The Ulster Minor Club Tournament at St Paul’s was another major sporting event that fell by the wayside in 2020 but Brian Coyle looks back with fondness on a competition that has captured the imagination
THE CHRISTMAS period in 2020 certainly seemed a little different. Scaled-back festivities were required due to the realities of society dealing with a pandemic and therefore, many of our norms fell by the wayside.
The usual nights out or visits to friends and family had to be shelved, but the sporting calendar was also hit hard.
For some, that meant the Irish League’s St Stephen’s Day fixtures, but just as important to many, a tournament that had humble beginnings and is now a staple mid-winter was also shelved.
The Ulster Minor Club Football Tournament, to give the official title, or ‘St Paul’s Minor Tournament’ as it’s better known as, fell victim also.
When the final whistle sounded on January 1, 2020, with Lavey continuing Derry’s domination of this tournament having defeated Donegal’s Termon by 0-9 to 0-8, little did we know what challenges would lie ahead in the most trying of years.
Old friends may have shaken hands and wished each other well for the year ahead, vowing to see each other again in 12 months’ time, but the terraces at St Paul’s lay empty throughout December.
Since 1982, the Ulster Minor Club Tournament has grown to be a major feature in the sporting landscape for Ulster Gaels, yet it may be hard to believe, but back when this was the brainchild of Brian Coyle, getting the green light was not without its challenges.
“I had been taking the same bunch of boys through from U12 and they had never lost a match,” recalls the St Paul’s stalwart.
“We travelled around the country playing anybody and everybody, so I got the idea that there was an Ulster Senior Club Championship, so why not have an Ulster Minor Club Championship?
“I went down the road of ringing around different county secretaries to see who their champions were and if they would be interested if we started a competition. I then had to go to the Ulster Council and that’s where the first stumbling block came.”
Basic geography was the initial problem as Ulster, a nine-county province, had one more county champion than permitted for an official GAA competition, so some outside the box thinking was required.
The Ulster Council weren’t keen on the idea so to get around the issue, it was decided to split the competition into two with the winners of each meeting in the final.
St Paul’s hosted the winners of Antrim, Down, Derry and Armagh, while down in Enniskillen, representatives from Fermanagh, Tyrone, Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan would play-off.
As is the case now, St Stephen’s Day saw the semi-finals take place, with New Year’s Day set for the final at St Paul’s
Veteran journalist and Fermanagh native, Tony McGee, was quick to offer his assistance an indeed, the draw for that first competition took place in his own house.
As it was, Coyle’s young charges would win the first edition of the tournaments beating Monaghan’s Scotstown in the final 2-9 to 2-4, but as fate would have it, the St Paul’s manager wasn’t there to see it. Instead, he spent that afternoon in a hospital bed recovering from knee surgery.
The doctors and nurses had quite a task on their hands with the patient more concerned about events on the Shaw’s Road, but the tension turned to joy when a special group of visitors arrived.
“I had just gone into the hospital to get an operation on my knee and was lying on my bed panicking how the game was going,” he laughs.
“Dr Pearse Donnelly, whose practice was on the Springfield Road, used to run the minor team with me. His two sons, Aidan and Fergus played on that team, so he took the team that day.
“The clock was ticking along and I was wondering how the game was going, but the next thing all the boys arrived in with trophy and it was great to see that. They started wheeling me about the place and carrying on, but it was fantastic craic.”
The tournament continued on in its initial format for a number of years, but a long-standing conflict in the GAA - fixtures - and a bit of an issue with a game in Fermanagh were to prompt a change to the current format we now know.
“It was always November and December where we could fit in matches, so it gave counties time to get their Championship over,” Coyle explained.
“That went well but then the Ulster Colleges began to squeeze us a bit with the MacRory and MacLarnon Cups as instead of them playing their matches during the week, they wanted weekends that we were using. So there have been various hiccups over the years.
“There was a bit of an argy-bargy in a game down in Fermanagh and the Ulster Council stepped in, saying that this was your tournament so they would allow a nine-team competition, but you would have to take full responsibility for it, steward it, look after it and play it at St Paul’s.”
