OLLIE Collins, the former Lavey and Derry hurler, famed for captaining his county to three Ulster titles at minor, u-21 and senior level, has had a life of duty.
Some players pursue greatness on the field for the love of the game, for the fame and adulation, and because they want to compete against the best.
While Collins played the game for all those things to one extent or another, it feels like his approach to the GAA was primarily for the love of duty, and responsibility.
For example, when he was in the twilight of his playing career, he hung on for a few extra years so that he could make sure that the younger players stuck at it, as he wanted to encourage them to keep playing.
For Collins the purpose of the GAA was to get people to play for their club and county.
Collins’s love of hurling was nurtured on the playing fields of Lavey club. And in particular, the expectation of every player was to take part in both codes.
He said: “Lavey is a traditional GAA club with hurling and football. Growing up, I played football and hurling right through to senior level.
“A man that stood out for me (as an inspiration) was Tom McGill from the Lavey club. He dedicated his whole life to hurling with Lavey. Then he moved on to Derry.”
McGill’s dedication to bringing the best coaching to Lavey was something that Collins noticed.
“He went down south and saw what they were doing and tried to bring it back to us. He entered us into the Antrim League at minor level.
“He was always trying to better himself as a coach and a manager. He brought coaches up from the south to help us to progress. He was the driving force behind making Lavey better.”
The lesson that Collins learnt from McGill was that Gaels must endeavour to leave their club and county in a better place than when they found it.
He may not have realised that immediately though, and when he started he just enjoyed the participation.
“I loved playing in the early days with Lavey. We were successful early on. We won championships. In football it was different. My generation had not won anything.
“Hurling was different. We were competing against top teams in Antrim at minor level. We could go over to play Ballycastle in an Antrim League match and win. We could say that we know that we were up there with them. It kicked on from then.”
The quality of players he was playing alongside was important. Collins said that Lavey hurlers were strong in the early ‘80s. There was Seamus and Henry Downey, as well as John and Colm McGurk. Then in the next group who came through in the years after that there was Ollie and Michael Collins, Brian McCormick, and Fergal McNally.
“Them two groups got together in 1991 onwards, and we had a good set up.”
Collins was on the radar of everyone in Derry after he joined the Lavey senior hurlers along with Brian McCormick in 1988. The year they won the Senior Championship.
He won a club u-16, minor and a senior medal in that same season.
“That will not be done again as you are not allowed to play for three levels.”
Success at club level coincided with a collection of titles won at underage level. Collins captained Derry minors to an Ulster title in 1990 and the u-21s to a provincial title in 1993.
“In the minors we beat Down in the semI-final and Antrim in the final. In 1993, we beat Down in Ballinascreen. I remember Gerard McGrattan had got his All-Star that year and he was still u-21. We beat them and then went on to beat Antrim in the final.
“Then we had Kilkenny in the All-Ireland semi-final at home. That was nip and tuck for a long time, until they ran away from us.”
The remarkable thing about Collins was that before he was out of minor he asked to join the Derry senior team very quickly, such was his apparent talent.
“I was still at school at that stage. It was a big thing, it was a great honour. I had played u-16, minor, so that was the stepping stone to that Derry hurling team.
“That was a good Derry hurling team that had a lot of them boys who had won the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship with Derry. It was good.”
Playing senior intercounty hurling was an obvious test for a teenager.
“I noticed the difference. We were playing against older men. It maybe wasn’t fast because it was lower down the leagues but it was hard. You were thrown in there to mark a man who was in his late 20s, or early 30s so you were always up against it.
“I was only a cub. Sean Sands was the manager then. He was doing a pretty professional job. He was looking across the county to see if there were any players out there with the potential to get onto the senior team.”
Collins said he was naive when he joined the Derry team as he was so young. He says the priority then for the Oak Leaf hurlers was progression in the league.
“We wanted to get up from Division Three to Division Two. It stalled for a while in Division 2A and 2B.”
The backbone for the team in those days was the successful minor teams in 1990 and 1991. Those teams would go on to win the Ulster Senior title in the early 2000s. Though Collins wasn’t to know that when he joined. But he could see potential.
“Derry were never short of talented hurlers. It was just about getting the whole thing right, and the whole set up right. It was about getting the right people there at the right time.”
The club scene was also important. There were a lot of good teams in Derry at that time.
“At that stage Kevin Lynch’s were strong, Banagher was strong. The only teams that hadn’t won a championship were Ballinascreen and Swatragh. The rest of the teams were very closely matched. There was only a puc of a ball between the teams.
“There were great players in all the clubs.”
Collins also remember how his reputation changed depending which team he was lining out for.
