Overlooked for Derry until his final year of u-21, Tony Scullion went on to play for his county, province and country. Here he tells Niall McCoy his story…
Niall McCoy: For those who may not be aware, what is Tony Scullion at these days?
Tony Scullion: I’m still working for the Ulster GAA and I love that. I’ve been with the Ulster GAA, I suppose it’s over 15 years now. I’m really enjoying it, I work with good people and that takes up a lot of my time.
NMC: I’m sure Ulster GAA has changed a lot in that time?
TS: Absolutely. When I started off there was Danny Murphy, God rest him, and Eugene Young, who was appointed head of coaching games. Myself and Terence McWilliams started around the same time. He came in as games manager and I came in as football development officer. It’s unbelievable the staff that has come in since then. Every county now has staff and they go around every day coaching.
NMC: Take me back to growing up in Ballinascreen, how was it?
TS: Life was simple. It was simple back in those days. We were brought up on a small farm and there were three boys and I was the youngest. There was no car about the house and in fact in the early days there was no electricity in the house either. I can remember us going to the well for the running water but they were still great, great times. You’d come back home from school and you’d be out running about on the farm because you had to work back in those days too, you’d put your shoulder to the wheel. That was good for us in a lot of ways, you loved it and you didn’t know any different. You were enjoying running about the field and working when you had to. We had no transport, the best means of transport we had was a Vectra tractor that my father, God rest him, had for the vegetables. Ballinascreen pitch was four miles away so at that time you never thought that connection would happen but we were lucky that there was a man a few field lengths away who was taking the Ballinascreen u14s and that’s how the football all started.
NMC: So you didn’t play until u-14 level?
TS: I played at primary school of course but it was u-14 before I started with the club because there was no u-12s or u-10s then. Seamus Groogan, who was a great, great GAA man, just happened to be the u14 manager that I mentioned and he came looking for my older brother John. I was only 11 at the time and John was a year older. Back then Seamus would have taken the players all in the car, fellas hanging out of windows and whatever. He was so good to me and was like a father figure to us all. I talked to Seamus that much that I wanted to go too and he told me to jump in. I finished up playing in that team even though I was only 11. That was the start of it.
NMC: Is right that you were considered to be quite a small player?
TS: I was very, very small. I didn’t grow really until I was maybe 19, 20. I grew a bit after so it did no harm.
NMC: Size seemed to be a bigger issue back then, do you think that was maybe why you never got the call for the Derry minors?
TS: Possibly. The man over the team was a local man, Matt Trolan. He would have played for Derry way back in the ‘70s and was over the minors for two or three years. We would have laughed at this and Matt possibly would have said yes that the size counted against me. I can remember playing a county semi-final against Magherafelt out in Lavey. Matt was watching the game standing up on the hill and I was thinking ‘Tony if I play well today he might call you in.’ I would have loved to have got the call but the call never came. Looking back on it now it could have been the best thing that ever happened me. Sometimes in those early days you didn’t have the belief that you were good enough but it made me stronger. I knew that I wasn’t far away and it just made me more determined. For me it was a case of wanting to work even harder to break down that door and eventually it did happen.
NMC: With the u-21s?
TS: I didn’t play for Derry until my last year of u-21 level. I came in in ‘83 under Sean O’Kane and we got to the AllIreland final that year. Sean was assisted by Mickey Moran as coach and I got the call. I might even have played a challenge match for Derry seniors before I made my u-21 debut. Mickey Moran was over the seniors and they were playing Antrim. Brendan Kelly was a very good nippy corner-forward with a great left foot. Derry were short a player or two and Mickey asked Brendan did he know anybody who could fill a spot in defence and Brendan mentioned my name. He told him there was a young boy Scullion going rightly for the club and he’d bring him along. I played then before the Ulster U-21 Championship first round against Armagh in Bellaghy. I was looking back at the minor team from three years before, who had gotten to the All-Ireland final, they were all there. I came into the changing room and didn’t think I would be in the first 15 but Sean O’Kane named the team and he named me corner-back. It was like giving me a million pounds and that was my first competitive game for Derry. From there we got to the AllIreland final and then Mickey took me straight into the senior team.
NMC: You met Mayo in that u-21 final but it didn’t work out.
TS: They beat us after a replay. I’ve been sent off twice in my life and one was in the drawn game for two personal fouls. I stopped a player, I think his name was Joe Lindsay. He was coming through and I had to stop him because there was a two to one or three to one situation developing. It was my second foul, it maybe was a wee bit high, but I thought it was harsh enough. I was fit to play in the replay, there was no suspension. Damian Barton got a marvelous goal to get us the draw, I can remember watching from the sideline, with the last kick of the game. They beat us in the replay though and it hurt but you had to look forward instead of being too negative with yourself.
