Two weeks ago Derry’s 1993 squad were heading for Croke Park to mark 25 years since winning the Sam Maguire. An immensely proud Tony Scullion rekindles the memories as Derry reached the pinnacle. Michael McMullan writes…
Tony Scullion has never forgotten his roots. His upbringing and locality were far too important.
It was the rural landscape that produced the rugged boulder which would evolve into the most polished of defenders – admired the length and breadth of the land.
Scud, as he is known, made up for lost time having come late to the inter-county scene. He never played minor football for Derry.
Ballinascreen, and in particular his highly respected underage mentor the late Seamus Groogan, was the first step on the pathway to greatness.
And Scullion takes delight from passing on his experiences. It energises him to this very day.
“I came from the rushes,” he bellowed, wearing a facial expression of an almost unrivalled enthusiasm. His passion could not have been manufactured to impress his audience. It couldn’t be false. He shoots straight from the heart.
The eyes almost popping out of his head. The veins evident on his arms, with two tightly clenched fists gesturing purposefully in the air.
It was the summer of 2007 and Scullion was called in by Derry minor manager Niall Conway to deliver a talk to the squad. A fresh voice and a respected one. Something different.
In the seats before him, set out in perfectly formed rows in the meeting room in the old pavilion at Owenbeg, sat the cream of Derry underage talent. They hung on his every word.
“You three boys probably have never even saw rushes before,” Scullion continued, glancing in the direction of Emmett Green, Neil Forester and Stephen Cleary, the three city slickers from Steelstown.
Aside from almost giddy snigger amongst the group, Scullion continued with his motivational talk – without batting an eyelid.
“Derry lift the siege and Derry are the champions,” belted RTE commentator Ger Canning. The words have been engrained in the memory.
It was the 1993 All-Ireland Final and Ciaran O’Sullivan’s injury time ‘45’ dropped short. Cork needed a goal but somehow the ball was scrambled clear, in the slippy, almost treacherous conditions.
Tommy Howard’s final whistle was the signal for an invasion of Derry fans from Hill 16 – a sea of red for the afternoon – followed by scenes of utter bedlam.
Everybody has their recollection of where they were on that dank, September Sunday - when Derry reached the pinnacle of football. Tony Scullion is no different.
Just under 25 years later, lounging in an armchair in the corner of his living room, Scullion doesn’t take long when quizzed about his initial thoughts at the final whistle.
The recollections enthused him. The only thing that emerges quicker than his response, is the radiant grim that creeps across his face. His infectious personality fills the room.
“When that final whistle went, it was pure relief,” Scullion replies succinctly.
“That’s what you dream of, that’s what you put the effort in for. It’s then, that you realise you have won the All-Ireland and moments go through your mind – back to where you started,” he continues.
When Scullion later spoke to Derry’s young protégés of the rushes, that was where All-Ireland Sunday began for him, as a young cub. In the days before the media glare and razzmatazz.
“We all sat around the kitchen table,” Scullion recalls. “We had no electricity. We had an old wireless and a lamp in the ceiling for light.
Tony’s father, John, suffered badly with pains but had a keen interest in sport and Kerry, in his eyes, were untouchable. A different bracket entirely.
“Here we were, sitting around listening to All-Ireland Finals. Daddy, my uncle Eddie Scullion and Seamus Lagan God rest him.
“Even though he was a Derry man, to Daddy Kerry were the kings and little did he know that Derry would win the All-Ireland and his son would be playing.”
Amidst all the back-slapping, the Monday journey north and the open-topped bus inching its way up Maghera street emblazoned with the showpiece trophy in Gaelic football, for Scullion one moment from 1993 topped it all.
“To take the cup down 22 Carnamoney Lane, to Daddy and Mammy (Maire), that was special. To see the look on that man’s face when he saw the Sam Maguire - that’s what the GAA is all about.”
The following Sunday Tony and Siobhan’s daughter Charlene, born two weeks before the final, was baptised. A special guest present in the Holy Rosary Chapel in Draperstown brought almost a carnival-like atmosphere on the street outside.
“We came out of the chapel and it was packed,” beams Scullion, recalling it like it was yesterday. “People knew Sam Maguire was in the chapel. Fr (Leo) Deery poured as much water in the Sam Maguire as he did over Charlene.”
Before the glory, came a series of closed doors – some of them easier to open than others. Getting his hands on the coveted All-Ireland medal didn’t come easy.
Being overlooked at county minor level hurt him. Like every young lad, he wanted to play for Derry.
Three years later he made a chance debut for Derry seniors in a challenge game against Antrim. With a panel low on numbers, manager Mickey Moran asked Brendan Neilly (Kelly) if there was anyone in Ballinascreen who could fill in.
Kelly recommended Scullion. It got his shoe in the door. It saw him nail down a corner-back spot on the U21 side what went all the way to the All-Ireland Final, before losing to Mayo.
But it was 1987 before Scullion would get his hands on the Anglo Celt Cup following a 0-11 to 0-9 win over Armagh.
In the build-up to the All-Ireland semi-final with Meath, key attacker Dermot McNicholl tore his hamstring at a training session in Greenlough.
