THIRTY-FIVE minutes into the 2003 Ulster final, things were looking ominous for Down. The Mourne men trailed Tyrone 0-8 to 0-6 and hadn’t led throughout the entire first half. While they weren’t being completely outplayed, they faced an uphill battle.
That all changed just before half time when Benny Coulter raced along the endline, flattening Conor Gormley on his way, and blasted the ball to the back of John Devine’s net. That gave Paddy O’Rourke’s team a 1-7 to 0-8 lead at the interval.
By the 44th minute of the game, that margin had grown to nine points, and it looked like Down were on their way to a 13th ever Ulster title. But things took a turn for the worst.
A “dubious” Peter Canavan penalty started the Tyrone fightback and by the end of the game, the sides were all square. Tyrone went on to win the replay easily, and the All-Ireland, while Down came away filled with regret.
“It was the one that got away,” recalled Down goalkeeper Mickey McVeigh, who Canavan sent the wrong way with his 48th minute spot kick.
“We went nine points up and had been playing really well, although in saying that, Tyrone conceded, what they would have considered, four bad goals. Probably along the line didn’t help, they got carried away a wee bit and maybe thought the match was over.
“It’s like everything else, it’s never over until the final whistle and Tyrone did enough. Wee Peter got a dubious penalty, and the rest is history. In the replay, they took more away from the drawn game than we did and blew us away.”
The ploy of placing Dan Gordon on the edge of the square paid dividends the first day out, but Mickey Harte and Tyrone had a plan to thwart that tactic in the replay.
“Looking back, Tyrone seemed vulnerable at the back and then the second day, God rest him, they put Cormac (McAnallen) back there and he was just a colossus in the full back line. Tyrone took more away from the first day and had their homework done.
“We took our eye off the ball maybe because we felt that we were nine points up and then the dubious penalty, we’ll be fit to do the same the next day. But it didn’t work out that day and that drawn game, I’ve always said, probably won Tyrone an All-Ireland.
“They had some class footballers at that stage. You’d Peter and Mugsy (Owen Mulligan), Chris Lawn even at full back and players like that, they were hardy bits of stuff. But I think if we had have beaten them that day, who’s to say we wouldn’t have won an All-Ireland?
“But I’ve said it since, that day gave Tyrone the wake-up call that they needed to push on and fair play to them, they took the bull by the horns, and they went and won the All-Ireland.”
That was McVeigh’s fourth and final attempt to claim an Ulster medal. The Castlewellan clubman missed out on Down’s glory years of the early 90s, entering the panel in 1995, one year after Pete McGrath had taken the men in red and black to a fifth All-Ireland crown.
“I missed out on ’94 and it was just by chance I got in in ’95, Eamon Connolly was the sub keeper and I think he was working for the Bank of Ireland at the time” said McVeigh.
“He was transferring to a bank in Dublin and couldn’t commit. Pete McGrath rang me and asked me to come in. I made my debut against Armagh in ’95 and I think I played two National League games against Armagh and Louth, then I made my championship debut against Donegal in ’96.
“It was daunting enough but the lads were all really grounded, and they made you feel very welcome. You were playing club football, so I’d have known the majority of them anyway, you weren’t meeting complete strangers as such.
“It was a good environment to come into at that time. That wee bit of success had been there and there maybe should have been more, but you had a good group of players that were there in ’91 and ’94 so I slotted in very easily.
“It was a big step up. Years ago the goalkeeper was only at training to collect the balls behind the fence, so you were going from that to getting proper goalkeeper training.
“There was a guy Tom Potter who was in with myself and Neil Collins, so you were going to a different level, and it took a wee while to get used to, but I bought into it very, very quickly.
“It was something I wanted to achieve, and I wanted to be the Down number one, so I bought into it very quickly.”
After claiming wins over Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan, McVeigh was set for his first taste of an Ulster final in 1996. Tyrone were again their undoing and won 1-9 to 0-9.
“It was a game we had our opportunities to win but Tyrone were a fair side then too. I remember, there was myself and maybe three or four debutants playing for Down that year and Tyrone were maybe a wee bit more settled. It was a game, looking back, that we probably should have won.”
By 1999, McVeigh was an experienced netminder and once again he paraded behind the band in Clones on Ulster final day. This time, it was against their up-and-coming noisy neighbours Armagh and for McVeigh and Down, it was another day to forget.
