Soccer/GAA

Dundalk FC hero's road to FAI Cup glory entailed checkpoints, RUC officers and 'soccering'

One-to-one with John Whyte

Caoimhín Reilly

Reporter:

Caoimhín Reilly

Email:

caoimhin.reilly@dundalkdemocrat.ie

Dundalk FC hero's road to FAI Cup glory entailed checkpoints, RUC officers and 'soccering'

John Whyte, with Martin Murray, won an FAI Cup medal with Dundalk FC 16 years after tasting Louth GAA MFC success with Roche Emmets. (Pic: Sportsfile)

The apple rarely falls far from the tree. Paddy and the late Bridgid Whyte were a most genuine couple who rarely, if ever, missed Saturday night mass at Faughart Shrine; active members of the local community.

John, their FAI Cup- and minor championship- winning son, alludes to the role his parents played during his career as a dual star and then a local soccer hero exclusively. Thus, how could he be anything but generous, particularly with his time in the face of a story-hungry hack living less than five minutes away?

There was much to touch on and it wasn’t all stroked over the course of 50 minutes. It took a content-bulging text message later in the day for all bases to be covered, and even then there is room for further excavation.

Bellurgan United legend Michael O’Connor, who recently passed away, is mentioned, or thanked, more so, in the subsequent exchange. Whyte recalling the myriad of Monday nights spent travelling to Dublin for coaching courses with O’Connor and Alan Hoey.

Meanwhile, his mother was a Donegal native, emanating from the heart of the famous Glenties. Her nephew, John’s first cousin, is Leo McLoone, a Sam Maguire champion with the Ulster side in 2012.

That made it two All-Ireland medals in the family, in separate codes, 10 years apart. Not a bad record.

******

“You were trying to juggle both codes and you never thought that it would come to a stage where you’d have to make a decision.”

Whyte was GAA-only until his late teens. Bar Winter League games with Faughart Rovers, the outlook related solely to Roche Emmets, the club with whom he starred as a left-half in the 1986 minor championship triumph - the first top-grade U18 crown the border outfit achieved on its own.

Johnny Gartlan was over that side, which contained stars in the making - Fergal McGeough, Laurence O’Hanlon, Alan McArdle and David Quinn - with Johnny McArdle and Alan McGeough alongside him.

It was the beginning of another glorious spell in the history of the Faughart side, albeit a third senior title failed to materialise.
In saying that, they went fairly close, losing the semi-finals of 1989 and ’91 to Ardee St. Mary’s and Stabannon Parnells respectively. Whyte was a forward on both losing outings.

But, by that juncture, his soccer commitments were intensifying. Spotted playing for Shamrocks by Tommy Connolly, he was invited up to Oriel Park where he featured simultaneously for the reserve and youth teams. There was even a call by Turlough O’Connor for first-team duty in the Leinster Senior Cup.

By ’89, after Whyte had turned 20 years of age, a transfer took him to Quay Celtic’s Summer League charges, who he helped qualify for a McConville Cup final date against Bellurgan. It just so happened to be on the same night as Roche opposed Mary’s in Louth Village.

“I believe that it was the decision I didn’t want to have to make, but it was the decision that I had to make, without being pressured by anybody,” Whyte says, looking back.

“I decided to play with Roche. There was no pressure put on me from my Mum or my Dad - or anybody - but I remember about a week later my Dad came to me and said Ken McArdle had told him, ‘your fella made the correct decision; a parish decision’. He was complimentary about that and wasn’t having a go.”

A transfer to Newry Town led to a decade in the Irish League and with every passing week the lure of soccer strengthened, so much so that by the early 1990s, a clash of commitments would have resulted in a sway towards the ground game. Roche knew it, right up until the end of his involvement there. Brian McCoy, team manager in 1993, accommodated Whyte in every way he could, but only a handful of games were the outcome.

Minus their former minor star, Roche skidded downhill and at the end of the following season, had taken leave of the senior ranks for the first time in their history, 37 years since winning promotion. They returned prior to the Millenium, going ever so close to ending the wait on a championship final berth, though failing on every tilt. Had Whyte been there, what could they have achieved?

