By Shaun Casey
GERRY McCarville could play anywhere. And did. He was a towering figure and a key player for club and county during a golden period for both Scotstown and Monaghan.
By the time McCarville had hung up the boots, he’d won 12 county titles, 14 leagues, four Ulster medals and helped Scotstown make their first, and to date only, All-Ireland final appearance.
For Monaghan, he amassed three Ulster medals (1979, 1985, 1988), the county’s one and only Division One National League title (1985) and won a host of Railway cup medals. Cut him and he’ll bleed blue and white.
There’s an easy-going nature about McCarville that’s in complete contrast to the warrior displays he often gave inside the white lines.
From plucking kick-outs in the centre of the field, to bruising battles with Eoin ‘Bomber’ Liston on the edge of the square, to playmaking and point taking on the 45-metre line, there was very little that the Scotstown giant couldn’t do.
Wherever he was needed, his duty was to do the best he could in any position and that’s what he did. An imposing figure, he always lined out through the spine of the team and for McCarville, it all started between the sticks.
“I started off in goals for Scotstown in the 1974 championship, my brother was the captain of the team, and we won the championship that year, we beat ‘Blayney in the final,” McCarville recalled.
“I played full-back in 1976 (for Scotstown), I sometimes played at corner-forward or full-forward in ’75 but in 1976 I started off playing full-back. I was full-back when I came into the Monaghan team then, and sometimes full-forward as well.
“I played in the middle of the field for Monaghan in 1979 in the Ulster Championship, full-back in the ’85 Ulster Championship and centre half-forward in ’88. I done the rounds; I was getting closer to the number 16.
“I suppose looking back on my career, I played full-forward for maybe six or seven years with Scotstown, and it was always a brilliant place to play but my preferred position was full-back and I’d great men around me at that time in the club.”
McCarville’s litany of accolades and awards all started with the club, and he was part of a golden generation that dominated the Farney County and put three Ulster titles back-to-back, one of only four club teams to have ever achieved that feat.
Growing up, it was his older brother Martin that first ignited the burning desire to play football, and in Scotstown, the club was filled with good coaches and good people that encouraged McCarville along on his journey.
“I was always interested in football because my brother played with Scotstown, he’d have been my older brother. I used to go up every evening to the football field with him and train with the senior team, I was only 13 at the time but that’s how I got involved.
“My brother kept me at it. He’d have been a big influence on me, and we had great mentors in Scotstown as well with Jimmy Sherry, Sean Morgan, Sean McCague, Liam Stirrat, Sean McCrudden.
“They were all great clubmen and they always wanted young people to do well at football. We had a great team and we had great leaders in our club all over the field and great committees and everything worked well together.
“We’d a lot of great footballers in the team and if you missed training, the manager didn’t have to get onto you about it, the players were the men that were giving out and that was the way we drove the thing on. It was great, to win three Ulster’s in a row was a serious achievement.
“The first year (1977) we went to play St John’s in Belfast and we got beat by 17 points and the following year we beat them in the Ulster Club final by three points. At half time it was 6-0 to Scotstown. That was some turnaround from the year before.
“We said after they gave us the thumping in Belfast that day that this was never going to happen again, and it never did.”
That same season, the An Bhoth men reached the All-Ireland Club final, but a strong Nemo Rangers side dashed their dreams of landing the Andy Merrigan Cup. As it proved at the time, the club teams that Cork produced were just better than anything else out there.
“Nemo Rangers beat us in the All-Ireland final and then St Finbarr’s beat us in the other two years. It was just a pity we didn’t win one of those, we’d a great team but those Cork teams were very strong at the time. The Cork teams were the teams that stood out at club football.”
McCarville had little luck when it came to Munster opposition throughout his career. At county level, it was the great Kerry team of the ‘70s and ‘80s that did the damage when the Farney men reached the All-Ireland series.
Monaghan ended a 41-year wait for an Ulster title in 1979, two years after McCarville had pulled on the blue and white shirt for the first time, making their first appearance in a provincial final since 1952.
“At that time Down were the strong team in Ulster, and Cavan. The Ulster final was always between Down and Cavan when I was younger, and maybe Derry came on the scene then too. I used to cheer for Cavan and my brother would have cheered for Down.
“It was always an ambition that someday I might wear the county jersey, but you never thought about it too much until you were about 16 or 17. I was a county minor, and I didn’t play that much, then I was called into the county panel in 1976.
“Down were the reigning Ulster champions in ‘79 and we played them in the first round in Blayney and it was a serious win for us. We played very well on the day, and it was a tough game and then we beat Armagh in the semi-final in Breffni.”
That set up a date with destiny and Donegal stood between Monaghan and history. The scene was set, but the Ulster final started unusually.
