“This is nerve-tingling - people standing on their feet in Belfast. McQuillan hits it well; it’s dropping in... and it’s off the post off the fingertips of Anthony Tohill.”

RTE commentator, Marty Morrissey

AS the storm clouds parted, they gave way to a bright new day for Antrim football.

The 18 long years of pain and anguish has been swept away by an intoxicating cocktail of rain, hail and ultimately, joyous tears.

For the victory over Down was more than just breaking a vicious cycle; it was a statement of intent that Antrim was thinking bigger than merely accepting a pat on the head and meekly vanishing back out the side door for another year.

However, to prove this seminal win wasn’t just a flash in the pan, Antrim had to go out and show they were for real, and no better test than going up against a Derry team that had already annexed the National League against a Meath team that had won Sam Maguire the previous year and were many people’s tip to add further silverware that season.

Brian White and his charges knew it would be remiss to simply bask in the glory of their quarter-final victory and intended to disregard the chatter that it was now bonus territory against the Oak Leafers.

There was a game to be won and a place in the Ulster final up for grabs so with their confidence soaring, last orders from the Down victory were called very quickly as the countdown to June 18 gathered pace.

“Against Derry there was a different mood in the players,” recalls team captain, Anto Finnegan.

“Our belief had grown that we could play against these big teams, but again, Hugh and Whitey weren’t just going into it for the craic either.

“Our preparation for Derry began straight after the Down game - there was no hanging about.

“I remember going back into training on the Tuesday after the Down game and everything was geared towards a gameplan to take down Derry.”

Eamonn Coleman’s side arrived at a sunny Casement Park having swept past Cavan in the quarter-final and with a number of players from their 1993 All-Ireland win still around including Henry Downey, Dermott Heaney, Kieran McKeever, Gary Coleman and Anthony Tohill, ably supported by a new breed that included Sean Marty Lockhart, Enda Muldoon and a young Paddy Bradley - the favourite’s tag was as hot as that Sunday afternoon in Belfast.

If Antrim were to repeat their heroics of the Down game, they would need to improve again so the challenge was for White and co. to devise a strategy that would put them in that position.

The buzz following the victory over Down ensured the Saffron support had swelled further but there was little to shout about in the opening half as Antrim looked to stifle Derry for the most part and it had been working as they trailed by just two points after 20 minutes, but the pre-game favourites would click into gear for the remainder of the half and tagged on another five points to lead 0-9 to 0-2 at the break.

That would be extended after the restart as the visitors surged ahead by 0-12 to 0-4, but this game would soon flip on his head as Kevin Madden - making his return from the broken jaw sustained in the final League game against Westmeath - replaced John McManus and the Portglenone man would provide the spark Antrim needed, receiving a special welcome from Tohill whose influence on this game would ultimately define it.

Brian White keeps an eye on proceedings against the Oak Leafers©INPHO/Andrew Paton
Brian White keeps an eye on proceedings against the Oak Leafers©INPHO/Andrew Paton

“When Madden came on, he got the ball on the sideline, carried it in along the bye-line and Tohill came into stop the run,” said Finnegan.

“Madden checked his run and Tohill caught him clean on the jaw with his elbow. Had another referee seen that, Tohill probably wouldn’t have been on the pitch for that last part of the game.”

The new arrival would split the posts regardless and this score lifted the Antrim team and support as the pendulum was to swing their way.

Soon after, a high ball into the square from Ronan Hamill dropped for Kevin Brady to get his fist to it and divert past a stranded Michael Conlon and leave four between them. From the restart, Antrim were again on the attack with Hamill playing Kevin Doyle in on goal but the shot whistled over the bar.

Three points would remain the gap as the game entered the final minutes when another long ball would find Brady and this time, he jinked inside and fired low to the net to level.

Antrim smelt blood and there was time for the winner as a Dermott Dougan shot dropped into the grateful arms of Sean McGreevy and cleared out to Con Coleman who pumped it long but was fouled and the free, due to be awarded from where it landed at midfield, was moved on as Tohill hoofed the ball into the crowd.

Now, it was right on the edge of Shenny McQuillan’s range as the game ticked into stoppage time. This was the chance to snatch a last-gasp winner that would deliver a huge shock and a first Ulster final appearance in 30 years.

The Cargin man stepped up and struck it sweetly with the ball sailing towards the posts. As Antrim fans began to roar it home, the 6ft 4inch frame of Tohill had other ideas as he leapt and stretched his fingertips to get just enough on it to halt its destination with the ball spilling back off the post and scrambled clear.

