Thirty years ago Lavey were crowned All-Ireland club champions. Captain Johnny McGurk looks back on a year of memories and what made their journey special. Michael McMullan tells the story...
Spirit. Johnny McGurk may be scanning back 30 years, but his answer is instant. What immediately comes to mind when he reflects on 1991 and Lavey's 10-game march to dreamland?
Those two syllables say it all for the skipper.
The Andy Merrigan Cup in McGurk's grasp is like the parish he represented on that magical March Sunday. Small in appearance, but massive in every other way.
'Joxer' was just 11 years of age when Niall Hurley held aloft the John McLaughlin Cup to end a 23-year Derry championship famine in 1977. He'd always dreamt of winning a championship.
“I remember standing behind the goals with a pile of other wains,” McGurk said of that afternoon in Magherafelt when Paddy Chivers' pass set up Joe Boyle's clinching goal in a 1-8 to 0-7 win over Ballinderry.
Standing in the Hogan Stand, on St Patrick's Day 1991, the club's greatest day, the entire parish congregated below him, awash with orange and black. They emit pride and joy in equal measure.
For McGurk, every man, woman and child represented the players the same as the players did for them. It was a two way street. Right down to Parish Priest Fr O'Donnell's fanatic support of the team.
“After games, you weren't as much a player, you were just part of the whole setup,” McGurk outlines.
“Everybody was in the middle of it and nobody got any special treatment. There was a wave and everybody was on it...thank God it kept going. The spirit and atmosphere in the parish is something that always sticks with me.”
The Lavey team and some of their young supporters after the 1990 Derry county final
Lavey needed every ounce of their resilience in a season littered with turning points. On the face of it, their Derry, Ulster and All-Ireland finals offered the most daylight on the scoreboard.
“It's easy to say that after a final,” McGurk says in disagreement.
He digs deeper. Finals were there to be won. Moments from Lavey's five-point win All-Ireland final win over Salthill were 'tense enough'.
It took a full length save from Brendan Regan to prevent Mark Butler a certain goal that would've levelled the game in the second half. The same player denied Collie McGurk, Don Mulholland and the Downey brothers Hogan Cup glory with a late winning point seven years earlier.
“I don't relax in games, the only time I enjoyed was after them,” Johnny admits.
Growing up, to win a Derry championship would've been a focus. Winning the top prize was never in his 'wildest dreams'.
“To come home with the cup on the Sunday night after the All-Ireland final was one of the most special moments you'd ever have in your life.”
After stepping off the bus, the kit-bags were stowed away in the dressing room before they paraded into the packed hall. On the stage behind them was a series of stars, each with their name. Goosebumps stuff.
“It was a packed house for most of the nights that year,” McGurk recalls. “Population wise, we hadn't the greatest of numbers, but whoever was in any way attached to Lavey was there.”
Last autumn, his sons Patrick and James retained their minor championship title on a team playing a varied brand of football. Johnny and Seamus Downey coached the team that includes their sons. The new crop are beacons for the future.
Like all the club's teams, the black star on the back of their jersies is the imprint of 1991, when Lavey stood tallest.
A November birthday isn't an underage players' best friend. Especially one as slight as Johnny McGurk. Derry's U12 leagues didn't begin until he was overage. After primary school, there was nothing until U14.
Coming from a family of 13 and one of eight boys, sport was never far away. Their mother Catherine Bradley came from a family steeped in music and dance in Tobermore, while also lining out for Desertmartin camogs.
“To throw a ball or a hurling stick out in the evening was as big a rest for my father and mother as anything,” Johnny said.
Sadly, their father Hugh A tragically died after taking ill while watching his sons in championship action for Lavey against Newbridge on at Greenlough in 1992.
Growing up, he had high standards. Three things weren't accepted, as Johnny outlines; pulling out of a ball, not putting in the 'necessary effort' and needlessly lying down.
As a 16 year-old, Johnny shipped a 'decent tackle' on a wet night against Banagher. A voice from outside the pitch, told him, in no uncertain terms, to get back on his feet. It was his father.
“I got up brave and sharp, I can tell you,” Johnny laughs. “He'd let you know, but he was your biggest fan at the same time.”
Packed into the car, with more bums than seats, to watch his older brother Anthony play for Derry in far flung corners of Ireland ignited a desire to play at the highest level.
