By Niall McCoy
IT’S quite fitting that John Treanor would get the nickname ‘Shorty’ as he jinked and jived, trying to evade the slap of a bigger fella who wanted to take his head off.
It seems that the Burren and Down man spent most of his career having to duck out of the way of punishment fired in his direction. Most times he could use his incredible skill to evade, other times he would lash out in response.
Good decisions and bad decisions. Good days and bad days. The story of his career.
Red cards in key games, crucial missed scores and the run of events that saw him miss out on an All-Ireland medal.
Ten Down titles, five Ulster medals and two All-Ireland triumphs with his club. Slamming the ball past Charlie Nelligan at Croke Park to seal the Andy Merrigan Cup. Entertaining a captivated public for over a decade. Good days and bad.
Before the coronavirus interrupted proceedings, Treanor had agreed to help out with the Newry Mitchel’s. A club on life support in recent times, they felt that the addition of a high-profile name might help convince a few lads to come out to training.
“Sure they wouldn’t know who I am,” was Treanor’s response. “Of course they would,” was the club’s answer.
Few in Down GAA circles will not recognise the name ‘Shorty’ when it’s mentioned. His club performances were the stuff of legend.
For research for this interview, one former Mourne star was asked did he think that he was the best club player in Down in his prime. The reply was no, he wasn’t the best player in Down, he was the best in Ireland.
If Burren were playing a big championship match in Newry, you’d have ones travelling not only from across Down, but also from the likes of south Armagh to see what magic ‘Shorty’ could conjure. That magic was obvious from early on, but showing up some of the older kids wasn’t always welcomed.
“In primary school there wasn’t as much football as there is now,” said Treanor.
“There used to be a big gathering around the Burren, a lock of boys who would have nothing to do on a Friday or Saturday evening.
“There used to be a wee school field there and maybe 15 or 20 boys would gather up. You’d be sitting watching and if they were a man short you might get the call, although you’d go into goals first.
“There was a big fella used to play with us and one evening he was standing with the ball, and I shot through his legs and got the ball off him.
“Everyone was laughing at him and he chased me down the road. He couldn’t catch me and all I could hear was ‘you wee shorty git’ and ever since that the name stuck to me.”
Size certainly wasn’t a hindrance to Treanor and he was representing Burren at u-14, u-16 and minor level at the same time.
It was his exploits at St Mark’s High School, Warrenpoint that really caught the eye, though. He won three All-Ireland u-16 titles in the purple jersey and, amazingly, made a big contribution even as a first year.
“St Mark’s had a quare team then,” Treanor continued. “They won three All-Irelands in-a-row and had Paddy O’Rourke, Emmett McGivern – boys like that.
“I was on the panel for the three of them. The first year it was Dermy Russell and lads like that and the next year, which was a super team, had Paddy and Emmett.
“The first two years I was only popping up as a sub but we managed to win it ourselves in the third year.
“I remember the first year, there was me, Paddy O’Rourke’s brother (Aidan) and a fella Kieran Dinsmore, sadly both passed away very young. I remember people saying ‘what the hell are they playing for?’
“There was an Ulster semi-final in Newry. Barney McAleenan was manager and he threw me on. You could nearly hear the people saying ‘what the hell is he on for? He’s only a first year.’
“In those days I was so small and I just had to worry about getting out of the way of the big boys coming through the middle.
“We were getting beat by a couple of points and Barney took a chance on me with five or six minutes left. Emmett McGivern caught a ball on the edge of the square and he laid it off and I sized it up but the defender completely cleaned me.
“He didn’t mean to but because I was that small he took the head clean off me. Penalty kick, back to a draw and then I kicked the winning point.”
Given that he was progressing through the age-groups at a rate of knots, you’d think that Treanor would have made his Burren senior debut at around 15 or 16, but it was actually 19 before he pulled on the famous jersey for the club’s firsts.
A lot of that was down to a bad leg break when he was 15 that took a year and a half to recover from.
He finally made it to the St Mary’s senior ranks but at that time they were far from the behemoth that they are now.
When Treanor first walked into the changing room, Burren had one senior title to their name. When he walked out for the final time, they were the most successful club in Ulster.
“My da (Barney) told me to hold back a bit, that the leg would need a bit of healing.
“I broke into the team in 1980 and then we won the championship in ’81.”
That final victory over Saval, after a replay and extra-time, was the starting pistol for a golden period when they swept aside all in front of them in Down, Ulster and, at times, Ireland.
Vincent McGovern top-scored with five points against Saval in the replay but it was Paddy O’Rourke who stole the headlines with a marvelous display of fielding around the middle in Newcastle.
