WINNING is a habit and for St Gall’s golden generation, they certainly made a routine of regularly collecting silverware at the end of the season.
In a 14-year spell between 2001 and 2014, the Belfast club collected 13 county titles, with a lapse in 2006 breaking their winning streak.
A lot of clubs around the country would give anything for one county title, but for that St Gall’s side, winning the Antrim Championship was a formality, a box-ticking exercise that allowed them to carry out their loftier ambitions.
“I suppose up until the last five or six years we didn’t really know any different,” recalled St Gall’s legend Kevin Niblock. “We were lucky enough, bar one year in that 14-year span, we won Antrim.
“It was always great; we’d have always set targets each year to win county titles but with more success came higher targets and winning Ulsters and All-Irelands soon came on the radar.
“They were great times. We had those foundation years of 2001 and 2002, then we got beat in an Ulster final in 2003 against the Loup and probably didn’t perform so we weren’t far away obviously.
“Then we won Ulster in ’06, so in that five-year period we were doing pretty well. They were the foundations to go on and win it then in 2010. In honesty, we probably underachieved in Ulster some years, especially after we won the All-Ireland in 2010.
“I can remember some years, maybe getting beat in the first round of Ulster, the county celebrations were a bit muted because we only had a goal of getting that out of the way. It is mad to think back now because you’d bite someone’s hand off for another county title right now.
“There were definitely times there when you look back that we probably should have enjoyed it a wee bit more.”
Niblock was brought up in a football-mad house and when the family moved from Derry to Belfast, he joined the St Gall’s club as that’s where his uncle Raymond played ball.
“Gaelic was always in our house, Dad would have played for Derry and when we were younger in the early ‘90s we’d have been following that Derry team. Me and my brothers would have been going out and about with Dad and watching those games.
“In terms of us living in Belfast, it was really when I was about four years old. My uncle moved down to Belfast too and joined St Gall’s so that was really the link. When Dermot (older brother) was of age, the only link was St Gall’s because of Raymond.
“I was always playing football and soccer and a bit of basketball; I wasn’t really much of a hurler. I maybe jumped in the odd time to help teams in school and the club the odd time, but I never would have regularly played hurling.
“I suppose that’s again just coming back to the background of my dad, he was a footballer and wasn’t really a hurler and it wasn’t really done in our house. There’s a few of us in St Gall’s now, we’re a good dual club but I never really got into the hurling.
“It was mainly Gaelic and soccer up to around 15 or 16. I ended up playing a bit of semi-professional soccer but when St Gall’s started going well and we started winning county championships, that sort of forced my hand a bit.”
For Niblock, his first start for the St Gall’s senior side came as a teenager in the opening round of the Ulster Championship, which they lost to Enniskillen Gaels, after they’d just lifted their second county title in-a-row.
“In 2002 I made my senior debut in Ulster. I was still a minor so I wasn’t always starting, but I think I came off the bench a couple of times in Antrim when we won the county title in 2002 and then my first start was against Enniskillen Gaels in Brewster in 2002 and that would have been the start of it, I’d have been 16 or 17.”
But as is often the tale with a youngster bursting with eye-catching talent, it comes with a price. Everyone wants a piece and Niblock’s own drive and determination did more harm than good in those early years.
While still just a schoolboy, Niblock damaged cartilage in his knee but instead of resting and recovering, he went to all sorts of lengths to get back on the field. But in time, it all began to catch up on him.
“It was really that year in ’03 when we got to the Ulster final, I was lower sixth I think, and I was just playing everything to be honest. I mismanaged it, I did my cartilage in my knee, and I was taking diclofenac sodium and stupid things to try and play MacLarnon Cup games in school and trying to bluff myself and basically doing myself more damage.
“I hobbled through Ulster that year, I think I came on in that Ulster final (vs Loup), but I was in really bad shape. After I got my operation, the surgeon told me that the cartilage was just mangled, so he took it out and that’s probably one of the things that came back to haunt me more recently.
“Obviously with cartilage being removed, it was bone on bone, so I just had to manage that. Even the last four or five years I’ve played, I was doing a lot of pool work and bike work just to get back for the weekend.
“I’m glad I got well into my 30s and so on because sometimes when you do your cartilage at that young age, it could finish you before then. So I can’t really complain, and I have managed it really well over the years.
“Looking back now and obviously being a teacher, I sort of learned from my own mistakes and would tell a lot of my pupils to look after their bodies, especially at that young age whereas, in my head, all I was thinking about was getting back for the next game in Ulster.
“I wasn’t thinking of the future when you’re in your 30s or your 40s or whatever.
“I played quite a few games through my career maybe masking injury with injections in my knee which obviously isn’t ideal and it’s something that ultimately whenever we played Cargin last year. I had to take an injection in my knee, and I suppose that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“After the match I was like, ‘what am I doing?’ but at the end of the day, you try and get the balance right. In terms of coaching you do try and make sure you’re looking after your players but ultimately you want to preserve their careers as much as you can.”
