Derry celebrate winning the 1991 Ulster minor hurling championship.
Derry minor hurlers ran Cork close in the 1990 All-Ireland minor semi-final. With the Ulster title tucked away again, the following year, it was back to Croke Park where they pushed Kilkenny close. Michael McMullan spoke to some of those involved...
Peter Stevenson knew his baptism as Derry minor hurling manager would be no ordinary one. Before they'd let fly on a sliotar in the 1991 season, bridges needed mending.
At the heel of the previous season, Lavey hosted Ballinascreen in the final of the South Derry minor championship. Stevenson, Derry's hurling board secretary at the time, was appointed as referee.
The game wasn't finished. It was more than handbags. It was a proper rumpus. The sides had previously crossed paths in the county final and the needle boiling under the brim eventually erupted.
Derry CCC handed out a blanket ban across both teams. Only Brian McCormick, who would star in Lavey's All-Ireland club football campaign, was spared.
”We didn't start training until all the suspensions were up,” Stevenson recalls of the pre-season.
'The Damper' had applied for the job the previous year. Joe McGurk was appointed as manager, but Stevenson took over when the Lavey man stepped down at the end of 1990.
When the players arrived in the dressing room for the first step of their preparations, Stevenson laid it on the line. Club rivalry was to be left at home. They were Derry men now and cliques weren't allowed.
“If there were four involved in any of our drills, they had to be from different clubs where possible,” remembers captain Paddy McEldowney.
“He was a good manager,” said Geoffrey McGonagle. “I enjoyed him, he was good at getting the best out of everybody. He pulled everybody with him.”
Without an Ulster league to shape a team for the championship cauldron, plans were hatched and buses booked for a series of challenge games down the country. Saturdays on the road helped create that special team environment.
“Everybody had good time for each other, heading the one road and there for one reason,” McGonagle said.
“A team is made on the bus on the way up and down,” McEldowney adds. “If the craic is good, that's the best place to keep that going.”
Thirty years on, a reunion was on the cards until social distancing put an end to that. From hearing the memories of those involved, it would've been mighty steam.
After taking up a post in Dernaflaw school in 1971, Stevenson began to spread the hurling roots to the surrounding areas.
Five years earlier Liam Hinphey introduced the game in the nearby St Patrick's Dungiven after finding a bag of unused hurls in a store. It helped form Dungiven's club team, with Drum and Banagher later pulling away to form their own clubs.
The game began to flourish as the level of coaching increased. Tom Magill had Lavey competing in and winning underage leagues in Antrim. The standard was on the rise.
At St Patrick's Maghera, success began to arrive with regularity and any inferiority complex in Derry hurling was fizzling out.
A hammering of Cross and Passion Ballycastle in 1989 brought a fourth Mageean Cup of the decade. Joe McGurk played Geoffrey, a fourth year, at centre-forward, to feed an attack that tore their opponents to pieces, after they hammered Garron Tower in the semi-final.
“There was a three-year period when we were winning everything,” Paddy McEldowney outlines. “We had won an U16 hurling championship (in 1989) with the club around that time. Then it was straight into another MacRory and Hogan campaign before we hooked up with the minor hurlers.”
Joe McGurk had 'Screen man Pat Joe McKenna with him and later added his brother Collie to the setup. It was a rush to get a team pulled together after the 1990 Hogan Cup final needed a replay for Maghera to see of St Jarlath's.
It took a goal from for a 'rusty' Derry to see off Down, 1-10 to 0-10, in the semi-final at the Athletic Grounds.
“That 1990 team was a heavily fancied team...more so than the following year, when there wasn't the same expectation” McEldowney states.
“Big Ollie (Collins), Brian McCormick and Hugh Mullan were among the older players, but at least half of the team were underage
the next year.”
In the final, Rory Stevenson blotted out Antrim dangerman PJ O'Mullan in a 4-11 to 1-8 victory.
Two Paddy McEldowney goals helped Derry out of the blocks. After hooking his marker, he pulled to the net midway through the first half. Collins also hit a brace of goals in a comfortable win.
McGonagle plucked a ball in the first five minutes only for an Antrim hurl to follow through and break his thumb.
When the adrenaline subsided after the game, the pain knocked him for six. McGonagle had to get it strapped up for the following Sunday, a two-point win in the Ulster minor football final at Clones.
On the hurling front, it was off to Croke Park to take on a Cork team that contained 1999 All-Ireland senior winning captain Mark Landers and Kevin Murray, who came on in the final.
The 1990 Derry minor team pictured before their All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Cork in Croke Park.
