Ciaran McNally led Bellaghy to Ulster glory in 2000.
Originally published on 26th March 2020
Twenty years ago, Bellaghy were setting out their stall to clinch a third senior title in succession and eventually banish their losing streak in Ulster finals. Joe Cassidy and captain Ciaran McNally took Michael McMullan on an wander into the past...
Twelve years before helping Cathal Scullion to strike gold in an Ulster Club final, Joe Cassidy was setting up goals.
This time, in the colours of Ballynease PS. A week after losing the 1988 Castle Cup final, by virtue of a last minute goal, to a Johnny McBride and Bosco O'Neill inspired Moneymore, the sides met again.
The shoe was on the other foot this time. Only a goal would save Bellaghy, thought Cassidy as he stood over the late free. With the benefit of hindsight, only Ronaldo would have found the net from the environs of right wing.
Ciaran McNally began his run from full-back. He took a 'complete gamble'.
“I just swung at 'er with an auld scuffed box, and she fell into the net,” laughs McNally, who was the team's goalkeeper 12 months earlier.
Joe Cassidy and Ciaran McNally celebrate success with Ballynease PS
This was the start of McNally and Cassidy's winning run. They were on Bellaghy's Ulster minor winning team six years later. Under McBride's captaincy, the Bellaghy duo played for Derry in the 1995 All-Ireland minor final defeat to Westmeath.
By that time, Cassidy had secured the first of six senior medals as a panellist for the 1994 win, which ended Bellaghy's eight year absence from the pinnacle of Derry football.
McNally had to wait until his debut year of 1996 for senior glory and he would pick up four more championships and captain them to Ulster glory.
“The best team, more often than not, always wins the championship,” Cassidy begins.
“We had two different Ulster minor winning teams (the first of which came in 1991) – two complete new sets of players.”
Sam Maguire winners Karl Diamond, Danny Quinn and Joe's older brother Damian were also to the fore.
“There was the likes of Gerry McPeake, Seamus Birt, Damian Brown and Benny Lee, boys that had a bit of experience.”
The pieces of the puzzle were slotting into place to rule the Derry club scene.
Kilmacud Crokes' goalkeeper Mick Pender's late penalty save, from Damian Cassidy, denied the Tones a second All-Ireland on St Patrick's Day 1995, but after going on to dominate the race for the John McLaughlin Cup, Crossmaglen became their nemesis in Ulster.
“They beat us in 1996 (replay) and 1998. Both times, there wasn't the kick of a ball between the two teams,” McNally outlines.
The 1983 All-Ireland final, between Dublin and Galway, was the video of choice on the Bellaghy bus as they headed to their 1999 Ulster semi-final date with Enniskillen. The irony wasn't lost on Joe Cassidy. Dublin had three men sent off, including then Derry senior boss Brian Mullins. Later that afternoon, Bellaghy also finished with 12 men as they bowed out of Ulster.
“In those first four of five years, we got to Ulster finals and semi-finals regularly,” McNally adds. Without an Ulster title, Bellaghy were going to 'underachieve', he remembers thinking at the time.
Joe Cassidy's thoughts also flash back to the 1996 final and 'having it won' until John McEntee's late equaliser.
In the replay, Bellaghy were also a point up going into injury time. Cassidy remembers Damian's free dropping in around the Crossmaglen square. If they even had kicked the ball dead the title was theirs, he laments.
“The ball got played out to the wing to Oisin McConville and he ran about 90 yards,” Joe adds. “With hindsight, the best thing would've been to do a 'Sean Cavanagh' and pull him down....we'd have been Ulster champions.”
Three passes later, Cathal Short – who played on the same UUJ Freshers' team as Cassidy and Gareth Doherty months earlier– slid the ball past Kevin O'Neill and Cross were on their way to their first All-Ireland.
Lavey knocked Bellaghy out of the 1997 championship, before Seamus Birt and Colm McElwee took charge at the start of a three year stint that brought three league and championship doubles. For, Joe Cassidy, 1998 was their best chance of winning an All-Ireland.
By 2000, Paul Diamond – who Cassidy rates as one of the best he played with – was out of favour. Gone was the experience of Danny Quinn and Damian Cassidy.
“For us, he (Quinn) was a leader. He was one of those boys I loved playing with, he could hit you with a pass from about 40 yards away and not all midfielders had the ability to do that. Damian was the same. You just needed to make a half a step and Damian had the ball popped in your hand.”
After a comfortable win over Lavey in the 1998 county final, Bellaghy were back knocking on Crossmaglen's door in the Ulster final, but super-sub Michael Moley scored the winner.
Ballinderry qualified for the final the following year, after beating Lavey 'out the gate' at Bellaghy. Joe Cassidy, who was stewarding at the game, remembers Conleith Gilligan's fist pump towards a vociferous Shamrocks' support after being replaced late in the game – as a 'bring on Bellaghy' type salute.
“That county final was one of my favourite ones. It was at Ballinascreen and it was on a Sunday night. There was an unreal atmosphere and a young group of (Bellaghy) boys brought flares.
