GAA

Stefan White on his career with Louth, semi-final pain, controversy, relationships and the rivalry with Meath

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW

Caoimhín Reilly

Reporter:

Caoimhín Reilly

Email:

caoimhin.reilly@dundalkdemocrat.ie

Stefan White on his career with Louth, semi-final pain, controversy, relationships and the  rivalry with Meath

Stefan White in his playing days with Louth. (Pic: Arthur Kinahan)

If a survey was conducted to decipher Louth's player of the last 50 years, chances are that Stefan White would top the poll.

Whether it be for the honours he won, or merely on the basis of his heroics against Kildare in 1991, there are few who would rival the Castlebellingham-native in the ante-post market.

White followed in the footsteps of his All-Ireland winning father in donning the red jersey and while he may not have replicated Stephen's feats in attaining Leinster and All-Ireland glory, for a career which stretched over two decades, an Ulster and five club championship medals represent a decent haul for a player hailing from a county which has been starved of major success.

He accepts that he was a divisive character, but he must be respected considering his every move was in search of a development in standards.

"Down through the years, I'm not saying that I was hard to handle, but I wouldn't have been the easiest guy to manage," he says midway through our 90-minute conversation, just after we had finished reflecting upon his several transfers, the first of which was acrimonious in the extreme.

Having won the Junior Championship with O'Connell's in 1983, age just 16, three years down the line, and shortly after making his inter-county debut in the O'Fiach Cup, White attempted to force a transfer through to Clan na Gael.

"There would have been negativity in some parts. Some felt that I was doing the right thing moving from a junior team to a senior team and that was really what I was trying to do, to get better football.

“Probably looking at it now, I should have stayed a little bit longer. But I felt that I didn't owe the O'Connell's anything. I'd given them two or three years at adult level and played all my underage football there."

The Clans had just won Joe Ward and were on the up, leading many to think that White was only after the glory, as opposed to the real reason, which was to self-improve. Choosing the Ecco Road men had quite a lot to do with his schooling at Colaiste Rís, where he featured alongside the likes of Gerry Curran as the Leinster 'A' Colleges title was captured in 1985.

"I had been involved with Louth U14 and U16 teams with the O'Hanlons and Gerry Curran. At the Christian Brothers, there were three or four lads from the Clans involved there too and that was a big factor.

"There was obviously an approach made by Clan na Gael to me and they came and spoke to my Mum and Dad. My Mum wouldn't really get involved in the Gaelic even though she was very much into it being from a McDonnell background and marrying Dad, but she would have left the decision up to me. I was just looking at it from the bigger picture and from a footballing point-of-view because it was going to enhance my playing career."

The transfer was ultimately rejected, leaving Stefan in limbo until a contact of Frank Lynch's stepped in. Having applied to several outlets around Dundalk in search of an electrician apprenticeship, to no avail, a call came from a man in Castleblayney with the offer he had been searching for. The stipulation being that he would have to join Castleblayney Faughs.

That he did and successfully so, winning three Senior Championship medals and one Ulster Club title in five incredibly enjoyable years. The coaching on offer in 'Blayney from Gerry Smyth was way ahead of its time, according to Stefan, who played alongside the likes of Declan Flanagan, Eugene 'Nudie' Hughes and Eamonn McEneaney.

Having commuted to Louth training for a year, Monaghan made an approach to Stefan in '87, the request being to link-up with the Farneymen ahead of their Ulster Championship defence. In his early 20s, the lure was too great and he signed the transfer with the blessing of his father, starting in the championship first round against Cavan where their Ulster defence ended.

However, a year later, he claimed his sole provincial medal at inter-county level, scoring a point off the bench in the Ulster final win over Tyrone.

But, while his move to 'Blayney proved positive for him on the playing side, there remained detractors at home and his family had to bear the brunt of it somewhat.

"It was a big upheaval for, probably more so my family. You have to understand that my Mum had a business in Castlebellingham, she was the only chemist in Castlebellingham and there would have been part of Castlebellingham, probably half if not more, who were very resentful of the fact that I had chosen to go down this road and away from the club."