“That’s definitely one that needs rubbed out (Armagh won 3-12 to 0-10). Probably in hindsight, with our win over Tyrone in the semi-final in Casement, going into the game we maybe took our eye off the ball because we’d beaten the favourites for the Ulster Championship.
“We felt that Armagh weren’t the team that they turned out to be. They just blew us away that day, they had serious homework done and given the locla rivalry, they were up for it more than us.
“The game was gone for the last 20 minutes really. It is a long time, especially when you’re in goals, it’s a lonely position. If everything is coming in, you’ve your fingers crossed that it either goes over the bar or it goes wide.
“There is a wee bit of embarrassment there because you do feel that it’s your fault, regardless of what happens further out the field. It definitely was a long last 15 or 20 minutes; I just couldn’t wait to get out of Clones.”
McVeigh guarded the Down goals for 12 years, but he wasn’t always a shot-stopper. In his younger days, he was a score-getting forward. Football and playing for Down was always his destiny. “I was always interested in it from a very early age. We grew up in Castlewellan and football was the hub of the community.
“That’s the way we started. At that stage it was u-12s, there was no u-8s or u-10s at that time. you started at u-12s and worked your way up. I wasn’t always a goalkeeper. I played out the field at u-12 and u-14 and it was u-16 before I started to do goals.
“The change came at the end of the u-14 season, I played a wee bit of soccer as well and I had fluid in my knee. When the u-16s started it hadn’t cleared up and they were short a goalkeeper, so I stood in goals and never looked back.
“I always had a fair kick off the ground. Back then, you were never kicking the ball from your hands, everything was kicked off the ground from the small square and the ‘14. I was happy enough and so was everyone else, so it worked in everyone’s favour.”
His father hadn’t much interest in football, but his mother and older brother Audie, six years his elder, were massive influences.
“My brother was big into the football as well and I followed him. Mum played a bit whenever she was younger, but Dad had no interest in football until we started to play and even then, he’d have watched it, but he didn’t have much interest in going.
“Mummy would have been different; she’d have been glued to it. She was the driving force behind it. Actually, years ago Mum would have done goals for Annsborough. But my brother was a big influence on me growing up.
“Especially in my late teens – at that stage I’d have carried a wee bit of weight and he’d have been pushing me to get losing it and he’d have saw the potential. The potential was always there, it was just a matter of getting it out of me.
“In Castlewellan we didn’t have much else to do and where we lived in the housing estate, it was just all football. During the summer it was all football, we didn’t do anything else.”
Those summers spent kicking ball produced a Castlewellan side that would complete history in 1995, helping the club to their first ever back-to-back county title success. McVeigh starred in those summer nights and earned the nickname of a certain Kerry legend.
“My nickname at home here was Pat Spillane. I was a forward at underage level and with Castlewellan years ago, a man Leo Flanagan ran a skills award. It was run over three Saturday’s and the three awards were gold, silver and bronze. I was the only one out of the club that got the gold award.
“I remember Castlewellan opening their pitch here and the great Kerry team came up and played Down. My idol was Pat Spillane, he wasn’t there, but it was great to see a team of that stature and that ability coming up and playing in your home pitch.
“From there on, football was my life. I just wanted to play football at as high a level as I possibly could. I didn’t play county minor, I played a wee bit of u-21.
“In ’91 we were beaten in the (club) championship final and then we won back-to-back titles in ’94 and ’95 so we had two good years. It was a massive achievement for the club and the group of players. We had a lad Dermot Hawkins who was in Scotland and at that time we were taking him home for championship matches and stuff like that.
“It was a big thing around the club, it was never done before. The two championship finals were over celebrated, and we took the eye off the Ulster Championship. Both years, Clontibret and Castleblayney beat us, we probably would have been good enough to at least got to an Ulster club final, but the celebrations maybe went on a wee bit too long.
“I always felt I might get a call up to the county, but it wasn’t going to be the end of the world if I didn’t get it. I felt I was good enough to play at u-21 level and it didn’t really materialise, I played a couple of games. But whenever the opportunity arose to get into the county seniors, I grabbed it with both hands.”
While McVeigh may not have had the success with Down on the provincial stage, his talents were recognised nationally. The 6ft 3 netminder won three Railway Cup medals with Ulster, captaining the side to victory in 2004 in Paris.
“I hadn’t a clue that I was going to be captain for it, and we were playing Connacht in McHale Park, Mayo. We stayed in Donegal on the Saturday night and at the team meeting, Brian (McEniff) just told me that I was captain and Enda McNulty was vice-captain that year.
