Tommy Diamond is carried shoulder high in Croke Park with the Tom Markham Cup in 1965
It was the summer of 1958 and Tommy Diamond was no different to any 11-year-old. He was impressionable. In September, he was listening intently to the wireless, as Derry launched their first bid for Sam Maguire.
He wasn't just reliant on the radio waves to savour the magic. Twice a week, the Derry team would train in nearby Newbridge and he got to meet his heroes.
Where the town's Credit Union now resides, John Joe Diamond's cafe was located on Bellaghy's Castle Street.
Tommy, now 73 years of age, vividly remembers the scene as his mother Cathy made plates of sandwiches for the players before they returned home, to the four corners of the county.
“When you get the county stars in your kitchen twice a week, I got to know them all well and I was friendly with them through the years,” Diamond begins.
Sean O'Connell would later train the Derry teams that Diamond would captain to All-Ireland glory.
“I played with him too, his (Sean's) career lasted a brave while...he must've been 35 when he was still playing with Derry,” Diamond adds.
When Bellaghy All-Ireland winning manager Harry Cassidy took charge at county level, he called Diamond into the senior panel in the early 1970s. He was part of the team that toured New York and Connecticut.
“We went out to play exhibition matches out there. It was an experience to get out there. We also won the Wembley Tournament two years in a row.”
The semi-finals were played in the iconic stadium, with the final played out in New Eltham.
“I was taking a look the other day and I think I have played in every county in Ireland,” Diamond added, of a county career that ended in 1974.
But it was the 1960s, when he left his greatest imprint.
In 1960, Tommy was on Bellaghy's first county U16 championship winning team and was a minor champion three years later. At county level, Derry minors had yet to reach an Ulster final.
The first of Diamond's three years in the county minor team began in the closing stages of a game in Dungiven, with Antrim in the lead.
“I remember being threw on as a late sub and two balls were kicked right over the full-back,” he recalls. “They landed in my hands and all I had to do was to kick them into the net and I think we won by a point.”
After another season of consolidation, a place in the final again eluded them, but there was a crux of a team still eligible for 1965.
“We knew from 1964, we had a good panel and we didn't lose many,” said Diamond, who was made captain.
When Derry defeated Tyrone, Donegal and Fermanagh on their way to the 1965 minor league final, they did so without the St Columb's Derry players who focussed on winning the MacRory and Hogan Cups, under the management of former Fermanagh player Fr Ignatius McQuillan, just four years after tiptoeing onto the Ulster Colleges' scene.
“Then seven or eight of them came onto the Derry (minor) team – which was some help,” Diamond added.
“Fr (Seamus) Shields was the man who put the backbone into us and Sean (O'Connell), he put all the final touches to us, he was a great trainer.
Sean O'Connell, Tommy Diamond and Fr Seamus Shields with the Tom Markham Cup
“We trained twice a week up in Ballinascreen and after training we went into Timoney's for sandwiches and milk every night.”
Aside from the medals and success, Diamond is grateful for the memories and friendships built up, that stood the test of time.
“If any of us ever meet each other, it is a half day session. That's the great thing about it.”
They hammered Donegal in the 1965 first round, in Dungiven, but the win came at a cost with a knee injury to Chris Brown.
In the semi-final it was a different story and it was a narrow 2-7 to 2-6 win over Down, a game that saw Phil Friel sustain three fractured ribs.
“We beat Cavan in the final in Clones,” Diamond remembers. “It was a hard, dour match and a typical Cavan match with hard hitting and not a lot of finesse about it.”
Derry were Ulster champions and with the Hogan Cup now in the county, there was an air of quiet confidence as the squad headed to Croke Park. Diamond's first memory of their epic semi-final with Roscommon was giving the referee his name.
“I was marking Dermot Early that day and we got booked after 10 seconds,” he laughs.
“It was some start to a semi-final. I caught the ball and as soon as I caught the ball, he hit me. He was about two seconds late, I hit him with an upper cut and put him on the broad of his back and both of us were booked.”
