Paul McKillen on Saffrons’ past, present and future

By Ronan Scott

FORMER Antrim hurling midfielder, and All-Star winner, Paul McKillen believes that the current Saffron team has the potential to be very successful.

The Ballycastle man says that, primarily, they are young and talented. What they need to do to reach their potential is simple.

If that Antrim team can stay together it will be good,” he said.

That current set up seems to be a nice settled bunch. Take (Neil) McManus out of that, the rest of them are all 27 or younger.

But it needs to be a settled group.”

Sticking together, according to McKillen, is the key attribute for successful teams.

He should know. McKillen’s been part of some very strong teams in his career, and he knows that the successful sides he has been part of have tended to have a strong committed group who battled together.

Take the 1989 team, the famous side that reached the county’s second ever All-Ireland final.

That group didn’t really change,” McKillen said. “That Antrim team that I was on, we stuck together like glue to a blanket. We would have fought tooth and nail for each other.

When we played against each other for the club, we hit each other hard. But when we went to the county, we were thick. We stuck together and we fought for each other.

The management gelled that together.”

However, the story of McKillen’s journey to that point is one of a man learning what it means to be part of team, and how a good team works.

McKillen was super talented from an early age, but he was also a keen athlete.

As a teenager he played for as many teams as he could.

When I was 15 or 16 I was playing u-16, minor and u-21 and playing minor with the county. I was also playing for Ballymena United (soccer).

I played with the reserves (Ballymena United) on Saturday morning. I came home then I went down and was a sub for Ballycastle United in the afternoon.

Then on Sunday I would have turned out for the reserve hurlers, and then sub for the senior hurlers.”

The heavy schedule highlighted McKillen’s love of competition. But it also indicated that here was a boy who was as good as the men.

Yet he needed to focus, and it was his father who gave him that focus.

When I got on for the seniors my da said to me that ‘you can’t keep that up, you are going to have to make a decision. Hurling or football.’ So I packed in the football. I played locally in the winter-time, but I packed in Ballymena United.

When you are playing club senior hurling and county senior hurling you have no time for anything else.”

McKillen praises his father for the guidance that he gave him.

Dad was a great supporter of mine. He did everything for me. Anything he could do he did.

The old boy was a Loughgiel man. I always said he was never Loughgiel, that he was McCrackens.”

Dermot Donnelly was the man who gave McKillen his first start with the Ballycastle senior hurlers.

McKillen said that was a big surprise for him, to be called up to the senior hurlers.

My first Senior Club Championship was in 1983.

I was shocked to be called onto the senior team in 1983 by Dermot Donnelly when I was 16.”

Ballycastle were in a lull in the early ’80s. They had won three titles on the trot, in 1978, ’79 and ’80. But lost the ’81 and ’82 finals to Cushendall and Loughgiel.

McKillen joined the team at the right time.

I played with a great Ballycastle team. I played with some of the best hurlers Antrim ever produced. I played with Peter Boyle, Eddie Donnelly, Brian Donnelly, Olcan Laverty, I could name a whole county team. Paul Jennings as well.

I was young on that team. They had won 1978 to ’80. They lost to Cushendall, and I came on after that. Then we won in 1983, ’84 and ’86. I had three championship medals before I was 20 and Ballycastle hasn’t won one since.”

The secret to their success was that they had plenty of resources in those days.

We had big families. There were four Donnelly brothers in one family and another two Donnelly brothers from another. Then there were three Boyles. They were all big strong, strapping men. Olcan Laverty, Phelim Watson, Terence Barton, Paul Smith in goals.

You were playing with the top men in Ulster.

In 1986 there were seven Ballycastle men who represented Antrim against Cork.”

McKillen was actually fortunate to get his place though.

I was one of the lucky ones. Terence Barton left to go to London and I slotted into his place. If Barton was ever home, for the Lammas fair or whatever, there would be ones who would say ‘Barton was better than you’ and ‘you took Barton’s place.’ I would say ‘I filled it brave and well.’

