Bellaghy were All-Ireland Club champions 50 years ago and it might never have been the case had Gerry Donnelly held his brother Hugh scoreless in a county semi-final. Michael McMullan takes up the story…
THERE was many a ball kicked in Joe and Josephine Donnelly’s home in Newbridge, a céilí house where the door is always open.
Game day brought one focus – football. Within minutes of a game, you’d need to be among the earliest to arrive to be guaranteed a seat.
The debate was box office. Through the plumes of smoke and neighbourly chatter, every game was stripped down to the bones. Nobody was ever allowed to get above their station where honesty was circulated in the rawest form.
Joe Donnelly moved to Belfast to work and wore the Saffron of Antrim in the 1940s and 1950s before returning to raise a family back across the Bann.
There were no silver spoons in the mouths, but the family were encouraged to read at every opportunity.
“The emphasis from our parents was education,” said Hugh.
“Gerry and myself, my father sent us to the Rainey. I would have to say those six years were the greatest six years of my life.”
He was part of the school’s historic first Ulster Schools’ Cup winning team of 1967.
“Six of us then represented Ulster Schools including my best friend, who still is to this day,” Hugh recalled of those early memories.
Gaelic football was always there too, as Gerry recalls.
“It started with Daddy. He would’ve been a regular attender at club games. When I was nine or ten I went along and Hugh did when it was his turn.
“We naturally gravitated to play football for Newbridge but I can’t remember there being much success.”
Hugh’s earliest memory brings him back to a day coming on as a sub at Magherafelt and driving the ball to the net with nothing on his feet but a pair of sandals. It progressed to scoring a goal for the seniors against a “star-studded” Bellaghy team while in his mid-teens.
“My earliest experience at underage was playing against Loup and I scored 1-4,” Gerry recounts.
By the age of 16, Gerry played on the same team as his 39-year-old father in a Junior Championship game, also against Loup.
The regret was the lack of photography back in the day, whereas now images are on Facebook before you return from a game.
Underage success wasn’t plentiful. With Newbridge being part of a parish, getting a crop of talented players at one time would always prove a challenge. The bigger clubs dominated.
“Teams like Bellaghy and Magherafelt. Ballinascreen were there too, they had Lenny Kelly and Benny Kelly…with the crew cut he was the hard man, he looked 30 when the rest of us looked 16,” Gerry said with a smile from behind his perfectly crafted latte.
Since the passing of Hugh’s wife Margaret, they’d meet with younger brother Vincent to shoot the breeze over a cuppa. Their late sister Myrette passed away in the heel of 2020. Family time has become even more precious. They lost their mother young, three days after Christmas, while in their teens.
Their other sister was next youngest, with the baby, Vincent aged only five.
The family then moved to a house in Moyola View, across the street from the Bartons and the Batesons. Football dominated every square inch.
“There weren’t the same number of competitions so you weren’t getting the flood of games young fellas are getting nowadays,” said Gerry, a former Derry PRO still rolling out witty yarns on the after dinner circuit.
“If you had a good Sunday, you played a club game during the day and you got a carnival match in the evening.”
Toome carnival was the Daddy of them all.
It engulfed the July holidays. The sun shining in the sky and Jim Reeves’ music belting out, football and swing boats would bring spectators in their droves, especially the football. Clubs treated it like an All-Ireland final with no reverse gear in sight.
“You’d be going around after the pipe band, it was very tinkling,” Hugh recalls. “There was the odd bit of ‘sorting out’ to be done, but they were great occasions.
“Everyone, black eyes or not, met together at the céilí afterwards, that’s the way it was and people went to their work the next day.”
Hugh’s first love was rugby and his heart also found a place for soccer, a taboo pastime forbidden by the GAA hierarchy.
Alongside fellow ‘Bridge man Lawrence Walls, he remembers being summoned to a club meeting after being reported playing in the Summer Cup at nearby Moyola Park.
“We got summoned to a meeting in the (Newbridge) hall the following week. We got banned for three months and not even allowed into the pitch,” Hugh recalls.
He counts himself lucky to have been part of successful teams and remembers arriving at school after back to back championship success (1966 and 1967) with Newbridge seniors.
“Adrian (McGuckin) said they didn’t even have as much as a miraculous medal in Ballinderry in those days,” Hugh uttered with a contented smile.
