The life and times of Armagh legend Jimmy Smyth

Jimmy Smyth captained Armagh to their second-ever All-Ireland final appearance in 1977, had a glittering career with Clan Na Gael and also had a long broadcasting career with the BBC. Speaking to Shaun Casey, he reflected on a wide and varied career.

PEOPLE of a certain age will fondly remember Jimmy Smyth as the voice of BBC. For years the Clan na Gael man described the action on the field, but Smyth was no stranger to the excitement of lining out on the big day and that winning feeling that follows the full-time whistle.

There were plenty of low points as well of course, for a county that has experienced i’s fair share of heartache. Starting out, life could have carried Smyth to a different destination but fate helped him find his purpose in life.

Born in county Down, the 1977 All-Star’s introduction to sport was much different than you’d expect. “I actually played cricket; my game was cricket because I lived in Waringstown, so I played cricket all my life. Then when I went to St Colman’s and I started playing Gaelic there.

“Colm McKinstry and I were in the same class in primary school and our teacher was Gerry Fagan, the former county secretary and former Armagh player, he was the man who that introduced us to Gaelic.

“Then I went to St Colman’s and developed in St Colman’s, and I never made any of the teams for the first four years there or so. I used to think I wasn’t good enough then I realised I wasn’t playing Gaelic.”

From an early age McKinstry was Smyth’s right-hand man. They soldiered together for years in the blue and white of Clan na Gael and the orange of Armagh and formed a lifelong friendship on and off the pitch.

“Colm and I started off in primary school together and then we played with the Clans, played with the county and Colm was my best man and stood for the youngsters.”

Gerry Fagan was the first of a list of influential people that extended Smyth’s knowledge of the beautiful game.

“Jim McKeever (a teacher in St Joseph’s) was definitely huge; Jim McKeever had a certain way of playing. Mickey Tracey said one time that if you walked along the sideline of a schools match in Ulster, and stood for five minutes, you would know very quickly which team had been coached by somebody who had come under the influence of Jim McKeever.

“I thought that was as fitting a tribute as anything. Then there would have been Gerry O’Neill and Fr John Treanor in St Colman’s and Brian Seeley who was manager of the Clans, so I was surrounded by good men.”

It was with Clan na Gael that Smyth found his calling and first tasted success in an astonishing career. He helped the Lurgan club win three Minor Championships, nine Senior Championships and a three-in-a-row in Ulster.

While working over in England, Smyth also guided Sean Tracey’s to a British title. Although they controversially lost to Parnell’s, who fielded a host of illegal players, the next day out.

“Years later I was talking to this man, Armagh were playing London in hurling, and I noticed a lot of the boys were from Sean Tracey’s, which was the name of the team that I had played for.

“They were predominantly a hurling team but the played football at that particular time. I said to this man, I used to play for the Sean Tracey’s in 1971, we played the London final, and we were beaten. The Parnell’s brought a load of boys from Galway, he said ‘I remember that I told them to object, I was the referee.’ It’s a small world.”

Back where it all started, Clan na Gael dominated the Minor Championships in Armagh and that team pushed on to take over at senior level, while the great Crossmaglen side of the ‘60s was on the wane.

“We had a very good minor team, we won three minors in a row, and they’d won a couple of juvenile’s before that and that sort of led into the senior team of ’68.

“Prior to that Cross were the big team, Cross had won five championships in the ‘60s and they were the big team, although to be fair they were probably just coming to the end of their domination, and we just stepped in. We won nine championships then in the 12 years.

“That whole minor squad all came through. We had the perfect blend of youth and experience because we’d a lot of established players, John Greene, who was the captain, and Brian Seeley who had played in the ’53 All-Ireland final for Armagh, he was full-back.

“We had a lot of strength in terms of experience and then we’d these young fellas who came along and then we gradually took the place of the old hands and the younger ones fitted in beside us.”

