Sambo McNaughton

 

Former Antrim boss Terence McNaughton

ONCE you see it, you just know that this is the house of Terence ‘Sambo’ McNaughton. The instructions were clear; go into the village, drive past the hurling field, turn right and you will see it.

Two tin models are strapped to the rails in front, one in Antrim saffron, the other in Ruairi Og maroon. Stray sliotars lie on grass verges and around gutters.

It’s only a Sambo-sized sideline cut away from the hurling field, and a decent goalkeepers’ puck from the Irish Sea. It’s hurling heartland and on a day splashed with winter sunshine, perfect.

You tell him he doesn’t know he’s living in a place like this, but he contradicts you.

“Indeed I do.” He takes the family dog, ‘Bo’, for a walk from the house down the road and in through the caravan park. From there on around Limerick Point to the beach. At the beach you see some impressive houses sprouting out of the Layde cliffs and he recounts a local poem;

As I walk around Limerick Point/
I look upon Layde/
Spoilt by bastards with money made

“There’s Scotland over there, the Mull of Kintyre, but sure you probably knew that,” he says. That’s just the way it is with Sambo, generous with his time and his thoughts as he takes you on a tour of Cushendall.

He points out the gable wall of the shop with the bullet holes filled in from a Black and Tan raid, and the murder scene of three young men of the village.

A plaque is erected opposite where the slain bodies lay. He shows you the Curfew Tower, built by town landlord Francis Turnley in 1817 to house prisoners, and chime a bell that indicated it was time for people to make themselves scarce.

Hard to believe, but Bill Drummond of avant-garde dance artists KLF owns it now and lets it out as an artist’s residence.

But it’s hurling that dominates this town. Down to the huge murals on gable walls, and Sambo’s son Shane, the impressive Antrim midfielder/forward practising his frees on Pairc Mhuire, only half an hour after he rises from sleeping off his nightshift.

A short time ago, a veteran GAA reporter asked him the question – had he lost the passion for the game? He was astonished someone would even ask that.

With the pub long leased out, he works as a multi-skills coach for the Moyle Council. He can’t wait until March starts so he can get working with the Antrim minors once again. And he’s in Jerry Wallis’s back room team that want to begin a new era of Antrim hurling.

Passion? Sure what else would you be doing?

**

It started with bean cans and two ends of broken hurls. “We used to cut a bean tin, and knock it flat with a hammer. Then wrap the tin around the broken bits, putting the nails right through to the other side to flatten them down so it was locked. If your hands slipped down the hurl you could cut the hands off yourself. But that’s the only thing we hurled with.
“I remember a Priest, Father White, telling me once, I used to walk up and down the line when I was a kid, more or less trying to nick a stick, he gave me a license to steal hurls for the rest of my life. He used to say, ‘If you take the odd stick, you’re not going to Hell for it!’”

Society’s changed, he sees it in the way his children have three inside toilets in their house and televisions in the bedroom. But still some things remain the same; as girls and boys walk up through the village, they still carry hurls, albeit ones with fancy grips and metal bands.

“They might have one or two at home, but they still will have a stick. Basically, it’s the number one sport in the area. Thank God, because it’s a great game.”

It took him all the way through early adulthood. When he was at school, he won his – and the club’s – first Antrim title when Ruairi Ogs put a halt to Ballycastle’s gallop towards the four-in-a-row in 1981.

When they got back to the village, he stood beside John Delargy, the recognisable hurling man from the town and watched all the bandwagon-jumpers congratulate him. Nobody said anything to him because they thought he was too young to be a hurler.

He won the north Antrim Hurler of the Year award on the back of those performances at the age of 16, but when the team repaired to the pub for the evening, he got himself a burger in the chip shop and went home to prepare for school the next day.

The week after he left education, he thought he might have been playing his last game for Cushendall with a plane ticket to Australia bought and a new life beckoning him. He marked Brian Gilmore of Ballycran in a league game.

One week later in Melbourne, “I was playing a game for a team called Sinn Fein, believe it or not, against Young Irelands, and I ended up marking him again. 12,000 miles apart and neither of us knew the other was going to Australia. Shows what a small world it is.”

There was plenty of work in Australia, but the club needed him home. He wanted home anyway. He moved into south Belfast and earned his corn fitting windows.

His skill as a hurler earned him a profile that was more a curse than a blessing. Sammy Wilson then copper-fastened his reputation as a national village idiot by describing the GAA as ‘The IRA at play.’ Sambo was instantly recognisable. A target.

Bullets would arrive in the post with his name engraved on them. Threatening letters promised impending violence. It was sinister but he lived with it, until an attempt was made on his life. Then it was time to get out of Dodge.

**

With that long hot summer of 1989 now 22 years ago, he knows that it has no relevance to the present Antrim senior team. The stories of that time though still make him chuckle. The naivety of everyone was staggering.

“Nobody in Antrim had experienced it before. Reporters were phoning us up for the first time and TV cameras and everybody… we forgot about the f*cking hurling match. Boys getting jackets, getting a pair of boots and thinking we had died and went to heaven getting free boots!

