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16/10/2021

Build it and they will come

The Derry links in the Stirling GAA chain

Build it and they will come

The first Stirling committee - Treasurer Stephen Gallagher (Darragh Cross), Chairperson Declan Loane (Magherafelt), Secretary Liam McMahon (Donaghmore)

The GAA alumni of Stirling University were due to have a 25-year reunion last year, before Covid-19 raised its head. Michael McMullan spoke with Derry man Declan Loane, the club's first Chairman about establishing roots on a club that has offered a home from home for those who have since followed in his footsteps.

Seán Óg Ó hAilpín...his father’s from Fermanagh, his mother’s from Fiji...neither a hurling stronghold.

The unforgettable words that hung on the electrifying tones of legendary broadcaster Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh have been used to describe many a GAA underdog.

Those, without tradition, who manage to punch above their weight.

The same could be said of Stirling University's GAA club. It was a different universe from Tommy Joe Farrell's University of Ulster GAA explosion and their Ulster rivals Queens'. Two of the giants.

When Magherafelt scholar Declan Loane arrived in Stirling, the gateway to the Scottish Highlands, to study for a degree in Human Resources in 1993/94 there were no GAA roots. None whatsoever.

On the river Forth, between Glasgow, Dundee and Edinburgh, Stirling was in the GAA wilderness.

The university had sporting excellence on a par with England's Loughborough College. Wimbledon champion Andy Murray was awarded an Honorary Degree and honed his game on the university's tennis courts.

That gives an indication of the standard of the facilities, but there was no GAA.

Dundee University and Abertay University - both based in Dundee - had strong panels. In Aberdeen, the Aberdeen and Robert Gordon Universities had GAA clubs. In Edinburgh, Heriot-Watt and Edinburgh Universities had teams.

Glasgow City had three university teams – Glasgow, Caledonian and Paisley. In addition, Ayr on the west coast had a team.

Also, on the club scene, the cities had established GAA club networks already in place.

Edinburgh's Dunedin Connollys have won the Scottish title 15 times. Glasgow Gaels, the last winners in 2019, and Tír Conaill Harps both hail from Glasgow.

The longest-serving club in Scotland, Sands MacSwineys of Coatbridge – on the outskirts of Glasgow - have a 30-year link with Derry club Glen. Their underage teams have annual challenge games, each taking their turn to make the trip. Ironically, one of their key cogs, Joe Bradley, is a doctor in Faculty of Health Sciences and Sport at the University of Sterling.

Also in Glasgow, the now defunct Mulroy Gaels were top dogs in the 1990s during the period where Stirling were finding their feet. The Dalriada club is an amalgamation of Aberdeen and Dundee.

“Stirling was a blank canvas between them all,” Loane states.

He was the only Gaelic footballer on the campus, arriving from Derry by boat in search of an education and pastures new in Stirling.

There was a first attempt to get a club off the ground in 1994, but the raw materials weren't there. Like any sports team, it was a numbers game.

“The next year, we had a few boys from home (Ireland) who came,” he added.

This time, the club began to take root. Darragh Cross man Stephen Gallagher and Liam McMahon from Donaghmore joined Loane on the first committee.

“They were first years at the time and we pulled it together at that stage, but a lot of work was done previously in the sports' union,” outlines Loane.

“There was nothing there and no attraction to go to Stirling. There was no local club or an ex-pats community within 30 miles, like there was in Dundee, Glasgow and Edinburgh.”

Loane, who now lives in Bellaghy, was on Magherafelt's 1992 minor championship winning team. He played on teams in St Pius College. From U12 to his late teens he was engrossed in Gaelic football. There was no other sport in the equation.

But, in February 1993, it all went horribly wrong in a challenge game for Derry U21s at Ballymaguigan. A serious knee injury ended his chances of being part of the squad that would later win the Ulster championship.

Four knee operations before the turn of the millennium, and almost as much time on crutches as he was off them, forced him to call time on his playing days, before ploughing his energy into coaching and administration.

“That was hard times, but I wanted to keep fit and flexible, there were a few photos where I togged out just to be in the picture,” he said.

“When you go to university, you try to get involved in something. As soon as I went there, there was nothing for me. When you get involved in sport, it carries you through university.”

Stirling had limited resources initially. The club had just over a handful of individuals who had played football from a young age and soon had to become the coaches. It was all about laying the foundations. In contrast, the Dundee teams at the time had panels of 30 players who grew up playing the game.

