Down memory lane: Brian McCann looks back at Cargin’s 1999 story

Cargin have won seven of the last nine Antrim titles. It wasn’t always dominance. Brian McCann looks back 25 years to their 1999 success. Michael McMullan went to meet him.

IT took 21 years for Cargin to land their second championship in 1995 and the current team are making up for lost time.

Growing up, Brian McCann can remember fans dropping into his grandparents’ pub, the Elver Inn, on the way from Casement Park.

The football chatter fuelled a desire that leaves him embedded in Cargin to this very day. Seated in Cargin’s state of the art new complex, the playing days have been swapped for coaching and the future.

Seven times in 12 years, during McCann’s impressionable years, Cargin’s county final Sunday was a post-mortem. The 1995 success fell somewhere in the middle.

They came closest in 1998. Brendan Mackin’s stoppage time goal for St John’s pulled the McNamee Cup out of their hands. They didn’t make their possession count and it was another hard luck story.

“It was a very devastating defeat,” McCann recalls.

Getting close wasn’t enough to save manager Andy McCallin. He was popular. His training was top notch. But the committee didn’t see him as the man to take them over the line.

When Lavey’s 1988 winning manager John Brennan expressed an interest, Cargin’s hammer went down on the appointment.

“The funny thing was, nobody knew who he was, even the older players,” McCann said of a man that would win a third of the club’s senior roll of honour.

Locals Peter McCann and James McCorley were part of the 1999 management ticket but it didn’t work out. They were incompatible and Brennan ended up running the operation himself. He’d oversee the u-21 team and was a regular hanging over the wire at minor games looking for any gem he could polish.

Brian McCann mentions attending a Saffron Business Forum event. In his address, Jim McGuinness chatted about his simple drills. It was about precision and application. McCann thought of Brennan.

“We would have been out there in triangles,” he said, pointing out to the club’s front pitch. “You’d start in the middle of the field, make a beeline for that corner, right across the goals, right up the side and back to the middle.”

The lungs would be burning with Brennan calling for more. Another favourite was possession games across the pitch with cones for goals. It could be as many as 14-a-side. There was nowhere to hide.

“It’s all about hand passing the ball, offloading it quick and running off the shoulder,” recalls McCann.

“Everybody was getting hit all over the shop. If you held the ball for longer than a couple of seconds, you were getting clocked by somebody.”

Another factor was how Brennan picked the best 15 players. Reputation or family bloodlines counted for nothing. It was all about winning games.

Ciaran O’Neill, one of the club’s greatest players, was forced out of a training session with a twinge in his leg. When the team was called out for their 1999 semi-final with Lámh Dhearg, O’Neill’s name wasn’t read out.

McCann himself was called to minor training on a night Brennan took the seniors for a challenge game in Bellaghy. It was an awesome performance. McCann might have played in the previous two championship games but Brennan was ruthless. He stuck with the 15 who stood toe to toe with Bellaghy.

A slightly built Shane Devlin wasn’t cutting the mustard as a corner-forward but Brennan saw something else in him.

“I’ve always wondered if it was because of Johnny McGurk (with his stature), but he converted ‘Geek’ (Devlin) into a right half-back,” McCann said.

“When he first did it, nobody could believe it and they were criticising him but it was a revelation.”

Brennan saw his ability to read a breaking ball and the weight of his pass was on the money.

Brennan, perceived as old school by many, had the Cargin players at Greenvale Leisure Centre on the night after games when recovery was in its infancy. There was also belief and fitness.

From his knowledge of the Ulster Club scene, Brennan knew Cargin’s physique would ask questions of any of the top teams. The pieces were coming together.


Gortin man Paul Brogan was studying in Belfast. As a goalkeeper, he had a monster kick-out.

By chance, he struck up a friendship with Donal McCann who persuaded him to come along to Cargin training.

With a midfield triangle diamond of Eddie Quinn, Ciaran O’Neill and Sheeny McQuillan, a booming kick-out was just the tonic.

“Brennan was looking at this and saw Paul coming with these thumping kick-outs, floaty ones, ones you can run on to,” McCann added. They could now play to their strengths.

The Cargin 1999 adventure was back in the day when rounds of knock-out championship games were dotted through the league.

Davitt’s were their first opponents in Corrigan Park with Cargin easily advancing despite playing with 14 men.

“’Dougal’ (Kevin Doyle) got sent off after three minutes. Some boy was pulling and hauling at him and he took his head clean off,” joked McCann.

It was followed up with a comfortable win over Rossa to set up a semi-final with Lámh Dhearg. To mix up preparations, Brennan took Cargin to the Truagh Sevens in Monaghan. It was a move geared at helping them move the ball quick.

There was also the aforementioned trip to Bellaghy, who were going for the middle title in their Derry three-in-a-row.

“I think it was a real ding-dust game,” said McCann. “Bellaghy might have beat us by a point or two but this was breeding confidence into Cargin.”

Brennan started the same team in the semi-final where they breezed past Lámh Dhearg to set up a final showdown with rivals St Paul’s.

Two years earlier, St Paul’s pushed eventual champions Dungiven to the pin of their collar in the Ulster semi-final.

The 1999 final coincided with Casement Park’s official opening of their new terracing with a red carpet welcome for the players from President Mary McAleese.

“One thing about Cargin, we are shit at anything unusual like that or big occasions,” recalls McCann, who still had to be content with a place on the bench. “Our boys could just end up folding. Boys were doing stuff they hadn’t done all year and Brennan was losing the plot.”