“The drawn game, we were catching up but we should have won it at the end of it,” Treanor said.
“We went in front and let them back into it. We had the chance to go two points up to seal it but we missed it. It was probably my fault because I put a boy through for goal instead of putting the ball over the bar. I was ripping because Saval went down the field and got the equalizer.
“The replay went to extra-time. It wasn’t a good day for me. I started the game, was taken off, was put back on and then I was sent off in extra-time.
“But we won the game anyway. I think it was 14 or 15 years since Burren had won it and there were great celebrations.”
That secured entry to a competition where winning would soon become second nature to them – the Ulster Club Championship.
They reached the final on their first visit. Erne Gaels travelled to St Mary’s Park for the quarter-final and the hosts ran out 3-7 to 0-4 winners before goals from Brendan McGovern and Jim McGreevy earned a four-point semi-final win over a very experienced St John’s outfit.
Ballinderry, who had dumped out holders Scotstown in their quarter-final, were waiting in the final, but the Mourne side didn’t deal the best with a five-month delay and only managed 0-5 in the final as the Derry side won by four points in Lurgan.
“We probably lost the momentum we had going, the spirits had been high,” said Treanor. “Then again, we came up against a very good Ballinderry side. They were hardened campaigners and they finished the game stronger.
“The following year we were beaten by Teconnaught in the first round of the Down Championship. We had a lot of injuries but we probably took them for granted and an inspired Donal Bell drove them on.
“It probably wasn’t a bad thing either. We had a lot of boys at the wrong end of 30 and going out early, it made their minds up to move on and we were left with a lot of young boys coming through.”
That Teconnaught loss was – and still is – one of the biggest shocks in Down Championship history, and it raised the question of whether or not 1981 had been a flash in the pan.
Over the next six seasons that question would be answered with six county titles, five Ulster wins and two All-Ireland’s. An emphatic ‘no’ then.
Replays or red cards – and sometimes both – became part and parcel of final experiences for Treanor.
It was the same in the 1983 Ulster decider against St Gall’s. The Down side were fortunate to earn a second crack against the Seamus McFerran holders and when Treanor was lined early in the second half of the replay, shortly after Tony McArdle had found the net, they looked in trouble.
But just like in 1981 against Saval, he watched his teammates dig him out of bother by coming out on top. Many more titles would follow.
“We won anyway, that’s the main thing,” he said of the St Gall’s game.
“No matter where I went the boy (his marker) was just on me. It got to the stage where you had to defend yourself and hope you didn’t get caught. He wasn’t trying to play football, he was sent out to disrupt me. I threw back, caught him and someone saw me.
“I learned my lesson after that to try and keep cool.
“The stand-out from that side that won five Ulster titles in six years is that is should have been six in six years.
“Unfortunately Castleblayney beat us by a point in the final in 1986. I was in a car accident the week before so I didn’t play in it.
“We should have been going for six Ulster titles, we got to the final of all of them.
“Those games could be dire stuff at times, they were played on heavy fields and the grass wasn’t cut sometimes. You could have won 0-4 to 0-3 or lose 0-5 to 0-4.
“People may look at the scorelines and say ‘Jesus, what sort of football was played?’ but it was hard stuff.
“Some of the games were outstanding, I think of the matches we had with the likes of St John’s and Scotstown, Pearse Og one year.
“They were brilliant games and often you were playing at home and it’s an awful pity that they changed that. It’s the county grounds now for those Ulster Club games but most clubs would be well fit to look after the crowds.
“I remember one year we had Ardboe at home (Burren winning 2-6 to 1-2 in 1984) and Frank McGuigan was there. More people came to watch Frank than to watch the match. The neutral ground takes a wee bit of it away.
“Even in ’85 we played St Vincent’s of Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final and Burren was packed to the rafters. You had big Brian Mullins, Jimmy Keaveney, Bobby Doyle. Just to have those boys playing on your field was something special.”
That 2-5 to 0-8 loss to the ‘Vinnies’ was their second All-Ireland semi-final defeat in a row having suffered a 3-6 to 0-8 loss to Meath outfit Walterstown in February 1984.
It would be third time lucky in 1986 as they announced themselves as a genuine force at O’Moore Park. Ray Morgan’s side delivered one of the best performances in the club’s history with Tony McArdle notching 2-5 in a 13-point win on Portlaoise’s own patch.
Treanor, dictating play from centre half-forward, helped himself to five points. A problem with the turnstiles meant that the contest was over before many people had even made it to their seat.
That set up an All-Ireland final with Castleisland Desmond’s at Croke Park on St Patrick’s Day. Some 10,176 fans would come and create a fervent atmosphere as Burren became only the second Ulster team to life the Andy Merrigan Cup after Bellaghy in 1972.