I remember being the pub one night. We had a few jars in us. There was a boy from the next street over from me, Glentavey. There was a bit of slabbering going on. He was saying: ‘Barton’s a better hurler than you. There’s no hurling in you’.

So I said: ‘You know what? There’s no All-Stars in Glentavey’. That soon shut him up. It was good craic. All banter.”

Banter you see, is very important for McKillen. Whether that be with those who want to take the mickey about his performances, or winding up ones from Loughgiel. He sees that part of the game as crucial.

Hurling is all about enjoyment and you should be thankful that you can do it. That’s what I always tell players. Winning is not everything. There is many a person out there would love to play it but can’t.

You have to enjoy it whether you win or don’t win.”

What McKillen enjoyed was the battle to be the best. He relished trying to win his place on the Ballycastle team that was run by Dermot Donnelly.

It was hell for leather in training. Ballycastle’s reserve team was pushing to get on the senior team. Every one of them.

I remember Dermy picking a reserve team against a senior team, and I remember there was blood coming off that pitch. There were no helmets.”

McKillen took to that competitive environment effortlessly. He did not appear to be a boy among men.

That raw talent caught the attention of the county manager Sean McGuinness in 1983.

Sean McGuinness asked me on to the county panel in 1984. That was a shock. I wasn’t expecting it.”

Seemingly, McGuinness wasn’t expecting it either, according to the story he often tells about McKillen.

McKillen said: “We were playing Cushendall, in Cushendall and Dermy (Donnelly) selected me on the team.

Sean McGuinness heard about me and he was down watching the match. He was standing beside this old fella. So he says to the fella ‘I’m Sean McGuinness. I’m down here to see Paul McKillen, apparently he’s a decent wee player’.”

Little did McGuinness know was that he was actually standing next to McKillen’s father.

McKillen said: “My da turned round and says to him. ‘That’s my son. He’s number nine there’.

Sean always tells this story. He says that he couldn’t but pick me because he was standing next to my da.”

Again, another bit of banter, emphasising that for McKillen, the game was as much about having the craic with his team and management as it was playing.

He joined an Antrim team that had won the All-Ireland B title a few years previous and who were moving up to A level.

He remembers playing alongside Dunloy’s Tony McGrath in his first year.

He was one of the most skillful players I played with. I was sorry he packed it in. We were partners in 1985 then he disappeared. He just didn’t come back to the county.

He had great intelligence. He could pick out a pass. He had a sidestep that nobody could read. And he had a false hand-pass and then he could turn you. I didn’t enjoy playing against him.

I am sure in my playing days I had 10-12 different partners at the middle of the field. If he had have stayed on me and him would have been the partnership for 10-12 years.”

McKillen explained that for a partnership to work two players have to have a good understanding of each other. Perhaps that comes from sticking together.

You need to understand each other. Things like if one goes forward the other, the other stays back. You are supporting each other but also supporting the backs, and the forwards.

You have to know each other inside out. Me and Paul Jennings would have had a great partnership for the club team.

Paul was more of a defending midfielder, and I was more of an attacking midfielder. But I knew if he was going forward I would stay back.”

The McGrath incident is a lesson in sticking together. McKillen learned that if the best players stay together then they could achieve something.

Yet McKillen didn’t heed all the lessons as in the early days he wasn’t entirely committed to Antrim. In 1986 he headed off to England for work.

It took a call from Sean McGuinness to lure him back.

I only went over for a short time. I came back in June. It was only three or four weeks before the All-Ireland semi-final.

I came back and Sean McGuinness rang me. He said: ‘Are you willing to come back onto the panel?’

To be honest with you, I had been in London for three months and I had put on a stone of weight.

I had been on the panel in 1985 when I was 19. So he asked me if I wanted to join the panel and I said, ‘of course I would’. So I joined the panel.”

It was a big year for the Antrim hurlers as they would qualify for the All-Ireland series where they would take on Cork.

