Watt an Era: A look back at the Glen Ladies' story

Glen set the standard of ladies' football in Derry

Watt an Era: A look back at the Glen Ladies' story

Mary Jo in action against Sandra Conroy of Mourneabbey in the 2007 All-Ireland Intermediate Final (Pic: Brian Lawless/Sportsfile)

Glen ladies have won 19 of the senior championships since Derry initiated the ladies' game in 1995. Mary Jo Boyle has 12 winners' medals and captained the first of three Ulster winning teams. She spoke with Michael McMullan about the club's path to the top.

You don't need to be talking to Mary Jo Boyle (née Walls) for too long to know that she lives and breathes sport.

She is now married with a family and living in Lavey, where she has ignited ladies football in the club in 2017 and her husband Gavin is also steeped in the GAA.

When Derry dipped its toe into the ladies' game, things were different, as Mary Jo begins.

“It was about pulling together 20 women and throwing them out on a pitch. There was no core or no real backing. There was no underage, it's not like now.”

Mary Jo and her friend Bronagh O'Neill (née Bradley) played for Magherafelt in the 1995 season, where they lost in the semi-final to Desertmartin, before folding again.

Glen were beaten in their semi-final by eventual winners Dungiven, but would bounce back to totally dominate the championship.

Jimmy Convery taught in St Patrick's Maghera, where Bronagh went to school, and convinced her to join the Glen juggernaut and asked for Mary Jo to join her.

“I didn't have my driving test,” Mary Jo points out. “Bronagh would take me over to Maghera for training and that's how I ended up in Glen. Joe Lagan also played a big part at that time as it all started to kick off.”

There was a small cohort that formed the ladies committee, a group of 'around 20' that included the players themselves.

Seamus McEldowney and his wife Monica – with their daughters Leona and Claire – were 'hugely influential' in getting the project off the ground.

“They (McEldowneys) took a serious amount to do with it,” Mary Jo adds. “Seamus' brother Gerry was a big player on the men's committee and I'd say they leaned on him to get it all started.”

The initial thought of ladies football was 'frowned upon' and not viewed as something that would be beneficial or that would last. Little did anyone know how they'd dominate the Derry championship.

“People find change hard to accept,” Mary Jo admits. “It was a change from the norm for the entire Glen Parish and it was the same for Lavey when I suggested football. Glen were becoming a three-code club and that's not easy.”

After Glen's debut season, it wasn't long until the silverware was rolling in. Mary Jo spoke of Jimmy's driven mindset as manager and the experience he picked up from training various mens' teams.

“His drills were excellent and we had the players to meet that. He set the ball rolling and created a really strong unit.”

Glen were champions in 1996 and 1997. After losing the final to Desertmartin the following year, they came back to collect 12 titles in succession.

In 1999, Glen reached the club's first Ulster final, in the junior grade, where they lost to Newtownbutler. As was the ruling at the time, both finalists were promoted to the intermediate grade the following year. In 2000, Glen lost to Scotstown in the Ulster semi-final, proving they were more than capable of competing at the next level.


A group of Glen ladies, winners of the 2000 Toronto Sevens

A fundraising drive began to take both mens and ladies' teams to the Toronto Sevens. The ladies returned victorious.

It was only the beginning.

*** 

There was a changing of the guard going into the new millennium. Mary Jo refers to the early teams, under Jimmy Convery, having more of a 'true Glen' spine.

“We had Tracy Kelly (Doyle), Julie Dodds (O'Neill), Dympna Tad (Dougan), Eimear McGrath (Johnston) and Noeleen Neeson, all those players all moved on.”

Glen attracted players from other neighbouring areas, with no football clubs. Michelle McAteer joined from Kilrea, while Nuala Ní hAgáin, Dervla O'Neill (née McMaster) and Paula Bleakley (née McAtamney) came out from Swatragh.

“Louise Gunn (née Glass) came in from the underage teams and I had got Kathy Joyce (née Conway) from Moneymore. These players were young and fast,” Mary Jo added.

While Mary Jo is credited as the player to eventually lead Glen to Ulster glory, she highlights Kathy as Derry's 'most decorated' footballer.

“It was hard on Hugh (Kathy's father), she was 13 when I was sent to get her to play for Glen,” Mary Jo said.