He would return to Louth club football in 1991 with the Clans, in time to face Stabannon Parnells in the Joe Ward decider, a match which he refers to as "a joke, it was all set-up for Stabannon". However, the Clans returned and landed the next two championships, with Stefan their focal point in attack. But the fact that he had returned with a team other than O'Connell's irked some people even more, this despite him having switched his inter-county allegiance back to the Wee County.

His braces of goals in the Leinster Championship defeats to Meath and Dublin in 1989 and '90 having rejoined the panel from Monaghan after the culmination of the Farney side's All-Ireland run. But it proved to be third time lucky with his next championship double proving Kildare's pitfall in 1991.

The Lillies were rolling into Drogheda on the back of a National League campaign which saw them only denied the title courtesy of a final defeat to the Dubs.

"They were after reaching the league final and I remember going to that final at Croke Park and seeing the level that they were at. Dublin had the Keith Barrs, the Charlie Redmonds and those sort of names, but Kildare came up alongside them and began to push them in a lot of areas. They looked on a different level again.

"But, from our point-of-view, it was great that the match was staged in Drogheda and we would have always felt that there was very little between the two teams and that it was only the hype of this man (Mick O'Dwyer) coming in. Obviously, he's a man who'll go down in history as one of the greatest managers the GAA has ever seen. But the hype was following them and there was a lot of pressure on them, whereas there was little to no pressure on us."

As he began to recall the images of that day, the sweltering sun, the packed bank and the deafening support, his two goals came into question. Louth had trailed for much of the way, but Stefan rose to the occasion. First, he fired in from 20 yards after John Osborne's kick forward had been spilt by the Kildare defence before Cathal O'Hanlon laid the winner on a plate for him in the last minute, after Louth looked to have blown it.

"When the final whistle went, it was just unbelievable. I was pushed to the ground and it was just euphoria, but relief as well for everybody in the county because they hadn't seen something like this for a number of years. It gave Louth people such joy. It was the fact that, from the jaws of defeat, we took it back, lost it again and then with the last few kicks of the ball we got it back."

It is perhaps overlooked somewhat that his winning goal was scored with his weaker left foot as he jinked back inside to avoid Kildare's desperate attempts at scrambling. Stefan laughs, as this was something his father had insisted on him doing as a child. He met Stephen after the match and all the memories came flooding back. Sometimes his right peg was off limits when the pair would be practising in the back garden, reducing a frustrated Stefan to tears on some childhood occasions. He chuckles: 'After the match, Dad said: 'what did I tell you about your left foot!'

The next round would see Laois provide the opposition, a pairing which remains remembered for all the wrong reasons. Louth should have prevailed the first day, but the way they allowed Laois back in to sneak a draw was typical of the disaster that the tie turned out to be.

"We had that match won. Literally, we had that match won the first day," he says ruefully. "We were just probably naive at stages and we could have done with somebody sitting us down at half-time and telling us to drive this home. I know for a fact, personally, I missed chances that I should have done better with.

"In the replay, we were ahead and then Laois came back. I missed a penalty and it was a poor penalty and that seemed to knock the stuffing out of a good few of us. Laois tagged on some scores early in the second-half and our heads dropped. Again, there were a couple of refereeing decisions that we felt should have gone our way.

"Seamus (O'Hanlon) got a very bad injury. They knew that they had to take Seamus out to win the match and he wasn't the same player in the game after that.

"There was frustration setting in and the row shouldn't have happened, but there was nobody really to blame. I think it was at boiling point for maybe 10 minutes beforehand and the referee let it get out of control. There was some tackles flying in that if they happened now, there'd be men getting six months.

"We didn't get the protection and some of us felt that we were going to protect ourselves and the row just escalated. At the end of the day, the row was scandalous and an embarrassing situation to be in."

To this day, the shortcoming of 1991 haunts White. Arguably the best Louth team since the days of his father, he counts it as a huge opportunity missed.

