Johnny McBride lifts the Seamus McFerran Cup, surrounded by team-mates Ronan Rocks, Brian Lavery, Benny McVey and Joe O'Kane (Pic: Damien Eagers/Sportsfile)
After collecting a raft of silverware on their way up through the underage ranks, Loup went on to lift the John McLaughlin Cup in 2003, before plotting their way to Ulster club football's greatest prize. Johnny McBride captained them to glory and he shared his memories with Michael McMullan.
Malachy O'Rourke thought of everything. Absolutely everything.
2003 was his first of three seasons as Loup manager. It brought a first Derry championship in 67 years and their first ever Ulster title.
Every eventuality was accounted for. O'Rourke even perfected the opening credits of their celebrations.
As Loup's joyous fans filtered home from Clones, to prepare a welcome that befitted champions, their heroes' bus snaked its way along the 15-minute journey to St Patrick's Donagh. Just hours earlier, like they did for their semi-final at Clones, the squad warmed up at Fermanagh club's grounds.
“I remember we went there straight after the game,” captain Johnny McBride recites, like it was yesterday. “They opened their bar and we went in for two or three drinks.”
Loup had all week to celebrate back among their own. For those few hours, it was important to spend time in the pockets of those they slogged with.
“I suppose that was just Malachy...he still had connections in Fermanagh and it was like him telling us to go and spend those hours together,” said the 2003 winning captain.
The years may have passed, but McBride's memory for details is razor sharp. Scorelines, winning margins, turning points and key moments just roll off the tongue. Good and bad.
“How many conversations over 20 years weren't had about winning a championship?” McBride asks of their pathway to the pinnacle of Ulster football.
“There would have been boys being dropped, there were tears, emotion, ups and downs...we all went through it together. Those moments before we headed back to Loup were precious.”
When they arrived back at base, a piper led them along the Ballyneill Road and into Loup's thronged grounds.
“I had a big interest in football, I was always going to watch games and it was always somebody else,” was McBride's thoughts on their foray through Ulster, as Bellaghy and Ballinderry set the standard.
“You were getting a kick out of the fact that some of your county mates were playing and feeling 'that is great for them', but it was never you and your friends.”
That night, as the celebrations heaved inside a bouncing clubhouse, Loup were Kings of Ulster.
Loup's journey to the top saw them rub shoulders with the giants of the game. Neighbours Ballinderry, who they beat in the county final, were All-Ireland champions the previous season.
In Ulster, Bryansford, Crossmaglen and St Gall's were household names. At that time, the four clubs amassed eight Ulster and four All-Ireland titles between them.
Loup's journey was laid out by Colum Rocks' underage production line. Under Rocks, Loup won every grade on the way up through the ranks. It culminated in Ulster minor titles at St Paul's in 1993 and 1995.
“We had underage success at the highest level and there were a lot of men over a lot of years,” praises McBride.
“Martin Gallagher would've been with a lot of those teams and obviously Super (Colum Rocks) had been there for years with all the young boys and he brought them up.
“It breeds a belief and you get to the stage where you sort of expect to win and are playing A grade football.”
The club were promoted from the junior ranks in 1989 and by 1994, they were intermediate champions and up to the top level the following year, where they have stayed ever since.
In their first season, Loup beat Kilrea in their first senior championship game. A shoulder injury left McBride, the Derry minor captain at the time, needing an injection before their All-Ireland semi-final win over Galway.
Loup beat Slaughtneil in the quarter-final, setting them up for a crack at neighbours Ballinderry. A 1-2 brace from Paul Conway saw the Shamrocks through (1-7 to 0-5) and on their way to ending their championship famine.
“We felt we were close and if we could organise ourselves we wouldn't be far away,” was McBride's take at the time.
Once elder statesmen James Rocks and Columba McVey hung up their boots, it was a young team left behind. Talented as they were, they had to walk before they would run and it was the turn of the millennium before Loup 'started to compete' for the John McLaughlin Cup.
“That's a good six years and there were a fair few trimmings in there as well,” McBride recalls. “I don't think anybody thought it would happen that quick. Regardless of how good you think you are, you still need that mix.”
At the start of the 2002 season, Patsy Forbes came in as manager and brought a discipline that had been missing. The attitude was changing and the squad began to 'professionalise' itself. Forbes would even be in among them during the runs and the hard yards were put in.
“We maybe questioned things that had never been questioned, the way the boys behaved – all of us included”, McBride admits. “That discipline got us to the final, but Ballinderry beat us 1-11 to 0-6.”
