From a meeting in Sam O'Donnell's house in Dernaflaw, the club has exploded into what it is today. Terence McMacken played in the first ever game, has been player of the year and now holds the position of club secretary. He spoke to Michael McMullan...
Last September, a bumper attendance flocked to a packed Roe Park Hotel in Limavady to mark 50 years of Dungiven Celtic. A celebration of a story that evolved from early jottings in the late 1960s, before the club stretched its wings to fly to the top of intermediate football by the early noughties.
The thriving youth scene means Dungiven Celtic is here to stay. It's all thanks to the people involved, according to club stalwart and current secretary Terence McMacken, as he carries the baton held by his late father John Joe.
All-time leading goalscorer Seamus Harkin is now the club chairman. Every week, the club fields seven 11-a-side teams, now has added a snowballing girls' soccer string to its bow - under the leadership of James Doran - and last year hosted almost 300 kids at their annual summer camp.
Currently, like every sporting venue around the globe, their Ballyguddin home lies dormant. The lock-down has left the sporting landscape a deserted one. For Dungiven Celtic, it's a pit stop on a race that began in June 1969.
“Back then, there was a lot of summer soccer played,” McMacken outlines. “We played summer cups and people who were enthusiastic about the game got involved. Every townland would have had a team.”
Feeny FC were in vogue, playing their games where Banagher's Fr McNally Park is now situated. Many players from the Dungiven area would have turned out for them. They had the makings of a decent side, but soon dissolved.
Almost immediately, Dernaflaw Rovers sprung up, playing mainly in cup competitions before the realisation dawned of a hunger for more action in a more regular and organised format. There was the inkling to join the Derry and District Sunday morning league (D&D) for the start of the 1969/1970 season.
“A meeting was called in Sam O'Donnell's house and that is how it started.” McMacken adds. “Sam had played on the Feeny team at the time.”
And there it was, Dungiven Celtic was founded.
With the club's green and white hooped jerseys on order from Seamus Doran's sports shop in Dungiven, the club kicked off their existence in O'Donnell's red and white striped kit.
By the end of that season, the club were in the green, white and black colours associated with the club to this very day.
It all began with a trip to the Brandywell on Sunday, August 31, 1969 for the club's first game, against Moville who were one of the Donegal teams in the D&D league.
Vinny Hargan scored a hat-trick in the 7-2 win. Between the posts was Dungiven and Derry Gaelic goalkeeper John Sommers. Also on the team were stalwarts Gerard Kelly and Terence McMacken.
“We didn't really know what to expect,” McMacken recalls. “We had played in friendlies at the time, there was no real social media, so we thought this would be a good Moville team we'd be playing against.
“We played very well. We may have been a bit inconsistent, but we had a lot of good footballers around here and were better than we gave ourselves credit for.”
By the end of 1970, the club won their first trophy when they returned victorious from the Brandywell with the McKinney Cup thanks to two goals from Hugh Doherty.
“We beat Brandywell Harps (2-1) in the final and they were the top team in the city at the time, so that was a big win,” McMacken adds.
Saturday football then began, when the club entered a team into the North West senior league, with many of the players mixing it with a D&D game on a Sunday, as well as playing Gaelic games.
At the age of 15, Gerry McElhinney came to play for Dungiven Celtic. He would be waiting at Park bridge every Saturday where he would be collected for a game. By 1975, he was an all-star Gaelic footballer with Derry and was playing on loan from Celtic at Finn Harps.
“From Dungiven Celtic, Gerry moved to Distillery and was playing very well for them before being snapped up by Bolton Wanderers,” recalls McMacken.
“I can also (later) remember Anthony Tohill (McElhinney's brother-in-law) playing for Park out at Ballyguddin on the Saturday before he went on trial at Manchester United.”
By the end of the 1970s, there was talk of a new Northern Ireland Intermediate league on the horizon.
“It was for clubs who were quite ambitious,” McMacken begins. “The Irish league, at a higher level, was a closed shop. There were local clubs, who wanted to play at a higher level, but had no outlet. Some people in the club said 'we'll not' and others wanted to give it a go and see where it goes.”
It was the beginning of the climb.
