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Setting the standard: Ballinderry's path to a first Ulster title

Dessie Ryan and Pat McGuckin tell the Shamrocks' story of 1981

Setting the standard: Ballinderry's path to a first Ulster title

Ballinderry Shamrocks - Derry and Ulster Champions 1981

After being on the receiving end of a trimming by Scotstown in Ulster, Ballinderry retained the Derry championship in 1981 on the way to the Shamrocks' first Ulster title. Michael McMullan caught up with winning captain Pat McGuckin and trainer Dessie Ryan.

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The years change, success comes in cycles, but the bloodlines stay the same. Connor Nevin was the last Ballinderry captain to hoist the Seamus McFerran Cup after their 2013 win over Glenswilly, following in his father Aidan's footsteps from their first Ulster win.

Before that, Adrian McGuckin was their Ulster winning captain in their All-Ireland winning season of 2001/02, 20 years after his father, Adrian senior, picked up an Ulster medal.

Both successes came after the Shamrocks' unleashed an underage production line that churned out an endless supply of county players, college stars and underage titles. It transformed them into a force at senior level, but it all had to start somewhere.

After retaining the John McLaughlin Cup for the first time in 1981, the fourth of 13 titles, Ballinderry tasted Ulster success for the first time in April of the following year due to a delay in the Ulster campaign. They were captained by Pat McGuckin and his son Kevin, only 14 months old at the time, would go on to annex two Ulster medals, an All-Ireland and was the club's winning captain of 2011.

Pat McGuckin receives the Seamus McFerran Cup from Peter Harte of the Ulster Council following their 1981 success

“I remember us getting off the bus at Duff's Corner and getting on the back of Paddy Conway's lorry,” Pat recalls of the homecoming and an outpouring of joy after defeating Burren to put themselves on the provincial map.

“He would've taken the lorry out for various celebrations down the years. We went on a tour of the parish, down all the wee roads and there was a cavalcade of cars coming behind us blaring the horns, it was just brilliant.”

Within 20 years, there was another invasion across the Ballinderry Bridge. Their All-Ireland heroes, clad in matching suits to mark the occasion of their first appearance in an All-Ireland final, paraded behind pipers Michael Conway and the Bell brothers. It was the final leg on the journey from Thurles, where the final was played due to renovations at Croke Park.

“It's a long way to Tipperary,” they sang in the fading light, as they followed the hazard lights of their late sponsor Colm Scullion's Mercedes Benz up Church Hill.

“That was just something else,” Pat beams with pride. Those who know him, he is Ballinderry to the core.

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Rumour has it that goalkeeper Pat McKee first stepped on a pitch at the age of 17 when he appeared between the posts. Man mountain Gerry McCusker didn't come to prominence until his late teens.

“We didn't have the same underage winning teams like the generations that followed,” Pat McGuckin outlines. “I remember us going to recently cut hay fields, about eight or nine of us, and playing for hours. We all turned into decent senior footballers.”

The club was formed in 1926 and were champions the following year, but had to wait 47 years for the next title.

“We got to a semi-final in 1975 and threw away a title to Lavey in 1977,” McGuckin remembers.

With 10 minutes to go, Paddy Chivers' long ball was punched to the net by Joe Boyle, helping Lavey to a 1-8 to 0-7 win.

The tables were turned in 1980, with the Shamrocks coming through against Lavey after a replay with a team captained by Sean McIvor and managed by Mick McGuckin, who would become club Chairman the following year.

“We were getting better, stronger and more experienced as the years went on,” Pat said.

At the turn of the year, there was a new management team in place. His brother Adrian, who was beginning to make his name on the Ulster Colleges' MacRory Cup scene with St Patrick's Maghera joined Sean McIvor and another experienced player, Malachy Conway, as a management trio. With all three continuing to play, it looked like a difficult situation would arise during the season.

“This problem seemed to be solved when Adrian sustained a nasty neck injury during a Larkin Cup game in March. He decided to retire and concentrate on sideline duties,” Pat points out.

As the the weeks and months passed and with the championship approaching, Adrian got the bug for playing and it wasn't long until the boots were back on.

It coincided with Dessie Ryan's return from New York, where, after a time in construction, he became one of five Irish born members of the Fire Department.

Back on Irish soil, he bought a bar in Ballyronan and Adrian McGuckin floated the idea of coming to train the Shamrocks. It was the last part of the puzzle.

“It was one of the best bits of work we ever did,” Pat states. “He played a major role in our success at that time and ever since.”

