Tuesday 20 February 2018

Player brawls, political battles and heroic wins add to remarkable tale of Longford's glory days

Longford and Donegal do battle in the 1966 league semi-final. Photo: Connolly Collection/Sportsfile
Longford and Donegal do battle in the 1966 league semi-final. Photo: Connolly Collection/Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

"Caps and hats were thrown to the sky; Longford had beaten the All-Ireland champions and league champions"

Life, as Mattie Fox relates in his book on Longford's golden years, was very different back then. A new car cost £1,000, a decent house £4,000. Television was still in its infancy but already ruffling feathers; the Bishop of Clonfert complained to RTÉ when a woman confessed on The Late Late Show that she didn't wear a nightie on her wedding night. In football, Galway were the masters of all they surveyed. Minnows like Longford were expected to know their place.

Then something quite extraordinary happened: a team came out of Longford as good as what was around. Their two finest achievements were the National League win of 1966, recently marked a half-century on at a function in the Longford Arms Hotel, and the Leinster title that followed two years later. The sheer improbability of those triumphs derived from the unpromising tradition out of which they sprung. Before ending their long wait in 1965, Longford were the only county in Ireland not to have reached a senior provincial football final.

In the previous year, with more or less the same panel of players, they played eight competitive matches and lost them all. The moment they realised something needed to be done came after a defeat to Leitrim in Mohill. Brendan Barden, the team captain, and another Dublin-based player, Sean Murray, decided to approach Fr Phil McGee, older brother of Eugene, from the county board with plans to radically overhaul team training, which until then had been poorly run and often pitifully attended.

Mattie Fox was 16 when Longford won the league and his father, Matt, served as the county secretary. He went to all the games during that era, keeping a diary which he revisited when writing the book, The Golden Years, Longford GAA 1965-68, launched last month. It is a compelling personal account which moves dramatically from the euphoria of winning national and provincial titles to the dark period that split the county in two and saw his father deposed as county secretary.

The key moment in Longford's transformation, Fox outlines, came at a county board meeting in March 1965, where the chairman, Jimmy Flynn, broached the subject of bringing in an outside manager. Enter Mick Higgins, a Garda sergeant stationed in Tullyvin, Co Cavan, and winner of three All-Ireland medals. Higgins revolutionised their preparations and the players wholeheartedly embraced his methods.

Mattie Fox (front) had a special insight into the golden era of Longford football which forms the basis of his new book. Photo: Brian Lawless/Sportsfile
Mattie Fox (front) had a special insight into the golden era of Longford football which forms the basis of his new book. Photo: Brian Lawless/Sportsfile

Fox's engaging account of these years relives his teenage fascination with the team, an interest fuelled by his father's central role, their house being a place of frequent meetings and long football discussions. The players first trained under Higgins in April 1965 in preparation for the opening round of the Leinster Championship against Offaly. The author recalls the "quiet" and "understated" Higgins calling to their home and requesting six new O'Neill's balls. "My father was astonished. They had never bought six balls. In fact, they had used the same four for the previous five years."

The changes were already under way that would help make Longford a serious All-Ireland contender. Steak dinners after matches sounded the alarm bells for some, a delegate at a board meeting voicing concern that the players were being ruined by "silver service every night after training".

Those indulgences did not go to waste. Longford went on to defeat Offaly 1-5 to 0-5 in Mullingar, a cataclysmic win. "The old Longford was gone," the author asserts. Laois were dispatched in Mullingar to set up a semi-final against Meath, the reigning Leinster champions, and a famous victory. Towards the end of the game, with Meath desperate for a goal, their full-back Martin Flynn raced downfield to the edge of the square and threatened anyone who dared get in his way. With the ball dropping, Longford's Seamus Flynn landed "a good hard box on the butt of the chin" of the Meath full-back. "He never flinched," said Flynn. "It felt the very same as if I was hitting the top of a counter."

