Colm McConville congratulates Shane O'Brien after a game involving Bellurgan United in the North-East Football League Premier Division.
How good was Tommy Mac? is the type of rhetorical question which borderlines on stupidity. Everyone knows the answer, even if their knowledge is based solely on legend. But it seems fitting to throw it in at the end of a conversation with his nephew, Colm McConville.
The reply - “how long is a piece of string?” - hammers home the futility of the query. It’s like asking someone with the flu what it’s like to be soaking wet.
“You can’t judge fellas nowaday to years gone by because it’s a totally different era of football, but I’d say you’d get it very, very hard to find a player as good as him,” Colm adds. “I don’t think he got the recognition from certain quarters that he should have got, to be honest.
“If anyone can tell me there was a better player out there at the time, he was some player!”
Tommy’s brother, Colm’s father, Brian, was a star too, until his sudden death in January 1978, when his eldest child - and only son - was just 13.
“It’s always with you,” he says of his parent’s passing. “I do be out at the graveyard regularly.
“To (pass away) at 35 years of age, it’s unbelievable. You’ll never forget him.
“Dundalk had played the Pat’s in Dublin. We went into the Roma to get food and took it out; we were all at home. He went up to get a glass of water in the kitchen and about five minutes later my mother told me to go up and see about him - I went up and he was lying there; nothing could be done for him.
“He didn’t seem to have a problem, but then, ‘bang’, on a Sunday night. I’ll never forget him...
“He was an absolute gentleman; a really hard-working man. He would have been a totally different footballer to me, a really hard footballer; very, very good. I saw him playing and you then heard the stories from Tommy, who felt my father was a better player than he was, but didn’t get the recognition.
“I remember he fell out with John Smith and my father actually stopped playing football. When Jim McLaughlin got the job, he came down and got him up to Oriel Park.”
Mary, Colm’s mother, was “the biggest influence” on his career thereafter, taking the right-back to and from games, supporting his dream of following in the footsteps of his father and playing League of Ireland football.
After this, winning the McConville Cup, named after Brian, was high on the agenda. Though it took years of trying before an Alan Todd winner in the 1994 decider ended Colm’s wait on silverware which meant more. Muirhevnamor, his team, had beaten Bay 1-0.
“Tony O’Hare was the captain and he said to me, ‘you’re going up to get the Cup off your mother’. I’ll never forget him for that; it was a classy touch.
“I did what I wanted to do in terms of playing League of Ireland and then it was about winning the McConville Cup. Had I won the McConville Cup I wouldn’t have cared if I played football again being honest. I won it a few times after and it was always brilliant, but to win it the first time, it’s the one.”
It says much for the impact Brian McConville had on local football that over 40 years since he was laid to eternal rest, his name, the family’s honour, remains a focal point in the local sporting calendar.
Think the Summer League and you automatically consider the McConville Cup.
“After my Da died, all I wanted to do was to say that I played League of Ireland football.”
Colm got his wish in his hometown colours, albeit on a limited basis. Uncle Tommy acted as a father figure as he developed through his teenage years, playing for Tommy Connolly with the Dundalk youth teams before graduating into the senior set-up.
Games were limited and mainly restricted to the B-team or Leinster Senior Cup before John Murphy made his move and took McConville to Monaghan United in 1985. Bernard Savage, Tommy Tasker and Willie Crawley also headed for Gortakeegan, flavouring the Farney charges with a distinctly Dundalk tang. In ways, though, he’d seen it all with The Lilywhites.
“I think I’ve been in every League of Ireland ground ever, because Tommy took me everywhere with him. I always went with the first-team, to home and away games, carrying Tommy’s bag.
“League of Ireland was part and parcel of the family and years before that my Granda McConville would have taken me to watch Daddy and Tommy play; that’s how deep it ran.
“At times McLaughlin would walk into the dressing room and there’d hardly be a team talk. I heard him saying once, ‘you’re good players, go out and win the game’. That was it. He was a fantastic man.”
His graduation into the underage sides was also fairly strange. In the U19 team at the time, Colm and his mother went to watch the U18s in a Cup game before which Connolly quipped that it’d be great if he could play, if he wasn’t overage, when, in fact, he could. The club had his date of birth wrong and so after a scarpering home for his gear, he returned and played, featuring simultaneously for Dundalk’s academy outfits.
A prospect, he couldn’t escape the link to the family’s previous generations. It didn’t bother him, but there was no hiding place. If he was good, it was ‘how could be anything less’. If bad, ‘well, he’s only there because of who he is’. That type of dismissiveness was rife.
“You were always branded with the brush, ‘he’s Brian McConville’s son, Tommy McConville’s nephew’, but you’re your own person and I had to do it myself.
“If I wasn’t good enough people wouldn’t have picked me. At that time around Dundalk you had Jim McLaughlin and Tommy Connolly, so if you weren’t good enough under them you wouldn’t be played. Simple as.