Niblock had a good innings though and has the medal haul to show for a glorious club career. At county level, it wasn’t so successful, but we’ll get to that later.
In the blue and white of St Gall’s, Niblock helped his club create history by capturing their first, and to date, only All-Ireland Club title. They were the kingpins of Antrim, had tasted provincial success, but now it was about taking it to the next level.
In 2006 they were 60 minutes away from getting their hands on the Andy Merrigan Cup but were edged out by Galway champions Salthill-Knocknacarra by one point, 0-7 to 0-6.
“After ’06, getting beat in the final by a point, that was where your benchmark was. Getting there gave us the confidence that we could get over the line and probably a lot of us were coming to our peaks so we knew that we could get there.
“We also knew you need a lot of luck. In terms of targets, that was always the target, you don’t look past Antrim and we never got complacent. We respected every team in Antrim but knew if we got things right, we should be successful and then you get into Ulster and regroup.
“That was always the target, whether it was spoke about as a team or just individually, you wanted to win the All-Ireland.
It took an extra couple of years, but St Gall’s eventually made it back to Croke Park on St Patrick’s Day and this time there would be no mistake. While it wasn’t easy, St Gall’s were comfortable and came through with five points to spare against Clare’s Kilmurry-Ibrickane.
“Probably the overwhelming emotion at the final whistle was relief. You start this process, maybe eight years previously for me and you’ve a lot of great days but obviously somewhere down the line you always go out.
“Whether it’s a good run in Ulster or an All-Ireland final, so to go unbeaten was ultimately a big relief and knowing that all the hard work you’ve done has really paid off. We had a hunger to win it and obviously we didn’t follow it up but it’s a monkey off your back.
“It was more relief more than anything was my memory at the final whistle. But obviously it was just pure joy and we celebrated it well. I remember St Paddy’s Day was on a Wednesday that year, so we got the Wednesday and most of the weekend at it, it was brilliant.
“It was very important for us to get back to St Gall’s. Dublin is so accessible with the players lounge and the I remember ’06 was like a wake and Salthill were in party mode and you just wanted to get out of there.
“Whereas in 2010 you were in having a couple of beers and you just wanted to get back up to the club where you knew there was going to be hundreds of people welcoming you back.
“The Wednesday was good craic, but the Thursday was so enjoyable, just getting the whole day off and people were flooding into the club from all over.”
During that time, both prior to winning the All-Ireland and after it, St Gall’s built up a fierce rivalry with Crossmaglen, who had arguably the best club team of all time at that stage.
And while they came close, St Gall’s just couldn’t get past their Armagh nemeses.
“The year we won it (the All-Ireland), it was Pearse Ógs who won the Armagh Championship and very nearly beat us in the first round (of Ulster). Cross definitely would have been one we struggled to get over and to be fair to them, most of the times they did their homework and they pipped us.
“I really enjoyed those games with them because you’re coming up against the best. In ’07 we played them in the Ulster final and I think they really did their homework in terms of some of our main players and Sean Kelly got injured that day early on.
“I think 2012 would have been the last one and I always remember that one because I think they obviously won the All-Ireland the year after us, so it was the last two All-Ireland winners in the first round of Ulster. It was a real serious atmosphere in Casement that day.”
Niblock’s exploits with St Gall’s earned him a county call and he made his first championship appearance in an Antrim shirt in 2004 against Louth in round one of the Qualifiers, while still in high school.
“I was called in after the u-21 campaign and I did feel like I was ready for it, and it was good to come in and get game time. It’s funny thinking back no because you have the A-Levels going on and I did alright in my A-Levels but obviously when I got the call up that was a big focus.
“I teach boys now and they seem to be a bit more, okay, get the A-Levels first, while I was the opposite. You find yourself now lecturing boys on how not to do it from your own experiences.”
For the first five years of Niblock’s Saffron career, Antrim failed to pick up a single victory in the Ulster Championship. But that changed when Liam ‘Baker’ Bradley was announced as the new manager.
“Baker’s exactly what we needed at the time, there’s no bullshit with Liam, he’ll call it as it is. He was good at analysing players, me and him had a good relationship. We knocked Glenullin out of Ulster one year before that and I remember having a good game that day and probably he went in and made me feel like I was one of the main players from the start.
“The year before in Ulster (2008) I did a really bad ankle ligament damage against Cavan Gaels, big Darren Rabbit came through the back of me, and I was out for three months and sort of mismanaged it, so I wasn’t involved in the National League that year.
“To be fair to Liam and I’m very thankful for him, he talked me into coming back in for championship even though I wasn’t at the required fitness levels. He did lift the phone a couple of times and wanted me to come in. With the year we had I’m obviously very thankful that I did come in because I was probably more thinking, I’d leave it until next year.”
Niblock didn’t get the full experience of Antrim’s provincial charge but was used as a substitute in all three of their outings which included wins over Donegal and Cavan along with their Ulster final defeat to then All-Ireland champions Tyrone.
“I only joined the panel the Wednesday before the Donegal game but even to put me on in that game was apreciated as, there were probably boys training all year. Then I started against Kerry (in the Qualifiers) when I probably had a bit more fitness.