The hosts would be victorious once again in 1986, whilst also reaching the finals in 1984 and 1989 where they lost to Killybegs and Dungannon Clarke’s respectively.
Yet it was in 1990 when Derry had their first winners as Dungiven defeated Donegal’s Aodh Ruadh in the final. Since then, the title has gone to the Oak Leaf County a further 16 times with the nearest county challenger to that roll of honour falling to Tyrone with four.
Every county in Ulster has had a winner at some stage, but 10 years ago Antrim had their second club to claim the honours when a young Lámh Dhearg side swept all before them to take the title with the final played in mid-January due to the competition being disrupted by the big freeze of that year. Matthew Murray was the hero for the Red Hands that day as his injury-time score in freezing and foggy conditions sealed a 0-9 to 0-8 win.
That team contained many players who went onto win an Antrim Senior Football Championship in 2017 and represent the county over the years and one of those, Marc Jordan, looks back with fondness.
“It’s hard to believe it’s 10 years,” he reflects.
“‘Russ’ (Frank Fitzsimons) and Terry (McCrudden) had us playing Omagh and Kilcoo in the years before as we couldn’t get a challenging game in Antrim.
“Kilcoo had beaten us the last time we played then so we knew we had half a chance but it was all still a step into the unknown because we didn’t know how we’d handle the crowds.
“A load of us had played county minor that year like big ‘Tull’ (Stephen Tully), Decky Lynch, Ryan Murray and Decky Stranney. Those lads played before the Antrim-Tyrone game that year so it stood them in good stead, but at the same time, you were still a kid going into that.”
On their way to the final, Lámh Dhearg accounted for Omagh, Aughadrumsee and a Kilcar team that would contain one Patrick McBrearty who would go onto claim Sam Maguire with Donegal the following year, and a youngster called Ryan McHugh would be another to grace the county stage in the years after.
McBrearty was by far the top-scorer in the tournament so we thought if we could take him out of it then we’d have half a chance,” recalls Jordan.
“But with him and the McHughs playing, you didn’t really get just how good of a team you were playing.”
As for the final, that was played in icey conditions, it was a case of getting over the line. But the ground that day would thaw and also relations over the years for Jordan.
He continued: “When we ran out the pitch was like an ice rink. When you got the ball and tried to turn, you had to try plant your foot then take a load of steps. The ground loosened up in the second half but then the fog started to come down, so what you gained in the footing, you lost in vision by the end of the match.
“My sister ended up marrying a boy from Magherafelt who owns Bryson’s (bar and complex) so I would still see quite a lot of them.
“I was in the pub last year and met the Magherafelt minor manager, so we got chatting about that day.
“They had serious players then too and a lot of them have gone onto win a Derry Senior Championship like Conor Kearns and Peter Quinn.
“People almost forget about the final because we played Omagh and KiIcar along the way, but Magherafelt beat Kilcoo who had the Johnstons playing for them that year.”
The Johnston clan would help the Magpies reach the All-Ireland Club final earlier this year and are just one of countless star names who have graced the Shaw’s Road over the years.
But the following year after the Lámh Dhearg success, there would be a juggernaut coming with a very special group from Watty Graham’s, Glen.
Boasting the outstanding talents of Conor Glass, who went onto play in the AFL before returning back to Derry recently, Danny Tallon and Ciaran McFaul to name a few, they would sweep to an incredible four-in-a-row.
They were just some of the major names to have starred on the Shaw’s Road over the years with names such as Cormac McAnallen, Johnny McBride and Paul Brewster gracing the tournament that has grown bigger and better with each passing year.
“Last year I think we’d the guts of 3000 people there and we had 50 or 60 stewards all around from the pitch to the car parks,” said Coyle.
“You can barely get a parking spot on the Shaw’s Road it’s so big, but it has turned into one of the biggest events in the GAA calendar. Everybody has themselves set for New Year’s Day.
“In St Paul’s, a separate committee had to be set-up to run this, to sort everything out like programmes, pitch, car parking, sorting the food out for teams, the changing room. The volunteers around the club have always been fantastic and if it wasn’t for them, it wouldn’t happen.”
