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Our Sporting Lives and Times with Marty Magee: 'I missed out on the title over something that was totally wrong'

Marty Magee on infamous 'headbutt' incident, and time Barry McGuigan wanted to fight him

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On course: Marty Magee is found with a club in his hand these days

On course: Marty Magee is found with a club in his hand these days

Making strides: Marty Magee in Irish League action with Portadown during his heyday

Making strides: Marty Magee in Irish League action with Portadown during his heyday

On course: Marty Magee is found with a club in his hand these days

When it comes to all-round sportsmen, it would take some going to beat Marty Magee.

As well as competing in a wide range of sports throughout his life, his list of achievements is lengthy too. Indeed, the 57-year-old is still winning things.

An Under-21 county GAA player with Armagh, Magee was also an Ulster and All-Ireland amateur boxing champion and Irish international at the same time, with his medal collection on the football pitch already under way in his local Carnbane League before going on to make history as part of the first Portadown team to win the Irish League.

Nowadays, Magee can be found on the more serene surrounding of his local golf course, having claimed silverware as a Grade One pitch and putt player.

Not bad for, as he puts it, "a wee fella from a small estate in a small town".

It was on that Derrybeg estate in Newry that it all started for Magee. It wasn't just his football skills, but his speed that developed at an early age.

"I loved football and I ran home from school every day because we had a small football pitch in front of the houses and you could only fit about 14 on it and if you weren't up in time you wouldn't get a game," he said.

"As soon as the bell went we sprinted out, it was about a mile and a half home. I opened the door, threw my books in the hall and I was straight over to the field to play for hours."

Rushing from one place to the next became something of a theme, especially with the mix of things that he became involved in as he progressed through his teenage years.

"I played for Derrybeg in the Carnbane League at 16. I was playing Gaelic as well and boxing too, all at the same time," he said. "At times I played football on Saturday, home at five o'clock and then met up at six o'clock to go and play Gaelic.

"I got picked for Armagh Under-21s by Joe Kernan, by then I was playing for a team called Shamrock Rovers; one of the top teams in the Carnbane League.

"We got to the quarter-final of the IFA Junior Cup. That fell on the same day I was to go down to Armagh Athletic Grounds.

"I played for a club called Corrinshego and we won the Junior Championship in the first year.

"The Under-21s was as far as I went with the Gaelic. I could have pushed on, but football was my first love. I had a decision to make, but it was an easy one."

It would be a few years later that football would become Magee's sole focus, hitting the headlines as a top striker in the Irish League.

As a teenager it was as a boxer that he made his name, but only after some early struggles in the ring.

"There were a few good lads who were the same age as me. I remember one night one of them beat the jaws off me and I walked out saying I wasn't going back because I wasn't good enough," said Magee.

How untrue that was.

"I must have left two or three times, then I said to my parents one night I was going back and I was sticking it out this time.

"I won my first Armagh-Down Championship, then the County Downs and then the big one was the Mid-Ulster. From there, I went up into the Ulster Championships.

"If you win the Ulster Championship you automatically qualify for the All-Irelands and I remember fighting and winning in that. It was a fantastic night. That was my goal, to win the All-Irelands and get an Irish vest.

"I got picked for Ireland the following year and fought against East Germany in the National Stadium in Dublin."

It was a time that Magee would rub shoulders with not one, but two future world champions.

"There was a football referee at the time, Jackie Poucher, who refereed boxing as well. He picked me up in Newry to go down to Dublin. We stopped in Dundalk and Barry McGuigan got into the car," said Marty.

"I knew Barry from being on the circuit and he had just won the Commonwealth gold. I still have the programme in the house. First on was Dave McAuley, I was second and Barry was on after me. I was in between two world champions."

Magee could have followed the same path as those illustrious names. There was no doubting that he had the credentials to progress into the paid ranks, but it just wasn't for him.

"I had offers to turn pro. I had fought four or five times for Ireland. I lost only once and I had a future in boxing, I just didn't pursue it. I had reached my goal and I didn't want to turn pro," he said.

Things may have been different if he'd taken up another offer. Rather than it being an offer he couldn't refuse, it was one that Magee felt he had to knock back.

"Barry McGuigan always wanted to fight me," revealed Magee. "But he was a weight heavier than me. I was a bantamweight and he was a featherweight.

"One night in Newry I'd no fight and he wanted an exhibition fight with me, but I wasn't having it. Not that I was afraid of him, but it wouldn't have been right going in against a Commonwealth champion a weight heavier than me. I wasn't stupid."

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Making strides: Marty Magee in Irish League action with Portadown during his heyday

Making strides: Marty Magee in Irish League action with Portadown during his heyday

Making strides: Marty Magee in Irish League action with Portadown during his heyday

While all that was going on, Magee was progressing on the football pitch. After banging in goals in the junior ranks it was inevitable that Newry Town would pick up on his talents - although he was a relative late comer, making the step up from junior football at the age of 21 just as Newry were accepted into the Irish League senior ranks.

As he found the net with impressive regularity at Newry, cross-channel clubs began to take notice.

Oxford United had just earned promotion to the old First Division for the first time in 1985 and were looking for added firepower to keep them in the top flight.

Magee seemed a perfect fit, but he passed up the opportunity to make the move and missed out on Wembley glory in the process.

"I went over for a trial. Maurice Evans was the manager and he met us at the airport," said Magee. "Billy Hamilton was playing for Oxford at the time, Ray Houghton, John Aldridge - all those big names.

