At the heart of Derry’s 1993 winning team was Brian McGilligan. He sat down with Michael McMullan to talk about how he almost missed out on Derry’s greatest hour.
When Brian McGilligan shakes your hand, it stays shook. Locked, like a wench. You can still feel it days later. It reminds you of the toughness of a man who turned the midfield battlegrounds of Ireland upside down.
A man who Ireland manager Kevin Heffernan took one glance at and knew he would not need baby-sitting when faced with any form thuggery the Australians could heave at him.
The man that, alongside Anthony Tohill, formed the perfect midfield partnership. A duo that dozed all before it.
He is one of six players to start and finish all five games on the way to the historic summit of 1993.
It is put to him that he played a central part in something that has never been equalled.
“Do you think so sur?” came the instant reply.
With 11 minutes of the All-Ireland Final gone Niall Cahalane’s mis-directed fist pass is too high and squirms through the fingers of Teddy McCarthy. McGilligan laps up the gift before slotting over his third score of the campaign.
Four minutes previous, with Cork 1-2 to 0-0 ahead, he was involved in the move that led to Johnny McGurk’s point - Derry’s first of a jittery start.
The midfield warrior’s input didn’t end there. Wing-forward Barry Coffey had a height advantage over Johnny McGurk. The pre-game chat suggested that goalkeeper John Kerins was expected to exploit it.
Kerins’ 15th minute kick-out was angled towards Coffey, who was hugging the Cusack Stand sideline. McGilligan scampered across - effortlessly almost - before thundering through Coffey for the breaking ball.
His physique didn’t suggest he was fast. He was deceptive.
“Over 100 metres nobody could touch me,” McGilligan states. “Tony Scullion would be close, Joe Brolly over the first 10 or 15 yards would have been fast but I would have stuffed them after that.
“Every evening after school you were running and feeding sheep. I was naturally fit and was carrying no weight.”
In Coffey’s wake and with the leather in his grasp, McGilligan thumped the ball goalwards. It was the days when you had to fight your own corner. He had done his bit. Now the forwards needed to man up.
Enda Gormley nipped ahead of Cahalane to flick the wet ball into the path of Damian Cassidy. Cassidy’s left-footed kick evaded Cahalane’s intended block and hung in the air above full-back Mark O’Connor before Seamus Downey punched to the net and Derry were two points ahead.
The measure of a leader is how they respond to adversity. As Derry’s landmark Sunday flirted with failure, before it had left the starting blocks, McGilligan was involved in three of the game’s key moments.
The craved All-Ireland title would follow, but it so nearly passed him by.
It’s a Wednesday night in the McGilligan household. Like a scene from game day in any corner of Ireland. Brian Óg and Fiontan are gathering their gear for a game. Cathair points me in the direction of the farmyard.
After a day on the site, Brian senior is out feeding the stock. In full view below, through the open side of the shed, is the Benedy.
We head up to the house. Traversing back through the living room is like walking through a museum. The walls are scarcely visible, around framed pictures of Dungiven, Derry and Ulster teams. Charting the career of one of the Derry’s most famous sons.
But hurling was his first love. He was reared in the cottages at Owenbeg and went to Dernaflaw school which, despite its small size, also produced Joe Brolly to Derry’s winning team.
“The Damper (Peter Stevenson) was there and we had a pretty good hurling team and won a couple of Féiles,” McGilligan recalled. It was pre-Kevin Lynch’s and Dernaflaw would always be beating Dungiven at underage.
McGilligan’s football career began as a goalkeeper at U14 and U16. The genuine interest wasn’t there but with flailing numbers, he played almost out of necessity.
Now at ‘the big school’ in Dungiven, the oldest of a family of six was now needed on the farm. Spare time was a limited commodity.
“You had to go and look sheep and feed them. That was every evening. My father (Gerard) was working and it was up to me. My mother (Mary) would lift me at the school gates.”