“I thought Shenny had put it over - I really did,” said manager, Brian White.

“We’d created a blanket defence that day too so when they had possession, we’d get a load of bodies back.

“In my head when he lined up to take the free, I was thinking who we needed to get back into defence for the restart because you were certain he was putting it over.

“He (Tohill) got across and just about got his hands to it.

“I’d ‘timers’ along the sideline so they would shout to me what time was left and counted the stoppages.

“For me, John Bannon called that match up early as Madden had the ball and it was only going one place - between the posts.

“We’d nothing to lose that day as we went in with no track record so we had the ability to disarm teams as an unknown entity.”

While there was a replay to look forward to, it was still a little frustrating for Antrim who couldn’t have come any closer to getting the job done the first day.

“Games are won and lost on fine margins and on another day you’d have been in an Ulster final,” added Finnegan.

“It would have been great to get to an Ulster final, especially after the year we had. but it just wasn’t supposed to be. We came half an inch short that day.”

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XrooZwU2Hh8[/embed]

The replay was set for Sunday, July 2 and again it saw Casement Park packed to capacity but this time Derry came forewarned and forearmed.

Paddy Bradley found the net within 20 seconds and while Antrim did again roar back with Peter McCann firing to the net and when McQuillan netted from a penalty after Brady had been trailed down, Antrim led early on.

However, they wouldn’t add to their tally for the remainder of the half as Derry hit the next eight scores either side of the break despite losing Tohill to injury.

Joe Brolly’s introduction at the half would give Antrim further headaches with Dermott Heaney enjoying a fine afternoon at midfield and just like that, the summer adventure was over.

“There were times where you felt the atmosphere and our people really got behind us,” said White.

“They turned out in their numbers and that was very humbling. I was on the sideline but there were times you’d rather be up there in the stand because the craic was 90.”

*******

Antrim club football in the 1990s had been dominated by St Paul’s and Cargin with the pair sharing five titles in six years between them as they geared up for the 2000 decider on Sunday, September 17.

The 1999 final saw Cargin get the better of the West Belfast club and having lost twice to their city rivals in the 1994 and 1996 deciders, scoring a second final victory in succession over their rivals was high on the agenda for the men from Toome.

The game itself was far from a classic as the grey sky matched the fare on offer with Cargin holding a 0-5 to 0-1 lead at the break in a game that didn’t ever get going.

While St Paul’s improved in attack after the break, Cargin always held a gap and the result was put beyond doubt in stoppage time as they moved 0-9 to 0-5 ahead before all hell was to break loose.

Images of the mass brawl involving players, substitutes, officials and supporters would send shockwaves throughout the country and prompt a hefty punishment for both clubs with 10 St Paul’s players and eight from Cargin receiving bans alongside officials from both, with the teams both excluded from the 2001 Antrim Senior Football Championship.

The sanctions would result in Cargin players withdrawing from the county team and along with a number of injuries, the county panel from 2000 was decimated heading into the new campaign that was to be disrupted further with the Foot and Mouth outbreak.

“We lost couple of players in John Kelly and Enda McLarnon and that eats into your resources when you’re trying to get going, but you just have to deal with it,” said White.

“It was a nightmare to deal with as from the 25 players we used the year before, we got nine back for different reasons. Martin Mulholland broke his ankle so we ended up running on fumes.

“Nobody planned any of it, it was just one of those things but it was a disaster.

“Then you’re only starting up the next year and Foot and Mouth hits you. We’d beaten Limerick down there with a new bunch of lads and then that happens. When it goes against you it really does because we’ll never know where we could have went.

“I regret the players who were there never fully got the chance to prove themselves because that team with the belief it had could really have moved on.”

Joe Quinn rises above Anthony Tohill who stopped Shenny McQuillan’s free in the drawn game©INPHO/Lorraine O'Sullivan
Joe Quinn rises above Anthony Tohill who stopped Shenny McQuillan’s free in the drawn game©INPHO/Lorraine O'Sullivan

With St Paul’s and Cargin banned from the 2001 Club Championship, it was time for St Gall’s to break through and claim the first of 13 county titles in the space of 14 years that would also include two Ulsters and one All-Ireland title.

