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Patterson still hitting the high notes away from Antrim goals

 

By Declan Bogue

Niall Patterson is sitting on his sofa in Cloughmills, almost struggling to believe the true story of how his Antrim hurling team-mate Ciaran Barr married his wife Lynn the day before they played Tipperary in the 1989 All-Ireland final.

Being the captain, he had a certain standard to uphold. And so, rather than being the life and soul of the party on his wedding night, he had plans made for him by Antrim manager, the late Jim Nelson.

"He had to spend the night in our hotel on his own!" chuckled Patterson, the goalkeeper of that team.

"He didn't get to spend the night with his wife. Ciaran was in the hotel along with us."

The morning of that final, he and the famous Terence 'Sambo' McNaughton stepped out of the Grand Hotel in Malahide and decided to take in a little of the sea air.

"We went for a walk that morning," recalled Patterson.

"We talked about what we had been training for all our lives, that this was our big day, just how things affected us, when nerves kicked in with the county."

On the biggest day of all, Patterson, the burly netminder with the instantly recognisable mop of curly hair, found himself among an avalanche of Tipperary scores, the Premier County finishing with 4-24.

The 18th minute was to be the turning point. Declan Carr set up Declan Ryan, and his speculative shot should have been a routine clearance for Patterson.

"I lost the ball in the sun," he explained.

"The ball was coming and I lost it completely. I thought if I put my hand up I mightn't get it, but I might have a better chance if I put my stick up.

"So the ball came in, hit the top of my stick and went up into the roof of our net. To me, that knocked the stuffing out of me big time. I knew I had made a mistake and I was trying so hard to recover from it."

Tipp went on to plunder three more goals, but the zip Antrim had in their momentous All-Ireland semi-final win over Offaly just wasn't there.

For 'Neilly', the memories of that day still carry pain.

"I wouldn't say it affected my game at the time but when the game was over and I looked back on it, on my performance, I was disappointed with my performance. I was seething," he said.

"I made three or four point-blank saves against Down in the Ulster final that year and the saves I made were vital to getting us to the final. When we got there, I wasn't happy with my own performance."

But that All-Ireland decider is only a sliver of an insight into the universally popular man from the north of Antrim.

Around his native village, he is known for his hurling, but also for his newsagents that he ran for decades until three years ago.

Impressively, Patterson juggled running a newsagents and a county hurling career with his other calling - that of a country and western singer and musician.

"I closed it about three years ago and I just do music now. I was tied to the place," he said.

Music is what sustains him and makes him happiest. He met his future wife, Naomi Smith, in her native Cookstown when he was performing there.

Together, they have three daughters: Ashdyn (13), Sharelle (16) and Rhiannon (17).

In fact, he's just back from a trip to Portugal, playing for the house band of Enjoy Travel, a company based in Blackburn who arrange holidays in the sun with a distinctly country feel.

"They do country sessions out there. You go out for a 10-day trip and take people from all over Ireland. There are a lot of ones from Tipperary!" he said, joking that the occasional time some eagle-eyed Tipp man just might remember the figure of Patterson, who plays keys or guitar, as the man who once played a central role in an All-Ireland final in front of 63,000 hurling fans.

In his sporting life, he tasted the very pinnacle with his club, Loughgiel Shamrocks, when he led them to an All-Ireland Club final title in 1983, defeating St Rynagh's of Offaly in a replay in Casement Park, the draw having been hosted in Croke Park.

In the county jersey, there was an element of underachievement for a group of players that came so close but ultimately left with nothing but their memories and their bond.

However, they were privileged to spend the prime of their youth under the care of Jim Nelson, a man who shaped many of that squad's lives and remained relevant in hurling to the end, coaching the Loughgiel side that captured the All-Ireland Club title again in 2012.

"Jim was unbelievable. I remember the first meeting we had when Jim came in," recalled Patterson.

"As I remember, he came in and said, 'Right boys, big things are going to happen for this team - if we sit down and put the work in.

"Anything you boys need, come to me. We will sort it out. Because to me, a happy team is a great team'.

"Some of the boys mightn't have been working. Even the boys that were working, we had to train, Jim would have had someone there to lift you from your work, bring you to training, get you something to eat, so you weren't missing.

"Then we were getting football boots. We were getting tracksuits. We never had this before and all of a sudden as a player, you felt important. You had somebody that believed in us. So it was time we gave him something back.

"We were a wee tight unit, a band of brothers and to this day I think we are the same. We still look after each other as brothers."

They still do. They clung tight to each other through the deaths of their team-mates, the Cushendall brothers Danny and James McNaughton.

Even now, Patterson will play regular nights of music at The Central Bar in Cushendall, next door to McNaughton's own Lurig Inn.

The two will meet up for a chat and a bite to eat before going on about their work for the night.

He even tried his hand at a bit of coaching himself, when around a decade ago McNaughton asked him into the county squad to start coaching the goalkeepers specifically.

He got in touch with a GAA journalist who gave him numbers for all the county hurling goalkeepers and hit the phones.

"Because I had stopped playing and the game had moved onto a different level, I rang up all the goalkeepers to pick their brains, to see what kind of drills they were doing, to see if they were much different to the ones I did," he revealed.

"Then I coached the club goalkeepers for about six years. I really enjoyed it. I more or less asked all goalkeepers to show me one drill that I could take away.

"We are sort of like a band of brothers too, goalkeepers. I think we are half mad."

Half mad, but mad for life, music and sport. If he could have five songs for a Fantasy Desert Island Discs, Ricky Scaggs features twice with 'Heartbroke' and 'Highway 40 Blues', along with Brendan Quinn's 'Angeline', 'Liza Jane' by Vince Gill and Gene Watson's 'Farewell Party'.

Big Niall is still hale and hearty and in good voice. Get along to see him sometime.

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