Derry were 4-8 to 4-5 winners and with the game in the melting pot in the second half, Early pulled a penalty wide of the posts when the Rossies were four points in arrears.
“The great Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh was commenting and he called it the game of the golden goals. Every one of them was hit in from 25 yards, absolute screamers.”
It was time for one last push. Derry had one hand on the Tom Markham Cup. So too had Kerry.
The Kingdom had the breeze and thanks to some wastefulness in Derry's attack, Kerry were a point ahead at the break. Sean O'Connell's pep talk worked wonders and the cogs began to turn. Tommy Diamond and Seamus Lagan's performance at midfield helped them to a 2-8 to 2-4 win.
“I don't remember an awful about it.” Diamond says.
Earlier in the day, GAA President Alf Murray asked him if had his speech prepared with the customary lines of Irish, should Derry win.
“I had no Irish, so he penned out the speech with the phonetics and I tucked it into the pocket of my shorts”.
The speech must've slipped out during the game and as he stood on the presentation podium, Diamond's pocket was empty.
“I am the first man to just speak in English, I don't think it went down to well but I just had to go ahead with it,” he continued.
The team stayed out in Portmarnock on the Saturday and Sunday night. Just recently Donal Mullan, son of county official at the time Paddy, handed Diamond a ticket from the post-final banquet.
“The entrance admission was just 10 shillings,” he added.
The homecoming on the Monday took 'nearly six hours', with crowds coming out along the route to salute the new champions. There were bonfires as the team crossed the county border. On the final leg of the journey, the victory cavalcade of cars coming to Maghera streamed all the way back to Tobermore. The Brackaghreilly Pipe band led John Mulholland's decorated lorry up Maghera street.
“I remember being up on the top of the cab. They had a seat and I was tied into it and held the cup,” Diamond proudly beams.
“It was some occasion for the first (All-Ireland) championship to come into Derry.”
Two years later, with Diamond still as captain, Derry won the Ulster U21 title before getting 'trounced' by Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final in Charlestown.
“We were favourites for Ulster but we just weren't ready for it (the All-Ireland),” Diamond admits. “We were a year young and the next year we were all U21 and Sean O'Connell was still in charge of us.”
In 1968, Derry swept all before them in Ulster, with only Down putting up any sort of resistance and Seamus McCloskey's 3-1 tally was enough to see off Monaghan in the final.
Kerry came to Ballinascreen for the semi-final and trailed 0-9 to 0-2 at half-time, but had pegged the team back to a point midway through the second half. Diamond was switched to mark Brendan Lynch and a Kevin Teague goal helped swing the game in the home side's favour.
Holders Mayo were shocked by Offaly in the other semi-final, setting up a Croke Park meeting with Derry. The Oaks led by nine points at the interval with the Faithful County down to 14-men after the dismissal of Eugene Mulligan, before easing to victory.
He was the first player to captain his county to minor and U21 All-Ireland titles. But for Diamond, 1968 was far from over.
Despite playing three years for Derry minors, it took Diamond time to break into the Bellaghy senior team who would win seven titles during the 1960s. He was dismissed, along with his brother Laurence, in the 1964 semi-final win over Kilrea and missed the final.
“Bellaghy had a strong panel of players,” Diamond points out. “I only got my place on the senior team when Anthony Madden went to Australia and I got his place at right corner back.”
There was nothing else only football and it is still the case. Karl's son James is the first of his grandsons to play senior championship for the blues. The recent underage production line represents the hope in the new batch in the club.
“They have the greatest facilities and have everything you would want and we have no team,” Diamond adds, referring to the 15-year gap since the John McLaughlin Cup rested in Bellaghy.
“At that time (in his playing days) we had no facilities but we had teams....it's a change of circumstances.”
He picked up the third of eight senior medals in 1968, but the Bellaghy adventure was only beginning. Once again, Diamond was involved in a 'first' as the club were crowned Ulster champions in the first year of the competition.
