Pat Butterly and brothers, Mark and Nicholas, were reared on tales of Stabannon’s glory days, the championship triumphs of 1949 and five years later. (Pic: Arthur Kinahan)
Who had the better of the 1990s: Stabannon Parnells, with their four senior championship titles and two Cardinal O’Donnell Cups, or Clan na Gael, three-time Joe Ward victors and winners of Division One on a half-dozen occasions? Cases can be made for both.
For two forces so dominant, it’s strange that their paths crossed in just one championship final. Although that 1991 decider contained enough drama to match a six-part series. Parnells had broken through, winning the county’s most coveted prize for the third time, bridging a gap of 37 years.
Yet Stabannon can’t help the fact that they’re not that universally popular, even to this day. But, then again, few serial winners are. Though the gripe seems different where the yellow and greens are concerned. There can never seem to be a mention of the ’91 clash with Clans minus the name of Patsy McGahon, the referee.
“I was actually talking to Cathal O’Hanlon the other day and he told me he looked back on the final,” Pat Butterly, a key cog in Stabannon’s success, tells The Democrat.
“‘I rang Kevin (O’Hanlon) up afterwards,’ he says, ‘I don’t know what people are saying about the Clans being robbed, when I look at it, yous were the better team… it wasn’t the referee that beat us’.
“I was amazed he was saying this. Cathal came up to Stabannon a couple of nights afterwards and he saw Patsy McGahon in the pub, ‘the fella who was supposed to have robbed us’, but ‘that was definitely not the case’, he says.”
Another myth suggests Stabannon bought their way to repeated top-flight success. It’s a tag that, again, is designed to discredit their achievements in a rather distasteful manner. And whatever about the victories of 1994, ’97 and the most recent of their six crowns, ’99, it’s almost a source of offence to Butterly and co for dirt to be thrown at their conquering of Clans.
“’91 was a brilliant win for us because it was all Stabannon players who won that; all families and there was a great togetherness that comes from having all homegrown players, all Stabannon people.
“The Reillys lived and farmed in Stabannon, their family home was in Stabannon. Stefan White was an O’Connell’s man playing for the Clans and there never seems to be very much mention of that.
“I don’t know where the accusations of us at that time comes from, really. We just got a group of players at the one time and when you’re successful, like Blues, Mary’s, etc, if a good player is coming into the county you’re delighted to get them.
“The three O’Neills joined Cooley in 1990, big-name players. I was at college and said to someone in UCD that these guys are going to be unbeatable having already won the championship. But I was told it was a good thing, that it would raise the standard in the county, and that was right. There were more good teams to aspire to. And, in the ’90s, football was strong. We’d a good county team and probably should’ve done better.
“We’d a great decade, there’s no doubt about that. John Donaldson came in. He got married and was living with a girl in Stabannon, farming. We were lucky to get a player of his calibre and then John Prendergast, another absolutely brilliant player, he gave great service; a guy who came from Dublin and was working in Dunleer. He worked with Stabannon guys and he was going to join a club in Louth...
“Gerry Hoey and Bernie Murray, some people would feel that they were actually in the twilight of their careers, in their 30s. They came in and played for two or three years.
“It’s part and parcel, you’ve the transfer system which allows players to change clubs and at the minute we’d be looking to get two or three players to try and keep our club going. That’s always been the case.”
Butterly and brothers, Mark and Nicholas, were reared on tales of Stabannon’s glory days, the championship triumphs of 1949 and five years later. Their father, Paddy, was a survivor of that era and so when Pat broke on to the Parnells scene during the early ’80s, there was a sense that the next crop were almost an insult to those who’d gone before.
“We were at the very bottom of junior football in the mid-’80s,” he says. “I can remember playing a game in junior football which we had to win to maintain our status, otherwise we’d have had to have played second division.
“When I started playing we weren’t any better than the current team and we were just lucky that a group of players came together at the one time. We struggled to field teams before even I started playing because we’ve such a small population. The school, there’s only 60 or 70 kids in it and it was a struggle to keep Stabannon afloat.
