29 Sept 2022

Lavey tournament was forerunner to Ulster club championship

The cream of Ulster's footballing talent descended on Gulladuff in 1964.

Lavey tournament was forerunner to Ulster club championship

The Lavey Provincial Challege Cup was highly sought after throughout Ulster.

Almost 60 years ago, the cream of Ulster football travelled to Gulladuff for what became the forerunner to the modern Ulster club championship. Vincent O'Neill tells Liam Tunney what it was like having Ulster's finest on your doorstep.

The roads around Gulladuff would have been thronged. Club members marshalled cars into adjacent fields as hordes of people streamed up the road towards Hugh A McGurk's field.

Boys played handball against the gable wall of the old police station while the crowd rolled past, babbling with anticipation as Ulster's top footballers prepared to go head-to-head.

In the early 1960s, Erin's Own launched their Provincial Challenge Tournament, with invitations extended to county champions across Ulster, alongside other local teams.

The brainchild of Hugh A McGurk, the tournament had been discussed for a number of years prior to its inauguration, but the original prize offered had drawn the ire of the Ulster Council.

“I remember being around, maybe starting to go to meetings or just hanging about and the talk maybe went on for about a year,” said former Lavey secretary Vincent O'Neill.

“They wanted to organise a big tournament and put up a decent prize, and the prize was £1,000 - which was a lot of money then - for the winning team.

“The Ulster Council kicked up, and it was in the paper that this was completely illegal, and then Lavey had to backtrack a bit and say the money was for the club, not just the players.”

Lavey in the 1960s was a far cry from the plush surroundings of the modern Athletic Grounds where Derrygonnelly and Kilcoo met last weekend.

Before the stars of the Ulster club scene could take to the turf, some younger members had to see to the day-to-day realities of rural life.

“The pitch was across the road from where the current pitch is; just a grass field that Hugh grazed his cows on,” said Vincent.

“The night before they'd have been taken out of the field, so they couldn't get into the pitch. The night before we had to go round with a pick and lift all the cow pats off the pitch.

Vincent O'Neill was a schoolboy when Ulster's finest headed for Gulladuff.

“We'd a bucket of water and a brush, and someone emptied the water on them and we got all the evidence brushed into the ground.”

If the players caught a whiff of the hastily brushed evidence, it didn't show, and the Mid Ulster Observer from the time used words like 'humdinger' and 'sensation' to describe the games.

1964 was the competition's zenith, with a local derby between Slaughtneil and Bellaghy whetting the appetite for what was to come.

After they pipped the Tones to a 1-8 to 1-7 victory, one Emmet's supporter was asked by the Mid Ulster Observer if it was a surprise result.

“Not a bit of it, sure we expected to win,” they said.

“Didn't we beat Bellaghy twice before – in a tournament game and in the league? We had their measure and we knew it. Now Bellaghy knows it too.”

The win set up a semi final clash with Donegal side Ballybofey, while on the other side of the draw, Antrim side Rasharkin met Crossmaglen.

“I wouldn't miss it for all the eels in Lough Neagh,” said the Mid Ulster Observer report in the lead up to the latter, and their excitement was justified.

Reports from the games were carried in the Mid Ulster Observer, which arrived in Gulladuff every Thursday on the grocery cart.

Before a crowd the Observer said was 'the largest ever seen at a club match in South Derry', the Antrim men scored a late goal to win and set up what would be an eventful final against Ballybofey.

Gene Duffy, who played for Crossmaglen in that game, remembers the buzz around getting up to Lavey for the competition.

“It was a big tournament at the time. I remember the Rasharkin team very well; they were a big, strong, physical team,” he said.

“I think there was money for the winners, but we didn't care. My abiding memory of it was being picked up in Drogheda in a Volkswagen car.

“We'd a couple of county players who were working down in Dublin; Brendan Donaghy and Kevin Halfpenny who were working there, so I was being picked up in Drogheda to come up to Gulladuff.

“Back then, there was no GPA to get you expenses for taking a half day off work, but we didn't care, we just loved playing at the time.”

Crossmaglen won the 1965 Armagh championship after competing at Gulladuff in 1964. 'Gene Duffy (fifth from the left, back row) was a member of both sides.

For a young Vincent O'Neill, seeing players up close who had only been names in adulating conversation was a genuine thrill.

“One of the boys we were waiting for was Joe Kernan, who was coming to us from Crossmaglen,” he said.

“Bellaghy had a wheen of good men; Tom Scullion and Willie Strathearn was a midfielder. They were a great team.

“Sean Young too from Ballybofey. We didn't know this boy was from Ballymaguigan and then we were told about him coming and you were watching for him being pointed out.

“There were some thrilling matches. That Ballybofey-Rasharkin final was thundering.”

In fact, that 1964 final was played in two instalments after the first game ended in a draw at 1-10 apiece.

The replay was equally close, with the Mid Ulster Observer reporting that 'the closeness of the scores kept the interest white hot', but it was to end in acrimony.

With the scores level in the closing stages, a wayward tackle resulted in spectators clashing on the pitch.

The Observer reported that Rasharkin were a side that 'if they had kept their heads, could probably have won the trophy'.

They weren't going quietly however, and as an attempt was made to hand the trophy to Ballybofey, a few over-eager supporters tried to disrupt the presentation.

“Fr Mullan was the curate, Mickey Mullan from Ballerin. He was a brother of Brian Mullan that played for Derry in the '58 team, and he was presenting the trophy,” said Vincent.

“I remember standing watching him trying to hold onto the cup and three or four boys trying to pull it off him. But generally speaking, there was great football and a great atmosphere.

“The cheering, the clapping and the excitement was just like what you'd expect now, but that was my first experience of it.”

The Rasharkin team who took part in the infamous 1964 final of the tournament in Gulladuff.

The Lavey Tournament had a brief run, but in an age of recreational carnivals, its popularity and prestige paved the way for the introduction of today's Ulster series.

“It was incredible, the crowds were enormous, there were thousands at the finals and semi finals,” said Vincent O'Neill.

“There was serious excitement. Lavey stopped for it; the clocks stopped. The place was jam packed with cars. Where the present pitch is now, the field was full of cars.

“This was the birth of the Ulster championship; it's what sparked it. It was Hugh A's idea, we have to give him credit.”

Four years after the events of 1964, the Ulster Council held the first ever official provincial club championship, with Bellaghy – who regularly lit up Hugh A McGurk's field - taking the title.

The tournament marked the evolution of the era's carnival culture into something more serious and competitive, and as the organisation of Gaelic Games progressed, things moved on.

“I think that era is gone, there is too much on,” said Vincent.

“There is so much underage, U20, college football. Carnivals are a part of culture that has just been let go. There's too much competitive football and hurling as well to ever go back to that.

“The Lavey tournament was talked about in houses for a long, long time, but then things move on and so many people have gone...”

Vincent pauses, his research in front of him on the table, as if reliving the roar of the crowd, the colour of the jerseys, even the slap of the ball against the gable wall.

“Now you're interviewing me about it; it's scary,” he added.

The crest of a wave: Lavey's path to the top of club football

Thirty years ago Lavey were crowned All-Ireland club champions. Captain Johnny McGurk looks back on a year of memories and what made their journey special. Michael McMullan tells the story...

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