While heralded as one of the game's greatest every coaches, admired by some of the of the greatest players from all over Ulster, Ryan's modesty is striking.

“Sometimes you get the credit for what the players do,” stressed Dessie, while repeatedly pointing to the the importance of having people on the pitch who could think on their feet.

***

Ballinderry's first championship obstacle of the 1981 season was Magherafelt, who were champions three years earlier.

“They were a great team and the game was really tight and it could've gone either way,” McGuckin states.

With time almost up, the sides were deadlocked and Ballinderry won a free to win the game. Having kicked balls off the deck since the age of 12, Pat McGuckin was Ballinderry's long-range kicker, something he was 'decent' at. 'Two or three' times a game he would trot forward from defence to kick '45s'.

Even in this twilight years, on Ballinderry Thirds' junior championship winning team of 1993, he burled a handful of points in their semi-final win over Foreglen. A team that included his brother James and future All-Ireland winners Sean Donnelly, Darren Crozier and Fabian Muldoon in their youth.

“The length of the kick gets longer in the telling as the years go on,” Pat jokes about the kick that sunk Magherafelt and put Ballinderry on their way. “But...being the modest man that I am, I can definitely say it was from within my own half.”

Lurking in the next round was a Kilrea team under the management of Leo O'Neill, who were shooting the lights out during the league and the Shamrocks were weary of them.

“We knew we had to be at the top of our game to beat them and we did, to setup a semi-final with Glenullin,” Pat continued.

Ballinderry navigated the 'Glen to book their second successive county final berth against Banagher, who they had beaten in the 1974 decider. Going into the game, Ballinderry had their homework done. Banagher were back-boned by 'hardy' defenders Sean McCloskey, Pat and John McCullagh.

“They had the flying Mickey Lynch at midfield, with Fintan McCloskey and their captain Alfie Dallas as their standout forwards,” McGuckin remembers.

“But we had our own star players and from the experience of the previous year, we went into the game as favourites.”

James, Terence, Pat, Adrian and Mick McGuckin pictured after the 1981 county final. Pat was captain, Adrian is wearing Alfie Dallas' swapped Banagher jersey. Mick was club Chairman, after managing the Shamrocks to the 1980 title

The game proved to be a 'long struggle' before Ballinderry emerged winners, 0-7 to 0-5. It was another passport back into Ulster, where a familiar face awaited them.

***

Once again the draw was 'far from kind'. In 1980, Ballinderry had drawn Monaghan giants Scotstown in the preliminary round at home in Shamrock Park.

“They gave us an absolute thrashing, I think they beat us by 12 points or more,” Pat McGuckin remembers with an accuracy that defeat always delivers.

“What was the draw for 1981? Yes, it was another preliminary round with Scotstown, this time in Ballybay. They had 12 county players on their side and were going for a fourth successive Ulster.”

The media didn't give Ballinderry a prayer and as Pat admits, who could've blame them.

“Dessie Ryan was not a man to throw in the towel. He analysed video tapes and instilled a belief in our team that we could beat them,” McGuckin stated.

Dessie was at the 1980 clash and did watch footage of the Monaghan side, but it was on the pitch where the transformation happened. The players, in his opinion, had belief tucked inside themselves, below the hurt.

“Most of my work was done on the field. I always thought the field was a better blackboard than talking in a classroom.

“It was the thought process of the players,” he added. “I don't want to take any credit, they probably knew themselves they were not as bad as the first day and they had things to prove to themselves.”

Ballinderry turned in a 'courageous' performance right across the board. A 19-year-old James McGuckin had 'a stormer' in defence, while skyscrapers Gerry McCusker and Sean McIvor were 'outstanding' at midfield. Terence McGuckin, still only 18, swung frees over from all angles.

“Brian Duffin sank an unstoppable shot to the net, late on, to send us home with the most narrowest of victories. It was a victory greeted with as much celebration as our county final win and one which gave us great confidence to proceed in the competition,” McGuckin summed up.

Donegal champions Ardara, with young midfielder Anthony Molloy in their ranks, came to Bellaghy for the quarter-final. Goals from brothers Kieran and Kevin Wilkinson put Ballinderry on their way to a comfortable victory. Next up was was Kingscourt Stars in the semi-final back in Bellaghy.

“We loved playing there,” Pat admits. “They had a big name at the time, with many Cavan county players. It was a gripping game, which ended up all square thanks to a late Kingscourt equaliser.”

Replays always cause scheduling problems, but with the inclement weather things got worse.