The Sunday Independent tipped Michael Kearney to keep Treanor quiet but in the key move of the match, he got the ball, cut back inside the retreating Kearney and blasted high to the top corner past Nelligan. Burren would ultimately triumph 1-10 to 1-6.
“It was unreal to put the ball past a goalkeeper of that standard. It was one of those days where you got a pass from Vincey (McGovern). Usually when Vincey is inside 14 yards you never get her,” Treanor said with a laugh.
“For some reason he passed it to me as I was coming forward. I was nearly shocked to get it and I just let it fly, a drop-kick of all things.
“Sometimes a score comes and you know your name is on the cup and when that goal went in I sort of knew that we were going to win it.”
Treanor said that the team’s ambitions changed after that, and that they started thinking about Ulster and All-Ireland success rather than county championships.
A second All-Ireland title did arrive three years later as they defeated Roscommon’s Clann na Gael. Treanor described their semi-final win over Nemo Rangers down in Cork that season as one of the best victories of their golden period. Still, despite the glory, the regret bubbles to the surface.
“We thought that,” he said when asked did they think of All-Ireland’s every season.
“We left one or two behind us but every team thinks like that.
“We got caught in Down after the six-in-a-row, I think Hilltown (Clonduff) beat us in Newry on a Monday day. Ross Carr had something to do with that, he was outstanding.
“Another one was when we lost to Castleblayney in the Ulster final. They went on and drew with St Finbarr’s in ‘Blayney and lost the replay by a point or two. I think if we had been there we would have beaten the ’Barrs and that maybe could have led to another one.
“We always knew we were capable of doing it again. Some of our toughest games were in the Down Championship.
“Twice in-a-row Loughinisland were beating us by 10 points at half-time and we came back and got draws in both and beat them in extra-time. One of those led to an All-Ireland.
“Lavey was another one that got away (1992 Ulster final). I missed a score to win the first match, the ball went over the post and if it had stayed inside we would have won it.
“You always remember the misses, you always remember the ones that slip away.
“They were the days though. You go down to Ballyshannon and you go into places and someone will still come over to us and say ‘here boy, you fucking tortured us’ because they had us beat in Burren and I got two points to take it a draw.
“You’d be in places talking to people about these games and maybe you’d be talking about a player from a team you faced and someone would say ‘he’s sitting over there’ and the craic would start.
“Real good times, we enjoyed ourselves. You went and had a bit of craic with the teams. Clann na Gael and Burren, it’s like two Down teams because we knew each other that well. We went down to visit them for a weekend.
“They were some of the best days you could possibly have.”
As was the style at the time, Treanor’s talents meant that he was sought after on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
“The first time I went out to America was in ’85. I was supposed to be home for the semi-final of the Down Championship but then the Wolfe Tones’s won the Chicago Championship and ended up getting to the North American final.
“I wasn’t supposed to stay for that but they talked me into staying and luckily Burren got into the final.
“We won the North American final and then I jumped on a plane and was home the Wednesday before the final.
“If Burren had lost the semi-final I think I would have had to stay in Chicago until Christmas until the dust settled.
“We beat Loughinisland in the Down final. People thought I’d be a sub and I didn’t expect to start but the management decided to play me.
“It was one of those situations that if you win the game nobody cries or says anything. As long as the cup is on the table it keeps everyone quiet, even if there were probably a few who weren’t happy about it.
“America was unreal. I went back out in 1987 and Jack O’Shea came out and played a few games with us. I played with Val Daly in ’85 too.
“You met some characters out there and the craic was 90. We enjoyed ourselves.
“When we had no games in Chicago a few of us would have been brought down to New York to play for Donegal, a big fella Mick Cassidy would take us down.
“We would have flown down at a weekend, played the game and then went back up to Chicago.”
Treanor was a well-established Down player at that stage having been brought into the panel in the weeks after the 1983 National League success by Val Kane and James McCartan senior.
“It was great getting in to train with big Ambrose Rogers, God rest him. Then you had some Burren players like Tommy McGovern, Vincey (McGovern), Paddy (O’Rourke). Paddy Kennedy, Mark Turley and those boys were still playing then too.”
His first taste of championship action came in May 1984 when he grabbed two points as Down avenged their Ulster defeat to Fermanagh the year before, and over the next few seasons he would be a regular scoring threat – contributing two points in the 1986 Ulster final loss to Tyrone.
Then in October 1989, Pete McGrath was handed the keys to the kingdom as he succeeded Jackie McManus as Down manager.
