25 Feb 2016

Ten games that shaped a community

When the Andy Merrigan Cup was proudly carried into Lavey’s packed clubhouse on that March night in 1991, it was the culmination of a lifetime of dreams, sacrifice and progression. Every man, woman and child was in dreamland as Lavey put themselves into the history books as All-Ireland champions.
All-Ireland Champions 1991
Pic - Danny O'Kane
Twenty five years on, with help from Seamus Downey and Collie McGurk, scratch the surface of how Lavey reached the promised land.

The All-Ireland Final went very much to plan. As Downey recalls, it was a game Lavey never looked like losing. “After we got the first goal, I never felt under pressure and never felt we were going to lose the game.”

McGurk and Downey both agreed, the three finals were routine wins, but the semi finals took a different complexion.

A mammoth battle to see off old rivals Dungiven in the Derry semi-final, a last gasp win against Armagh Sarsfields in Ulster and Dublin’s Thomas Davis in the All-Ireland. Never mind the Tir Chonaill Gaels chapter.

For the finals, Lavey still needed to be fully prepared but like Derry in 1993, the semi final win over Dublin was the one that people still talk about. Brendan Convery’s team encountered many bumps and bruises along the way.

When Tommy Howard blew his final whistle, Lavey were champions of Ireland and the players headed to the Cusack Stand side where the majority of their fans were.

Pic - Danny O'Kane

With no shortage of backslapping, hugging and the pure raw emotion of fulfilling a lifelong dream, the Lavey players took ‘about twenty minutes’ to filter across the hallowed turf and up the famous Hogan Stand steps.

As is turned out, this delay earned them a fine but it mattered little as Joxer [Johnny McGurk] lifted the cup.

With their tenth and final hurdle of their championship odyssey safely accomplished and a ‘special guest’ on board, the Lavey convoy headed North.

The most satisfying of bus journeys was broken up with a customary stop off at the Carrickdale for a bite to eat. “The craic was good and there was a lot of Lavey supporters waiting on us,” Downey recalled.

There were no more stops, it was full steam ahead - destination Lavey. “We wanted to get home, we knew everyone was back in the club waiting on us. We got off the bus, offloaded our bags into  the changing room and Goldseal [resident Greenlough band] played us into the hall.”

On stage, the Andy Merrigan Cup wasn’t alone. Seamus McFerran and John McLaughlin were also in attendance as the Lavey Lions [as they were called] completed their mission. Up on the walls were the names of the men who brought home the bacon.

The St Patrick’s night festivities were a long way from Scullion’s Hill, the early days in Mayogall School and it was seven years after the Derry minor title had been successfully defended. The Erin’s Own name had joined the elite list of All-Ireland champions.

Once the hullaballoo had died down, came the relative calm of the ‘morning after’ and Downey flagged up a chat with one of the locals.

“A man steeped in Lavey football came over to us. He was on cloud nine and said ‘you boys have no idea what you have done and you’ll not appreciate it until you’re my age’. It really hit home to us what we had achieved,” outlined Downey.

“It meant so much to people, it was more than sport. It extended people’s lives. It enriched their lives.”

The black star below the collar on the current Lavey jersey is significant. It represents the men of 1991 and what they achieved. After a period in transition Lavey are back challenging strongly at underage level again.

When Lavey gather in the Tullyglass next month they will celebrate and relive the memories of the golden generation in their history. There will be an extra satisfaction. They are heading back towards the top again in Derry football.

Seamus Downey referenced the period from 1977 to 1988 as a famine. Eleven years. That shows the ambition of Lavey and the absence of success will spur the next generation to end the current famine.

Many of the youngster’s were not born when Johnny McGurk stood on the Hogan Stand steps to pickup club football’s biggest prize but as they graduate through the ranks of Lavey’s underage system they will be hoping to represent their club on the big stage.

When you drive into their Quarry Road premises, their impressive facilities hit you immediately. Their £2.4M project is now fully paid off.

It all began when Ciaran McGurk and Seamus Downey were chatting over a sociable pint one evening. Their underage development plan had begun but Lavey were renting out premises all over South Derry to provide for their children’s coaching sessions.

From hatching their idea they put together a proposal for the club committee. The chairman at the time thought both men were mad. It was more blunt than that! McGurk and Downey were ambitious and it was a long-term vision.

Within five years of inception the bricks and mortar part of their project was now complete. The next vision was to ensure the underage teams were all back competing in grade A and since that a sprinkling of underage silverware has begun to appear back in Lavey.

Part of the vision was to ensure that every youngster has a ball at training. One for everyone!’ It wasn’t always like that. Downey explains to the youngsters under his wing of how things were different when his team came on the scene.

“We had one football, it was an auld dimpled thing, it was more like a basketball than a football. John Grant was the principal and took the school teams at that time and we won a couple of Castle Cups.”

This success fed into Lavey’s underage setup. Paddy Chivers was part of the 1991 management but he was the one that started the ball rolling as Downey recalls.