Cargin needed a Harry McGuckin goal to give them a chance before a trademark McQuillan free earned them a replay.

After the days of coming down the M2 with the tail between their legs, this was different. It was a draw and there was another chance.

“The Chevys were playing in Arby’s that night and a whole lot of the players were there,” McCann said.

“The lead singer made some sort of comment over the microphone about Cargin choking again.”

It wasn’t the wisest statement. All hell broke loose. Tables were sent flying.

“I think he (singer) got pulled off the stage, they had to cancel everything and the whole thing was put out,” McCann added.

When Brennan met the players the following night, he tore their performance to shreds. Nobody was spared.

He had a quiet word for Brian McCann, telling him he was in for the replay for a marking job on St Paul’s forward Lorcan McGonigle.

“He kept it really simple for me. He just said I was to mark him he couldn’t do what he did the last day” McCann said.

It was a different day in the final. There was no red carpet or paraphernalia. It was a game of football and a shot at redemption.

Cargin were behind at half time but McCann kept his side of the bargain with McGonigle called ashore early in the second half.

It was a transformed team on the way to title number three and celebrations spiralled well into the small hours


The prospect of Ulster excited John Brennan and he believed in the Cargin group.

With the dirty diesel from the celebrations burned off, he lined up a challenge game in at Casement Park against Antrim who were preparing for the All-Ireland B Championship.

By the time Carrickmore came to visit, Cargin felt like they were playing at home. They had their own dressing room and had a feel for the surroundings.

The Tyrone champions were littered with players who had played at the highest level with club and county.

Cargin were four points up at half-time and McCann can still see their dominance. Brogan would land the ball in the minefield and Cargin’s big men were keeping their side of the deal.

“Ciaran O’Neill, I can still seeing his hands going up, catching ball after ball,” he said. “I was actually chatting the other day about it because he takes the u-10s with me.”

A fortunate goal gave Carrickmore a passport back into the game before McQuillan kicked the winner to send Cargin to the semi-final.

“It was a soft enough free, but it was at that spot where he hit that free against Derry (in 2000) that was caught by Tohill, but this one went over the bar.”

The Carrickmore players were livid and the referee needed escorted off the pitch but Cargin were on their way to Clones. Up next was a Crossmaglen team on their way to a second All-Ireland title.

The bus driver missed the turn for the St Tiernach’s Park going through Clones. Brennan got the bus turned. It didn’t throw their time keeping off but he used it in jest to the Cargin players the following winter. They didn’t know how to get to Clones until he arrived.

Oisín McConville’s goal was the difference between the teams but Cargin, with their physicality, dished it out like they received it. O’Neill, Quinn, McQuillan and captain Michael Johnston was a strong spine.

“I remember John Donaldson running up the field and somebody meeting him right down the middle,” McCann said of the battle.

“At half time, we were two or three points down and they nearly pulled away but we came back and they were clinging on.”

It was end of the season but nobody touched him in the following year’s Antrim campaign until their four point win over St Paul’s in the final that hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons with a brawl at the end.

“Supporters on the field, they were trying to celebrate but some of them got getting mixed up on a row and it just looked bad,” McCann said of the aftermath.

“It seemed to be in the news every night of the week and looked bad for the club. There’s boys who maybe threw one punch in that row and got six months suspensions. You could’ve thrown a punch yesterday (Sunday) in Croke Park and you’ll be back playing after a game.”

It was a fourth county final meeting of the clubs in eight seasons. Cargin were the only club from the country challenging the city clubs for the title.

While the players would’ve been competing year on year, the scenes at the end of the 2000 final came after a clean game. McCann doesn’t recall a dirty tackle.

Cargin were due to play Bellaghy in the first round of Ulster. The challenge game 12 months earlier suggested it would be a 50:50 clash. But it never took place.

Eventual Ulster champions Bellaghy were handed a bye to a semi-final with Gowna. Cargin and St Paul’s were also thrown out of the following year’s Antrim Championship.

There were further ramifications for the county with the Cargin players withdrawing from Saffron duty.

With Cargin and St Paul’s out of contention, an up and coming St Gall’s team – backboned by youth – got a head start on their period of dominance.

They won the first of 13 of the next 14 titles. The blip was in 2006 when Cargin – under JC Devlin – chinned them just months after their All-Ireland final defeat to Salthill-Knocknacarra.

McCann feels St Gall’s were always going to come but Cargin could’ve added more titles. Banned from championship action, when they reached the 2001 league final, Cargin beat St Gall’s team who were preparing for an Ulster clash with Ballinderry.

“We were still clinging on,” McCann said. “Cargin had a group their older players. In the year away from the championship – I’d say it just finished them really.

“We came back in 2002 and St Gall’s played us in the first round, beat us well and then it took really to 2006 to recover.”

Eamonn McCann came in as manager, with Ciaran O’Neill and Martin Logan, for 2013 and 2014. They threw everything at it but St Gall’s just had enough to close the door on final day.

While it didn’t win the big prize, Eamonn McCann’s new approach of training in the gym started a culture that exists in Cargin to this very day.

Brennan returned in 2015 with a similar approach to 1999 to push Cargin over the line for another two titles, with inside forward duo Michael McCann and Ryan McKernan offering a mix to their game.

All the while, Matthew Gribbin and Ciaran O’Neill helped revamp the club’s underage. Damian Cassidy came in as senior manager with Ronan Devlin also on board.

Devlin is now in his third year as manager. Cargin are now the hunted.

The men of 1999 are now on the other side of the wire, content the club is in a good place. The names on the teamsheet are different but the wheel continues to turn.

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