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27/09/2021

Derry's international dimension

Dermot McNicholl and Sean Marty Lockhart look back at their International Rules careers

Derry's international dimension

Sean Marty Lockhart in action during the International Rules. (Pic: Ray McManus)

Sean Marty Lockhart holds the Irish record 16 for International Rules' appearances over his eight seasons playing against the Aussies. While still at school, Dermot McNicholl played in the first series back in 1984. Michael McMullan spoke to them about their memories.

Pure thuggery. That's how Dermot McNicholl saw his baptism on the International Rules stage. You would've needed eyes in the back of your head on that October Sunday on the banks of the Lee.

An unofficial version raised its head in 1967, but it was 1984 before the GAA and AFL approved the series. That afternoon in Páirc Uí Chaoimh wasn't the best advertisement.

A year after captaining Derry minors to glory and months after lifting the MacRory Cup, McNicholl was asked by Tyrone's Jodie O'Neill, a selector under manager Peter McDermott, to answer his country's call.

Derry's run to the semi-final of the Centenary Cup and their extra-time win over Kerry in Tuam would've put him in the shop window even further. An All-Star rubber-stamped his legendary arrival.

“I spent the last 10 or 15 (against Kerry) minutes marking Jack O'Shea. He was in his prime and the man you looked up to,” said McNicholl, who places Gerry McElhinney as his idol growing up.

“I was going really well in the matches and I had a fair idea I would make the squad,” said McNicholl of their trials in Dublin and Mullingar.

He describes manager Peter McDermott as a 'really nice man' and selector Liam Salmon had a portfolio on the Aussie travelling squad. But they didn't factor in the physical side of the game Australian manager John Todd brought to the table.

Dermot McNicholl and Australia's Richard Osbourne battle for possession as Tony Scullion looks on during Ireland's four-point defeat in the third test of the 1987 International Rules Series at Croke Park.
(Pic: Ray McManus/Sportsfile)

“He was a ruthless character,” said McNicholl. That afternoon in Cork, the Aussie did things that were 'out of sorts' from their own game back home. Jack O'Shea had his nose broken and Mick Lyons was also taken out off the ball.

It was bad enough for GAA officials to question the series, even after the first game. It cast a strange atmosphere.

“What they did that day was pure thuggery,” said McNicholl. “They brought over a big side, what they would've called 'tall timber'. There would be boys sniping...taking you out from behind.”

Despite being a rookie at county level, McNicholl was well able to handle himself. He needed to be. Marking the 'Big Dipper', Robert Di Pierdomenico, was no walk in the park.

“He was seen as one of the tough nuts, but he played me fair,” McNicholl said. “We went at it hammer and tongs, but he didn't do anything untoward to me.”

The Aussies won the game and series (2-1) overall, with both Croke Park tests played in the right spirit.

Ahead of the 1986 tour to Australia, McNicholl and Brian McGilligan, at new Ireland manager Kevin Heffernan's request, trained with Tyrone as they prepared for the All-Ireland Final. It helped fill out numbers in training games and crank up the Derry duo's match fitness.

“He was unbelievable,” McNicholl said of Heffernan.

“You talk about coaching and management. He was able to get inside your head...a bit like (Adrian) McGuckin. He had a lovely way of challenging you and getting the best out of you.”

McNicholl and Lockhart both agreed, the visiting team held the aces. The chance to train twice a day, to eat, relax and socialise together creates a bond.

“Functions were laid on for us by the Irish community,” said, McNicholl who had John O'Driscoll and Damien O'Hagan, separately, as room-mates.

Before the test match of the 1986 tour, Ireland played Australia in a preparation game to get familiar with the rules. Despite the defeat, 'Heffo' gave the Irish a licence to go out on the town.

“It was a very good one,” said McNicholl of their bonding sessions. “That was the night Mick Lyons questioned what Heffernan saw in Brian McGilligan as a full-back and that it was his (Lyons) position.

“Boys were saying Mick offered big McGilligan on in a press-ups competition. That's the sort of craic that was going on.”

Rivals at county level back home, where now living out of each other's' pockets. The craic was ninety. In the middle of a card school on the plane on the way over, the banter turned to football chat on who would win the series.

Eoin Liston's eyes were on the social side of the trip. Football was an add-on.

“When asked for his prediction, the 'Bomber' stood up and told us 'I think 'yeez' will win the thing'. He was only there for the holiday, sure he tore his hamstring at training and never kicked a ball,” McNicholl remembers.