“He had legs on him like tree trunks,” Scullion describes of his former team-mate. “When he went up the field, you couldn’t have stopped him. He was ‘Mr Derry’ at that time. At a young age he was a great player.”
Hunkered around the door of the team hotel, the Derry players watched as McNicholl was led off for a fitness test on the morning of the game.
They were urging him to get the all-clear. Derry needed him playing and firing on all cylinders if they had a chance but despite been given the nod to start, McNicholl hobbled off before half-time.
“We were never going to beat Meath,” Scullion admits. “We weren’t that that level at that stage. Meath were a superb team and they got a couple of All-Irelands.”
Then the landscape began to change, but not before more knock-backs.
At the turn of the decade, Eamonn Coleman came on board as senior manager and by 1991 the pieces began to come together. The minor teams of the mid 1980s began to come of age, as well as a new crop - Declan Bateson, Anthony Tohill, Dermot Heaney, Gary Coleman, Eamonn Burns and Karl Diamond from the 1989 All-Ireland winning team.
“There was also the Lavey factor,” Scullion adds. “They came in as (All-Ireland) winners and had great belief in themselves.”
Along with Brian McGilligan, Kieran McKeever, the Downeys and McGurks, Scullion was playing hurling for Derry. It was football one week, hurling the next. Something had to give.
“Eamonn never told us to stop playing hurling. We just decided, as a group, at that time that he was saying all the right things and was making us tick.
“We felt were not far away and we left the county hurling and gave everything towards the county football. It paid dividends.”
Though, for the next two seasons it was a case of one step forward, two steps back. In 1991 Derry had Down on the bus home, but Ross Carr’s mammoth, injury time free forced a replay, which they won convincingly.
“If Derry had won, would we have been good enough to win an All-Ireland? Nobody will ever know,” questions Scullion.
The following year, with the NFL title in the bag, they went one better after dumping Down out in the semi-final – but Donegal turned them over in the Final.
In the Clones monsoon, 12 months later, Derry banished the hoodoo and Scullion had a second Ulster medal.
In the midst of the euphoria and the release of winning, Scullion remembers popular supporter Joe O’Neill, from Dungiven, being in their company. The man that rolled down the hill in Clones and was covered head to toe in muck.
“I remember him coming into the changing room after and all you could see was his eyes. Jim McGuigan gave him a jersey.”
Going home on the team bus there was the satisfaction of standing at the top of Ulster Football again.
How far could they go?
Six years earlier Derry were not at the level to push for Sam when they clambered over the wall that seemed to surround Ulster. Getting out of the province left teams punctured almost.
It was time to dip their toe into the All-Ireland cauldron yet again. Down and Donegal both knocked Derry out on their way to the biggest prize of all.
“Did we think we were going to win an All-Ireland? We never even thought about the All-Ireland at that stage,” recalls Scullion of 1993.
The Dubs were plopped in their path. A formidable task yet it had him licking his lips.
“To me it’s the best experience you’ll ever get in your life playing the game – playing Dublin in Croke Park.
“They are manly, they are great people and you couldn’t meet nicer players. I would have played for Ireland with those lads. Keith Barr, Eamon Heery, Paul Curran and Johnny O’Leary - great men.”
Dublin made a lasting impression on Scullion. Both on and off the field.
“The Dublin supporters that day in Croke Park, they clapped us off the field. To play against Dublin in Croke Park, that is your dream.”
After starting at corner back, Scullion was switched across on the troublesome full-forward Vinnie Murphy.
“You were standing there and the Hill was behind you and he (Vinnie) was the darling of the Hill.”
Scullion speaks of hearing ‘Vinnie, come on’ from the Dublin fans: “It made me so determined not to let that happen. It was great, it made you play.”
He compared his Derry side to that Dublin team – eventually winning the All-Ireland, after being knocked back several times in their path.
“It was some game of football. We were 0-9 to 0-4 down at half-time.”
At half-time, there was a different voice. It was dressed in urgency and delivered by selector Mickey Moran.
“Mickey was a gentleman and he did say words,” remembers Scullion. “And yes, maybe we looked up and thought ‘this is Mickey Moran talking here’.”
“Are we coming down here to be made a fool of again, like Derry teams of before?” That was the gist of the message delivered by Moran.
For the third quarter of the game it was point for point as the Dubs kept their control.
“We never seemed to be closing the gap and all of a sudden we got two or three in a row. The whole thing closed in.
“We won the game with points,” Scullion adds, almost making the comeback all the more remarkable. “Joe (Brolly) had a half-chance with the bad kick-out and he skimmed the crossbar.”
To put the icing on the cake, with the game heading for a replay, Derry had one last chance that fell to wing-back Johnny McGurk who swung left-footed over the bar for a winner.
There was one more, unchartered, turn left on the road.
“You could have lost an All-Ireland very handy after that,” states Scullion, now with a more serious tone to his voice.
“The hype in this county was immense. Wherever you went to, you had the All-Ireland won, according to the supporters – they could never see you being beat.”