A couple of weeks later the National League campaign started with a 3-11 to 0-18 win over Kerry in Tralee. Treanor may have only scored a point, but he was at the fulcrum of their positive attacking play.
Treanor wore the no.10 jersey for McGrath’s first championship game in charge in May 1990 as he scored four points in a 3-11 to 1-12 win over Monaghan.
He managed five points the next day with his free two minutes into additional time forcing a semi-final replay against Armagh.
The player came on late in the replay and scored two points, but it would not be enough to prevent the Orchard county from prevailing at Casement Park.
Little did he know then, but Treanor would not kick ball in the championship again until May 1996. Quite a lot happened in the Mourne county between those two dates.
‘Shorty’ wasn’t completely absent from the panel in those times. A knee injury ruined a potential return in 1992 while the next year he was hit with a three-month suspension for a comment made to an official after being red-carded after an off-the-ball incident with Morgan Nix in the National League quarter-final defeat to Kerry.
The main reason that Treanor doesn’t have a Celtic Cross though is down to a disagreement with McGrath. For added drama, Treanor’s dad Barney, who sadly passed away in February, was part of McGrath’s management team.
“There was a fall-out between myself and Pete,” he said. “My da was a selector at the time too.
“It was one of those things. I was dropped for a couple of National League games, stuff like that there. I was playing a wee bit of soccer here and there too, maybe Pete thought he needed a shake-up and he left me out for a few games.
“I wasn’t happy about it and said maybe it’s time for a bit of a break away. You’re playing that long at that level between Burren and Down, you were consistently flat out training. If you weren’t playing for Burren you were playing for Down in big matches.
“It’s not like now where you would get a break with the county if you were in the Ulster Club, back then it was Burren one week for the Ulster Championship and then Down the next for the National League.
“Everything was just piling on top of you and maybe then I felt it was time to take a wee break away for a while.
“I stepped away and then the next thing I was playing a bit of soccer.
“A couple of clubs were looking to know what I was at but then a fella I used to play soccer for when I was younger asked me to come to Portadown for a trial, so I went down.
“I met big Ronnie McFall and we played some crowd who were over from South Africa in a challenge match and I played the first 20 minutes or so. He then offered me a one-year contract.
“At that time I was probably hoping to get back into the county scene but I decided to give it a go.
“I was 29 but I remember a boy saying to not let on that I was that old. So Ronnie asked me what age I was, I told him I was 26.
“I joined them and suddenly you’re in a team with some top players, big ‘Strainer’ (Brian Strain), Alfie Stewart, Stevie Cowan, Sandy Fraser.”
Treanor made his Portadown debut in August 1991 in the Ulster Cup against Ards (who had a debutant of their own in the form of Armagh’s Ger Houlihan) and played a big role as the Shamrock Park men came close to landing the league title that season.
A loss in Ballyclare in their penultimate game cost them dearly with Glentoran sealing the title with a win at Shamrock Park the next week.
Regrets were inevitable given where Down ended up in 1991, but Treanor still rates the soccer experience as one of the most exciting periods of his sporting career.
“I definitely enjoyed it,” he said. “I probably made the mistake of only staying one year with Portadown, I went to Newry after that.
“The travelling was handier but I should have stayed for another year in Portadown. The professionalism down there was unreal, they were a wee bit ahead of everyone else at that stage.”
Still though, watching a team he had been a part of just a few months earlier march onto Croke Park was a tough pill to swallow.
“It was a strange build-up to the All-Ireland,” said Treanor. “With my daddy there, I’m sure it annoyed him a bit too. It probably annoyed my ma (Teasie), God rest her, more than him.
“He’d be a bit like myself, stubborn. He’d probably have said ‘he made his own bed, he can lie in it.’ He’d have been strong like that but my ma loved the football, loved going to it.
“It was strange when you see them winning it but you were there to support them. You’re still thinking that you could have been out there, as a panel player at least.
“I was at the final and I celebrated for a few days with them after it.”
Time is a healer for Treanor. The regrets will always be there, but so too will be the knowledge that he took risks and got a real thrill out of his sporting choices.
The sporting genes have been passed down to his children now. His son Ryan had a trial with Norwich when he was younger and although a few offers arrived from other English clubs, his main focus now his Gaelic football. He was on Paddy Tally’s Down squad for a while last year and hopes to return to it in the future.
His daughter Saoirse is doing well with the Burren u-16s, and it will surprise few that she is on free-taking duty for her club.
Treanor will keep a close eye on them when action resumes, and he will also try and help Newry Mitchel’s get their numbers back up again.
And if younger players ask ‘who is that?’, they’ll be informed that it’s John Treanor, one of the finest footballers to ever grace the club fields of Ulster.