LEGEND is a word that’s wheeled about all too often nowadays, but one thing is for sure, Francie Bellew was, still is and always will be an Armagh and Crossmaglen legend.
Every now and then, usually in the off season when there’s little to write about, an article of ‘GAA’s hardest men’ will do the rounds.
There are a few candidates who always make the list. Iconic names like Mick Lyons, Diarmuid ‘Rock’ O’Sullivan and Bellew. Bellew was an icon in Armagh during the best period in their history. But he was much more than a bruising, no nonsense full-back.
At a recent tribute night for Bellew, held in his home club, his former Crossmaglen and Armagh manager Joe Kernan spoke at length about his footballing ability.
“After winning three All-Ireland Clubs, I knew there were men I could trust to do a job and would cope with pressure on the big day. Francie was always one man I knew I could trust. When he came in (to the Armagh panel), he didn’t start straight away, it took a while to grow into it.
“He actually got in because of an injury and he never looked back. And from that day until the day he quit, he was Mr Dependable. Francie probably never got the credit he deserved for the way he played the game. He was the best reader of a game I have ever seen.
“The smart people who like to have a laugh like Pat Spillane would say Francie was slow and Francie was this, but when Francie was out in front nobody ever overtook him. When Francie was in behind, he read the situation, he covered people.
“He’d win the ball, break the tackle and give a simple pass, he simplified the game of Gaelic football. We all know today, it’s certainly not a simple game and the more people like Francie that play the game, the better.”
Childhood friend Oisin McConville grew up with Bellew and the pair shared some glorious moments on the football field. Nowadays, they meet more regularly at the soccer pitch, and Bellew is still getting to grips with the sport.
“You could trust him with your life,” added McConville. “When you looked up the field and saw Francie on the ball, I can’t remember him ever giving away too many balls.
“He was probably a better footballer than people gave him credit for. A lot of the time he was getting the dirty jobs, he was getting the very good corner-forwards. He was just somebody you could depend on and as a teammate, he was phenomenal.
“We bump into each other now on the soccer field, my son plays for one team and his plays for another. He’s a very good analyst when it comes to soccer.
“Every so often he’ll say to me, ‘why did he not just smash him there?’’” laughed the current Wicklow manager. “Because it’s soccer Francie, you’d do about two years in prison!”
Bellew joined the Armagh panel in 2002, and McConville, Armagh’s goal-scoring hero in the All-Ireland final that season, recalled Bellew’s first training session with the county team.
“He was an unbelievable reader of the game. I know everyone says that, but he really was unbelievable at reading the game. To be honest, a lot of people in this county would have had question marks about him when he went into the county set-up.
“I think one of the first training sessions, Justin McNulty clothes-lined him, and Francie muttered to me coming off the field, ‘it might take me a while, but I’ll get him back.’ It only took him about four and a half years! I remember Justy being carried off the pitch, I didn’t even have to ask who it was.”
The legendary defender was notorious for his hard man actions on the field, but off it, he was a man of few words. He was never interested in interviews, rarely spoke in the changing rooms and to this day remains quiet and shy.
Benny Tierney, Armagh’s goalkeeper in 2002, shared the hilarious story of UTV journalist Adrian Logan trying to grab Bellew for a few words after the All-Ireland final.
“I remember on the bus coming home from the ’02 final, Adrian Logan came on to the bus and said, ‘we want a word with Francie.’ I said to join the queue! Francie was sitting with a bottle of Bulmer’s in the seat on his own. Logie came in and the cameras turned on Francie.
(Tierney imitating Logan) ‘Francie Bellew, icon, Armagh, one year on the panel. Never won an All-Ireland and you’ve come in, Joe took you in, it’s been an unbelievable journey for you, unbelievable. A new player to come in and win Armagh’s first All-Ireland, what have you got to say?’
“Francie said, ‘Ah sure it’s great’ and turned and looked out the window. I thought, you got three words out of him, you done better than anybody!” laughed Tierney.
One moment stood out for McConville. Bellew gave a stirring speak in the changing rooms before the 2007 All-Ireland Club final replay with Kerry side Dr Croke’s.
McConville, the captain of the team, stood back and let Bellew have his say. “We started in P1 and went right the way up to P7 and I never heard him say a word until 2007. Whatever it was about the ‘Gooch’ (Colm Cooper), the ‘Gooch’ used to wind him up.
“I don’t know if it was because ‘Gooch’ wouldn’t say anything to him or he wouldn’t respond or he wouldn’t show any weakness when it came to Francie, but Francie absolutely hated the ‘Gooch’. Not as a person obviously but on the pitch and what he could do.
“I remember I was captain in 2007, we were playing Dr Crokes in the replay, and I was in getting some treatment. When I came out Francie was in the middle of the huddle giving a team talk, it was the first time I ever heard him. I remember Donal (Murtagh) saying to me, ‘have you anything to say’, and I said ‘no I’m not going to follow that.’
“Thirty years it took him to say something, and I think whenever you see that game and you see the response, the first think he did was give away a penalty. But we ended up winning that game and I always put it down to Francie and his words of wisdom.
“Nobody to this day can recall exactly what he said but everybody sat up and took notice whenever he did say something.”
Bellew shared plenty of battles with some of the best forwards of his generation, none more so that Tyrone star Owen Mulligan. The Cookstown sharpshooter recalled a brilliant tale of how their mythical rivalry followed him off the football field.
“Years ago, after the (2003) All-Ireland final I was in Belfast with a girl, we were sitting down taking a meal, I think it might have actually been Valentine’s Day,” Mulligan recalls. “The restaurant was right beside the Hatfield and I saw these six fellas coming with the (Armagh) jerseys on and one of them actually had ‘Bellew’ on the back of it.
“The next thing the door opened and all you heard was ‘Francie’s gonna get ya, Francie’s gonna get ya.’ She said who’s Francie, I said you don’t want to know!”