“I remember playing in Roche one day against Ardee, who were full of big, strong and physical lads. A ball broke on the ground along the dressing room sideline and for safety I dribbled it along the ground with two Mary’s lads charging towards me. Had I picked it up both arms would have been broken. ‘No chance,’ I thought to myself.

“I slipped the ball past the challenges and metres later another two came charging, so I slipped it into space and passed it up the line. We got a score from it, but all I could hear from the sideline was the late Jack Treanor: ‘Young Whyte, for Jaysus sake, will you pick the ball up and stop ‘soccering’ it!’”

‘Soccering it’ was what he did best, though.

******

“I travelled down with Ollie, Willie Crawley, Kenneth Kearns and David Staunton.”

Democrat: “There would have been a wee bitta craic in the car to Newry, I’d say!”

John: “There was great craic in that car! Can you imagine David Staunton, the size of him, in the back seat, Willie in the front left, Ollie driving and Kearnsey squashed up against the other window. We used to have great fun going up and down.”

A story.

“You were going down at the height of the troubles, which was pretty daunting. At times you’d go down through Newry and they’d wave you on, but there was this particular night when we were coming back up the road.

“They stopped us in Cloughoge at the old checkpoint. Ollie rolls down the window and they ask us all our names, why we were down and our addresses; they’d pulled us into the shed.  Ollie was living in Glenwood at the time and they were able to say that he was living beside the hospital.

“Willie Crawley, Quay - ‘that’s down where the boats are...’; Kenny and David Staunton the same. They didn’t say anything to me, handed Ollie back his licence and he was ready to go when the officer goes, ‘would the guy from Faughart please get out of the car?’

“I’d to get out and the boy pulls out a map. ‘I want you to show me where in Faughart you live’. The map was that detailed that at the Shrine, where Faughart Rovers used to play, they had goalposts drawn. He asked me to point where on the map I was living and when I pointed to it, he asked, ‘is your house the house with the goalposts in the front garden?’

“That’s how detailed they were. A couple of weeks later I was heading through Jonesborough and the same soldier stopped me, ‘I hope you’re looking after yourself down in Faughart’ and he let me go on. They knew everything about us.”

Democrat: “Intimidation. Was that the only instance of something like that? It didn’t put you off?”

John: “No, but about a year later when all of the tit-for-tat shootings were going on in Belfast, we’d to go down on a Friday night to play Glentoran at the Oval. That whole week I was pretty nervous and I rang Ollie, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to go down here’. My Dad and Mum, especially, were anxious about it.

“We decided to go on down and play. There was no hassle whatsoever and we beat them 1-0. I think there was more hassle trying to get home!”

******

“I was lucky that I got into Oriel Park at that time. There were an awful lot of better players than me who were never afforded the opportunity that I got. Lots of players around the town who were better players, but maybe hadn’t the total dedication at the time. I understood what the club meant to people on the terraces. Playing for Dundalk was a dream, what I wanted.”

After a testimonial-worthy stint in Newry, Ralph, now No2 to Terry Eviston at Dundalk, requested Whyte’s services at their hometown club. Back in the First Division, the aim was to achieve an immediate return to the top-flight. They managed it at the second time of asking and so moving into campaign three, 2001/’02, survival, with a distinctly local squad, was the name of the game.

Relegation was being stared square in the face post-Christmas, until a tremendous closing run almost spared The Lilywhites, who, ultimately, fell short via the three-team culling of the Premier Division.

There was the Cup run, though.

“The Finn Harps game in the quarter-final turned my season around; we played them at Oriel on the Thursday night. The week before I wasn’t even in the squad for a league game down in Cork.

“David Hoey was right-full, but he got a slight injury, so I was told ‘you’re on standby’ for Harps. But David arrived in and he was fine. The team was announced and I wasn’t even on the bench, so I’d a decision to make there and then. Do I grab my bag, walk out and go down the town for a burger and chip, or what will I do?

“I togged out just after six, went out and did a training session on the pitch - there was one floodlight on. The Harps players were arriving and walking on the pitch as I was going from corner flag to corner flag, diagonals, sit-ups, etc. The teams came out, warmed up and went back in.

