Ardboe took home the O’Neill Cup 25 years ago. Benny Hurl and Brian McGuigan were key cogs in their winning team. Michael McMullan went to meet them.
THE glint in Brian McGuigan and Benny Hurl’s eyes tells it all. It’s a random Thursday evening in Ardboe and their hands are clasped on the O’Neill Cup once again.
The coveted silver pays a visit for a nostalgic interview and photoshoot to mark 25 years since their 1998 win.
A Tyrone club footballer is ultimately judged on whether he can get his hands on the O’Neill Cup at some point along a meandering career.
It’s a competition that shows zero respect for champions. If anything it is a dark cloud that hovers over the following season. Retaining it has always been seismic.
Next weekend, Ardboe – one of four clubs to claim three-in-a-row – are in a first semi-final since 2018.
They will go toe to toe with champions Errigal Ciaran, who also know how to put championships back to back.
Ardboe’s tally of seven titles nestles them modestly in the middle of the roll of honour.
A couple of hours spent in Hurl and McGuigan’s company is both relaxing and insightful. Football men in full flow are never in a hurry.
The photos and framed jerseys dotted around the Ardboe committee room generate the aroma of history.
The u-14 squad are being put through their paces on the back pitch outside and represent part of the crop they hope to harvest down the line.
Inside, Brian McGuigan makes a cup of tea with the same quality of how he used to find space in defences across Tyrone, Ulster and beyond.
Sitting back in his seat, he talks both freely and effortlessly. It’s easy to see why he played with the expression that set him apart.
Benny Hurl is seated at the other side, also chatting at length. Any man who holds three Tyrone senior medals will have an interesting tale. Football, Hurl admits, has given him way more than he can ever hope to pay back.
But, as much as he doesn’t believe in regrets, it irks Hurl that 1998 was Ardboe’s most recent walk down the glory trail.
He acknowledges the quality teams from across the land of O’Neill over the 25 intervening years, but the men he soldiered with deserved more than that one medal.
McGuigan and Hurl are similar yet different. The same in that they both became club senior players at 16, but are of a different in vintage among Ardboe’s class of ’98.
McGuigan was part of the club’s winning minor team the same year. He was one of the All-Ireland minor winners with Tyrone under Mickey Harte that September.
Hurl, one of the leaders, turned 31 in 1998 and loved seeing the young guns coming along. Every successful team needs the perfect mix and they’d been excited by what was on the horizon.
You don’t win titles without everybody, the youth and the rocks. Men like Hurl, Stevie Coney, Malachy Coyle and Fay Devlin.
“There were middle boys too, who, at the time, you thought were older,” McGuigan began. “Simon Devlin, Sean Doris…they were 22 or 23 but I thought they were old. Then there was us boys.”
The “us boys” included himself, John Cummings, Aidan Quinn and Gavin Wylie, among eight who were still in the minor grade with Wylie another from the Tyrone minor team.
The mid-eighties was an exciting time for a teenage Ardboe footballer. The club and county were reinvigorated with the return of their prodigal son Frank McGuigan from America.
Before his return, McGuigan would jet home to lend a shoulder to a relegation battle a stuttering Ardboe invariably needed to win to keep themselves propped up in the top flight.
On the championship stage, even with McGuigan, Trillick had too much for Ardboe in the 1983 final but Rossa were knocking the door in the decider 12 months later.
Hurl remembers the previews in the paper ahead of their final with Omagh. The message was how the sum of both teams, without McGuigan, tallied pretty much even.
With a player of his ilk on board, Omagh would win. But he wasn’t. McGuigan was in orange and, as predicted, tipped the scales and Ardboe were champions for the fifth time.
“He was at the top of his game, he was unmarkable,” was Hurl’s take on McGuigan.
All the talk now is of David Clifford. For decades it was Red Hand royalty in the form of Peter Canavan. Back then, McGuigan was making similar headlines like the 11 points from for Tyrone in the ’84 Ulster final, five with each foot and one with his fist.
“He’d have been known everywhere he went and that’s the sort of player he was,” Hurl added.
“He was the cream and the cherry on the top of everything. We had a good team in ’83 but we had a better team in ’84.
“Frank made the difference because everything he touched turned to gold.”
While Frank McGuigan was a footballing icon across Ulster, he never heaped any pressure on his own sons – Frank, Brian, Tommy and Shay, the youngest, who will be part of their challenge against Errigal next weekend.
“I think what helped us was that Daddy didn’t really push us,” Brian said of his first steps into his football career.
