By Ronan Scott
“IT didn’t matter what your school was called or if you had a history, if you had a good enough team then you could challenge those schools.”
That’s what Marty Clarke said of the St Louis teams of 2004 to 2006.
In those years, St Louis’ senior team only lost two games, two MacRory Cup finals. They took on the best and won, and only for two close finals they would have been champions.
Three players and two teachers told their story to Gaelic Life.
They explained how St Louis were able to surprise everyone in that period.
James Colgan was a lower sixth pupil in 2014 when the school won the All-Ireland title. He had been there since a first year and understood how important it was to the school.
“St Louis was a great place to be. It was a warm environment. The boys on the panel gave everything to the thing,” he said.
They had to. St Louis is a small school that was originally only for girls but brought boys in during the ’90s.
Marty Clarke said: “Our biggest strength was our biggest weakness, in that we were such a small school. We had a small pick. We got that really quality group together we all knew each other. You couldn’t go down the corridor without bumping into one of the boys.
“It was such a tight-knit community that we had. That carried us through some of the tight games against the bigger schools. Being together all day created such a strong bond.”
James Colgan said that they would do everything together. Outside of football they would socialise together, go to the cinema or play golf. The bond was very strong with this group.
Joe Ireland suggests that the connection had actually started before secondary school.
“A lot of us had played against each other in primary school. We already knew of each other in the GAA circles.”
Cathal Murray, Down’s All-Ireland winning forward, had joined the school as a teacher in the 1990s. After spending a good decade at the school, what he noticed in the lead up to the 2004 season was that a lot of work had gone on at club level.
“A lot of the success must go to the Mourne clubs, as well as Bryansford and Rostrevor. We really couldn’t have done it without the clubs.
“They did gain a lot of confidence from playing against boys at other schools and they weren’t any better footballers. They got confidence from playing at club level.”
James Colgan felt that football was put on a pedestal at school.
“People were given credit and rewarded for the time they put in outside of school hours and the work they put in.”
Joe Ireland felt that credit had to go to another aspect of the school that perhaps people might not realise had any importance.
“That was the canteen ladies. They knew how to put on a feed. Us Mourne men knew how to lap it up. Starter, main course and dessert. They were tortured by us.”
They weren’t a group of angels by any means. Cathal Murray said that the boys had some challenging behaviour that needed to be guided.
James Colgan said: “They put in so much work, and they basically made sure that we didn’t get expelled.”
Joe Ireland himself admitted that he was a bit of a tear-away.
“We weren’t the easiest group to work with. I have a note here in my school diary from those days. It says ‘caught sliding down the staircase with tie around head’. There’s another that says ‘kicking water over another pupil who was lying on the ground’, signed Cathal Murray.
“He had a direct line to my mother to stay in line. Any time I stepped out of line, a phone call would go to my mum and the football boots would be locked up and I would have to get the books out and do some study.
“The teachers made sure that we were doing well in our academic work, as well as our football. We learnt about discipline and had work. I am so grateful to him and everyone in the school who took the time to teach us.”
Ireland and Colgan had been at the school for five years and they had been competitive right through the ranks. But the year that the school caught wider attention was in 2004 when they won the Ulster and All-Ireland B titles.
Marty Clarke was a fourth year that season.
“It was a really good team, it was the strongest squad we had in those three years. MacLarnon was the one we always wanted. We had a lot of close contests that we edged.”
Having Marty Clarke though was crucially important.
Many of the guys interviewed said that the key to all their success was Clarke.
He was a county minor in 2004, so he had a certain reputation in Down.
Cathal Murray explains that he first heard about him from Clarke’s older brother John who had been at the school a few years beforehand.
“John told me ‘our fella is some footballer’. And so he was. An amazing leader. He had scored 1-15 in a junior final. He played centre half-forward as a fourth year (in 2004).
“He was playing against boys who were three or four years older than him. But he wasn’t out of his depth. He had such vision. His ability to go past men, to score, to create. He had two good feet, though he really only used the left as that was all he needed.”
James Colgan agreed with this. “Marty was one of the most talented players of our generation, and one of the most talked about outside of Down. Any player who played with him said how special it was to play with him. He made players look better. People would receive passes when they weren’t expecting them.”
Cathal Murray said that Marty Clarke was pivotal in 2004, but unfortunately Joe Ireland missed that campaign. He injured cartilage in his knee playing club football, and that ruled him out of that season. Yet the team was still strong.
They met St Columb’s Derry in the final, and edged the victory.
Marty Clarke said: “It took a Glen Burden goal at the end to win that game. We probably didn’t deserve to win that game. St Columb’s were arguably the better team. It was those fine margins. It was a real relief to get that win.”
James Colgan actually remembers Richie Annett’s goal in that game.
“I had the perfect view of it. He took the ball and was on the turn before he got it. He put about 20 of the opposition the wrong way. There were people in the crowd falling over. And he just laced it straight to the roof of the net. The Mourne crowd in Casement Park went mad.”
They then moved into the All-Ireland series and for Marty Clarke, that was a breath of fresh air.
“Things open up when you get out of Ulster. A lot of teams say that. The shackles came off and we played some really good football.”
They reached the All-Ireland final but disaster struck in the final when Glen Burden got sent off.
Cathal Murray said: “We had to play the last 15 minutes without Glen. Aidan Flanagan stepped up in that final against Portlaoise. I think he scored 0-6.
“They couldn’t match what we had on that day.”
