Fifty years on from Antrim football's golden moment
By Michael Devlin
Saturday’s All-Ireland final replay has made extra work for Andy McCallin.
A 50th anniversary reunion of Antrim’s 1969 U-21 All-Ireland winning team had long been in the diary for September 14th in the Casement Social Club in west Belfast, nicely lining up five decades to the day they beat Roscommon by a point in the final at Croke Park.
McCallin, the team’s prolific corner forward, put out the feelers for the gathering several months ago, issuing a plea to all former team-mates to get in touch, and the ball got rolling.
Kerry and Dublin’s draw two weeks ago though meant he spent Thursday morning this week sourcing a big screen to put up at the event to watch the rematch.
“It was all booked, so it’s messed us up a bit, but it’s all going to plan,” says McCallin assuredly. “It will be exciting to see what happens, if it’s anything like the last match.”
He will be pitching for Kerry of course, having spent time working down on the Limerick-Kerry border, and playing with Tarbert and Feale Rangers in the late 1970’s.
“I’m a Kerry man,” he jokes. “They are great footballers. I think while Dublin are a great team, I don’t think they have the natural talent that Kerry have, and that’s what I like. I’m a purist.”
To this day, McCallin remains Antrim’s only football All-Star, winning the accolade in their inaugural year of 1971. An outstanding hurler as well, he represented Ulster in both codes at inter-provincial level.
“My whole life was football and hurling. My father was chairman of St John’s for umpteen years, so to me it was just a way of life. I was born and bred into it.”
His feat in the U-21 final in 1969 will be most surely be a lauded talking point this weekend though. He scored 1-5 of the team’s 1-8 total against Roscommon in the decider, with the Saffrons emerging one-point winners.
McCallin is hesitant to label it his best game in an Antrim shirt however. “You probably need to talk to people who were watching it. I done what I had to do, and maybe a bit more. Without being big-headed, they were depending on me to do the damage.
“I think I hit the post a couple of times too. God of Mercy on him, if my father was here, I think he could tell you what I done wrong, because he told me what I done wrong the night after it!”
Going back over old ground in the past few months as the reunion started to take shape has reilluminated a lot of dim memories for McCallin. Fifty years is a long time after all.
“It’s brought a lot back to me, putting up on Twitter the results of the matches on the date they occurred, who we played and who scored and things like that. I’ve been reading back through my old scrap-book, it’s brought back a lot of memories.”
There’s been hundreds of phone calls and emails to old team-mates, both across the road and across the world. McCallin hasn’t seen wing-back Jim Mullan in 45 years. “He just arrived into Belfast today for the weekend, we didn’t know where he was. It was great to talk to him on the phone.”
Others he sees every day. Childhood friend Gerry McCann, the team’s centre half forward, is chairman of St John’s, while McCallin is a club trustee. The pair have been together since the age of ten. “How long is that? Near enough 60 years?” he calculates.
There weren’t many green spaces in the urban Andersonstown area of Belfast where the men grew up, and so they honed their skills on the street. It was a moment of telepathic understanding, practiced and perfected on those concrete pavements, that led to McCallin’s goal in the final 50 years ago.
“Me and him, we just knew each other. We had all the tricks that worked together. He went up for the ball with two or three men, I just shouted to him ‘Yeah’, and he just flicked it on. I was hiding in behind, picked her up and ran in, put it in the back of the net.
“They were just the wee small things from growing up playing in St John’s together and playing in the streets together. There was a slope of a green in front of our house, but Gerry and myself just played in the street between lampposts and different things. As I say, from primary school right to this day.”
McCallin doesn’t quite know how the 1969 panel came together, and he can’t quite put his finger on what made the team spark into life. A large portion of the team were playing their football outside of Antrim’s top division at the time, but despite that disparity, the side had a special quality.
“We got on like a house on fire. They were great characters, the south west and north Antrim men. Seamus Killough and Gerry Dillon, people like that. We mixed well and would always be a bit of fun.
“Seamus at full-back had an unbelievable day in Croke Park. He’s a fella who never played Gaelic Football until he was 17. It was a strange combination, but thank God, thank God,” McCallin remarks.
“There were players who never played minor county. Liam Boyle was playing in Division Three with St Malachy’s. I don’t think they won a real trophy in Antrim at any level other than the 1968 U21 club championship, and that’s why Liam was captain. He wasn’t a talker, but he done it on the field, he led by example.
“I don’t think any of us won a match in minor county football. It just fell together and gelled. We got together as a team and just bonded greatly. Maybe the Troubles had something to do with it, I’m not terribly sure. It probably bonded the Belfast fella’s.”