Paddy had taken it upon himself to invest a lot of his own time in our underage teams. A bit like we are doing now. Out of that we won U14 and U16 titles followed by two minor titles.”

Eight of those players went straight into the Lavey senior team, under the stewardship of a certain John Brennan (or Brannan) as it’s pronounced locally.

Not having won a championship since 1977, the early 1980s brought consistency and ‘five or six league titles’ but the Erin’s Own men could never ‘get over the line’ for championship success.

Collie McGurk recalls how things actually got worse before they got better. “We went from winning league titles to near enough relegation [1987] and came back the next year to win the championship.”

In 1988 it was a very youthful Lavey side that brought home the John McLaughlin Cup defeating Newbridge in the final. It was the start of a six year period that brought four Derry titles, four hurling championships, two Ulster football and of course the All-Ireland.

Downey’s uncle John Brennan, now the doyen of club football management, put the wheels in motion.

“John took the Lavey senior team at that stage. We lost in semi final in 1987 but that was key to building a team. He more or less changed us from boys into men and we won the championship out of the blue in 1988, as John has his way of doing.

In search of that long awaited title Brennan did some tinkering with the lineup and in particular the McGurk brothers. Joxer [Johnny] and Goosey [Ciaran] had always played in attack but were reinvigorated as attacking wing backs.

Hugh Martin was a noted defender and his new half forward role saw him cover back to allow playmaker Brian McCormick and Fergal Rafferty to play in more attacking roles.

Collie had played a lot of football in defence but with his trademark bicycle shorts he was converted into a potent inside forward alongside Jim [Seamus Downey] and [Shaq] Don Mulholland, giving a terrific inside attacking trio.

Downey explains how the balance of the team was nearing perfection. “We had a good influx of younger players but we had 5-6 lads in their mid to late 20s. You need that balance in any side. You need to have the pieces right.

After 1988 it was back down to earth, with a raft of injuries Lavey lost their champions tag. It was time to regroup as Downey explains “We came back in 1990 and that was really our time. Brendan Convery came and took the team out of the blue and was a breath of fresh air.”

Most managers today would be railroaded if they followed in Convery’s footsteps. There was no player power in that Lavey camp. “Brendan was laid back, we knew we had a good enough side to win a championship and around training there was the fun element to it.”

Before the modern communication techniques of Teamer or Whatsapp, it was a case of just landing at the pitch with your gear, ready to follow orders.

When a tractor and trailer was recruited to ferry the Lavey squad to Scullion’s Hill one evening for a running session followed by a post session pint on the way home, it had the desired effect. It was novel but it built a togetherness and a resolve that would be tested in the heat of battle.

That was the laid back attitude that was needed and Downey believes that manifested itself into the relaxed manner they felt on final day. They felt the work was done and it was their time’.

The man who had moulded many of the players in their younger days knew what made them tick. “Paddy Chivers would have taken 90% of the training, Brendan would have been the manager.”

Convery just focused on getting the Lavey side of the equation correct. “He never got caught up in other teams he just focussed on us. Half the other teams he talked about he didn’t even know their names or got half their names wrong.

With the players fully primed and ready for action, with the experience of 1988 firmly stored in the memory bank, the men of Lavey now had the management structure to take them on the journey of a lifetime.

It’s like a jigsaw puzzle of any team that is successful, if you take any piece away it’s not complete. He [Brendan] was definitely a breath of fresh air.”

After a ‘tight game’ against Castledawson in round one, Lavey racked up 3-20 to dispose of Ballerin to setup a meeting with Dungiven in the semi-final.

Played at Glen, Lavey got off to a flier leading by six points but Dungiven pegged them back to draw level. The score that broke their resolve and saw Lavey through was a Collie McGurk goal after an astute Seamus Downey pass.

On a wet day in Magherafelt, Lavey regained their Derry title with a 3-14 to 1-7 win over Ballinascreen

1990 Derry Champions
Pic - Danny O'Kane

So then it was on to the Ulster stage and a hard fought 0-10 to 0-7 win away in Ballybofey against a Naomh Columba team backboned by Donegal players John Joe Doherty, Noel and Paddy Hegarty.

It was ‘a very bruising, physical game’ and when McGurk, Downey and their Lavey teammates returned to training the following Tuesday night there was the realisation that Ulster was there for the taking.

It wasn’t the result but rather the atmosphere after the game that suggested so. The Lavey team joined busloads of supporters for a meal afterwards in Jackson’s Hotel.

“There was just a real feel-good factor about, a bit of momentum about. When we went back to training boys said ‘we can win this bloody thing, just put our shoulder to the wheel here’. Beating the Donegal champions away from home was really the start of that.”

Then followed a semi-final against the Armagh champions and Collie McGurk outlines that was another significant test for Lavey, which they passed (1-6 to 0-7).

“It was Sarsfields up next at Ballinascreen and that was a real war of attrition. They had some great players. Skelton, Kieran McGurk (RIP) and Brian McAlinden was in goals.”

