Saturday 24 August 2019

‘Down teams don’t always win, but they always believe they can win’

Down football is a law unto itself, writes Dermot Crowe, and all the better for it

'Being the first team to bring the cup into the North, that created
an identity, these were the trailblazers,' says Pete McGrath
'Being the first team to bring the cup into the North, that created an identity, these were the trailblazers,' says Pete McGrath

AT his home at Rostrevor, Pete McGrath is recalling a match often raised in conversation, the 1994 classic against Derry. As a means of showcasing Down's unique gifts, it is a useful exhibit.

Derry, the reigning All-Ireland champions, having trounced the Mournemen by 11 points at The Marshes the year before, were floored in a spectacular contest. On the face of it, McGrath concedes, his team had no right to expect such an outcome.

"In many ways that epitomised Down football. We went up there, to Celtic Park, and there was never any doubt in my mind that Down were going to win. I knew they were going to win. I am not sure any team could have done what Down did that day -- in the circumstances. And it came back to belief again: how the hell did they believe they would win that game? How did they have the genuine belief, not superficial belief, the mental strength? And that again I would say comes back to tradition. Down teams won't always win but they always believe they can win."

Down bring an unblemished All-Ireland final record to Croke Park today and while Cork are favourites, the marching sons of Ulster are eminently capable of producing another flamboyant and fearless display. The hope being stirred also draws from the deeds and tradition of their forefathers, the pioneering victors of 50 years ago. Most of the 1960 ensemble will be in Croke Park to see if the winning habit can be maintained.

But while Down were a liberating and ground-breaking force for the north, they are something of a law unto themselves, a unique creation. They are part of the Ulster football family, yet they don't seem entirely at home there. They retain the rebellious streak of the teenage tearaway. Their style of play is at odds with the more cautious and trepid approach of other counties. They place great stock in not just winning, but winning in style.

There are various theories as to why it is so. "Being the first team to bring the cup into the North, that created an identity, these were the trailblazers," offers McGrath. "Down were very much a third-rate county until 1958. People like (former county secretary) Maurice Hayes and (1960s manager) Barney Carr, they definitely had a plan, they were forward-thinking. With a lot of counties it was an ad hoc thing, but Down formalised training and player welfare became a very important component and that to a large extent propelled them. Needless to say, you need talented players."

And Down had great players. Their manager in the 1960s, Barney Carr, now a sprightly 88-year-old who lives in Warrenpoint, cites "space" and "pace" as the main principles of his coaching philosophy. McGrath, when asked for the primary characteristics of Down football, cites their spellbinding forward play. "We are not going to be a county that will grind out All-Irelands consistently," he says. "Down tend to be almost a smash-and-grab team; they'll come from nowhere and grab an All-Ireland or two and then go off the radar."

They appear less persecuted, or manufactured, than other northern counties, less preoccupied with having to prove themselves. The obvious explanation is that they don't need to and haven't for a long time. They were the sole northern All-Ireland success story for over 30 years. In time, counties like Armagh and Tyrone may develop a more free and cavalier style of play. Down, though, had it from the start.

While McGrath hasn't seen a better forward than Peter Canavan over the last 25 years, he feels that Tyrone and Armagh don't produce scoring talents as plentifully. "The philosophy on how the game should be played and the kind of players that club football produces will have a big bearing on what happens on the county stage. And Down club football has always been quite non-physical -- I am not saying they are all meek -- but club football generally favours players who can express themselves and it wouldn't be overly physical or dour and is quite open and expansive. Possibly in these other counties there is more physical play and more emphasis on stopping the opposition rather than playing to your own strengths, and maybe over time that has nurtured a certain type of player in Armagh and Tyrone and a different type of player in Down."

He lists off the minor teams that won All-Irelands in 1999 and 2005 as having been "distinctly Down" with a style of play was "very much conducive to the individual." They were teams that did not require painstaking coaching. "If you look at Kildare (this year), they were notching up quite big scores, but I could see looking at that team that their forward play, well, you could see the coaching -- a certain amount of regimentation and they were playing to a pattern. Whereas Down would be playing to natural instinct."

