It’s 25 years since Rostrevor got their hands on the Frank O’Hare Cup. Conor Daly was part of their winning team and he spoke with Michael McMullan about their path to glory
THERE were many pieces that made up the Rostrevor’s championship winning jigsaw of 1998, but Michael Daly and Vincent Murphy were two of the earliest slotted in.
Both prominent club men, they were teachers in St Mary’s Boys’ PS, which has since merged with the local girls’ school to form St Bronagh’s PS.
While some Rostrevor players would have attended Killowen school out the road, the schoolyard in St Mary’s is where the early steps to glory began for most.
“Football was a prominent part of our primary school and our lives,” begins Conor Daly, who kicked three points in the 1998 final win over Mayobridge.
Down titles and the McGreevy Cup, Ulster’s silverware, were regular visitors at St Mary’s, feeding into the Rostrevor underage conveyor belt.
Success was plentiful and the majority of the senior players would have picked up a title of some description on their way up through the ranks.
A look at the Rostrevor team who are meeting up this weekend to mark 25 years since their last Down title and it’s not hard to see how they took home the Frank O’Hare Cup back in 1998.
Earlier that year, Dermot Mackin won a Hogan Cup with St Colman’s. He was part of a defence that had Mark Rowland, Gary Farrell and Finbar Caulfield from the Hogan winning team of 1993.
Six in all held Hogan medals including Martin Sherry who missed the county final with a broken wrist, having scored their last gasp winning goal to sink Clonduff in the semi-final.
Captain Aidan Farrell was full-forward when Down won Sam in 1994. Jarlath Austin, an All-Ireland winner three years earlier, was one of the best midfielders in Down club football.
The Rostrevor team was also littered with players who had represented Down at minor and u-21 level.
“We had a talented bunch of boys who were used to winning medals in St Colman’s and also with St Mark’s Warrenpoint.”
Another famous son of Rostrevor, Pete McGrath, had fingerprints all over the success.
When the club’s minor management needed a helping hand with a talented group in 1992, Pete was happy to oblige and help polish them into county champions.
“The significance was that eight to 10 boys from that minor team went on to feature in the senior win six years later,” said Daly, who was one of the them.
“He (McGrath) coached a lot of the boys at school too, so while he wasn’t directly involved in ’98, he was a key club man in the background and left an impression on all the players.”
Things got worse before they got better for Rostrevor having found themselves relegated to Division Two at the end of the 1995 season.
On paper, Rostrevor’s team looked the part but they could never seem to get their ducks in a row. Often the distractions of being a seaside town were offered up as excuse.
They would strike gold before the new season with PJ McGee, a teacher who had success with the nearby St Malachy’s Castlewellan, agreeing to come on board as manager.
“PJ was the instrumental figure in bringing the whole thing together,” Daly said of the man who secured promotion at the first attempt: Rostrevor were back in the top flight.
McGee’s background in PE and organisational skills were exactly what was needed. A “thirst for training” spread through the squad.
“We were lucky to attract PJ,” Daly added. “He was good with young people and we had a young squad.
“He brought an organisation and a structure to Rostrevor. He stripped it right back and from the get-go there was commitment.”
Training was competitive and McGee made use of the various terrains across the county. From sand dunes in Newcastle to the various forest parks, the enthusiastic Rostrevor team went to about their work.
With the fitness levels came the inner steel they’d need when games approached a crossroads and the tough questions were asked.
“It was running and football, running and football,” Daly said of the regime.
“We were a very strong and fit squad. Even our reserve team was strong at the time because there was competition for places.”
Every box was ticked. Lifts were arranged to ferry players home from Belfast for training with full-back Michael Farrell linked up to train with St Vincent’s in Dublin during the week.
Rostrevor consolidated their Division One status in 1997 and slowly the penny began to drop. They were not there to take part.
Soon the realisation dawned on them – they were as good as what was out there. On their day, Rostrevor were a match for anybody, but consistency was the next box they needed to tick.
“In ’97 and ’98 we were consistently a hard team to play against,” Daly said.
“We had scorers all over the pitch and we had a lot of boys who were used to winning so there was no inferiority complex.
“We developed a belief that we could compete with anybody in the county and it all came right for us in 1998.”
After Burren’s dominance of the eighties came an “opportunist” decade in Down club football where “five or six” clubs felt they could win the senior title. Loughinisland’s win in 1989 opened it all up.
“Downpatrick dominated the first few in the nineties,” Daly said.
“Castlewellan won a couple in the middle and Burren had won a couple before us.
“Having played all the teams in the previous couple of years in the league, we realised we were as good as anybody.
“All the stars aligned for us. We were fit, we were determined and there was a maturity at the time regards socialising.”
On top of their talent, work and dedication, the belief McGee instilled gave Rostrevor the perfect mix they’d need.
He built a strong management team with Tom Mulholland and Sean Gordon on board.
Craic and camaraderie were important parts of the jigsaw too, as everything began to take shape. Having nine sets of brothers was another important factor.
“With that comes constant chat about football because you are in the house with it,” Daly stressed.
“That was a big plus for us too, with so many bothers in the panel driving it on.”
The inner strength that continued to grow would be tested to the max.
Rostrevor’s route to glory saw them come from behind in all four games of their championship adventure, beginning with a win over neighbours Warrenpoint.
Four goals were needed to stun 1994 and 1995 champions Castlewellan in a deserved quarter-final win.