The Troubles sits front and centre in the story of the team’s triumph. The previous summer of ’68 saw the birth of the bloody conflict that would engulf the North for the following thirty years. Violence across the streets of Belfast became a daily occurrence, and every aspect of the lives of the city’s inhabitants were impacted utterly.
Gaelic football was duly affected, and McCallin recalls how travelling to training and matches was regularly disrupted. “There were difficulties all over. It was difficult for the country boys to get to Casement and train and so on.
“Even the night we won it, the bus wasn’t allowed to travel down the Falls Road and back up. We just came off the M1 and went up to St Theresa’s Hall for the celebration. Wee small things like that are the things I remember.
“We done the very unusual thing of flying to Cork for the All-Ireland semi-final. It was the President of the GAA that organised it, because he knew the trouble of getting from Belfast to Cork in those days. Antrim played Cork in an Intermediate Hurling game right after it, so the two teams flew down.
“We didn’t know any different, it was just life. Some days you got to work, some days you didn’t. Some days people didn’t get to training. That was just the way it was, we just accepted it.
“I suppose it was a bit of an escape to get out on the pitch and enjoy yourself. There were other fella’s that were ‘involved’ should I say, and maybe it was escapism for them to get out on the field.”
The Troubles would leave a lasting mark on some of the lives of the Antrim players in the resulting years. Mickey Culbert, the wing back from St Galls, spent a decade and a half in prison for Republican activity.
Din Joe McGrogan, the other corner forward across from McCallin, was killed in a bomb in the Whitefort Inn pub in 1976. He was the game-winner in the semi-final against Cork, scoring two goals.
McGrogan’s daughter and two sisters are attending the reunion. “The effort that’s being made, from the families of the deceased and everything else, it’s heart-warming,” says McCallin.
Antrim’s All-Ireland odyssey that year began on June 1st, with a one-sided 5-3 to 0-4 win over Monaghan in the Ulster preliminary round. From there came a narrow win over Derry, then Fermanagh, before Ulster success was achieved with a two-point victory over a Down team smattered with senior All-Ireland winners from the year before.
McCallin reckons it was after the Derry victory, 1-8 to 1-7 at Casement Park, that the team began to dream big. “We’d never had success at any level for the county. Martin McGranaghan, Billy Millar, myself, Gerry McCann, Gerry Nellis, we all played in the same year in minor, but we never done anything. We were the young ones of the team, we were only 19.
“If you look at the results, we beat Derry by a point, beat Down by two points, beat Cork by a point and beat Roscommon by a point. They all thought we were probably easy meat, but we had great spirit. There was never anything that panicked us.
“We took a few scalps on the way. Some big names, Ray Cummins from Cork, Dermot Earley from Roscommon. It’s all history, but it’s all good history.”
It would be many years before McCallin would fully realise the significance of 1969. More Ulster U21 titles came in 1974 and '75, with defeat in the All-Ireland final in '74 to Mayo after a replay the closest they’d come to a repeat. Defeat to Derry in the 1970 Ulster senior final is the one that really sticks in the craw for McCallin.
“There could have been more done, and there could have been more won,” he acknowledges of Antrim’s era of great promise. “I think we were lacking a wee bit of professionalism. In 1970 there were a few mistakes made by management and players, and Derry beat us by two points. There were six or seven of us there, and with more coming through. I think we lost what was there, I really do”
The circumstances of the time away from the field of play certainly played a part he says. “Every time you went across the border to play a match, there were different things, getting messed about. It’s not an excuse, and people did their best. There were people interned, ones emigrated, different things, but that was a time that we could have done something, and we probably should have.”
No Ulster senior football titles since 1951, Gaelic football in Antrim, and Belfast in particular, requires rejuvenation. McCallin laments the decline of Casement Park, “the nail in the coffin” he says, but is confident the ‘GaelFast’ initiative, a five-year plan launched last year to promote Gaelic games in schools across Belfast, can get things moving in the right direction.
“We’ve nowhere to look up to, nowhere to bring the kids to inspire them. It’s very disappointing. Looking at the grandson playing away at the hurling and football, and we don’t have a stadium. When I was playing at that age, all I wanted to do was play in Casement Park. We’ve lost a lot of interest in Gaelic Games in the city.
“With GaelFast, they are doing a good job there. I’m hoping it will progress right through, and there’ll be results at some stage.”
Another All-Star to join McCallin's lonely company? Another 1969?
“Indeed. I hope I live to see it.”
Antrim All Ireland U21 Football champions 1969 night - A celebration and conversation with the team.
14th September at 8pm, venue and sponsored by Casement Social Club .