“People are starting to appear on the terraces and the next thing Ollie’s coming rushing down past the dugout, ‘John, John. C’mere, you’re playing!’

“‘What?’

“‘You’re playing’.

“That turned my season. Talking of decisions, I could have stormed out and that would have been it. It’s amazing when luck is on your side, the decisions you make in life, where it can take you.”

He retained his place for the Tuesday night replay in Ballybofey and then for the semi-final annihilation of Shamrock Rovers at Oriel.

The decider, versus Stephen Kenny’s double-chasing Bohemians, was one to remember. Eviston and Frank O’Neill wanted to withdraw Whyte before kick-off, nerves looked as though they were getting the better of the full-back, but his old pal resisted, successfully so.

Ralph, speaking to The Democrat in February: “The first ball that went up to Glen Crowe’s feet, John absolutely poleaxed him. Hit him on the halfway line and Glen just went down. I turned around to Martin Murray and he was smiling at me. ‘John’s settled’ and he had a blinder, all the boys had smashing games.”

Democrat: “Glen Crowe, do you remember clattering him?”

John: “I remember it well. I’ve a vivid memory of a long punt from their defence and Crowe always crouched to shield the ball. I remember going in with my left elbow and knee slightly up. I clipped him, the point of my elbow in his ribcage.

“I was like, ‘f*ck me, I could be in trouble here’, so that’s when I went down holding my own head.”

Democrat: “You learned those elbows in Roche, did you?”

John: “I think I did, yeah! Well taught over there.”

A story. The story. A familiar one. It was the day Oriel MC Michael Duffy told LMFM that “win, lose or draw, we’re bringing the Cup home tonight!”

“The bus dropped us off in Donabate for the pre-match meal and the team was announced. We were due in Tolka Park for half-one. All our kit was gone on the bus to leave the directors into the Skylon Hotel, but one o’clock, quarter-past, half, quarter-to and still no sign of the bus.

“We’re walking up and down Donabate beach, there’s phone calls being made. Somebody says, ‘why don’t we just tog out here?’ We can’t. All our gear is on the bus. David Hoey found a 50 quid note and Donal Broughan nearly got clipped by a golf ball…

“We eventually get on the bus and we’re a bit anxious because it’s almost 10 past two and the game is at three o’clock. We get to outside the Cat and Cage and everyone is out on the street, drinking pints and holding up traffic. I could see a few of the old faces, like Paudie Gollogley. Here’s me, (Noel) Melvin, (Bryan) McCrystal and David Crawley looking out at our pals.

“Off the bus, we’re told to drop the bags in the dressing room and out for a walk on the pitch. Bohs, at this stage, are warming-up, there since half-12. We got as far as the halfway line when Tommy McConville calls us back in. We get stripped, after pulling all the plastic off the new kit, and there’s just pandemonium because there’s only one f**king toilet in the whole dressing room.

“Everything is everywhere. My jaffa cakes are getting squashed, my Lucozade Sport is spilling across the floor. No wonder Frank O’Neill was having a heart attack. We’re out for a five- or six-minute warm-up, back in, quick team-talk and before we know it Bohemians are lining up on the stairs and the referee is banging the door.

“It was probably a great thing the way the preparation ended up. You could say had we been beaten that preparation was shite, but it worked out a treat.”

Democrat: “Ollie is obviously a genius. Are you sure he hadn’t this worked out?”

John: “Ollie Ralph may have had all this worked out, he may have!”

******

A jaw break in a game the following September signalled the end of Whyte’s playing career, in truth. He remained at the club for several years, working with the youth team before Seán McCaffrey appointed the Faughart man on to the senior coaching staff in 2012, a year which almost ended disastrously.

He left within months as the bleak financial picture became clearer, but his legendary status is concrete, his coaching credentials indisputable.

Stephen Kenny met and offered him a role on the staff in 2013, a humbling  proposition, but family ties led to it being declined.

Now back in Roche, overseeing juveniles, it’s hitting home. What could Whyte have achieved with Emmets had the soccer bug not bitten?

Ah well.