Joe Brolly

JOE BROLLY: Only one Tony Scullion

“We had very little money. None let’s be honest. I was a backward child. Not forward. But on the pitch that’s when things levelled out. Makes no odds on the green grass if you haven’t two shillins to put together. It doesn’t matter a damn what you own or how much money you have. When it came to the green grass, that’s when I was fit to express myself.”

Tony Scullion was born with a glow like the Readybreak glow. Born into poverty in Straw. No electricity. No running water. No television. “Mammy boiled spuds and they were put in the middle of the table (his arms go up). The other thing we had was bread and butter. Big heavy crusts with a lock of butter on them, and away you went. That was it.”

There isn’t a cynical bone in his body. He is Huckleberry Finn with four All-Stars. The Natural. Filled to this day with a sense of wonder.


“We played football in Groogan’s field. They cut two trees down and made posts from them, with another one nailed between them for a crossbar.” It sounds like the start of a Heaney poem.

When I first met him he was Derry’s chain smoking superstar. He would swing into the carpark at whatever ground we were training at in his battered black Sierra, Big Tom booming from the tape deck, puffing away on a Silk Cut, grinning.

He didn’t like stretching and couldn’t understand new fangled things.

Tony: In 93, we had a … (scratches his head) … what do you call them people that get your mind right?

Interviewer: Sports psychologist?

Tony: Aye, a sports psychologist. He never came near me or (Brian) McGilligan (laughs). I don’t think he would have got a great reception to be honest with you.

In his hey-day, Sean Quinn invited the Derry team to the Slieve Russell for a weekend. McGilligan and Scullion were poring over the dinner menu, which was mostly in French. The waiter who wasn’t local, was poised beside them, pen and notebook at the ready. “Steaks” said McGilligan. “What sort of steak sir?” “Whatever you have lad.” “How would sirs like them?” “With two pints of Guinness,” said Scullion.

He didn’t play for Derry until he was under 21. “I couldn’t believe it. I waited til the last to lift my togs and socks, and the only pair of Derry socks left had holes in them. But I didn’t give a damn. I had a pair of Derry socks on me and I was proud as punch. The next thing the team was called out and Tony Scullion was called out as number 4. Well…you may as well have given me a million pound. It was unbelievable (shakes his head). Unbelievable.”

Tony just loved playing football. There was no fuss. As Enda Gormley says, he was the first thoroughly modern corner back and didn’t know it. The training match before the All-Ireland final in ‘93, there was a big crowd down in Glenullen to watch and Tony said to me, “You get the first one, I’ll get the next.” It was the only way to win a ball off him, as he played in front at an angle, was a flying machine, had tremendous natural strength and was a fabulous high catcher. The great ones are different.

In 1992, we won the county’s second ever National League title, beating Tyrone in Croke Park. Exactly one week later, we met them again in the first round of the championship in Celtic Park. Tyrone had complained after the league final that they had thrown it away. A youthful Mattie McGleenan had done surprisingly well against Tony. When we were changed and ready to go, Eamonn Coleman stood on the benches and opened the Sunday paper with a flourish. “Tony, do you want to hear what Mattie McGleenan said about you in the paper?” he roared, flecks of spit coming from his mouth. “Do you want to hear it?” he roared again.

Coleman started reading. McGleenon had told the reporter he thought marking the great man would have been harder. That he regretted not getting a chance to play against him in his prime. That Croke Park had given him the confidence to finish the job today. That – and this was the most shocking thing of all – he was going to finish Tony Scullion’s career in Celtic Park in front of his home crowd. Coleman finished by scrumpling up the paper and firing it at Scullion. “Are you going to take that Tony? Are you finished? Is that all you have? Mattie McGleenan?” he roared at him. As Coleman spoke, Tony’s face transformed, getting redder and redder and angrier and angrier. When Coleman was finished, Tony stood up and punched a hole through the door. A hole. The team was enraged. We thundered out of the changing room and massacred them. Mattie never touched the ball. Coming out of the shower afterwards, I spotted the newspaper lying under the bench and wondered. I picked it up, straightened it out, and opened it at Mattie McGleenon’s interview.

As I read it, I started smiling. It was an honour, McGleenan said, to have played in Croke Park against Tony Scullion, one of the greatest players the GAA has seen. He said having to come up against him again in the championship so soon was the toughest challenge any young player could face and he hoped that he wouldn’t let himself or the team down. Scullion had been had. We had been had. Coleman felt there was something missing in the dressing room. He made up the interview because he knew we loved Tony and it would put us on a war footing.

His Laochra Gael features him in Maghaberry prison coaching Gaelic football, the inmates relishing it. A far cry from the encounters with the British army during the Troubles that Tony says “scarred” him. “That’s what we all went through. When I was stopped by them on the way to training I would say we are going to Derry. They didn’t like that. They were looking me to say something else. So they pulled us in. I refused to say the something else. It will always be Derry for me from the day I was born and it’ll be Derry to the day I die. And if there is something wrong with that? Well, that’s too bad.”

I rang him after I watched the program to tell him what a special human being he is. He couldn’t stop laughing.

There is only one Tony Scullion.

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