* * * * *

THIS streak of independence has been reflected off the field as well. In 2001, Down became the first northern county to vote for the deletion of Rule 21, which prevented British security forces from becoming members of the GAA. In places like Crossmaglen, Rule 21 was an issue which had strong and emotive connotations, and in other parts a distrust of the security forces, not altogether misplaced, informed much of the opposition to any reform of the GAA ban. Yet if any county was likely to break away from that it seemed most likely to be Down.

Why that should be isn't immediately clear. During the Troubles, Down suffered like everywhere else, and was witness to some horrific incidents. In the 1970s, Pete McGrath can remember worries about security at training and a pervasive sense of vulnerability. But he would also admit that other parts of the north suffered more. Maurice Hayes, who is largely credited with turning the county's fortunes around while board secretary, says that while Down did not emerge unscathed, the sharp interfaces that fuelled conflict in other parts of the north didn't exist to the same extent.

There is another view worth bearing in mind. Paddy Kielty, the comedian and television personality, feels that because Down's first three All-Ireland wins preceded the Troubles this may have contributed to a separation of the two experiences, leaving a clearer demarcation line between sport and politics.

"It's a theory that may be right or may be wrong," he says, "but because Down won three All-Irelands before trouble began in the north, we always felt we were part of the GAA family; we felt we belonged to the other 31 counties in a sporting context. And I think when we won again in '91 and '94 for us it was a continuation of a history rather than a breakthrough. We had established an identity. When Down teams go south I think they have a sense of belonging. We feel we do belong there, no more than any other county, but no less."

Kielty's breezy irreverence is pure Down. He was a substitute goalkeeper when they won the 1987 All-Ireland minor title, managed by McGrath, with James McCartan, Conor Deegan and Kielty's brother John also part of the squad. The next year Paddy was first-choice 'keeper. Before he got to experience that thrill his father was shot dead in his office by a loyalist gang who later claimed, falsely, that he was a member of the IRA. Last year the GAA pitch in Dundrum was named Jack Kielty Park in his honour. Paddy, who lives in London, came over to see the plaque unveiled. He will be in Croke Park today.

"My mother still lives on the Main Street in Dundrum, it's a puck of a hurl across the road to the pitch, and the office where my dad died is only a long free-kick from the pitch as well. He served as chairman of the club. I was the secretary for a while and the youngest ever delegate at a GAA Congress in 1987 in Wexford. When the pitch was named after him, that was a big moment for all the family.

"In 1988, when we were all together with the Markham Cup, having won that minor All-Ireland, that was really the last great bit of joy football-wise the family had before he died. So all of that becomes very relevant whenever I come to Croke Park and I'll be watching that 1960 team being announced. Jarlath Carey, who marked Mick O'Connell in 1960, he was headmaster in Dundrum school and taught me as child, and Eddie McKay, who was goalie, he turned me into a goalie at 14-15, when he took over the Dundrum team. When you sit there and see that team being brought out and remember the connections . . . and actually just being there for an All-Ireland. Jarlath Carey's mother, you know what she said to him the morning he left for the 1960 final? He was feeling a bit nervous and a bit intimidated as he was marking Mick O'Connell, and his mother said, 'sure what does it matter, the mountains of Mourne will still be here when you come home'."

Pete McGrath easily recalls the moment he heard of Jack Kielty's murder. James McCartan, a student at St Colman's where McGrath was teaching at the time, informed him outside the classroom door. "Jack was close to the team. He would have taken Paddy, John, his brother, and Martin Carey, son of Jarlath, to Down minor training from Dundrum. Even when we got to the All-Ireland final, beating Kildare in the semi-final, I remember that evening Jack came to me and asked what were we going to do for the team, we have to do something for them and he went and organised sponsorship for gold watches for the team. So he was very close to the team. It (his death) was obviously a horrible experience for the family."

Paddy Kielty appreciates the irony of playing in goal when Down is a by-word for fluent attacking play. "I think it could very well reflect the lack of football I had," he states. "People talk about being a stand-up comedian and a goalkeeper, there is a logical connection -- with both you're hero or zero. If you stand up on stage, before a large audience, it's a bit of a high wire act and it's the same when you are goalkeeper -- you are either going to be the person about whom people will be heard saying 'what a save' or 'Jesus, what a bollocks.'"