Looking back on the memories with a laugh and a smile is solace for the soul. There is a glint in the eye as he and Gerry delve into the days of old.
“I was playing midfield for Derry minors with Mick McGuckin in 1964 and we played Antrim at Casement Park before a Dr Lagan Cup final between Derry and Down…it was packed,” Gerry said of his county career.
“Hugh played (for the county minors) in 1966 and sure they won the All-Ireland in 1965, so it begs the question…where did it all go wrong?” Gerry said as he shook into
Hugh’s take was that St Columb’s Derry and pupils from the various private schools were further up the pecking order back in the day.
By 1968, Hugh had forced himself into a Derry u-21 team that would later conquer the All-Ireland
He bagged two goals in a preliminary round hammering of Donegal, but after starting in the quarter-final win over Tyrone, never saw a minute of action for the rest of the winning march.
“Hugh wouldn’t have been the most ardent of trainers,” Gerry admits. “He just thought you could turn up to play football…and he did that very well.”
But without total buy-in, he fell out of favour and had to settle for looking from the other side of the line as Derry went all the way to the title.
After surrendering their Derry title in 1969, Newbridge were back knocking on the door in 1970 and as the bus headed for the County Grounds in Magherafelt, manager Harry Gribbin began to list the team.
“I trained like Shergar all summer,” Gerry remembers, speaking with humour disguised behind the most serious of faces.
A Derry Grammar Schools’ triple and long jump champion, he loved opening up the legs and putting himself under the manager’s radar. He had a natural leap when a ball lingered in the air.
“I just loved training and I loved being picked,” Gerry said. If he was in the team, he was happy. If not, he’d row in behind the team.
As the Newbridge bus crept its way towards the 1970 final, Gerry takes up the story.
“I looked like a footballer,” he said. “The mullet, a glove tucked into the waistband, the collar up like Elvis and the socks up….”
As the corner-back and midfield slots passed without hearing his name, he’d have to be content with a place on the bench. Or would he?
“Harry read out names, names and more names…then I realised the only two people he hadn’t mentioned were me and the bus driver.”
“Harry, Harry….” Gerry called from the back of the bus. “Do you think I am going to a f**king fancy dress parade.
“Ah, Gerry you are sub too,” Gerry recalls with a hearty laugh.
His chances of action were slim, but he still joined Hugh in the championship winners’ club. After a win over Tempo, Newbridge went all the way to the Ulster final, but lost to Down kingpins Bryansford with both Donnelly brothers coming off the bench in a 0-8 to 0-3 defeat.
By that stage Hugh had fallen out of love with the game and after getting married, he relocated to his wife’s Margaret’s native Bellaghy.
“I was living down in Ballynease and I was at a loose end,” Hugh remembers. Football was far from deep in his thoughts.
“I went to the odd game, but I wasn’t overly excited about it. I would rather have had a game of darts.”
There was an initial approach if he was interested in throwing his lot in with Bellaghy. Would it go down too well? Perhaps not, but the more he thought, he decided a change was a good as a rest.
It wasn’t long until chairman Harry Cassidy was at the door. The paperwork was stamped and he was training as a Bellaghy player with the 1971 season coming into view.
“We’d be doing the sprints and I would’ve been over the wire five or six times getting rid of Sunday dinner,” Hugh laughed.
As the sessions passed, he began to whip himself into shape in time for his Tones’ debut against Moortown at Toome Carnival.
Harry and Jim Cassidy ferried him to the game via Gerry Hunter’s shop in Bellaghy to get kitted head to toe in club gear. Jersey, shorts, boots…the lot.
“I don’t remember much about the game, but I remember coming off the pitch and two mentors from Newbridge came over to ask who I was playing for that season,” Hugh said.
He had made his mind up to put his shoulder to the Bellaghy wheel. The fact he was able to displace a man of the stature of Sean Lee said enough about Hugh’s credentials.
But he was always going to come up against Newbridge. The clubs were top dogs and their paths would invariably cross in the semi-final.
Worse still, Hugh was going head to head with Gerry who was playing at corner-back as his direct opponent.
“I remember the Sunday Life at the time and their story of brother versus brother in an anticipated clash,” Hugh remembers of the build-up.
“It was played at Ballinascreen and Gerry was marking me, so there was a family handshake.”
