PETER McGinnity is one of the true greats of Roslea, Fermanagh and Ulster football.
With his club, he won three senior championships as player, six league titles, and is the current manager of their senior team even though he’s only a few years short of 70. With his county, he became Fermanagh’s first ever All-Star for his shining performances in 1982, and played at the highest level for the best part of 20 years. And on a provincial level, he won four Railway Cups (twice as captain), and his voice is immediately familiar to those who have tuned into BBC’S Ulster Championship coverage over the decades.
Somehow this only scratches the surface of McGinnity’s career. There’s also his richly successful stint at Belfast club St John’s, his long association with St Michael’s Enniskillen, and his managerial career – leading Tyrone club Killyclogher to the promised land in 2003 a particular highlight. We’ve attempted to run the rule over all of this in our interview with McGinnity, and where better to start than Fermanagh’s hugely successful U-21 team in the early seventies
NG: You were part of the Fermanagh that made back-to-back All-Ireland U-21 finals in 1970 and 1971, that type of underage success isn’t really associated with the county these days.
PMcG: What we had in those days is good teams for a few years in-a-row. There was a great squad of players on those U-21 teams, and St Michael’s Enniskillen were getting to MacRory Cup finals at that stage. The Fermanagh Vocationals team won the All-Ireland in 1967 so there was a great crop of players across a number of age groups. St Michael’s won the MacRory in 1973 with the likes of Frank Cassidy and my brother Gerard, and it does frustrate me that we weren’t competitive at senior intercounty level until the eighties. Myself, Ciaran Campbell and Barney Reilly were in our late twenties or early thirties at that stage, so I’ve often wondered what went wrong during that barren 10-year spell beforehand.
NG: You’ve no particular theory then?
PMcG: John McElroy came along in the late seventies, John Donnelly was there for years, they were managers and coaches as we know now. But before that it was selection committees and while everyone was trying their best, maybe we hadn’t the right system or process in place. But it does rankle a bit, because it wasn’t as if we didn’t have the players.
We have this cyclic thing in Fermanagh. We don’t continually roll out seven or eight players who are going to be successful. At minor or U-21 level every so often there’s a jump up but it doesn’t sustain. In the early noughties we did have a golden group of players but we’ve gone back down and we’re anxiously waiting for players from St Michael’s Hogan Cup winning team to make an impact. The question is how many will still be playing together for Fermanagh when they’re in their mid twenties.
NG: What were your memories of playing under John McElroy? He seems like a unique character.
PMcG: He was certainly good for Fermanagh at that time, he was dedicated and spent a serious amount of time on the job. He brought in JJ Tracey, God rest him, who was on the Junior team who won the All-Ireland and had been involved with our U-21 teams in 19701971. He had a very single-minded approach and was a very good coach. John and himself dragged us up and we became competitive in the eighties.
NG: Even though you won your first McKenna Cup in four decades and reached the Ulster final in 1982, getting players to commit seemed a constant issue.
PMcG: I suppose so. Maybe that was part of that casual approach I hinted at earlier. If John couldn’t get them out they weren’t coming out. It was a cycle of retirements, boys would retire then maybe come back the next year, and so it went on. Some of them maybe would’ve been better if John Donnelly had’ve been about for another few yeard but he was perfectly within his rights to retire and focus on club football. He wasn’t in the cycle, when he retired he did retire. When we go the start of the next year, you wouldn’t really know who was going to be coming out. Obviously that changed with the 1982 final and we got to the semi-final in 1983.
NG:You’d a long history of playing in the Railway Cup, when did you start?
PMcG: I played in my first railway cup in 73, I’d have been 19 at the time. It was when the Railway Cup was picked by a committee as well. Sometimes you lose out with committees and sometimes it doesn’t do any harm. I’ve a feeling we played the combined universities the first time they were in the railway cup. Myself, Ciaran Campbell and Phil Sheridan, three Fermanagh men. were on that team and there were a couple on the combined university team.
I played consecutively up until about 1985 on the Railway Cup team though I missed the year I started teaching in St Augustine’s in Belfast, I’ll put that down to the trials and tribulations of being a new teacher. I won four Railway Cup medals in that time and we were always well organised certainly when Sean O’Neill and Brian McEniff were involved.
NG: How was your development as a footballer in the sevenites? Most county teams only got one or two games in the championship.
PMcG: It wasn’t ideal. When the backdoor was implemented, while it may have taken away from the cut ‘n’ thrust element of a championship match, it put you into a development cycle where you’d be beaten in one game and you’d get drawn against a team from down the country who were on a similar level. You improved if you won that. Fermanagh gained as a result, and Tyrone won All-Irelands on the back of the backdoor system, so I think it was a great development tool even if a lot of people of my generation would’ve said it’s not like real championship.