An U14 title in 1977 was followed two years later by U16 glory but it wasn’t until the minor grade, under George Murphy, that he made the breakthrough.
A championship game with Magherafelt came around the corner and his dual with Joe Beattie, who had a huge reputation at the time, changed the direction of McGilligan’s career.
“They threw me out at centre-half back to mark him,” he outlined.
Dungiven went on to win two minor championships, but he never was able to break into the mould at county level.
In his final year, 1981, he watched on as an unused substitute as Cork beat Derry in the All-Ireland Minor Final.
“They put on every Tom, Dick and Harry. It was all about who you were, who your father was and what pedigree you had. They weren’t going to put a rahery like me on,” McGilligan said.
As he admits himself, there is a stubbornness. He stuck at it and took his chances when they came.
One Sunday, Dungiven reserve manager Liam Harry (McCloskey) coaxed McGilligan from a corn field to make up the numbers for a trip to Ballinderry. Never an easy place to go to.
“It was like something from a ‘Carry on’ film,” McGilligan described.
“A boy was going to hit a penalty and somebody would run up behind him and trip him. It was the Wild West - there is no other way to say it.”
The experience of the reserve and senior games on a Sunday was a lesson for a decorated career that would follow.
Andy Murphy came in as manager in 1982. He saw something in McGilligan and pushed him towards the team. His instincts paid off.
A year later at Ballinascreen, a star-studded Magherafelt side led Dungiven 1-3 to 0-4, as the county final ticked into the final moments.
Liam McElhinney’s kick hung in the air. It was the last hurrah. Out of nowhere, McGilligan got a fist to the ball – punching to the net.
It lives long in Dungiven folklore and that winning goal helped him to the first of five county medals. His career began to take root.
It was Sunday, June 1 1986 at Omagh’s Healey. Derry were trailing Tyrone by ‘five or six points’ and Jim McKeever called Brian McGilligan from the dug-out. There was no warm up required.
“I was mad keen to get on. I thought I should have started,” McGilligan recalls of his debut. “I went on and I won a couple of balls and we turned it, but Noel McGinn hit a wonder strike.”
The goal ended Derry’s hopes but Tyrone would later have a major part to play in McGilligan’s summer.
The Kevin Barry’s club in Philadelphia came calling and he headed across the pond. As time went by, he felt he may never return.
“I wasn’t for coming back. I had work and plenty of money...everything…and the weather was favourable. I was playing football and hurling – it was a home away from home.”
With no mobile phones, communication wasn’t as it is now. The weekly phone call kept tabs on how everyone was back home.
“Every time I would ring, my mother would say ‘that boy Heffernan (Kevin) was ringing again’ you would need to ring him.”
If the Ireland manager wasn’t ringing the McGilligan household, ‘Heffo’ was ringing then Derry official Patsy Mulholland.
The calls continued. Homesickness began to creep in ‘a wee bit’ and with the chance to represent his country, it eventually swayed McGilligan and he dialled Heffernan’s number.
Still in Philadelphia, would he be guaranteed a seat on the plane to Oz? Only if he was playing the football he was before be left, insisted Heffernan.
“You know yourself - boys go out (to America) and go off the rails and are messing about. I wasn’t at that. Yes, I enjoyed a beer but I was working hard every day,” McGilligan continues.
The football was a good work out, ‘a couple of’ evenings a week. The system wasn’t abused.
After a weekend of thinking and a Monday return home, Heffo booked McGilligan and Dermot McNicholl, who had also spent the summer in Philadelphia, into Tyrone training on the Tuesday night.
Art McRory was putting the finishing touches to their 1986 All-Ireland Final with Kerry and had a savage routine in place for McGilligan.
“It was strange because we were two Derry men. There was no love lost but we were well looked after – we were treated as part of the panel.”
McGilligan battled with Plunkett Donaghy, Audi Hamilton and Harry McClure in the training games.
“The only difference was - if we were doing 10 sprints, I was made do five or six more. If there was half a dozen 400s (runs) I would be doing 10 of them.”
