Tony, Pierce, Colm and Niall McCarragher, Louth Senior Football Championship winners with Cooley Kickhams in 1989 and 1990. (Pic: Arthur Kinahan)
Tony McCarragher was asked to line-out for Cooley Kickhams’ juniors for the first time when he was “near finished”. It was 1993 and the club’s legendary centre-half was player-manager of the seniors, but the second string were short for a game against Geraldines.
So the former Louth defender went along, typically willing to help the Fr McEvoy Park outfit in whatever way he could. In his early 30s and strongly considering retirement, he remained a fearsome proposition, as the Haggardstown hosts found out that afternoon.
“I went up, we won the game and I was outside the dressing room getting ready to come home afterwards,” McCarragher recalls.
“A couple of young Geraldines fellas were standing having a craic when some oul boy went over and asked one of the lads how they got on, and I overheard him saying, ‘ah, we were beaten. There was an oul baldy fella playing centre-half and we couldn’t get the ball past him’.
“At that stage, I decided it was time to maybe throw the boots away.”
To qualify the “oul baldy fella” further, he was a man with minor, U21 and senior championship medals, on top of a Leinster U21 gong (1981) and years of experience playing for Louth.
Perhaps you could say he was one of four ‘oul badly fellas’, brothers Colm, Pierce and Niall having been fellow backbone members of Kickhams’ double-winning crew of 1989, the season in which Cooley ended an 11-year wait on the Joe Ward Cup.
“It was sort of always said, if you hit one of us you probably hit the four of us,” Tony quips. “Granted we were probably no angels, but I think there was a worse picture painted of us than we really were. Seemingly if there was one of us sent-off it was nearly certain that another of us was going to go.
“I think we played the Máirtín’s up in Haggardstown one night and Patsy Connolly, I can remember he put two of us off for something to do with one of the McDonnells. Believe it or not, we didn’t really get a skud at him!”
Their sister, Joan, was a supremely talented footballer in her own right and played inter-county football for Louth and Laois, reaching an All-Ireland decider in the colours of both counties.
Not bad for a family born and bred in one of the Peninsula’s most remote regions.
“We’re right out at the furthest northern point of the Cooley Peninsula, we live right out on Ballagan Point. The next parish to us would be the Isle of Man.”
A DYNASTY LINGERING
The second - and last - of McCarragher’s senior championship medals was the sweetest, the 1990 defeat of a packed Clan na Gael at St. Brigid’s Park. It was Kickhams’ renowned ‘siege mentality’ which carried them across the line that day, the side having been reduced from the season before on foot of almost a dozen significant retirements.
Seven survivors from Cooley’s 1981 final loss to Newtown Blues took to the Gaelic Grounds a year earlier as they finally delivered on their promise as minors, pipping Ardee St. Mary’s, but the showpiece a term later underlined their status as more than just a good team, a fleeting crown-holder amid all the other one-win wonders.
And even though McCarragher accepted he and the colleagues he had soldiered with over many years, as juveniles into adulthood, were coming gradually to an end by the autumn they conquered Clans, for that Dowdallshill triumph to stand as the last senior title won by Kickhams staggers even the most ardent Cooley sympathiser.
“It’s hard to believe that we’ve gone that length of time with no senior championship win and we’ve had some good sides and gone fairly close on a few occasions,” Tony, a consummate gentleman, adds. “Over a period of a decade there we contested five finals and lost them all.
“We were brought up in the ’70s during a very rich period in the club’s history, nine finals in a row, and all through our teenage years, our group was brought up with that success. Success breeds success and it was every young fella’s ambition to play on the Cooley senior team at that time.
“So relegation to intermediate, it really hurt because we’d love nothing more than to see Cooley in the senior championship.
“It was really disappointing for us to go down, but it’s a different era and you’re dealing with different lads and all the outside influences, social media and that, it wasn’t there in our time. Football was the outlet in our time whereas there’s so many distractions for young fellas now.
“All we can say is, hopefully we’ll get back.”
But while a gap of 30 years and counting would have been hard to fathom in 1990, the 11-season divide from ’78 seemed an eternity through the course of McCarragher’s career. Minor champions in ’79 and U21 kingpins three years later, annual chances continued to pass as anxiety mounted in the bodies of a group that was expected to maintain a proud club’s championship-winning tradition.
“You’re only really judged and remembered out here if you can win the championship, and I knew that I needed to come back to Cooley from Louth at that stage in the ’80s to see if we could win the championship.
“In 1981 we got to the senior final against the Blues and they gave us a bad beating, but it was a matter of changing over. The really good team was coming to an end and our team was beginning; we were trying to integrate the two groups. It took a while after that to get on our feet.
“We would have won a couple of Cardinal O’Donnell Cups, but we’d have gone out of the championship in the first round in three or four of the years during the intervening period.
