18 May 2022

Derry GAA in the 1980s: Laying the building blocks

Danny Quinn looks at the rise towards winning Sam

Derry GAA in the 1980s: Laying the building blocks

Ulster minor champions 1984 - Derry

The eighties were kind to Danny Quinn. At club, county, school and college level, he was no stranger to success during an era when Derry were laying the foundations for a shot at the biggest prize of all, Sam Maguire. He spoke to Michael McMullan...

Derry's success came in cycles. From decade to decade, one generation has fed into the next.

As Derry seniors, the early trailblazers, prepared for their run to the All-Ireland final of 1958, they would stop off in Diamond's cafe in Bellaghy on their way back from training in nearby Newbridge.

As a youngster, their son Tommy would see his heroes calling in and would later captain Derry to All-Ireland minor and U21 titles in the sixties, a team that also produced Eamonn Coleman, John Joe Kearney and Chris Brown who led Derry to their other minor titles. The group also fed into the county's senior team that would win three senior titles in the 1970s.

For Danny Quinn, the team of the seventies also resonates with him. At the time Bellaghy were one of the few clubs with lights and hosted county training. Not yet a teenager, Danny would call in to watch.

He remembers being among a group of youngsters pitting themselves against goalkeeper John Somers, trying their luck to beat the Derry number one.

“He would be so determined not to let anyone score past him, not even us young boys, you had to earn your goal,” Danny remembers.

Quinn also recalls that Derry facing Armagh in Bellaghy during the 1975 McKenna Cup. Fresh in his mind were the flowing locks and headband of Gerry McElhinney in full flight. 'Two or three' players tried to get a hand on him up the wing and after cutting along the end-line he stuck the ball in the top corner. Goalkeeper Brian McAlinden never saw it.

“I never saw anything like it,” Quinn enthusiastically states. “Gerry McElhinney was just unbelievable. He was so athletic and so quick. He was something else.”

The 1970s saw Derry rub shoulders with the great Kerry and Dublin teams. Mick O'Dwyer once said the Derry 1970s team was the best side never to have been blessed with Sam Maguire.

By the turn of the decade, the shoots began to appear on a crop that would yield the greatest harvest of all, the 1993 All-Ireland title.

Off the field, the beginning of the 1980s was a challenging period in Derry and all over Ulster, with the troubles in Northern Ireland leading to death and constant disruption. It left playing and organising Gaelic games a challenge, never mind winning silverware. On the pitch, Derry's stock was rising.


Adrian McGuckin arrived in St Patrick's Maghera and after building on Sean Murphy's 1970 MacLarnon title, a first MacRory Cup arrived seven years later and the school went on to to appear in 11 finals, including six titles two replays (both in 1988) during the eighties.

St Pius Magherafelt, with Damian Barton leading the charge, were also coming to the fore with All-Ireland U16 and U19 titles. The now defunct Derry Vocational Schools team won three All-Irelands in succession, adding to the glut of talent.

“It was a unique era in schools' football,” Danny Quinn offers as one of the influences on the county team.

“Every year I was at Maghera, the school was in the MacRory final, that's the way it was.”

A goalkeeper at Corn na nÓg level, Quinn soon moved to defence on teams coming up the school and left with three MacRory medals to his name, the last one, in 1985, as captain.

St Patrick's Maghera - 1984 MacRory Cup Champions

He still rues the Hogan Cup final defeat the previous year, with Mark Butler's winning point for St Jarlath's from under the Cusack Stand, one that sits with the All-Ireland club final defeat, as Bellaghy captain, to Kilmacud Crokes in 1995 as the ones that got away.

The players coming up through the school and underage scene were raising the standard, but the club scene, in Quinn's opinion, was another driving force in the success of the county.

“There were so many great players at that time and club football was competitive.” said Quinn, who has six Derry and two Ulster championship medals with the Tones among his glittering array of honours.

“At the start of the 1980s, Ballinderry totally dominated the scene,” Quinn begins. “They were a massive team and won three in a row and went on to take an Ulster title as well.

“Dungiven came in and won three championships, Glenullin won it in 1985 and we won it the year after that.”

Danny made his club senior debut in the 'closing stages' of the 1983 season, before becoming a regular the next season, mixing it with his final year in the minor grade. Lavey and Newbridge would also etch their names on the John McLaughlin Cup during the decade.

“It was hard to win a Derry championship around that time and that helped raise the standard as well,” Quinn stresses.

“There were a lot of good club players around. Henry (Downey) captained Lavey when he was only 20 or 21, not that long out of school. There was a strong group of clubs and with schools going well, if you put that together I suppose there would be natural progression.”

Derry county teams began collecting silverware on the back of the rising tide, with what Quinn describes as a 'serious squad' of players beginning to assemble.

