Grand Old Team – Sarsfields’ 1990 season

IF you want to light a fire under someone you may as well bring plenty of petrol.

The Sarsfields players were the combustible material ahead of the 1990 season. New player-manager Brian McAlinden and a few cohorts at the High Moss club provided the spark.

The premise was simple enough. Despite having four county players, the side had been relegated to Division Two and, as McAlinden had put it, “maybe the guys didn’t have the right attitude.”

So, the future Armagh manager decided to throw a grenade into the camp. The club would apply to play at intermediate level that year, he told the panel.

Now, the other clubs in the Orchard county would never have allowed that, but it had the desired impact. The Sarsfields player took it as an affront, McAlinden got the commitment required and in September 1990 the club won their first – and only – Armagh Senior Championship.

The Armagh club scene was very different back then. The Gerry Fagan Cup was not in action yet with teams battling it out for the McKillop Cup instead.

Crossmaglen had 24 county titles, just five clear of the 19 gathered at that stage by Armagh Harps and their previous guise, the Armagh Young Ireland’s. Now the Rangers lead the way by 24 titles.

And Brian McAlinden, one of the most noted goalkeepers in Ulster, was feeling frustrated.

“When you have quality players you shouldn’t be dropping a division. So when you do you have to look at it,” he said of their situation ahead of that ’90 season.

“It gave me an incentive to do just that. As well as our county players we had plenty of other talented players and we shouldn’t have been in that position.

“We had a team that underachieved, but the big thing was trying to convince the guys to give the commitment.

“I would have riled them a bit. At that stage we could decide whether we wanted to play senior or intermediate and we did reapply to play intermediate. The players weren’t too impressed.

“Our intention was never to play intermediate but it was to be sort of an insult to them. We knew we wouldn’t be allowed to play it because the other clubs would have objected because we had four county players, that was the way it was then.

“They weren’t happy and they called a meeting. After that meeting it was very clear what was expected of them.”

McAlinden, one of four Armagh players alongside the late, great Kieran McGurk, Shane Skelton and Paul Skelton, wasn’t going to shy away from the sacrifices either with some close friendships put on hold in the pursuit of glory.

“I would have tried to step up a level and not have a friendship with them,” he said.

“My best friend Denis Stevenson was on that team, but that friendship was put on hold for that period.

“Myself and Denis and our two wives would have met for meals and things, but that was put on hold.

“Other guys that worked with me, those friendships would have been put on hold.

“We started training on January 16 and we trained a minimum of three nights a week, sometimes it stretched to four.

“I would have to say that there was total commitment. They said they would, and the expectation was there. I drilled into them that we weren’t there to participate; we were there to win the championship.

“We had differences of opinions in the club as well. The senior team was trained solely as a senior team whereas in previous years the B team, the reserve team, would have trained with the senior team.

“We eliminated that and the senior team trained on their own as a group.”

That hard work, which included climbing sand dunes in Newcastle and even 7am starts, paid off in the league as the High Moss side swept all before them as they dropped just a single point at home to Killeavy in Division Two. Their punishment for that draw was an hour’s training immediately afterwards.

They would get the better of the south Armagh men in the Senior Championship semi-final having defeated Silverbridge 2-13 to 0-4 in the round before. That set up a final meeting with Armagh Harps and McAlinden believes that their league form, and tough challenge match opposition, was key to be them being perfectly prepared for the main event.

“The challenge matches we played were all outside the county.

“We travelled to Belfast to play St Gall’s, we played Kingscourt, Coalisland. They were all managed by friends of mine.

“They were all top teams because that’s what we expected to be up against. Charlie Sweeney was the manager of St Gall’s and we played them two or three times. He said ‘Brian, we’re going to have to stop this because we could meet in the Ulster Club final.’

“We knew the Harps were going for three in-a-row. We didn’t read too much into the papers because we were going in totally confident that we would win the match against the Harps.

“We had a plan on how would we would maximise our strengths. The strengths were wing play and diagonal ball into our front men.

“We really eliminated the strength the Harps had right up the middle. We would have used the whole width of the pitch.

“We would have measured the Athletic Grounds to the inch and the pitches we would have played our challenge matches on would have been an identical size.

“We were preparing all year for that game and we knew that the Harps would have been in the final.”

Martin McAlinden, no relation to Brian, was new to all this professionalism.

“Of the team that started against the Harps in the final, I was the youngest on it,” he said. “I was 20 and I was playing full-back that day.

“I had started the season at right half-back and as the season went on I was moved into full-back and I played there the rest of my career.”

McAlinden may have been lacking experience, but he had good men on the wings who would keep him right.

“Sean McGeown was on one side of me and Denis Stevenson was on the other, at that time they were 33, 34 and had given great service to the club.

“Sean finished that year and then Denis played a few years more up until the Ogs beat us in ’92.”

That experience was vital in the final against Harps in what turned out to be a very physical encounter – something the side would have to get used to.

Brian McAlinden’s decision to use Liam Murray as a third midfielder worked a treat while Paul Skelton excelled at full-forward.