“It was actually fixed for the Sunday before Christmas, December 20th if my memory serves me right,” said McGuckin.

However, with a weekend of snow and frost, the game was postponed until the following February. It gave Dessie Ryan the chance to ramp up the training and preparations.

***

Dessie Ryan, while he strongly plays it down, is a legendary figure around Ballinderry, often called into management teams. In his own quiet way, he leaves a stamp on any team. While a thinker, he puts faith in players and their ability to make decisions.

“Sometimes I think players themselves are vastly underrated in terms of thinking and that they are just there to play. A lot of success that I have had has came from the players and their thoughts,” Ryan points out. It was something the Ballinderry players had.

“They were natural footballers and you don't want to stifle anything like that. Of course there are positions you need to keep covered all the time. They had this rapport among them that if one went up the field another would drop back.

“If the centre was open, the wing backs would pull towards the middle. Nobody would notice, but it could be the difference in intercepting a pass.”

Ryan, now turned 80, was a running champion in his 70s and his training regime in the winter before the Kingscourt replay, according to Pat McGuckin, remains in Ballinderry folklore.

“My memories are the muck and the clabber,” McGuckin says of those sessions. “The nights were freezing and I remember some of the puddles even frozen over.

“I'll never forget one drill of us sprinting in a line across our old muddy pitch. Every time Dessie blew his whistle, we had to dive forward before getting up and sprinting on. It was horrible at the time, but it developed character and spirit in the panel.”

Not one of the players complained, Dessie recalls. They just got on with it.

“Games are not often called off because of weather, so when you train in those sort of conditions and when the day comes, you are better prepared and you have covered all the eventualities,” Dessie added.

“I felt it was a good mind-building exercise, to go to near breaking point and pulling the plug. You can't help but complement them (the players). That's what counts, you are in it together.”

It stood to Ballinderry on their February visit to Kingscourt, as Ballinderry scraped across the line in a 0-6 to 0-4 and setup a final meeting with a Burren team that would go on to win two All-Irelands and five Ulster titles in the 1980s.

With the county scene in full swing, it was a further eight weeks before their April visit to Lurgan's Davitt Park for the Ulster final.

Burren had Paddy O'Rourke and the McGovern brothers in their team. At corner forward they had Frank McClorey, better known as UTV's Frank Mitchell. Excitement was at an all-time high on the banks of the Ballinderry river as the game approached.

Pat remembers looking out the windows of the bus as they arrived at the ground, seeing some parishioners who had never even been at a Gaelic match before.

It was a low-scoring game, with the teams level 0-2 each at half-time and defences were very much on top during the second half.

“With 10 minutes to go, we struck for two quick goals in succession from Kieran Wilkinson and John Joe Rocks,” Pat McGuckin added.

The Ballinderry team celebrate the 1981 Ulster club title, after their win over Burren

“I was obviously proud to be the first Ballinderry man to accept the Seamus McFerran Cup. The two other lads who enjoyed the same honour - namely Adrian McGuckin junior in 2001 and he played excellently through that campaign.

“Connor Nevin was the captain in 2013 and a son of Aidan who was excellent throughout that 1981 success, playing at centre half-forward.”

In the changing rooms after the game and with the announcement of the All-Ireland semi-final being fixed for seven days later, with Mayo side Garrymore, celebrations quickly died down.

With the quick turnaround, Ballinderry tried in vain to squeeze an extra week to help preparations for their opponents, who were fresh after spending months preparing after their Connacht win.

“The game went ahead, as planned, in Bellaghy which was a help. James (McGuckin) was our centre half-back and an important cog in our machine. He broke his finger in the first five minutes and had to be replaced.

“It disrupted us and the other bits of luck we were enjoying, then deserted us as well. We lost the game by one solitary point and despite not playing at our best, it was a game we could've won,” Pat admits.

In the weeks that followed, the disappointment subsided and Ballinderry began to bask in the the glory of their Ulster title.

The following week, a Mickey Niblock inspired Nemo Rangers beat Garrymore fairly handsomely in the final,” Pat continued.

Since hanging up the boots, Pat has remained a regular fixture at Shamrock Park. He is completing an unbroken 12-year spell as club secretary. This would have doubled from various other stints in the post.

"I've enjoyed them all especially the recent term as modern technology has made communication so much easier and I have plenty of spare time,” he concluded.

“Like playing, there comes a time to move aside and let a younger member take the reigns...that time is very very soon,but I'll still be knocking about at something if God spares me.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same. It's in the blood.

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