Martin O’Neill & the 1971 MacRory controversy

April 22, 2020

IT is now over a month since the postponement of the Danske Bank MacRory Cup final.
However almost half a century ago there was a similar lengthy delay before the 1971 MacRory Cup semi-final eventually took place on “an unenclosed practice pitch in private school grounds 70 miles away from where it should have happened.”
Future international soccer player and recent Republic of Ireland manager Martin O’Neill was the reason for the delay.

Phil Stuart was Jim McKeever’s partner at midfield in the All-Ireland final of 1958 when Derry lost by 2-12 to 1-9 to Kerry. In February 1959 Phil also played midfield in Queen’s maiden Sigerson Cup success in Galway.
“I wasn’t long started to take teams in St Malachy’s Belfast when a few of the boys came in to my classroom one afternoon and told me that there was a new boy playing on the courts at break and lunch time and that he was something special.
“I asked who he was. They told me it was Martin O’Neill whose family had just moved from Kilrea to Belfast. I told them to make sure Martin was at after-schools training the following evening.”
Phil Stuart had played MacRory Cup football while a boarder in St Patrick’s Armagh during the 1950s. He then moved on to study Celtic at Queen’s where he was in the same class as Gerry O’Neill from Kilrea.
Gerry O’Neill was also part of the Queen’s panel for the Sigerson success as was another brother Leo.
Phil had stayed in the O’Neill house in Kilrea. He knew all about the emerging talent of their younger brothers Martin and Eoghan Roe and he knew Martin had captained the winning St Columb’s Derry Corn na nÓg team in 1967.

Pic : St Columb’s captain Martin O’Neill with Corn na nÓg 1967
1967 was also the year that Phil Stuart joined the Irish Department in St Malachy’s and he was soon approached by head of PE Michael McCormick to take over the football team.
Success came quickly with a Rannafast Cup title in late 1968 and again in 1969.
“We beat St Macartan’s Monaghan 6-7 to 0-4 in a Rannafast final and, when Brother O’Doherty the Secretary of the Ulster College’ Council came to congratulate me, he whispered confidentially into my ear that he had just watched the winners of the MacRory Cup the next year. It was the first time I had thought seriously about the MacRory.”
St Malachy’s had just the one MacRory title at that point, taken when the competition was run on a league basis in 1929. They had appeared in three finals in the interim – 1948 and 1949 when Jim McKeever played and again in 1955.
They were well beaten in all three and had since faded out of the spotlight. St Colman’s Newry, now with Gerry O’Neill as assistant coach alongside Fr Trainer, had completed a MacRory three-in-a-row in 1969.
But St Malachy’s knocked the holders out in the 1970 semi-final at Newcastle and went on to defeat St Michael’s Enniskillen (trained by another of Stuart’s Queen’s team-mates Mick Brewster) in the final, 2-6 to 0-6.
Defence was key, but so too the peformance of the O’Neill brothers up front, Martin with five points and Eoghan Roe with 1-1.
They easily beat St Colman’s Claremaurice in the Hogan semi-final and led the final by 1-8 to 0-3 at the break in Croke Park against Coláiste Chríost Rí from Cork.
But they didn’t push on and contributed to their own downfall by playing cross-field passes that were turned over and converted into scores with the result that they were denied victory when Noel Millar slotted an injury time goal for a 4-5 to 1-13 victory.
It was a defeat that Martin O’Neill referred to regularly in later life as the most disappointing of his career. But more disappointment was just around the corner in early 1971.