Frankie O'Loane scored 1-7 in a 13 point win over Pearses of Belfast in the first round and it was followed up by a victory over a Newry Mitchell's side that hammered Bryansford in the Down decider, thanks to goals from Sean Lee and Tom Scullion.
Bellaghy beat St Joseph's in the final, a combination of Ballyshannon and Bundoran, played on December 27 in the falling snow.
“They had Brian McEniff and about 12 county men in total. They had a strong side and they actually, by right, should've beat us, but we were that dogged that day,” Diamond states.
“It was a really cold day and we got a bit of a lead up against them. It was a rearguard action against the breeze in the second half but we held out.”
There was no All-Ireland series until 1971 when East Kerry won the title. Bellaghy retained their Derry title with a win over Slaughtneil in 1969 before losing the final the following year to Newbridge.
When they bounced back, it took them to their finest hour. A 2-12 to 0-6 win over Lavey saw them win Derry title number 11. In Ulster, they defeated Ballybofey, Ardboe and Teemore before taking on Armagh's Clann na nGael in the Ulster final. A 1-9 to 0-2 interval lead put them on their way to a facile win.
In the All-Ireland series, it was a different story and Frankie O'Loane was twice their savour. Tommy Diamond, Hugh McGoldrick and Chris Brown led from the half-back line against Portlaoise, but it was O'Loane who tied the game late on, before Hugh Donnelly scored the winner in a 1-11 to 1-10 win.
In the final, they took on the might of UCC and once again it took O'Loane, with his seventh point of the game, to level matters late on. When Hugh McGoldrick broke up a Cork attack, Brendan Cassidy went on to score and the Tones were crowned All-Ireland champions.
“They (UCC) had 14 county players, they were from all around. Moss Keane was full-back, he was a big tower of a man but Tom Quinn was too much for him.”
1972 All-Ireland club - Tommy is on the extreme left of the front row
Later that night, Cassidy's lorry ferried the team up and down Bellaghy street to a hero's welcome. Absent was the cup, as East Kerry didn't return it.
“It is the sort of thing they can't take away from you,” Diamond said, of achieving the pinnacle of club football.
He would later turn to management and managed Derry for 18 months at the end of the 1980s, but stepped down after he felt the County Board were not allowing him full control of the team.
Before that, at the start of the 1986 season, Bellaghy were unable to get a senior manager, so Diamond put his name forward. The Tones went seven seasons without a title and weren't tipped for glory.
“Nobody wanted to take it. A lot of these managers, unless they (the team) are good they are not interested at all,” he said.
After winning the Derry title, Diamond took his side to Crossmaglen for the opening game of Ulster. After a battle, Bellaghy came out on top, but lost in the next round by a point at home to Castleblayney.
“We shot in and shot in (missing chances) and 'Blayney went on to beat Burren in the Ulster final. I went to it in Dungannon, it was a dour match, 0-5 to 0-4,” Diamond recalls, as Burren's quest for four-in-a-row failed.
”I said I would take them (Bellaghy) as far as I can, there wasn't much hope for them. We got them going rightly and I was disappointed we didn't win an All-Ireland with that team. I felt they were good enough.”
Another passion is golf. He has been member of Ballymena Golf Club for 50 years, where he still plays with lifelong friend Gerry McCann. He has been a member of Moyola, where he is now the Ranger.
Tommy and Seve Ballesteros
Another friend of Diamond, Willie Cassidy, pulled off a coup in 1980 by bringing Seve Ballesteros to play a round at the course, just months after he won the Masters.
“I think it cost £10,000 to bring him to Moyola, he was number one in the world and Willie got him,” Diamond adds.
“It is the only course in the north of Ireland I think he played on and I had the honour of caddying for him, I was the lowest handicapper at the club.
“I marked his card, he countersigned it and it is up in the clubhouse for ever more amen.”
A lifetime of memories.
Aside from the current lock-down, the chat continues every Thursday night over the winter. Tommy plays cards with friends and his sons. It is a ritual. The social hub and the legacy of parents' John Joe and Cathy's cafe continues.
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