Under Matt Trolan, Derry minors won Ulster in 1980 and 1981 before coming up short to Kerry and a Colm O'Neill inspired Cork on All-Ireland final day. A 14 year-old Dermot McNicholl came on as a substitute in the 1980 decider but would lead the Oakleafers over the line three years later against Cork, 0-8 to 1-3.

With Danny Quinn at midfield, Derry won Ulster in a low-scoring 1-4 to 0-3 final victory over Armagh, before succumbing to eventual All-Ireland champions Dublin, who were built around Paul Clarke and Jim Stynes.

Those four Ulster winning minor teams provided nine players who would win Sam for Derry in 1993, but Quinn feels there should've been a tenth had Faughanvale's Paul Bradley not picked up a serious knee injury.

“I have no doubt he would've been decorated with a load of medals. I have no hesitation in saying he'd have gone on to play for Derry 1993, he was some footballer,” Danny points out.

When St Mary's won the 1989 Sigerson Cup, Bradley wintered well in the gym ahead of the preliminary round against UUJ.

“With about 10 minutes left, he (Bradley) wrecked his knee again, he was unlucky,” recalls Quinn, who points to the luck required to stay clear of injury during a career. “He was outstanding. If he hadn't played that day, we (St Mary's) mightn't have won Sigerson.”

Under the guidance of Sean O'Kane, Derry U21s picked up from the minor grade and won three Ulster titles, but despite getting to two All-Ireland finals, the big prize eluded them.

A Donegal side with five future All-Ireland senior winners – including Martin McHugh and Anthony Molloy – beat Derry by two points in the 1982 Ulster decider on their way to the All-Ireland, U21 crown, but the role was reversed in a 3-13 to 1-3 Ulster final the following year.

Tony Scullion, who didn't feature at minor level, had blossomed into a fine defender. The performance against Donegal that day in Healy Park would have 'beaten anyone', pointed out a report in the Derry Centenary book.

Derry saw off Kildare in the All-Ireland semi-final, thanks to the input of Eamon P Cassidy coming off the bench to set up a final with Mayo.

In the rain of Carrick-on-Shannon, Derry struggled to get to grips with the Connacht champions and needed a late goal to force a replay. Dermot McNicholl was cut down in full flow and Damian Barton rifled the 13 metre free to the net.

A Barton penalty had Derry on the way to glory in the replay, but Mayo – with Kevin McStay, John Maughan, Peter Forde and goalkeeper Gabriel Irwin among a spine of future county seniors - came back for a 1-8 to 1-5 win.

Derry U21s were back against Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final of 1985 and found themselves on their way out of the championship.

“We were getting beat by four points with two minutes to go,” Danny Quinn remembers.

“Declan McNicholl scored 1-1 to save us. He first scored a goal and when the ball came back out the field, the ball broke and he stuck one over with this left foot, 40 metres out to get a draw.”

Derry won the replay but Colm O'Neill was back haunting Derry in the final, with help from Paul McGrath with five points in a 0-14 to 1-8 win for the Rebels. That Cork team included Tony Davis, Danny Culloty, Mick McCarthy, Barry Coffey and Teddy McCarthy, all of whom played in the 1993 senior final against Derry.


At senior level, Derry were in the realms of mediocrity at the start of the eighties, far from the 1990s and the upper echelons of the league.

They finished 1980 in second place, behind Antrim, in Division 2 North. Within two seasons, they had a brief spell in the top flight, before dropping away again.

Derry - 1985 Ulster senior finalists

Things began to change as the underage talent started to drip feed into the senior ranks. A shoot of light came from a run in the 1984 Centenary Cup, a separate competition from the championship.

After beating Cork in the first round in Ballinascreen, Derry saw off Kerry after extra time in Tuam before losing to Monaghan in the semi-final. From that team, Damian Cassidy, Dermot McNicholl, Joe Irwin, Damian Barton and Tony Scullion would play in the 1987 Ulster winning team.

In 1985, the second year of the open draw competition, Derry only registered four points in a first round defeat to Limerick in Askeaton, but still advanced to the Ulster senior final, where they fell to a Monaghan team that took the great Kerry side to an All-Ireland semi-final replay.

It was a progression, providing a base for the county to grow.

“At county level, we won minors and U21s, so you'd be hoping at some time it comes through to senior,” Danny Quinn points out. “That's what led to the team we had in the nineties.”

Another factor was having all the right people in charge, something Danny is keen to stress.

“Adrian McGuckin was at Maghera and with Ballinderry, so it was no fluke they were both winning. He had that winning mentality,” he said.

“St Pius was going well with Brendan Convery and Philip Kerr involved. We were very lucky that everything in Derry was being done well.