I remember being in the All-Ireland semi-final against Cork. I started middle of the field and ended up scoring 1-4 and getting Man of the Match. So all that pre-season talk means nothing to me!

That was the 7-11 to 1-24 day. We should have bloody had them that day. It was a great game of hurling.

That 1986 semi-final was one of my greatest moments because we were playing in Croke Park and that was my first time in Croke Park. Getting Man of the Match was a big moment.”

The importance of managers is clear to McKillen. Were it not for the call from McGuinness, McKillen would not have been on that team. They are the figure heads of the team who can get the best out of the players, as Sean McGuinness and Dermy Donnelly did for him.

Sean was the manager in 1986. He would have got the best out of you. He would have always told you that you were as good as them. He would have told you never to go out onto the field thinking anyone was better than you. He said that you have to respect your opponents, but that when you go out onto the field, you are the best. He got that into your head.

He would roar and shout in the changing rooms. And say a lot of things that he maybe shouldn’t have said. But he got the best out of you.

He got you up for it and you would go out with the hair standing up on the back of your neck. Dermot Donnelly would have been the same style as Sean.

I’ve seen Dermy catching boys by the neck, and them boys going out the door wanting to kill him, but the same boys hurled their hearts against the other team.”

Jim Nelson would take over the Antrim team in 1987, and that presented a new style for the young McKillen.

Jim was a bit ahead of his time. He was a great manager. He was a different manager than Sean or Dermot. Jim was a technician. He thought a lot about the game.

I always thought that in my days, if Sean McGuinness and Jim Nelson could have worked together, that would have been a great, great management team. Jim was a great technician, and Sean’s aggression and ability to get the best out of players. They would have been really good for Antrim hurling.”

Though no matter who was managing, McKillen was still going to play and give his all.

He didn’t know that the Antrim team were at the beginning of a great run.

I never imagined that team would be successful.

“’86 was the start of that good team through to 1991. We all stuck together through that. All them boys are my best mates. We had a super team.”

Sticking together, as he said, was so important.

However, perhaps not enough is made of their Ulster opponents Down who put it up to Antrim in the late ’80s.

Down came into a bit in the late ’80s. They pipped us in 1992. They played Cork. That was the time Gerard McGrattan got his Allstar.

All the games against Down were tough. It was hard to get out of Ulster. I played with all them Down boys at Ulster and they were damn good hurlers.

Me and Danny (Hughes) always had a good battle. We had some tussles together many a year.

I know it was always good tussles.”

Yet it was the 1989 season that will always be the focus for Antrim when they are recounting their glory days.

That season, they beat Down 2-16 to 0-9 in the Ulster final.

That set up a quarter-final clash with Kildare which they won 4-14 to 0-7.

They then headed to play Offaly in the semi-final. The county’s only appearance in an All-Ireland final was in 1943, so when they beat the Faithful 4-15 to 1-15 it was a historic moment.

They met Tipperary in the final, and despite a heroic performance, lost by 4-24 to 3-9.

Until an Antrim team equals that, or does better, the 1989 team are the standard-bearers in the county.

The reason why they were so successful, as McKillen sees it, was the strong bond mixed with the competitive nature of the team.

Some of the tussles at training were hell for leather.

They say about Kilkenny that if you go watch them train, they batter the shit out of each other. They say it is better than a match. We were the same. We had 30 players and there wasn’t room for error. You took that competitiveness into a match.”

That competitiveness led to the great run in 1989. But McKillen isn’t the sort who ponders over games that were lost.

It is nice to look back in 1989. I wouldn’t be a big man for looking back. But it is nice. In Antrim’s case there is not a lot to look back on.

We have got together in the past. We met at Christmas time. Went to Cushendall, 10 or 12 of us. You get them boys together you get good memories.”

It is the memories and the slagging that McKillen loves.

Like for example his opinion of Olcan ‘Cloot’ McFetridge who scored the greatest score he ever saw off his knees.

