Academy Hogan Heroes

May 15, 2020

ST PATRICK’S Academy Dungannon have won the Hogan Cup on two occasions 11 years apart. Former Tyrone defender and triple All-Ireland senior medallist Ciarán Gourley links both; he was a corner-back on the 1997 team and assistant manager to Peter Herron on the 2008 version.

This week he recalled both campaigns in conversation with Séamas McAleenan.

“All the young lads with any interest in football coming into St Patrick’s Academy these days know everything about the MacRory Cup and the other schools’ competitions. When we came through the doors into Year 8 in September 1990, we wanted to play football alright, but hadn’t a clue about the MacRory.

“I read somewhere recently that the Academy had never got beyond the quarter-final stage of the competition until 1991. In fact they went on and won it for the first time that year and a deep impression was made on us in First Year.

“The game was on TV, you had Jimmy Smyth calling out the names of boys you knew in the school corridors and Fr Dinny (Denis Faul, the Principal) had Patrick McCartan, the captain, take the MacRory Cup around each of the classrooms.

“We all had an extra inch to our step in training and we went out and won the First Year Blitz in St Mary’s Belfast later that summer.”

However it wasn’t all plain sailing and success through the age-groups for the next team from the Academy to claim the most famous schools’ GAA trophy.

“No, it wasn’t. We lost the Dalton final to Maghera and lost out on Corn na nÓg because the schools’ Council moved the age-limits. As a result the exact same Enniskillen team with Rory Gallagher (current Derry manager) on it won the competition two years in a row.

“We won the Rannafast however, against Enniskillen, even though we finished the final with 13 players. Martin Early was immense for us that day as he was a couple of years later in the MacRory.”

Maghera however dealt out a football lesson in 1996 as Gourley’s year group progressed to MacRory, handing out a ten points’ defeat in the semi-final on their way to a third successive Hogan Cup final.

“Maghera really were the bench mark in my time and they were to be our semi-final opponents in 1997. But we still had to beat Enniskillen in the quarter-final.

“I always look at the quarter-final game in the MacRory as very important. You might think you have a good team, but until you survive a knock-out game you don’t know what you really have.

“We got over that and the semi-finals that year were played as a double-header in Coalisland. St Patrick’s Armagh beat St Macartan’s in the first match on a really wild windy day. We then had Maghera.

“We played with the breeze and were just a point or two ahead at the break. I remember the general feeling was that we hadn’t done enough in that first half.

“But the team really dug deep in the second half. We actually carried the game to them into the breeze and near the end I know Brian McGuigan scored a goal to clinch victory.”

That put the Academy into Casement Park and a final that had very much a derby feel to it with Eglish and Moy players on both the Academy and Armagh teams. Indeed the Armagh side might well have been pre-match favourites with future All-Ireland senior winners Cormac McAnallen, Philip Jordan, Ryan Mellon, John Toal, Paddy McKeever, Paul McCormick and Kevin McElvenna spread through the team.

“I would not have known the Eglish and Moy lads personally. I played against them at club level and we beat them in the Rannafast final two years earlier. But, because we had beaten Maghera, we felt that we were in with a great chance.”

The game was a minute old, when Martin Early fisted a long ball from out the field into the Armagh net.

“You can’t beat the timing of the goals that day. The first one put us in charge. Armagh kept coming back, but we were two ahead at half-time.

“Then Armagh missed a penalty at the start of the second half and Richard Thornton scored a goal for us a couple of minutes after to put us six ahead.

“Armagh pushed us really close coming up to the final whistle. I look back on it and have a clear sense of teh Academy holding on for a two points’ victory (2-9 to 1-10).

“Martin Early scored 1-7 that day. He was brilliant up front and Jarlath Quinn and Conal Martin, two really big men, had big games at midfield.”

It was now on to the Hogan Cup. Managers Martin O’Farrell and Peter Herron however had watched the Cork school win Corn Uí Mhuirí and had done their homework for the semi-final. The Academy won 5-10 to 0-10 with 3-2 from Thornton and six points from Early.

“For most of our early years in the Academy, Jody Kelly would have been our main coach and we had a big respect for him. Moving on to MacRory and Peter and Martin were in charge.

“Martin was great at analysing the opposition. He constantly studied videos and you would get called down to his mobile to look at a clip where you did something well or poorly. He also had a good turn of phrase and gave you a laugh while getting a point across.

“Peter did most of the actual coaching, took charge of the training sessions and he was the boy that got you revved up in the changing rooms.

“We stayed in Dublin the night before the Hogan final with St Gerard’s Castlebar and went to dog racing in Shelbourne Park. There are different ways to prepare for big games, but that evening out seemed to relax us and we went out and blitzed Castlebar the next day.”

It finished 1-10 to 0-3 for future Ulster Council employee Paul McGurk to become the first Academy captain to lift the Hogan Cup. Martin Early fired over six points and Michael Rea a goal.

None of the Academy boys had played in Croke Park before, but the confidence they gained from a comfortable winning experience there must surely have helped the Tyrone teams they graduated to in the years that followed.

“Without a doubt. We never expected the Hogan final to go so well. We lost the All-Ireland minor final there to Laois later that year, but quite a few of us went on to play there again and again. The place never held any fear for me.”