“I remember when I was playing both, and we played a football match for Lavey and I was playing, the opponents would say ‘there’s Ollie Collins, you don’t need to watch him, he’s a hurler. You need to watch the established footballers.’ Vice versa, when I went out to play a championship hurling match, it was ‘all eyes on him (Ollie), keep him from scoring.’”
Collins efforts to play hurling illustrate how he was so dedicated to his club. Being a dual player for Collins was as much about serving his club, as competing.
“It was difficult. In the club, the managers always had a good understanding. You trained one night, then you had one night off. You had football one night, then one night hurling. So it was balanced well.”
Collins says that sometimes that could be a challenge at county level. He played football for Derry for a short period.
“That was difficult. Managers told you that you had to be there, and if you weren’t there you were going to be dropped. There was no happy medium with doing both.”
He had joined Derry footballers in ‘94, and stayed for a couple of years. Those were the years after the All-Ireland win, so there was an expectation for success. The drive was there to do his best for every team that wanted him; however the physical test of playing both codes wasn’t realistically possible long term. He left the footballers after the 1996 season.
“It was too much, my hurling was suffering, and I wasn’t getting to play the matches, or train as much as I wanted to. It was nearly impossible to do both. Most of the dual players, like Tony Scullion, Brian McGilligan, John McGurk, they said it was either one or the other.”
It is notable that Collins left the Derry footballers, who would were very strong in the mid ‘90s and opted to play hurling instead, hurling for a county that was not playing at a high level.
Collins explains his choice very simply.
“I loved hurling more.
“It wasn’t about thinking I could win more or anything like that, it was just that it was the only decision to make.”
Success was on the horizon for Derry, even if Collins didn’t know it at the time. He believes that the appointment of a particular manager would lead to great days for the Derry hurlers.
“Kevin McNaughton came in and he was the first outside manager that we had from Antrim. He brought his backroom team and definitely stepped it up a level in terms of professionalism.
“If you asked me if a man from Derry could have taken that team to success I would have said no. It took that man from outside coming in, a man who knew nothing about frictions between the clubs. He was the man to take us over the line.
“Kevin wore his heart on his sleeve. If you had a bad game, no matter who you are, he would have told you. He had no favourites for anybody. He saw things where players needed to be changed, or if a player was getting a roasting. He could make those changes. The strange voice was good. He had no favourites or allegiances.
“He came at the right time and he brought that bit of cuteness with him.”
Collins said that in the years previous to McNaughton the approach to the county team was more lackadaisical. If players wanted to play they would, but there was no pressure on them to do so. That attitude changed though.
Commitment to the hurlers became important.
“When I was playing for the county, the hurlers were coming good and strong. We had a batch of hurlers who committed to hurling for their clubs and county.”
There was something in Collins that made him feel that Derry could compete. He had captained Derry to those two Ulster title wins at minor and u-21 level. But they couldn’t push on at senior level.
“We were playing B level championship. That was a competition for Wicklow, Carlow, and Mayo, teams that weren’t competing in their own provincial championship. When it came to 1996 we won the All-Ireland B, then we moved on to play in the All-Ireland Championship in 1997.”
In 1996 Derry won an All-Ireland B title against Wicklow in Croke Park. The stage was set then for them to challenge to win the county’s first Ulster Senior Hurling Championship since 1908.
Derry entered the Ulster Championship in 1997. The Ulster Championship back then was just a play-off between Antrim and Down to see who would represent the province in the All-Ireland series. The provincial competition had been restarted in 1989, and since that year Down had won twice and Antrim had won six times. In 1997 it was Down’s turn.
Collins felt that playing in Ulster proved that Derry were becoming a force in hurling.
“We were making strides. We played Division One hurling. Even to get players who were on the fringes of the football panel to see that Derry hurling was playing the Corks and the Tipperarys in National League matches. They were big matches. We had a couple or three thousand at league matches in Derry, which was unseen years before.
“We had the feeling that we could get there.”
In 1998 Derry reached the Ulster final for the first time since 1931 and that was an important lesson for the team.
“We were a bit raw going into that final. Antrim were still kingpins at that stage. They beat us by eight or nine points. Ally Elliot scored a couple of goals to swing it their way.”
In 1999, Derry returned to the final. Collins was injured so he didn’t get to play that game against Antrim. He tore his calf muscle while he was playing a challenge match in Dublin.
But in 2000, Collins was back and ready.
“The two years prior were good preparations of playing Antrim in Casement. Ten years earlier you wouldn’t have said that Derry had a chance to get there.”
Collins sometimes played midfield but more often than not he was playing centre half and hitting the frees for Derry. And while he was one of the leaders on the team, he said that the side was full of confidence ahead of the 2000 final.
“We had a good panel of players and everyone was a leader. Everyone was trying to drive the man on next to him.
“The management had everything sorted out.”