It was the same in the gym sessions. The first set was fine, the second and third set had McGilligan going around on his knees.
“I got a lot of abuse. It was bordering on brutality. I remember Art talking to Fr Brian D’Arcy, who was down watching training.
“Art said ‘look at the big Derry b*****d, that’s the place for him – on his knees’ and I felt like getting up and striking him.”
As the Tyrone sessions were tapering down, McNicholl and McGilligan’s time was up. They thanked Tyrone for having them there and wished them well for the final.
McRory was appreciative of the bite the two Derry men brought to their preparations but had a final word of apology for big Brian.
The extra training was ‘preferential treatment’ at the request of Heffernan.
“The whole thing was pre-planned but it worked,” added McGilligan.
He was on the trip to Australia, where he played at full-back as Ireland recovered from a first test defeat to win the series 2-1.
Playing in front of average attendances of 15,000, McGilligan was now an icon. Home for good, he was midfield in Derry’s Ulster winning team. The seeds for Sam were sown.
The summer of 1987 was his first time playing in the mecca of GAA. It was ‘a privilege’ but age wasn’t on their side.
“We had an old team. Plunkett Murphy and Joe Irwin – boys like that. They were all good footballers but there was no youth coming in.
“I quite honestly thought we’d never be back in an All-Ireland semi-final even. Holy Jesus, to get playing in Croke Park, this is unreal.
“Ulster was very hard to win. It wasn’t like Munster, where it was down to two teams.”
Following his All-Star and a trip to America, rubbing shoulders with the best Ireland had to offer, McGilligan began thinking.
“They were no better than you, but they were in a better set-up – a better oiled machine,” he offered, referring to the players from other counties.
“They weren’t superhumans, when you were playing with them, you were every bit as fast as them.”
Back home, it was a lot different.
“Derry was in turmoil. You were going to matches and counting to see if you had enough men to play. We played Down at Drumsurn and we were down to the bare bones.
“We hadn’t even a manager. Mickey Moran had to step in to take the team. There was 10 or 12 out at training.”
Fr Sean Hegarty, a confidant of Eamonn Coleman, managed Armagh against Derry in 1987 would act as an intermediary of sorts.
“Wee Hegarty came in and I honestly think he steadied the ship. I didn’t know a lot about him but he was a gas man. He was the sort of man I would go to give my confessions to – he was a shrewd man.”
With minor teams beginning to produce players, the recipe began to thicken. But like most of his career, McGilligan had to wait. Down and Donegal would feast at the top table first.
“Tohill and these boys were coming in at the start of the 1990s but by 1993 they were starting to come of age.”
Handing Down an 11 point hammering in the first round was the perfect tonic.
“You start to believe in yourself but it could have gone pear-shaped. We rode our luck in a couple of games.”
“Even the bad day (Ulster Final) in Clones, it could’ve went either way. There was a ball that went down the field and I went like mad after it. Martin McHugh passed it and I got my hand to it and it came out again.”
The small margins where games were won and lost. In the All-Ireland semi-final, Derry were in arrears against Dublin and McGilligan’s 1987 doubts raised their head again.
“It was the same auld story. It’s not going to be back again,” he recalled thinking.
In the lead-up to the game, he had asked his father if he was going to the game. He wasn’t. It wasn’t a surprise.
“My mother was different,” McGilligan outlined. “But he was never at a match in his life. He didn’t have an interest. He was a typical workaholic and farmer, but he said he’d go to the final.”
What if they didn’t get there? His father’s answer was the perfect comeback.
“He said ‘well, if that’s your attitude, then don’t you go either’ – it was as quick as that,” McGilligan added.
His son did show up alright. Few can forget the thunderous shoulder on Jack Sheedy. The two met later in the year, by chance, and the Dubliner told McGilligan he was still sore.
That’s the brute strength he brought. The Dubs couldn’t move it and neither could Cork. So Gerard McGilligan would get a chance to see his son play. And on the biggest day of them all.