“It was a big carrot dangling in front of us in the Connacht game (the semi-final) because we knew the final was going to be in Paris. It was probably another highlight and a massive achievement for me personally and for my family, that I can look back and say I captained Ulster to win a Railway Cup final.
“It was a good weekend; we were well looked after. We flew out on the Friday morning, and we were back on the Monday. I enjoyed playing the Railway Cup because you mixed with 28 or 29 lads from other counties.
“At that stage, I don’t know about the other provinces, but I know in Ulster everybody was an Ulster man, it didn’t matter what county you were from. The craic was really good, whenever you were in that environment, I really enjoyed it.
“It was a great social event as well because you could have been away for a couple of days. I think the last one I was at was in Enniskillen, it was played across the Saturday and the Sunday.
“We beat Leinster and stayed in Bundoran on the Saturday night and there were a few jars taken and a few boys borrowed clothes to go to discos without McEniff and big Art (McCrory) knowing. But there was no harm done, it was all good fun.
“We went the following day and we beat Connacht. They were great days, I don’t know whether they’ll ever get back to it or not, but they were something that I looked forward to, getting picked for the inter-provincials.
“It’s dwindled but it got to the stage of, ‘when do you play it’? At that time, in ’04 it was really dying, the year before the hurlers were in Italy I think, and it was really dying off, so they had to put some kind of incentive for players to play in it.
“Provinces were nearly putting out seconds teams although to be fair, with Brian McEniff and Art McCrory, there were very few players turned them down in Ulster. I felt the boys in Ulster were very proud to play for their province whereas in other provinces I’m not so sure whether they were or not.”
Ten years on from being called up to the Down squad, McVeigh received another call from Pete McGrath. This time the former Down boss asked him to join the Ireland panel as they prepared for a trip Down Under to face a wounded Australian side.
“The previous year in ’04 I was disappointed that I didn’t make the squad, but Stephen Cluxton ended up getting Ireland’s Player of the Series, so it was probably a decision that Pete (McGrath) and Larry Tomkins and the lads made that it was justified.
“In ’04, Australia sent a team over that Ireland beat easily over the couple of matches. Australia being Australia, it hurt them, and they put out what they called their All-Star team when we went out in ’05. It became nasty but it was highly enjoyable, it was a long way to go for two games of football.
“It was very enjoyable; we were away for 17 days in total, so you were looked after like a professional for 17 days. At the end of the day, you play sport to win, and we didn’t win so it was disappointing and the manner of the loss over there was disappointing.
“From my own personal perspective, the first game, I didn’t play well in it at all. I always look back to see the mistakes that I made so if you were to play that one again, I would probably have done stuff a whole pile different.
“But the Australians were just fierce animals over the course of those two games. It was really enjoyable though, there was great camaraderie and a great bunch of lads that you were with, so it was great.”
It was an era of Railway Cups and International Rules. An era of man-on-man football without sweeper systems or defensive tactics. A simpler era. A better era, he says.
“You didn’t know any different because that’s the way football, from an early age, that’s the way you played football. There were no sweepers or playing an extra man, maybe a team would have played a third midfielder but there was no such thing as sweepers.
“You definitely would have designated a defender to pick a forward up, but you wouldn’t have been playing a wing half forward in defence or anything like that. You had six defenders, and they were given a job.
“At that stage there was some top-class forwards. You had Peter and Mugsy, Oisin (McConville), Diarmaid Marsden was another top-class player, Tony Boyle and Michael Hegarty from Donegal, Ronan Carolan Cavan, Pádraic Joyce (Galway).
“You always judged yourself against them players and if you kept a clean sheet, you felt like you had a brilliant game. You came off, regardless if you won or lost, feeling that you achieved something. Looking back, they were some of Ireland’s best players at that stage.
“I retired in ’08 and I’m happy that I played in that era. It’s hard now because to me, it’s got too tactical, and your best players aren’t really allowed to perform now.
“Take Clifford, he’s an outstanding footballer so it’ll not matter what you do, he’s going to have a say, but there’s other marque players out there at the minute and they’re nullified in games, they’re not allowed to play.
“It’s very tactical whereas goick to the 90s, it was more open. Was it any better? I would say it probably was. Maybe that’s just me being biased but to me there were better scores and better team play because it was more open, that’s only my opinion.”