Stephen McGee (centre) celebrates Dundalk RFC's promotion to the All-Ireland League with MJ McKevitt and Thomas Campbell.
It’s 50 years since Dundalk RFC won their eighth Towns Cup title and first in 21 years, Gerry McGee’s first half try proving decisive in the 8-3 final victory over Navan. The winger’s brother, Vinny, was team captain, following his father, ‘The Master’, the legendary PV, a five-time Cup winner between 1939 and ’49.
Another triumph followed in 1987, though the Mill Road men would wait 24 years before taking hold of the prestigious provincial silverware for a 10th time, completing their own ‘La Decima’. How fitting it was, thus, that a member of the McGee family’s next generation, Stephen, son of the late Hugh, was skipper on the day of the 35-20 win against Tullamore.
By landing the crown he had returned to the club for, after five years of trying, he felt vindication and pride. There had been semi-final gutwrench against the Offaly side in both 2009 and 12 months later, so, in many ways, it was a case of then or never, McGee having planned on travelling after Ireland at the New Zealand Rugby World Cup without knowing if or when he’d return.
“It would have been one of the key reasons for wanting to go back to play for Dundalk,” says McGee, reflecting on his desire to sample Cup glory.
“I’d played rugby in Trinity since I’d left school, so going back to Dundalk in 2006, one of the key targets would have been to emulate the family achievements and win a Towns Cup medal.
“But it was so hard to get there; such a long road. In the two preceding years we’d been pipped in the semi-final by Tullamore and they were very heart-breaking, but it all just came together in 2011.
“When we got to the final, Tullamore had maybe played their final in the semis having been drawn against Boyne, who’d beaten them in the two previous finals. We rose to the occasion better this time, and moves practiced in training came off to get us the scores.”
The full-back, of course, wasn’t alone in becoming a successor to the generational throne. MJ McKevitt, Cillian McDonald and Jonathan Williams were others who grew up in the knowledge of Towns Cup triumphs involving their fathers and in the case of the latter, grandfather.
They, like McGee, would have been regulars at Mill Road throughout their juvenile days, be it watching games or training, aspiring to be in the next band of heroes.
Though the 2011 victory sparked a deeper craving for the group. Not only was Cup glory seen to be within their remit, but a maiden catapultion to the senior ranks for a club which had stood for almost 140 years.
“2014 was really the breakthrough year in terms of targeting something different,” says McGee. “Trying to bring the club to senior level and aiming for the AIL Junior Cup as well.”
Standards and expectation levels had risen - with Ene Fa’atau at the helm, Thomas Campbell orchestrating from scrum-half and McKevitt, the captain, a dominant figure - its culmination producing an incredible campaign, which ended in promotion and the Junior Cup success. A poor finish against Enniscorthy in the Towns Cup denied the black and whites a treble tilt, though the overall objective had been achieved.
But their lofty status would stand for just one term, relegation from the All-Ireland League was a consequence of a disappointing effort the following year.
“Ultimately, the reason why it only lasted a year was because we lost the majority of that squad and couldn’t retain a cohort of players, or the player/coach (Ene), that brought us to senior.
“Whether it was from individual decisions where they felt they’d gone as far as they could, or felt they’d a better opportunity elsewhere, or maybe had just given as much to the club as they could and wanted to leave it on that note.
“We still had the talent within the team and the squad to stay senior that year, but it just didn’t work out. The new coaching team didn’t really gel and player recruitment to fill the gaps of those who’d left fell short too. But it was still a great experience, to travel outside the province, going to play different clubs for the first time.”
McGee had been determined to retain the club’s elevated standing. After all, while at University, he was a cog in the Trinity side which went from AIL Division Three to One, having won a Schools’ Cup medal with Clongowes in 2000, two years after his brother, Paddy, had been a title-winner on a team containing future senior international Gordon D’arcy.
The younger of the duo, Stephen played with a budding star, too, at Trinity. Soon to be Ireland, Leinster and Lions No8 Jamie Heaslip was a powerful presence.
“Jamie Heaslip is the standout one. The opposition definitely feared playing him. Any time you had a scrum five metres out from the try-line it was pretty much a guaranteed try because he was head and shoulders above everyone else; he’d just pick the ball off the base of the scrum and practically walk over the line.”
The former Bellurgan United soccer and St. Patrick’s GAA player would later feature on several Leinster Junior selections, competing for a trophy which has come to be known as the McGee Cup. Ex-Dundalk stalwart Kenny Dorian is said to have christened the prize with the name, which stuck and is now etched on to its front in honour of a family’s dynasty.
McGee eventually finished playing in 2017, having given the provincial ranks another go, and hopes it’s not too long before the club is back in the reckoning for honours.
“It was a case of getting out when the going was good; on my own terms and not down to injury,” says McGee, who began to look forward.
“If you look at the Towns Cup successes Dundalk have had, they seem to be a generational thing. There was a link from 1970 to 2011 and 1987 to 2011. You would just hope that it doesn’t take the sons of the 2011 winners to bring Towns Cup success back to Dundalk.
“I’ve tried to give a little bit back this year, travelling back from Dublin once a week to help with the U15s and in that age-group alone you can see that there are a lot of talented players coming through.
“With the commitment of the coaching team there - Declan, Robin, Alan, Jimmy and Tara - it’s a super environment for the players to learn to be better. You’d just hope the boys stick with it and continue to have the drive and desire to go on and represent the club at a first-team level and to bring success to the club.”
Like McGee did, and his uncles and grandfather before him.