As Cathair Dhoire prepare for Monday’s MacLarnon final, we look back at the underage career of Eamonn Burns who coached some the players during their time at St Columb’s. Michael McMullan went to meet him.
Ask any Gaelic football enthusiast, between the age of 40 and 50, about MacRory Cup football and two words will instantly surge to the tip of their tongue. Maghera and Colman’s.
Between 1976 and 1990, including replays, the giants of Ulster Schools’ football met 10 times in finals.
Eamonn Burns, one of the iconic talismen of that era, featured in five of those encounters, losing just once.
Sunday will mark the 30th anniversary of the 1989 decider, a game dubbed the greatest school game ever, one where he played a lead role.
“I remember it well,” Burns began.
It’s the Friday after mid-term in his Draperstown home, his first week back at St Columb’s following 16 months off work, recovering from treatment and surgery.
A period that, with the help of old newspaper cuttings and VHS cassettes, gave him time to reflect on the twists and turns on the way to greatness.
When I arrive, the handshake is followed by a mug of tea and a welcome through the house. We pass an array of photos and mementos on the wall before delving into the inner sanctum of one of Derry’s most stylish performers.
‘That point’ against Down in the 1991 Ulster championship was the epitome, wearing the number 13 jersey of a set of jersies made by his father Michael’s company, that would be sponsored by his cousin Pat the following season.
Paddy O’Rourke was left on his backside with one ruthless swivel of the Ballinascreen assassin’s hips, before slotting over with the outside of the right boot, at the venue some of his protégées will grace in the MacLarnon final.
It became his calling card, in the years that followed, as youngsters everywhere aspired to ‘do a Burnsy’.
But before the red and white of Derry came calling, there was another chapter and those memories flow freely across the coffee table, with the fulfilment of a sporting career.
While slow to ignite, his school football career would transform into a decorated one.
“I also think of the enduring friendships in schools football,” he said. “Me, Anthony (Tohill), Paddy McAllister and Brian McCormick were called into the MacRory panel (in 1987) as fourth years and they became lifelong pals of mine - like many others.”
The following year, Maghera were tipped for greatness with other players like Gregory McCloskey, Declan Cassidy and skipper Fergal P McCusker in their ranks.
At the crescendo of a three game trilogy, they came a cropper to a controversial goal.
James McCartan upended goalkeeper Mickey McKeefry. Jim Curran sounded his whistle, for what everyone assumed was a free out.
But as the ball lay free on the ground, Tom Fegan lashed it to the net. Devastatingly, the goal stood and the ‘Violet Hill’ men went on to win the MacRory and Hogan Cups.
The next season, Colman’s looked like retaining their crown and led Maghera by nine points on three separate occasions in that epic.
James McCartan scored three goals, went through two different markers and still ended up on the losing side.
Damian Heavern, who had curbed in in the second replay of 1988, started on him with Terry Bradley having a spell later in the game.
It was the days before systems and sweepers. There was something manly about the need to fight your own battle.
“McCartan was unmarkable,” Burns admits, who, with Brian McCormick and Anthony Tohill, would win Sigerson medals alongside the Down man.
“He was what Dermot McNicholl was to St Patrick’s. He won medals the whole way up and he was a brilliant sportsman. He showed us that first hand when he went to Queens’ – he was just phenomenal.”
Under Adrian McGuckin, Maghera would reach the 14 finals out of 15 between 1976 and 1990. The battling qualities were there.
“It was never say die. To come back from nine points down and the kicks in the teeth and to keep coming back, it was remarkable,” Burns added, of the 1989 final.
Two goals from Karl Diamond had hauled Maghera back from the brink, but with the time running out, the Newry side were still two points clear.
It was Burns’ time. With three swings of his graceful right foot, the game was turned on its head.
He popped over a close range free. Seconds later, on the turn, he lofted over a beauty from play and the sides were deadlocked at 4-9 each.
With nerves of steel, Burns slotted over a pressure free close to the sideline. It was the first time they led in the game, sending the Maghera fans into raptures.
Back came Colman’s with a long free from full-back Barry Hynes, but Mickey Hall’s goal attempt grazed the outside of Barry McGonigle’s left hand post and after five fruitless years, Burns finally picked up his first school medal.
His father was a winner with St Patrick’s Armagh in 1953 but, inspired by the likes of his future Derry team-mates Damian Cassidy and Dermot McNicholl winning titles in the mid-1980s, Burns junior was only going one way.
“The MacRory (Cup) was massive and I went to Maghera for the football,” Burns stated and highlighted the dynasty McGuckin was creating. “But that team came very much out of the blue.”
Going up through year groups, a one point Rannafast final defeat to an all-conquering St Colman’s team in 1987 was as close as it came. Burns and Anthony Tohill were at midfield - against Hall and James French, a rivalry that spiralled over the next two seasons in college and county action.