GAA was always top of the menu, but the local soccer games between Lower and Upper Gulladuff sharpened the competitive edge, the sort that end at dark or a call for dinner.
“We were known as Upper Gulladuff. There weren't too many of us and there were plenty of them, but that was kicking lumps out of each other every evening,” Johnny remembers. “There was a competitiveness about it which stood to us in later years.”
At U14 level, Lavey were on the wrong side of 'a few hidings' and the dream of winning a championship medal was light years away. Glenullin's talented teams were ahead of them. They couldn't compete with the numbers Glen, Bellaghy and Dungiven had, while Kilrea also dished out hammerings.
“We were well down the pecking order coming up,” was Johnny's take on the early years.
Persistence was an important ingredient in the process. An U16 title arrived, followed by back to back minor titles in 1983 and 1984. It would form the backbone of a senior team on the cusp of making the breakthrough.
“Paddy Chivers would've been instrumental in the younger years and the Doc (Sean Dorrity) took us as well, he was a great influence,” Johnny points out.
Chivers, the current Club Chairman, was an advocate of kicking the ball. He would later train the All-Ireland winning team he helped build. The relentless kicking drills instilled the message that led to their first All-Ireland final goal.
Johnny McGurk's high ball created panic in the Salthill defence. Alan Mulholland made a catch, but then he tried to play himself out of danger, Seamus Downey's tackle led to Don Mulholland finding the net. Spirit and kicking in the same sentence, on the biggest of days.
“Sometimes we gave it away, but we were a smaller team and the quicker we moved the ball the better,” McGurk adds.
“If the full forward line was out in front you kicked it and if they weren't, you took another hand to toe. You didn't hold the ball unless you had to.”
Hugh Martin McGurk, at 32, was the oldest player on the starting team. But it took a brave decision at the start of the 1988 season to set them on their way.
A defeat to Dungiven in 1987, McGurk felt, was a watershed moment. When John Brennan came in as manager the following year he had a decision to make. Back youth, or go for what had been before.
“John had a big part to play in our overall determination and our healthy attitude for winning, he put that into us,” McGurk added.
“John came in and bred a pile of young ones from those minor teams. At the risk of being caught out badly, he had the faith in us and it was a big thing.”
It paid off when they saw off Newbridge and 11 years after watching Hurley lift the cup, McGurk looked on as Henry Downey did likewise and he could reach out and touch the championship medal he craved.
By the start of the 1990 season Brendan Convery took over as senior manager, with Paddy Chivers on board and Lavey's dream season was about to get off the ground.
Also part of the management team was Paddy Dillon and Brendan Henry, who mixed secretary duties with his magic sponge.
“Nero (Convery) wasn't a man for coaching and ball drills,” Johnny points out. “He would've watched training and picked up things about players, it helped him to make changes at important times.
“He didn't get too annoyed at any stage. He had the character of a golfer, which he was, so he was relaxed and just watched.”
Lavey's road to glory began with a 'very testing game' with Castledawson. After a convincing win over Ballerin, it set up a semi-final clash with Dungiven, a rivalry that seemed to pen a new chapter every year between football and hurling.
“They were a serious outfit,” McGurk said. “They'd players with county titles and plenty who had represented the county over the years at all levels.
“It was always dog eat dog until it (the game) was over but there was a healthy respect. Lavey and Dungiven would've always have got on off the pitch, would've sat and had a pint with each other.”
After a tight opening spell, Brian McCormick's long kick from defence, won by Seamus Downey, led to Collie McGurk's goal and Lavey went on to control the game. With Paddy McGurk and Liam McElhinney clawing for a loose ball, it ended up in the Lavey net to give Dungiven a lifeline. When Eunan O'Kane later levelled matters, it took points from McCormick and Johnny McGurk to put Lavey into the county final.
After shipping an early Sean D O'Neill goal in the final, a similar fisted effort to the 'Screen net by Seamus Downey had Lavey back in the game. In the final quarter, McCormick's goal opened up a six-point lead before Hugh Martin McGurk netted a third to put the result beyond doubt.
“There was never a moment when we felt we'd have a chance of winning an All-Ireland,” McGurk replied.
“Most teams, they think about the next game and it's one less and you just keep going...if you think two games ahead, you're gone.”
Donegal champions Naomh Columba were waiting in the first round of Ulster in Ballybofey, a team that included county stars John Joe Doherty, Paddy and Noel Hegarty. Two Felix Convery points saw Lavey emerge from a tough encounter.
