By Niall McCoy
UP until 2010, Paddy Kennedy had a somewhat unwanted claim to fame – he was the only Down All-Star who had never won an All-Ireland title.
Before that incredible season 11 years ago, when Down’s narrow loss to Cork in the All-Ireland final resulted in four more All-Star gongs heading to the county, the Glenn man was the odd one out.
The four All-Stars that came before him, shared evenly by Seán O’Neill and Colm McAlarney, and the 14 that immediately followed were all players who knew what it felt like to lift the Sam Maguire.
Kennedy, who made his biggest mark in 1981, had no such luck – but don’t feel too sorry for the player as his was a career that included two Anglo Celt successes, a National League winning medal and an All-Ireland U-21 title in 1979.
It was with the Mourne minors in 1977 though where Kennedy first came to prominence as the county lifted the Tom Markham Cup for the first time in their history.
“I was given the chance to try out with the Down minors in 1977,” Kennedy said.
“The management team at the time included Seán O’Neill and Tony Hadden, two legends from the 1960s. It was a great opportunity to play football at a higher level.
“Our team won all before them, Ulster, the All-Ireland, the North-Eastern Minor League and the Ulster Minor League, so it was an incredible introduction to inter-county football.”
Kennedy formed a brilliant midfield partnership with team captain and Glenn clubmate John McCartan and, supported by the likes of Paddy O’Rourke, Jarlath Digney and Ambrose Rogers, they eased past Kildare at Croke Park in the final.
A few months later, Kennedy would be asked to join the senior panel and, again, the opportunity to be coached by legends of the game made it an immensely enjoyable period of his sporting career.
“I had the good fortune to be managed by Seán O’Neill and Tony Hadden at minor level and then at senior level you find out you are being coached by James McCartan, Dan McCartan and Val Kane.
“It was a great opportunity to be taught by Down legends and thankfully we were able to beat Cavan in the Ulster final in ’78 but we lost to that great Dublin team in the semi-final that year.”
More success would arrive the following season as Down claimed their first – and to date only – All-Ireland U-21 title following a 1-9 to 0-7 win over Cork.
The real scare came in the semi-final in Newry as they hosted Galway. Undoubtedly the better team, Down were left unnerved by a late Tribe rally that saw a seven-point advantage reduced to just two, and relief was the overriding emotion when referee Seamus Aldridge blew the full-time whistle.
There would be no such panic at Croke Park though, with their five-point winning margin proving flattering only to the Rebels.
“The five to six thousand spectators who turned up to view the final were treated to a footballing spectacle normally associated with a game played in a low junior division,” the Irish Examiner reported.
Down didn’t care. Liam Austin ruled the skies, Greg Blaney was a wonder and despite John McCartan having two goals disallowed, Kennedy had earned another first with his county.
“That was a good period for Down football,” he said.
“We took home two All-Ireland titles, albeit at underage, and then there was that Ulster title in ’78 as well.
“People maybe don’t appreciate the success Down enjoyed in those years, it was a good time to be involved.
“At that time at national level you had the great Dublin team and the great Kerry team.
“We had a good team too but the Ulster Championship was always evenly managed and it was always very competitive.
“Teams would battle hard but would seem to fall short at All-Ireland level.
“There was a change of management then at senior level with Joe Lennon taking over. Tony Hadden was still there as well.”
That management change also led to a switch for Kennedy that would ultimately result in his 1981 All-Star award. So often the man in the middle, the player was converted into a full-back.
The season nearly came undone in the opening round against Monaghan though. Brendan Toner was sent off after just 23 minutes and with the game in the dying embers, the Oriel men led by one.
Famed Monaghan ’keeper Paddy Linden, however, was adjudged to have over-carried the ball and Brendan McGovern’s free forced a replay in Castleblayney.
Kennedy’s performance was described as “splendid” by the Anglo Celt but seemed to count for nothing when they trailed by five points in the replay. McGovern was again the saviour as his late goal earned a one-point win, and Kennedy’s performance again earned rave reviews from the press.