The following years’ Maghera fifth year crop went one better by winning the title. Karl Diamond, Eunan O’Kane, Gregory Simpson, Ryan Murphy and Barry McGonigle broke into the MacRory team.
Dermot Dougan came on as a sub in that epic final and by the time the Hogan Cup came around, McGonigle was at wing-back with John Murtagh taking over in goals.
“Those boys emerged early, so gave that team a real flip,” Burns outlined of McGuckin’s faith in youth.
A Terry Bradley goal saw off a stubborn Tuam CBS challenge in the Hogan semi-final at Breffni Park.
A Colin Corkery led Coláiste Chroist Rí from Cork were the final opponents, having never been beaten in a final. Following a low scoring draw, Maghera romped to a 12 point win in the replay.
By the time Eamonn Burns hoisted the Hogan Cup the following May, 18 of the previous year’s panel - 10 of Derry’s All-Ireland minor winning squad - were still available.
Yet there was still a changing of the guard.
“We lost Anthony Tohill to Australian rules and then Paddy McAllister to a knee injury – our captain and our vice-captain. That’s how I got the captain’s role,” admits Burns.
The Swatragh man’s exploits as a scoring midfielder in Derry’s run to the minor All-Ireland had alerted the scouts from Melbourne Demons.
“Their pre-season wasn’t starting until January so he stayed on at school and played MacRory football up until Christmas,” Burns adds.
His last game was against St Patrick’s Cavan, remembers Burns, a narrow 0-9 to 1-4 victory.
“After the match big Adrian (McGuckin) said ‘best of luck to Anthony …. and Eamonn Burns is taking over as vice-captain’ - I remember it as well.”
Over the Christmas holidays, a surprise farewell party for Tohill was planned for January 1.
“There must’ve been 250-300 people there to bid him farewell,” Paddy McAllister wrote in an article in the school’s Silver Jubilee magazine.
“As the night went on, the crowd would swelled and as the National Anthem was being played, Anthony couldn’t contain his emotions any longer and burst into tears. Anthony was overcome by the response of his many, many friends.”
McAllister tore his knee cartilage in a 0-9 to 0-4 quarter-final win over Armagh. He returned to make a cameo appearance at the end of the replay final win over St Colman’s to lift the cup, after two Burns points saved Maghera’s bacon in the drawn encounter.
“They were both overage for the Hogan but we won the MacRory without them, which was some feat,” added Burns, who was promoted to captain.
But from one stylish forward to another, he referred to newcomer Geoffrey McGonagle as ‘one of main actors’ on the way to a retaining their All-Ireland.
McGonagle, only a fourth year at the time, showed nerves beyond his years to kick two late pressure frees to sink kingpins St Jarlath’s in a 1-10 to 0-12 win.
The Tuam side, that contained Jarlath Fallon and Derek Duggan, had beaten Maghera by six points in a challenge game earlier in the season in Ballyshannon.
At the end of the game, Duggan was presented with a sideline ball. It was the last kick and needed to be scored direct, Burns recalls. But the future Roscommon senior star’s kick dropped short and Maghera retained the title.
If it was a golden era for Burns on the college stage, then his foray into county football was no less memorable.
Under the tutelage of John Joe Kearney, Derry minors virtually wiped the floor with everyone in their path on their way to collecting the Tom Markham Cup.
“The most incredible experience was the homecoming in Maghera when thousands greeted us,” Burns penned in an article in the 1990 school magazine.
“I’ll never forget looking down the Main Street from the lorry and seeing the masses of people. It made it all seem worthwhile.”
Derry opened their All-Ireland march with victory over Fermanagh in Irvinestown but almost came a cropper in the semi-final against Cavan at a sun-drenched Clones.
“It all happened in the last 10 minutes when we were eight points down,” Burns said of their only tough game of the campaign.
“We got out of jail and we won it (All-Ireland) handy enough, but that day we thought we were dead to the world.
“Myself and Anthony were taken off that day,” Burns remembers. “Big John O’Connor, from Drumsurn, came on for Anthony. Ryan Murphy came on for me.
“It was a wild hot day and it had been the day before. I remember John Joe giving off to Anthony for being up at the moss the day before the match.”
Eunan O’Kane, a player Burns describes as ‘possibly’ the most skilful player he has ever played with, also came in from the bench.
Murphy scored a goal and set up O’Kane for one of this two goals, as the Dungiven duo conjured a ‘Houdini’ act to rescue Derry.
“It was an unbelievable turnaround,” accounts Paul Murphy, who remembers being at the game watching his older brother Ryan.
“Eunan really showed his class when he came on and I think they scored 3-2 between them.”
In the Ulster final, Derry easily accounted for an Armagh side that included Cathal O’Rourke, as well as current Armagh boss Kieran McGeeney and Celtic manager Neil Lennon.
“Seamy Heffron was manager of Armagh and remember Lurgan beat St Columb’s in the McLarnon that year,” Burns adds.