Derry were playing in Division One in 2000 and Antrim were playing in Division Two, so they were in a vulnerable position for Kevin McNaughton’s team to strike.
Their chance came in the Ulster final.
Collins said. “We came out and I think we were six or seven points up. I was on the frees that day and I must have missed seven or eight scoreable frees.
“They dragged it back in the second half to a couple of points.
“It wasn’t a classic match. It wouldn’t be one of the games that I would want to be remembered for my free-taking.”
The irony with that statement is that it was Collins’s free-taking that won the game for Derry.
The Oak Leafers were awarded a late free, a free that if scored would win the game.
“It was only 30 yards out. I remember that Gary Biggs was hitting them that day. As soon as we got the free. He shouted over to me ‘you hit it, you hit it’. Maybe he didn’t want to hit it because the difference between missing it and scoring it was the difference between winning and losing the Ulster Championship.
“But again, I wasn’t on my game, and I wasn’t on my frees, so I was just glad that it went over.
“I mind that I had had an injury and I was wearing a helmet. I didn’t usually wear helmets. I remember taking it off before I hit the free.
“Still the pressure was on. We had waited 94 years to win one. I was glad it went over the bar and history was made. Though in the heat of the moment you don’t think about that. Only maybe afterwards do you think about what might have happened had I missed it.”
The referee blew the game up not long after that.
On reflection, Collins says that the win was possibly destined for Derry.
“Antrim had been going to Croke Park and getting trouncings. Maybe players didn’t have the belly for it, and maybe Derry had more of a belly for it.
“I know that the Dunloy boys were going through a lot of hard club years. But we were glad to take it.”
The reaction to Derry’s win was memorable.
“It was great. The reaction around the parish was great. We took the cup to most clubs. It was a good buzz. It helped the hurling in Derry. All the clubs bought into it. The standard rose.”
Collins says he knows why Derry were ready to win that year. It was that they were playing Division One hurling.
“Even from 1999, to 2002 we were playing in Division One. That was a big thing. During that time we only had won two matches and drawn two matches. But it got us enough to stay in that division. Everyone would look back and say that us playing up there was the catalyst.
“If we had went to play Antrim and then they were playing in the higher league then that would have been on our minds.
“The matches we played in Division One, we had nothing to fear. We played Tipperary, Waterford, Cork, Kilkenny in Nolan Park. In all those matches we played our hurling, gave them respect, but we didn’t let them walk over us.
“We had great memories playing in Division One. We had a good pool of players and everyone wanted to play. The management was there, and the county board backed us.”
The issue for Derry playing at that level was that they could only stick with teams in the top tier for a certain period of time.
“We were competitive for 40 minutes. I mind the time we went down to play Kilkenny and it was one of the first games that Henry Shefflin played. He stood out that day like a sore thumb. He was only 21. We were definitely competitive. We weren’t going down to party. That was a no-no.”
While Derry were unable to stick with those teams, they did feel that they were good enough to compete in Ulster, and in 2001 they had a big test in the defence of their title.
Winning one might have been a fluke, but a title defence would prove their quality.
Derry didn’t get off to the best start.
“We played London and we weren’t that convincing. We beat them by eight or nine points. London weren’t a bad team. They nearly beat Antrim a couple of times.
“Down beat Antrim in the other side of the draw. We were left with Down in the final. Looking at Down we were saying to ourselves that we are every bit as good as Down, if not better.
“The 2001 final was a lot harder match (than the 2000 final).
“It was a good hurling match. It was up and down the field all day. We got a couple of good goals. Geoffrey (McGonagle) got one, and John O’Dwyer got one at the death to put us through.
“Down were a very good side. They had Marty Mallon and wee Sands (Noel) and Gary Savage. They were at their prime.
“It was great to do back to back. The third year we were beat in the final. I retired the year after it.”
Collins explained that in the final years of his playing hurling the county did their best to stay at the top for as long as possible.
“I mind marking Ciaran Carey in Kilmallock in Limerick. We were slipping away, but we still wanted to play in Division One. Croke Park came to us and asked if we wanted to play in Division Two. I think we said we would play another year in Division One.”
The test of playing against the country’s best was memorable for Collins.
“I can remember Ciaran Carey was like a greyhound up and down the field. He was a different level.
“I played against Brian Corcoran, Joe Deane, Eoin Kelly. It is good to say that you graced the same field as them.”
The decision to retire from intercounty for Collins came when he was 30. He had been there since he was 16, and he felt that he wanted to go out at a good level.
“I had a bad injury in 2000, I tore my Achilles’ against Offaly and I was out for six months. I was in a cast for two of that. It took a lot getting back. I was back in 2001. I was playing okay. It was time-consuming. and I didn’t want to be remembered as hanging on. I didn’t want someone hanging over at the wire at me shouting that I should have retired.”