Derry were banished in a low-scoring semi-final as Kennedy nullified the highly-rated and physically imposing Mark McFeeley before they eased past old rivals Armagh in the Ulster final.
One barn-storming run and pass had set up John McCartan for a Down goal and although his sights were still on team honours, four excellent provincial displays meant that Kennedy was clearly on the radar for individual recognition.
Lying in wait in the semi-final were an Offaly team who would produce one of the most famous moments in GAA history a year later when Seamus Darby’s goal ended Kerry’s five in-a-row ambitions in famous style.
Kennedy and his teammates found out first-hand just how good that Faithful county side were in ’81 as they held the Ulster side to just six points.
Kennedy again stood out though for the Mourne county. His interception on Matt Connor when the star forward appeared through deemed to be one of the best plays of the contest. Overall he did a stellar job on Seán Lowry, uncle of current Open golf champion Shane Lowry.
“We came up against a very good Offaly side,” Kennedy said. “But I was awarded an All-Star for my performances that year.
“You look back and think what might have been though. It would have been nice to have won a senior medal but it wasn’t to be.
“Still, a lot of great players gave so much service to their counties but didn’t get even a provincial medal. So when you look back and see that you have a couple of Ulster medals, All-Ireland medals at minor and u-21, a National League medal and an All-Star – I have to be satisfied with that.
“In every sportsperson there is always that wee competitor though. The competitor that always asks what might have been.
“Overall I was very fortunate to play with some exceptional footballers, people like Greg Blaney, Mickey Linden, Ambrose Rogers, John McCartan, Brendan McGovern, Paddy O’Rourke.
“Very few players would get the opportunity to be coached by people like Joe Lennon, Tony Hadden, Seán O’Neill, James and Dan McCartan and Val Kane. I consider myself to be very fortunate to be around at that time.”
As well as getting to blend with some of Down’s most famous names, Kennedy also got to spend a few weeks with some of Ireland’s most noted footballers on the 1981 All-Star tour.
The 15 selected that year included some real Kerry legends like Jack O’Shea, Páidí Ó Sé, Mikey Sheehy, Pat Spillane and Eoin Liston.
“We had a gala banquet in the Burlington Hotel and Garret FitzGerald, the Taoiseach at the time, presented the awards,” Kennedy said.
“It was an exceptional night and one I look back on with great pride.
“The tour had two stops, New York and San Francisco. I played two games against the All-Ireland champions at the time, Kerry.
“It was great to see the ex-pats out there. They really enjoyed seeing that year’s champions. That was a real highlight of my career.
“You look back on it and you realise that it wasn’t half bad.”
It could have been even better in 1980 as Kennedy came so close to helping Glenn to a fourth Senior Championship title – and what would have been his first.
It was Clonduff who ended those dreams though, as the Hilltown outfit earned a 0-7 to 0-6 win.
“That’s the only regret,” Kennedy said. “You win medals at national level but you always start at your club.
“So many people at the club took the time to manage underage teams and do other things and that’s one measure of regret; that I couldn’t help take a county title back to Glenn. We couldn’t reward those who were behind the scenes and on the committee who had put in so much work.
“We did win the Feis Sevens a few years later and went down to the All-Ireland Sevens but were beaten by Castlewellan team who were powered by Colm McAlarney and Benji Toner. I think Castlewellan won it.”
In more recent times, Kennedy took the club’s seniors at a time when they were in the lower ranks of Down football. His steadying influence laid the foundations for John Kennedy’s – no relation – young guns to come through and take the club back up to the senior grade.
“I haven’t been involved in football side or committee side of it for a few years, just a spectator watching games,” Kennedy said. “I’ll be looking forward to getting a few games, all being well, in the summertime.”
And as he hangs over the wire at the Barr Hill clubgrounds, few will have had such an impact on Down football as Paddy Kennedy.