Two Stephen Caulfield frees shaved Clonduff’s lead back to two points before the drama began. Martin Sherry’s goal saw Rostrevor snatch victory with the last play. It was so late that some fans left before the comeback was complete.
“There is a story about a boy in a pub back in Rostrevor giving out about the performance,” Daly joked.
“Somebody asked him what he was talking about because he didn’t realise we scored the winning goal with the last kick of the game. He had obviously left early.
“PJ had that in us and he had you totally convinced that you play to the very, very end. There was no lost cause.”
There was no sign of panic. Even when Caulfield was standing over his late frees, the calming advice of Aidan Farrell made sure he took time over the kicks.
“We did get our chance, Sherry buried it and the rest, as they say, is history,” Daly added.
It wasn’t all about the final…
Without this last minute onion bag (™️ Patsy Russell) there would have been no ‘98 final! 🧅
Another memory to relive tonight…
— St Bronagh’s GAA Rostrevor (@RostrevorGAA) September 16, 2023
It was a novel pairing in the final with Rostrevor aiming for title number two and Mayobridge looking to end the famine since their 1919 win.
Mickey Linden was the main man for the ‘Bridge who had a team bulging with teenagers who would go on to win eight titles from the next ten.
Rostrevor had strong links to the winning team of 1976 and the messages passed down the generations helped keep the current team grounded.
Under PJ McGee’s watch, the preparation for the final was exactly the same as every other championship Sunday and absent of any gimmicks that often find creep into pre-final camps across the board.
For Rostrevor, it was about keeping boys injury free and the right edge at training. And maintaining the routine that worked for the Warrenpoint, Castlewellan and Clonduff games.
“PJ would’ve gathered us at our own pitch early in the morning for a light kickaround and a meeting,” said Daly.
The games were in the evening and the early morning routine dispelled the nervous energy. It gave the pre-game messages a chance to settle in without the rush of a packed dressing room.
“It meant when we arrived at the ground for the match there was no big long speeches,” Daly added, pointing out how it helped him settle.
“We get there, warm up and play, which I found was refreshing for players. There is a lot of nervous energy about and we got rid of it in the morning.
“There were some class players in Down and they needed marked. Talking about the approach is not something you can do in the five or ten minutes before a match. We sorted that out in the morning and it was a great approach.”
The ’98 decider was a colourful, feel good final. There was a buzz, but no deep-rooted animosity that comes with clubs constantly battling against each other year on year.
“Both teams went in with nothing to lose and everything to gain,” Daly added.
“It was played out in good spirits and even the next day, the Mayobridge people joined us at our celebrations in Rostrevor.”
President of Ireland, Rostrevor’s own Mary McAleese, was in attendance and the All-Ireland winning Down team of 1968 were also guests of honour.
“I personally didn’t feel nervous because the management team exuded a bit of calmness,” Daly said.
The messages were simple. The hard work had been done. The experience of being behind in every game was in the locker. Giving up was never an option. A game is never over ‘til it’s over.
Armed with more experience that youthful Mayobridge, Rostrevor were slight favourites with many seeing the game as the toss of a coin.
With the wind at their back, Mayobridge settled well but lacked the composure to translate their possession into the scores that would take them more than four points ahead at the break.
The Rostrevor leaders spoke at half time. Jarlath Austin, Finbar Caulfield and Aidan Farrell.
With the breeze, it was still possible and Rostrevor were no stranger to the tight corners of championship football.
“It was laid on the line that it could be the last chance we had win a Down senior championship,” Daly remembers.
Empty the tank. No stone was to be left unturned, but the game hinged on two key moments, both going Rostrevor’s way – Lloyd Parr’s goal and a vital Christopher McCartan save.
“There was ricochet and it fell to Glenn McMahon who had a sweet left foot,” Daly explains.
“He hit a piledriver of a shot and Christpher saved it. Between our goal and Christopher’s save…both seemed to happen around the same time and those moments were the turning point.”
There was no way back for Mayobridge as Rostrevor got a tight grip on the game and missed very little with an economical attacking display.
“Aidan Farrell kicked over a few points from play,” Daly said.
“Aidan Cole and Lloyd Parr were linking up well in attack and our midfield got a handle on it. It wasn’t a game for the purist but finals are all about winning,”
The final whistle unleashed an outpouring of emotion and it was a special moment for Conor Daly. His father Michael was the club’s last winning captain.
“He was instrumental in educating a lot of the boys in primary school with Val Murphy,” Conor said.
“He was being honoured for being on the Down ’68 panel with my uncle Michael Cole.
“It was absolutely brilliant; it was a special time.
“My father wasn’t a big man for keeping football memorabilia around the house but you knew he was part of a special group that had won a county title.
“It was special with the strong links to the ’76 team. There was more than half of our squad who had a link with the previous winning team.”
As the 1998 squad prepare to gather up this weekend, Daly hopes the memories can inspire the current players in the club similar to when they looked up to the men of ’76.
“We were so focused on winning that we didn’t think about Ulster,” Daly concluded, looking back at their fleeting taste of the Ulster Championship.
“Enniskillen beat us by a couple of points and they went on to be an outstanding Ulster Club championship team so it was an opportunity missed.”
“I sometimes regret that we didn’t back it up with a second Down Championship but given what Mayobridge did in the 10 years after it then we were lucky to have got one.”