In August 1978, Jack Doherty was Dungiven's goalscorer in a 3-1 defeat to Cookstown United at the Curragh Road in the intermediate league cup. The next leg of the journey began.
In the team was Scot Dougie Wood, who had spells with Sunderland and Raith Rovers, before moving to Ireland, where he won both league and cup honours with Derry City.
“He came to us in his mid-30s and was Dungiven Celtic's player manager until he was around 40,” McMacken states.
The club's longest serving manager Jim McGroarty then came on board. A Lettershandoney man, he played with Finn Harps before going over the water to Stoke City. After a return to Ireland, he had a spell with Sligo Rovers before going back to the Harps.
“When we won our first intermediate trophy (1984), we beat Derry City in the final of the North West Challenge Cup,” McMacken adds. “Dougie had stepped down as manager, Jim was back playing for Sligo on a Sunday, so he took over as manager.”
Another constant during that era was Martin Hazlett, who sadly passed away last year. Terence McMacken's diligent record keeping charts Hazlett's 584 appearances for the club. He played in the club's first game at intermediate level, was player of the year in the 1979 season and picked up the award for the sixth time, some 18 years later.
Martin Hazlett celebrates cup glory for Dungiven
Was he the club's greatest player?
“There is no doubt about it, he was a wonderful player,” came McMacken's prompt reply. “He always came to play a game properly prepared and he was always in good shape. He took his football seriously and I always thought he could've played elsewhere – a higher level.”
Hazlett was very much a 'home bird' and lived beside the pitch, playing right up until the club's golden era at the late 1990s and was the glue to pull the team together until the younger crop game along.
“We had always had decent teams, but the (intermediate) league was of a very high standard. Quite a number of the teams, they had people getting paid and were professional teams. We were holding our own, but were never good enough to win it.”
In the Irish Cup, the club had two impressive runs during the 1990s. They reached the sixth round in the 1990/1991 season, before going down to Loughgall. Along the way, they defeated local rivals Limavady United. The following season, they took on Irish League champions Crusaders at Seaview, going down 4-0 after giving a good account of themselves.
It helped keep the momentum going and after knocking on the door for a few years, Intermediate league success was to follow.
In the beginning, Dungiven Celtic played their games between the county school, a pitch on the Hass Road and on the Garvagh Road, where Páirc na nÓg Gaelic pitch is now situated.
“The council bought a field up at the Curragh Road and it has been developed into the Sport Centre,” McMacken points out.
“Then we moved to Ballyguddin. We rented it for years and we eventually bought it and developed it. It was a field with fencing around. In 2004, they dug it up and made a pitch out of it.”
Terence's father, John Joe, had got involved in the club after returning from Belfast where he was working and supporting Belfast Celtic.
He was following the Derry and Dungiven GAA teams, before being asked to get involved in Dungiven Celtic.
“He played major role in the club from then on. He kept it going in bad times during the troubles, when it was tough going,” said Terence, who later wrote a poem as a tribute to his late father.
“He didn't get to see the pitch finished. When they came into work on the pitch, he died a week after.”
Terence now looks after the pitch. Seamus Harkin hails the endless hours he puts into it.
“You'll probably find him out there any way, just making sure it is in pristine condition.”
Dermott McCloskey was another who poured his life into the club after his playing days, whether it was coaching or whatever needed done.
“Dermott was a big influence in procuring the pitch on a permanent basis and developing it,” McMacken adds.
Another club stalwart remembered at the club dinner was Patsy Donaghy. Not many Dungiven Celtic players will remember him not being around the club during his lifetime. He famously reminded Gerard Kelly to stay on his feet.
“Get up Kelly, you need studs on your arse,” he would say.
“Patsy was a permanent fixture,” McMacken recalls. “He never played, but he was the club linesman – one of those guys. Every club has them...and the flag was pointing one way most of the time.”
So many offered time over the years to take Dungiven Celtic from Sam McDonnell's house to their new home at Ballyguddin, but by the early 2000s the first team was really beginning to come of age.
McMacken, who would rather be watching the local underage blossom than watching soccer on the telly, remembers being down at the pitch one Saturday as the they young guns began to filter into the first team.
An onlooker expressed how well the team was playing.
“I'll tell you what...you've a team there for 10 years,” McMacken was told. And so there was.
