Fifty years ago, Ballinascreen were Derry senior champions. Former Derry star Brendan Kelly was a key member of their winning team. Michael McMullan went to meet him…
BRENDAN Kelly’s facial expression says it all. He just loves talking football. As a back-to-back Ulster winner with Derry in the mid-seventies, the game has treated him well.
There is a jovial tone to his voice that makes him a natural story teller. Close your eyes and you can almost imagine the banter his Ballinascreen and Derry teams shared.
Brendan ‘Neilly’, as he’s better known to anyone who following football across his era, kicked points for fun.
He had an engine they saw him operate in a dropping half-forward role before it was even a thing.
If only he had pace, he asks himself. Seating in the stand at Ballinascreen’s Dean McGlinchey Park, he rolls out names of the various speedsters of his day and uses Conor McCluskey as the modern day example of something he craved.
But talk to any of his peers of that era and they tell you the lie of the land. Brendan Neilly was some player. You’d hear it over and over. Unanimous.
From a family where football wasn’t high up the list, he came late to a Ballinascreen underage scene that swept all before it on the way to four minor titles in-a-row in the sixties.
For two of those seasons, they were setting the pace at u-16 level. They were the rock their 1973 winning senior team was hewn from.
“Mickey McGlone, Jimmy McGlone, Eamon McGuigan, myself, Seamy McKee…Gerry Kelly,” he listed of some who would graduate to the senior ranks.
Of the team who beat reigning All-Ireland champions Bellaghy in the ’73 county final, there were “seven or eight” u-21s. Charlie ‘Chuck’ Heron, at 28, was the oldest.
Growing up, the majority of Ballinascreen’s young players were schooled in St Colm’s High School, Draperstown under the watch of Galway native Mick Lawless.
Brendan Kelly, Fr David O’Kane and Mickey Toner were at the nearby St Patrick’s, Maghera.
“Ballinascreen didn’t know about me…not until ‘67,” Kelly said, explaining of his late arrival.
With St Colm’s not offering sixth form, some of the pupils pursued their A-Level studies at St Patrick’s.
Sean McGregor was one of them and when he saw Kelly tearing it up against his team during a class league game, the word went all the way back to Ballinascreen.
Charlie ‘Butts’ Kelly was sent to get Kelly collected for training and so it began.
The first u-16 game, against Bellaghy, saw him introduced at half-time. It was a game long since saving.
“We were getting a while hammering,” Brendan said. “I can remember it as well, I came on and scored four goals and four points in my first game for Ballinascreen.”
Lawless was also in charge of the club senior team and was involved with Derry minors.
“He came up to our house to get me to play for Derry minors up in Dungannon against Tyrone,” Brendan said. “There was myself, Mickey McGlone, Sean McGeehan, Vincie Conway and Brian Ward, who was the captain.”
It was the story of a second-half appearance and he took to it like a duck to water. As well as nicking “a couple” of points, he made a goal for Ward and his football career began to flourish.
That 1969 season ended with Derry as Ulster Minor champions, but after a semi-final over Wexford, they were left to rue the concession of two preventable goals in an All-Ireland final defeat to Cork.
The imprint Lawless left on the Ballinascreen senior team made a difference. He brought in the days when everyone had to wear matching shorts and socks.
Training was compulsory. Just like it was with the county minors. On days when Derry seniors – training at the same venue – would dander out of the changing rooms, kick a ball in and out before sliding off season, the minors had a standard. They’d run up and down the grassy banks at the side of Dean McGlinchey Park before heading out onto the pitch for the football side of the bargain.
“You all had to go out and train and if you didn’t, then you were…out the door,” Brendan said with a whistling sound to mimic the sound of a player being sent packing.
It was a regime that was mixed with enjoyment and it all funnelled into a Ballinascreen senior team who were able to mix it with the best. Bellaghy were kingpins but they’d always plenty to do to see off ‘Screen.
“Our schoolboy (u-16) teams were all there and out at training, mad looking to get playing,” Kelly said, backing up how much he enjoyed his football.
“I was lucky to come along at a nice time and there were plenty of footballers about.
“The years we got beat by a point, you went home scowling about it but you knew you were competitive.
“Nobody went out and beat Ballinascreen by more than a couple of points in any game.”
He recites a pivotal line of the team. Gerry Kelly was tucked away at corner-back. Captain Tommy McKenna was in front of him. Seamus McKee was the corner-forward.
In between, Kelly covered the grass. It was as elegant as it was effortless. Kick the ball into the space and he’d win it.
“McKee was a flying machine,” Kelly outlined. “We just had a good way of playing and we played it that way.”
In the years before their 1973 success, they were never far from glory but there was a lack of tradition in the club. In somewhere like Bellaghy or Kerry, a father would tell his son about his medals and the interest was passed down the generations.
