In a week when Moortown will be facing Kildress for the right to return to the top table in Tyrone football, we take a look through the Teamtalk archives to when the St Malachy’s were the kingpins of the O’Neill county…
1992 memories cherished in Moortown
Back in the early to mid nineties Moortown were one of the leading lights in Tyrone club football and were regarded by everybody as one of the strongly fancied contenders for the top honour in Tyrone football every year.
The St Malachy’s lifted the coveted senior championship title in 1992 and it’s a common consensus that they underachieved as that turned out to be the pinnacle of their young side’s achievements. Further title successes were expected to follow but defeats in county finals in both 1993 and 1995 were to be as close as they were to come to reaching the Holy Grail again and there were also a couple of semi-final losses along the way.
Stephen Lawn, Chris Lawn, Damian Hagan, Martin Quinn, Paul Devlin, Conrad Quinn and Martin McQuillan were all talented young players who had just reached their twenties when senior championship glory came their way in ’92, with many of the club’s players at that time having graduated from successful underage sides.
Like all good teams Moortown had their sprinkling of experienced performers as well, James Devlin, Fred McVeigh, Barney Devlin, Paddy McGuigan and Gerry McGuigan giving years of loyal service to the Loughshore club.
James Devlin was captain of that 1992 side and was one of the main reasons they were successful. A real driving force from the middle of the park he possessed great fielding ability and was teak tough. James represented Tyrone at all levels and as he says himself he enjoyed every minute of it.
“I started out back in 1972 and I played right up until my knee finally give up on me a few years back,” explained James. “There is no substitute for playing and I enjoyed my career thoroughly and made friends for life on the playing field.”
James had played for almost twenty years at club level with limited success but things were about to change as under-16 and minor league titles were followed by the minor double in 1990. Moortown were fast becoming a force to be reckoned with as a golden crop of underage players were all coming through at the one time and they were to help shape the history of the famous club with a few of them of course going on to become household names wearing the Tyrone jersey. Prior to that season though had James given up hope of ever winning a senior championship medal.
“To be honest I hadn’t really thought about a senior championship until those lads came along. We had been playing senior football in the early eighties but then we were relegated and that was a blow. We came straight back up again in 1989 as Intermediate league winners but I saw something in that relegation season that gave me hope for the future. Some of those young lads were playing the year we went down and I remember the last game against Dungannon in particular. They played great football that day, took quality scores, passed the ball well and tackled and blocked and I knew that they were a special group of lads.”
In 1991 Moortown put their best run together in the championship for years and found themselves in a semi-final against holders Coalisland but it proved to be a disastrous night for the St Malachy’s at O’Neill Park as the Fianna hammered them 3-9 to 0-1 although it was to prove to be a valuable lesson.
“There were a lot of things not right that night and we were soundly beaten,” recalls James. “I broke my collarbone three weeks previous to that game but I strapped myself up and played as I thought it was perhaps my last chance in the senior championship. We were well beaten by Coalisland but it was something we learned quickly from.
“The following season we travelled to Coalisland for a league game and it looked like déjà vu as they scored three goals at the start of the game but we rolled up our sleeves and played like demons to come back and win by a point in what was one of the best games of football that I was ever involved in.”
That win, believes James, gave the side the belief that they could live with the big boys and they went into the 1992 championship campaign with renewed confidence. Their opponents in the first round were Trillick, a side with a great championship tradition who had always caused problems for the St Malachy’s.
“We could never beat them in the championship but on that occasion we won easily. I think there was fifteen points in it at the end, and I knew that result was very significant. I remember our manager Chris Brown coming into the changing rooms after that game and saying that we had sent a message out to the rest of Tyrone that we meant business.
“In the quarter-final we met reigning champions Clonoe, a side that we could never beat as well. They were a good side, big and strong, but we beat them by six points to reach the semi-final once again.”
This time it was Carrickmore who stood in their way of a county final place. The St Colmcille’s were one of the most consistent teams in the league but it was a first championship title since 1979 that they craved the most having lost out to Coalisland for a couple of years running. Carmen went into the game as favourites and it took two games to decide the outcome in what were two close fought encounters.
“Carrickmore were always there or thereabouts and they were a physical side. I partnered Martin McQuillan in the middle of the field and we had a terrific duel with Fergal Gormley and Seamus McCallan. McCallan was a big strong lad and a fine footballer.