He notes encouraging signs of history repeating itself this year. "When Down won the All-Ireland minor in '87, they beat Kildare in the semi-final and Cork in the final and James McCartan was the star of the show and I didn't kick a ball. So I think the omens are very good."

* * * * *

ON the old Dublin Road in Newry, on a hill overlooking Páirc Esler, lives Kevin O'Neill, wing-back on the 1960 team and brother of the celebrated attacker Seán. He attributes much of Down's style to the coaching input of Gerry Brown in the local CBS, the Abbey, in the 1950s, which he attended. He sees the style Brown cultivated and Down's brand as virtually indistinguishable.

"Brown was the first real coach that I encountered in football and he used to break the game down into different facets. I remember him having a team, an under 14 team, my brother Seán played on it in the Abbey, and it was the nearest thing to a machine you ever saw. He would show them how to make decoy runs, go through routines. Some of the scores they ran up in their games were staggering. Goals all over the place.

"The type of football the 1960 team played is the benchmark now, the style they have adopted. For instance, in Donegal club football, I go on holidays a lot there and would go to a good few matches, the handpassing is shocking. The crowd love it and it is rubbish. You won't get that in Down. Mayo is the same.

"There were ten minutes down there (pointing to the nearby ground) in the league against Armagh and they played like they did against Kerry but they didn't sustain it. They were sucked into the handpassing game against Tyrone, there was something missing. But they have come away from that in the last few games. I mean against Kerry and Kildare some of the attacking play was very good."

After Down drew with Offaly in the 1960 All-Ireland semi-final, Meath's Peter McDermott, a former All-Ireland medal winner and referee, was invited to training in Newry. "It seemed every time Offaly attacked, if we touched them a free was given against us, and yet if we had the ball, you would see three of our forwards on the ground before the ball was even delivered and no frees," explains O'Neill. "McDermott told us the secret was to foul early and he showed us how to do it. If you want to win in Dublin you must do these things, he said, they might be against the rules but I am telling you -- they were all doing it. That all became part of our maturing and getting to understand how to win."

Someone has to do the dirty work. Leo Murphy was full-back on the 1960 and '61 teams and lives in a beautiful home in Rostrevor overlooking Carlingford Lough. His job was no more sophisticated than stopping scores. "I was on Seán O'Neill more often than anybody in training," says Murphy. "I learned how to hold his jersey and I'd go up close behind him and just stand there talking away to him, and then (he makes a restraining gesture) as he is about to tear away."

He breaks into a cackling laughter and then explains: "Seán just hated me. He'd be cursing. And I'd say, 'Seán don't over excite yourself, you are going to have to get used to that, you have to get out of the strap'."

Murphy hails from Kilkeel and has fond memories of hardy games against Kilcoo in particular. "There was always a blow-up, sometimes the ref could calm it down. Sometimes a priest had to go in. But tell you the truth I liked the Kilcoo fellas and I liked playing them. It did something for you. It was like a real life training session. Offaly were like that. Offaly would have chased Kilcoo out of sight. Club football in Offaly must have been desperate. What Kilcoo and these teams were doing was blooding us, so we knew what to expect and not be complaining."

Wearing a pink shirt and neatly groomed, Murphy is fresh-faced, a picture of rude health a half century later. Kilkeel, he explains, had a large Protestant population, some of whom he numbered among his friends. Being the local on the Down team, his exploits intrigued them. "They listened to it on the radio and they could talk about it. And it was great to see. Especially when we won the All-Ireland; even though it wasn't part of their background, there was an element of pride in the unionist areas. They wouldn't express it publicly, but they would talk to you about in on the street for hours. It caught their imagination.

"In Kilkeel, the divisions were clear-cut. In 1960, a number of the boys there, Protestant fellas, same age as myself, ah we got on well together most of the time, threw stones at one another other times. They took a ferocious interest in my involvement in the Down team. We went to different schools but we always knew each other. They couldn't listen to the game because it was a Sunday and their parents were strict Protestants so they went down to the shore looking out over Carlingford Lough, looking down on to the Irish Sea, and they told me they listened to the matches down there. It would have made you cry."

Today he will join his 1960 comrades on the road south. Nobody in Down, Murphy included, regards their county as invincible or having an inalienable right to win. But history shows that once they get there, they do take some stopping.

Sunday Independent

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