Gourley left school in that summer of 1997, graduated to the Tyrone senior team in 1998 and collected an under 21 All-Ireland in 2000 before returning to his alma mater as a teacher in 2002. Many things had changed in the interim including the death of his MacRory mentor Martin O’Farrell.

“Martin had been ill for a while, but his death was a shock and coming back into the school you still expected to see him in the corridors.

“Although there had been no MacRory success since our team, I noticed that there was a new ambition in the boys. There was also an increased media profile of not only the MacRory but all the competitions and Tyrone were also doing well. The kids now came into the Academy wanting to win all these competitions.

“It can be daunting for any young teacher to go back into his old school. On the one hand you are seeing the teachers in a different light and then you have the kids who know you from the locality.

“I probably got an easy ride because I was playing county football at the time and the boys saw you in the big games and would have done anything to please you.

“I took charge of a first year group that included Niall Morgan, Gavin Teague, Niall McKenna and Dermot Thornton who was a brother of Richard from my own age group. I would have been with them right through the school and you got help from the likes of Jody (Kelly), Kevin Collins, Francie Quinn. Proinnsias Brolly was there at the time as well.

“We won Corn na nÓg and Brock and I stayed with them when they went into MacRory at Lower Sixth with Peter (Herron).

“Peter was still very much hands on. He enjoyed taking training session, taking charge of the close, conditioned games, but he let me take sessions and introduce new drills and things that I had picked up. Yeah, we were very much a management team with the 2008 group.”

The Academy had won the 2004 MacRory, but lost in the Hogan semi-final to St Patrick’s Navan.

Some of Gourley’s proteges were making the 2008 team a year early, some were struggling for a place, including Dermot Thornton.

“We got through to the final against St Michael’s Enniskillen and Dermot wasn’t due to start. But Sean McKillian had an appendix operation the week before. Dermot started in his place at full-forward wearing No 17 and landed seven points.”

The game was in Omagh, the first final in 12 years to move out of Casement Park. By contrast to the 1997 final, Enniskillen got the early goal and the Academy looked to be struggling durng the opening quarter. They were five points down at the break.

In the second half however the tide changed. Niall McKenna and David Lavery took over in midfield and Gavin Teague controlled central defence. With Paddy Doherty and Tiarnán O’Hagan running at the Enniskillen defence, Thornton got opportunities from frees and there was only a minute left when he pulled the sides level.

Substitute Conall McGarrity then snatched victory with a late point.

“Games like that are brilliant when you win, devastating when you lose. I know Dom Corrigan believed he had a team good enough to win, and that looked likely at half time. But we got momentum and took advantage.

“There was only a five day turn-around with the MacRory final played on a Monday and the Hogan semi-final against Athlone Community College on the Saturday. Paddy Doherty got the line in that game and we really had to grind out a result.”

But they did grind it out and it left the Academy facing St Brendan’s Killarney for the title in Portlaoise. Two names jump off the Killarney team-sheet – James O’Donoghue and future Kerry All-Ireland winning captain Fionn Fitzgerald.

“We were very much aware of O’Donoghue. He was a huge threat. I think he started at centre-forward but spent most of the game at full-forward.

“The game itself started OK; we were 0-3 each after about 15 minutes. Then Killarney got a few scores and we were two down at half time. Then they got a goal early in the second half.

“At five points down you are looking for a bit of inspiration and Paddy Doherty provided it. He went on this jinxing run before cutting in and blasting to the roof of the net.

“It was just what we needed and Dermot (Thornton) fired over two late points to seal victory (1-9 to 1-7).”

Later in 2008 Gourley collected his third All-Ireland senior medal with Tyrone beating Kerry in the final. Jack O’Connor however was to gain some revenge the following March.

The Academy retained the MacRory Cup with a narrow victory over Omagh CBS in the final on St Patrick’s Day 2009, but they lost in the Hogan to Coláiste na Sceilge 3-10 to 1-6 with O’Connor in charge and his son Éanna top-scoring.

“Winning the Hogan in my first year of management and then retaining the MacRory the following year with a set of boys I had coached through from first year, well that was really satisfying.

“You nearly start thinking that it is going to happen all the time. But that was the Academy’s last title and as the years go by I appreciate it a lot more.

“The MacRory is a really hard competition to win, and recently it has expanded to 16 teams. All schools are so well prepared that a good team can often get caught out at any stage. Few schools – apart from maybe Maghera – seem to be able to consistently produce teams that can challenge for the title.

“Now and again you get a good bunch of players and you just have to work hard to get the best out of them.

“Looking back at the two Hogan winning teams, I would have expected each time that one or two others from each team would have come through to make the county team. But it doesn’t always work like that. Some players reach their peak in school.

“I feel very lucky to have been part of those two winning teams and I am hoping there are more to come from the Academy.”

Niall McKenna rises high for St Patrick’s Academy during their Mac Rory cup victory over St McCartens Monaghan. Picture Michael Cullen.
Niall McKenna St Patrick’s Academy Dungannon, scoring a point despite the attempted block from Darren Carr, St Patrick’s Armagh. Picture Michael Cullen.