SINCE the MacRory Cup competition moved from a league to a championship format almost 90 years ago, it has only once run into the month of April.
April 4th 1988 was Easter Monday and it brought an end to a MacRory title-race like no other, one that gripped the imagination of the general public and led to St Colman’s Newry and St Patrick’s Maghera packing out O’Neill Park Dungannon for an unprecedented second replay of the final.
The same two schools met in finals over the next two years. Interest from the general public soared leading to TV coverage and within a couple of years that had moved to live TV and a wider audience again.
Future Derry All-Ireland medallist Eamon Burns was a key member of St Patrick’s Maghera teams that faced St Colman’s SIX times in finals from 1988-90.
He takes us back to those action-packed three years that also led to the Hogan Cup coming north for three years in succession, something that was never matched before or since – although, until the advent of Covid-19, it was a possiblility this year following maiden national titles for St Ronan’s Lurgan in 2018 and St Michael’s Enniskillen last year.
“THOSE MacRory finals we played against St Colman’s in the late 80s were our first experi-ence of big-time football. One game built on another. Crowds grew for each game, each year and then you had the TV covering it. Bar winning the All-Ireland with Derry in 1993, they are probably my greatest sporting memories.”
St Colman’s had won more MacRory titles than any other school by this point (14) and in 1986 collected the Hogan Cup for the third time – more than any other Ulster school.
But St Patrick’s Maghera was a train thundering down the MacRory tracks. A first ever final in 1976 was the start of a run that saw 11 final appearances in a row, broken only by a quar-ter-final defeat in 1987.
The south Derry school had collected six titles from those 11 finals, including a record equal-ling four in a row 1982-85. But they had yet to beat St Colman’s in a final, losing to the New-ry aristocrats four times from 1976-81.
“I came into First Year in September 1983. Later that month Dermot McNicholl captained Derry to the All-Ireland minor title. Dermot and half the team were walking around the same corridors as us.
“Then they got to the MacRory final against St Mary’s (Belfast) in Casement Park. There was this huge excitement of the build up to the game, the supporters’ buses and Dermot lifting the Cup for his second time.
“Next year it was Danny Quinn’s turn to captain a winning team and you had boys like the Downeys, the McGurks, Damian Cassidy about the school. We didn’t have to look far for sporting heroes.”
The MacRory final and Maghera had a temporary separation in 1987, but then they were reu-nited in 1988.
As a fifth year now, Burns was part of the MacRory panel that reached the final to face St Colman’s.
“We were aware that St Colman’s were the school Maghera really wanted to beat in a final. The school had never beaten them in a final.
“They had tradition. They had won the Hogan two years earlier, had some of those players around still – boys like Paul McCartan, Larry Duggan, Tom Fegan and of course wee James (McCartan).
“And they had a formidable management team.”
Up until this time the MacRory Cup final was traditionally played on the Sunday before St Patrick’s Day.
St Colman’s asked to have the final on the Sunday after in 1988. One of their star players was Tom Fegan who was scheduled to play for Burren in the All-Ireland club final. Tom’s school coach Ray Morgan was also the manager of Burren.
No problem. The final was scheduled for Casement Park for Saturday 19th March. And Bur-ren won their second All-Ireland.
However March 1988 was a turbulent month particularly in west Belfast. The shooting of three IRA volunteers in Gibralter led to mayhem at their funerals in Milltown and subsequent-ly the killing of two British army corporals at the gates of Casement Park.
The Ulster Schools’ Council had to move the final to Ballybay. It turned out to be a wet day and the game was played on a heavy enough pitch. The surroundings matched Burns’ down-cast demeanour.
“I was a regular in the group games, but I fell out of favour when the knock-out stages came and didn’t start the game in Ballybay. To be honest, I cannot remember too much about the game except that it finished six points each. It was an exciting finish and we probably had chances to win.
“The replay was in Omagh. It was a drier day, still cold enough for sitting on the bench.
“I can remember they got a good start to that game with a goal. Ryan Murphy got a goal for us late in the second half. There was a dispute whether or not it had crossed the line, but the video clearly shows it did. It put us a point up but Paul McCartan then got an equaliser.
“They also got a good start in extra time, but we came back with a goal to draw. I came on as a sub in that game.”
The second replay was set for Easter Monday and by this time everyone wanted to see the game.