Once upon a time, there were moves back in the ‘80s to make the minor tournament an All-Ireland venture with Ferbane from Offaly claiming the honours in a year when Cork’s Nemo Rangers also competed, but the logistics of proved too much.
“We have a Player of the Tournament trophy that is named after Anne-Marie Donnelly, a twin sister of Aidan. The young lady had spina bifida but went everywhere with St Paul’s. God rest her: she was beautiful young lady and always had a smile on her face, just someone special to all of us”
Instead, Ulster remains the only province where such a competition takes place as the county champions battle it out for the Jimmy McConville Cup.
The trophy is named after another St Paul’s stalwart who served as treasurer, but also took on many roles in the club, helping build a club hut long before the building we know now was erected.
“Jimmy McConville took money out of own pocket to keep club afloat in lean times,” Coyle noted.
“You talk about the GAA being amateur, well that man was the soul of St Paul’s for years. A real gentleman and nothing was too much for him, so that’s why I wanted the cup named after him.
“We have a Player of the Tournament trophy that is named after Anne-Marie Donnelly, a twin sister of Aidan.
“The young lady had spina bifida but went everywhere with St Paul’s. God rest her: she was beautiful young lady and always had a smile on her face, just someone special to all of us.”
Whilst the tournament has gone onto capture the imagination of Ulster Gaels as this time of the year, Coyle - manager of the St Paul’s ladies’ team these days - decided to branch out and start an Ulster Ladies Minor Club Tournament that takes place and has also proven to be a major success.
With the ladies’ game going from strength-to-strength, it was only natural to start such a tournament and due to logistics, this takes place mainly at ‘The Dub’.
Identical to 1982, it was the host club that took the first title, but the competition has also seen its fair share of stars over the years.
“That has gone from strength-to-strength,” he confirmed.
“St Paul’s couldn’t take it on (to host at their pitch) as it would clash with the boys. We won it in its first year and beat Termon from Donegal in the final who went onto win the All-Ireland Senior Club with the McLaughlin sisters. I think Geraldine McLaughlin has won about for Allstars, so that Minor Ladies Tournament has been fantastic too.
“The final was held in the arena at The Dub there two years ago and the crowd was amazing.”
The crowds at both competitions are indeed huge, with young footballers given the stage to express themselves against the best at their age group.
Initially, Coyle had to contact county secretaries to invite their champions along, but now it’s the clubs who are making the first move, eager to be part of a competition that has captured the imagination.
Not all minor stars go onto become household names as seniors so this tournament is the highlight of many careers.
Some have made it such as McBrearty, Glass and the late McAnallen, whilst others such as Anton Rogan a centre-back for St Paul’s in the 1989 final against Dungannon Clarke’s before going onto sign for Celtic, found a different path.
This year, the harsh realities we face have meant there is no tournament, no crowds on Shaw’s Road who would flock to avail of the generous hospitality of the host club. Instead, the hope is that by next year, things will have settled and the games can again begin.
However, it is with pride that Coyle and all at St Paul’s reflect on what they have managed to achieve, creating a competition that is held in the highest regard and an opportunity for fans of the game to spot the next big thing in Gaelic football.
“The whole idea behind this was to give young lads the limelight they deserve,” Coyle explained.
“I’m proud it has been a massive success, but I’m delighted for the opportunity it gives those kids to play in the competition.
“It’s the highlight of their club year. A lot don’t make county and this is the next best thing. It’s been one of the most successful things I’ve done and has carried on.
“When I go up on New Year’s Day, people would come over who have been attending from 1982 and we talk about all the different teams and people from all over the years. Even if their own team isn’t in it, they come regardless as they love the tournament.”
From a number of phonecalls in 1982 to the modern day when crowds flock to the Shaw’s Road, it has been quite a journey for the Ulster Club Minor Football Tournament.
It would be fair to say that 2020 was challenging for everyone, but there is no doubt we will bounce back from adversity and this most prestigious of tournaments will lead the charge.