Australia won the first test in Perth's WACA Grounds, a clash the newspapers billed 'Fireworks at the WACA'.

“That was the night their 'keeper (Gary) McIntosh took me out if it. I was coming onto a ball and all I could see was this red jersey. He came out with his elbow, I don't know how he didn't break my jaw,” said McNicholl of the challenge on a par with German 'keeper Harald Schumacher.

McNicholl was left 'seeing stars' and McIntosh was banned for the second game. Ireland bounced back with a win in Melbourne, but the decision to drop Pat Spillane after the first test left Heffernan under pressure as the media began to circle the wagons.

The fact that the Kerry star wasn't injured and asked to be the team's runner was called into question. The Kerry Dublin rivalry was also thrown up, but Heffo put it to bed at a team meeting in the lead-in to the final and deciding test.


Kevin Heffernan managed Ireland in 1986 and 1987. (Pic: Ray McManus/Sportsfile)

“I can still see him yet,” McNicholl remembers. “He was standing at the lectern and telling us it wasn't about Derry or Kerry or Dublin...it was about Ireland.

“It was a powerful speech, if we had gone out to play that night, you'd have run through a brick wall.

“Heffernan was able to gauge the atmosphere, the timing of it and used it to create a siege mentality and that really helped us.”

Ireland won the third game and the test overall by an aggregate of 32 points. Australia won the series the following year in Ireland. McNicholl and McGilligan were joined on the squad by Tony Scullion, who later trained the squad in Paul Early's era.

Scullion was back on board for 1990, playing corner -back in all three tests as Ireland won the series. McNicholl, who was flying in pre-season with St Kilda, was due to hook up with Eugene McGee's squad, but a serious groin injury ended his season.

The enthusiasm in McNicholl's voice doesn't lie. The International Rules was an 'unbelievable' experience.

Looking back, he feels the Aussies picked up a few things from the Irish. As the years wore on, they opted for a more mobile player and added the 'around the corner' kick, off the side of the boot, to their repertoire.

During McNicholl's conversation, he continued to switch back and forth to the current AFL game. His own experiences lit a flame 'down under'.

***

Sean Marty Lockhart will never forget 1998. In his view, it was his best season. The underage promise and a dedicated regime, fuelled by an inner desire, was paying dividends.

Three years earlier he picked up a second MacRory medal, this time as captain. He won an All-Ireland U21 football title in 1997. A dual player, the same year, he played centre back in the Ulster final replay win over Antrim with the U21 hurlers. In between times, Mickey Moran handed him his senior debut at wing forward as Derry picked up league honours.

In 1998, he played centre back as Jordanstown came within the width of a goalpost from wrestling the Sigerson Cup from giants IT Tralee. His stock was growing, but a masterclass of defensive play saw Donegal All-Ireland winner Tony Boyle left rudderless as Derry won the Ulster senior title. It helped him to an All-Star and Ulster Player of the Year later that year.

“There were three or four of asked to come down to the International Rules trials that year...I didn't expect much,” admits Lockhart. One of the workmen on the site he was working on that summer thought even less.

“I was out labouring for a local bricklayer Eamon McGrellis,” Lockhart explains. “One of the boys bet me £20 that I wouldn't get near the squad.”

Lockhart made the cut, was a regular at corner-back and was player of the series as Colm O'Rourke's Ireland won the series on it's return after an eight-year absence.

“The boy...he still hasn't paid me the bet, but I won the bragging rights,” Lockhart laughs.

Now reduced to a two-game series, the Banagher man played a record 16 times between 1998 and 2006. Sean Cavanagh and Graham Canty are closest.

A broken arm on Derry duty against Donegal – on the day a fixture clash with Ireland's World Cup clash in South Korea left a soggy Clones empty - ruled Lockhart out of the 2002 series. It was one of three times Derry had no representation.

There was no series in 2007, but Lockhart was back the following year, as the team's runner in Sean Boylan's management team that also included former captain and future manager Anthony Tohill. Derry's Paddy Bradley was on that 2008 side, with Chrissy McKaigue part of the 2013 and 2014 teams.

“I wouldn't have been a household name before that,” Lockhart feels, before listing some of the key players. “Peter Canavan, Jarlath Fallon, Anthony Tohill, John McDermott, Darren Fay, Seamus Moynihan...these boys were superstars. I think 1998 kind of elevated me a bit.”

Lockhart hails the influence of Mickey Moran and John O'Keefe, the coaches under manager Colm O'Rourke.


