Since walking through the gates of St Columb’s College over 20 years ago, Eamonn Burns has helped shape the lives of hundreds of students under his wing. On Monday some of them will play for Cathair Dhoire in the MacLarnon Cup final. Michael McMullan went to meet him…
Almost a decade on from their training sessions on the back pitches of St Patrick’s Maghera and the battles with St Colman’s Newry and St Jarlath’s Tuam in pressure-cooker finals, Dermot Dougan and Eamonn Burns were still tearing up defences.
It was 1998. Sunday, May 31 to be precise. Derry led 14-man Monaghan by three points, after Edwin Murphy was dismissed for an off the ball incident involving Seamus Downey in the 10th minute.
Burns was one of nine survivors from the Sam Maguire winning team of five years previous.
One of the new kids on the block, Joe Cassidy, was ripping Monaghan apart and notched 1-2 in a comfortable win.
But early on, at the end of what was the move of the game, Dougan had the vision to pick out Eamonn Burns who emphatically hammered the ball past John O’Connor, on the way to a 3-13 to 0-11 victory as Derry went on to win their last Ulster title.
“Dougie was equally brilliant at taking and making scores,” commented Burns, who had just returned from England as a newly qualified teacher.
“A job then came up in St Columb’s…initially as a one year post,” Burns recalled, who was working in St Joseph’s in the Creggan.
“I remember getting interviewed for it the day after I got man of the match for Derry against Monaghan, so that was good timing” said Burns of his 1-3 tally in front of 12,000 fans at the nearby Celtic Park.
“Fr Walsh met me at the door and said ‘that was a good goal you scored yesterday’ or something like that,” joked Burns.
He was appointed for a year and the job became permanent. The work began on developing the next batch of stars on the school scene.
“Brian Trainor was the main GAA man for years before me and even up to now, helps out in his retirement,” Burns pointed out.
"Him and Tony Furey took teams together for ages."
Tony McGonigle, Liam Galbraith, James Green and ex-Armagh player Noel Finn are some of the others.
Daniel Heaney is also involved this season, while Bliadhan Glass and Gearalt Ó Mianáin steer the school hurling teams, with Eoghan Cassidy a current all-star.
“Michael McLaughlin is in his fourth year and has been a massive influence as a coach in a short space of time,” added Burns.
“I was delighted for James McQuillan, who managed the Markey winning team. He was captain of the first team I managed when I came to the school, the 1998 Herald Cup team.”
McQuillan played in the 2000 MacLarnon Cup final and was on the panel the following year but injury forced him out of the final.
There had always been a tradition with GAA, in particular the conveyor belt to the 1965 All-Ireland minor winning team, which would help backbone Derry teams that followed.
In the 1960s, it was a golden age for football in the college, beginning with a first MacLarnon title in 1963 under the captaincy of Kilrea man Phil McCotter.
Two years later his brother Paddy was captain as the MacRory and Hogan Cups arrived, a team that formed the spine of Derry’s All-Ireland minor winning team of the same year.
A team that included Chris Brown, Seamus Lagan, Malachy McAfee, Tom Quinn, Colum Mullan, Peter Stevenson and captain Paddy McCotter, a brother of Phil. With Mullan as captain, they retained the MacRory title the following season.
The rise in fortunes came from a strong base.
From 1963 until 1971, St Columb’s were Corn nÁ nOg champions six times. One of the teams was captained by Brian Trainor, another by current Nottingham Forest manager Martin O’Neill, who was a past pupil before the family moved to Belfast.
O’Neill joined St Malachy’s College, where he was an important cog on their 1970 MacRory winning team.
In recent times the school GAA scene is barely recognisable to that of Burns’ playing career and the one he began coaching in.
Nowadays, with the former vocational schools now on board and rebranded as ‘Ulster Schools’, it comprises up to six grades.
“Back then there were only two levels – MacRory and McLarnon,” he states. “In the first four years we got to three finals and won it in 2002.”
In that era, Casement Park was the venue of choice.
“There was a great atmosphere and it was the warm-up to the MacRory. We played St Eunan’s in the 2000 final – Colm’s McFadden’s team. We had Liam Fleming, Brian Rainey, Marty Donaghy,” Burns recalls. “Cahir Mullan, from Dungiven, was captain.”
McFadden scored 1-9 out of Letterkenny’s tally as they failed to get to grips with the Donegal man.
“McFadden stepped up in the last minute,” Burns remembers of the vital moment. “We had tried a couple of markers on him. He went around Eoin Treanor and stuck it in the corner of the net and they beat us by two.”
It was a game of what-ifs. Claudy’s Marty Donaghy tore his squad and took two months to recover but it hampered his free-kicking during the final.
The following year, a St Patrick’s Downpatrick team led by Dan Gordon beat St Columb’s in the final.
The Derry side were backboned by lower sixth pupils, essentially Burns’ Herald Cup side of 1998, including skipper Gavin Donaghy.
“With that experience, we came back the following year and won it,” adds Burns, of their 2-7 to 2-6 win in 2002.
“We beat La Salle in the final. Terry O’Neill, Karl Stewart and Andy McClean, who all went on to win an All-Ireland with St Gall’s, played that day. They were a decent outfit.”
Four of the St Columb’s team would win All-Ireland minor medals later that summer – goalkeeper Marty Dunne, Paul O’Hea, Mark Chambers and Cathal O’Kane, who scored 0-4 in the MacLarnon decider.
Earlier that season, O’Kane captained the Herald Cup team to Ulster glory, contributing to a fine season for ‘The College’.
In the MacLarnon final win, skipper Gavin Donaghy was fouled for a penalty which Paul O'Hea dispatched to the net and seven minutes later Donaghy scored his side’s second goal.