Only two points separated the teams at half-time, with a goal from Michael Collins boosting Derry’s confidence.
Goalkeeper Fergal McNally made a number of fine saves, with points from Collins (4), McCormick and Malachy McKenna keeping Derry ticking over at the other end.
The Oakleafers, who lost McGonagle to injury after the interval, were left to also rue a number of missed chances which might have left things more interesting in what was a 1-14 to 1-9 defeat, with Cork losing out to the Cats in the final, after a replay.
The 1991 chapter was one of commitment and talent, bound together by team spirit built by Stevenson's trips down the country.
With the bad blood between Lavey and 'Screen buried, the training sessions – mainly at Glen and Slaughtneil – began to sharpen the skills. Paddy McEldowney, now the captain, remembers how Stevenson didn't even focus on Down or Antrim. It was all about getting ready for Croke Park.
It was about developing a quick, direct game. The focus was a system of play to stop 'the better teams' settling while Derry set about getting the ball to the inside forwards as quickly as possible.
“Damper was probably taking a chance we'd get to Croke Park and he was building for that,” McEldowney felt.
“The training he set up was really intense,” McGonagle adds.
When Stevenson's son Rory told him of the players' own decision to abstain from drink, it told him of the player-led desire to succeed.
“Some of them were lads of 18 years of age and they'd be taking drink,” Peter remarks. “I was more concerned in coaching and getting them ready for matches. These lads took it upon themselves, very dedicated and committed...that sticks out for me.”
Geoffrey speaks of the talent in the team, while McEldowney emphasised how enjoyable the season was.
“We won (Ulster) the year before and did well in the All-Ireland semi-final, but the second (1991) team was different, it was something else. It was a crazy enough gang and there were some headers on it,” McEldowney states.
He struggled to put his finger on the exact ingredient, but it was a special group. Later, it would grow into an Ulster U21 title in 1993 and later the All-Ireland B winning team. After picking up the 1997 U21 champions on their way, it fed into Derry's back to back senior titles.
“The likes of Gregory Biggs...he's probably the best lad you could get around a panel. For having the craic, but knowing when it is serious and when it is hurling time.”
The traditional Ulster season for Derry minors, was a semi-final with Down followed by a crack at Antrim and if you were undercooked, the season was over almost before it began.
Stevenson was different. He trekked Derry's 'crazy gang' by bus to challenge games down the country over a 'four or five' week period.
“Damper knew what he was at, he knew what makes a team for the tough day out,” McEldowney said. “He knew we had a team when the rest of us didn't.”
“They were all good games,” Geoffrey recalls of their preparation. “Results didn't matter, it was all about matching your performance and bettering yourself.”
After one of the games, Stevenson summoned his captain to the front of the bus and instructed him to sit next to Geoffrey on the way home, with one task.
“By the time the bus was back in Maghera, I needed to convince Geoffrey to stick with us (hurlers). Damper was worried if the squeeze was put on by the football camp, Geoffrey might pull out of the hurling. I done what I was told, I said he had to stick with us,” Paddy reveals.
“I always gave everything to both codes,” added Geoffrey, who remembers Paddy's chat and wasn't surprised. Stevenson was always thinking about the small things. Anything for the good of the team.
The challenge games paid off and Down were put to the sword in the semi-final. Mickey Collins scored a hat-trick, Paddy McEldowney found the net, with McGonagle and Rory Stevenson chipping in with points.
Antrim were waiting in the Ulster final and looked like they were going to end any thoughts of an Oakleaf Croke Park return.
PJ O'Mullan squeezed out 1-3 from corner forward and Jim Connolly was causing bother at wing-forward. The fancied Saffrons were in control, leading by five points at the break.
“I remember the Damper (Peter) coming in at half-time and he wasn't a happy camper,” Geoffrey recalls. “He went off his head.”
Man of the match McGonagle shaved the outside of the post with a goal chance and when Connolly added a second Antrim goal for a 2-7 to 0-5 lead, it was looking bleak.
Derry's management made a series of switches. Mickey 'Blight' McCloskey was sent to wing-back on Connolly, with Stevenson going to the centre. Benny Ward and Philip Hughes came into the team.
“I remember saying to Seamus Doherty (selector) 'we need to do something here' to change the game,” Stevenson points out.
Paddy McEldowney speaks of the mistake Antrim made of continuing to direct their puck-outs to the same wing, looking for Connolly, only to find an inspired McCloskey.
“Mickey had some hand on him,” Geoffrey said.