“It started to dawn on us in 1988 as some of us were coming into our late 20s. ‘You’re not really remembered out this neck of the woods unless you have won the championship’. We could have won Cardinal O’Donnells and ACC Cups, but it’s the mantra that when you’re wearing the green and gold out here, you’re expected to win championships.
“That weight did weigh on us, but I always knew that if we could get that group of players back together that we’d have a good shot at it.”
One vital ingredient was lacking, though…
THE GREGORY COMPLEX
James Gregory, the mastermind of Kickhams’ U21 triumph seven years earlier, took charge ahead of 1989, bringing with him an army sergeant, John Flood, to train the team. Several managers had come and gone through the decade, none able to knit the pieces together like he could.
“He was an absolutely brilliant man-manager who was able to get the best out of the squad of players. James would have us convinced that we were the best; a great motivator. We never went into games thinking we were going to lose.
“And John’s training, it was a whole new thing to us and the respect, dedication and discipline that was implemented, we went to a different level, even in that era.
“That’s what brought us through ’89 and ’90. We were getting nearly 40 fellas in the field. Most clubs we’d play would be going outside looking for challenge matches, but we had the luxury of not needing to go looking for them because we’d enough players in our own club for matches, the senior against the junior squad.
“We got all the boys back and we’d a great buzz around training. We were really fit, really early and we attacked the league, so we knew there was something in the pipeline if we held it together.
“And I suppose with us living out here at the northern end of the county, we always felt that when we were travelling away, it was an ‘us against the rest’ mentality which spurred us on and got us over the line, in ’90 especially.”
The 1989 final remains vivid in McCarragher’s mind, the 1-10 to 0-9 victory which ensured captain John McDonald got his hands on Joe Ward, sparking hysteria out Cooley way.
“I can remember it was a really windy day and we won the toss and decided to play with the wind. We played really well in the first half and led well, scored some great points and got a goal as well; we were eight or nine ahead at half-time.
“It was a hard day to play and we knew if we could hold Ardee out from getting a goal we had enough of a lead, but I was disappointed with our second half performance, we only scored a few points and I felt we should have got more. It left it in the balance and had they got a goal, it could have been tight at the finish.
“Afterwards, it was absolutely unbelievable to see the crowds and we came around at Martins’ pub and you’d have thought the whole of the Peninsula was there. That day, before the match, Jimmy Magee came into the dressing room; that shows how much it meant to the people.
“To win a championship and be involved, it’s great, and I’d only just hope that the lads playing at the minute can get that experience. Even to win the intermediate championship and maybe then push forward at senior. The friends you make and the camaraderie, it’s just a life-changing thing, winning a championship.”
The impact of the championship wins were felt deeply. The McCarragher brothers, separated from oldest to youngest by just four years, had grown up being taken to Cooley games by their father, Thomas, who never played football.
Memories of following Louth to Croke Park for championship matches, getting parked on Clonliffe Road, the flask and sandwiches in tow, are readily recalled. Hence the opportunity of watching his sons deliver glory for Cooley, as well as Tony and Colm playing with distinction on Louth teams, brought great joy.
Their mother, Sadie, who hailed from Dundalk, got satisfaction too, even if she didn’t once attend a match involving her sons, preferring to listen the championship finals in particular via the radio.
“My mother never saw us play, but I dunno how many washing machines she must have burnt out,” Tony jokes, reflecting on how much she looked after her boys.
Democrat: “What was your greatest strength?”
Tony: “I was a good reader of the game and had a good positional sense. I’d say they were my biggest assets.”
Democrat: “Would those attributes translate into today’s game, allow you to have a successful career now?
Tony: “Today’s game is different. The boys are so fit and mobile now. In our day everybody more or less held their position and a lot of my football was played at centre-half-back. If you could read the game there you cleaned up a lot of ball. Nowadays, I’d say the boys wouldn’t be long moving you; positions mean nothing now.”
Democrat: “Would you’ve moulded yourself in the shape of any particular players?”
Tony: “Jim Thornton, a great full-back for Cooley in the ’70s, Terry Lennon and Aidan Wiseman were heroes of mine. All three of those players possessed outstanding positional sense and were excellent readers of the game, things which can’t be coached. As someone once said to me, you can either sing or you can’t; you can either play like that or you can’t.
“Then there was the mercurial Pat Lennon, who sadly passed away so young. He would have been a superstar for Louth in the ’80s; an outstanding talent.”
McCarragher remains a keen supporter of Cooley and Louth, and his middle daughter, Lisa, is developing her own career, having won a senior championship title with Kickhams in 2018.
He’s outnumbered domestically, living with wife Briege and three daughters, Tracey, the aforementioned Lisa and Eimear. Crucial to surviving within the arrangement, some could say, is his canny positional sense, the ability to stay out of trouble.
Skills which have proven beneficial on and off the field.
All that’s left to find out now is, can he sing?