It was time to add something different.
A conversation between McBride, Paul McFlynn and Derry trainer Martin McElkennon conjured up the name of Malachy O'Rourke. An approach was made and Loup had their man.
“Patsy had put the discipline into us and Malachy O'Rourke added the football to us,” McBride points out.
Malachy O'Rourke steered Loup to Derry and Ulster glory (Pic: Damien Eagers/Sportsfile)
During the season, star forward Ronan Rocks – who had scored all six frees in the county final of the previous year – had stepped away from the panel.
However, after a 'few weeks' Rocks expressed to Malachy his desire to return.
Rocks sat out the first round of the championship, before pushing himself back into the frame and didn't look back.
Off the field, O'Rourke built up a knowledge of the players' families and work circumstances. It was a personal touch. He was more than a football manager.
“He had everyone in the group eating out of his hand,” McBride remembers thinking at the time.
In the championship opener with Lavey, two long balls over the top of Kevin McCloy played the in-form Shane McFlynn in for goals.
The Quarter-Final final was a 'sticky' game with Kilrea at Greenlough. With the sides level, the Pearses were on top, but Loup pulled through.
McBride had started the season at centre-forward, but in the middle of their Kilrea battle he was moved to midfield and stayed there.
“We played Glen in the semi-final and we got three important enough goals and we had got ourselves back into a final,” recalls McBride.
The cocktail of talented players was coming together. McBride acknowledges the presence of Paddy McGuinness in their defence, but having O'Rourke – and his trusted trainer Leo 'Dropsy' McBride – was the final piece of the jigsaw.
“You could ask 40 people and get different opinions,” McBride said, before offering what he felt was the secret to Loup's success.
“I have no doubt and apologise to nobody for saying it, it was a combination of O'Rourke at the right time that worked wonders for us. He was that wee trigger and got us over the line.
“The second year (in the final), we were there to win it. He just has something and you can't put it into words. You just believe everything that he tells you. He backs it up and he is well-spoken when he puts it across.”
O'Rourke stressed over and over to the Loup players - get past Glen in the semi-final and they'd win the championship. It might sound like an overused cliché, but McBride disagrees.
“He was very adamant, whether it was the atmosphere in the changing room and in the team, whether he could see it in their body language that it was going to happen...O'Rourke believed in us.”
Loup led by three points at half time, before points from Ronan Rocks and Johnny McBride twice stretched the gap to four in their 0-11 to 0-7 success.
For McBride, the few hours after the final whistle were 'pure elation', but it took until the next year for their achievements to fully register. He was now in the company of the Bellaghy and Ballinderry teams he watched in the past. He had realised every club player's dream.
“There was a bit of disbelief in it too. There are loads of boys who go through their careers and get nowhere near finals or near to winning,” he offers.
“Nobody can take away that you've won a championship. It wasn't the sort of thing that was going to be happening every year in the Loup.”
Their year was far from over. The bandwagon was just beginning.
As they peeled themselves away from the celebrations, beating recent All-Ireland champions and Derry's clubs having a consistent record in Ulster pointed to Loup's new challenge.
If they got the rub of the green, they 'wouldn't be far away' from conquering Ulster. Crossmaglen sat prominent in the senior shake-up, but Loup were on the crest of a wave and 'bounced on'.
“We beat Bryansford at Glen in a really ugly game,” was McBride's memory of their first step into the big time.
“We went five-nil up and could've been out of sight, but they pegged it back and we got a free from Shane McFlynn at the end to win it.
“They were a team with a lot of tradition and a lot of titles. There was the factor that it might've meant a bit more to us, because we never had been there and we realised it wasn't going to be happening all the time.”
It set them up for a crack at Crossmaglen and a trip to Clones and while the supporters may have been eyeing an Ulster title, McBride was in 'footballer mode'. After years of watching from the outside, it was Loup's turn.
“You try to take in what the manager was saying. You prepare properly for the team you are playing, you go back to the basics as to how to win a football match.”
Crossmaglen lost John McEntee after 14 minutes following an 'altercation' with Brian Lavery and John O'Kane was dismissed on a second booking in the second half.
McBride, who was voted man of the match, recalls Oisin McConville missing a couple of early frees in a 0-10 to 0-8 win for Loup.
It was a typical wet, mucky day and McBride kicked the first two points, including one from a sideline.
“Fintan Martin was very good that day, he might've kicked three points off Francie Bellew,” McBride adds.