“Carrickmore led by a point with time running out and I can remember we had trouble breaking past their half-back line. Chris Brown shouted to give the ball to me and I can remember collecting it and running into three or four of them and as soon as I was hit I knew to go down. We got the free and a last gasp equaliser. In the replay we went toe to toe with them again and this time we came out on top with a couple of points to spare to reach the final.”
The natural elation at winning their way through to the county final was understandable but as James points out, a lot of work still had to be done, especially in keeping the young lads focussed for the job in hand.
“We knew going into the final that we were going to be hard to beat as, with all due respect to Dromore, we had already beaten some very difficult teams. We knew that we would never have as good an opportunity again but the whole week prior to the game the experienced players as well as our manager spent the time playing the whole thing down and trying to keep the feet on the ground.
“Chris Lawn was an injury doubt right up to the start of the game but he played and in truth we won it handy. Fred McVeigh had a very good game that day and the fact that it was an open game suited us as our forward line got ample supply of the ball. The one player though who had a really big year for us in 1992 was Paul Devlin. He was brilliant throughout at centre half back and I remember him marking Brian Gormley out of it in the semi-final, something that wasn’t easily done.
“1992 was no doubt the highlight of my career and being captain left it extra special. It was only after winning it that you saw how much it meant to a lot of people, men and women, neighbours of mine, some of whom are now dead. Lavey beat us by two points in the first round of the Ulster championship and that was disappointing as it was a game that we should have won.”
Three county under-21 titles in a row were to come the way of this fast emerging force in Tyrone club football but unbelievably that squad of players was never to taste O’Neill Cup success again, something James acknowledges comes up in conversation very often.
“When we sit down nowadays and talk about it over an odd drink there is no doubt that we underachieved with the team that we had. We perhaps didn’t realise the talent that was there at the time and although the more experienced players played for a long time before they got success, perhaps on reflection that title came too early in the career of the younger lads as we were certainly capable of winning more O’Neill Cups.
“In 1993 we again got the better of Carrickmore in the semi-final but the final against Errigal Ciaran was definitely one that got away from us. We played well that day in Edendork and would have won if we had taken our chances. They of course went on to win the Ulster title.”
Moortown were to be back in the decider two years later but this time Carrickmore came out on top in a game that was played in December owing to Tyrone’s run to the All-Ireland final. By that stage James was no longer playing, his intentions were to play but the pain in his knee dictated otherwise. And so came to an end a golden era for the St Malachy’s and one that will always evoke happy memories for James and his team-mates, whether from games or training sessions.
“There were a host of great characters in that squad of players and we all got on well together. Rab Conway was great craic, always coming out with jokes and rare statements and Chris Brown would always play on that to get the thing going at training. Shane McKenna was another witty character and a great athlete, always bursting up and down that left wing.
“There was many a night at training that we played a game and it was that competitive that it would end up in fighting whether it was Paul Devlin and Cokey [Martin Quinn] at each other or Stephen Lawn and Scotchy [Damian Hagan], but the one thing was that it was always left on the field, there was never any bad feeling afterwards.”
The St Malachy’s lost their senior status a few years ago but having won minor and under-21 (grade two) titles in recent seasons the future looks bright for them and James feels that they can bounce back if the attitude is right. All-Ireland minor winner PJ Quinn captained the victorious under-21 side, a team that included James’s own son Peter and Fred McVey’s son Dwayne.
“It was a big disappointment to drop down to Intermediate football,” states James. “We have a young senior team though and I’ve no doubt they can get us straight back up there if they are dedicated enough. There is no doubt they have the football ability but the big question is have they the ambition that is needed to go with it. They can play football when they want to but how many of them are like the Lawns for instance, players who have great time for football.
“We are doing well at underage level and there has been a lot of development in Moortown over the last number of years and we are benefiting with a lot of players coming through.”
So can the present crop of players build on their minor and under-21 success and take it to senior level just as their predecessors did?
Only time will tell how far the present Moortown team can progress but they certainly have a lot to live up to as they bid to emulate a superb team that gave us household names such as the Quinns, Devlins, Lawns, McGuigans, McQuillan, Crozier, Hagan and McKenna, a talented bunch of players that was led by the man affectionately known as ‘Big James’.