Not only were they the team to beat in Armagh, but Clans went on to have huge success on the provincial stage. After losing the 1971 final, Smyth and his teammates won three-in-a-row Ulster titles, one of only four clubs along with Scotstown, Burren and Crossmaglen ever to achieve the feat.

“We lost the (Ulster) final in ’71 against Bellaghy, who went on to win the All-Ireland that year. We won the next three years in a row, we beat Ardboe in ’72, St Joseph’s Ballyshannon in ’73 and Trillick in ’74.”

The Blues also reached the 1973 All-Ireland final where they came up against a UCD side back-boned with county stars like Kerry legend John O’Keeffe and managed by Eugene McGee, who would later lead Offaly to an All-Ireland crown in 1982.

“We’d played St Vincent’s the first time we won the Ulster in Croke Park, and they beat us, and a lot of those boys went on to win All-Irelands with Dublin in ’77 (beating Armagh). (Brian) Mullins and (Tony) Hanahoe and Bobby Doyle and Jimmy Keaveney.

“Then the next year we played UCC, and we played them in Davitt Park, we beat them. Moss Keane was playing for them, who was an Irish rugby international at the time, and a fella Brendan Lynch who was on the Kerry team.

“There was this rule at the time where universities could take part in club competitions which was madness, absolute madness. I had come from St Joseph’s in Belfast, we played in the Ranch, and we literally won all round us because we had 15 county players. There’s no way they would have let us play in the Antrim Championship.”

UCD may have had a host of county players but Clan na Gael gave as good as they got and could have won the All-Ireland, but a draw was the end result. UCD learned their lesson and won the replay convincingly.

“We should have beat them in the first match and we let them off the hook. They scored an equaliser literally in the last seconds from a 50, the ball was fisted over the bar.

“We sort of knew, those sorts of things, the underdog gets the first chance and I remember talking to Eugene McGee (UCD manager) about it years later and he said he spent his time warning them what we were going to be like.

“We took quick frees and moved the ball very quickly and supported each other and he spent the next week getting the boys to hold on to the ball, stand over the ball, make sure we couldn’t take quick frees and they beat us handily enough in the replay.”

The club success saw Smyth and a few other Clans clubmates called into the county squad and Smyth, who played minor and captained Armagh’s u-21 side, pulled on the orange senior jersey for the first time in 1968.

“The first match I ever attended was the 1961 Ulster final between Armagh and Down, where I cheered for Down, standing on the hill. It was a great honour to play for your county and I played minor and then I was captain of the u-21s.

“We were beaten in ’67 (minor final) by Fermanagh and the next year we won, but I was overage by a fortnight so that always stuck up my craw. There was a lot of Lurgan boys on that team and they lost in an All-Ireland semi-final against Sligo.

“We’d won the Club Championship and we’d played a four-county tournament in Casement Park. We played Antrim in the first match, my (senior) debut was against Antrim, and I scored a goal but it was attributed in The Irish News to Seamus Lavelle so I could never claim it!”

Armagh football was at a low ebb. They hadn’t won an Ulster title since 1953 and the team didn’t look to be going anywhere fast.

“There wasn’t the same emphasis (on county football as there is now). I remember one year coming down from Belfast to Lurgan for training and nobody turned up. I went down to Lurgan and there was nobody there, so I went back again.

“We actually did well in ’71, we beat Tyrone in Davitt Park and then we played Derry in the semi-final and the headline was ‘Donkey vs thoroughbreds.’ The press wasn’t too kind to us, we were beaten but we weren’t beaten by that much.”

In 1974 Armagh played Leitrim, eventually, in a league game, once they had gathered up enough men to field a team. Before throw in, only 13 players had turned up to represent their county and that was a turning point for the Orchard.

“There was a whole disinterest in the county at the time, I think we’d lost two or three matches and the final straw against Leitrim, people just didn’t turn up. Tommy Lynch was county chairman at the time and all county board, the executive went to resign in protest.