“But there was always that sort of thing going on. If you were picked for Leinster teams under Tommy Connolly, it’d be ‘sure he’s only there because of who he is’. I didn’t feel like that - I reckoned that if you were good enough you were playing and if you weren’t you weren’t.”
After moving on, his displays at Monaghan attracted the attention of Dermot Keely at Sligo Rovers - the Dubliner using his close friendship with Tommy Mac to entice Colm to the north-west. He only lasted a matter of months, though. The treks involved Friday night journeys to Dublin and on to Sligo, after a week’s work at Kitronic, and then back on a Sunday to start the routine all over again.
Physically, it became impossible.
“It was horrendous. I wasn’t enjoying the football either because of the travelling; it was a killer. All you ever were was tired.”
A return to United, now under Mickey Coburn’s watch, coincided with him becoming the only semi-professional at the club. But Bank Rovers soon came calling and McConville joined “the best junior club there ever was” in the area, lining out under the late Martin ‘Buster’ McGee and players of pedigree, including Tom McNulty.
Times were great with Bank, although the most memorable game was actually a defeat. It was the night they led mighty Bohemians 1-0 at half-time in the FAI Cup.
“The crowd gave us a standing ovation coming off that night; I’ll never forget it. I remember big Barry Murphy - the Bohs centre-half at the time - in the bar afterwards saying to a fella, ‘Imagine if they had beat us!’
“They couldn’t believe how good Bank were, a crowd of ‘mucklers!’, and them with Rocky O’Brien, Jackie Jameson and the lads.
“We were going into the game hoping to keep it respectable and not let ourselves down, but we did ourselves very proud and at the end the crowd were going wild, you’d think we were after winning the game. Bohs got the shock of their lives; I think they were delighted to get out of Oriel Park.”
Knocking St. James’ Gate out of the Metropolitan Cup was another great thrill, but ruffling the Gypsies’ feathers lives long in the memory, especially now that football has changed. Post-retirement, he managed Glenmuir with Jimmy Hearty and Muirhevna Mor alongside Ciarán Bond, before taking the reins at Bellurgan United more recently. He made a good stab at them all, though he no longer has the interest to coach at that level.
“Years ago you’d ask fellas to be at the ground half-an-hour before a game and they’d be there an hour beforehand. It’s all changed now and I think that’s why the Summer League and teams are dwindling away; fellas don’t have the interest, not like years ago.
“It used to be no bother to get fellas to play football and sometimes you’d even have ‘too many’, nowadays you’re lucky to have 14 or 15 on a Sunday morning for an MDL game; you’re doing well at that.”
The best excuse he ever got for a player’s absence?
“A fella couldn’t come one time because he was getting his hair done for the Debs; this fella was in his 20s.”
“You have to be involved with the O’Mahony’s to know what they’re about. If you get in with them, you’re one of them.”
Jack Treanor’s field and lifts from Brendan McDonnell. Colm grew up playing GAA as well, lining out for Roche Emmets in his minor years prior to transferring to Na Piarsaigh and on to Sean O’Mahony’s, where many of the soccer players tried their hand at the 15-man game.
Personally, it was a worthwhile move. Not only did he achieve an intermediate championship medal in 1992, but involved himself in a club which looks after its own like few others.
“No matter what happens, I always look out for O’Mahonys’ results; they’ll always be close,” he says.
“They always looked after me, the O’Briens et al. You’ve people down there whose whole life is Sean O’Mahony’s and they give everything.
“I suppose you have to be involved with the O’Mahony’s to know what they’re about. If you get in with them, you’re one of them and for the Quay area, it was absolutely fantastic, the ’92 win. They were a good set of lads and everyone was friendly with each other.
“To win it, as soccer heads… in the replay against the Finbarrs, at the end of the game, the ball was on the ground and Willie (Crawley) started playing soccer with it. I looked into the stand and there was an old man, who must have been from up that area, frothing at the mouth; boys playing soccer wasn’t heard of.
“It should have been the Sean O’Mahony’s gaelic/soccer club, because most of the players on the team were playing soccer. We played Lannléire in the Clans in one of the rounds before the final and myself and Martin Connolly were after playing that morning for Bank in an FAI Cup game against the guards. It was crazy.”
It’s not the only ‘crazy’ thing, though. Had the schoolboys’ league gone ahead in 2020 - or if it still does - Colm would be 38 years refereeing; a remarkable feat given he was “a scourge” to officials when playing.
He’s liked in the role, as his wife, Fiona, can testify. The couple could be walking up the street some evenings and young lads would start to inquire whether Colm was doing one of their upcoming games.
“You must be doing something right,” Fiona would say.
A nice touch, but not the perfect way to end. Considering the piece began on a tender note, we’ll have to finish with a laugh.
“We used to go to France with Dundalk Youths and Joey Cunningham was with us one year. Work this one out: he got lost on the boat!
“They were thinking that they were going to have to stop the boat in case he’d fallen overboard. It ended up that he was asleep behind two chairs.
“Good times; brilliant times.”