“I recall some of those lads were ex-county minors across Ireland,” Loane remembers, referencing Tyrone's All-Ireland winner Seamus Mulgrew and former Red Hand minor skipper Declan McCrossan.

“In Stirling we had lads from all parts of the world wanting to play, build friendships and enjoy the sport,” he continues.”

Both male and female members put their shoulder to the wheel in the day to day administration of and supporting what was a newly developing club. It was new for many, especially those with no sporting background.

“It was about building a GAA Community, something that is still very important today in every club.”

Before that, there was the small matter of getting the club affiliated. Loane sought help from Gortin man Peter Mossey, a Professor of Dentistry at Dundee University. The club needed to be approved as a 'bona fide acceptable' organisation and have all the paperwork in place.

“I was Chair of the British universities GAA at the time and I remember well the dialogue with Declan regarding the establishment of a Gaelic football club at the University of Stirling,” Mossey remembers.

“It was at the time a fabulous example of the principle that it only takes one enthusiastic and committed individual to make this happen.”

And with a push, their case was accepted and the club was officially in business. Letters were written to all corners of Ireland to help with fundraising, just to get the club through the door of the university's Sports Union.

“We had to gather funds and purchase footballs, jerseys and training equipment,” Loane states. “Within two years, the club was well established structurally, with membership growing and I was elected to the Sports Union Executive Committee of eight. This gave the GAA Club greater recognition and the baton was passed on and continues today.”

Another hurdle was introducing their new-look squad to a game that was alien to them. He enlisted the help of Banagher's David Hassan, who was on his placement year from Jordanstown with the plush Gleneagles Hotel nearby.


The William Wallace memorial beyond the playing fields at Stirling University

“He came down for a night to help pull things together. We had about 40 players, but only four were from home,” Loane points out.

It's not like now, with GAA clubs springing up all around the world.

“Our biggest problem was introducing guys who were 18 and 19, who didn't know how to protect themselves in the tackle.

“Stirling was a sporting university. It was number one in golf in Europe for 10 years, commonwealth winning swimming teams, but Gaelic football was never on the canvas.

“Many of the players had backgrounds in basketball, soccer and rugby and no knowledge or limited information about the GAA sport.

“This presented a coaching challenge as the fundamental skill-sets – especially in terms of physical contact awareness - were missing. If you think about sending a GAA player now into a rugby environment, it's the same thing.”

At that time, the All-Ireland and National league champions played a game in Glasgow every year. The Stirling committee sent their team to watch the exhibition. Even a coaching video brought out by Peter Canavan was used to get the message across. Another few tips on a game they didn't grow up with.

Another concern for Loane, already having suffered a career ending injury, was the hits that were dished out.

“My biggest fear was dislocated shoulders every time we went out,” he confesses.

“They didn't understand how to protect themselves, you were teaching adults to play Gaelic football at a very late stage.”

In the early years, challenge games with Coatbridge and Mulroy Gaels were planned. The Gaels were made up of players from Donegal, built like fridge-freezers.

“They arrived in vans,” Loane remembers. “They came off the roads, covered in tar and you could smell it. I decided we wouldn't play club teams any more. The players were too strong physically it was an injury waiting to happen.”

Next on the club's to-do list was to get a playing field. Stirling University had four full size rugby pitches and they had a rope tied across for a GAA crossbar, which was half a metre lower.

One of the biggest things was getting an adjustable l-angle bracket welded on to hold the crossbar initially.

“It took us two years to get there, but when people came to Stirling, there was a Gaelic field there as such. Dawson Park in Dundee was the first Gaelic field I saw in Scotland, Coatbridge had one as well. The rest were playing in parks," Loane points out.

"It was some achievement and openness of a sporting minded university to help facilitate the growth of the game.

“When I hear the term 'crossbar challenge' now, it is a very different meaning than lads kicking a ball at a crossbar. For me, getting the crossbar lowered was a huge change.”

It allowed the club to grow and it blossomed with the formation of a ladies' team that still continues to thrive.

With all the pieces in place, it was time to play.

***

The Friary on Dundee's Tullideph Road was the city's Irish Centre. Fr Eugene O'Sullivan would say mass for the expats from Ireland.

On an invite from Peter Mossey, Stirling set off for Dundee for a weekend of team building followed by the club's first game.

With a loan of the kit and only enough money to book a bus one-way, a 18-strong Stirling panel packed themselves in and made their historic maiden voyage, with those with experience playing the game in the minority.