James Colgan said: “We had Cool Hand Luke Howard at the back, captain Flanagan (Aidan) at the middle, and a sprightly Luke Toner up front.”
Marty Clarke admitted that they had to hang on at the end.
“But I never thought we were going to lose that game. It was a massive day for the school.”
The school then had to make the decision about what to do the next year, whether or not to make the step up to MacRory Cup football.
Marty Clarke said: “We had a really strong group of players. Cathal Murray was bullish, and ambitious. We felt that we were good enough and we had a strong group to challenge.”
The school had played Colleges A level in the Brock Cup. They had only narrowly lost to St Colman’s in the final.
Murray definitely felt that they were good enough.
For Joe Ireland, who had missed the MacLarnon and All-Ireland B runs, the decision was an easy one. So much so that he thinks he had dreamt about moving up.
“I am not sure if this actually happened, but I had a dream that Cathal Murray pulled me over at assembly and asked me if we should move up, I said that ‘we should go for it, I am ready for it.’”
James Colgan agreed. “There was only one way to go and that was up.”
Early in the competition it was clear that they had made the right decision.
The league campaign showed that they were talented and able to compete.
Cathal Murray said: “They were showing game by game that they were confident and capable. They were getting stronger in every match.”
James Colgan remembers a league game and Marty Clarke’s goal.
“It made national news and they were comparing it to Diego Maradona’s goal against England. Marty got Player of the Month in Ulster. For someone so young to do that it was unheard of.
“He had that Midas touch to get us through any tight scenario.”
When they started to win the school got excited.
James Colgan said: “The Mournes came alive. Sheep were getting painted. There was craic and chat about the school everywhere. We were being told that we were capable. That was key.”
They met St Patrick’s, Armagh in the semi-final in Carrickcruppen.
Cathal Murray said: “There was a battle in the middle of the field. James (Colgan) and Joe (Ireland) against Charlie Vernon and Colm Cavanagh, we know what those boys went on to. That was a tough performance.”
Joe Ireland remembers how Charlie Vernon was getting the better of him in that game.
“Mr Murray was screaming at me to let James mark him. But I was stubborn and I wasn’t going to move off him. I started to get the better of him. I was able to stand up and meet his expectations.”
They won that game and that qualified them for the final against Omagh CBS.
Marty Clarke highlighted how important it was: “It was such a massive thing for the school. We had some massive players like Joe Ireland and James Colgan. Eamon McConville, Luke Howard, Peter Fitzpatrick, guys that would go on to have great careers.”
Joe Ireland remembers how he was described by commentator Mark Sidebottom in the game.
“He said that if I was a horse in Cheltenham he would put his house on me.”
They may not have won the game, but they had made their point, here was a small school able to mix it with the best.
The players felt that they could stay on and play for another campaign at MacRory. But Cathal Murray would not be with them. An opportunity to work at his Alma mater St Colman’s, Newry came up and he couldn’t turn it down.
“My playing career was built around the start that I got in the College (St Colman’s). I was always going to go back there. I gave 13 years to St Louis and I left them very proud. I felt that I had taken them as far as I could.”
Niall McAleenan came in in 2005, he took over this talented group and he was impressed by their attitude early on.
“They had lost the final a year before to Omagh after a replay. I was speaking to Marty Clarke a week into term. He said ‘I feel that we can win the MacRory this year. We lost some key players but the personnel is still there.’
“From the first session it was player led. Myself and Steven (McVeigh) had an input but the boys wanted to push themselves.”
The semi-final draw came up and they were pitted against St Colman’s, and against their old teacher Cathal Murray.
That perhaps gave Murray an advantage, but it was an emotional game for him.
“It was hard going up against a school that I had given so much to.”
The game was a massive event, as two schools from neighbouring areas went head-to-head.
Niall McAleenan said: “We didn’t play well in the first game but we managed to get a draw.”
St Louis were in bother though as Martin Clarke had picked up a flu’ before the game.
“Martin being Martin dusted himself down and led the team,” McAleenan said.
And they pulled off a victory in the replay.
Cathal Murray said: “They were two tremendous games. There were thousands at both games. They were wonderful spectacles. That set them up for the final.”
They played the Abbey in the final. In a dramatic match, which was a great display of football, St Louis almost won.
But in a cruel twist of fate at the end they went for a block and the ball spun loose and was fired to the net to give Abbey the win.
Marty Clarke said: “It was a heartbreaker. We deserved to win that final. That moment when the block led to the goal was hard to take.”
Joe Ireland had moved on that year but he watched the final and felt the hurt with the team.
“My heart was broke for Marty Clarke, and Peter Fitzpatrick and Luke Toner, the boys who had went the hard road.”
Yet for Niall McAleenan, an important lesson was learned that day.
“Losing two MacRory Cup finals was massive blow, I feel from losing those two finals. It taught the boys that they have got to be resilient. They have got to bounce back.
“Sport can help them deal with setbacks.”
Cathal Murray said some players went on to win the 2005 All-Ireland Minor title with Colgan as captain. There were others who played for Down in the All-Ireland 2010 final.
Murray said: “I like to think what we did at St Louis was to mould them into honest young men as well as cracking footballers.”
Joe Ireland said: “Sometimes in life winning isn’t everything though maybe we thought it was at the time. I believe we won over the hearts and minds of the community, and we created some great memories.”
This story originally appeared as an episode of Take Your Points – Click here to watch it now