"If we had to have got over the Laois game, a lot of people would have thought that we were as good as what was in the final. A lot of their players would have had All-Ireland medals, but it was a tired Meath team and they had played a number of matches. The four Dublin matches would have taken its toll on any team, no matter what level of fitness they were at.

"We would have had a great opportunity (of a Leinster and possibly an All-Ireland). You were down to the last eight teams and maybe six of those teams would have been equal to us. '91 was just a huge opportunity that we let slip by."

But that feeling would become somewhat familiar in the years to come. In all, Louth, and White, would lose five Leinster semi-finals before the Millenium. The defeats to Dublin in '92 and '96 were painful in their own way, however, it was the other two losses, to Meath and Offaly, particularly the '98 defeat to Meath, which White regrets most.
Louth lost on a 0-15 to 1-11 scoreline.

"'98 was a very, very hurtful one, one of the most disappointing games. It would have been belief in other years that cost us, but I don't think that was it against Meath. Playing-wise, we made a lot of foolish decisions that day. We had opportunities right up until the last minute to take Meath and I would have preferred to be beaten by four or five points rather than one.

"Even talking to Meath men now, Seán Boylan and them, and you meet them at different functions and they'll bring up '98 and acknowledge that they were 'really, really scared'. They knew they were in a battle and lucky to get out of it.

"The other one that sticks in my mind was Offaly in Navan in '97. I didn't start the match and I didn't start the match for one reason. That was because a member of the same club that I was playing with (Clan na Gael) had instigated for me not to start and the same guy just after half-time turned around the management and said, 'get him on, we're going to need him'.

"But, that apart, that was another match, certainly from a semi-final point-of-view, that Louth should have won. It wasn't a match as hurtful as the Meath one, but it was certainly close and Offaly then went to the final and won it. That made it worse seeing a team that we should have beaten in Navan three weeks earlier win the damn thing."

Stefan's final match with Louth came in Drogheda against Dublin in 1999, by which stage he had transferred to Burren in County Down, the place where he had lived since getting married in 1993. That Dublin game left a sour taste for many reasons. He was brought on with time near up and the team getting hammered. It was as close as he ever came to defying a manager and refusing to take his place.

"I came on and Paddy Moran was playing corner-back for Dublin. He shook my hand and said, 'Stefan, how the f**k have you not started this game'. The match was over at that stage and after it, my Dad said that he wouldn't have gone on, but he later said that I was right to. I'm not saying that we had a chance in that game, but whatever chance we had, I should have been on a lot sooner."

It was a sad way to end what had been a wonderful, if not entirely satisfactory Louth career in honours terms.

However, there remained one loose end and that meant returning to where it all started, with O'Connell's. In 2003, he upheld what he had always insisted that he would do and that was to finish his career in Castlebellingham, before going on to manage them years down the line.

By this point, the conversation was petering towards its natural conclusion. Though we couldn't end without addressing one more thing, that being the relationship with his 'old mate', Colin Kelly.

"I think I probably had a better relationship with Cathal O'Hanlon on the field because he was similar to me in a lot of ways. But Colin, as a friend, has been more of a friend to me than any of my former Louth team-mates. I was Bestman for him at his wedding, he has stood for one of my children and the families are in a lot of contact . Since Colin has finished playing, we'd be in a lot more contact, I'd be in contact with him on a weekly basis.

"I suppose he was a few years younger than me and, if you asked him honestly, in a way, he probably felt that I was coming back to Louth at a time that he was starting his career in the late 80s. At that stage, he probably resented me coming back. He kind of felt pressurised, which he should never have done because we were all there to play for Louth and we all wanted to do well for Louth.

"There was never any jealousy, I wouldn't call it jealousy. Colin would always say to me that 'you were able to score goals a lot quicker and better than I could ever have done', but some people would look at it differently. When you go back to '91, the Louth team missed Colin because he would have been a help."

And so our chat ended on a note related to 1991. Fitting, perhaps, as much of our time was spent discussing it, but it's also typical, as, for those goals against Kildare alone, Stefan White will be forever remembered.