You could be knocked out of the championship in May when I played, and you cut off all ties with your county colleagues. The national league probably started in November time, so you hadn’t seen anyone in that time, which certainly didn’t help development.
NG: 1982 was a bit of a roller-coaster. John McElroy tendered his resignation before the championship, then was convinced back. Then the win over Tyrone in the Ulster Championship semi-final was a seminal win for Fermanagh all things considered.
PMcG: For the likes of Eugene McKenna and those boys, it just shouldn’t have happened as far as they’re concerned. It was something we’d worked very hard for and we had the right group of players. But John Donnelly wasn’t there and possibly could’ve been. Jimmy Cleary, one of the best footballers Fermanagh ever produced, was playing soccer for Glentoran at that time. He was such a talented player, he played U21 and senior and then his soccer career took off.
Put those two boys into the squad that we had, and we would’ve scored a lot more, put it that way. 10 or 11 points was our maximum. Then in the Ulster final, the Armagh team we played, they’d played in an All-Ireland final a few years earlier so they’d certainly been around the block at that time. I’m not sure you could say inexperience cost us but it was something we didn’t have.
NG: I’ve spoken to Fermanagh players with major regrets about near misses in 2004 and 2008, do you have the same regrets about 1982?
PMcG: Well it’s a long time ago now. At the time it was bitterly disappointing but our attitude was ‘why not next year?’ Then the following season we beat Down, who were national league champions, in the first round of Irvinestown.
As a player you continue to look forwards, but when you retire, it’s very rarely the high points you remember. It must be something in our nature, the what ifs. The Ulster final is in that category, and Roslea were also beaten in the Ulster club final by St Gall’s that year as well. When you’re playing there was always hope. Now you can look back and see how the opportunities were missed, but I suppose life goes on.
I remember we were beaten in a championship final and I missed a penalty that day, it could’ve been the losing of the game. I came back home and my mother said ‘Peter, don’t worry about it’, and I said look mum as Bill Shankly said, ‘it’s not a matter of life or death, it’s far more important than that’ and she nearly threw a saucepan at me.
NG: I read that the Fermanagh players never got to keep their Ulster final jerseys, did that bother you?
PMcG: I cared alright and it was eventually organised that the players would have access to the numbered jersey they wore and I think eventually most players got the jersey. I got the number nine jersey, it wasn’t the one I wore in the Ulster final, it was a replica.
NG: Do you still keep all your medals?
PMcG: I keep them about, I’m not exactly sure where they are, they’ve been moved a few times and I’ve probably lost a few on the way, it doesn’t bother me that much. I remember what matters to me I suppose, but jeez I’ve a lot of jerseys and other stuff.
NG: At the same time it must be nice that you’re one of the only Fermanagh players to have won an All-Star:
PMcG: There are three of us, Martin McGrath, Barry Owens and myself. I have to say nobody can take that away, it’s a memory I can cherish and it will always be there. That’s the other thing, some of these things almost become more important the older you get. You don’t think so much about them when you’re playing but the older you can get the more you look back and be thankful.
NG: You had a hugely successful stint with St John’s during the seventies, what was it like living in Belfast at that time?
PMcG: It was alright. We were seven years in Belfast and there were certain places you didn’t go, but we didn’t pass much remarks on what was happening, we were too young and too busy and had other things to do. I wouldn’t look back on it and say it was a terrible time to be in Belfast despite the fact we were there from 1972 to 1979. Playing with St John’s was a wee bit special. I’d played with a lot of players in the Ranch and when I got a job in Belfast I thought it’d make sense to play with St john’s. I played for three years and we won three county championships, maybe three leagues, won an Ulster Championship, was beaten in an Ulster Championship final, we were beaten in All-Ireland final by Thomand Colleague.
NG: When you look back at all you achieved with Roslea, are there any titles that stand out?
PMcG: Winning the championship in 1982 after a couple of years of disappointment, that was big. The other year I remember is 1984 where we won every adult competition. We won the senior league and senior championship, the Junior league and championship and the centenary cup as well. That was a good year.
NG: Would that team have been inspired by the trail-blazing Roslea squad in the 50s?
PMcG: That 50s team set a standard. The younger people didn’t play much football then as the youngest team you could could play on was an U-16 team, but you were steeped in it all the same. Every house you’d go into in Roslea parish there was a photo of that four in-a-row team in the 50.
As a child they looked like serious big men, men like Joe Pat Prunty, God rest him, Tommy Callaghan and so on. In 1982 a number of those players were still involved with the Roslea tea, they put back into it what they got out of it.
NG: When did you start teaching at St Michael’s, you must’ve coached so many future Fermanagh players in your time there?