“We were there and we knew we were close. It was only a matter of time,” Kelly said of their constant clipping at Bellaghy’s heels.
“The year Bellaghy won the All-Ireland, in 1972, they should never have got out of Magherafelt,” Kelly said of a litany of semi-final defeats.
But both teams always took their oil. It was always an honest game, followed by a handshake. There’d always be another day.
“Things weren’t going that well and something wasn’t right,” Kelly said of the early part of the 1973 season.
A crossroads was a game against Carrickmore in the John Paddy Mullan Cup in Kildress.
“They (Carrickmore) were the big Tyrone side at the time and they were giving us a bad hammering,” Kelly said, stating how manager Colm ‘Cos’ McGuigan turned things around.
“We had embarrassed ourselves. Then, in the second half, we ran riot and I can’t remember how much we beat them by.”
Ballinascreen would go on and beat Ardboe in the final later on the season. They never looked back, with the reserves going on to be crowned intermediate champions.
“We never lost a game until the Ulster semi-final against Ballyshannon,” Kelly said. “They had 13 of the Donegal side that Galway beat in the All-Ireland semi-final.”
It was a day of regret as Ballinascreen played with 14 men for the first quarter due to the late arrival or Eamon McGuigan, bizarrely without anyone starting in his place.
The Derry senior pathway began with wins over Sleacht Néill and Castledawson.
“We could’ve always handled Sleacht Néill and it would be a good game of football,” Kelly said.
“Castledawson games were different, it was more difficult.
“They were a tough team to beat and had a great bunch of players at that time.”
Faced with Banagher in the semi-final, it was a game Kelly felt slipping away.
“We shouldn’t have won that game, we were lucky that day,” he admits. “Banagher had a great side at that time. It was a very tight game and we got a lucky goal in the second half.”
A hopeful Ballinascreen shot ended up in the corner of the Banagher net.
“It turned it,” Kelly still stresses. “Before that, the game was going on and I was worried we were going to get beat again.
“It changed things and once we got in front, we moved up a great and things start to click.”
It was always one game at a time for Brendan Kelly. The final with Bellaghy was no different. With football not a fanatical interest at home, winning a championship wasn’t instilled.
Suddenly, here they were, walking out at Magherafelt’s County Grounds and the place “bunged” for the eagerly awaited clash.
Chris Brown was a driving force for Bellaghy with his raids forward from wing-back.
“I remember ‘Cos’ saying that if I stopped Chris Brown, we’d win it,” Kelly remembers of the advice directed at him in the build-up.
On top of that, he had to used his engine to double back and help the Ballinascreen’s defence to close the door on Frankie O’Loane, the Tones’ dangerman up top.
Tommy McKenna didn’t let O’Loane cut in along the end line. If he darted back into the open space, Kelly would close in. Job done.
“Before the game, we knew we were going out against the All-Ireland champions and we destroyed them in the first ten minutes,” Kelly said of his vivid memory from their winning performance.
“Gene Kelly put one in the net and we had got off to a great start…but Bellaghy started to get going.”
Brown, with the help of a deflection, scored a Bellaghy goal with nine minutes to go to the interval to leave the champions a point to the good.
O’Loane added a score early in the second half and it was game on.
Kelly remembers the dreaded feeling again, of seeing another chance at glory dissolve before his very eyes.
“I remember saying to myself “we’re beat again” and then we got a free 40 yards out,” he added.
“I took it on and scored it to take it back [to one point] and it broke Bellaghy’s momentum. It started making them think.”
The game then hinged on goal chances. Ballinascreen were starting to turn the screw but there was still time for drama.
First it was Paddy McNally who came to Ballinascreen’s rescue to deny Sean O’Neill a certain goal. McNally’s pass started a breakaway move upfield with Tommy McKenna popping over a vital sore to settle matters.
Tony Moran began to control the game but they needed McNally to pull off another save to keep ‘Screen in control.
In the end, it was the Bellaghy net that was bulging. Seamus McKee’s pace took him behind full-back Austin Mulholland and he was quick enough to flick past ‘keeper Paddy McTaggart to seal victory.
The foundations laid by Mick Lawless were built on by ‘Cos’ McGuigan.
Underage titles have come and gone since, but the 1973 team remain the last group to take home the biggest prize.
Since then, Ballinascreen played in five county senior finals and lost to Lavey (twice), Bellaghy, Ballinderry and Sleacht Néill, all of whom went on to win Ulster.
Next month, Ballinascreen will celebrate another anniversary, the club’s 90th year.
For Brendan Kelly and the men of 1973, they’ll be hoping a crop come along soon to banish their name of the club’s last championship winning team.