The Academy claimed historic Ulster and All-Ireland Colleges titles 25 years ago. Three of the players on that Dungannon team speak to Niall Gartland about a campaign they have never forgotten.
25 YEARS ago, St Patrick’s Academy Dungannon won a truly historic MacRory Cup and Hogan Cup double, something never before accomplished by a Tyrone school.
Their season climaxed in an utterly convincing All-Ireland Colleges triumph over St Gerald’s College Castlebar on April 27, 1997 at Croke Park, but these things don’t happen overnight and it had been the culmination of years of effort and planning from players and management alike.
St Patrick’s trail-blazing MacRory Cup winning team in 1991 lit a spark in budding young footballers like Ciaran Gourley, Richard Thornton and Paul McGurk, all of whom carry vivid memories of their storied school days.
McGurk, who captained the side to Hogan Cup glory, says they knew before the outset of the season that they had the ability to make it to the top of the tree.
“We knew we had a talented bunch of players, we won a First Year Blitz in St Mary’s Belfast and were beaten in a D’Alton Cup final by Maghera. We won the Rannafast in 1995 so we were in the discussion for the MacRory Cup you could say.
“Most of us were first years in the school when they won the MacRory Cup in 1991. As impressionable young footballers, you dreamt about emulating those boys, and we didn’t want to let things slip when we got the same opportunity.
“We were managed by Martin O’Farrell and Peter Herron at MacRory level but Jody Kelly was also a big influence on us. He took the team from first to fifth year so we’ve always been keen to recognise how he developed us as players. We went into 1997 knowing we could win the MacRory so it was a matter of getting everything lined up at that point.”
The campaign itself was by no means plain-sailing. Their performances in the group stages were fairly mixed, and it took some time to come to grips with a talented St Michael’s Enniskillen in the last eight. Then came what is widely recognised as the watershed moment for the Academy – a semi-final victory over defending champions St Patrick’s Maghera.
Richard Thornon, a Coalisland native who presently busies himself as part of the management set-up of All-Ireland Club champions Kilcoo, said: “Maghera were the big dogs at that stage and they always seemed to get the better of us coming up the ranks. It was a double-header in Coalisland and I remember Brian McGuigan, who was one of the youngest lads on our team, scored a late goal. That win was huge for us, that’s when I personally thought we could go on and win this thing.”
Another key player on the Dungannon team was Ciaran Gourley, a long-standing teacher at the school. The future All-Ireland winner with Tyrone recalls how he honed his defensive abilities during his time at St Patrick’s.
“In my time at school, Jody [Kelly] was a key man in my own development. He took us when we were in first-year and had a big impact. Then when we progressed to MacRory level, Martin and Peter took over the team.
“When you were playing in the corner, the onus was on the defender to get himself out in front. It was more traditional in the sense that the ball was going into the full-forward line as quickly as possible and it was a race to get out in front to see if you could win it. We did a lot of work in training on our footwork and things like that.”
Awaiting Dungannon in the final was St Patrick’s Armagh, a team blessed with future All-Ireland winners like Cormac McAnallen, Philip Jordan, Ryan Mellon, John Toal, Paddy McKeever, Paul McCormick and Kevin McElvenna.
Thornton, who played alongside Cormac McAnallen on the famous Tyrone minor team across 1997 and 1998, knew it was by no means a fait accompli for Dungannon.
“They were a very good team. Cormac was colossal even at that stage. We’d have been aware of him from underage club football, and we had Tyrone trials around the same stage. There was a bit of connection there, and neither team was particularly accustomed to MacRory success so there was no stand-out favourite. In our heads it was a 50/50 game.”
The MacRory Cup final is the showpiece occasion in the Ulster Schools’ calendar and brings with it a considerable amount of fanfare. McGurk, who led the team out onto the pitch at Casement Park, was conscious of playing the game and not the occasion.
“We’d taken Maghera’s scalp, they’d been the favourites for the competition so it was important to keep our feet on the ground.
“We saw all the buzz and excitement around the school when we were first years, and now we were living that same experience, but it was important not to get caught up on it. Obviously there was TV coverage, the busloads of supporters and the chants, and some young lads can wilt under that type of pressure.”
One player who certainly stepped up to the mark was Martin Early, who led the way on the scoring front with a remarkable contribution of 1-7. They held on for a 2-9 to 1-10 victory, with Thorton weighing in with their other goal on the day.