“You’d have played a match and he would never have critiqued you.”
A good performance or bad, it didn’t matter. There’d be no comment, though Brian admits to seeing himself labelled as the “son of Frank” in papers with the realism he’d need to plough his own furrow.
“That was the start of it in ’98,” he said. “You would’ve heard about Daddy winning the O’Neill Cup and that’s what you wanted to do.”
Benny Hurl can recall the summer of ’84 like it was yesterday. It was eventful along the shores of Lough Neagh and it all started with the murder of IRA volunteer Willie Price on the weekend of Tyrone’s Ulster final with Armagh.
The funeral took place in nearby Brocagh on the Saturday with “all sorts of shenanigans” by the police and army before the entire community flocked to Clones the next day.
It was the ‘Frank McGuigan final’ and Hurl got a taste of more football magic that year as a panellist on Ardboe’s winning team.
“For a young fella like me, and I am sure Brian was the same in ’98, it was the stuff of dreams,” Hurl said of winning his first medal. “The world was your oyster and you felt a bit invincible. We were just hoping for more.”
The football was going “swimmingly well” until Frank McGuigan sustained career-ending injuries in road accident that November.
“It devastated the whole of Ireland that Frank McGuigan probably wouldn’t play again,” recalls Hurl, who, just coming into the team, had played alongside his idol in Ardboe’s comfortable win over Moy earlier that day.
“There was a complete cloud in the parish and in the club, across Tyrone and probably across the Association,” Hurl added
He can still hear the narrative that Ardboe’s chances of another championship were remote without the influence of their injured talisman.
“Thankfully, in 1987, we did win it again with a panel of about 19 or 20, albeit they were 19 to 20 good ones,” he offered.
With title number six tucked away, Ardboe’s world was rocked again with the fallout from incidents after losing their title to Omagh in a first round replay of 1988.
Such was the row that followed the game in Pomeroy, lengthy Ardboe suspensions were handed out, including lifetime bans, and the gates of their pitch closed.
As a cub, Brian McGuigan still remembers the row and how he too was out of football for a year as a result of the blanket suspension.
“It wouldn’t happen now because it would end up in court,” he said, also surmising the club was only beginning to find its feet again by the time their next title arrived – a decade later.
With the senior team banned, it effectively relegated them from Division One.
“There were teams at the end the year, who knew we had 10 points and were giving points to others so Ardboe would be relegated,” McGuigan said.
It doesn’t sit well with Hurl either how teams “conspired” to relegate them.
“If that had been any other club, that would never have happened, but because it was Ardboe, it did happen,” he said firmly, happy to put their grievance on record.
It had ramifications beyond their immediate battle to get out of the intermediate grade.
Between suspensions, the lure of America and some who turned against football, a lost group left irreparable damage. It took until the 1990 Intermediate Championship success before they got a leg up to the top table again.
“If that happened now, it [the extent of the fallout] wouldn’t happen. There are plenty of rows at matches and there is frig all done about it,” McGuigan added.
“It definitely affected Ardboe club for a right few years. By 1998, we were finding our feet again. We were winning with youth teams in the mid-nineties so there were players coming through.”
Ardboe’s management team in 1998 had a wee bit of everything. The towering Eamonn Quail, just recently finished playing, had a background in basketball and brought a different ingredient.
Stephen Coney, in a dual role, was involved in the management but was still firmly focussed on pulling the strings on the pitch.
Brian McIver, who had coached Benny Hurl since u-12, was on board and the setup was led by manager and former Derry player Eugene Young, who was head of coaching in Ulster GAA.
In comparison to top level management teams now, it was a small operation but they ticked every box, including the sports psychology.
“There was stuff Brian and Eugene were doing that summer that we hadn’t saw before,” Hurl said.
“I remember reading an article the following year about Man United and their training techniques, but that was what we had been doing the previous summer…that’s how revolutionary Brian, Eamonn and Eugene were.”
McGuigan mentions the belief the management instilled. The league campaign was decent but it wasn’t the main focus.
“He (Young) was away ahead of his time,” McGuigan said. “The training they’d be doing now, he was doing it at that time. Any time you went to training, it was never the same thing on two consecutive nights which was good.”
The years before offered little to write home about, but they knew they had enough about them to give the championship a rattle.
Hurl missed the opening game with Drumquin through injury, a day when Noel Donnelly’s late score secured a draw but Ardboe never looked back in a 0-14 to 0-6 replay win.