“Ciarán Moloney, the local headmaster, got a few of his friends from Drogheda to come down and play for Stabannon to make up a team.”
So desperate were the mid-Louth men for players that Butterly made his first-team bow at 15 and during 1983, as he was sitting his inter-cert, he sustained a broken collarbone which resulted in his final exam having to be taken through a tape recorder.
Fast forward a generation and Parnells find themselves back in a situation familiar to many around the club, including a portion of those who bathed in the halcyon era. They’re struggling for players, wallowing at the foot of the junior grade, trying to keep their identity alive in the hope of better years to come. They’re not unique in this regard. It’s a common theme, particularly in parishes with minimal tenants and varying, sparsely populated age groups.
But the Butterly involvement is recycling. Paddy didn’t immerse himself much after his playing days until his sons became staples of the set-up, at which point he returned. Likewise, Pat stepped away after managing the team for one season, though sons Bobby, a Louth minor and U20, and Harry, who’s played underage soccer for Dundalk FC, have reinvigorated their father’s passion.
The lads know every ball that was kicked by Stabannon during the ’90s. Again, a new breed are under the shadow of former glory, of the period in which their dad, who’s now club secretary, was one of Louth’s most potent and prolific marksmen.
“Donal Murray said to me one time when we were playing junior, ‘we need to put our stamp on this club, we need to win something. All we’re hearing about is the team of the ’50s, the Conlons, the Reynolds’, the Byrnes’.
“I didn’t actually believe that we were going to be able to achieve the success we did. The pub, there’s all the pictures of the old teams, so it was in your face the whole time and the fact that you were a poor team at a poor grade of football, you got run down a bit; compared to older teams. That’s what it’s probably like for the present football team, in that they’re compared to us.
“It can be hard to live in the shadow of a team that had so much success. Sometimes, though, it’s not all about success. Winning is great but even playing the sport and keeping a club going, the fellas who do that are every bit as important and contribute as much as the fellas who’ve won things. And I’ve great admiration for everyone who’s involved now, who’ve kept the show on the road.
“I wasn’t one of these guys who went into managing football teams after I quit playing. I did a year with Stabannon, managing them, and then I sort of went away from the football; golf replaced the football for me.”
The Stabannon man was a member of the Colaiste Rís team which earned an incredible Leinster ‘A’ Colleges victory in 1985, featuring alongside many players who’d lined out for the St. Michael’s combination in their youth.
They were a prodigiously talented group of young men and within just a couple of years, the Parnells/O’Connell’s XV won the U21 championship with a team comprising of stars who were eligible for the grade again the next season. The competition failed to go-ahead 12 months on, though Stabannon were gradually building.
In 1987, after a domestic restructure, they gained entry to the intermediate ranks courtesy of a fourth place finish in the junior league and once legendary coach Paddy Clarke joined, the only way was up.
By ’89, they won the second tier treble, pipping Sean McDermott’s in the championship final and old foes St. Joseph’s in the league set-to. They were a rising force.
“’89 was the first one we won and sure the bonfires we had and all the bunting, we’re such a small community that everyone participated and benefited from it. We still have the videos of the games, but I actually enjoy the commentary and interviews from beforehand from the different people who’ve passed away. The same afterwards, the joy and delight after the game. I prefer that to the games themselves.
“I suppose, every year we were getting better. There was momentum and progression. We had the nucleus of a team and some people had actually punted on us, seeing the potential in the team.
“I can remember as a young fella Master Doherty saying that there were three or four lads that were going to play for Louth. You just never think that you’re that good, but I played for Louth, David Reilly, Ken Reilly, Gerry Reynolds, my brother, Mark, got a few runs with Louth but wasn’t really that interested. There were others who played for Louth minors and when we won the championship at U21 we were a very young team, all eligible to play the next year.
