Ballinderry – When we were Kings

TWENTY years ago, Darren Conway kicked three points as Ballinderry saw off Mayobridge to clinch the Shamrocks’ second Ulster title on their way to All-Ireland glory and he looks back on some of the memories of that journey.

By Michael McMullan

DARREN Conway had some innings. After a career that boasts seven Derry Championship medals, two Ulster titles and a coveted All-Ireland with Ballinderry, he was the last of their golden generation still playing club football last year.

Hand in hand with natural talent came his football brain.

When neighbouring Ballymaguigan came looking for someone to steer their senior team in 2015, he answered the call as their player-manager. In recent years, he was still making cameo appearances from their bench.

The boots are hung up, but talking to him, football just drips off the tongue. It’s in the blood.

Ballinderry’s underage production line amassed nine Derry and two All-Ireland Féile titles in 11 years during the nineties. It was the foundation that allowed them to build a footballing empire.

“We were churning out good teams and it was an annual holiday every year,” Conway remembers.

As the years passed, it spiralled towards the St Paul’s Minor Tournament in Belfast and invariably success at senior level.

“You have got to be grateful for what we had,” he said.

After a 13-year absence, the John McLaughlin Cup arrived 1995. Conway remembers his cousin Paul’s goal that sank Loup in the semi-final and the Shamrocks defeating Bellaghy in the county final.

“I was on bench the following year,” he remembers.

Bellaghy got their revenge that season, with Ballinderry going down to Lavey in 1997 (after a replay) and again in 1998, Conway’s debut year.

“The first fence to getting to Bellaghy was getting past Lavey,” he said of their big win over the Erin’s Own men in 1999.

They’d lose two finals to Bellaghy before Conway had a first Derry Championship medal in the palm of his hand.

“We never feared any of the teams we played, we thought we could beat them but we couldn’t get over the line,” he said.

People may see it as cockiness, Conway didn’t. It was confidence.

“We seemed to excel from it, we seemed to go on from it. That (Bellaghy) hoodoo was gone and we weren’t worried about them anymore,” he added.

Brian McIver was in charge for the 1995 and 2000 championships, but Conway emphasises the input of Damian Barton’s three-year stint in between.

“To this day I would still say, and that’s no disrespect to any man, but he is the best man I have trained under to get the most out of us and get us into shape,” states Conway.

“He maybe didn’t have the luck and the wins that everybody else got. People have to realise that Damian Barton was taking a pile of young fellas through at that time.

“We were winning an All-Ireland and we were all 21 or 22 years of age. He did the hard work and Brian came in, brought something new to it and we excelled from that.”

As the Ballinderry juggernaut grew legs, Conway points to the 1999 and 2000 deciders when he felt the Shamrocks were the better team, but by the rematch 12 months later the Tones were the better team.

“Deets (Conleith Gilligan) took a 45 and (Declan) Bateson got his hand to it. I’d say it was probably square ball, but we got off with it,” he said of the game’s defining goal.

“It was probably the worst final of the three between us and it was probably our worst performance of the three against them.

“To win anything you need luck and we had a bit of luck.”

On the Ulster stage, they needed replay to see off St Gall’s in the first round, setting up a semi-final with Cavan Gaels. Conway scored 2-2 against the Gaels who had a man sent off and Ballinderry had the game in the bag by half time and next in line was a star-studded Mayobridge.

Francie Poland anchored their defence, Eoghan Woods was a colossus at midfield and in Mickey Linden they’d one of the greatest exponents of the game up front. Add in Brendan Grant, Ronan Sexton and Benny Coulter from Down’s All-Ireland minor winning team of 1999 alongside goal poacher Glen McMahon.

As the teams headed down the Casement Park tunnel at half time, the Shamrocks were leading 0-7 to 0-4 and Conway remembers the row and how it worked in Ballinderry’s favour.

“I would say they thought they could rough us up and when we stood up to them, it showed that we weren’t going to be walked over and it helped us more than it helped them,” he said.

There was still a twist or two in the tale. McMahon’s goal had Mayobridge ahead within seven minutes of the second half, but Ballinderry hit back instantly with a goal from Enda Muldoon.

Two other things jump off the page when Darren Conway thinks back. He was thankful of the luck Ballinderry had when Glen McMahon’s goal was controversially ruled out after 44 minutes, with Mayobridge four points down, when referee Brendan Gorman deemed him to have taken too many steps.

Conway also remembers captain Adrian McGuckin’s input on their success.

“Young Adrian (McGuckin) hardly ever scored, but he scored two points that day that were unreal.