“He must've caught about eight puck outs in a row and the Antrim 'keeper kept pucking it to him,” added McEldowney.
With Derry having Antrim penned in and Biggs hitting a first Derry goal, the game began to change. Paddy McEldowney and Mickey Collins, who were getting no change from their markers, were switched.
“It was like a last ditch move,” McEldowney remembers. “The first ball Mickey got, he stuck it in the net. The next ball I got, I put it over the bar and all of a sudden we were flying.”
Their 3-5 in the final quarter blitzed Antrim as Derry retained their Ulster title. For McEldowney, it was indicative of the spirit in the team.
“That's why that (1991) team didn't give in during the Ulster final, and that we had a chance, so pushed on and kept believing,” he states.
Brian McLernon presents Paddy McEldowney with the cup after Derry's 1991 win over Antrim in Casement Park.
With Kilkenny waiting in the All-Ireland series, Derry were brought back down to earth with a bang when Galway hammered them out the gate in a challenge game.
“I think part of that was due to a very lax attitude,” recalls goalkeeper Joe Trolan.
“That was supposed to be a weekend, but Damper didn't allow us to do anything after we got the beating. We were supposed to stay in Galway that night,” McGonagle remembers.
“The whole thing was back on the bus and up the road...when we trained on the Monday night, he gave us some dogging.”
With the defeat out of the system, the pep was back in the step. With the summer weather and Glen's dry sod, preparations were in full swing for their crack at the All-Ireland champions.
With future senior players Denis Byrne, Phily Larkin and PJ Delaney in their side, Kilkenny were three points up before Mickey McCloskey's ball from defence led to McGonagle's opening score. Rory Stevenson assumed free-taking duties and a monster from well inside his own half was one of four points that day.
“Barabbas (Dermot Hasson) hardly gave PJ Delaney a puck of a ball,” Peter Stevenson remembers.
Delaney's free-taking gave Kilkenny a foothold in the game, but he had a penalty saved by Rory Stevenson and cleared by McGonagle.
Before half-time, Kilkenny failed to deal with Philip Hughes' diagonal ball into the danger area and when Benny Ward was denied, Paddy McEldowney pulled the ball to the net. Going in at the break, Derry were well in the game.
McGonagle remembers the half-time break and the blood pouring out of a cut on Sean McGlone's eyebrow. As he lay on his back getting stitched up, Damper delivered his half-time words of advice.
“There was no anaesthetic or anything like that,” McEldowney laughs. “He (McGlone) was only 17 and was some operator back then.
“You had Sean Farmer (Kennedy) at full back. He was only five foot six, but he was buck mad,” Paddy continues.
“Damper would've worked on him, Squidgy (Sean McWilliams) and McGlone...he had them ready for any eventuality.”
It was all part of what created the special team spirit. Now, with an All-Ireland final spot well within their grasp, this was the big picture.
“Nobody expected us to beat Antrim, never mind giving Kilkenny a game,” McGonagle states. “That was the thing the Damper (Peter) was good at, he was good at motivating teams...he knew how to push the buttons.”
“Damper (Rory) was at centre-half back that day, he was unreal, especially in the second half when we put the pressure on them.”
Kilkenny were 'rattled' in the second half and Phily Larkin was sent off for a strike on McGonagle.
“I kept getting the ball and running at him,” remembers Geoffrey who set up Mickey Collins for Derry's second goal.
“The next ball I got, I went past him and he pulled me down. When I got up he pulled the helmet off me and slapped me right in front of the referee.”
Despite their stellar performance, it wasn't enough and Kilkenny held on for a three-point win on their way to retaining their title.
“We were devastated, we knew we should've won that match. The game was there to be won,” laments McGonagle. “We had them rattled, but we just fell short.”
Former Cats' defender Ted Carroll, the county secretary at the time, stopped Peter Stevenson under the Hogan Stand after the final a month later. Carroll Derry for their part in Kilkenny minors' success. They had poked the bear in the semi-final.
Kilkenny were 'cocky' with their heads 'up their arses' against Derry, he told Stevenson.
“I remember our conversation well,” Peter continues. “He told me how lucky Kilkenny were to come out of that with a win, that we had brought them 'down to earth' and only for it, Tipperary would've beat them in the All-Ireland final.”
The following year, Stevenson was back in charge, but lost to Down by four points. Geoffrey laments the loss of Gregory Biggs to injury, while also conceding that a third Ulster was beyond them.
Looking back, it was a season of memories. Great days of laughter and hurling, with Cork and Kilkenny breathing a heavy sigh of relief.
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