“I remember walking behind the band...McNally and different boys were giving Gilligan a few 'welcome messages', so they were.
Louis McPeake scored Bellaghy's goal but they needed points from man of the match Damian Cassidy and Gavin Diamond to seal victory.
That season ended with that defeat by Enniskillen. Without the elusive Ulster title, Bellaghy's dinner dance in Arbys the following February was like a 'ghost town', Cassidy remembers.
“Even though we had won the league and championship double...because you had done so bad in Ulster, it nearly looked like a bad year. There was a real dead atmosphere.
“You're expectations were to win an Ulster and, after seeing what Crossmaglen had done, the ultimate was to win an All-Ireland.”
Despite a winning start to the 2000 season, Bellaghy weren't firing on all cylinders. Danny Quinn was player coach and was taking '90 percent' of the training.
Ulster Club Champions 2000
“Mamma (Seamus Birt) was manager. You would land at training and everything was organsied, so he had those traits,” stated Cassidy.
“Before that era (1994/95), training was pretty pre-historic. My first innovator with training was Henry Downey at school. In around the club scene, Danny (Quinn) began to innovate things, he was coming off the back of county level."
Mickey Moran came on board as Bellaghy's trainer later in the summer, following Sligo's exit out west.
“That sort've gave us the kick up the backside that we needed, with someone of Mickey's level coming in. His training was top drawer.”
One of Ciaran McNally's recollections of their Ulster winning campaign was how 'damn lucky' they were to even get to Clones. The wheels almost coming off the wagon against Lavey in Greenlough.
“It was a one or two point game, with a few minutes to go,” McNally remembers, when a loose ball pinged around in the Bellaghy penalty area.
“I think it even hit the post and was heading across the line. All anybody had to do was get a toe to it and we were gone, then we ended up winning Ulster.”
Joe Cassidy goes past Martin Califf in the 1998 Ulster Club final.
A six point win over Loup didn't satisfy the Bellaghy fans who now had lofty expectations.
“People around the town were taking it for granted that we'd beat the Loup and we, as players, could feel that," McNally continues, knowing it was going to be a battle.
“I remember getting slated after it and people were saying 'youse were terrible' and I remember saying....'we won'.”
There was a draw with Slaughtneil in semi-final before Fergal Doherty, in his second senior season, hammered over a point in the early stages of the replay.
“He would have been nervous in around the changing room, he was young at the time,” his captain outlines. “I remember the roar and relief from him (after scoring) and it was great from our respective.”
The final was another showdown with their rivals Ballinderry again. It was a damp squib. Both McNally and Cassidy acknowledge almost 'falling over the line' in a 0-9 to 0-8 victory.
“Somebody needs to just stop that man,” McNally remembers thinking as the Shamrocks' defensive rock Niall McCusker ferried the ball from corner back, up the wing before his diagonal ball went out for a '45'.
“The ball then came in, dropped short and we cleared it. Then came the relief with the final whistle.”
With three-in-a-row now secure, Bellaghy needed a win over Castledawson to keep their league hopes intact but an ankle ligament injury sustained in that game put Joe Cassidy's Ulster club hopes in doubt.
Bellaghy received a bye in the first round of Ulster, following Cargin's suspension dished out after their final with arch-rivals St Paul's.
Cassidy came on as a sub late in their semi-final victory over Cavan champions Gowna, who Bellaghy also met on their way to the 1994 title.
On the other side of the draw, Castleblayney disposed of Crossmaglen in the quarter-final before falling to Errigal Ciaran.
“I had an idea (I wasn't starting)...you don't break up a winning team and we had played well in the semi-final,” Cassidy admits.
Bellaghy won the toss and elected to play against the breeze. Bellaghy owned the ball in the first half but a litany of wides saw them trail 0-4 to 0-2 at the break.
Peter Canavan had fired over the bar for the game's first score, but never got a kick off David O'Neill who dominated the Tyrone legend in the air.
Cassidy's 'worst nightmare' was being paired off against 'Neilly' in training games.
“Between him and Sean Marty (Lockhart), I don't know how many roastings I got over the years.”
Birt gave Cassidy the nod to warm up at the interval and six minutes into the second half, he entered the fray.
“I was coming in fresh and the first ball I got, I turned and fired this thing over the bar from 40 yards. You looked like a super player but the breeze was carrying it.”
Bellaghy's defence, which included man of the match Peter Diamond, held Errigal scoreless for a full 30 minutes until Mark Harte's consolation goal in stoppage time.
Six minutes before that, Cathal Scullion's goal put the game to bed and Bellaghy could savour the march to glory.
“Karl Diamond put the ball into the corner,” Cassidy recalls, with the help of watching the game again in his father Dan Joe's Ballynease museum of GAA.
“Gavin Diamond came off the shoulder, I flicked it to Gavin and it became a two versus one. He put it into Chubber (Cathal Scullion) who put it into the back of the net.”
Cassidy and McNally, interviewed separately, both speak with a laugh of Scullion swinging his jersey over his head in celebration.