“Tommy Lynch got them back again and called an extraordinary meeting of the clubs and said he would make sure that a team would represent Armagh. He got Peter Makem and he agreed to manage Armagh.

“He went round and spoke to everybody around the county and got their allegiance and then brought us to a meeting in McAvinchey’s in Armagh one night. They brought all the wives, partners, girlfriends, they were the two men who got Armagh off the ground.

“Lynch was a fantastic chairman. Lynch used to wire lights up in St Bridget’s so we would have lights to train under. That was the sort of Tommy, he didn’t just talk the talk, he did it.

“Makem then got Gerry O’Neill back to manage us, Gerry had managed us in ’70 and ’71 and then it of took off from there. We never lost a match in the Athletic Grounds for 11 or 12 years after that.”

By the end of 1974 an article penned by the Sunday Independent ranked Armagh as the 31st best county in Ireland, just ahead of Kilkenny who were bottom of the pile.

But things changed and changed quickly and by 1977, captained by Smyth, Armagh ended their 24-year wait for an Ulster title.

“We’d got hammered by Derry the previous two years and I mean hammered. But we won Division Three of the National League in ’76 and as far as I remember we lost a McKenna Cup final in ’76 to Monaghan.

“We played Cavan (in the Ulster Championship) and Colm McKinstry scored a very late goal and we beat Cavan and we were very confident of beating Monaghan. When we beat Monaghan we retained that confidence against Derry, we were convinced that we were going to beat Derry.

“It transpired that we didn’t destroy Derry that day because I saw a video of the match and Derry dominated for the first 10 or 15 minutes but couldn’t score but then we got scores and just gradually took over.

“That was the start of everything, it was actually very reminiscent of Derry there (this year in Ulster), the crowd rushing the field and that. Armagh supporters just went crackers that day.

“I must say the handing over of the trophy was rather anonymous because Con Short handed me the cup and I went up one way and the cup went the other way and I never saw it again for about 15 or 20 minutes.

“Then somebody got us together again, there’s this photograph of me and Con standing in the middle of Clones, and I think maybe a couple of people round us but that was the closest to a presentation in those days.

“In matter of fact, the funny thing was, when I was watching the video, he was sitting at the top goals during the match on a chair and the cup beside him.”

Not many people believed in Armagh, but Smyth and McKinstry did. They believed enough to have a bet on the Ulster Championship and by the end of the campaign, their flutter had proved successful.

“I think we put a £1 on (at 161) which was fair enough money in those days. I remember we’d beat Derry 3-10 to 1-5 and we went over a couple of days later to draw this money and the boy handed us over the money rather begrudgingly and said, “yous were lucky.”

Armagh eventually reached the All-Ireland final after defeating Roscommon in a replay. Smith, and Gerry O’Neill, was responsible for getting his side a second chance with three late scores tying the game, the last one which came from his telepathy with clubmate McKinstry.

“There was a kick-out from Des Sheerin (Roscommon goalkeeper) to the middle of the field and Colm, he just rose like a bird and caught it.

“As soon as he caught it, I started to run towards the goal and called him and he just hand passed over my shoulder. It bounced in front of me, and I bounced it and shot from 25 or 30 yards and over she sailed.

“But that was only half the story because they went down the field and they had a good move and I think it was one of the McManus’ came to shoot what would have been the winning point and Paddy Mo (Moriarty) came flying across and blocked him and put it out for a 50.

“Dermot Early went to take the 50 and this figure appeared running across the middle of the field offering him instructions, apparently it was Gerry O’Neill, our manager. What he said I don’t know but Dermot, he didn’t connect with the ball, and it sailed harmlessly wide.”

A point separated the sides the next day out and Armagh were set for another outing in Croke Park on the biggest day of all. “Armagh went nuts. We trained in the College fields, and it was packed every night, so we then moved to the Athletic Grounds to train because at least there was the fencing round it.

“The crowd that used to come along to the training, it was huge for the county because nothing like that had happened for 24 years, and it was a different generation, and they weren’t going to miss out on it.