“My wife (Breige) went down,” Brian recalled. “Our young girl (Mary B) was only a year and Brian Óg was only born. She had more bother with the auld boy than the two weans.”
Following the final whistle McGilligan still recalls heading towards the Hogan Stand, where there was a cordon of Gardai surrounding the steps.
“I mind crawling on my hands and knees, in between somebody’s legs. I wasn’t fit to walk, I was beat black and had people jumping on me.”
The celebration banquet in the Shelbourne Hotel was similar. It couldn’t cope. McGilligan, Tony Scullion and Kieran McKeever – with their partners – were among those unable to get a seat in the main function room.
“It was like something out of a Monty Python sketch - it was hilarious. There were no seats for us. It wasn’t big enough to hold the function for starters. I actually saw somebody move name pieces and sit on the Bishop’s seat.”
Seated in different room, upstairs, they began to tuck into their soup, one of the RTE staff came upstairs. The Sunday Game was about to go on air but McGilligan was reluctant to go downstairs.
He was ‘embarrassed’ as others were forced to give up their seat in the middle of the function.
Even back at the Airport Hotel, later that night, where Derry were staying, there was only a ‘wee hatch’ open to serve up to 200 people, including Henry Downey and a certain Sam Maguire.
With the cup needing filled, McGilligan issued a ‘bit of advice’ to the night porter and eventually two shutters opened on the bar.
It was Monday before the occasion began to seep fully into the mind. Now it was real.
The Moy was packed and when Derry bus-driver Benny Vincent opened the door - in came Plunkett Donaghy. The previous season, he spilled Anthony Tohill’s ‘45’ into the net in the league final to start the ball rolling on Derry’s odyssey.
This was different. This was a tribute to the sons of Ulster bringing home the Sam.
“You had the Garda escort coming out of Dublin and you were stopping in every town,” McGilligan recalls. “There were thousands of people waiting on us on a lorry in every town on the way up.”
In Cookstown there was a Loyalist road block. Plan B was to divert via Coalisland.
But McGilligan instructed Vincent to head on up the town – as far as they could go.
There were thousands of Tyrone people wanting a glance at Sam.
“It was unheard of for a team from the North. Down had done it before and it wasn’t new to them - it was new to Derry.”
The homecoming seemed to go on forever. In every town, before they were greeted by the huge crowd in Maghera, outside Glen club, before the cup was taken to the four corners of the county.
When it was McGilligan’s turn to have the cup, he paraded it around the homes of the Benedy. Back to the days when Liam Harry came rounding him up to make up the numbers. His career had now come full circle.
He hosted a night in his house. It was packed, with cars strewn alongside the road.
“There was a death up in the Benedy,” added McGilligan, remembering the night vividly.
A stranger to the area saw the commotion and stopped off.
“He said to somebody ‘where’s the remains at’ – he saw all the cars and thought it was the wake house. He laughed and away he went.”
The glory days ended abruptly. With Ciaran McCabe’s winning goal for Down in 1994, Derry’s world came crashing down. There was no back door and Derry’s All-Ireland dreams were in tatters.
McGilligan laments the 25 years since meeting Sam.
“Any other county would have got their act together. Too many boys partied, lived the high life and thought it was only matter of turning up.
“We definitely should have won another one. The players were good enough, you can’t pinpoint any one thing. It was the perfect storm. There was a whole lot of things going on behind. You see where things have gone,” he continued.
“We are still as far away from winning another one. We are starting from the bottom again – we are in division four.”
That aside, McGilligan is content on how his GAA career panned out.
“It kept me on the straight and narrow. Everybody has their vices and the GAA was a vice for me. If it wasn’t football it was hurling.”
Nulling the impact of Joe Beattie, punching home a county final winning goal and answering Kevin Heffernan’s call to return from America. The important markers in the career of one of Derry’s famous sons.
Pic: Mary K Burke
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