Then, it got complicated when Ardtrea – ​an ​amalgamation of Mary Jo's native Loup and Kathy's native Moneymore – began as a club. There was pressure for the duo to return to their roots.

“These were the girls we would've gone to primary school with. If there was a ruling saying we had to return, that would've made it easy, but we had formed a winning team (in Glen), we were established and we didn't want to move,” Mary Jo points out.

The games between the clubs were 'deadly' and she recalls the 2006 decider in Celtic Park, when Kathy was playing for Glen, with her sisters Grace and Mary Angela in the colours of Ardtrea.

The team was now under the management of Pearse McCallan, a cousin of former Carrickmore and Tyrone player Seamus, who took over when Jimmy Convery left at the end of 2000. Pearse later married Terri O'Connor, who was a key cog on the team and plays a central role on the current committee.

“He (Pearse) felt we needed to add a speed and fitness element to the team,” Mary Jo remembers. “We were too slow at moving the ball and took too long in our decision making.”

Training was now more complex, with pace injected into the play. As the fatigue set in, the players needed to have the mind switched on, to the point that anyone who made a mistake and stopped the drill would beat themselves up.

“It brought us to a different level and was probably the key difference between the late 1990s teams never winning an Ulster and the 2000s teams winning three titles,” Mary Jo adds.

It would take time. After a Derry title in McCallan's first season, Donaghmoyne knocked their Ulster hopes off the tracks.

On the domestic scene, with the chasing pack not able to lay a glove on them, the Wattys applied to play in the Tyrone league and stayed there from 2002 to 2005.

Glen didn't have it their own way, but the steep learning curve, with all games away from home, would stand to them further down the tracks. It was, in Mary Jo's opinion, 'probably the reason' the Ulster titles followed.

“We were playing the likes of Carrickmore, Errigal Ciaran and Donaghmoyne (in Ulster),” she explains.

“I was marking players like Connie Fox and Eilish Gormley, these players were winning All-Irelands for Tyrone. We were up against these kinds of players, travelling to Greencastle, to St Macartan's...it was a completely different level.”

In the 2002 Ulster campaign, Newtownbutler knocked Glen out by a point in a game that Mary Jo remembers for her missed penalty.

“I vividly remember there were two penalties. I scored the first and as they say, you should never take a second one.”

Mary Jo missed the kick and took the defeat badly. A lot of happy and sad times have passed since, but in that moment, losing was everything.

She had spent every spare minute at Loup pitch kicking frees, with just two balls. Two kicks were followed by two lung-busting runs to get the ball and another two shots at the posts.

“I said I'd never kick a ball again, but I remember Pearse saying we'd be back the following year and win the elusive Ulster.”

How right he was.

***

The first item at the top of Glen's 2003 agenda was their unfinished business. With six Derry titles to their name, the Ulster stage was their target.

“The team trained like never before to make sure we didn’t leave it behind in 2003, and we didn’t,” Mary Jo stresses.

Glen's mantra remained the same. Go for the jugular and build up an unassailable lead. The Ulster Final was in Clones, against Monaghan champions O'Neill Shamrocks.

“It's hard to describe, but we just knew it was our time,” she explains.

“It worked, Nuala (Ní hAgáin) scored two goals early on and we never looked back,” Mary Jo reflects of their final win over Monaghan's O'Neill Shamrocks in Clones. “We led from start to finish and everything just came together.”

The missed penalty from the previous season was put to bed. The player of the match award was the icing on the cake for the Glen skipper, as she lifted the club's first ever Ulster title.

“It was an easy team to captain,” Mary Jo admits. “Every player was driven to better themselves, it was such a strong unit and so focussed on winning.

“The homecoming to Glen club was special. Derry ladies football scene knew this Glen team deserved the title. It was palpable that night at the homecoming. We were a seriously talented group of players training three or four times a week.”


Glen celebrate their first Ulster title in 2003

For all of her 12 championship medals and two Ulster titles, 2003 was Mary Jo's standout moment. Not just because she was captain.

“I truly believe it was the baptism of the code in Derry,” she points out. “Underage exploded after that (Glen's win)...Steelstown, Ballinascreen and Ballymaguigan are now the living proof of that on the ladies football scene.

“After 2003, respect was born for Derry football and camogie started to respect us and realise this code is going to take off,” she states. “Glen became noted and it was after that, ladies football in Derry got respect.”

Glen's first taste of the All-Ireland series was a one-point Quarter-Final defeat to eventual champions Naomh Abán of Cork.