With many of the 1970 team still available and members of that second Rannafast success to boost the panel, St Malachy’s were expected to win back-to-back MacRory titles. Martin O’Neill was captain.
Everything seemed to be on course in late January when they qualified for the semi-final with another city school, St Mary’s CBGS. It was anticipated that the game would be played in Casement Park.
Stuart takes up the narrative.
“Then I received a phone call in school one day from a prominent Antrim official informing me that the game would not be taking place in Casement Park if a certain individual was playing for us. He refused to name the player, but it was clear that he was talking about Martin.”
O’Neill was at this stage starring at soccer with Irish League side Distillery. Playing “foreign games” was in breach of Rule 27 of the GAA rule book although a blind eye had been turned to those playing in Colleges’ competitions.
“I protested that all students who attended St Malachy’s were eligible to play for all the school teams without exception – the same as every school around the country. But it seemed that the idea of a prominent soccer player playing in Casement Park was just too much to swallow for the powers that be.
“The official intimated to me that if we played without this player, the game could go ahead. I went back and discussed the situation with Mick (McCormack, the Head of PE) who suggested that we not say what our line out is but turn up on Sunday and take the field with Martin!
“The Ulster Colleges’ Council agreed that the “ban” was not applied in school competitions throughout the rest of Ireland and so we went looking for an alternative ground.
“The other semi-final went ahead as scheduled and Abbey CBS won it while the Council allowed St Mary’s and ourselves a little leeway to find a pitch.”
The controversary rumbled on and it soon became apparent that St Malachy’s would not be allowed to play on any official GAA grounds.
“Eventually Br Nolan came up with the solution of playing it in the grounds of Omagh CBS on the Gortin Road.”
In a carefully worded statement issued by the Colleges’ Council they avoided reference to personalities, stressing their role in providing games for the students. They acknowledged that :
“The Ulster Colleges’ Council appreciates the difficulties of GAA authorities and honours the integrity of sincere men whose views may at times cause readjustment to match arrangements.”
But the statement was firm in stating that they intended to run their competitions by their own rules:
“With so much achieved in the past and so much to be done in the future, the Council cannot run the risk of the present situation being exacerbated by sensational comment or intemperate interference by tyros who have little regard for the games and no sense of responsibility at all towards the boys in our schools.”
The match was played then before a handful of spectators on Thursday 25th February with the two schools undertaking a 140 miles round trip instead of boarding the No 12 bus for the Andersonstown venue.
After all the preliminaries the game itself was comprehensively won by St Mary’s with future Antrim midfielder John McKernan doing a superb man-marking job on O’Neill.
St Mary’s won by 4-9 to 1-8 and went on to beat Abbey CBS in the final to lift the MacRory Cup for the first time. A month later they defeated mid-Cork side Coláiste Íosagán Baile Bhuirne 1-13 to 1-7 in the Hogan final with McKernan dominating midfield.
Indeed a week further on nine of the Hogan side helped St Mary’s win the hurling equivalent, the O’Keefe Cup, beating Presentation College Birr 4-17 to 4-5. McKernan and his brother Paul, Gerry McHugh, Canice Ward and future Down and Derry dual player Sean Sands were some of the names to complete that All-Ireland double, unique for an Ulster school.
Stuart felt that the controversary surrounding the fixing of the semi-final adversely affected his team in the game itself, although he did acknowledge the strength of the Glen Road side.
“St Mary’s had a lot of talent in that side and many of them became fine senior county players.”
Writing in a booklet which was published in conjunction with the 2001 re-union of his own MacRory winning team, the manager stated:
“I still recall with sadness and disappointment the sight of the two best College teams in Ireland at the time, based in the same city of Belfast, setting off on a 70 mile journey westwards to Omagh to play … on an unenclosed practice pitch in private school grounds. Such feelings were compounded by the fact that a mere six weeks later, at the Annual GAA Congress ironically held in Belfast, Rule 27 was removed from the GAA Official Guide. For me it was the end of my MacRory Cup coaching days.”
The player at the centre of the dispute, Martin O’Neill, had his time in the sun around the same time as Rule 27 was scrubbed. He scored twice as Distillery beat Derry City 3-0 in the IFA Cup final before launching a long and successful career in soccer.
A disillusioned Stuart didn’t take another school team and left St Malachy’s to join the staff of St Mary’s Teacher Training College in 1975.
However he later picked up his football coaching role, persuaded by Br Ennis to be part of the Antrim management team when the Westmeath native took over. Within a year however Br Ennis took up a teaching post in Armagh leaving Stuart in sole charge of the county that had caused him so much grief a decade earlier.

St Malachy’s Belfast 1970 MacRory Cup winners
Back Row: Michael McCormack (Head of PE), Peter Leonard, Pat Comiskey, James McClean, Paul O’Reilly, Pat Maginn, Brendan O’Neill, Pat McGonigle, Willie Hunter, Gerry O’Hare, George Adams, Phil Stuart (manager/coach)
Front Row: Donal Meade, Eugene Grant, Billy Regan, John Maginn, Basil McClean, Canon Walter Larkin, Martin O’Neill, Kevin Young, Michael Devlin, Owen Roe O’Neill, Thomas Rogers.