As the players mingled with supporters after the meal back in Jackson's Hotel, there was a sense that something special was brewing.
To help create a matchday atmosphere, the team travelled by bus for the rest of the season, even their 'home' semi-final with Armagh's Sarsfields in Ballinascreen.
“There was a routine for the last 10 or 15 minutes before coming out and we'd always have Sean South of Garryowen belting out in the bus as we arrived at the pitch,” McGurk remembers.
It was a 'tempestuous' game and another one of inches. In the dying moments, Brian McCormick's scrappy goal, greeted by Collie McGurk's somersault to celebrate amid a deafening din of air horns, told Lavey they were in an Ulster club final.
The final against Kingscourt was a walk in the park. Despite having Cavan county players Jim Reilly, Pat and Michael Faulkner, Lavey cut through them and won by 12 points.
The party was in full flow when word filtered through 'out of the blue' of their pending All-Ireland Quarter-Final with a star-studded Tir Chonaill Gaels, who boasted Mattie McGleenan and James McCartan in their ranks.
“We thought we had the Christmas break and we'll have a few pints all week,” McGurk remembers of their celebrations eventually put on the back burner.
A lack of preparation or knowledge of their London opponents left it another 'sticky game'. It wasn't helped with the wintry weather leaving the game in doubt less than 24-hours before.
“They gave us a fright,” McGurk said, of Lavey's three-point deficit as the final minutes ticked away.
James Chivers won a throw-in in front of the stand before feeding Seamus Downey, who kicked the ball forward. Their coaching drills always had them finding the man in space.
This was different. It was the pressure cooker. All shape went out the window. It was all hands to the pump.
In the end it was the old dog for the hard road. When corner-back Damien Doherty's low shot came back off the butt of the post, 42 year-old Anthony McGurk slam dunked the rebound to the net to level the game and Lavey won after extra-time.
It was David versus Goliath in the All-Ireland semi-final at Celtic Park against Dublin giants Thomas Davis, who had Dublin players Paul Curran and Dave Foran in their side.
Lavey had prepared a scouting trip to watch them in the Leinster final that turned into a bonding day in a Kildare hostelry. The fog had descended by the time the bus, with both players and supporters, arrived in Newbridge and the game was postponed.
It took two goals to get Lavey over the line against Thomas Davis, with James Chivers having a hand in both. His fist past teased the Dublin 'keeper off his line, but the incoming Don Mulholland, who was second favourite to get to the ball, had no reverse gear. He got a hand to the ball, and seconds later Seamus Downey slammed to the net.
In the second half, Chivers' high ball forward saw Hugh Martin McGurk fouled. He took the kick himself and when it somehow squirmed to the net, Lavey had one foot in Croke Park. They still had to breathe a sigh of relief when a late Thomas Davis snapshot, the last kick of the game, flashed across goal
“They (Thomas Davis) clapped us off at the end of the game and that was a very fitting thing to do,” McGurk remembers.
Teenager Brian McCormick kicked 1-6 as Lavey finished the job against Salthill to seal their All-Ireland. It was the final step in an enthralling journey. The outpouring of emotion befitted the endless hours of toil and development to reach the pinnacle. It was a victory for community and channelling everything into putting themselves on the map.
Johnny McGurk raises the Andy Merrigan Cup at Croke Park (Pic: Ray McManus/Sportsfile)
Later in the year, the Derry championship's competitive edge was again evident when Dungiven knocked them off their perch, taking all three titles in one swoop in another tense encounter at Glen.
Lavey won Ulster again in 1992 before retaining their title the following year, the last time John McLaughlin paid a visit.
There is always the regret of missing a second All-Ireland. After having two men sent off, they left themselves too much to do against Skibbereen, who went the whole way. McGurk feels the sendings off were 'harsh'.
“I think we'd have won it had we got over them,” he laments.
“People say we got lucky the year we won the All-Ireland, but there were other years when we were unlucky not to have won a county title. It was hard to win the Derry championship and like most Derry sides, we'd have been competitive if we'd got into Ulster.”
When the parish of Lavey wakes up next Wednesday, the first thing they'll remember will be that magical day, 30 years ago, when a wave of emotion, on the back of years of toil, carried the Andy Merrigan Cup into their lives.
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