Thirty years ago St Colman’s, Newry were on their way to winning the MacRory and Hogan Cup double. Ronan Hamill was the captain and he looks back on the memories of a special year. Michael McMullan writes…
THIS St Colman’s Newry success had graft and togetherness as the cornerstones of a group that spent seven years looking for glory that eluded them without ever being a million miles away.
The corridors of Newry’s famed Violet Hill College were awash with winning teams. If the walls could talk, they would have a raft of stories to tell.
The group Ronan Hamill skippered to All-Ireland glory knew what it meant to get their photo on the wall and time was running out.
For Hamill, it was a success three years in the making. As fifth years, himself and Sean Cunningham were the corner-backs in the 1991 final defeat to St Patrick’s, Dungannon. It was the same for Charlie Pat McCartan at wing-forward and maestro Diarmaid Marsden who came off the bench that afternoon in Coalisland – then the Mecca of the MacRory Cup.
Having a sprinkling of fifth years always allowed continuity between teams year-on-year in St Colman’s. Within 12 months, they were back rubbing shoulders with Dungannon again. This time it was a semi-final and as a ball dropped in the Colman’s defence, late in the game, they could see a spot in the final.
Then it all changed. When the ball was lifted off the ground, a penalty was awarded and Mark Rodgers tucked it away. Colman’s were gone and adding to their 15th title, won in 1988, was at least 12 months further away.
The 11 players available for 1993 made a pact. Their close-knit bond wouldn’t be denied. When prompted for a standout memory from his seven years at St Colman’s Ronan Hamill chose the taste of defeat from that 1992 semi-final.
“That hurt worse than anything and it was a huge driving force to put yourself through the pain barrier so that wouldn’t happen again the next year,” he said, a hurt to referred to more than once during an hour of chat littered with memories.
“Winning is taken with a bit of craic, but defeats are the things you always remember. I know the core people, if you ask any of them, they’ll tell you of that pain and that’s why winning it was a relief and we had got it out of our system.
“We beat the Abbey after two hard games (in the quarter-final) and to get pipped by Dungannon, it was a total sickener. This was definitely what pointed us to win the following year.”
They needed to get on the wall and there was only one more chance.
The Hamills were from Glenavy. When older brother Ciaran was pondering over which school to attend, the Troubles and a lack of safe bus routes influenced the thought process. When their uncle, a past pupil of St Colman’s, suggested boarding school, Newry was the only option. Safety, education and football pointed him on the way and Ronan followed.
A D’Alton Cup final defeat to St Macartan’s, Monaghan was the closet they got to silverware, with a few semi-final exits thrown in during a pathway through the year groups that didn’t have one standout team.
When Pete McGrath and Ray Morgan gathered the troops in September 1992, they knew they’d be in the mix when the MacRory Cup race thickened up, based on a number of factors.
“We were seasoned from playing over two years and for a few of us over three years,” Hamill said of their spine. “Another factor in that year group, a lot of the guys stayed in the school and that was one of the last years of boarding, 12 of the team boarded for their final year.
“There was a serious amount of competition in normal sporting events; the basketball tournaments in the evening time were as tough as some of the training sessions.”
And training was a four days a week operation and there was always something on a Saturday.
The MacRory panel wasn’t for everybody. In terms of commitment, you were either in or out. Half measures weren’t entertained.
It left some players who could’ve made the team on the outside and it armed those on the inside with a mentality that left them well placed for Sigerson Cup and inter-county football to follow.
The St Colman’s class of 1993 retained their all-Rostrevor half-back line of Finbar Caulfield, Mark Rowland and Gary Farrell from the previous year.
In the days before sweepers, defensively they were all able to win their individual battles. Abbey managed 0-4 in both drawn and replayed quarter-finals in 1992 with Rogers’ decisive penalty taking Dungannon’s winning tally to a region of 1-4 in the semi-final.
“Mark Rowland was the Rolls Royce, he was kicking 50s, had two lovely feet and was so balanced,” said Hamill of the line himself and Sean Cunningham played behind. “Every match, our half-back line was superb.”