“Lennon was a wee fiery red head and he was very speedy.”
But following their speed wobble against Cavan, Derry cruised to victory and eased past Roscommon in the semi-final.
Early in the final, Burns was fouled for a penalty which he tucked away.
“I had a good record with penalties and these days they’d be analysing your videos,” jokes Burns, of his perfect record from 25 kicks.
“The ‘keeper’s bottom right, my bottom left …. I used to whack them in there every time.”
Declan Bateson was causing all sorts of problems and won a second penalty and up stepped Burns.
“In pressure situations, you do what you know you have done best,” he said of his second kick, also into the Canal End goals.
“For me it was the prefect penalty again but he (Scully) went 100 percent for it and got it tipped onto the crossbar.”
It was the first time Burns had a penalty saved.
Bateson should’ve had another penalty before half-time, but it mattered little as Derry eased to a 3-9 to 1-6 victory and Gary Coleman lifted the cup.
In 1990, with eight of the panel still underage, Derry retained the Ulster title - beating Down in the final. They were beaten in the All-Ireland semi-final by a Meath team that included future All-Ireland winners Conor Martin, Enda McManus and Graham Geraghty, who played at centre back.
Geraghty, Burns and Derry midfielder John Mulholland were back on another pitch shortly after the final whistle for a trial with Carlton.
“We stepped straight from Croke Park over to an Aussie rules trial, over in Malahide,” Burns explains. Myself and Graham Geraghty were at the same trial. John Mulholland was there too.”
It was Burn’s third year having trials. Himself, Mulholland and Declan Bateson were at the 1989 trial where Tohill was picked by the Demons.
The previous year, as an U16, Burns was again under the radar but it was Brian Stynes and Roscommon’s Tommy Grehan who were selected.
“If Anthony couldn’t have made it, there wasn’t much hope for anyone else,” Burns admits.
Tohill returned home and helped steer Derry to the Holy grail in 1993.
Eamonn Burns was destined for a career in accountancy. After leaving Maghera, he studied it for three years.
Then it changed when current Ballinascreen chairman Mickey Boyle got him ‘a few days’ subbing in St Mary’s Clady.
“I took a notion of teaching,” Burns said. “A masters came up at Jordanstown in Sports Science and I did it part time in addition to the subbing and then I went to England for a year.”
Bedford wasn’t like his Belfast student days. Living out the pockets of the MacRory winners he played alongside in Maghera and getting to know the former rivals at Colman’s, who, for years, were in the opposing corner.
“It wasn’t a spectacular town but it did the job and I got my PCGE out of it,” said Burns.
It was in Bedford that he continued his love for soccer. A career that began as a 14 year-old, spotted by his neighbour Laurence O’Kane – scouting to fill out a team.
Burns was walking home from the bus after a Rannafast game and became Draperstown’s Celtic’s 11th man for a game against Foyle Wanderers.
“I always loved the soccer and played for Draperstown Celtic. My Da, through the shirt factory, had a contact over there.”
Trevor Gould, brother of the former Wales boss Bobby who also steered Wimbledon’s crazy gang to FA Cup glory over Liverpool in 1988, had previously managed non-league Bedford.
The club folded for seven seasons and reformed as Bedford Town.
Following Trevor’s recommendation, Burns weighed up joining them, against a 20 mile trip to Rushden and Diamonds, before joining Bedford.
At the first session, manager Mick Foster told Burns ‘I like your movement’.
“He put me in the reserves on Saturday. I scored a hat-trick and I was straight into the first team squad. I played there for a season (1996/97) and I enjoyed it
“It was two or three leagues below the Vauxhall Conference, it was semi-professional and I was getting £30 a week. All the boys had been on apprenticeships and hadn’t made it.”
Burns was offered a longer term deal with Bedford, but now a qualified teacher and with the lure of playing for Derry he returned home.
He would play soccer for Draperstown Celtic, until he was 37. There he won two intermediate leagues, 20 years apart.
He had spells with both Limavady United (2002/03), where he won promotion to the premier league and Omagh Town, where against Liverpool in 1999.
In the two decades that followed, he began to pass on his knowledge to the youngsters across Derry city and beyond.
Following his period away from work, Michael McLaughlin and James McQuillan steered St Columb’s to the Markey Cup.
Burns was in the stand. More than the average spectator. On Saturday, he was in Ballyshannon as St Columb’s bowed out of their All-Ireland bid.
On Monday, he will take his place in the stand at the Athletic Grounds. The scene of this wonder point all those years ago.
If Fergal Mortimer raises the MacLarnon cup, there will be few prouder men in Armagh.
As the Omagh and Enniskillen teams burst from the tunnel for the MacRory decider, his mind will no doubt cast back to the days when Maghera were kings. When, along with Tohill, McAllister, McCormick and the rest….transformed from also rans, to kings of Ireland.
The burning fascination with sport continues.
Pic: Mary K Burke
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