Sifting through a book in the build-up to the final, Scullion recalls the number of clubs in Cork in comparison to Derry. It put the challenge in context.
To add to the realism, Cork’s 20-point hammering of Mayo, helped Derry stay grounded. But Scullion places the biggest portion of credit at the door of Eamonn Coleman, who ‘managed’ the situation to perfection.
“Eamonn knew what to say and how to say it. He had that knack you don’t pretend to have. You either have it or you don’t,” he praises of his former manager - who he described as a character and a great man.
“He had a great way with players, everybody played for him and died for him – that was the way it was.
“Eamonn was one of those men - he could be playing cards with you at the back of the bus but whenever you went into the changing room you knew who was boss.”
Scullion goes on to impersonate Coleman’s Loughshore twang.
“Cahalane should’ve walked,” referring to Coleman’s half-time opinion on Niall Cahalane’s punch on Enda Gormley.
“Youse boys know nothing,” laughs Scullion, recalling how Coleman almost taunted the press after games, when his Derry side upset the odds.
“Everybody just loved him,” Scullion adds.
Coleman’s relationship with Mickey Moran was the gel that brought the pieces together with perfection.
“Mickey and Eamonn had that great way with them, they worked well together. Mickey was away ahead of his time in coaching. They were the perfect couple. Two great men, it was a pity they weren’t working more together,” Scullion concluded, referring to Coleman’s controversial departure at the end of the following year.
But there was a concern that after beating Dublin, that the final was a banana skin.
There was still work to do and Scullion points to the importance of the cut and thrust during training sessions ahead of the final.
“We went to Glenullin to play in-house matches. The stand would’ve been full (with fans) and I remember us taking lumps out of each other.”
McKeever picked up Brolly and Scullion marked Gormley.
“There was confrontation between players,” adds Scullion, with his serious face back on.
It often threatened to spill over. But that was the idea.
“It was hell for leather. But once the final whistle went, we were all one again.
“The wee man (Coleman) loved it. He had a grin on his face. He had told us we had to fight for our place and he knew he had us to the line.”
It was the edge that would fit as the final piece of the puzzle on the way to the Holy Grail. To Sam.
Amidst the celebrations, in the wee small hours, Scullion glanced up from the bar and spotted a familiar face coming through the door.
Coming home from his beat, Garda and Dublin full-back Dermot Deasy had one last port of call. Despite having lost to Derry in the semi-final and the previous year’s final to Donegal, the defender came along to congratulate the Oakleafers in their moment of glory.
Deasy stood side by side Scullion in a show of respect. He must’ve been bursting with envy.
“Scullion you have taken my All-Star number three,” Deasy blurted out, referencing Scullion’s full-back berth hours earlier.
“Deasy, I’ll take number four,” Tony quipped, without thought. And that was the way it ended up at the All-Star banquet at the heel of the year.
John O’Leary, Donegal’s John Joe Doherty and Deasy where the first three recipients. They were followed by six Derry men – from Scullion to McGurk, Downey and Coleman all the way to the man mountains of Tohill and McGilligan, with Gormley in the forward line as the seventh.
As Tony and Siobhan made their way home from Dublin, after the All-Stars, there was another visit to be made – the back row of Gortnari houses in Moneyneena.
“I knew before I went home I had another house to do,” Scullion states.
His underage coach Seamus Groogan was ill from cancer at the time and lived next door to Patsy Murray.
“It wasn’t on TV. Patsy told me that Seamus was listening to the 10 o’clock sports news on RTE Radio and the news came through that Tony Scullion had won an All-Star,” Scullion explains.
“He jumped up and ran up the stairs two or three times, wherever he got the energy from.”
But the journey from the rushy fields of Carnamoney to the Hogan Stand steps nearly never happened. At the end of 1980s, Scullion headed across the Atlantic with Enda Gormley for a weekend of football in ‘The States’.
After winning their game on the Sunday, the duo were asked to stay on. Gormley needed to come home and Scullion joined him.
“It was the best decision I ever made, if I had’ve stayed I might never have come home and missed out on the All-Ireland.”
Luck plays a huge part. Scullion again mentions Johnny McGurk’s winning point against the Dubs.
“We played a lot of days and had no luck, but it was an honour to play on that squad - not the team, the squad. They were great players. I was lucky to have played with a group of lads who wanted to win”, was Scullion’s opinion of the team.
“They were all winners and Henry Downey the perfect leader – you would play for him. He was more than a captain.”
They had an understanding from playing in the heart of Derry’s defence.
“I always thought if you needed a man in the trenches, he was the man you would want with you. He would go for everything. They (1993 squad) were all the same - whatever it takes to win.”
Scullion concludes with yet another reference to Eamonn, quoting another one of his punchlines.
“Nice guys win nothing,” he would tell us. “You can’t have boys walking over the top of you.
“And from where we started that year an d to finish with the boy with the big lugs (Sam Maguire) – it was absolutely great.”
Wednesday will mark 25 years to the day since, as a supporter’s banner said, Cork had no patriot to ‘stop our Scud’.
Memories that last forever.
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