, then we came through,” commented O'Kane of both games. “We weren't nearly losing at any point, but we didn't walk away with them either.”
Next up was a semi-final against Dungiven, who had players like Brian Kealey and Brian McGilligan from the underage teams Glenullin faced in those North Derry finals. It took a replay, before 'The Glen' came through by 'three or four' points.
“It was a really wet season and there were five weeks between the drawn game and the replay,” Gerard remembers, with several attempts of a re-fixture falling victim to the weather.
At the time, in fitting with how fixtures were organised, the replay was fixed again for Ballerin with John Diamond as referee.
“I remember we were all sitting in the hotel in Garvagh, where we had met up before the game,” Gerard remembers.
John called in on his way back from the pitch inspection. 'The match is off' he told them, to which Gerard O'Kane's nerves subsided and allowed him to plough into the sandwiches. Before that, he was just too uptight.
“In my younger days, nerves never bothered me,” he laughs. “Towards the end, it was awful. I was moved back into the defence and maybe if you made a mistake it was more costly.
“When you are younger, you are more confident and cocky...and I suppose the games were getting more important.”
When the replay eventually took place, a Noel Traynor save from John A Mullan's penalty helped Glenullin to victory, booking a place in the county final. Victory did come at a cost, with the broken collar bone that would keep Gerard McNicholl out of the final.
“He was a really smart player,” states Gerard. “He was in the right place at the right time, taking the right options.”
In the drawn game, Liam Bradley did play to try out his knee injury, but he wasn't able to get to the level required.
“There wasn't the same process of testing,” said Gerard, Liam's brother-in-law. “He would've been a big player in the team.”
Injuries aside, it was time to prepare for the final and a shot at the big time.
Another drawback of the wet, clammy summer was the hordes of midges that lingered around Glenullin pitch, situated in the leafy Glen at the bottom of Mattie's Brae.
“We were ate alive, it was awful,” laughs O'Kane.
He also spoke of how Peter Stevenson 'ramped up' training, as the final approached. A forward 'all his life' and now playing in defence, 'Damper' tactical ploys were welcome.
“He was taking the defence and showing us how to marshal boys,” Gerard vividly remembers.
“He gave us a great insight into how to defend, to move back in numbers and if players are out on the sideline, they were not involved in the play and you didn't need to be up their ass at that stage.”
It was about getting the six defenders to 'dovetail' back. It was about filling the middle and backing back. Nobody was to push out.
“Give away the point – just don't give away a goal,” was the message. In the final, Ballinderry did find the net, but it was from Brian Duffin's penalty.
Glenullin, the new kids on the block, 'had to be' underdogs going into the final.
“Ballinderry were one of the top teams in Ulster and were a fancied side. They were a lot more mature than us,” O'Kane points out, before revealing the internal Glenullin mentality ahead of the showdown.
“With young boys coming into the side and a leader like Dermot McNicholl, we were always confident. He was an unbelievable player.”
McNicholl had bossed the MacRory Cup and the Ulster minor scene. Now at 19, he was Glenullin's captain. The very fact the captain came from the younger crop backed up the influence they had.
“He wasn't on his own,” O'Kane continued. “Danny Tam (O'Kane) was excellent. Gabriel (Bradley) at full-back meant a lot to us as well, he was sound.”
Personally, reflecting on his own thoughts of the final, Gerard considers himself 'so lucky' to still have been part and parcel of a monumental year in the club's history.
“I had played my whole life and won an intermediate championship and to still have been able to play in a team along with those young boys, that was something else.”
With the benefit of hindsight, he feels Ballinderry missed a trick with their match-ups. Eamon Wilkinson was switched across to mark Declan McNicholl, with Terence McGuckin going the other way to Dominic Bradley. In the final, Declan scored 1-5 and Dominic ran him close for man of the match.
“Declan was going to have a great game, no matter who was on him, but both our wing-half forwards won the battles,” Gerard feels.
Declan McNicholl (top scorer), Fr Danny McNicholl, Fr Harry O'Kane and Donal McNicholl (Player of the Year)
So how good was Declan McNicholl?