In their first ever final Longford seemed beset by nerves and midfielder Jimmy Flynn recalls being chided by Des Foley, who he would have encountered on the Dublin club circuit, and who welcomed him to Croke Park. It was, Flynn remembered, "a real put-down and very condescending".

They missed an early penalty when Sean Murray slipped as he was about to kick the ball and with Foley dominant, Dublin won 3-6 to 0-9.

But the county was now filled with confidence that their team could make a serious mark and in 1966 they qualified for the league 'home' final against a Galway team that would later that year complete an All-Ireland three in a row. A crowd of 45,317 turned up to see Longford make history and upset the odds.

The Longford team pose for a photo ahead of the National Football League final against Galway in 1966. Photo: Connolly Collection/Sportsfile
The Longford team pose for a photo ahead of the National Football League final against Galway in 1966. Photo: Connolly Collection/Sportsfile

What doubts may have existed over their true worth were dispelled. Paddy Downey in The Irish Times wrote of "fresh winds of change" and how Galway were "blown from their pedestal". Bobby Burns scored eight of their nine points in a 0-9 to 0-8 win. The county celebrated but the spirit which got them there was already being eroded by personality clashes, though well concealed.

What followed were maybe the first signs of discord that would eventually spiral out of control the following year. Louth awaited Longford in the Leinster Championship two weeks later and a request from the players that the match be postponed to allow them more time to prepare received a favourable reception from the Leinster Council, but Longford County Board decided to press ahead.

"Look, if ye can't beat Louth, ye'll win nothing," one officer said.

Brendan Gilmore, the current county chairman, was left corner-back on the Longford team. "I was a young lad in Drogheda (a trainee garda) and I told them, 'Louth are flying. Take another week off it.' It was the wettest day that ever came. Played in Navan, the pitch was flooded." Beaten 0-13 to 0-7, the celebrations of the previous fortnight having wearied them, Longford were a pale shadow of the team that beat Galway.

In order to win the league outright they needed to defeat New York in October over two legs, with the second match in Croke Park almost causing a riot. The GAA appointed John Nolan from Offaly as referee, despite two of his brothers being on the New York team. Longford objected but were overruled.

A crowd of 9,000 in Pearse Park for the first leg watched Longford win 1-9 to 0-7 and in the return a week later they sealed victory. But New York were accused of thuggery, in what county chairman Jimmy Flynn would later rank as "the worst exhibition of blackguardism I have ever seen".

Shortly after the throw-in the author witnessed Bobby Burns "pole-axed by an elbow" while Sean Murray was knocked to the ground and Sean Donnelly locked in an arm-wrestling contest. "All round the pitch Longford players were being hit, kicked, hustled to the ground, and generally abused by their New York counterparts." No action was taken.

He recounts the New York player Brendan Tumulty before half-time bearing down on goal and faced with John Donlon, Longford's hardy centre-back, who was hit with an "almighty box" to which Donlon responded in kind, and "caught Tumulty hard on the left side of the head with an uppercut".

The scenes at the final whistle, with Longford victorious, are described in the book as "chaotic and lamentable" as the referee was escorted off the field by some gardaí, as incensed Longford supporters tried to get at him.

By 1967 Fox notes there were issues within the fold which were undermining the team. They lost in the league semi-final to Meath and in the championship there erupted the most controversial episode in Longford's history, at a time when they had prospects of further success. It became known as the Bobby Burns Affair.

Burns was a powerful full-forward who, early in '67, took time out of football to study for his accountancy exams, as rumours spread of player unrest. By the time they overcame Kildare in a replay to reach the Leinster semi-final against Offaly, Burns was back but a row broke out before they took the field which had dire consequences - Burns never played for the county again.

Mick Hopkins, heavily bandaged, was given the No 14 jersey, with Burns named on the bench. Burns had received no advance warning and did not take the news well by all accounts. He and Sean Murray squared up and got involved in a heated argument which took several minutes to defuse. The players went out with their heads in a spin and lost 0-13 to 1-7.