“I will never forget Peter Doc (Doherty) on the terrace, jumping up and down. At that stage, you knew you had it. There is no better feeling when you have trained your whole life to try and win something,” Cassidy enthused.
For McNally, it was always about learning from defeats and the 'steeliness' it helps to generate.
“I always tell people 'it's not all bad' if it makes you come back the following year that bit more determined.”
It took Scullion's goal to cement the result. Some years later, Ciaran lost his father (Emmet) and mother (Anne) suddenly but he clearly remembers his father telling of the sheer joy on the Clones' steps, as Bellaghy eventually ended their Ulster losing streak.
“The supporters were so disappointed in previous years. To have that picture in your head, of us being home and hosed, it was special.”
At the final whistle, McNally embraced goalkeeper Ciaran Donnelly before being whisked off to the presentation area by an Ulster Council official.
After years in the Ulster wilderness, the Tones' skipper stood alone, before bellowing into the microphone to urge the throngs of joyous royal blue clad players and fans to join him.
McNally didn't tempt fate. No speech was prepared, but two things came flooding back. He firstly made sure to commiserate with Errigal Ciaran. He knew the drill, having had one hand and four fingers of the other on the Seamus McFerran Cup before McEntee, Moley and Short – on three separate occasions - pulled it out of Bellaghy's grasp.
He also had a 'sincere' word of thanks for Seamus Birt and Colm McElwee who took 'an awful lot' of abuse following defeats to Cross and Enniskillen.
“I hope you are as quick to come forward and thank them,” McNally told the Bellaghy faithful. “They done a lot of work, won us three-in-a-row and an Ulster.”
Following the customary post game meal in Paudge Quinn's restaurant, the team bus – rocking from the sing-song inside – rolled into the middle of Bellaghy. The players marched up to Muldoon's shop and back to the Diamond, before heading to the club to celebrate long into the night.
“Those are the nights you will never forget,” Cassidy insists. “There is no tomorrow, just endless partying, craic and everybody is in good form. There is something special about waking up the morning after a club final. There is no hangover, you just can't wait to get to speaking to people and meeting your family.”
Ciaran McNally rasies the Seamus McFerran aloft in the Clones tunnel.
His younger brother Ryan (top left) looks on.
In the All-Ireland semi-final, they were defeated by eventual winners Crossmolina. It was an emotion Bellaghy knew only too well. Crossmaglen (twice), Ballinderry and St Gall's also beat the Tones on their way to lifting the Andy Merrigan Cup.
Patrick McAndrew's goal gave the Mayo men a 1-5 to 0-4 interval lead. With eight minutes to go, two Gavin Diamond points had the margin down to two points before Ciaran McDonald was sprung from the bench.
“He was carrying an ankle injury, but the next thing he came on and fired over a couple of absolute reevers and they beat us by four,” states Joe Cassidy, who one of Bellaghy's only two scorers that day.
Later that night, in the wee small hours, Ciaran McNally sat out on the swing in the family garden. Staring into oblivion, until the birds began to chirp. It was time to reflect.
“I just couldn't go into the house,” he said.
Despite people trying to soften the blow earlier in the night, McNally knew it was going to be a long way back.
For Cassidy, he feels he speaks for everyone of that era - highlighting the regret of not winning an All-Ireland.
“After that, managers came in and tried things and what you'll find is...managers will generally get the blame, invariably from players – and I include myself in that,” Cassidy said.
“It is only with experience and hindsight, you realise it had f**k all to do with management. It was to do with hunger and lots of us were making excuses.”
Ballinderry beat them in 2001, a final Bellaghy played better than their grind a year previous. First round defeats at the hands of the Shamocks and Glenullin prevented them from getting back to a decider until Slaughtneil beat them in the 2004 final.
Under the tutelage of Damian Cassidy, they realised that John McLaughlin wasn't a million miles away again.
“One of his main attributes as a manager is his ability to get best that he can out of squads. Every night at training, he challenged you," states Joe, who was top scorer in the 2005 championhship.
Their 2-7 to 1-6 win over Loup in 2005 took Bellaghy to 21 on the roll of honour. It was followed up by an Ulster win in Crossmaglen but that was the last hurrah in the winners' enclosure. St Gall's, with future Bellaghy boss John Rafferty at the helm beat them in an Ulster final.
“Money couldn't buy what I got out of it,” McNally sums up of his career.
“The only travesty about it is that you get too far down the line before you realise it. It was taken for granted.”
“You see things now, with families all gathered around (after finals) taking photos...we didn't do that because we thought that's the way it was.”
It's a regret. McNally got his hands on championship silver in four of the first five years of his senior career.
“If I had a few lean years before it, you maybe would've knew to appreciate it,” he concludes.
When Joe Cassidy's lofted ball landed in the Moneymore goalmouth all those years ago and McNally's fisted goal brought silverware back to Ballynease, it was only the beginning of a journey to the steps of the Gerry Arthurs stand...a day when Bellaghy were kings of Ulster.
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