Lining out at centerfield, McCarville and his midfield partner Hugo Clerkin were outmuscled by their Donegal opponents and within 11 seconds, the Tir Chonaill men slotted over the first score of the game.
But it didn’t stand. The game had to restart. “The referee threw in the ball and the band was behind his back and he didn’t see them, Donegal broke away and scored a point and the thing had to be brought back and the national anthem had to be played.
“Myself and Hugo (Clerkin) were in the middle of the field that day and we got the throw in sorted out for the second throw in.”
The rest is history. Monaghan won the game and ended their long wait for the Anglo Celt. “It was a great win for us. Kieran Finlay scored 1-9 and it was a serious score in an Ulster final, if it was today, you’d be an automatic All-Star.”
It was unexpected, however, even inside the camp. Monaghan really came from nowhere and McCarville credits his fellow clubman Sean McCague for their turn in fortunes.
“I would say we even took ourselves by surprise in winning that Ulster title. Sean McCague was over the team, and he united the whole county, he had every club pulling the same way which hadn’t been happening for the years previous to that.
“But Sean McCague got everyone together and got a good bond between the county panel and it wasn’t a real professional job, but he opened the whole thing up for Monaghan being successful for the last 35 to 40 years.
“He was the main man; he was the man that got everything going. He was probably analysing teams and things like that back then, that you never heard tell of or saw before.”
“We played Donegal in the final in Clones, and we were superstars for a few weeks at the time whenever we beat them. But we were taken back down to earth by Kerry (in the All-Ireland semi-final), we got the mother and father of a hiding from them.”
This was peak Kerry remember, right bang in the middle of their bid for football immortality as they chased All-Ireland after All-Ireland. Arguably the greatest team of all time, Mick O’Dwyer’s side unceremoniously demolished the new Ulster champions.
“They were a super outfit,” said McCarville, who had massive admiration for the Kingdom. “We probably had never played a team like Kerry before. You were playing the Ulster teams and probably the Ulster teams were on a par with each other at that stage, but we went into the lion’s den that day.
“The Kerry forward line that time was Ger Power, Ogie Moran, Pat Spillane, Mikey Sheehy, Eoin Liston and John Egan. That was some forward line. It was a baptism of fire for us.
“I was playing in midfield, and I was marking a man called Vincent O’Connor, myself and Hugo were in midfield and we did well enough but the team was just totally inexperienced. We were shooting from wrong positions, we just didn’t play well, and Kerry railroaded us.”
It took a few years for Monaghan to get back to that level, but by 1985, they were ready for another shot at the Kingdom.
“We were beat in the Centenary Cup final by Meath by two points (1984), we got beat by Armagh in the Ulster semi-final in ’82 and beat by Tyrone in ’83 but in 1984 we’d a great run in the Centenary Cup, we beat a lot of good teams to reach the final.
“We played well in the National League in ’85 and won the league, we beat Armagh after a replay in Breffni and then went on to beat Derry in the Ulster final and beat them well.
“A lot of us had matured a lot from the ’79 team, and a few younger players had come into the squad as well like the Murrays from Clones (Ciaran and Brendan), Bernie Murray, Ray McCarron and Eamon McEnaney, all really good players.”
Again, Kerry awaited the Ulster champions in the last four, and had Monaghan been at full strength, the story could have been so much different. “There was a great buzz in our team at the time, we were thinking of trying to get to an All-Ireland final at least but then we were very unfortunate too.
“Bernie Murray broke his leg and Declan Loughman broke his leg as well, we got a couple of bad injuries after we won the league. We probably just hadn’t got a strong enough panel to replace men of that calibre.
“We started to have far more belief in ourselves, but that Kerry team got beat in ’82 when they were going for five in a row, and they still came back and won three in a row after it. Kerry were starting to slip at that time but they still went on and won the next two All-Irelands.”
It was Monaghan’s greatest chance of getting to the big day and competing for the big prize. They battled brilliantly and earned a draw the first day out, but the underdogs rarely produce when presented with a second opportunity. In the replay, Kerry won and went on to capture the Sam Maguire.
“We played very well against Kerry; we were probably very unlucky the first day. We were seven points up a minute before half time and the ball hit the very tip of the post and dropped into John Kennedy’s arms and he stuck it in the net.
“We were going in four up at half time then, but Kerry were Kerry, and they came back at us and went a point ahead and then Eamonn McEnaney scored that wonder free to take it to a replay. In the replay, we played well enough, but we didn’t play nearly as well as we did in the drawn game and Kerry won.”
By that stage, McCarville was manning the edge of the square in the last line of defence and picked up four-time All-Star, Eoin ‘Bomber’ Liston. The pair “had a little disagreement” in the replay, and the Bomber was sent to the line, but that’s all water under the bridge now.