“Yes, I can remember there was a massive crowd there that day. It was a very hot day, sum-mer football and I was in the full-forward line alongside Ryan Murphy and Eunan O’Kane, a Fifth Year and two Fourth Years. This was the big time for us!”
But things didn’t quite work out for Maghera despite an early goal from O’Kane. Three goals and a point from Tom Fegan saw St Colman’s prevail by 3-5 to 1-9.
“There was controversary over Fegan’s last goal. (Referee) Jim Curran blew for what we thought was a foul on our goalie Michael McKeefrey. Michael set the ball down to take the free, but Fegan toe-poked it into our net. The score stood. St Colman’s went on and won the Hogan.”
“Six months earlier, St Colman’s pipped us by a point in the Rannafast final at Casement Park, so they really were proving to be our nemesis.
However the defeat was put into perspective as the news filtered through that one of the school supporters, a Second Year student Declan Brolly, had died on in a car accident.
“You can’t start feeling sorry for yourself over a football game when that happens,” reasons the future All-Ireland winner.
“In fairness there was a lot of talent in that Newry team, plenty of them had won the All-Ireland minor title the year before. Pete McGrath had taken that Down minor team and he was Ray Morgan’s assistant in the school team.
“A lot of our players were young though and had two or even three more MacRory cam-paigns ahead. But it did hurt badly for those in their final year, boys like Feargal P (McCusk-er), Gregory McCloskey, Declan Cassidy, Michael McKeefrey and Hugh Tohill.”
The Mageean Cup was played in the spring of 1988 as well and the final between Maghera and St Mary’s CBGS also went to a replay before St Mary’s took the title.
It meant that Cassidy and Tohill and many of the younger MacRory players had featured in five games over the course of a few weeks to decide the finals of Mageean and MacRory and come away with nothing.
However the next couple of years were to prove much more successful for St Patrick’s Ma-ghera in both codes.
EAMON Burns’ father Michael boarded in St Patrick’s Armagh and was vice-captain of the 1953 side that had taken the MacRory Cup back to Cathedral Hill in the city for the 13th time.
Thirty years later Eamon entered another St Patrick’s, in Maghera, as a First Year dreaming of becoming a MacRory Cup winner like the boys he met in the school corridors – Dermot McNicholl, Damian Cassidy, Danny Quinn, the McGurks, the Downeys.
Burns junior’s first taste of a MacRory final ended in disappointment. However better was to come and the Ballinascreen native takes us through his next two MacRory years that would surpass his wildest dreams.
But he remembers that, despite having a lot of starters from 1988 in the team, Maghera didn’t set the world alight in the group stages the following year.
“We were still a young team by MacRory standards, we had six Fifth Years either in the team or coming in and this group of players hadn’t even made it out of the group stages at Corn na nÓg and Rannafast level.
“We were shaky enough but did make it out of the MacRory group and after Christmas we had great victories over Dungannon and Omagh and were back in a final against St Colman’s.
“This was my most memorable day on a pitch until the All-Ireland final with Derry in ’93.”
“There was a massive crowd in Coalisland. The TV cameras were there and wee James (McCartan) by this stage was almost unmarkable. He scored 3-2 that day.
“James was a well-known player by now, but St Colman’s had a lot of good players in that team – Eamon Connolly, James French, Barry Hynes, Gareth McCaugherty, Paddy Tinnelly.
“They went nine points clear on two occasions during the game. But we pegged them back. Karl Diamond got two goals and Anthony (Tohill) fisted a goal for us.
“Swatragh had won the minor championship the autumn before and Anthony really emerged as a footballer at that stage. He had grown in stature and he was a massive player for us flit-ting between midfield and full-forward.
“Ryan Murphy had scored a controversial goal in the Omagh game the year before. He got another one in Coalisland in 1989 when Roddy Skelly bundled the St Colman’s defender over the goal line.”
The game was played at a hectic pace but was eventually decided by Burns.
“I remember being a virtual passenger for most of it, I was struggling for energy due to the flu all week. I got a close in free to bring us to a point and then I got the equaliser. Then the op-portunity for the lead point from a free around 40 metres out on the left in the dying mo-ments.
“I remember setting the ball on the ground and Anthony came over to ask if I was OK with it. He took the longer frees. I said I was fine and I can still see the curl on the Mitre ball going inside the far post.”