As a result of winning Ulster, Glen were promoted to the senior grade for the next three seasons. It was a chastening experience.

“We were a good team, but the step to senior is a bridge too far. Those years served us well even though we couldn't win a match.”

Kathy Joyce's husband Colm came in as manager. After retaining their Derry title, it took a replay to see off Armagh champions Carrickcruppen in the Ulster Final. In the drawn game in Clones, Mary Jo's goal separated the sides at half-time, but late on a point from current Armagh star Caroline O'Hanlon helped force a draw.

In the replay in Carrickmore, Glen made no mistake and a win over Carlow side St Fortchern’s saw them qualify for a first All-Ireland Final.

Standing in their way was Cork's Mourneabbey, who have since won two of the five senior finals they have contested.

“It was our greatest regret, we were beaten by a point and couldn't get over the line,” Mary Jo said.

Glen led by four points after 10 minutes, but a Kathleen O'Brien goal cut the gap to the bare minimum at the break.

A Michelle McAteer goal had Glen in the driving seat, leading by five points midway through the second half.

But the Cork champions hit six unanswered points to see them take the title, 1-14 to 1-13. It was so close, the type of defeat that just never fully subsides.

During that season, Mary Jo was having injury problems that kept her on the sidelines. Glen – now graded back at senior level in Ulster - won two more Derry championships.

The other regret from Mary Jo's playing days was not putting the same level of energy into Derry. The push was always for Glen to strike when the iron was hot.

“I didn't win enough with Derry and push to get Derry, as a county, off the ground,” she admits.

That changed in the 2008 season, when – alongside Pearse McCallan – she took over the Derry senior team and took them to the first of the county's two All-Ireland junior finals.

“I remember John McEldowney from Ballinascreen, he was the (Derry) Chairman that year and we threw everything and the kitchen sink at it,” Mary Jo adds.

London, who Derry beat in the league earlier in the season, hit five goals to take the title.

“I don't know how we lost that one,” she continues.

“We had players from all over Derry and it was great, I wanted to prove to people that Derry was about more than Glen.”

After a second year with Derry, she returned to action for the 2010 season and picked up a 12th senior medal, as Glen completed their 12th successive championship.


The Glen players who were part of all three Ulster wins - Louise Gunn, Bridgeen Cassidy, Dervla O'Neill, Clare McQuiston, Nuala Ní hAgáin, Kathy Joyce (missing from photo Michelle McAteer)

Following the exit from Ulster, Mary Jo hung up the boots. Ironically, Ardtrea won the championship in 2011 before Glen returned for five in a row.

“They were phenomenal days,” Mary Jo sums up. “That club...that team...we lived and breathed it. The commitment was colossal. The players are still together, are best friends and Terri was one of my bridesmaids. It was a brilliant experience.”

Under the management of Niall McKenna, Sean McGrogan and Johnny McGuckin, Glen tasted Ulster success again in 2013. It was a return to Clones and victory over Donegal side Milford.

A Louise Gunn goal, on the cusp of half-time, had Glen 1-4 to 0-6 ahead. Milford netted in the second-half and with the game in the melting pot, the sides were level at 1-10 each before Sarah Kerr hit a late winner to clinch a third Ulster title.

After a trip to London and a win over Fr Murphy's, Glen faced Thomas Davis in the All-Ireland semi-final, losing by a point.

“They couldn't get over the line,” Mary Joe remembers from watching the game. “They were good enough but just couldn't get there.”

Since their last senior championship, in 2016, Steelstown and Ballinascreen have won the title twice, with Ballymaguigan's underage conveyor belt bringing them to successive senior finals.

Last season, Kathy Joyce made a return to the fold and is hopeful of another season of action. Nuala Ní hAgáin joins Bernard O'Loughlin and 2013 selector Niall McKenna on the management team.

Caoimhe Kirkpatrick (née Moran) is the club Chairperson and will again have the boots on. Jude Dixon is the club referee. A host of former players are also involved - Andrea McCloskey (née McNally), Clare Leahy (née Devlin), Louise Gunn, Ursula Mullan, Pearse and Terri McCallan.

They have all walked the walk, with the medals to prove it. Now they form the club's spine, as they search for title number 20 and building for the future.

This time, Mary Jo Boyle - their great friend - will be in an opposing corner.

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