“We had a little disagreement, and those things happen. It was tough football at that time, you had to stand up for yourself and sure these things happen, I’d pass no remarks on them now.”
Despite their differences, McCarville credits the big Kerry full-forward as the best player he ever came up against
. “He was a serious player, he was a great footballer, he was 6’4 or 6’5 and he had brilliant players around him. He was an awful big man, and he was hard to handle. He was the best player ever I marked. He was a super footballer.”
Monaghan strung together a decent league run the season after, which ended in another final appearance, but their bid for two in a row was halted by Laois, who sneaked over the line by the minimum of margins. Again, injuries to key personnel told the tale.
“We had a great run to the league final again the following year and we were pipped in the final,” continued McCarville. “Unfortunately, Eamonn McEnaney was injured, and we missed a lot of frees in the first half.
“When Eamonn McEnaney came on in the second half, he scored all the frees but we got pipped by a point, a last-minute free by a boy in the middle of the field, Liam Irwin. It would have been a serious achievement to win two National Leagues in a row, but it didn’t happen.
“We weren’t going that well for a couple of years after that and the senior players of the team had a meeting and went to Sean McCague and asked him to come back to manage the team. We told him that whatever he’d ask, we’d do.
“So, he agreed, and we started training for ’88 on Boxing Day 1987. We had a good enough league campaign and then the Ulster Championship, we had done well to win the Ulster Championship because I was 33 or 34 at the time and a lot of us were in the twilight of our careers.”
One last shot at the All-Ireland series was the reward for the hard work done in those tough winter months. And by that stage, the great Kerry team had faded, and Cork were the kings of Munster. But as they did at club level a decade before, the Rebels proved too good for McCarville and his teammates.
“There was a gale force breeze in that All-Ireland semi-final and unfortunately Brendan Murray got his jaw broke about 70 yards from goal and it should have been a free. Whenever he let the ball out of his hands, they counter-attacked and scored the goal that put them four or five points up and we couldn’t get them pulled back.”
On reflection, it was a career filled with glory, but still that 1985 semi-final with Kerry gnaws at the team. “That was the one that got away.
“We definitely had the stuff in ’85 to really go for it but it didn’t happen and we’re still dreaming about trying to win an All-Ireland, but sure maybe someday we will. It probably does (still annoy me) but what do you do, you have to just move on with life and that’s it.”
McCarville played for his beloved county for another three years before finally calling it a day in 1991. “The time was right, whenever the field starts looking bigger than it was before, it’s time to move on.
“I had a great career, and I enjoyed every minute of it and made a lot of great friends and played against a lot of great players.
“ I still remember a lot of good games that we had and tough battles but once it was over, it was over and that was it.”
One of the highlights was the days of the Railway Cup when the pick of the provinces locked horns. “It was a great competition, playing with great players,” added McCarville.
“The year of the Centenary Cup, we won the Railway Cup, and we had Frank McGuigan, Greg Blaney, Liam Austin, Paddy Kennedy and boys that I haven’t seen nearly since that, Peter McGinnity as well.
“The great Dermot Early played against us that year too. We beat Connacht in the final and Munster in the semi-final in Limerick, it was a great competition to play in, the cream of the crop was playing. It’s a big loss nowadays, it was a great competition.”
McCarville’s love for the game and competitive spirit never diminished and he went straight into coaching once he hung up the boots. Even before he finished up playing with Scotstown, he was winning championships as a manager.
“I’d managed intermediate clubs whenever I was still playing with Scotstown. You went to their training a couple of nights a week, and you went to your own training and your own matches the other nights, I juggled it alright.
“I was very successful at it, I won a junior double with Latton and an intermediate double with Latton, while still playing. I managed a right few teams, I managed a few teams in Monaghan and Cavan Gaels, Dungannon and thanks be to God I was very successful with them and enjoyed every minute of it as well.
“It’s a tough job now. Football has changed so much in the last number of years, it’s nearly professional at this stage even at club level, it’s unbelievable. The time it takes up now, I don’t know how boys do it.
“County players now, they probably enjoy it surely, but I do think it was more enjoyable in our time. You weren’t tied to anything, now it’s dietitians and what you’re eating and rehydrating and all these things, there was no such thing as those things in our time.
“I’m not involved with any teams anymore but I still go to all the matches, I go to all the county matches and all the club matches.”
McCarville is glad he played in the period he did but believes that if he was about the inter-county scene at the minute, he could adapt to the demands of the modern game.
“People will say that those that played 30 or 40 years ago wouldn’t survive in today’s game, but they’d survive it because you’d have adapted yourself to it, you’d be fit to adapt training and everything now. Training wasn’t strenuous, it was really tough at the time, but you’d have got used to it the same way the players have now.”
And how could you doubt him? McCarville was a winner, a born leader and a unique player that could have done it in any era.