“We had a group of great people involved. When I joined the senior panel, Jim McKeever, Phil Stuart and Tom Scullion were involved, boys that were very experienced.

“The minor team of 1980 and 1981, Matt Trolan was in charge. Again, there was someone who had great experience at county level and he had played for Derry for years.

“We were very lucky with the people we had looking after teams who had that experience at playing for Derry and knew what it was to win and really wanted to win.”

Danny Quinn has since coached Derry to win an U21 All-Ireland in 1997 and has been a major cog in Bellaghy's success. He continues to beat the drum for workrate.

“That's what came through in Maghera and being involved in the MacRory,” he stresses. “Adrian said everyone was working harder than us and we had to keep working. You believed every word he said, went out and trained hard and done everything that was asked of you.

“Eamonn (Coleman) was the same, he always told us the harder we worked the better chance there was of Derry winning. I think that gets into boys' heads of what is needed for success.

“John Joe Kearney did a serious job with that 1989 minor team. Once again he came out of that (1965 minor) team Eamonn played on. Chris Brown was the same.”

Danny missed out on the All-Ireland minor win of 1983, but after hooking up with the squad the following year he came under Coleman's wing all the way to senior level.

“I was very lucky to have somebody like that, he was brilliant with the players and had brilliant craic with the players,” Danny adds.

“That is important, we were being led well. All during the eighties there was an improvement in everything. Even before that, in the seventies, Derry had done well and were playing in Ulster senior finals.”

Danny Quinn counts himself lucky to have played on so many successful teams, with some excellent players at all levels in club, county, school and college football. His honours list backs it up. But there are still regrets.

“I suppose what sticks out from those days in the early eighties, was how competitive everything was at that level.

“It was fantastic to be involved in schools' football when Maghera were winning all the time, That group of players, a lot were involved in the Derry minor and U21 teams.

“The disappointment was that we didn't win an All-Ireland U21 with that group of players, I'd love to have done what the 1965 (minor) team did. There is a bit of disappointment that we didn't win more.”

The Derry senior team turned into the second half of the eighties in a stronger place, but it was only the beginning.

ALSO READ - Part 2 and the final parts of the puzzle as Derry begin to march towards the Sam Maguire.

Derry minors (1980 v Kerry): John Mackle, Barney McNabb, Martin O'Brien, Martin Tully, Mickey Convery, Oliver McKee, Damien McCloskey, Damian Barton, Danny O'Kane, Liam McElhinney, Brian McErlain, John McErlain, Paddy McKiernan, Terence McGuckin, Ronan McCusker
Subs: Matt Bradley for M O'Brien, Dermot McNicholl for T McGuckin

Derry minors (1981 v Cork): Liam Peoples, Barney McNabb, Kevin Rafferty, Eamon Reilly, Cathal Kelly, Benny McPeake, Martin Tully, Liam McElhinney, Matt Bradley, Eunan Rafferty, Danny O'Kane, Terence McGuckin, Dermot McNicholl, John McErlain, John A Mullan
Subs: James McGrath for B McNabb, Paul McCormack for M Bradley

Derry minors (1983 v Cork): Don Kelly, Patrick O'Donnell, Paul Bradley, Raymond Conway, Johnny McGurk, Brian Kealey, Niall Mullan, Peter Young, Kieran Barton, Dermot McNicholl, Eddie McElhinney, Damian Cassidy, Cathal McNicholl, Eamonn Lynch, Tony McKiernan

Derry minors (1984 v Armagh): Damien McCusker, Eamonn Burke, Colm Feeney, Peter McGrellis, Collie McGurk, Paul Bradley, Stephen Walls, Danny Quinn, Peter Young, Enda Gormley, Paul Donnelly, Damien Hasson, Noel McGovern, Conor Kealey, Vincent McKenna

Derry U21 (1983 replay v Mayo): John Mackle, Kevin Rafferty, Francie Burke, Tony Scullion, John McErlain, Benny McPeake, Ciaran Keenan, Kieran Quinn, Damian Barton, Liam McElhinney, Dermot McNicholl, Paul McCann, Terence McGuinness, Ronan McCusker, Terence McGuckin
Subs: Danny O'Kane for T McGuinness, Martin Tully for B McPeake, Eamon P Cassidy for C Quinn

Derry U21 (1985 v Cork): Damien McCusker, Barry Young, Francie Burke, Paul McCann, Johnny McGurk, Benny McPeake, Niall Mullan, Danny O'Kane, Brian Kealey, Declan McNicholl, Damian Cassidy, Mickey McGurk, Dermot McNicholl, Cathal McNicholl, Tony McKiernan
Subs: Paul Bradley for F Burke, Kieran Barton for M McGurk, John Mulholland for N Mullan

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