Up on the wall: Niall McParland

Niall McParland etched his name in history as he captained St Colman’s to the MacRory and Hogan Cup double in 2010. He tells his story to Shaun Casey…

FOR every young student that passes through the gates at St Colman’s College, the dream is aways the same. To get their photo up on the wall. That’s where the legends belong.

Football is like a religion in the Newry based secondary school. The history and tradition attached to the blue and white badge stretches back through generations.

MacRory Cup winners, Hogan Cup winners, All-Stars and All-Ireland medallists have all skipped through those same corridors and as a youngster coming out of primary school, Niall McParland was no different. Football at St Colman’s was the big selling point.

“I remember Mickey Doyle calling out when I was primary six and seven and he sold us with the football. We were all football mad as you generally are at that age,” recalled the Down defender.

“He sold us the dream of coming here and going on the wall and hook, line and sinker it drew us in. You don’t know when you come to the school what sort of age group or year you have or how strong the other schools are.

“In first and second year we went through a couple of pastings from Omagh CBS, my dreams I thought were shattered at that point. In second year we were beaten by 20 points, so I thought that was the MacRory Cup dream over.

“I thought we’d never be able to catch that team but with age and with development and as the years went on, we got closer and closer. We actually nicked them in the Rannafast final, which we probably shouldn’t have won.

“It was a wet day, and it probably took the football out of them but then when it came to the MacRory, we had a couple of additions – the likes of Caolan Mooney and Chris Clarke and that helped the 20-point difference disappear.”

Eventually McParland etched his name in history as he captained St Colman’s to the MacRory Cup title in 2010, ending a 12-year wait for the school.

“It was probably a bit lost on me at the time at that age. I actually wasn’t there the day they picked the captain,” reflected the Glenn clubman. “They did a vote and I must have been away doing something for the team and when I came back, I was just told that the boys had voted for me.

“It didn’t really make a difference because we had loads of leaders and at that age you don’t need talkers, just someone to go up and lift the cup at the end. If you watch those games back and see the number of good footballers and leaders at that age, it was absolutely an honour for me.”

The MacRory Cup team was made up of future county footballers from both Armagh and Down and even in the camp, there was a healthy rivalry. “There was a rivalry nearly in the team!” laughed McParland all these years later.

“We didn’t know if we were a Down school or an Armagh school. There was plenty of slagging about that, but we had good representation on both sides so both counties can celebrate St Colman’s. It keeps everyone happy.”

On the field, that’s where things got serious. If McParland was to get his picture up on the wall, then St Colman’s were going to have to do it the hard way. The all-Newry clash against Abbey CBS came first before they dealt with St Patrick’s College, Armagh in the semi-final.

Then it was all on the line in the decider against old foes Omagh CBS. “I remember playing the Abbey in the quarter final, I was lucky enough never to lose to the Abbey in all my years and that was always a big sticking point for the boys around my age.

“There were friendly rivalries of course with the boys in the Abbey and some of the boys that we were coming up against were from my club, but it was always good to come out the right side of it.

“Then we played St Pat’s Armagh and Andrew Murnin would have been their star man and he was a handful back then as well. We scraped past them and then we had Omagh CBS with the likes of Ronan O’Neill and Conan Grugan who both played for Tyrone.

“We had a great final, we won by four points in the end and had some really good performances and it was great to be a part of a team like that.”

On six previous occasions after MacRory Cup success, St Colman’s have gone on to lift the Hogan Cup and like 1998, McParland and co followed it up with a seventh All-Ireland title, beating St Gerald’s, Castlebar in the semi-final before overcoming St Brendan’s, Killarney.

“Paul Galvin was on the line (for St Brendan’s); we always remember that and a couple of the lads that played against us went on to play for Kerry as well.

“After the MacRory, you probably thought your work was done and you don’t know how strong the other provinces are and there were age differences and all too. It was 18 and a half down south and 18 here so we didn’t know how strong we were.

“We actually had over ten-point wins in both games, so we were controlled, and we were obviously a very good side but getting to Croke Park at that young age and getting a trophy, was massive. Some lads never went on to play any more football and that was the pinnacle, and I haven’t won too much afterwards either!

“You probably don’t appreciate it when you’re 17, winning in Croke Park with lads you go to school with, but they are memories that we all cherish and a load of us are still mates today and we still talk about it when we see the photos, it’s great to see.

“It does get lost on you at that age. I was playing with the Down minors the next year and we got to Croke Park again and I thought it was going to be like the back garden, but I probably only played in it twice more since that.

“It is brilliant and at that age you’re so naïve that it doesn’t worry you. It was great just going out and playing and some of the football we played was absolutely brilliant and the scores we put up were class. It’s a really enjoyable level of football.”

The following year, St Colman’s completed the double and retained the Hogan Cup, much to the delight of their former captain, who had moved on at that stage.

“Half of them had played for us the first year,” explained McParland. “Caolan Mooney, Niall Donnelly, boys that I’m still very friendly with, Conor Gough, I would still run about with them boys.

“To see them go on was brilliant and I celebrated just as much if not more the next year when I saw them getting over the line again- I take real pride in St Colman’s wining something.

“I know the pride even the managers have for their teams; you really do feel that. I was just as happy to see them the next year and it’s great for the St Colman’s name to have done the double, it’s not too often done.”

Even all these years later, McParland still keeps an eye out for St Colman’s progress in Ulster’s top schools competition.

“It doesn’t land all the time because obviously I’m still playing but a group of us would always try and go down to the MacRory games when it suits, and we would always keep an eye on it.

“Cathal (Murray) would even give you a text the odd time to see if you’re about. I’ve come in a couple of times and spoken to a couple of the teams and that. None of them will remember me obviously but they like to try and keep in touch with past pupils.

“I remember Declan Morgan, Ray Morgan’s son, he came in to talk to my team and Pete McGrath came in and talked to us as well so it’s sort of passed along and everyone tries to keep the tradition going so it’s really nice.”

Like the legends that had gone before him, McParland is happy to pass the torch down to the next generation and keep the St Colman’s flame burning brightly to help get some new faces up on the wall.

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