The author's impressions are that the players lacked good man-management, seeing Higgins as the ideal candidate for that role but suggesting he was not allowed do the job without interference. After the Offaly game they went to Power's Hotel on Kildare Street, where the author was present and witnessed "a full-blown brawl" among the players.

At the next county board meeting, with people demanding answers for the team's decline and disharmony, Burns was present to give his side of the story. The chairman, Jimmy Flynn, sought support to have the player suspended but another vote rejected the proposal and the chairman felt he had no option but to resign. He was joined by a number of other high-ranking officers. Later, most of the players stood down in protest, and Burns left for New York.

A mediator, Rev Canon McLoughlin, was brought in to try to find a resolution and at the county convention, the chairman was to reinstate the secretary, but Matt Fox was voted out and replaced by the player Sean Donnelly. The author says his father was "shocked and deeply offended" by his removal from the position, particularly when a regular visitor to the house, who is not identified, was one of the chief architects behind the move to unseat him.

This is dealt with frankly by his son, though he does not use the book to score points or drive a personal agenda. "He was never," he writes of his father, "the outgoing or effervescent man, with whom I'd grown up, ever again."

His father was opposed to Burns being suspended. "As the years progressed he became heavily depressed, was hospitalised a few times and went through sheer hell," writes his son. "I learned about the ability of people who would act and behave in one way, whilst thinking the exact opposite.

"When he was demoted it did have a shocking effect. It didn't ruin his life but it ruined his sense of self and that great feeling that he trusted everybody. Losing the secretary wasn't the problem, he could handle democracy.

"He never talked about it. He became very depressed and very dark in himself, he found it very difficult to work. He lost the motivation to work. My mother put up with a lot; he sat in the corner and looked into the fire, literally."

In spite of the controversy which Longford had found itself steeped in, the team managed to recover the following year and win a Leinster title, the county's only time to do so. They defeated Dublin by a goal in Tullamore in the quarter-finals and then took out the reigning All-Ireland champions Meath. Sean Donnelly scored two goals in the final against Laois, Longford winning 3-9 to 1-4.

The All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry is recalled as a missed opportunity. Trailing 0-6 to 2-7 at half-time, they stormed back, with a penalty goal from Jackie Devine putting them a point clear. But Kerry closed with three points to reach the final against Down. Injuries to Murray and Jimmy Flynn, and some dubious tactical calls, played a part in their downfall.

The author later went into the music business, becoming a successful promoter, and while Longford fell away and became a rank outsider, again he never relinquished his support for their players through the many bad times that followed. Nor did his father's experience destroy the memories of the good times he had following the team as a teenager.

When he revisited his diaries last year it was after a long lapse. "When I went back to them and read through them it crystallised it all in my mind. It is hard to describe. I was a young guy. I lived in the country. I was going to all the Longford matches and they were becoming stars overnight. It was a very special time. I can remember moves in games and all that stuff. It is clear as a bell."

In the Longford Arms Hotel last month, members of the Galway team beaten in the '66 league 'home' final turned up along with the majority of Longford players responsible for the most dazzling spell of football the county has produced. Three of the '66 team have passed away - Burns, John Donlon and Murray - and two of the subs, Michael Fay and Peter Sheridan.

"We had a great turnout," says Brendan Gilmore. "We honoured the 1968 team as well, there were only seven players in the difference from the league team. You know what, it was fantastic, they were so delighted to be invited. I think it was one of the nicest nights we ever had."

"What happened in Longford really was that all the right people came together at the right time," says Mattie Fox. "It was an amazing team from the goalkeeper to the left full-forward. They dined at the top table, they were in the top three or four teams in the country."

The years since haven't been kind and today Longford play Offaly in the opening round of the Leinster Championship, knowing they are not in the top three or four in the province, let alone the country. What happened 50 years ago is of no help to them, but they belong to that tradition too, however outlandish the thoughts of repeating it may be.

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