Tommy McKenna receives the John McLaughlin Cup from Derry Chairman Patsy Breen
After nearly toppling All-Ireland champions Bellaghy in 1972, Ballinascreen went one better the following year to land the John McLaughlin Cup. Their reserves also won the intermediate title. Michael McMullan spoke to senior captain Tommy McKenna...
Nostalgia is the staple fix for sporting fanatics these days and you don't need to be talking too long to Tommy McKenna to realise its importance. It charts history and fills the void, all in one go.
When you have been club chairman, involved in the club's Scór novelty act group, the last man to lift the John McLaughlin Cup and invested time coaching underage teams to county titles, the GAA's imprint is engrained for evermore Amen.
“Sure only for it, what would we talk about,” beams McKenna, who ticks all the boxes above. His enthusiasm simmers to boiling point. The memories bounce effortlessly off his tongue during a conversation which lasts north of an hour, but seems like a flash.
Ballinascreen won four minor championships in five years in the 1960s. McKenna was on three of the winning teams. Galway native Mick Lawless, a teacher in St Colm's High School, was putting his shoulder to the wheel in the club.
“He was very good to us,” McKenna remembers, while also pointing to former Derry great Colm O'Neill's input at school level.
“From the school team I captained in 1964, nine of them went on to win county medals, senior or intermediate, in 1973,” he adds.
The link from minor level to challenging for the ultimate prize was a league title in the early 1970s.
By 1972, 'Screen's pieces were beginning to assemble. Bellaghy were top dogs and McKenna, known as 'The Gunner' as named by the late Laurence Groogan, was in Croke Park to watch them win the All-Ireland.
The Tones beat Ballerin to retain their Derry crown, but Ballinascreen came mighty close to chinning the champions in the semi-final.
“That match, in my opinion, was the county final of 1972 because Bellaghy had no bother with Ballerin in the final,” McKenna offers.
“They had a lot of county players and men who could win matches on their own. All we had to do was play as a team and it was going to take 100 percent for us to beat them.”
'Screen missed a chance late on before going down by 'a point or two', but McKenna was determined that 1973 was going to be different.
“I don't know how the rest of the players felt, but I knew in my mind, there was no way we were going to get beat again.”
As it turned out, it could've been his last ever game for Ballinascreen.
Over the winter, a storm was brewing in the Sixtowns part of the parish that almost split the club. Only for the intervention from the Parish Priest, Fr Michael Collins, their title winning season could've been scuppered before it had even got off the ground.
“The Sixtowns' boys thought the town boys were getting the run of the thing. They made a decision they would break away from Ballinascreen and form a team of their own,” recalls McKenna.
Fr Collins got wind of their plans and called a meeting in the GAA hall.
“He laid down the rules that there would be Ballinascreen and nothing else and that we should consider winning the championship,” McKenna outlines.
Before their first league game of the season new manager, the late Colm 'Cos' McGuigan, named McKenna as captain.
“That was maybe because I was one of the Sixtowns' boys and it would be a good idea to humour them,” Tommy surmises.
Ballerin were county finalists and Ballinascreen 'hammered' them that day at Dean McGlinchey Park and McKenna placed much of the credit at the new manager's door. In the off-season, they lost 'solid' full-back Danny Trolan who moved to Canada, leading to a reshuffle.
“Mickey McGlone came in and he was very good at it, McKenna said. “Cos moved me to the half back line and done a lot of thinking. The midfield was changed and some of the forwards.”
Another important factor was Ballinascreen's annual Easter trip. Every year the senior panel packed their bags and headed off to some far-flung corner of Ireland.
“That was the bonding coming up to the championship. We went to Galway, we stayed in Enniscorthy the year we went to Wexford. We were in Bandon in Cork, Kilkee (Clare) and over in Boyle in Roscommon.
“Every Easter, we just picked a different place. We headed off on a Friday and were back on Monday or Tuesday....mostly Tuesday,” McKenna explains.
“Whenever we were in those counties, we played the best of the best...that helped our football. It was a good way to get people to mix and bond together. We played two matches every time we went and everybody got a game of football.”
If you want something done, ask a busy man. After starring in many 'Screen victories and playing for Derry earlier in the decade, the 'semi-retired' Cos McGuigan answered the call.
In his first year in senior management, he got married, remained at the helm of local soccer club Draperstown Celtic and played full forward on the reserve team that would later win the intermediate championship.
With Frank Kelly and Jock Groogan in charge, Ballinascreen reserves beat Magilligan and Desertmartin to reach an intermediate final meeting with Glenullin.
Sean McGeehan and Jamie McGlone would later play in the senior championship, but their return from injury was a huge help to the reserves. John McGlone was a former county minor and was a useful addition after a five-year absence with injury.
They still needed a last gasp equaliser from Seamus Groogan to snatch a draw against Desertmartin. Cos came out of retirement during the week to play a central role for the reserves in the replay, with Seamus Devlin hitting a late winner.
All the while the seniors were coasting to victories over Castledawson (1-10 to 0-5) and Slaughtneil (2-12 to 0-5) to book their semi-final spot, as they improved with every game.
“We trained twice a week,” McKenna recalls of the teams' preparations that summer. “There was always enough for a match and many a time the senior team played the intermediate team.
“There was always a good supply of subs and Colm McGuigan knew what he had, He managed Draperstown Celtic, so he had boys on the Ballinascreen team who may have played soccer as well...he was the tie between the two teams.”
