By Ronan McSherry
A RECENT photograph in the Ulster Herald of Eddie Devlin, the first player to captain a Tyrone team to win an All-Ireland title over 70 years ago, re-ignited a treasure trove of fantastic memories for Anthony Nugent from Pomeroy.
Eddie, from Coalisland, captained the Red Hand minors to win the All Ireland final in 1947. Anthony, (better known as ‘Tony’ after he moved to Dublin in the 1950s) was steeped in the GAA throughout his life, first as a player and secretary at the Pomeroy club and for decades was a steward at Croke Park.
In 2016 he received a special award for his years of service at headquarters, presented by the President of the GAA at the time, Aogán O Fearghaill.
He witnessed countless big football and hurling games and great moments, including Down historically become the first team from across the border to win the All Ireland in 1960, the great Dublin-Kerry rivalry of the ‘70s and most fondly Tyrone’s All Ireland successes.
He also saw first-hand legends of the game grace Croke Park – Mick Higgins of Cavan, Sean O’Neill from Down, Kerry’s Mick O’Connell and our own Peter Canavan whom he hails as “one of the best ever.”
Hale and hearty in his 91st year, from his home in Sutton, Co Dublin, Tony recalled that momentous day in 1947 when the Tyrone minor trailblazers won the Tom Markham Cup amid scenes of great rejoicing.
“I remember I got into the Hogan Stand for six pence. I wanted to get into Michael O’Hehir’s commentary box and him 3,000 miles away covering the senior final in the Polo Grounds in New York that day. He was a legend even then. Walking into Croke Park was like going into a cathedral.”
Most of those players have gone to their eternal reward. Like many who saw Eddie Devlin in action, he rated him as one of the best players he ever saw.
Tony said, “When Eddie was 15 he played on the Coalisland senior team in 1945 that won the O’Neill Cup. I remember him kicking over ‘50s with the big wet heavy ball that was used then. He was a remarkable footballer. It was very tough and physical but Eddie was so good he was playing against the men at that age.”
Tony was a decent footballer too and practiced on Fair Hill in Pomeroy. Showing initiative beyond his years, he made several attempts with friends to form a minor team, collecting money from the parish priest and door-to-door to buy their own ball.
He also played in selection games for Tyrone minors, but despite doing well, his chances were scuppered when he caught ‘flu before the last trial.
He attended St Patrick’s Academy, Dungannon and played MacRory Cup alongside some of those great minors including Tom Sullivan from Coalisland who scored two goals in the 1947 final.
Tony recalled, “We used to travel to school by train. One day a goods train that went before us, crashed over the embankment and after that we travelled by bus to Dungannon. It was the late 1940s and I remember the four teachers we had; Dr McLarnon, Jeremiah Ryan who taught Irish, Joe Doyle the maths teacher and Barney Foley from Roscommon.”
He lined out for Pomeroy seniors at midfield in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, a time the club was ravaged with emigration. It was not uncommon for emigrants returning at Christmas to take two or three back with them to England when they left.
“We never won anything. We were in the West Tyrone league. It was rough then. Teams used to ‘kill’each other! It was a regular occurrence for the field to be invaded and all hell break loose!”
He was also club secretary at the age of 20, very young by today’s standards. It was a reflection of the lack of numbers available to take positions as well as Tony’s eagerness to be of service to St Plunketts. During that time the handball alley was resurrected after a fundraising céilí.
As well as football he attended Irish classes run by Sean Kilpatrick and Johnny Anderson, history lectures with Fr Peter Hughes, dancing with Duckie Mallon and band practice on a Saturday night.
Tony worked as a draughtsman in Cookstown until 1954 when he moved to Dublin. He would later be a building inspector in the Department of Environment and ended his working life as a chartered architectural technologist.
He was followed to Dublin by his late brother Peter, goalkeeper in the late 1950s for Pomeroy, who introduced him to stewarding at Croke Park.
Tony was chairman of the stewards for three years and didn’t miss a final for over 60 years. Even in his 80s, he could still be found manning Section 308 in the Cusack Stand. So many memories.
“I didn’t miss a final from 1952, when Cavan beat Meath, until a couple of years ago, 2018. I was also at the ‘48 and ‘49 finals when I was in my late teens.
“Getting to see the games was a big attraction of being a steward. I lived for GAA. I enjoyed the hurling too. One of the best footballers I ever saw was Mick Higgins of Cavan. I met him a few times. Even walking behind the band he seemed to glide along. I reckon Peter Canavan was one of the best ever.
“I remember helping to put up the old slates, with the numbers on, for the scores. You climbed a ladder at the Railway End (now the Davin Stand) to get up to the scoreboard. Kerry once got a penalty kick and we were so sure they’d score we put the goal up and they missed and we had to take it down again.
“Kevin Heffernan’s Dubs brought fantastic scenes in the 1970s. The Kerry team of the mid 1970’s to mid ‘80s was remarkable.
“I was blessed to see such great players and scores and excitement through the years. Tyrone winning in 2003 was wonderful, of course. An announcement went on the tannoy from the Chief Steward afterwards, ‘Would Tony Nugent come to the Cusack Stand on account of the day that is in it’. I remember talking to Ciaran Gourley and Michaela Harte God rest her, and her father Mickey, who is a far-out cousin of mine. It was a very emotional day.”
Tony’s wife Joan from Kildare passed away in 2008 and these days he enjoys the company of his son Paul and daughter Niamh and her husband Glenn and his five grandchildren. He still watches the games on TV and loves to talk about the great moments he had the joy of witnessing.