“Carrickmore was the big one in the quarter-final,” McGuigan feels, a day he didn’t play with a collar bone injury that curtailed his involvement for both Ardboe and Tyrone that year.
Coming back too early saw a reoccurrence before the county final that limited him to an influential second-half appearance as a sub.
“Brian McIver was acting as our physio at the time,” McGuigan jokes. “For the rest of that year, he would have to bandage me up before every match. I was running about like a mummy.
“When we got over Carrickmore, who were traditionally a championship team, it gave us a bit of belief going into the semi-final against Cookstown.”
The Carmen were title favourites going into the season but Ardboe were 0-10 to 0-9 ahead with time almost up.
“We rode our luck on the night,” Hurl offers of the closing stages and drama as Carrickmore sniffed a late salvage mission.
“I remember a ball dropping in, it came off the post and the crossbar and down into my arms.”
Ardboe counterattacked and Frank McGuigan kicked his sixth of the night to book their place in the last four.
At the time, Cookstown would’ve been viewed by some as the townie team who wouldn’t fully test an Ardboe team with momentum as their close acquaintance.
Scratch the surface and they’d the Sheehys, the McGarritys, an upcoming Owen Mulligan and Armagh defender Mark McNeill.
Hurl can still see Mulligan trotting out, complete with his collar up and full of confidence, but he got little change out of Fay Devlin in a 0-7 to 0-5 Ardboe win.
It was a balancing act for the management to get the most out of Brian McGuigan and Gavin Wylie who were having the summer of summers between Tyrone minors and two winning campaigns with Ardboe, minor and senior.
For McGuigan, he didn’t get caught up in the hectic schedule. He was just the typical teenager. Buzzing, loving life and mad for road on whatever bandwagon was going on that particular Sunday.
As McGuigan stepped up to brew another cup of tea, Hurl gives his two cents on the player burnout issue.
He scorns the recent GAA proposal outlining how 18-year-olds needed a parental consent form to play adult football.
“I believe it was nonsense then and I still believe it nonsense,” using Ardboe’s ’98 odyssey as proof.
“Brian and some of the players who were playing minor and senior that year, it didn’t do them any harm at all.”
Hurl, who is involved with teams in Ulster University and follows football everywhere in his role as photographer with TeamTalkMag, likens their team to the current Ardboe crop.
“We have 18-year-olds playing for Ardboe now and we would have a couple of lads who could play but are technically ineligible,” Hurl adds.
“It did give our (1998) team great energy. These boys were running around and were unmarkable, at 17 or 18 years of age.
“They were flying fit and fearless because they had a history of winning things.
“Brian played on a team that were winning easy. Teams were not able to give them a game so they were coming in with huge confidence.”
Anytime Brian McGuigan has been asked about his career, he quotes the name of his former Principal in St Patrick’s PS, Mullinahoe. This time is no different.
“With all the youth we had, a lot of it I would put down to Bertie Foley,” McGuigan said of the Dungannon Clarkes’ stalwart who left a footballing imprint on everyone who passed through the school.
Behind his house, Brian can still see the pitch Bertie coached them on. Every spare minute they had. And he ferried them to tournaments all over Tyrone.
“I would have put a lot of it down to him, from the ’98 team all the young boys would’ve come through under him,” McGuigan said.
The school now run a tournament – the Bertie Foley Cup – in his memory.
On the flip side, the upper echelon of Benny Hurl’s “underwhelming” underage career was the odd championship run. But there was never a sign of silver.
When McGuigan, John Cummings, Aidan Quinn, Gavin Wylie – among the eight minors on the senior panel – came on the Ardboe senior scene, it gave the camp a boost.
“You had to lift your game a notch or two,” Hurl said of facing young and energetic legs week in week out at training.”
Saturday, August 15, 1998 is a date nobody in Tyrone, Ulster or further afield will ever forget.
Explosives, packed into a car in Omagh town centre tore the heart out of a community, claiming 29 lives and leaving hundreds physically and mentally scarred.
“When you talk about ’98, you can’t not talk about the Omagh bomb,” Benny Hurl stressed.
As part of their county final preparations, Ardboe embarked on a training day in Portstewart. It was more a psychological reset as anything else.
“We got onto the bus at five o’clock after getting something to eat,” Hurl recalls of a moment he heard of the atrocity.
“We turned on the news to hear there was a bomb in Omagh. It was just incredible. That journey the whole way home…you didn’t know who was killed or what was happening. It was incredible.”