Of the 15 players that formed the crux of that squad 'about 12 of them' would've been there all the way through. For most of a decade.
“You might have had the odd boy going away to England or America, but it was different times then – boys were there to train and to play,” McMacken added.
“We had a lot of boys playing Gaelic and hurling, they mixed it up the best. All three codes were doing very well.
“The fact it was a community thing means there were days when you had to do without guys, that's the way it has to be.”
It brought McMacken to the story of a weekend when Dungiven Celtic were down to play an Irish Cup tie in Belfast against Donegal Celtic, on the same Saturday Dungiven's Gaelic team were set to play Bellaghy.
The Belfast club accepted the request for an earlier kick-off to accommodate five players to jump into a car and head to Bellaghy.
“We won 2-1, they were a really good team. It was an outstanding game and our boys were shattered after it,” said McMacken.
Emmett McKeever was man of the match and was one of the players on their way to Bellaghy for part two of their 'super Saturday'.
Dungiven beat Bellaghy and later the that night, McMacken was informed that McKeever was the star of the show for the second time that day.
“I didn't even know how he was able to walk again after the way he played. There was two games where he was man of the match in one day.”
It was the 2002/2003 season when the breakthrough came with the club's first intermediate League title. They lost only once, to Strabane, during their 18-game march to glory.
They were 2-0 down in one game, away to Roe Valley, before Seamus Harkin's hat-trick pulled victory from the jaws of defeat. Harkin bagged another two goals in another important clash, as Celtic saw off Dergview and they never looked back.
The following season was an even better one, with all three teams – firsts, reserves and thirds – all winning their respective league titles.
The firsts needed to avoid defeat in the final game of the season in a decider with Strabane, a game that ended scoreless, and Dungiven had retained their title.
Six days later a 3-2 win over Park saw the reserves crowned champions and the thirds made it a clean sweep, but they did it the hard way. After going six games without a win, they won 12 of the remaining 13 games.
The firsts added the intermediate challenge cup and the McGrogan Memorial Cup, to round off a season that brought five trophies.
After the gap of a year, Dungiven came back to win their third Intermediate League title to cement it as the club's most memorable period.
Fast forward to the present day and the future looks equally rosy. In recent years, the club were honoured by the IFA as the Club of the Year.
“Dungiven Celtic Football has consistently excelled in its work for youth football in the local area,” read part of the response from the judging panel.
“The club’s community work has also been exemplary having successfully managed to build significant participation in the local area.”
After becoming an established club, the award rubber-stamps their commitment to the future
“We have come a long way and it can fall apart very quickly,” is the take of Terence McMacken.
“It is like any other club, it depends on the people. We are lucky at the moment, we have very good people involved. What we have....one, two or three people couldn't do.”
He refers to the parental support and how the club is run very much on the GAA model, for the community and with everyone rowing in behind each other.
McMacken refers to other clubs in Dungiven's league paying their players, but he is adamant their way is the one that needs to remain.
“They (GAA clubs) have loyalty, that is the big thing. It is hard to get that in soccer. It is a different game, there are different rules and it is run differently.
“We are playing teams on Saturdays where players are getting paid, where our guys are putting in a fiver to play. It is a thing we think is right.”
The money goes towards the running of the club and all the admin fees that are hidden from the eye of a player every Saturday. The underage players all contribute a pound, which helps towards the booking of training facilities.
Other clubs have players getting offered money 'here and there' with goal bonuses.
“Then there are clubs, like ourselves, who aren't. I wouldn't like to see it changed. You are asking them to be part of a club, to sell tickets or whatever, the same as the six-year-olds.”
The balls might be flying around Ballyguddin before the season is out, but the chances are they won't as players are kept tucked up at home for the safety of the nation in the facing the coronavirus outbreak.
When the action returns, the surface will be like a carpet and there will be smiles on the kids' faces as they mix with their peers once again.
The meeting in Sean O'Donnell's house was only the beginning. The club has been passed on, with interest. It's in a healthy state.
Here's to the next 50 years.
Grab Tuesday's County Derry Post for an interview with Jim McGroarty as he talks Celtic, Stoke and the secret to Dungiven's success.
- The early history of Derry GAA and their first taste of September. Click here...
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