“Those goals made the finish rather exciting but it is relief rather than joy I feel right now,” Burns told reporter Tony McGee after the game.
“I was afraid that, like last year, we would be caught with a late goal but thankfully that didn’t happen.
“It’s 21 years since St Columb’s took the trophy home and this victory means an awful lot to the school,” he concluded at the time.
Like many of the MacLarnon winners, the step up to MacRory is the natural progression.
That was Burns’ initial plan, but for a number of reasons it didn’t materialise.
“Lumen Christi started up around then and they would’ve taken a lot of the country players that would’ve went to St Columb’s previously.
“Also at that time it was two tiers and it became three tiers and so on. Then Bessbrook, Ballygawley, Warrenpoint and schools like that came into the colleges (from vocational schools).
“I would say ‘C’ (Markey Cup) is the new ‘B’ as it was then,” Burns feels.
“People always ask me ‘why are you boys not playing in the MacLarnon’ but it’s not as simple as that. Though at that time, 20 years ago, I was hoping (to push for MacRory).
“The last team in here (St Columb’s) to play in the MacRory was the team of the early 1980s – the likes of Eamonn Lynch and Paul Bradley.
“I would’ve liked to see the idea of boys from Derry City playing MacRory football.”
Last June St Columb’s teacher Mickey McLaughlin and Urban Development Officer Paul Simpson ‘got their heads together’ and from that, Cathair Dhoire was formed.
A case was made. And with the number of players actively playing football, coupled with the levels the clubs and schools were operating at, they were placed in the ‘B’ grade – the MacLarnon Cup.
“The ultimate aim of that team would be to play MacRory football,” Burns hopes. “Whether that happens or not, we’ll see.
“Amalgamated teams are not popular with other schools and I can understand the frustrations. The aim, from a selfish point of view and from a Derry City point of view, it is about giving them (players) more exposure.
“I was at a few of the matches and playing the Markey Cup and McLarnon Cup, nearly side by side, has brought them on seriously as footballers. It is a game every week and it is great for their development.”
The future will come down to the Ulster Schools’ AGM and the feelings of other schools.
Burns and Mickey McCullagh, who teaches in Lumen Christi, both feel the vote will go one of two ways.
Either amalgamations will be eradicated or they will be forced to play at grade A.
“I want the city lads to get a chance to play MacRory football,” hopes Burns of a debate for another day.
Since walking through the gates of St Columb’s in September 1998, Burns has noticed a change in fortunes in the city.
The infrastructure, with clubs having their own grounds and Doire Trasna also moving in that direction.
Burns refers to a newspaper interview with Fergal P McCusker his former All-Ireland winning team mate, who felt Celtic Park should be sold off and everything moved to the south of the county.
Burns doesn’t agree, citing an historic example.
“The thing that got me, was how big hurling was around 1900 in the city, there were six or seven teams.
“The Catholic church were not keen on Gaelic games on a Sunday and I think they banned it, so the D&D soccer league became more popular.
“Who is to say what will happen next? You can’t give up on Gaelic games, you have to try and build and you don’t know how long it is going to take.
“My message is that there is plenty of good work going on and this Cathair Dhoire team is progress with a lot of footballers in the school and I hope that is going to continue.”
Burns highlights a steering group set up by former Derry Chairman John Keenan, that includes Antoin Moran and Mickey McLaughlin.
For the last 10 years Paul Simpson has been coming into St Columb’s to help with the first years.
But the problem rests deeper, something that needs nurtured before the secondary level.
“As I said to you before, we have 200 boys in secondary school coming in and there is only 20 to 25 that can pick up a ball,” Burns points out.
“Ninety per cent don’t have basic skills and it is very difficult to get that into them. A lot of those boys are coming in thinking ‘Gaelic and hurling are the foreign games’.
“The first thing we do (in the school year) is Gaelic football. The All-Ireland is on at that time and you push them to watch the final and tell them that these are our national games.”
He confesses that it is a hard struggle, with no quick fix.
“It could do with a Ben McCarron, a marquee figure from Derry city, to push for Derry seniors and I hope that happens.
“On the four Derry All-Ireland minor winning teams, there was a St Columb’s man involved with them all,” Burns points out.
“In 1965 it was half a team. In 1983, there was Paul Bradley and Eamon Lynch, who had won MacLarnon medals in 1981.
In 1989 Dolan O’Hagan was on the same All-Ireland winning team as Burns, having played on the St Columb’s team beaten by Lurgan in the MacLarnon final – the same day Burns scored the last three crucial points as Maghera won the epic 4-10 to 4-9 MacRory decider.
“We had four in 2002 – Cathal O’Kane, Marty Dunne, Mark Chambers and Paul O’Hea. That has always pleased me.”
It’s getting that move up a notch to inter-county senior championship level. That’s the next move.
“(Paul) O’Hea played in the league. Neil Forester played a bit of league football and came on in the qualifiers. I think you have to go back to Tom McGuinness, to get someone who played in the championship for Derry.”
When the Cathair Dhoire team and management bolt from the Athletic Grounds’ tunnel to face Downpatrick next week, Burns will take his place in the stand.
After 16 months off work, recovering from surgery, the St Columb’s Head of PE is back teaching again.
Next year he will again take up the whistle and his love for coaching will be rediscovered.
On Monday, like he did at the Markey Cup final, he will looking on - kicking every ball almost. There will be few in Armagh that will crave success more.
A team to inspire the next generation.
In part one of Eamonn’s interview, he looks back on his college football career, stepping into the county scene and how a change of career path took him back into the classroom. All in this week’s County Derry Post.
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