“He was some talent,” said Gerard, who played behind him on the left wing. “He had right and left foot, he could catch a ball, was strong and he was brave. He could carry it...he had everything.
“He may have been a bit hot-headed...he was the best hand at going forward with a ball and picking his spot from 21 yards and put it in, left or right foot.”
One of the stories that comes up from the final was Declan's brother Colm and Ballinderry's Pat McGuckin's banter during their duel. Nothing personal, more winding each other, with each giving as good as they got. As the teams, trotted off at half-time, the story goes that Colm reached out his hand.
“Pat, I'll shake your hand now, sure you'll hardly be out for the second half,” Colm reportedly jibbed.
“Even now,” Gerard adds. “Pat would always ask about 'my old friend Colm' when we'd meet at matches in Dublin.”
Ballinderry were six points down. In typical fashion, they made a strong comeback before late Colm and Declan McNicholl points did enough to secure the title and ignite an outpouring of Glenullin emotion across Dean McGlinchey Park.
“Leaving out family occasions, it was by far the best day of my life,” Gerard passionately states.
“We went to the hotel in Garvagh for a steak dinner and I can remember the crowd all coming in. We went up to the Colorado Bar and it was an all-night session in there.”
The celebrations moved to Gerard's own bar in Garvagh on the Monday, where the place was a hive of activity.
“Everybody was in the bar and we had a video of the game going in the bar and in the lounge, it was full that night.”
When the partying came to an end, it was time for a tilt at Ulster. It was a fleeting one, bowing out 'by seven or eight' points away to Down giants Burren, who would go on to win the first of two All-Irelands in three seasons.
“It still bugs me,” adds O'Kane, who lost his place for the game. “Even if we had got them at home, we would've given them a better game.”
By the time he entered the fray after ten minutes, Tony McArdle was 'creating havoc' and the game was slipping away.
“They were a very good side, backboned by the McGoverns. Maybe if we had even got them in the second round it could've been different. From going in as first timers, to playing the potential All-Ireland champions, it was a big ask.”
Then, as quickly as it was assembled, the team that dominated since their U12 days broke up in a matter of months. A lack of work and emigration took them to the four winds.
Within a couple of years, seven of the starting team were gone. Colm McNicholl, Ephraim Bradley, Cathal McNicholl, Danny O'Kane, Declan McNicholl, Dermot McNicholl and Dominic Bradley.
“We drew Bellaghy in the (1986) first round at Ballinascreen and our team was decimated. We drew with them, before they beat us in the replay.”
Bellaghy, managed by Tommy Diamond, weren't fancied to go the distance that year and in the closing stages, Glenullin led by a point as Bellaghy lined up a late free. When it dropped in, Dermot McNicholl caught the ball, but was adjudged by Noel McGurk's umpires to have stepped back over the line.
“Dermot will swear he didn't,” Gerard states. “Tony McKiernan took it (the '45') and put it over, he was deadly from frees.
“We didn't expect to draw with them. Everybody put in a big effort and drew with them, but Bellaghy were the better team in the replay.”
Gerard O'Kane senior and junior both wore number seven on Glenullin championship winning teams
Bellaghy blue was a significant colour when Glenullin won their last championship in 2007. Liam Bradley, who missed the 1985 final, was at the helm, as they defeated the Tones after a replay.
O'Kane was club secretary that year and his son Gerard (who like his father, wore the number seven jersey) was man of the match in the replay.
Another son John played on the team at centre back, Dermot was a sub and Michael – who was injured – was in charge of the team's analysis. Niall, the youngest, was on the Derry minor panel and after playing in the first round, didn't play any further part.
“It (2007) was such a big family involvement. Maybe I was older and I appreciated it more, it was a bigger day than 1985 because of the family involvement,” said Gerard senior.
His uncle Dan was on the 1928 winning team, leaving a direct connection with all three of the club's winning teams.
The 1985 win, the enthusiasm it created the fundraising it began, would ensure the club could build the facilities that stand to this day. The underage coaching is beginning to bear fruit again.
“I hope we don't have to wait another generation before we win another one.”
Ever the GAA fanatic.
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