The teams were tied at three points apiece at the break, and Harps went ahead early in the second period, but they were out-scored 0-6 to 0-2 from there on in with Des Skelton (2), Liam Murray, Shane Skelton, Des Skelton, Johnny Doran raising white flags. Fittingly, team captain Kieran McGurk rounded off the scoring.

Martin McAlinden paid tribute to his teammate who sadly passed away in 2011.

“McGurk was playing midfield for us and centre three-quarters for Armagh and really coming into his own.

“I remember him telling me once that he had done maybe 30 sessions on the trot. We were Monday, Wednesday, Friday with a game on Sunday. He was Tuesday and Thursday with Armagh and maybe a game with the county on the Saturday. He was in incredible shape.

“He was a top man, he was some leader. Everyone looked up to him. When you were a young Gaelic footballer you would have thought he was God. He had that presence about him.

“Everyone respected him and he had time for everyone too. He was something else.”

Seeing McGurk raise the McKillop Cup will live long in the memory of the Sarsfields fans in Armagh that day, and player-manager Brian McAlinden said that the impact of the victory hit home following the messages of congratulations that arrived from other clubs.

“Gerry Cunningham would have come down with his group ‘More Power to Your Elbow.’

“I didn’t actually make it into the club because there were that many people about.

“The old brigade of elderly men who dreamt that Sarsfields would win an Armagh Senior Championship but didn’t think they’d see it, they were all there.

“The local clubs around us, the likes of Clan na Gael, Jimmy Smyth and Kevin France and all those guys, the Maghery guys, Paddy Moriarty, they all came down to congratulate us.

“There was no animosity amongst the local clubs that we had won it.”

The journey wasn’t over of course. The side had secured their first ticket to the Ulster Senior Club Championship and a preliminary round clash with RGU Downpatrick, who had twice featured in the competition previously.

“We weren’t happy just to beat Downpatrick, the challenge was the Ulster Club and that’s what we trained for,” Brian McAlinden.

Like the county final, it was a low-scoring game with Sarsfields grabbing a winner from Paul Skelton after Conor Deegan had conceded a free. Martin McAlinden feels that referee Jim Curran may have been harsh on the then Down star.

“Out of all the matches I played, the hardest ever was against Downpatrick,” he said.

“They had us on the rack for 40 minutes, maybe 50, it was constant. We grinded it out and it was just all hands to the pumps.

“Conditions weren’t great. I don’t know if Conor Deegan gave away a free or maybe we stole one, I think it is more of the latter. The fella who won it was cute enough to go down and get the free and that was it.

“We were well drilled and we would have given away very few frees, although we did give a few in the county final. The Harps weren’t just in scoring form and it was one of those days when you felt that your name was on the cup.

“The shape McAlinden had us in was unreal.

“They talk about teams now and the work they do, to me nobody would have trained any harder than we did in 1990.”

Fermanagh champions Devenish were next up and given the match was at Brewster Park, the Erne side were confident of victory.

However, while two points may have separated the sides, Sarsfields were much the better team with Paul Skelton top-scoring with four points in a 0-10 to 1-5 win.

That set up a semi-final clash with famed Derry club Lavey, but Brian McAliden was wary once he saw who was down to officiate the clash.

“We were felt we were undone by poor refereeing decisions by John Gough who wouldn’t have been a favourite of Armagh players in the first place.

“Once I saw the appointment of the referee I knew we were going to need something special to get a result against Lavey.”

In front of a ridiculously loud crowd at Ballinascreen, Sarsfields led 0-7 to 0-6 late on but in one of the scrappiest goals you will ever see, Brian McCormick squeezed the ball home and did a somersault to celebrate.

“It was a real scrappy, scrappy goal. Lavey put up something on YouTube recently and I must have looked at it 50 times to see if there was anything we could have done to stop it,” Martin McAlinden said of the goal that ended the most incredible journey in the club’s history.

Summing up on the season, the defender said it was something that he would never forget.

“Lads grow up and dream about playing for their county but not too many get to that level,” he said.

“When I was growing the only thing I wanted was to win an Armagh Senior Championship with Sarsfields.

“My dad was manager in 1980 and 1981 and I would have been along the line, just running about the field. To see my Da with the cup, the pride, that had a big impact on me.”

His manager also pointed to family matters as one of the standouts of the season, and one of the reasons the success occurred.

“We had good club officials, no longer with us, like Dermot Austin and Stephen McAlinden – it didn’t matter how big the task was, it was a small ask for them.

“The players, the commitment they gave was excellent. There were arguments, there were fights in training, but I did say to them that it was a long road and if you veer off at any junction you may not get back on. The destination had to be the Athletic Grounds though.

“Girlfriends, partners, wives were all a big support. They were a great help during that period.

“Only I have a good wife in Joan and a good family that is totally connected to the GAA it wouldn’t have been possible.

“If it wasn’t for her help, I definitely wouldn’t have been able to do it.”

By Niall McCoy

Receive quality journalism wherever you are, on any device. Keep up to date from the comfort of your own home with a digital subscription.
Any time | Any place | Anywhere


Gaelic Life is published by North West of Ireland Printing & Publishing Company Limited, trading as North-West News Group.
Registered in Northern Ireland, No. R0000576. 10-14 John Street, Omagh, Co. Tyrone, N. Ireland, BT781DW