“For me, he didn’t owe me anything and obviously with the bit of a gap between the Ulster final and the Kerry game, he didn’t need to play me, but he had belief in me and faith in me, so I have nothing but good things to say about Liam.”
While it was a year to remember for Antrim, reaching their first Ulster final since 1951, they finished the season without any silverware. But the experience would help the St Gall’s players involved further down the line.
“Getting to the Ulster final was great but it would have been great to win it and I’d like to think that as good as Tyrone were, we were at a level where if we played Tyrone ten times, we could have beat them maybe three, if we’re being real.
“We didn’t have the day we could have and there probably was regret. I ended up missing an operation on my ankle and luckily enough we went on and won the club All-Ireland. I’d say that, especially for the St Gall’s boys, those experiences of the big games certainly didn’t do us any harm.”
Getting close to Tyrone was one thing, but for Antrim to take on the might of the Kingdom, and push them all the way, was another.
“It was great summers day, and we were just outclassed and there’s no hiding places there. I was marking Marc Ó Sé and you’re coming up against these household names that you were brought up with.
“I don’t think we were standing in awe of them but certainly they just had that wee bit more than us.
“They brought the ‘Gooch’ (Colm Cooper) off the bench and I always remember Declan O’Sullivan that day, who would have been a big hero of mine and someone I’d really try to model my game on, he was outstanding.
“They had players that were pretty unmarkable on their day, so it was really a good experience and probably a fair enough result.”
Whether it was pulling the strings in a play-making half-forward role or lining out a bit closer to goal, Niblock was always the one that opposition defenders had to worry about.
Kerry showed that was the case by placing one of the best man markers on him.
“(Marc) Ó Sé is definitely up there, Karl Lacey is someone that you wouldn’t get much change out of. The likes of Emmet Bolton from Kildare always stands out as a really tricky costumer but one of the things about Ó Sé was he could play football.
“Corner-backs usually in those days were, ‘do your job and get out’ but Marc was charging up the field and wanting to get scores.
I know it happens a lot now but, in those days, there wasn’t too many corner-backs who had the ability to kick points at ease and be such a good man-marker also.”
Antrim haven’t got back to those heights in the ten-plus years since and Niblock believes they “didn’t keep up the pace” as the province continued to grow from strength to strength.
While Gaelic football was always the priority, Niblock did dip his toes into the soccer world from time to time, and he signed for Cliftonville in late 2013.
“I took notions. I would have always played soccer underage and I went in the second year of their double in January. I was still involved with Antrim, still involved with the club and it’s a bit mad in hindsight but I was training away with the county.
“The county was still the priority, it was more that Cliftonville were having a look at me and then I played a few first team friendlies, quite a few reserve games.
“The thing at that level is you have to commit. In those days for me, I didn’t want to stop playing for the club in August and if you’re going in and being contracted with an Irish League team, you could be sitting on the bench and missing a big club game.
“I always remember we played Cargin the following year and Tommy Breslin, he basically said to me the following Christmas, come up and do a pre-season and sign on but then that’s it, you’re a Cliftonville player.
“I did take notions, but when it came to it, I suppose I didn’t have the courage. Now to put into context, we had been beaten only once in Antrim in the last 14 years and I wasn’t able to do it basically and that probably says it all about Gaelic.
“It was sort of like a midlife crisis in your sporting career where I wanted to show that I can play soccer at this level but when it came to it, the urge to play Gaelic and win county titles was probably too strong.
“And that’s the bond you have at St Gall’. You’d be feeling you’d be letting down the likes of Sean Kelly, Terry O’Neill, these boys, when it came to their their goals. It was a great experience, I really enjoyed playing soccer and training with those boys, but I should have done it right or not at all.”
It wasn’t just local clubs that noticed Niblock’s soccer talent as clubs in England also offered him some trials.
“Hibernian and Wolverhampton and a few other clubs were potentially going to happen but again, it was my attitude.
“I remember I was meant to go over to Wolves for a week and I went to the Gaeltacht instead, that sums up that I wasn’t fully invested, it was always Gaelic that was number one.
“I always enjoyed playing soccer and still enjoy it. For me it was always to follow on in my father’s footsteps and my brother’s footsteps.”
Another injury to the knee brought an end to Niblock’s time with Antrim, although he never officially announced his retirement from the intercounty game.
“I know people put out retirement tweets and messages but that’s just something I wouldn’t do because I would never give up on it.
“I would never have said at the time I finished with Antrim that I was retiring.
“ I was very much thinking I can’t commit at the minute, but at the same time you don’t know how you’re going to feel in a year or two, so I made sure never to say the word retirement.
“This is the first year I haven’t played with the club and people ask me am I retired and I’m not, I wouldn’t retire because you never know.
“It seems very final and sometimes you feel like you can still play and give a service.”
While the Antrim dream has come and gone, there could yet be one last hurrah and another chapter in the St Gall’s jersey for one of their most loyal servants.