The summer of 2000 had instilled a new belief in Antrim teams across the board that anything was possible and they would not be waiting so long for a victory at senior inter-county level either, but there was a new team to build for a Championship meeting with Derry once again.

Again, Derry would prove too strong - this time at Celtic Park as they ran out 1-11 to 0-9 winners - and while Antrim recovered to defeat Leitrim in the first round of the newly-introduced Qualifiers, they were again paired with the Oak Leafers who won by three to end the Saffron summer for the second year in-a-row.

“You couldn’t have made that up,” laughs White at how the draw panned out.

“I was sitting in Donegal when the draw was made on RTE and just thought it was unbelievable to end up playing Derry again.

“They beat us, we went and beat Leitrim and sure we ended up having to play Derry again - you just had to laugh at it.

“But the win over Leitrim showed we could beat the teams around us and then end up with Derry again.”

White would remain in charge for the 2002 campaign when, once again, Derry were to end their hopes of Ulster glory, while a one-point loss to Westmeath saw them exit the Championship.

However, there were bigger concerns for the Rossa man whose wife, Gerry, was receiving cancer treatment. While she would recover, in October 2006 it would return for a third and final time.

“In February of that year, the wife was diagnosed with cancer so I was off,” he continued.

“I tried to go back a couple of times, but my heart wasn’t in it so that was me done.”

In 2003 under new manager PJ O’Hare, Antrim would defeat Cavan in the Ulster Championship before losing to eventual All-Ireland champions, Tyrone, in the semi-final, while a week later defending champions, Armagh, would come to Belfast and escape with a narrow win.

“I think the positive side was that we weren’t waiting another seven or eight years for a Championship win,” said Finnegan, who would play on until 2004.

“In 2003 under PJ we beat a very good Cavan team so I think that was important not to allow a rot to set back in.

“Against Armagh, we were maybe one forward short. Armagh had won the All-Ireland the year before, but that day they were maybe there for the taking but it didn’t happen

“Fast forward to 2009 and the county is in an Ulster final.”

*******

It’s now exactly 20 years when Antrim scored that seismic victory over Down, a win that saw the football fraternity grow in confidence as they would close out the following decade having finally ended their long wait for an Ulster final appearance in 2009 and go onto give eventual All-Ireland winners, Kerry, their fill of it in Tullamore.

Some of the class of 2000 including Kevin Brady and Sean McGreevy would play a part in Liam Bradley’s squad, but what they did all those years before was to set them on the road to that summer adventure as Antrim proved the talent exists in the county to push on.

Anto Finnegan challenges Joe Brolly©INPHO/Lorraine O'Sullivan
Anto Finnegan challenges Joe Brolly©INPHO/Lorraine O'Sullivan

“The lads I was with would see themselves as the ones who put Antrim on its way,” White agrees.

“You couldn’t predict what would come next over the years or who would do what. We had to take charge of our year and it was a case of getting things up and running. Those lads took the responsibility and put Antrim back on the map.

“They did what they were capable of and we proved what can be done if we get the best 15 out on the pitch.

“Antrim football started to write its own history that day against Down.

“We went onto win the Tommy Murphy and get to an Ulster final, but for me, those foundations were laid when we won the All-Ireland B, progressed in the National League, beat Down and drew with Derry.

“For me, that year made us sit up and think that we can do better.

“It gave Antrim a boost it sorely needed. Anyone who was a student of Antrim football at the time knew the players were there, it was just about harnessing it.”

White and the players still meet up to reminisce and raise a glass to the summer of 2000 with Finnegan - since diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease - still the leader of the group.

The team skipper looks back with fondness and no regrets.

They were a matter of inches away from being the team to end Antrim’s wait for an Ulster final berth, but what they did do was raise the hopes and expectations of a county, so for that the overriding feeling is of pride.

“I enjoyed every minute of it and wouldn’t change a thing,” he insists.

“Not everybody gets the big glory days in Croke Park, but that doesn’t mean there’s no enjoyment in it. To be with the county for 10 or 11 years and to be the captain in 1999 and 2000 was a real honour and something I treasure and cherish.

“Whitey, Hugh and JC put their trust in me so it was a great honour.

“When I decided to hang up my boots, I never had a yearning to go back in as I felt I’d done everything I wanted to do, so I was content at the end.”

They were days when Antrim emerged from the shadows and raised the bar for what was to follow. That was the legacy left by White, Finnegan and all involved that year - the summer when storm clouds made way for a glorious new dawn.