The only newcomers in defence for 1993 were fifth year pupils Martin Doyle in goals and Kevin O’Reilly at corner-back.
“The big thing was the defence and there was a doggedness about our team. We were tenacious and if you look at the scorelines, it wasn’t exciting. There were no runaway scores, it was a very tight affair,” Hamill said.
“Charlie Pat McCartan at midfield, he was a hound dog and he would’ve chased you down. For that level of football we were experienced.”
After seeing off Omagh in the quarter-finals, it was a semi-final rematch with St Patrick’s, Dungannon, but there was to be no sucker punch this time.
After being level 1-4 each at the break, St Colman’s raced to a 1-14 to 1-6 win with Diarmaid Marsden on fire and James Byrne, Tony Fearon, Aidan McGivern, Michael McVerry and Declan Toner all adding to the scoreboard.
Standing in their way was St Patrick’s, Maghera in the final who they had met in the last three finals. It took three games before Tom Fegan’s goal turned the tables on Maghera in the 1988 second replay on the way to the Hogan title.
A tally of 3-2 from James McCartan wasn’t enough to stop Maghera the following year in a 4-10 to 4-9 rollercoaster with the Derry side going to win back-to-back Hogan Cups, beating St Colman’s in the 1990 replayed MacRory final.
It was St Colman’s turn again in 1993. Despite being hit for an early goal and with Marsden missing a first-half penalty, St Colman’s came back to take the title on a 0-10 to 1-5 scoreline, with Aidan McGivern’s late points clinching the game.
It was a day when Hamill remembers Pete McGrath, the “methodical” and “real players’ guy” losing the plot at half time.
“(Ray) Morgan was more about the screaming and shouting – make a mistake and you’d look over and Ray would be screaming at you. He was driven, unbelievably competitive,” Hamill said of the contrasting nature of their management duo.
“Pete was very calm, but in the MacRory final, it was the only time in seven years that he let a gulder out of him, I think he threw a pen across the changing rooms because he didn’t think we were giving enough.
“It was a once off so it had a massive impact because he didn’t do it very often and we thought ‘McGrath has lost it here’ so it was time to buck up.”
Another memory Hamill has is the disbelief at being named Man of the Match ahead of Charlie Pat McCartan, Aidan McGivern and Michael McVerry. He modestly feels he played “okay” but laughs of how the fans chant of “you’ll never beat Roanie Hamill” may have influenced the selection committee.
The MacRory Cup was heading back to the Violet Hill, something the group always felt was within them.
“Somebody was going to have to play an unbelievable match to beat us. It was a case of ‘make somebody beat you’ and never, ever throw the towel in,” Hamill said of their mantra.
“There was very little tolerance for mistakes…boys like Mark Rowland and Finbarr (Caulfield) were really hard boys. There was no love lost between the players; you’d have got a bollixing for making a mistake.
“The game was simpler. You were in your individual position, marking your own individual player and had to win your own individual battle.
“You were in the full-back line, if you let your man go you were shepherd hooked or moved on to somebody else. It wasn’t like it is now, where you can hide in the full-back line with three people around you and you can blame the sweeper.
“We wouldn’t have been prettiest team to watch by any stretch of the imagination. It was aggressive, tight with tackling. Diarmaid (Marsden) was a star turn at that time and was absolutely sensational the whole way through.”
As an eye turned to the forthcoming Hogan Cup campaign, St Colman’s were forced into a reshuffle with four of their starting team overage.
Out went midfielder and “rock” Charlie Pat cCartan, seen as the best player in their MacRory Cup campaign. Also overage were attacking trio Tony Fearon, Michael McVerry and Declan Toner who had been on the 1992 Armagh minor team with Marsden who were beaten in the All-Ireland final. From the panel, Gary Cunningham was also out of the equation too.
“Losing the five players was such a shock,” Hamill recalls. “They were all very good players, but Charlie Pat and Mickey McVerry were the spiritual leaders.
“Ray Morgan turned that negative into a message of the whole world was out to get you. It was an anti-Northern Ireland thing, an anti St Colman’s and an anti MacRory Cup.”