“Ciaran Barr got married and we didn’t see him for the week before the game. Things like that happened and we were away doing interviews in the middle of training. All this sort of stuff. Nobody had experienced it apart from the boys that played in the 1943 final.

“The oul boys were alive then and they were telling us about the country boys having to go to Belfast because during the war they couldn’t travel. So they stayed and sat in a bed and breakfast while the city men went to work. And they only had brown bread and boiled eggs so we couldn’t relate to anything they had done. It was crazy stuff.”

Jim Nelson brought in a sports psychologist who advised McNaughton that he should take a handful of earth from his own pitch in Cushendall, and when he emerged onto the Croke Park pitch for the final, throw it down and pretend like he was home on his own pitch.

“I said since I was a kid I dreamt I would play in Croke Park, why the f*ck would I want to play on my own pitch? I can play that any week. I want to play in Croke Park!”

‘89 was the top of the wheel for that team. They had their chances to reach a final in ‘87 and ‘91 also when they had Kilkenny in their grasp, only for the Cats to slip through their fingers.

“’91 was the last throw of the dice. The team broke up and people weren’t there for different reasons. We never really got back to that level afterwards. Kilkenny beat us by a point that day.

“I had put a ball over the bar from a line ball earlier that day and I went down to take another one late in the game. If you watch the video you see me running down to take the line ball and asking the ref how long’s left, and it was all square. He said to me, ‘It’s over Sambo.’

“I tried to put the ball over the bar, Beaver [Aidan McCarry] caught it and passed it back out to me and then I put it over. I thought that the ball was going to be pucked out and the whistle was going to be blown, but he ended up playing another four minutes.

“Everyone’s got sad stories. I think I played in 13 All-Ireland semi-finals between club and county and only won one. But I enjoyed it, there were good memories and good times.”

**

He was there last year when the county minors took a hammering against Galway. He only recognised about five people from Antrim and he felt annoyed at the way they were cleaned out. Cyril Farrell and other doyens of Galway hurling were there but Sambo pulled his jacket up tight and didn’t want to engage in chat.

His time with Antrim was over, or so he had thought until the county board approached him and asked him to repeat a role that he and Dominic ‘Woody’ McKinley enjoyed a certain amount of success in, a full decade ago.

“I think there’s 13 of the present Antrim panel that came through from our two minor teams, which is a massive amount. They were probably my two most enjoyable years, managing those minor teams, and that’s why I am back this year.

“People will say that me and Woody were lucky with a team we had, but we put some work into that team. We were over the border playing challenge games, club teams up here, we worked and worked. Took them away and got them to believe.”

And can it be done? Can a lad from Antrim truly, truly believe?

“I told the minors then and I will tell them again, ‘If you are 17 or 18 years of age and you’re playing a guy from Galway or Kilkenny, he’s not a household name.

“He hasn’t a pocketful of All-Ireland medals, he has no All-Star. He’s doing his homework, he’s falling out with his girlfriend, his Da is f*cking him off. He’s the exact same human being, as you are. He hasn’t done any more hurling than you, so why should he be better? Give me a common denominator. Why should a kid in Galway be better than a kid from the Glens of Antrim?”

Before he even begins though, his hands are tied. The ban on collective training means that he cannot gather his minors until March, on the cusp of the beginning of the Leinster minor hurling league. It has resulted in a stream of talented young hurlers turning to soccer to stir their competitive juices.

“Someone needs to look at this, my own personal view is that it’s only to save money. If you are sensible with the thing, nobody wants to kids to burn out. But kids need to be active.

“You see all the lads involved in the Superbowl at the moment are doing this promotion in America, that every kid should have an hour every day of exercise. We are going to lose people through this training ban, and I think it’s a bad decision by the GAA.”

**

Not long after he agreed to go back with the minors, Jerry Wallis asked him to become a selector with the seniors. This time, he doesn’t have to stand in the car park and worry about who is coming to training that night; Wallis’ reputation ensures that everyone that is worth having on board, is there night after night.

“Basically the way I looked at it is if you were a chef, and you had the chance to work alongside a top chef, well then you would take it to go and learn from it. Jerry was involved in bringing Cork to four All-Ireland finals in a row so he obviously knows what he is doing. So if I can learn from him and keep it in Antrim, well all the better.”

You ask if Shane had any problem with him becoming involved again and he laughs at the suggestion before putting it to his son. They both laugh and then ‘Shanebo’ says to ‘Sambo’, “You do your thing, and I’ll do mine!”

And with that, Shane’s thing is to take a bag of sliotars to the field to practise his frees, before a trip to the gym. Sambo’s thing is to take the dog for a walk and talk hurling. Later on, he will journey down through Ulster to assist in any way he can with Middletown’s bid for Intermediate All-Ireland glory.

A hurling evangelist with a massive work ethic that makes you believe in Antrim hurling and Ulster hurling.

 

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