It has been 50 years since Down won the All Ireland championship, and today in Newcastle there will be a reunion to mark this achievement. Micheal McGeary reflects with the Down stars of yesteryear on that triumph
Down's 1960 magical All Ireland success was to prove a seminal moment in the history of the sport.
Not only were they bringing the much sought-after Sam Maguire across the border for the first time, but they had also beaten a great Kerry side.
To prove it was no fluke they again defeated Kerry in the 1961 All Ireland semi-final.
They then rubber stamped their highly impressive credentials with victory over Offaly in the All Ireland decider before a 90,556 record Croke Park attendance.
Their arrival in the big time was a huge boost for the sport for here we had a team not just of footballers but of entertainers.
They revolutionised the sport, playing with six inter-changeable forwards and moving the ball at pace.
There were other significant changes too, for until Down’s emergence tracksuits and black shorts had been virtually unheard of at GAA matches.
To mark their wonderful achievements there is a reunion today at the Slieve Donard hotel in Newcastle, ahead of the annual GAA Congress which starts tonight.
It was appropriate that captain Kevin Mussen, a Hilltown teacher, should be the man to take Sam across the border for the first time.
For he had soldiered with the Mourne men from the early 50s when Down football was largely anonymous.
“When I first began playing for Down our biggest ambition back then was to win a match,” he recalls.
“The turnover of players then was immense. You saw players playing one Sunday and you might never see them again.
“There was no planning or organisation, but MaurIce Hayes came along and changed all that. He was the organiser, a man who knew exactly what he wanted and how to go about it.
“From 1958 onwards things began to improve and we had the rare luxury of players turning up more than once for a match.”
These days Mussen, as modest as they come, is genuinely taken aback by the interest in the events of 1960 and 1961.
“They were fabulous days and things now are often remembered with no great accuracy as people recall the wides they kicked,” he says with a smile.
Kevin called a halt to a memorable county career after the 1961 Ulster final, his place in Down folklore secure.
Now living in Newcastle, he’s able to indulge himself in his other great passion of golf where he plays as often as five days a week at the Mourne Golf Club.
An uncompromising right half back, he gave the county sterling service, as did his good friend and full back on that side Leo Murphy.
He was still a student at Trench House, but Murphy was a colossus, a man who dominated that area in front of goal with great authority and composure.
Reflecting on those heady days for football in the Mournes, he said: “I was still quite young at the time and for me it was a step into the unknown even though I had played in league finals and other big matches.
“Without question it was the pinnacle of my career and the atmosphere for the 1960 final was something else, the massive crowd and noise around Croke Park. That has to be my abiding memory of that day, but once you got going and got clobbered a few times your nerves soon disappeared.”
Like Kevin Mussen he’s quick to acknowledge the contribution of Maurice Hayes.
“He had a controlling influence over everything, and I mean everything.
“If anything was out of place he was first to correct it. In a sense his decisions were ruthless simply because he was convinced of the righteousness of the vision he had of us winning an All Ireland, though he did consult with Barney Carr and others in the management team.
“We were blessed though to have had a man of such vision.”
Big Leo enjoyed the after-match celebrations as much as everyone else, but by the following Tuesday he was back in Trench House. Winning the 1960 All Ireland meant we had reached the pinnacle and retaining it 12 months later meant it had been no fluke and that we were worthy champions.
“Bringing the Sam Maguire back to Down was a vision we had quietly hidden. There was no great crowing about it, but as time moved on we came to believe it was achievable.”
Many of the 1960 and 1961 All Ireland winning sides were products of former grammar schools, principally St Colman’s and Abbey CBS, and their contribution was crucial.
The McCartans, James and Dan, the O’Neills, Sean and
Kevin, come to mind, and then there was the irrepressible Paddy Doherty, captain in 1961 with Joe Lennon again holding up Sam in September 1968.
Those indeed were incredible days for the young and gifted men from the Mournes, who in time became household names the length and breadth of Ireland. They were feted everywhere they went and were responsible for bringing the sport to a whole new audience, the high point being a civic reception in Belfast’s City Hall.
This was in turn followed by an appearance at Wembley Stadium where the late Patsy O’Hagan had the rare distinction of scoring three goals.
An American trip was next up and despite all the partying and celebrating they managed to retain Sam in 1961 with the irrepressible Paddy Doherty captaining the side, ensuring them of legendary status.
Eamon McKay: A very versatile and agile goalkeeper. An excellent shot stopper renowned for crucial saves.
George Lavery: There were few better man markers in the game who would have been a star in any era.
Leo Murphy: A traditional full-back in the best sense of the word, renowned for his high fielding.
Pat Rice: A stylish defender who had an unrivalled ability to catch high balls and clear his lines.
Kevin Mussen (capt): A tenacious defender, who led by example in driving the team on from the back.
Dan McCartan: A good reader of the game and a resolute marker, he revelled in the centre half back berth.
Kevin O’Neill: A tenacious defender who revelled in his man marking duties in blotting out potential dangermen.
Joe Lennon: A mobile midfielder he rarely wasted a ball picking out colleagues with great accuracy.
Jarlath Carey: A big, strong powerful man he loved nothing better than driving forward in support of his attack.
Sean O’Neill: A hugely gifted player who would have been a legend in any era.
James McCartan: Regarded as a big bustling centre half forward he was always a man for the big occasion.
Paddy Doherty: Right up there with Sean O’Neill as one of the game’s legends, rewrote all the scoring records.
Tony Hadden: Renowned for his ability to fist the ball as far as some could kick it, often used as an extra midfielder.
Patsy O’Hagan: A utility player in the truest sense of the word he was equally at home in attack as defence.
Breen Morgan: A dynamic, strong-running player with the ability to unhinge even the most resolute of defences.
Sub: Kieran Denver: Mr Versatility who replaced Joe Lennon in the final.
And this is the time that successfully defended the title in 1961: Eamon McKay, George Lavery, Leo Murphy, Pat Rice; Patsy O’Hagan, Dan McCartan, John Smith; Jarlath Carey, Joe Lennon; Sean O’Neill, James McCartan, Paddy Doherty; Tony Hadden, PJ McElroy, Breen Morgan.
Sub: Kevin O’Neill for Rice, P Rice for G Lavery.
One famous face will be missing when Down pay homage to the 1960 All Ireland winning heroes in Newcastle this afternoon.
Peter McGrath, who memorably led the county to All Ireland glory in 1991 and 1994, won’t be attending the event.
McGrath said that he would be uncomfortable at the iconic event after his well publicised fall out with Down officials last October over his failure to be offered the Down senior job.
The selection committee instead opted for James McCartan who played on McGrath’s All Ireland winning teams of 1991 and 1994 as well as the 1987 All Ireland minor winning team, also managed by the Rostrevor clubman.
“I would still feel a certain degree of hurt over the way things were handled last October,” said McGrath.
“You also have a situation whereby a number of people on the appointments committee are also on the organising committee which leaves me in an uncomfortable position.
“It’s an event I would have loved to have attended for the men of 1960 are a very special group of players, whose achievement actually transcended the sport.
“This is a major event in the GAA calendar in Down coming as it does on the first day of Annual Congress, but it’s just one of those things where you feel principle must come first.”
McGrath received tickets for the event and admits he had pondered over going.
“I wouldn’t have enjoyed it so in the end I though it was better that I didn’t attend the event,” the Down man added.