John Morgan, a young fifth year, came in at midfield to join Paul McShane, with attacking trio Martin Sherry, David McCaul and Des French making the step up ahead of a Breffni Park semi-final with St Patrick’s, Navan.
“The four lads that came in for them all had a massive impact on affairs when they came in,” said Hamill of another story in their amazing season.
“Dessie French from Lurgan, that was the highlight of his career. He scored a goal in the Hogan semi-final and a goal in the final after not playing in any of the MacRory matches.”
McVerry would always remind French that he’d have no Hogan Cup medal if the hadn’t have done the spadework in the MacRory Cup.
“Mickey McVerry and Dessie French, they are the guys we have the most fun with; they are the strongest characters in both age groups.”
After seeing off Navan, 1-14 to 0-7, it was St Jarlath’s, Tuam in the final, a team with Michael Donnellan, John Concannon, Pádraic and Tommie Joyce on board. Like Maghera who would go on to win the MacRory Cup in 1994, Jarlath’s went on to lift the Hogan 12 months later. But this was St Colman’s time to shine.
A Donnellan goal was the only one Hamill conceded to his marker over the season, but at the other end the attack did the business.
“If we could hold it as tight as a drum at the back and hold a team to under 10 points, the chances are we’d get the chances at the other end to get over the line” Hamill said of their credentials.
Diarmaid Marsden bagged 1-4 in a superb performance. Jarlath’s double and triple marked him, but when Morgan and McGrath pulled him deep to midfield, he made hay.
“A bit of a storm blew up in that match and Mark Rowland scored a point from about 60 yards out,” Hamill continues.
“Diarmuid scored a goal after that and it put a stretch in the lead and they never got back after that. The storm only lasted for four or five minutes but we scored 1-1 during it,” recalls Hamill, who has just finished four seasons coaching Clan na nGael seniors with him.
“From marking him in training in those days, he is unbelievably competitive, a brilliant tackler and very competitive guy.
“He was a superstar from early doors before he came to St Colman’s. He was class above everyone else and very level headed. All the plaudits and accolades he has won over his lifetime, he has deserved them no end.”
There was irony with the other goal. It was crafted and finished by the lads who came in for the overage players. Sherry and McCaul were involved in the build-up and French finished it off and Hogan number five was in its way to Newry.
Being captain was all about respect and earning the role, Hamill outlines. There was a core of senior players the management leant on to steer the ship, one every line – Hamill, Rowland, McCartan, Marsden, McVerry and Fearon.
“In St Colman’s, it (captaincy) was hard-earned,” he said, admitting he wasn’t the best player on the panel. “It was performances in fifth year and sixth year. You have to play the shirt of your back and I had very good sixth year in St Colman’s, playing well in every match and emptying the tank.”
Ray Morgan’s high standards had to be met in every single training session, backing off wasn’t allowed and your spot on the team had to be nailed on.
“The captaincy was earned through previous experiences and a level of respect. Charlie Pat or Diarmuid could’ve easily been captain. I took it not as an honour, but something you had to earn,” Hamill said.
Going to matches on a bus wasn’t the done thing. It was a convoy of parents’ cars on the way to the game. The Hamills would have Marsden, James Byrne and Des French in their load going to all the games. On the way home from the Hogan final in Longford, a pothole on a Cavan back road brought a 45 minute delay and the captain missed the parade on the back of a lorry around the streets of Newry on the way back to the school.
“I didn’t get there until all the parents, cars and convoy were back in the school,” Hamill jokes.
It didn’t matter. There were enough memories banked and being presented with a white jersey, worn exclusively by all St Colman’s teams in the Hogan Cup topped it all.
“One of the big things was being gifted a white jersey,” he summed up.
Using the hurt of two seasons to Dungannon was worth it. Their closely knit and difficult to beat side were Kings of Ireland.
And now they were on the wall and wearing white. Hamill in the middle, Marsden seated to his left and Rowland to his right.
“It was a big deal to get the photo taken with the cups and know you are going to be held forever in the halls there,” Hamill concludes. “We won nothing on the way up through school and you walk around for six or seven years looking at the previous players and the cups they won.”
To get on the wall, it was a big deal.
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