With the game going into the dying moments Brian McCormick rattled the net to grab victory in dramatic fashion.

All the foundation of fitness and never say die attitude started under Brennan and complemented by Convery and co was paying off. The hard yards were tucked away, kept for days like these. The club championship isn’t called #TheToughest for nothing!

If the semi final went to the wire, then the Final against Kingscourt was a total contrast. Despite having a plethora of Cavan county players including Jim Reilly, Pat and Michael Faulkner Lavey cut through them very easily. Hugh Martin McGurk’s penalty capped off a twelve point winning margin.

With the celebrations in full swing the preparations for the post Christmas All-Ireland campaign were put on hold – for a while just!

The headlines in the Irish News just days later informed the new Ulster Champions that Tir Chonaill Gaels were coming to Ireland, Ballinascreen to be precise. It was time get the focus back.
All-Ireland Quarter Finals against the English champions were usually foregone conclusions, a token gesture of sorts - but not this one.

Downey realised what was coming down the tracks when they started to do their homework. The London champions had real aspirations of winning the All-Ireland themselves.

James McCartan was still at Queens’ and he was playing for them, Mattie McGleenan, Antrim’s Timmy Connolly, the Henneberry brothers from Sligo, Barry Cunningham from Donegal and plenty more county stars.”

Like the Sarsfields game, Lavey were staring down the barrel of defeat but somehow forced extra time. It still cuts deep among the Gaels as to how they lost the game but it was a sweet win for Lavey.

On that day in ‘Screen it was the case of an old dog for the hard road as veteran all-star Anthony McGurk found the net late on, bringing the tie to extra time.

Extra time was every bit as keenly fought with a late Lavey rally including an insurance point from Anthony McGurk seeing the Derry and Ulster champions through 2-11 to 1-12.

The club was on the crest of a wave and the feel good factor was carrying everyone along. It was summed up when the Lavey team headed on a scouting trip to the Leinster Final in Newbridge.

Just outside Newbridge the fog dropped at an alarming rate and the game was postponed. The bus of Lavey players and supporters headed to the nearest hostelry and had an unplanned day of team bonding, capped off with a feed in the Brazen Head on their way back up through Dublin.

“It was a great day of craic. The spirit was brilliant and you can’t buy that,” added Downey. When the game was refixed the Lavey bandwagon was again on the road to suss out Thomas Davis.

The Dublin champions had county players David Foran and Paul Curran in their ranks and their club fielded seven adult teams. That was the contrast, city and tiny village, David versus Goliath.

In the downtime ahead of the semi final the preparations didn’t let up. Collie McGurk highlighted the level Lavey were getting to. They were peaking at the right time.

“We hammered Antrim seniors and beat a Tyrone U21 team in Celtic Park, a team who themselves were on the All-Ireland march. Nowadays club teams couldn’t compete with county teams but back then we had county teams knocking at our door looking games.”

Seamus Downey’s goal helped Lavey into a 1-3 to 0-3 lead against the Dublin champions but it took an inspired goalkeeping performance from Brendan Regan to keep the ship on track.

In the second half Thomas Davis came back strongly but Hugh Martin McGurk’s penalty spring boarded Lavey towards the finishing line (2-6 to 0-10) and a St Paddy’s Day date at Croke Park.

Many of the squad wanted to wake up in their own beds on All-Ireland Final morning but after much deliberation the Lavey squad decided to stay overnight in Dublin’s Airport Hotel on the eve of the final.

With one last step on this amazing journey left to take, Lavey once again entered the arena in relaxed fashion. The hard yards had been put in. Their settled and battle-hardened team had been well tested. They were ready!

Don Mulholland’s first goal set the Erin’s Own men on their way and gave them the perfect tonic. If the elder statesman Anthony McGurk pegged them back from the dead against Tir Chonaill Gaels, it was the youthful Brian McCormick who bagged 1-6 and ensured that Andy Merrigan would be heading back up the road to Gulladuff.

When the group meet up again in early March it will be a poignant gathering. The stories and memories will be in full flow.

The heading in both the Irish Press and Mid Ulster Observer in March 1991 was simply ‘Small is Beautiful’. Downey highlights the relevance. “It still resonates with us. It’s a unique achievement for us, we were pulling off such a small base.

In the interim after a period of fighting relegation Lavey have come through as strong as ever. Downey was player manager and admitted the pressure was greater than during their championship careers. “It was a different kind of pressure.”

Collie McGurk still jokes the fact that he was an unused sub as Lavey’s top flight survival was at stake but concedes that his ‘crabbitness’ stemmed from the realism that he couldn’t run or do anything.

With the club safe in the senior ranks the 1991 crop’s race was run. The star on the back of the jersey is symbolic of all that has gone before in the club. The new facilities are there for all to see and the photos on the walls of the club are the legacy.

It’s time for a new breed. All has been provided for them. The baton has been passed on. It’s their time.

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