“But Paddy Clarke was the biggest help to us, a brilliant manager and what he did for the club over the couple of years in terms of arranging us and encouraging commitment, he just brought a different dimension. He was central to our development and we were lucky to have him.
“He brought a sense of professionalism to it. Video recorders only came out in the mid-’80s, yet in the early ’90s Paddy was doing video analysis; he was ahead of his time. Every single game was videoed and Paddy had done huge analysis on the Clans in ’91.”
There were other incentives the Droghedean dangled, such as coming to an agreement with the club which would see a trip to London for the panel paid for in full if they managed to win the ’89 intermediate championship. It worked. They did. They went.
Likewise, in ’91, after a fundraising campaign, they celebrated winning Joe Ward by going on a team holiday to America.
“That was all Paddy Clarke!”
However, after failing to replicate the triumph in either of the two subsequent years, Clarke opted for a fresh challenge after a lengthy stint, with his replacement, Barney Rock, hitting the ground running, returning the 1994 title following a replay victory over Joe’s.
“We became great friends with Barney Rock in Stabannon. He just happened to come in at the right time for us. David Weldon, a great Dubs supporter, got him involved and he just kept the thing going.
“A guy of his stature, he just helped to raise the standards and expectations, and was able to bring more out of the players. You looked up to him and didn’t want to let him down. He was very good on forward play and liked to work on players’ strengths.”
Joe’s gained revenge a couple of seasons on, but Hoey and Murray led Stabannon over great rivals Ardee St. Mary’s after another replay in 1997. While, in ’99, they swatted Kilkerley Emmets aside in what was to prove the last sting of a dying wasp.
They appeared in the 2000 final, and had Newtown Blues on the ropes into the second half, but a Colin Kelly masterclass proved to be their downfall.
“We were a team that was growing old by that stage, it was coming to the end and Barney came back to get the last out of us in ’99.
“The bulk of the team was in their 30s and we didn’t have a conveyor belt like you’d have with the likes of Blues. We knew the team was going to go and we went from senior back to junior very quickly. We’d a lot of retirements together and not the numbers coming through.
“I can remember going into the school with Joe Ward and across five years, you’d only four boys. It was going to be like the ’70s and early ’80s all over, inevitably.
“Now, being secretary of the club and having two young lads coming, I look at the present numbers, we’ve only 18 or 19 guys keeping the thing going; they’re doing a great service to the club. We’ve a group of players between 10 and 14 that we could maybe get a team to come together in the future, where we might start to compete at whatever level.”
What about Stabannon’s Leinster record? Should it have been better?
“Sure we hadn’t won a championship in 40 years so two weeks later we still weren’t fit to play football, we were still celebrating,” he contends of 1991.
“The Leinster Championship at that stage was a novelty and you looked forward to it. We tried our best and were beaten by Dufry Rovers by a few points. Maybe had we won a few Louth championships we’d have been better prepared.
“In ’94 we’d have liked to have gone further and in ’97 we got a run to the semi-final and lost to Erin’s Isle. We were beaten by two or three at the finish, but we’d a chance of beating them. Mick Deegan, Charlie Redmond and the Barrs were on for them and with a few minutes to go, Gerry Hoey had a chance of a goal and he hit the side-netting; I can remember it clearly.
“We could’ve… it would have been nice to have got a better run in Leinster. Erin’s Isle went on to the All-Ireland final that year against Corofin.”
Aside from his stellar club career, Butterly played well for Louth over several years after making his championship debut in 1989. Mickey Whelan had originally introduced him to the county scene, although Pat’s interest was tepid given his studies in UCD were of huge importance. But Frank Lynch wouldn’t take no for an answer, especially considering the then Louth manager was on terms with Paddy Butterly from years back.
“I think it was at half-time in a game that Frank grabbed me and says, ‘will you go for the f**kin‘ ball like the way your father went for it…”
“I turned around, ‘well I never saw my father play!’”
Clinical, just like Stabannon in the ’90s.