Fintan Martin scored 0-3 in Loup's win over Crossmaglen (Pic: Damien Eagers/Sportsfile)
“When I look back on it, Oisin had two one on ones. He might have dragged one (wide) and Shane McGuckin saved one. We got ourselves back into the game and when they went down to 14 (men) it made it difficult for them.”
Waiting in the final, back at Clones, were St Gall's who McBride classed as 'one of the best' club teams in Ulster at the time.
O'Rourke weaved his magic wand again. The Loup squad were allowed to bask in their win over Cross enough to appreciate it, but there was a bigger prize.
“He never took it away from us, but would've made it clear there was another step ahead and it will be clouded if you don't get over it.” said McBride, of how Loup were at the perfect pitch for the biggest day in their history.
McBride had captained Derry minors and U21s to glory at Clones, but this was different.
“I had some decent days in Clones and I've had some crap days there,” he joked. “In terms of club football, for Loup to be playing there at the highest stage in Ulster is what everyone in the club would've dreamt of, as a player or a spectator.”
Shane McFlynn scored three from play and McBride scored two early on, but his marker Kevin McGourty did likewise after half time.
“Individually you were trying to win your own battle, first and foremost,” McBride chips in. “I remember Mark McCrory caught a serious amount of ball, but we got to grips with it. I remember Gavin Mallon coming on to get a point, and Paddy Finn (Paul McFlynn) cramping up badly at the end of the game and could barely walk.”
It still took John Young's late block to prevent a goal for St Gall's and Loup were Ulster champions, 0-11 to 0-8. The green and white clad fans spilled onto the pitch and the party began.
He may have watched endless game over the years, but Johnny McBride still regrets heading west to see their All-Ireland opponents Caltra – back boned by the five Meehan brothers - play in a Galway league clash after Christmas.
“It was the worst thing I ever did,” he admits. “Personally, I got a false sense from a wet and mucky day.”
By the time the ball was thrown in from of a bumper crowd at Markievicz Park, Loup had to plan without the injured John O'Kane. John Young moved to midfield to replace him, with Joe Devlin coming in at corner-back.
Loup were 0-8 to 0-5 ahead at half time, but two goals from Michael Meehan was invariably the difference in the end and the Galway side went on beat Kerry's An Gaeltacht by a point in the final.
Michael Meehan hit two goals to sink Loup (Pic: Damien Eagers/Sportsfile)
“We didn't play well,” McBride admits. “It wasn't one of those times when you were beat by a far better team, that's the most disappointing thing.”
“Leaving Sligo, we knew we weren't out of our depth, but with the strength in Derry it was going to be hard to get back.”
Later that year, Loup surrendered their titles with a wasteful display in front of the posts in the Derry semi-final against Bellaghy.
“If truth be told, in the following years we should probably have had at least another one (Derry championship),” McBride said, with regret.
In 2005, they were destroyed by Ballinderry in a league game three weeks before the sides were due to meet in the championship semi-final.
Without making a fanfare of it, O'Rourke kept the scoreline on the Loup scoreboard as the team trained over the following weeks and they overturned the deficit to win, 1-9 to 0-9. McBride felt that needed to be the final, as they failed to raise their game against Bellaghy in the decider.
It was O'Rourke's last year in charge and it wasn't until 2009, under John Brennan, that Loup grabbed their last title. In the Ulster final that year, it was another date with St Gall's, but one with a totally different ending.
“At the start it was close and we could've gone in 0-5 each at half time, but we were beat out the gate (0-16 to 0-5) in the second half. We had probably reached our limit.
“It wouldn't have been the time when I thought we'd have got the second (Derry title). It's not that I didn't think we were strong, but around 2003 we played in four finals,” McBride states.
“We ended up winning two and you can't have them all, but I'm disappointed and I'd like to have said I had three.”
The players were there, who had been through the mill at club, county and school level.
“You had the O'Kane brothers, John, Padraig and Joseph,” Johnny outlines. “You had Fintan Devlin who was a great championship player, wee Benny McVey, Finty Martin. Myself and Paul (McFlynn). Paddy McGuinness also came in...we had a lot of good players.”
It won't be today or tomorrow, but eventually Loup's class of 2003 will unite to remember their memorable season. Like their minor teams did to mark Colum Rocks' input on their Ulster success.
When they do, it will bring back those memories of that afternoon in St Patrick's Donagh. A day when they made their own tradition.
Their achievement entitles the current generation to wear a star on the back of their jersey. The men of 2003 will always be remembered around Loup.
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