The drama wasn’t over however as Micky Hall burst through and just shaved the outside of the post. By this time Adrian McGuckin was down beside the goals directing Tohill to take the kick-out.
“Yeah you can see Adrian in the TV clips waving it wide and getting Anthony to take the kick-out. Then the final whistle and everything.”
The game ended 4-10 to 4-9, some brilliant scores, drama right through, the pressure free, Ter-ry Bradley lifting the cup amidst euphoric scenes.
“I always had dreams of winning a MacRory medal. Going to school in Maghera that was attainable. But to score the winning point at the end of a game like that.
“Former students and county players ran out on to the pitch to congratulate us. I remember Johnny McGurk jumping on me and the pride that it gave my father.”
Maghera went on to win their first Hogan title, beating Coláiste Chríost Rí from Cork in a replayed final with Tohill a star.
“I think that the Hogan final was on the 7th May, the replay on the 14th and the first round of the Ulster minor championship on the 21st. Half the Hogan team went straight into the Derry side and we kept going and won the All-Ireland.
“Putting that free over in the MacRory final gave me a lot of confidence. I can’t say that I felt any pressure, but to do that and what it meant for the school, for Adrian (McGuckin), for all the team.”
After the All-Ireland minor success, most of the boys were back to the pre-Christmas group games in the MacRory – with one exception.
Tohill had been approached to play in Australia. He decided around Halloween to give it a go and left the school at Christmas. Adrian McGuckin had decided not to use him in the group games.
“I can remember Adrian coming into the changing room in Carrickmore when we were pre-paring to play Cavan. He wished Anthony all the best in Australia and then said : “This year’s MacRory captain is Paddy McAllister and Eamon Burns will be the captain for the Hogan.”
“I was stunned. Paddy was our full-back and would have been overage for the Hogan. But here was Adrian talking about the Hogan and we hadn’t properly started the MacRory!”
Offsetting the departure of Tohill, Geoffrey McGonigle arrived into the school from St Pat-rick’s Dungiven as a Fourth Year.
“He was no ordinary Fourth Year. He was built like a Sixth Former and was a serious talent. He walked straight into the Mageean Cup team at centre forward and dominated the final which Maghera won. Then he walked on to the MacRory team.”
Maghera reached the final without Tohill and injured captain Paddy McAllister – and there waiting for them were St Colman’s. Another sell-out crowd and another draw – 0-6 each with Burns shooting a late equaliser from a free.
“Barry Hynes had a few 45’s during that game that pulled wide. If some of them had gone over there wouldn’t have been another MacRory or Hogan medal!”
The replay took place in horrible conditions and Maghera came through 3-6 to 1-5 with goals from Burns, Karl Diamond and McGonigle, Brian McCormick playing a starring role in mid-field.
They beat St Mel’s Longford in the Hogan semi-final and then had two tense games with St Jarlath’s Tuam.
“We knew that St Jarlath’s were to the Hogan what St Colman’s were to the MacRory. When you beat them in a final, you have beaten the best.
“We drew 1-4 to 0-7 the first day and we were back to Breffni Park for the replay with a crowd of 8.000 at it. They had Derek Duggan of Roscommon, Galway’s Jarlath Fallon. They were a very good team and got a good start on us in the replay.”
“However we pulled them back and in a tense second half we got the scores to edge home.”
It ended 1-11 to 0-13. Dermot Dougan got Maghera’s goal, captain Burns scored two points and Geoffrey McGonigle, the Dungiven wonder-kid, announced himself yet again with five points, including the late winner.
“Geoffrey had no nerves. Like Eunan O’Kane, also from Dungiven, he was a massive talent.
“But we all owe a serious debt of gratitude to Adrian (McGuckin). He had done massive work in establishing St Patrick’s Maghera in the MacRory Cup in the 70s. He built the MacRory tradition so that when we came into the school, playing in a MacRory final was our ambition and we knew we could achieve that.
“Our group took the extra step that hadn’t been taken before that. We beat St Colman’s and we also won the Hogan. Other teams then could also do those things. But it was all down to Adrian, his coaching, his preparation, his attention to detail, his motivational talks.
“But our respect for St Colman’s, their management and the players we played against was also immense. The rivalry of those years was replaced by a great bond of friendship when we later met them at College in Belfast.”