“I remember the posters of Irish bands up around the walls, marking the tradition that already had bedded in,” Loane states. It was the Irish base that Stirling didn't have.

The craic was mighty the night before and in some cases too mighty.

“It was a cunning plan,” Loane jokes. “We were no threat to Dundee but it didn't help our gameplan.”

Getting back to Stirling was another story. But Mossey – and others – did double runs to get everyone ferried back by car. It got Loane thinking, and so the idea for the club's sevens tournament was born.

“A seven-aside suited the numbers,” he explains. “Stirling was central in Scotland and we knew people could come in two cars and have a team.”

“It allowed teams to be competitive who didn't have bigger squads for the full 15-a-side game. It was intense and showed our boys the level we had to aspire to.”

It began in 1996 and 'continued for years'. Magherafelt man Barry Dillon and Lavey's Sean Doherty were flown over as referees. Everything needed to be right. There was an ambulance on duty, with student physiotherapists there to help.

“Stirling became a central hub for GAA,” Peter offers. “Also Declan produced a group of players that in his second year was a very competitive team.”

“It brought a Scotland wide innovation to the GAA calendar in that he set up a new tournament, which became a very enjoyable and competitive tournament for a number of years.

“He (Declan) also assisted me with getting hurling and Ladies football up and running at the time - an irrepressible individual indeed.”

Stephen Haslam from Derry City, Glen man Pearse Kelly and Barry Moran from Desertmartin all played for Stirling, with the Martin's also having players in action for Glasgow.

“Eamon Eastwood – who would've gone to St Pius – captained Ayr to win it,” Loane remembers. “A lot of Irish got together. Kevin 'Tidy' O'Kane (from Glen) played for Heriot-Watt, with Bellaghy duo Martin Muldoon and Eugene O'Kane.”

Muldoon is now an Iron man from his swim-bike-run exploits. O'Kane was the goalkeeper on the St Mary's Magherafelt team in the 1996 MacRory Cup Final.

Glasgow University had Brian Óg Gormley (their winning captain) and Gary McOscar – both from Desertmartin – and Newbridge's Owen Walls playing for them.

Paul Moran (Desertmartin) played for Robert Gordon University and Paisley had Magherafelt's Philip Gorrell in their side.

“They were days that unified expats together, they really did,” Loane adds. “We had 110 players fed over the day, it was never heard of (anywhere else in university) in those days.

“It was more the social aspect that came with it, people gelled together.”

Loane left Stirling after his degree, but there is still a strong local connection at the heart of it. Oisin Moran, son of former Derry physio Sean,  and Craigbane man Aaron Conway were involved in the running of it.

Even up to the present day, with Ballinascreen man Ben McCloskey holding the position of Vice-President. He is a past pupil of St Colm's Draperstown and the Rainey in Magherafelt, now studying Sport in Stirling.

But it's a small world. Ben's father Barry and Declan Loane's brother Ciaran's best friends in their school days in St Mary's Magherafelt.

The club offered an Irish connection. Somewhere for Gaels to gravitate towards. The very modus operandi it was founded under.

In recent years, numbers were not as plentiful as the club took a slight dip. On the bus to university, McCloskey overheard a 'Belfast accent' talking about getting the team up and running. The voice was Lisburn man Peter O' Neill, the club's current president. The duo got talking.

“He (Peter) got the ball rolling,” Ben states. “I think we have just over 30 players. Maybe half of them are from Ireland and the rest have joined, just from knowing us and having played before. They are a good group of lads.”

Among them is Derry City man Paddy Hughes, who only started playing last year. Eva Ferguson, Ciara Foley and Niamh Ní Mhianáin are Derry girls on the ladies tea,

“I had to referee a couple of games for them and they are doing quite well in the league and they beat the Scottish girls' team, there are Derry girls playing for them,” McCloskey concludes.

Last year, the club had toyed with the idea of a reunion to mark 25 years of the club's emergence on the GAA landscape. Belfast was pencilled in as a venue, until the pandemic erased any hope from the calendar.

But they won't be deterred and a golfing event is being thrown into the mixer for the next few years, when the sporting world gets back to normal.

“We broke the ground,” Loane said of the club's beginning. “It was fascinating, it grew a group of guys together from all over the country and there is probably a group of them keeping in touch.”

That's the power of sport and the gravitation towards the GAA across the world. Stirling is just another example. Build it and they will come.

PART TWO - Derry duo Oisin Moran and Aaron Conway carry the baton CLICK HERE...

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