He also saw that Derry had a good minor team coming through, and Collins said that he saw that that next generation could bring the county on, just as he had done when he broke onto the scene.
“I had no regrets. The last match I played was against Kerry in a Qualifier. I think I scored 15 points. It was a good way to go out.”
Collins settled down to a life of club football and hurling. Yet Derry still felt that he had some part to play. The manager taking over, Dominic McKinley, who is back in charge this year, felt that Collins had more to give.
“I did receive a few phone calls in the following year. They said that they needed me. But I said no. I said that I would give my club a few more years at football and play hurling for as long as I can.”
That is another example of Collins acute sense of duty. He knew that the club needed him more than the county, and he answered their call.
What Collins found was that life after county hurling was not what he expected.
“I always say this to young people, when you stop playing county hurling you go to club training and you don’t get put through the same paces.
“When you finish with the county your intention is that you might have five or six years with the club, but it doesn’t happen.
“Personally speaking, after you hang up the boots three or four years is your max. The body seems to close down a lot more. Obviously it is a young man’s game too.”
It was a surprise for Collins to feel that.
“Maybe the dual thing didn’t help. But around Lavey, from no age up you are playing both. Maybe some people choose.
“I had good times.”
Collins dedicated himself to club and county for as long as he could, and perhaps putting his body on the line took its toll in later years. But he saw that as his duty.
He believes that perhaps modern day players don’t see things the same way as he did.
He thinks that players don’t have the same passion to hurl for their county as he and his teammates had.
“It has maybe shown around Derry that in the past while the best players have not been playing.
“When we were playing we had Niall Mullan, Collie McGurk, Mickey Connolly, Geoffrey McGonagle. They were dedicated club men but also dedicated county men.
“The will has to be there. Playing for your county is an honour and players have to see it that way, but maybe they don’t see it that way anymore.
“If I trained anyone round Lavey I always tell them to go play for their school or their college or their county. It is a step up, and gets them to play at a higher level.”
From 1988 onwards, Lavey won eight out of 12 titles.
They had great battles with Kevin Lynch’s, Banagher, and Sleacht Néill. From 1985 to 2002 they won 12 titles.
“When you went out against any of those teams it was a hard match.”
Yet after the first few years, the Lavey men set their sights on bigger things.
“We were getting to the stage where we were looking to the Ulster title. We respected who we played against. The big picture was Casement Park against Dunloy.”
One year they would play the Down winners, then the Armagh winners and then the Antrim winners.
“One year we played Keady. They were a good team but we were always fit for Keady.
“When we played the Down teams we played Portaferry, Ballygalget. They were hard matches. We beat Portaferry twice and Ballygalget beat us.
“Dunloy beat us in a semi-final and Cushendall beat us after a replay.
“Those games were hard and they always came at the end of the year. Pitches were heavy. It was a long season. Lavey were playing football and hurling.
“Boys were tired. When you look back at them matches, Portaferry, Cushendall and Dunloy would probably have said that Lavey were a tough team, but had good hurlers.
“It was always nice to play in Ulster. They were all good matches.”
Collins and the Lavey seniors probably should have won an Ulster title were it not for the presence of that great Dunloy team who were unstoppable during that era.
“They were a great team. I always says if we had met anyone else. They were competing for All-Ireland Club titles. If we had met anyone else we could have been competing.”
Lavey’s last title was 2002. That was the last one that Collins played on, but they still couldn’t get over the line in Ulster. Collins played in three Ulster finals from 1988 to 2002, losing to Rossa in the first (‘88) and Dunloy in the rest.
Was there anything that they could have done differently?
“I don’t think so. There are always small things in matches. But any time we played Dunloy, they always had five or six county players. They always had good forward. Scores came handy for them. There was nothing we could have said that we could have different.
“We did play well when we were in finals.”
The first one that he played in was in 1988. They played in Rossa in Rossa Park.
“That day we were leading the whole match. Ciaran Barr was leading their charge. He was their All-Star. That was the closest we got to the All-Ireland Championship. We weren’t far away. We just couldn’t do it.
“Look at Sleacht Neill, they have won three, no matter who they play they have no fear.
“Maybe if we had got our hands on one we could have won a few.”
They didn’t get back into Ulster after 2002, but Collins continued to play for Lavey till 2009,
“It was good to be about at the end to keep the spirit going. I might not have played much but I wanted to keep the interest going for the next generation.”
Ollie Collins, a great hurler, who captained his club and county to some of their greatest days on the hurling field. But at the very end of his playing days, he maintained the ethos of Tom McGill before him, and that is to make sure to do your best for your club and county. Make sure the club is in a better place after you have left.