IN 1971, April 25, St Mary’s, Belfast recorded a historic achievement. They won the school’s first-ever Hogan Cup title.
In doing so, they became only the fourth Ulster school to capture the ultimate title in colleges football, following St Patrick’s Grammar, Armagh in 1946, St Columb’s, Derry in 1965 and St Colman’s, Newry in 1967.
It was a remarkable achievement for a school better known for their colleges hurling success.
There are many reasons why a school, who had never even won a MacRory cup title, managed to win.
The first worth looking at is the quality of players they had that year.
For Peter Crummey, who had also played for St Mary’s from first year, the addition of key players was important.
“Getting the boys from Armagh helped, and the lads from the CBS on the Glen Road helped too. They came over to us.”
The CBS recruits were Paul and John McKiernan, and Paul Grocott. Canice Ward and Ciaran Donnelly had moved to the school the year previous to the Hogan Cup winning season.
“We would get players in every year from the Glen Road Christian Brothers to do their A-levels. It was a tremendous ploy by Brother Nolan. It was like getting Ronaldo in.”
Pat Armstrong said: “The custom was, if they got good O-Levels results they would move across the road to St Mary’s.
“The difference was the Armagh boys, Kevin O’Loan the goalkeeper and Frank Toman. But there were good strength all over the team.
“They fitted in perfectly.”
Frank Toman was the another new boy on the St Mary’s team in 1971.
The Lurgan native had won a Hogan Cup title with St Colman’s, Newry in 1968 as a 15-year-old.
The Colman’s team that he played on included Jimmy Smyth, Paddy Turley, Con Davey, Martin Murphy. They were a few years ahead of Toman but he wasn’t intimidated. He came on as a sub in the semi-final and final.
He arrived in St Mary’s because he needed to get a third A-Level. He had did three in St Colman’s but dropped Irish. When he applied to do a Bachelor of Sciences degree at Coleraine he realised he needed three A-levels, so he went to St Mary’s to do Economics.
He also thought he’d play a little bit of football, but he didn’t expect to be successful.
Toman said: “I remember a friend of mine, Kevin O’Loan, he was already at the college. I was captain of the MacRory at Colman’s. We used to thump St Mary’s. We beat them easy.
“Kevin was trying to talk me into coming to St Mary’s. I said to Kevin ‘they are never any good at football’. Kevin said to me, ‘half them don’t play football, they are all hurlers. They would know about you, and they would declare for the football team and not the hurling team’. Lo and behold yes that’s what happened, quite a few of them concentrated on the football.
“They had loads of talent, and it was a big school. It was about getting them interested.”
The school certainly was a hurling focal point. They had won 13 Mageean titles in-a-row in the lead up to 1971.
Pat Armstrong, who is son of the famous Antrim player Kevin Armstrong, was a pupil at St Mary’s from first year. He was a dual player of note and he said: “They dominated Mageean hurling. They were a hurling school. But everything fell into shape that year.”
Yet there were no slouches at football and had enjoyed some success at underage level. There was one man who had a big part to play, Brother Nolan who was originally from Kilkenny but took great interest in building a strong football team.
Pat Armstrong says that their coach Brother Nolan was a man ahead of his time.
“I played under a lot of managers, but I don’t remember any man doing what he did. He used to get us into his chemistry lab, and he had all the positions on the board. He would tell us what we would do at kick-outs, and what we would do to retain possession, things like that, for about an hour.
“For example, if we were crowded at midfield, half-backs would cut in towards the goalkeeper and he had to make a short ball to them. Brother Nolan had these moves worked out in advance.”
Armstrong said: “He would go through in fine detail of what everyone had to do.
“I can’t remember anyone else going through tactics. In those days the game was about making sure about your fitness. But going through tactics, which you would get now in the modern game, would have been uncommon back then.”
Toman remembers that training didn’t match to what he had been doing at St Colman’s.
“It was lackadaisical. We did a session at one of the pitches at the back of St Mary’s. We did a few sprints and Brother Nolan came to me and he says, ‘would that be good enough Frank?’
“I said to him, ‘At Colman’s that’s only a warm-up’. So I said that we really needed to step it up if we were going to do anything. But I wasn’t the most popular for saying that.”
It might seem odd that the teacher was asking the pupil how to train the team. But Toman’s reputation was big when he went to the school.
Toman said: “Because we had won the Hogan three years before, Brother Nolan understood that I knew what it took to win. He did listen to me. It turned out for the best.”
Nolan’s influence on GAA in the school was tremendous. Toman only experienced him for that one season, but the rest of the lads on the team knew that the teacher was a great student of the game.
Crummey said: “For a Kilkenny man he had a tremendous gift. He trained us like whippets.
“For preparation for one of the games he brought us down to Dromantine to play the trainee priests down there. They were two or three years older than us, and they kicked the crap out of us. That was a ploy on his part to toughen us up.
“He was a brilliant trainer. He had us running everywhere, running up and down banks.”
Crummey explained that the team they had was outstanding.
“There was great strength all through the team.
“Frank Toman played centre half-forward and either side of him was Pat Armstrong son of the famous Kevin Armstrong, and Paul Grocott was on the other side. Both of them were great dual players.
“Frankie was an amazing player.”
Pat Armstrong agreed: “Toman was the outstanding player. He had already won a MacRory Cup with St Colman’s.”
Yet even though the team and the training were rough and ready, Toman regards that year as an important one.
