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Potential is there to end 40-year famine

Story by Paul Fitzpatrick

Friday, 23rd November, 2012 9:30am

Potential is there to end 40-year famine

St Pat's forwards Ben Conaty (left) and Mattie McKenna celebrate after the Rannafast Cup final.

It will take something extraordinary to repeat the MacRory Cup triumph of 1972, but it can be done, writes PAUL FITZPATRICK.

When teams from Tyrone, Derry, Down and Armagh were dominating football not just in Ulster but on a national scale, a common motion put forward was that "it mattered more up there". Maybe there was some basis to it, too.

In the depths of the Troubles, many nationalists north of here threw themselves into the GAA, a type of sporting release valve and, once the dam broke, they washed away the traditional aristocrats of the game. Having been socially and economically oppressed, they threw off the sporting shackles and won, again and again. It coincided with a decline in Cavan, the southernmost county in the province.

Maybe, and it's hard to swallow for supporters, it really didn't mean as much down here. But there was a time when it did.

In the week that St Pat's College stormed to their seventh Rannafast Cup title, there's a neat symmetry to the fact that aside from Virginia College's outstanding successes in 2007 and 2008, it's four decades this year since a men's team sent out from this county took home an All Ireland title of any type, let alone one in an "A" competition.

There was more than just luck involved in winning that 1972 Hogan Cup, too. Fr Benny Maguire was the man in charge in the school and he made sure he had the tools at his disposal before he went to do the job. He recruited players, he coaxed young men to repeat a year, and, ultimately, his team won. It clearly meant enough to him, and to the school, and that team formed the backbone of a strong Cavan side who were unlucky not to make a breakthrough between 1976 and 1983.

Late in 2011, after Fr Maguire's death, I interviewed Ollie Leddy and Ollie Brady, both former students of St Pat's. They made no bones about, or apologies for, Fr Benny's approach in '72. The MacRory Cup in itself wasn't a level playing field - it still isn't, the northern schools have an extra year - and the teacher set about giving his boys a fair shot.

"I was working at the time and he was trying to get lads to go in to play," remembered Leddy of his first meeting with a man whose influence shaped the lives of a generation of young footballers.

"He was picking up lads from U16 teams and he had seen me playing U16 and minor football and he decided that this fella might be able to play for the college. I was working at Brady's Garage at the time and he persuaded me to leave the job at Brady's and I played with the college team then in '70 and '71.

"He knew that time that he was up against it in Ulster against teams who had seven years in secondary school. He wanted to try to get a team built that would win a MacRory. That was his big thing."

By the early 1970s, St Pat's had gone an almost-unprecedented ten years without a victory in Ulster Colleges football's most prestigious competition and it was gnawing at Fr Maguire, a football-obsessed Physics and Chemistry teacher from Crosserlough who had arrived in the school in the mid-60s.

Slowly, he went about constructing a team, not to compete, but to win.

His first move was to lure the strapping 17-year-old Leddy, who had been a working man for three years, back to secondary education. Next, he transferred Lacken's Niall Brennan, who would captain the '72 team, and Killeshandra's John Sweeney from Kilnacrott College.

In '71, with them on board, his team were beaten by "a dodgy free" given against another Killeshandra man, Hugh Reynolds, against Abbey CBS in the semi-final at Carrickmacross.

The teacher had painstakingly teased out the equation, but it took a surprise arrival to help him solve it. Redhills boy Ollie Brady had slipped in the side door of the school after moving from the Baldoyle CBS in September 1970. Nobody knew he was a footballer and, says Leddy, "he didn't tell anyone, so he didn't play that first year."

By the following autumn, though, Fr Benny had seen firebrand Brady (or Texas - "The Big One", after an advert at the time - as he would come to be known during his senior playing days with Cavan and Ulster) in action for the county minors and slotted him in at number six. He was Benny's type of player - aggressive and physical, but smart with it, and he completed the set. With all of the tools in his box, the priest went to work.

"He had a gift for coaching," says Brady, looking back, almost 40 years later.

While Leddy and two of his 1970-71 teammates - Drung's PJ Fitzpatrick and John Brady from Killeshandra - had left after sitting their Leaving Certs, the bones of the team were in place and with what Leddy calls "the unexpected bonus" of Ollie Brady, the journey began.

No sooner had the ship set sail than it nearly ran aground when St Mary's from west Belfast stunned the Cavanmen first day out. Benny wasn't perturbed, as Leddy recalls.

"Mary's, Belfast beat them and I remember meeting Benny after that game and he says 'I have me team, we're going to win it'. I said 'sure Mary's beat yiz'. 'Ah,' he says, 'but it was the manner in which we were beaten'."

After another group match in which St Pat's, despite winning, conceded six goals, Benny shredded up the team and stitched it together with stronger thread. He drafted in Brian Brady, Charlie Donohoe and Aidan Elliott. His boys wouldn't be beaten again.

"In terms of footballers, he had very good players in 1972," remembers Leddy.

"There was Eamon Gillick, a Meathman. He had Paddy McGill, who was an Englishman who was a soccer player and had never played Gaelic until he came to St Pat's. He had Hugh Reynolds, Ciaran O'Keefe, Sean Leddy, Gerry Smith from Kill... Ollie Brady of course."

Playing powerful football, St Pat's advanced to the final where they were due to meet a star-studded Abbey CBS team in Dundalk.

"Abbey would've been hot favourites," remembers Ollie Brady, "because they were after being beaten in the final the year before. They had a fierce team, they had a boy that had trials with Man United, a long-haired boy, taking the frees. Joe Kernan was on it. There was a McPartland fella, he's a priest now, I met him a couple of years ago, a great player.

"There was a gale-force wind and we went in at half-time a couple of points down playing with it. And I mean a gale-force wind. And we came out in the second half and all Abbey scored was one point. It was an awful battle."

Leddy, who possesses an extraordinary memory (he's able to describe Fr Benny's car, "a green Ford Anglia 105D", even down to the registration, "IID 207"), remembers Smith and McGill carrying the ball into the face of the gale and, before the match, an unusual incident.

"I never saw a manager doing it before.I went into the dressing room before that game and Reynolds had to have a wee slug of brandy before he went out to calm him. Fr Benny had it with him and handed it to him!"

Players of that era remember the preparations - football was king in the college and teachers were roped in to drive students home all over the county after training and to bring players to matches.

The players came first. The likes of Fr (and now Cardinal) Sean Brady and Fr Colm Hurley were roped in to transport them, with Sean acting as selector and Patsy Lee as team trainer.

Two goals from Reynolds helped them get over St Jarlath's of Tuam, the aristocrats of the colleges game, in the semi-final and St Pat's routed St Brendan's, Killarney (including one Pat Spillane) in the final at Croke Park to take the school's first and only Hogan Cup, a match Brady remembers as "the easiest of the whole lot, over after ten minutes".

The school went close a couple of times but they still haven't won that MacRory Cup, let alone another Hogan Cup. This year's Rannafast crew have the potential, having convincingly won successive trophies, but it's a hard gap to bridge. We watch and hope that something magical will happen again.

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