PMcG: I came back to teach at St Michael’s in 1979 and retired in 20042005. I came across some great players and enjoyed being with them.We’d some great wins and then Dom Corrigan picked up the mantle, his success has been brilliant. We’d have said the advantage St Michael’s had was our players come up against players from other counties all the time – players they’d be playing against at county level in another few years. They were exposed to that standard, it was playing against better teams that pulled you up by the bootlaces. I’d have definitely benefited from my time as a player at St Michael’s.
NG: When you did hang up the boots with Fermanagh and Roslea?
PMcG: I played for Fermanagh until 1989 and then in 1992, when PJ McGowan was over the team, they had a raft of injuries and I played a game down in Portlaosie. I futtered on with Roslea until 1998, I remember the last match as well. It was on the day France won the world cup, we played a junior match, I was about 44 or 45 years old. I clashed with a past pupil Peter Gormley and I got a knock on the ribs, I came home and didn’t even say to Marian I wasn’t well as I shouldn’t have been playing at all. I remember watching the World Cup final and thinking that’s that. I probably soudl’ve gone out a bit earlier but that’s life.
NG: You went straight into management with Killyclogher and have managed a fair few teams since. Is there any club other than Roslea you’ve developed a particular affinity with?
PMcG: I have good and bad memories of them all. Killyclogher was a bit special as they won their first champiosnhip and that was very satisfying as a lot of time and work went into it by likes of Brendan Harkin and Aidan Meenan, the sheer joy of that for them especially was incredible.
NG: You got involved with BBC punditry in the early nineties. Nationalists didn’t really have something like that in previous decades, and you’d Ulster teams starting to win All-Irelands, so it must’ve been great to have been a part of.
PMcG: i had a good friend of mine working in BBC radio at the time. They had got the contract, and they were thinking what do we do here. My friend in fairness recommended myself to Jim Neilly and it sort of took off from there. Myself and Jimmy Smyth had been friends and combatants for years before that and we got on very well together.
It didn’t seem like a chore, we got to watch some of the greatest ever games, the Derry-Down games in 1994 and so on. We watched them live, got in free, got tea at half-time, so it was great and sticks out in my memory. We’d some great craic. That was a very interesting, almost by chance experience, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I wouldn’t call it work to tell you the truth.
NG: Strength and conditioning has gone through the roof in recent years, would you have enjoyed playing the modern game?
PMcG: I’m happy with the way things were because I can do nothing about it now. But I’d have benefited enormously from the strength and conditioning especially given my build. I’d have loved to have played in the present era with the professionalism of it, every detail taken care off, fitness and diet and everything else, I would’ve really enjoyed that.
NG: How are you these days, did you come through it relatively unscathed in terms of injuries?
PMcG: I’m in reasonable shape but im sitting here in a pair of shorts with a complicated knee brace, it’s called an unloader, I damaged my cruciate ligament in 1985. Pat Spillane did go at that time for cruciate ligament surgery in England but generally surgery nearly out of the question.
Around that time I started to do weights in Enniskilen to build up the strength in the muscle around the joint. and I did that religiously for all the time I was playing but recently I was told that I was having problems with my knee. I was told it’s not good but you’re not quite far enough down the line for a replacement so would you try this device. I’s a very complicated knee brace and it really is helping me. It gets rid of the pain I have when walking and that.
NG: I remember Killyclogher’s Terry McCann describing you as ‘cerebral’. Maybe this is stereotyping you but have you always related to the players you managed:
PMcG: I have difficulty with managing now but I put that down because of the age gap. I haven’t managed to crack that one. I’m in late sixties working with boys in their late teens and early twentiess and I do find it a bit difficult to connect with them. Maybe I’m imagining that and it’s not such an obstacle that I think.
NG: Roslea have slipped back in Fermanagh, but do you think they’ll be winning championships again five or ten years down the line?
PMcG: I’d be afraid that the number of players that come on stream at the same time wont be enough to make a difference. The senior team has the remnants of a very successful U-14 team and the team in the eighties always had a serious input from a very successful underage team as well. In Roslea the numbers at underage are small enough. The ladies team probably has a better chance f progressing as their numbers are far better than the men, I think it’s probably just the way it is, I’m not looking too far into the future to tell you the truth. When I was younger, there were plenty of children at the local school, but I suppose a lot of people have left the area. There’s small families now, it’s not as it used to be. But Roslea will win championships again, I just don’t know when.
NG: Finally what do you see as the future for Fermanagh football more generally?
PMcG: Look it maybe we’re putting too much pressure on them but the players who were involved in winning the Hogan Cup are a special group of players. Two of their best forwards, Michael Glynn and Darragh McBrien are both playing soccer,. I want that Hogan Cup team to be the basis of the Fermanagh team going forward but I’d worry about how losing the likes of those two players and possibly others will impact on it. So it’s a case of watch this space I think.