Bringing Down to the promised land
Over 50 years ago, Dr Maurice Hayes pioneered changes that would deliver the Mourne County's first All-Ireland title, writes Liam Kelly
DOWN came to Croke Park 50 years ago and broke the mould for Ulster football with a fabulous team that is still renowned in the annals of GAA history.
The names of the star men on that team in red and black, which won the first All-Ireland for Down and for Ulster, trip off the tongue.
Team captain Kevin Mussen, Sean O'Neill, the McCartan brothers Dan and James, Paddy Doherty, Joe Lennon ... all footballers of a special calibre.
It was shock and awe on a grand scale for the GAA countrywide as the Northern raiders brought home the Sam Maguire Cup at the expense of the championship specialists Kerry.
Nothing like it had been seen before and such was the success that all of Ulster, including many of the Unionist population, hailed Down's success.
Tomorrow, the Down team of 1960 will be honoured at Croke Park in a ceremony organised before the Mourne County side of 2010 had reached the final.
Among the party of veterans from that glorious, historic win of 50 years ago will be a man who didn't kick a ball at senior inter-county level, but one who has been dubbed 'the architect of Down's success.'
That man is former senator, Dr Maurice Hayes, who has enjoyed a distinguished career in public service North and South of the Border.
And yet, few of his many achievements can have given Hayes greater pleasure than to see his native county crowned as All-Ireland champions on September 25, 1960.
The emotion and delight he and thousands of his fellow county people -- not to mention the wider Ulster population -- felt on that day could hardly be bettered.
But just to show they were no flash in the pan, the first-time winners of 1960 returned to Croke Park in 1961 and defeated Offaly to retain the All-Ireland title.
These heady years of success were in stark contrast to the decades when Down were mere also-rans in the pecking order of the Ulster championship.
This changed, changed utterly, but only incrementally and thanks to a few visionaries in the administration of Down GAA politics.
Central to the new thinking, which was not universally popular in the county football power base, was Hayes.
He was an enthusiastic hurler with the Kilcleif club and Queen's University, whom he represented in the Sigerson Cup.
At the same time Hayes was making his way into GAA administration within the county, eventually becoming county secretary in 1956 and serving in that role until 1964.
And what of the situation with Down football in the late '40s and into the '50s?
For a start, Cavan were the Ulster kingpins and dominated the provincial championship.
Psychologically, Hayes felt that Ulster teams saw the provincial title as their All-Ireland and that when they went to Croke Park for All-Ireland semi-finals, they were content to put up a good show. That needed to change.
"In the early '50s a younger, more forward-looking crowd came on to the county board. It was a question of raising standards," he recalls.
" The county team used to get hammered in the first round of Ulster and there was a few of us who got fed up with that.
"We decided to tackle it. We said: 'If you got a group of guys together, and got commitment from them and committed to them, that you would treat them decently.'
"If they were hurt there would be adequate medical care. You were helping guys with summer jobs, you were taking them to decent hotels and what have you.
"That built up a tremendous team spirit. We started doing winter training. We had a doctor before other people had doctors, and there it was."
Hayes also came up with a five-year plan to raise Down football to the level where they could win an All-Ireland title.
The thinking and planning for the long haul, plus the first class treatment for players, was way ahead of its time.
Mind you, the first priority was to have the footballers who could match those lofty objectives, and in that respect, Down were blessed with a group that was developing through the '50s.
"Calling it a plan, looking back at it, dignifies it with a strategy.
"But the rough notion was, you'd build up for a couple of years, you'd get to an Ulster final. You'd lose it, but you'd learn enough to win the next Ulster final.
"And then you'd get an All-Ireland semi-final where you'd get beaten, but you'd learn enough to go on like that.
"What that did actually was it prepared guys for defeat as well as for victory, because if a defeat came, they knew that it was part of a progression and it wasn't the end of the world."
Sidelining the naysayers and changing the selection system in which County Board delegates voted on each position was vital.
The idea was to get it into the hands of a small group, and then, even within the small group, to have a person -- Barney Carr -- in charge of that situation, who was the manager.
Money was needed, but Hayes recalls that costs for Down training all the way to the All-Ireland was around the equivalent of €1,500 in today's money.
"It was done on a shoestring. That was why the league was important, because you got money out of the league.
"You nearly needed to win the league to fund yourself for the championship, but even if you multiply it by a factor of 30, or whatever factor would relate to this era, it still would be a fraction of what teams are paying now.
"There were no expenses for players. What we did was we treated them decently, and looked after them well, went to good hotels and that sort of thing.
"If guys were injured they were looked after and we helped them with summer jobs and, indeed, with jobs afterwards."
Down were no overnight success, but as they improved they kept breaking barriers, winning the Wembley tournament in 1959, and their first Ulster title the same year.
A league title followed in 1960, and then came that epic victory over Kerry. The rest, as they say is history.
tomorrow, the legacy left by those pioneers of Down football 50 years ago manifests itself in the appearance of the Mourne County once again in the All-Ireland final.
And how fitting that so many of the men involved in that historic success will be there to see the 2010 team bid to add to Down's roll of honour.