Thornton said: “Martin was unbelievable, he was scoring from everywhere and any time we got a free we knew it was going over the bar. We’d a good set of forwards, and as soon as Brian McGuigan got the ball he was pinging it into myself, Marty and Mickey Rea. I remember Conall Martin launching a ball into us in the second-half and I used a bit of strength to get a goal and it helped push us on, but it was a very tight game.
“We’d put so much into it so it was a very special moment for us. You’re not quite there emotionally, you’re immature, so we were lucky to come out on the right side of it. We’d done some brutal training sessions but that was all part of it, buying into this mission we were on. I know some of the Armagh lads would still talk about it as being one of their biggest regrets.”
Ciaran Gourley wasn’t immune to pre-match nerves but said that St Patrick’s produced a more settled performance on the day than their opponents.
Gourley said: “There’s a bit of nervous energy, particularly the night before the game, but among the lads there was usually enough carrying on to distract you from thinking about things too much.
“Naturally we knew about how much it meant but in a way it was like every other game I was involved in. Once you get on the pitch, provided you don’t make any early mistakes, you feel your way into the game and grow in confidence.
“Mistakes happen but it’s how you recover from them that matters and I feel that’s what we did well as a collective in the final. Armagh had men sent off and missed a penalty. We had the luck of the green and we were happy to take it.”
Winning the MacRory Cup for only the second time in their history was a special accomplishment but it could’ve been the end of the road had their hunger been satisfied. Thornton explains why they didn’t sit on their success.
“Martin and Peter had been there or thereabouts on the management side of things and they really regretted that they didn’t kick on after winning the MacRory in 1991. They never said this to us at the time but we learnt in later years that they constantly spoke about what could be and were determined we wouldn’t miss out.
“Then there’s our captain Paul McGurk was like the daddy of the team, he was way more mature than the rest of us. He was a true leader, whatever Paul said was gospel. He led on the pitch as well, it was just the way he was.”
But it was Thornton himself who shone in their Hogan Cup semi-final against Cork school Coláiste Chríost Rí. He scored a hat-trick of goals in a hard-fought victory.
“We’d done a lot of work on them and to be fair they were the best team we’d played all year. It was an absolute scorcher of a day and we were severely under the cosh going into half-time. Martin and Peter didn’t mince their words at the break and we got a couple of goals after the break. I remember the school organised a train for the supporters to head down to the match, it was good craic apparently and I remember [School Principal] Fr. Faul saying there’d never been another train put on for the supporters.”
Then, the day where St Patrick’s Academy reached the promised land. It turned out to be a lot easier than anticipated as they dismantled St Gerald’s Castlebar by 1-10 to 0-3. McGurk had the honour of lifting the Hogan Cup for the first time in the school’s history.
“I remember seeing Croke Park and the skyline and the reality of going to play there. The first-half was low-scoring, I think we might’ve been leading by 0-3 to 0-2, and I remember our managers giving us a bit of a drilling and telling us ‘you’ve been through tougher tests than this’. We settled down and I realised on the home stretch that barring some sort of catastrophe, the game was in the bag.
“You don’t let yourself get too carried away but we’d a healthy lead and I remember the pupils gathering at the sidelines and getting ready to charge onto the pitch.”
“It was something special at the finish line. I remember it was around the time of the Croke Park redevelopment and the presentation of the trophy was in the Cusack Stand.
“The pupils went onto the pitch and by force of habit they migrated towards the Hogan Stand where the presentation was on the other side. Conall Martin was on our team and he was a fluent Irish speaker. He gave me a few words on the back of a small yellow piece of card, I still have it in a scrapbook somewhere.”
Ciaran Gourley went on to have a distinguished career with the Tyrone team that brought back the Sam Maguire for the first time ever. He hasn’t forgotten about his glory days with St Patrick’s , and it would be remiss not to mention that he was also involved, this time in a managerial capacity, when they won their second Hogan Cup triumph in 2008.
On the 1997 success, he said: “It was massive, at that stage of my life it was everything. It’s unique in a sense because you’re playing with a group of boys and you’re in each other’s pockets for five days of the week, and you’re with each other for seven years. You build up a unique bond that you mightn’t get with another team.
“For that reason, it’s significant. Not all of those players go onto achieve the same levels of success again, so in that particular moment it was special and schools’ football still has that aura for me.”