“They gave us fantastic support, the colour in Croke Park that day was just unreal. Con Murphy was the President of the GAA and he said his memory of his presidency was the colour that Armagh brought to Croke Park. Plus, it was the first ever all ticket game.”

Dublin stood in their way of a historic first ever All-Ireland title, an experienced and streetwise Dublin. With the rain pelting down, Armagh naively headed out onto the hallowed turf for the warm-up. Dublin stayed inside, dry and fresh, and waited for the rain to cease before entering the field.

“It was lashing, and we went out and Dublin stayed in. We were soaked, the photograph of me and Hanahoe, Hanahoe’s looking very dapper and I’m standing with my hair soaking, but that’s what experience boils down to.”

That experience told as Kevin Heffernan’s Dubs ran into an early lead.

“We got off to an awful start, Keaveney admitted later on that he fluked an early goal, but we did come back. Paddy Mo got a goal from a penalty.

“We were behind at half time, but the second half was a completely different game. We came out and the first thing we did, Sean Devlin rattled the post and then Joe Kernan scored two goals. We missed another penalty, and we missed a couple of goal chances.

“I’m not saying we’d have won but we’d have certainly been a lot closer and All-Ireland’s have been won by teams that have scored 3-6, our problem was Dublin scored 5-12. That was a great Dublin team, plus they had the experience of being there in ’74.”

Armagh won Ulster again in 1980, beating Tyrone 4-10 to 4-7 in a game that saw all eight goals either punched or fisted to the net, but Roscommon had their revenge this time around in the last four.

“We were very unlucky that day because Colm McKinstry was playing absolutely fantastic football in midfield, he was completely dominating midfield and then his Achilles’ tendon went.

“He was taken off and Brian Hughes was absolutely destroying Pat Lindsay and we brought Brian Hughes out to midfield, and we should have left him in at full-forward and put Jim Loughran to midfield.

“What we did was we brought Brian Hughes to midfield and Jim Loughran to full-forward and Roscommon came back into the game and won it.”

Smyth decided to hang up the boots the following year after losing the McKenna Cup and Ulster finals to Antrim and Down.

But he was back in a different role in ’82, joining the management team as a forwards coach and helping Armagh claim another provincial crown.

He didn’t spend too long on the sideline and was soon transported to the commentary box, first calling a game back in 1983.

“I got this phone call one day and I thought it was somebody acting the maggot. It was to ask would I do some co-commentary and the first match I did was Donegal and Armagh in Irvinestown.

“Then I did the Ulster Championship and I ended up doing the All-Ireland semi-final between Dublin and Cork and it was a draw. I got a phone call asking would I like to go to Cork for the following weekend for the replay.

“They asked could I be at Aldergrove at nine o’clock and we flew down to Cork in a six-seater plane to do the All-Ireland semi-final. We sailed down to Cork and this big limousine met us and brought us to Pairc Ui Chaoimh and we did the match and went back in the limousine again and flew back to Belfast. It was something else.”

All those years after captaining Armagh to the All-Ireland final, Smyth was involved in a much different capacity when his beloved county finally got over the line in 2002. Way up in the heights of Croke Park, equipped with a microphone and headphones, Smyth covered the game for the BBC as Armagh overcame Kerry by one point.

“That was definitely the icing on the cake. We did the All-Ireland’s in ’91, ’92, ’93, and ’94 and after that but it’s different when your own county’s involved. It was actually easy; it was only at the very end that I sort of got slightly emotional.

“The atmosphere itself was just fantastic that day. We were still talking (on air) until Kieran (McGeeney) did the honours and I think I went down after that; it was just bedlam.”

Nowadays Smyth, who won two MacRory Cups and a Hogan Cup with St Colman’s Newry, is the chairman of the Ulster College’s and enjoying his time.

A life steeped in Gaelic Games, Smyth’s recognisable face and voice will continue to be the heartbeat of Armagh GAA and all across the province of Ulster for plenty of years to come.

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