NMC: When was the other time you were sent off?
TS: I think it may have been a National League semifinal or a Centenary Cup match with Monaghan, it was at Croke Park anyway. I was marking Nudie Hughes but Ray McCarron was playing half-forward and what a good footballer he was. It was a two on one situation and he tried to sell me a dummy to almost entice me out so he could get the ball to Nudie. I sat off him until the very last second in order to give up the point but save the goal. He still tried to sell me the dummy and I put out my leg and he fell over and I got the marching orders. That was a long walk in Croke Park and Monaghan beat us that day. Those were the only two times I was sent off, I was never sent off for my club in my life.
NMC: You were known as a hardy player but a fair one too.
TS: I’d like to think that nobody could ever accuse me and say that I didn’t play the game hard and fair. I would never coach it (unfair play), I wouldn’t expect any player playing under to me to do that. You play hard, you play tough and you go for every ball as if your life depended on it. Any nonsense outside the rules is simply not on. Some of the nonsense that I hear goes on today, if it’s true then it’s a disgrace. Gaelic football is a wonderful spectacle right now no matter what anyone says but when you hear some of the stuff goes on, what they’re saying when they’re marking people, it’s disgusting. They talk about cleaning up the game in the tackle but we need to clean it up by keeping an ear out. Umpires and referees, if they hear verbals then use your red cards and get rid of those boys. They don’t deserve to wear a GAA jersey or be on a GAA pitch.
NMC: The late ‘80s was when you started to really make your name. In 1987 you starred in the Ulster final win over Armagh and you also played for Ireland in the International Rules against Australia. That must have been a whirlwind time?
TS: We got to the Ulster final in ’85 and it was big for Derry but we lost to a very experienced Monaghan team. They were brilliant and beat us well, it was boys against men that day. That Monaghan team could have pushed for an All-Ireland and I’m sure they’d say the same themselves. I can remember going into that final and the county board got us these clothes to wear for the occasion. They were grey trousers, a white shirt, a red jumper and maybe a red tie. It was not often I was dressed like that back in those times. We were all marched in to watch the minor match in our suits and it turns out Monaghan had seats close by us. We were sitting in these suits and they sat down in their own clothes, jeans here, runners or whatever. I looked over and thought ‘that’s what I want to wear’ because we looked so silly and the suits did us no good because they gave us a lesson. In ’87 we beat Armagh but again we just got over the line. They got a man sent off and we were just able to hold on.
NMC: That was not only Derry’s first Ulster in a while but obviously your first winning medal too, how did that feel?
TS: It was an amazing feeling for me, I never thought I’d see the day I would be on a Derry team winning an Ulster title. It was great for the team, it was great for the community and the people enjoyed it. It was so great to be a part of that.
NMC: It of course coincided with your time playing with the hurlers, was that tough?
TS: There was no issue, I played hurling and I played football and I loved playing both. One week you’d be playing a National League game in football and the next week a National League game in the hurling. You were young, you were fit and you would have played every night if the week if you could. I played for maybe six or seven years and there was maybe six or seven of us playing both. In the early ‘90s, and no manager pushed us on this, we just took the decision to focus on one code because it was getting harder and harder to keep it going. There would have been the two Downeys, Seamus and Henry, the two McGurks, Johnny and Collie, you had big Brian McGilligan, Kieran McKeever and myself.
NMC: Looking back and where you ended up in 1993, you must be happy with that decision?
TS: Absolutely. There’s no point saying any different. I can remember playing with the hurlers in Division Two and playing Cork in Lavey. We played at a high level and sometimes I think there were maybe more inroads being made in the hurling. Possibly we should have won an All-Ireland B title and if the seven of us had stayed we would have won an Ulster title, no doubt. It was the right decision though. It was ’90 and ’91 when we quit the county hurling and we went onto win the All-Ireland a couple of years ago and let’s be realistic, we were never going to win the Liam MacCarthy. Football was the best chance of success for us and that proved the case.
NMC: The Eamonn Coleman book has probably brought that 1993 win back into the spotlight over the last few months. You talk about that Monaghan team regretting not getting an All-Ireland, but what changed that year for Derry that made the difference?
TS: Eamonn came in in 1990 or 1991. In ’91 Down beat us after a replay and they got a very, very, very, very late free to draw the first game when Ross Carr put it over from maybe 55, 60 yards. I mean that, it was no ‘45’. Down deserved to beat us in the replay and fair play they went all the way. In ’92 we won a National League and you can see what it meant to Mayo recently. It was massive for us; it was the county’s first national title in God knows how long. We were caught in the Ulster final that year by Donegal and they went on and won the All-Ireland too, so we knew that we were knocking on the door. Thankfully everything came together in 1993 and that’s all you need.