Looking back, Gerry tries to put himself in the moment and how to approach putting the clampers on someone he played with and grew up with.
“I had to try and treat it as another game,” Gerry said. “I knew it was a tough task to mark him at any time and the one area I could match him was for pace because I was a good athlete.”
The pace from the triple jumping came to good use over the first 15 metres.
“That’s what you need to have if you were to stay with Hugh because he was all over the place, he just didn’t stand up in the corner,” said Gerry, who kept him scoreless for most of the game.
But an individual duel is always stacked in favour of the forward. They need one chance and a clinical moment to put their stamp on a game.
“It was one of the tightest games we had that year,” Hugh said. “I got the ball about 30 or 40 metres out and I let go.”
“I can still see it yet, it was flagged as a point,” he added of the winning score, one debated then…all the way to this very day. Was it a point?
“Look, I’ll take it to the grave,” Hugh said.
“The point was given and we won the match.”
In the midst of the post-game kerfuffle of celebration, Joe Donnelly weaved through the crowd to congratulate his son and urge the Bellaghy contingent to take good care of him.
Waiting in the final was a Lavey team that destroyed Bellaghy twice in the league, but as the sun shone and words of captain Laurence Diamond sank into the minds, there was an air of confidence.
“I knew in my heart of hearts…I always knew the team that beat us was going to win something,” Hugh said of the day he bagged 1-2 in a comfortable win.
Going off the field, Hugh felt the presence of Newbridge stalwart Hugh Francis Gribbin coming across to wish him luck with his “new team”.
“I thought that was sportsmanship personified,” Hugh said.
Donnelly bagged a goal in their win over Ardboe to get the Ulster Championship off to the perfect start.
By the time the final against Armagh giants Clan na nGael came along the snow was pelting down. It didn’t hinder Bellaghy who had the game won by half-time, but the All-Ireland semi-final against Portlaoise was a different story.
“They were a big side, big in every way,” Donnelly said of the Leinster champions.
A moment of telepathy with Frankie O’Loane set them on their way. His reverse pass was picked up by Donnelly and with the defence opening “like the Red Sea” he slotted home an early goal.
Portlaoise stormed back and a replay was on the cards, something Bellaghy didn’t fancy their chances in. Up stepped a talented young John McGoldrick to set up Donnelly for the insurance point.
“I can still see him yet,” Donnelly recalls. “He got the ball and as I moved out he gave me the ball and I could see the black spot (on the crossbar) and just steadied and flicked it over the top.”
Bellaghy were underdogs against a star-studded UCC team in the final. To the point reigning champions East Kerry didn’t even bother sending the trophy to Croke Park for the final.
“There might’ve been a thousand people at the match that day, but I would say nearly all of them were from Bellaghy,” said Donnelly of a game decided by Brendan Cassidy’s winning point.
Donnelly was “in awe” of running out on the sward of headquarters, but pouring out of the ‘Kerry dressing room’ in Croke offered a good omen.
In the last play of the game, he was clattered by the UCC ‘keeper who took ‘man, ball and all’ with him, leaving Donnelly on the ground from where he heard the final whistle.
“People were coming on and one of the first people I recognised was Patsy McLarnon,” Donnelly said of another Newbridge great.
“I thought about it after, that’s the sort of man he was…there to give you a bit of local support. I thought it was nice.”
Fifty years on and the Bellaghy squad were back at Croke Park earlier his year.
The Andy Merrigan Cup was left for them on the way south and Laurence Diamond eventually got to make his speech from the Hogan Stand.
“We stopped at the Carrickdale on the way home and signed a pile of balls and jerseys…they are all just great memories,” Hugh said of their anniversary celebrations.
“When we got back to Bellaghy, there was a guard of honour with all the underage players kitted out in their club colours.”
The vacuum in the conversation didn’t last any longer than a handful of seconds when Gerry piped up.
“Sure, it could all have been so different if I had held you scoreless for the whole game,” he said with the same warm tone that enveloped close to two hours of a Friday afternoon chatter.
Hugh hung up the boots shortly after, joking that he’d retired at 24 before the odd appearance in the following years.
The thrill of winning wasn’t resonating anymore and he drifted away as quickly as he arrived.
Fifty years on, the Donnelly brothers are still surrounded by football chat and laughter and memories that never fade.