Brian McGuigan wasn’t on the bus coming from Portstewart that day. Tyrone minors were preparing for an All-Ireland semi-final with Leitrim.
“We were training up at St Ciaran’s in Ballygawley that day,” McGuigan said.
“Everybody on the Tyrone minor panel were trying to find out what had happened. Players from the clubs around Omagh, their mothers would’ve gone shopping there on a Saturday and there were no mobile phones. Everybody was running around worrying.”
Omagh’s semi-final win over Donaghmore and the final were put back due to the toll the bomb took across Tyrone and further afield.
Niall McSorley, one of Omagh’s key players, suffered shrapnel wounds and would only make a substitute appearance in the final.
“Omagh were deeply affected,” Hurl said. “Looking back, and we didn’t realise this at the time, but Eugene, Brian and Eamonn did such a job shielding us from all of that. They kept our focus on the game itself and not the occasion.”
When the final eventually took place, a month after the bomb, it was Omagh who bossed the first half and led 0-5 to 0-1 with Ardboe down to 14 men following Mickey Colman’s sending off.
Omagh were also dealt a blow when Ciaran McBride was forced off injured. Along with Frank McGuigan jnr, he was vying to (and did) edge out Cookstown’s Fergal Coyle for the championship’s top scorer.
“That team seemed to thrive when their backs were against the wall,” Brian McGuigan said of their important quality.
Looking on from the bench in the first half, he could sense the frustration with the ball not sticking in the attack. The two-footed Stephen Coney and Malachy Coyle were letting it in, but it wasn’t working. A combination of wind and strong Omagh defending had the door closed.
The mood in the Ardboe dressing room was a united one by the time they trotted out for the second half. The message: “get back level, and we’ll push on”.
McGuigan speaks of the Ardboe mix. A teak tough defence they’d be battling with at training and an attack that hadn’t fired in the first half.
“Benny (Hurl), Mickey Cummings and Fay Devlin, they were all brilliant man markers. You didn’t like marking them in training so we had full confidence in them,” he said.
Speaking of the defensive unit, Hurl agrees and paints the picture of a back seven – including goalkeeper Raymond McElroy – who knew each other inside out. The total unit.
In what seemed like a blink, the game was level with another minor, Aidan Quinn, thrust into the action.
Brian McGuigan and Quinn, with his first touch, made a thumping left footed score for Frank McGuigan and Ardboe edged ahead in front.
Two Brian McGuigan points helped give the gap Ardboe’s defence would help hold with Gavin Wylie’s late goal chance coming off the butt of the post with the very last action.
And there it was. Ardboe were champions again, after a campaign they didn’t concede or score a goal.
“We knew if we had enough chances up front, we could take them. Looking back at the last three or four minutes, there were mistakes and we kept giving the ball away,” Brian McGuigan says in contrast to the approach in today’s game now of treating the ball like gold.
In the scenes of bedlam that followed final whistle and the sea of Ardboe fans, Hurl can still vividly see and mother and her son from Omagh, with the look of devastation on his young face.
“In Omagh they had lost so much in the bomb, so for their supporters it was another blow when Ardboe beat them in the final,” Hurl said.
Across Tyrone, they would’ve been an almost unwritten hope that an Omagh win and the O’Neill Cup would offer the smallest degree of solace for a community in mourning.
For Ardboe, that had to be parked with a county title there to be won.
“I always remember that wee boy,” Hurl said of that image on the pitch in Pomeroy that day.
“I always had great respect for Omagh people after that for what happened. It wasn’t just Omagh people, there were lot other clubs involved in that tragedy, but Omagh were probably more affected by the bomb than any other club directly.
“When you talk about ’98, I think it’s important to reflect back on what the Omagh team had to endure…to even get there and then to lose it.”
For Brian McGuigan, the gear bag was slung over the shoulder by Tuesday night as Mickey Harte put the finishing touches on a plan to take a minor All-Ireland title they left behind them in 1997.
“We probably didn’t put the full effort into the Ulster Club, which is so big now,” he said with regret.
Hindsight tells him they should’ve given it a proper cut.
Man of the match Aidan Quinn’s goal looked to have put them on their way to victory over St John’s in Pomeroy. They needed Brian McGuigan to force a draw after taking a free short from his brother Frank with the last action. Back in Belfast, two late St John’s goals dumped Ardboe out of Ulster.
“Whoever won that match was playing Crossmaglen in Clones,” McGuigan said, looking back on what the south Armagh giants represented.
“While you may not have beat them, the experience of playing them down Clones would’ve been massive.”