“’Cloot’ played with Armoy. He played with Loughgiel one year and that’s how they won the championship. He did all the scoring for them. But if you put that in I’ll be shot. No harm doing a wee bit of slagging.”

Or his favourite memory of playing for Ulster, when they went on the trip to Ennis.

I remember one year it was all played in the one weekend down in Ennis.

The four teams were all staying in the one hotel. That was a brilliant weekend.

We played two semi-finals on a Saturday then finals on the Sunday. It was a trial thing. The Railway Cup was sort of dying. They said they would try it out.

Leinster beat us and Connacht beat Munster. We played the shield then next day and we played Munster.

The Saturday night ‘Cloot’ had taken down the accordion, and big Niall Patterson had a guitar with him. They started to sing songs down in the front of the lobby. I think the four provinces got together and the sing-song was unbelievable.

The boys from Munster were getting up to sing, boys from Ulster, Connacht, Leinster.

We went out the next day, and we played Munster and it was some match. We went into the pub after it and I don’t think we went home. That was a super weekend.

That was what hurling, camogie and football is all about. The friends you meet.”

Hurling is about having the craic as well as the competition.

If there is one trophy that McKillen is proud of, it is the All-Star he won in 1993.

Though it was a surprise when he won it. In those days there were no mobile phones and you had to find out by reading the paper. He wasn’t able to get the paper that morning because he was working in Tiger’s Bay in North Belfast, where the Irish News was scarce. He arrived home that evening to a party going on in his house, and his wife telling him that he’d won the All-Star.

Getting the All-Star in 1993 was a shock. I was nominated four years in a row from 1987 to 1991. Then I was nominated again in 1993. I don’t have a clue why I was nominated in 1993. Whether I was nominated that many times that they felt sorry for me, I don’t know.

I was Man of the Match in 1986, but maybe I was too young. Maybe it was because it was John Fenton’s last year, and he got it.”

McKillen might also say that he has been fortunate in his career, to have won what he did, and played with the teams that he did.

He’s also been fortunate not to have had too many injuries.

I only had one bad injury. I did my ligaments on both sides of my ankle. It was the last soccer match of the season, against Cullybackey. My studs caught the grass, my ankle went one way and I went the other. I didn’t go back to the following season. It took me six months to recover.

It was a nightmare. I was brave and fit at the time.

That was after 1989. I could do nothing, I had to get six weeks off work. I was lucky enough that I was on the dole! That was six months of hell.”

McKillen says that a player knows when to retire when the body knows where to be, but the legs can’t take you there.

He wrapped up his playing career in 1998. An All-Star, an All-Ireland final appearance, and three club championship titles all won before he was 21.

The landscape is different now. Antrim are not at the top tier in hurling. Ballycastle haven’t won a Senior Hurling Championship since 1986.

McKillen knows one reason why his club has not enjoyed the success he would have liked.

Ballycastle have lost a lot of players to go abroad. I was in the pub the other day and some boy started naming all the boys that have gone away. You don’t realise the amount of boys that we have lost.

There is not much work.”

McKillen knows this better than most as he has three daughters who are living in Australia. Samantha captained Australia in the world games in camogie.

It’s not like it was in his day.

Nobody went away then. It was only in the early ’80s that boys started to go away. Gerard McAuley, Terence Barton and Charlie McVeigh went. But we had big numbers in those days that they were fit to be replaced.

That’s not just Ballycastle. That happens all over the country.”

At the same time. McKillen points out that his generation of players were not successful either.

My generation – Paul Jennings, Ruairi Donnelly. Chris McAuley – we were in seven finals and we should have won two of them. But we were beat by Cushendall, Dunloy, Loughgiel, Rossa.

Even recently, three years ago Ballycastle were seven points up against Cushendall. And we threw it away. We lost about five or six players out of that team who went abroad.”

Yet despite those losses, what they do have are some great memories.

And also an understanding of what it takes to be great, as McKillen says. You have to stick together.

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