"I scored in trial matches against Wolves, Tranmere and two against Port Vale. I was showing up well in training and all the reserve team boys were telling me I was going to get kept on.

"I was ringing home every night. I'd started going out with my wife at that time. I missed her and I missed my family.

"I was in the restaurant one morning before training and the door opened and Billy Hamilton walked in. He said, 'Where's the wee Irish lad Magee?' I looked up and said that was me. He said he'd heard my name on the radio and I was in the paper for scoring two goals the night before.

"I remember going to the first-team ground and we got called in one at a time to be told if it was yes, we were staying, or goodbye.

"They said I'd done well, they liked what they'd seen, but wanted to see a bit more.

"This was a Friday, I was supposed to go home on the Saturday and the first team had a match against Tottenham Hotspur the following Wednesday night. They said I would get a half against Tottenham at White Hart Lane to see how I got on. I said I'd two weeks off already and couldn't take any more time off work, which was an excuse; I just wanted to get home.

"I'd nobody giving me any advice. If I had they might have said, 'Marty, this is a big opportunity, wise up'. Even if Billy Hamilton had come along to see me he might have talked me round, but I was so homesick I just wanted to get back to Newry.

"Oxford won the Milk Cup that season. I watched the final on TV and was saying that I could have been there at Wembley."

Evans then recommended Magee to Bolton Wanderers. Having family in Bolton, it felt like things were lining up for him - but the welcome mat wasn't exactly rolled out by his team-mates.

"I felt very out of place at the club," he said. "They were very hostile to me because I was Irish. I changed on one side of the changing room and everyone else changed on the other side. I was like an outcast. I felt so hurt.

"I played against Wolves and scored two goals. I played in another game, but I'd no intention of staying. The atmosphere and the situation didn't feel right.

"I came home and in the first game of the season against Cliftonville I scored the two goals in a 2-0 win. The headlines were all about 'Trialist Magee back from England and scoring two goals'. I'd a good season and then signed for Portadown.

"Newry got £16,000 for me and that was one of the biggest transfer fees at that time."

After a blistering first season at Shamrock Park when he finished as the league's top goalscorer and was selected as the Northern Ireland Football Writers' Player of the Year - which ironically was presented to him by Billy Hamilton - Magee helped fire the Ports into title contention in the early part of the 1989-90 season before an incident in December that year that would ultimately have a major impact on his career.

He was accused of headbutting a linesman after being sent off in a game against Carrick Rangers - something which he has always vehemently denied.

Although the red card was rescinded, the Irish FA deemed Magee guilty of the headbutting offence, but rather than issuing a life ban - as would have been standard for striking an official back then - he was suspended for the rest of the season, which was widely regarded as a fudge.

"I know what happened that day and even when I went to a hearing at the IFA the Carrick full-back came and spoke up for me," said Magee.

"We had a throw-in and I went to challenge the full-back, who cleared the ball and play carried on. Next thing, the referee called me over and said he was sending me off for throwing an elbow at the Carrick player. I went over to the linesman, but I never touched him. He fell to the ground and I was in shock.

"Portadown fought it and did everything possible There were solicitors at the game, policemen at the game, media people who all spoke up for me.

"I remember going to the IFA for the hearing and getting out of the car and there were TV cameras there. It was like what you would see nowadays in England. I was rushed past by the solicitor and Ronnie McFall.

"I was asked to state my case and said that from junior football all the way through, look at my disciplinary record. I'm a former boxer so I'm disciplined. Boxing is all about discipline and respect. I boxed 12 years, played football for years and was never sent off.

"It was said that if I was guilty it would be sine die, I'd be banned for life and if found not guilty you walk away. The IFA, for me, sat on the fence.

"I missed out on winning the league at the end of the season. That was a big disappointment for me, especially over something that was totally wrong."

Magee became a bit-part player at the Ports as they swept up four trophies the next season, including the league and Irish Cup.

"It wrecked me. I found it hard to come back after that," he said. "I came back in pre-season and played against the Pumas from Mexico. I played well that night and I felt that things might come good again for me, I was 28 and should have been in my prime.

"I was there for another season, but I wasn't involved an awful lot and I lost out on an Irish Cup medal when we won the double.

"The thing I'm most pleased about at Portadown is the fact that I was there at the start when we hadn't won anything and the team was getting built. I helped towards what happened.

"I've nothing bad to say about the people at Portadown and the fans. It was the highlight of my football career. Good things happened to me and that incident at Carrick put a bit of a dampener on it. I'd have enjoyed playing a lot more years at Portadown."

Magee kept scoring goals in short stints with Ards and Cliftonville before a return to Newry, but by 1994, at the age of just 32, his senior career was over.

"Ards came in for me and it was the worst move I ever made. I never got on with the manager Paul Malone," said Magee. "I went to Cliftonville after that. I liked the manager, Billy Sinclair, but I only stayed less than a year. I'd fallen out of love with the game and went back to play local football with Newry Celtic."

Now it's a much smaller ball that Magee is putting away and the ever-popular team-mate who was always one who could make dressing rooms laugh is enjoying life and sport in his late 50s.

"I've three grown-up children, I'm still married to the same girl after 27 years and life is good," he said. "I'm still fit. I go to the gym three days a week and I'm glad I'm able to do it.

"I'm big into pitch and putt. I've represented Down a couple of times in All-Irelands and that is my next target. I've won a few competitions and I'm playing at a good level, Grade One, which is the highest you can play at.

"The course is only 10 minutes away and I'm up playing three or four times a week. It's good craic."

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