Killyclogher ended Ardboe’s reign as champions in the semi-final the following year.
“From that ’98 team, one of the best players I played with that didn’t get the recognition was Paddy McElroy,” Brian McGuigan said.
“He was one of the most naturally gifted players on a football pitch. He had the sweetest left foot,” Hurl adds in unison.
Within the space of a few years, an injury ended his career and Ardboe were robbed of someone who would’ve stepped up to lead when the older hands called time on their career.
Benny Hurl knew 1998 could be his last chance at glory. Looking back, he loved every minute of it.
Stevie Coney was an outstanding footballer. Malachy Coyle would have revelled in the modern game as an athlete and a footballer. Behind that duo, was Fay Devlin at number, one of the best players in Ulster.
“If you got past Fay, you had Raymond McElroy waiting for you in the square and that wasn’t nice either,” he laughs, delving into the memories, choosing to modestly not mention his role at full-back.
“The whole team and the panel, we had some brilliant games…playing on it was a joy,” he said.
The O’Neill Cup hasn’t wintered in Ardboe since. And that hurts.
“Great Gaels like my father, boys like wee Frankie O’Neill, Phelim Óg (Devlin) who were euphoric, but they are all now gone, all passed away,” Hurl adds.
“You look back and there is a degree of sadness that they didn’t get to see another one either.”
“It’s the sadness that we have never won another one and the people who inspired us, they are no longer around.”
Tyrone’s county players went on to taste Sam Maguire Cup glory. The older Ardboe players had a county medal before 1998, but most didn’t.
Brian McGuigan remembers meeting Chrissy McKaigue, currently involved with the club’s senior management team, at a recent training session and his disbelief of their 25-year championship famine.
“We probably have the reputation of a championship tradition but we don’t have that,” McGuigan admits.
Hurl laments how they’ve pressed the self-destruct button on occasions since 1998.
Dispensing with their winning management team was a setback. A club trip to the Toronto Sevens in the middle of the 2004 championship didn’t help the focus for their defeat to Dromore the night before they left from Dublin airport.
“We don’t want to have this record of being the last people to have won the cup,” Hurl said, reciting a litany the younger crop left after his retirement.
“If somebody had told me 25 years ago that we’d sitting here talking, in this pavilion, not having won another senior championship, I would’ve said you wouldn’t have been wise.
“Such was the talent we had at our disposal; I saw us winning a number of championships…not another one, a number of championships.
“There have been a lot of really good teams from the rest of Tyrone since that, but I don’t think many teams would’ve matched us if we had played to our potential or got the focus right.
“We were labelled then as one of the great underachievers in club football. Young Frank McGuigan was probably, pound for pound, the best club footballer there has been in 25 years.
“For him not to have got another one (championship), it was sinful…and for plenty of others like him.”
Brian McGuigan chips in and 2009 crops up, the ultimate sucker punch. Ardboe were leading Dromore with the clock ticking towards the final whistle. They’d one hand on the cup until the late concession of a penalty and Collie McCullagh tucked away the winner.
“If we had’ve won that one in ’09 we probably would’ve recovered and if we had won, I think we would’ve won another one after that,” McGuigan feels.
Instead, there is a mental barrier left on the road to glory.
All Ardboe needed to do was foul, but in their preparations to limit the free count, the mind-set was their undoing.
When they played Dromore at the quarter-final stage two years later, they were again two points ahead.
“The board went up to say there was five minutes of injury time, but they scored their equaliser after nine minutes,” McGuigan adds, describing the contrast to 2009 when they allowed Dromore to cut them open.
“All we did for the last seven or eight minutes was drag boys down. When we went to the referee [asking where the addition minutes came from] he said we were wasting time. What we didn’t do in ’09, we got punished for in 2011.”
Another tale of woe, but hope springs eternal. Being back in the last four has brought a buzz to Ardboe again and with underage blossoming, they’ll keep at it.
McGuigan took his son Joey up to watch senior training in the days after their first round win over Omagh.
“They were doing the warmup, he was asking me which one of them was Shea O’Hare,” McGuigan said of his son’s interest in Ardboe’s goalscorer, compete with the new-look mullet.
“The young boys are asking who the players are now. It is maybe turning a bit.”
Errigal Ciaran, Trillick and Dungannon have their own dreams of how the want their year to end.
In Ardboe, 25 years on, they crave a proper return of O’Neill Cup, not just a flying visit to mark the day they applauded the men of ‘98.