Sean Marty Lockhart during an Irish practice session. (Pic: Ray McManus/Sportsfile)  

“They were two unbelievable right hand men, we had an excellent management team and everybody committed to it,” he states.

“Between 1998 and 2008, there were very few boys who were playing well for their counties and turned down a chance to play for Ireland, that tells it all.”

While McNicholl's debut began in a barrage of violence in 1984, Lockhart's early years of the International Rules were, through his eyes, the best. In 1998 and 1999 he felt both camps had their best teams out.

After a one-point defeat in the first test, Ireland won the series in the second test with Lockhart getting forward to kick an over at Croke Park.

In 1999 Ireland were again victorious. Tohill was among the stars as Ireland were eight-point winners when 64,000 fans had the MCG just over half full. It was a different story in the second test with a full house in Adelaide.

“The ground can only hold 45,000 and it was packed to the rafters,” Lockhart remembers. “There was some atmosphere that night. It finished 52 all and we won the series overall.”

Of the nine years Lockhart was involved five were in Australia and one of his memories is the amount of Irish people from all over Derry and beyond. There is a pride in being Irish away from home, watching their amateur team turn over the professional Aussies on their own turf.

He recalls sitting one night chatting to three boys from Dungiven. It was a scene from McReynold's Bar back home.

After winning the 1999 series, the squad headed to a night of celebration, hosted in Sydney that spilled into a game of Gaelic with a team from the club.

“They loved it and it was packed,” Lockhart recalls. “I got chatting to boys from home, Eugene Lynch, Ally Gaile, Keith Biggs and Michael Murphy, it was brilliant to see.

“You'd be over there training in the stadiums, Irish people would be coming to watch you and they'd have Ireland flags. They'd come for autographs and just chatting away, and they were so proud that you there.”

The first four years were the most enjoyable, played in the right spirit. While there was a competitive nature, it didn't spill over.

In 2001 he got his eyebrow cut with the late tackle and finished the game with a bandage around his head, but the aggressor apologised.

“It was the same in Sean Boylan's years in charge (2006 and 2008), but there was a time in the middle when it got nasty and it wasn't enjoyable,” Lockhart points out.

“They are so competitive,” he says of the Aussies. “They would've legally hit you hard, but if you stood up to them, they actually respected you for it.

“If you took the ball off them or put in a good tackle, they'd commend you on it. I marked Michael O'Loughlin, Jeff Farmer and Nathan Brown,” he points out.

“They'd have tapped you on the shoulder and said 'well done mate', there was sportsmanship there. After the match, they'd sit and have a chat or a drink with you.”

The hardest thing to get a handle on was the Aussies' tackle. Lockhart made a name for his nimbleness with hands and feet, a Gaelic football defender shuffling into position for the perfect dispossession. He was a master at it.

The Aussies were different. Anywhere between the shoulder and the knee was within the rules and dragging down was fair game.

The other aspect was their better use of the interchange players. The GAA mentality of a substitute is someone not being good enough to make the team. McNicholl and Lockhart both agree on the Australians' better use of their 'interchange' players and the rolling subs.

“It means their players are able to go at a higher intensity, maybe 80 percent of their maximum heart rate for the time they are on,” McNicholl highlights.

“If a boy goes on a big run up the field, he is off and a fresh man is on,” adds Lockhart, who found his fitness had rocketed after training like a professional during the series.

Having played under O'Rourke, O'Keefe, Boylan and Pete McGrath, Lockhart couldn't separate them. Their experience and success on the All-Ireland scene spoke volumes.

“There are many roads to Rome,” he points out. “I couldn't say which was the best manager. They got on well with the players, that was a huge thing.

“At that level you didn't have to tell players to pull their weight, they wanted to come and play for Ireland. It is a big incentive, there was no begging players to come out and play.”

Lockhart got on 'like a house on fire' with his room-mate, Meath defender Darren Fay, on the first two tours. The trips gave players the chance to really get to know those they pitted themselves against for their counties.

“When you put on the (county) jersey, they were competitive dogs on the field, but off the field they were humble gentlemen.

“On the field (for Ireland) they backed you up, but off the field there were no airs or graces with them, they were down to earth.”

On reflection, Sean Marty can now look back with satisfaction on a career where football took him all over the world. He'd swap it all for a championship medal with Banagher or winning the greatest prize of all, Sam Maguire.

He might not have got his £20 from the bet in 1998, but his International Rules' career will stand the test of time.

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