“He set everything up for us; he sacrificed himself to give it to other boys to score.

“Sean (Donnelly) was the same around the middle, they did all the grafting and get everybody else play the football. Adrian’s two points stood out for me.”

Also central to Ballinderry’s win were the three points Conway registered with his less-preferred left foot.

“I’d have to put a lot of that down to our Kentucky (his brother Niall). When we were kicking about around the house, he’d always be telling me to use my left and I suppose he was even coaching back then,“ Darren recalls.

When his parents Jean and Malachy Conway were watching the Ulster final coverage, everyone gathered around would have a giggle at the commentator suggesting ace-free taker Gerard Cassidy should assign a free out on the right side to ‘left-footed player’ Darren Conway.

“If I had to do that standing still, they’d (his three points) never have got there. I wasn’t that accurate of a forward,” he admits.

Twenty years on, the memories are crystal clear. From heading to mass on the morning, to getting on the bus to Casement for their date with destiny.

“Everyone was there to see us away. They were great memories and we were all so young,” said Conway, who didn’t suffer from nerves.

“We always went into games full of confidence in the ability everybody had.”

They knew they’d back each other to the hilt.

“We believed and had trust in each other. We always respected the teams we played, but we always went into the games thinking we were going to win…it took a lot of nervous energy away.”

Victory signalled the start if a few days partying before the need to regroup for an All-Ireland quarter-final against Tír Chonaill Gaels.

He remembers the scenes after the final whistle threw the tears in his eyes and remember the wave of emotion that included seeing his father Malachy – an Ulster winner in 1981 – crying in sheer joy.

“It was great to see and it brought the whole club together, we were starved of it for a long time,” Darren said of that memorable afternoon in West Belfast when they won the provincial crown.

“We were reaping the rewards of all the hard work that was put in. You can have all the class you want, but you still need good coaching and time put into the underage structures.”

The glories of what went before were irrelevant.

“You go out on that field to make your club and your parents proud,” Darren stresses, “We weren’t thinking about what went on before. If you go down the route, you put a lot of pressure on people. You have to let the person wearing the jersey be in their own skin.”

A facile win in London set Ballinderry up for an All-Ireland date with Wicklow champions Rathnew, a game he felt shouldn’t been played such was the water lying on the Pearse Park pitch.

Rathnew knew it was going to be a leveller, but they hadn’t factored in the brilliance of Conleith Gilligan.

“When you have a man that can float across water, they made a big mistake,” said Conway of Gilligan’s man of the match performance.

As Conway and the Ballinderry squad walked the pitch beforehand with the feeling that there was no chance the game should’ve went ahead.

“The Rathnew managers were arguing that it should go ahead and the referee passed it playable…it went against them,” Conway states.

Waiting in the final were Cork giants Nemo Rangers in Thurles’ Semple Stadium, due to the construction work at Croke Park that year.

Conway again felt the game came down to ‘Lady Luck’ and Ballinderry’s ability to make any purple patch count.

“If you watch it, Nemo had the majority of the best play in the game,” he said. “As we always did to teams, we had five minute bursts and we did a lot of damage in them.”

Declan Bateson’s goal had the Shamrocks a point ahead at half time, before a four-point spell had them in the driving seat in the third quarter

When Nemo regrouped, Gerard Cassidy hit 1-2 before Darren Conway’s late point put the icing on the cake and Ballinderry were All-Ireland champions.

“That’s what we were always strong at,” he said. “Everybody gets a hot streak, but when we got a hot streak we did a lot of damage…that sort of power is rare.”

That night, Ballinderry held a gala celebration before taking the Andy Merrigan Cup north and back among their own people.

Conway remembers the bus driver’s rule of not allowing the squad to have celebratory drinks as they snaked their way home.

“It was the best thing that ever happened,” he says now. “By the time we got to Ballinderry Bridge a lot of boys wouldn’t have remembered it the next day.”

They got off the bus and carried the cup across the bridge.

“It was unbelievable,” he adds, rhyming off the number of Gaels from neighbouring clubs.

“There were people there you didn’t expect to see, that’s what made it even more special, I suppose those people appreciated what we did.”

When did they think they had a group that could go the whole way?

“You never you think you are going to win an All-Ireland,” came Conway’s reply.

“It was the year that we got to the first (county) final. We went down and won the (1999) All-Ireland Sevens. When you win that, you have decent enough players.

“When we came onto the senior team, we had boys like Terence (McGuckin) and Marty Bradley, men with experience to help us along and anyone else coming is going to make us stronger.”

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