NMC: The Ulster quarter-final and semi-final produced two great performances, you got through the final against Donegal and then beat Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final. In Eamonn’s book I think he talks about the confidence going into the Cork game, did you feel that way?
TS: Eamonn was a great, great man, a phenomenal man. He was able to get the best of every player and yes we beat Dublin, but we had no God damn right to win a final. Looking back on it now the biggest problem was the county itself. People thought we had the Sam Maguire before we actually played the game. Everybody you met was saying ‘ah, you’ll beat Cork no problem.’ I remember buying a GAA magazine and there was a preview of the final and it talked about the clubs. It said that they had maybe over 100 clubs and I was thinking this is a monster we are going to play. They had beaten Mayo out of Croke Park in the semi-final by 19 or 20 points and then people were telling us it was only a matter of togging out? We were five points down and we did well to dig it out.
NMC: What is your one abiding memory from the final?
TS: Probably just the final whistle because that was just pure relief. You don’t think of things at the time but watching it back I really felt for Tony Davis. Tony Davis is a gentleman and he didn’t deserve to be sent off. Niall (Cahalane) was the man who clipped Enda (Gormley). Tony didn’t deserve it and it’s not nice to be sent off in an All-Ireland final.
NMC: Eamonn’s time with that team finished in controversial fashion the following year, what was your take on it?
TS: I really didn’t get embroiled in it because things were happening and all I wanted to do was play football. It was a big blow to the bond developed by that team though. The rumblings of that went on for months and months and that was annoying when all you wanted to do was play for Derry. It’s a pity that it happened.
NMC: People do forget that you did come back and won two league titles. You were captain in 1995 against Donegal.
TS: It was fabulous for me to go up and lift the National League on behalf of your county. That particular day I took a knock when two Derry men and a Donegal man went for the same ball. I took a bad knock to the head and I didn’t know until after but Damien McCusker was laughing because I was asking him funny questions. The doctor, Ben Glancy, sorted me out at half-time and I played on. I had written out a few words in Irish because my Irish wasn’t great. I thought I had put it into the sole of my boot or my sock, but with that knock I was so confused and I went to my sock and I went to my boot and I couldn’t find it anywhere. A boy was pulling me by the arm to go up and do the speech, but I couldn’t get it and I had to go without my few wee words. When I was going up the steps I saw the face of Jim McGuigan, God rest him, the county treasurer and it hit me – I gave it to Jim. He was holding it out for me and I got through it. It was great to captain your county and lift a title. I also had the honour in 1990 and ’91 to lift the Railway Cup for Ulster, also at Croke Park.
NMC: You quit in 1996, was there any big dramatic exit?
TS: It was a bit dramatic. Tyrone beat us easily in ’96 and I had never taken a break from the game in my life. Some of the older boys, Damian Barton, Brian McGilligan, all talked about taking a break and Brian Mullins was happy enough with that. I said to myself ‘maybe I should too’ and I took my break. Then when Brian came calling in January, a lot of boys had called it a day but I was for going back no problem. One evening I came home from work, had the bag packed and was ready to go, was walking out the door and for some reason I turned and went back to the landline. I phoned Brian Mullins’s house to Donegal and the wife answered and she said ‘hold on, he’s just going out the door’. He came back and it’s funny if he was gone I probably would have went on to Owenbeg. I said ‘Brian, I’m leaving it at that.’
NMC: You mentioned Ulster but you also played a couple of games for Ireland against Australia, how did you enjoy those experience?
TS: I loved it. Playing for your country? Standing for Amhrán na bhFiann? How could you not be proud? You’re a proud Irishman, of course you are. I loved every minute of it. I have been involved since managing the Ireland u-17 team and I was involved with Ireland with Paul Earley and it was an incredible experience.
NMC: I sense you felt the same way about the Railway Cup.
TS: I’m not happy with what has happened the Railway Cup and the fact that it’s being swept under the carpet. Every day I went to play or train for Ulster I felt great. To play with the best players in the other eight counties in your province and then to play against the best players in the other provinces was just wonderful. What an honour and I was lucky enough to win six in a row and captain Ulster. Those medals mean so much to me and it’s just a pity to where it is now.
NMC: One last question, do you harbor ambitions of managing Derry?
TS: I wouldn’t rule it out because I have been involved with different club teams down through the years and I have gotten some kick out of it. I haven’t done a wild pile this last while but managing is something that’s close to my heart. I love working with lads and seeing them give everything for the team. You never know what can happen in the future if the man above keeps me alive.