“The last time we had a reunion, I remember telling the guys that that was the best side that I ever played on. That includes club, county whatever.
“We had a very good team, with Gerry McHugh, Armstrong, Grocott, Cullen.
“Sean Sands became captain of Down and Gerry (McHugh) became captain of Antrim. The McKernan brothers were top county players as well.”
While Sands was a colossus of a player, Toman remembers a mistake that his team-mate made.
“We played in yellow and green, we were playing a team who had white and two blue stripes,the same design as our jersey, but only a different colour. Sean came flying up the field with the ball. I moved out to the left away from my man, waiting for the ball. I shouted ‘Sandsy’, and he passed the ball directly to my man. I was 15-20 metres away. After the play stopped. I asked him what he was doing, and said ‘did you not hear me call?
“He said, ‘I heard the call, but Frank don’t tell anyone this, but I am pretty colour blind’. He never admitted it. That’s what he said to me that day, and I said I would shout louder at him after that.”
Sean was one of the younger players on the team. He was from Portaferry but stayed with his grandmother in Belfast, just round the corner from Peter Crummey.
Crummey said: “I used to bring him to school in his younger days. Sean was a real quiet fella, but he would have gutted you. He was a hard man, in football and hurling. He was a fantastic player.”
One of the reasons why St Mary’s were successful that year was that they had a better chance for preparation. The school had moved from Barrack Street in the city centre to the new school on the Glen Road where they had three pitches to train on.
Peter Crummey said: “That was the first time that we had nice new pitches to play on. That was the foundation.”
Toman took the free-kicks, and was one of the main scoring outlets for St Mary’s that year.
It is worth remembering that that season, the Hogan Cup was a 13-a-side competition.
Toman said: “I was playing centre half-forward. I had loads of room. All I had to do was beat my man, and as long as the wing forward stayed out, I had lots of room.
“I scored so many goals because there was so much room. Pat Armstrong was a great wing forward, he was good at putting the ball over into the centre and there was plenty of room to get in on goal.”
The switch to 13-a-side helped Toman, but it didn’t benefit everyone.
Peter Crummey said: “13-a-side meant the removal of the full-forward and the full-back, which was unfortunate as I played full-forward for most of my time there.”
Pat Armstrong remembers one of the early games, playing St Patrick’s, Maghera in Cherryvale in south Belfast.
“We beat them by a couple of points,” Armstrong said.
They also played Frank Toman’s old Schools, St Colman’s, Newry. But the school that had been hammering St Mary’s in the years previous weren’t the same force.
Armstrong said: “We beat them a cricket score. We scored a load of goals against them.”
St Mary’s played St Malachy’s, Belfast in the MacRory Cup semi-final. St Malachy’s were the defending champions that year. The controversy came as the game was moved away from Casement Park and played in Omagh. The reason was that one of the St Malachy’s players, Martin O’Neill (now more famous as the former Celtic and Ireland manager), was playing for Distillery. The Antrim officials wouldn’t let the game be played at Casement.
They travelled down to Omagh and St Mary’s won.
Crummey said: “The game shouldn’t have been moved at all. Martin O’Neill said that Casement may have helped St Malachy’s because of the open spaces. But we were fit as fiddles in those days.”
Pat Armstrong said: “It should have been played in Casement. The rule didn’t affect college players. We boarded a bus and went to Omagh. What we found strange about it was the amount of press attention that the game received. At a MacRory Cup semi-final you had all the stations there, you had RTE, BBC, it attracted big coverage because we weren’t allowed to play in Casement.”
St Mary’s had a comfortable win over St Malachy’s in the semi-final. Things would be tougher in the final against the Abbey.
That game was played in Davitt Park in Lurgan.
Frank Toman said “It was touch and go for quite a while. I think the started to commit fouls and we managed to creep ahead. We were able to convert frees.”
Pat Armstrong agreed: “That was probably our toughest game the whole way through. After that we were fairly confident that we could go on and win the Hogan.”
They played St Mel’s in the Hogan Cup semi-final, and won and that set up the decider against Coláiste Íosagáin, Ballyvourney, which they won by 1-13 to 1-7.
Armstrong said: “It was one sided.”
The final was a remarkable day for the school.
Crummey said: “It was a great experience coming off the field. It was great to be in Croke Park.”
For Toman, it was extra special as it was not his first time in the winners enclosure, as he became the only player to win Hogan cup titles with two different schools.
“I never thought that I would win another Hogan medal. It was the best victory that I have ever experienced.”
It shouldn’t be forgotten that the school won hurling’s O’Keeffe Cup a week later. A school winning dual titles at senior level is a noteworthy achievement.
“It is an amazing achievement,” Crummey said, “I don’t know if it will be done again.”
Pat Armstrong said: “The achievement is up there. In two weeks we won two All-Irelands.”
While medals are nice, Toman says the fondest memories are of the characters that were about at that time.
“I have fond memories of them.”
Crummey felt the same.
“I am still friends with a lot of those guys. We had great times. One of the things about that team, there were no egos. Everybody pulled for everyone else.”
So many of that team would go on to bigger things. Toman became an Armagh county footballer, and now lives in England and is perhaps now more famous for having a daughter who played hockey for Great Britain. Pat Armstrong went on to represent Antrim and Ulster. Gerry McHugh played county football for Antrim. Sean Sands captained the Down hurlers. Paul McKiernan, Conor Smith, John McKiernan, Paul Grocott were all notable county players.
Yet the achievement in 1971, for many of them will stand as an important memory in their history.