Going into the senior semi-final, they were favourites against Banagher, but they rode their luck late when an ex-'Screen player had a chance to put them out.
“Johnny Sammy (McWilliams) was through and he should've scored a goal, but he missed it. It was very near the end of the match and we were lucky,” McKenna admits.
Before the final, they beat Tyrone champions Ardboe in the final of the John Pat Mullan Cup. They were Tyrone champions at the time and had ended Bellaghy's reign as All-Ireland champions the previous autumn.
It was another building block as Ballinascreen finalised their preparations and when the reserves beat Glenullin to win the intermediate championship on the Sunday before the senior final, the stage was set.
Ballinascreen reserves - Derry intermediate champions 1973
Seamus Groogan scored both goals in a 2-4 to 0-6 win, with Sean McGeehan pulling the strings from centre forward and captain Mickey McBride making a series of important saves.
The first leg of the double was complete.
Ballinascreen's win was in place long before referee Dermot Mullan threw in the ball. Cos McGuigan got married in the week leading up to the game and had pushed pause on his honeymoon until after the final.
It was time to work his magic. By the time the weekend came, the players knew where they would be playing and had a synopsis of their opponents.
“To me, he was the man that won the match for us. He was very good at getting everybody into the right frame of mind,” insists Tommy McKenna. “He would've done his homework on other teams.
“When you were playing Bellaghy, it was going to be a football match. Football was going to be the winner.
“People used to say if you let Ballinascreen play football, they'll beat you, but if you rough it up with them, they won't.”
It was an evening game and in the morning, McGuigan called a meeting earlier in the day to apply the final coat of polish to his plans.
“It made sure everybody was relaxed. We weren't going to be affected by nerves and as far as I can remember, everybody was in high spirits at the time.”
McKenna can only vouch for himself, but he knew he was ready. So did the dressing room door as he stormed into battle.
“God rest Laurence Groogan, he was the sub goalie, he always referred to me as taking the door off the hinges before we went out to play the match,” McKenna joked.
The underdogs engineered the perfect start. Gene Kelly began a sweeping move before getting on the end of it to hit a seventh minute goal. Nine minutes to the interval, Chris Brown's shot deflected off a 'Screen defender on its way to the net.
They led by a point at half-time before Frankie O'Loane tied the game shortly after the break and it was game on once again.
“Frankie O'Loane and Brendan Cassidy were always their dangermen.” McKenna recalls. “O'Loane would've been very dangerous if he got the ball. They had very good attacking forwards, they had Peter Doherty at centre-half forward. If he was coming up the middle, you would need to be on your toes.
“We were able to keep their dangermen out and anytime they got ahead, was were never very far behind,” said McKenna who pointed to a brilliant Paddy McNally save from Sean O'Neill as the turning point in the game.
“Paddy got his hand to the ball. Sean thought it was in and doesn't know where the hand came out of,” McKenna said of a discussion later with O'Neill.
“Normally when Paddy got the ball, he'd blast it out over the sideline. That day he put the ball up the line and I got it. It went on up and we ended up getting a point before losing possession and that was at a crucial stage.”
Tony Moran began to control at midfield but they needed McNally to produce another save to deny Brendan Cassidy.
“We just couldn't wait for it to be over and once Seamus McKee got the second goal it knocked the ass out of Bellaghy. He got in behind the Bellaghy defence and he was on his own. He had 10 or 20 yards to run and he stuck the ball in the net.
“It was unusual for Bellaghy to be behind. Our tails were up, but the whistle was a long time coming,” Tommy said of the moment they were crowned champions.
1973 Derry senior champions - Ballinascreen
“The crowds just poured onto the pitch. It was some achievement for us, to be beat in the first round or second round or semi-finals...and for us to win a final...we've won it and we don't have to do any more.”
In the same Gaelic Hall he had quashed the Sixtowns' split, Fr Collins gave the green light for a temporary bar to be erected. It was celebration time. After the years of knocking, the door of destiny flung open.
“I remember there was a procession all the way from the pitch in Magherafelt to Draperstown and Fr Collins was over the moon himself.
“The celebrations went on for at least three days. It was a great memory I must say. What sticks out in my mind was that for years and years we had been waiting on this. Now that it has happened, as far as I was concerned it was over. You had done your job and you could let somebody else take over and let them do the business.”
In the Ulster championship they beat Cavan champions Annagh, a combination of Redhills and Belturbet, before taking on St Joseph's Ballyshannon/Bundoran in the next round.
A mix-up in times and travelling arrangements saw Ballinascreen begin with 'quite a few' of their team missing.
“They beat us by six or seven points,” McKenna points out. “It would've been a very tough game anyway and they went on to lose the Ulster final (to Clann na nGael).”
“It is a great memory, with the boys you played with at that time and memory still goes on. You meet them and you have the craic with them.”
McKenna, the fourth oldest on the team in his early 20s, didn't play 'much more' football after 1973.
Was there not more to offer?
“For some reason or another it never happened since. When a lot of those boys had won one county final...we tried all our lives to win it and they said 'we'll freewheel for a while' and in 1974 and 1975 more new players came in.”
McKenna's mind often wanders to the Bancran area of the parish and the strapping team that put their tug of war team on the map.
“I always thought if these boys played football, we'd win more championships,” McKenna concluded.
Ballinascreen have played in five county finals since, losing to the eventual Ulster champions on each occasion. It leaves Tommy McKenna's name still in club folklore until they go gunning for glory again.
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