Arkle Spurred Mournemen Past The Winning Post

FOR Down sports folk in the late 60’s, the name of `Arkle` denoted either the legendary racehorse, or else the magnificent mid-fielder, Colm McAlarney, who inspired the Mourne side to an impressive re-conquest of the Sam Maguire Cup in 1968.

Ace-commentator Micheal O’Hare had the pleasant task of presenting the award of “Man of the Match” to the student teacher, later an All-Star, and Head of P.E. at St Mark’s High School, Warrenpoint, where his teammate, Peter Rooney would also join the staff.

A unique blend of youth and experience was achieved by manager, Gerry Brown. Veterans from the glory days of 1960/61, - Sean O’Neill, Paddy Doherty, Dan McCartan and captain Joe Lennon, - were combined with `youngsters,` who had competed in the All-Ireland Minor Final, two years earlier. They were Colm McAlarney, Peter Rooney, Mickey Cole, Hilary McGrath, John Purdy and Ray McConville.

Colm McAlarney, who marked Kerry’s Mick O’Connell in the All-Ireland Final, could easily have been part of the great `Dubs` squad of the 70’s. Born in the capital, he lived there until the age of seven, when his father returned to the Mourne county in 1958.

Recalling the climax of a career, - which included two All-Stars, five Ulster Senior Championship medals, National League and Railway Cup medals, – Colm explained that “nerves were going to be a problem. I would be matched against the great Mick O’Connell, and I knew that he never bothered about marking his opponent. He played his own game, and that is what I decided to do.”

So accomplished was young McAlarney’s performance that the commentator waxed lyrical, describing him as “having the game of his life.” However, Colm admitted that the All-Ireland Final had been “just a blur,” and that he did not fully appreciate the jubilation, as he was carried should-high after the game.

“Maybe success and adulation had come too soon, including the trip to the United States. The same will-to-win was missing in 1969, though we had a good chance in 1971, being narrowly defeated by Galway. It takes a supreme effort to reach the top, and just as tough to remain there!”

Of course, the Down side was no one-man-band, as each member of the squad, from the genial goalie, Danny Kelly to the full-forward line, were vital cogs in a super-efficient machine. Fortunately they got off to a brilliant start, with an opportunistic goal by Sean O’Neill, followed by John Murphy’s brilliant net-buster, which consolidated the superiority of the men in red and black.

A selector when the Ulster champions recaptured the Sam Maguire Cup, 23 years later, John Murphy said: “Up to the 90’s, Down had been the only county in the North to win an All-Ireland Senior Football Championship. So when the side in red and black brought `Sam` back across the border after such a long interval, there was great joy and exultation.

“It opened the door for counties like Donegal, Derry, Armagh and Tyrone. This was really a big thing, not like in Kerry, where they almost expect to win the supreme trophy, as a matter of course. In 1968 and ’91, celebrations were the big problem, - where should they stop, so that we could get down to brass-tacks.”

John Murphy recalled how, in 1968, their desire to beat Kerry had been fuelled by one of the `Kingdom’s` management, who had “rubbished us in the Press, There was only one way to answer the criticism, - not a public slanging match, which the media tried to encourage, but on the sod of Croke Park. We were fortunate to have had the experience and guidance of four key players, who had seen it all before.”

Ironically, this sharp-shooter from Newry Shamrocks, nephew of County Secretary the late TP Murphy, could have been a soccer star. Offered a trial by Everton manager, Harry Catterick, he decided to stay with the Gaelic code. However, a fine football career was cut short by a serious road accident.

Meanwhile, the All-Ireland Final against Kerry provided Tom O’Hare with the perfect platform to display his process on the national stage. During those epic games against Galway and the men in green and gold, the burly Mayobridge sheet-anchor in defence laid claim to the position as one of the all-time `greats.`

Former Armagh team-manager, Gerry O’Neill, brother of the Glasgow Celtic boss, described Tom O’Hare as “a player, years ahead of his time. He made the game look easy, and brought a new dimension to defensive play. He must be regarded as one of the great defenders in Gaelic football, playing with great composure.”

Unlike many of the outstanding Down players in the 60’s, Tom did not learn the game at college level, but was entirely self-taught. There was football in the family, especially on his mother’s side, the Butterfields, while his father was a referee. He recalled a car arriving to take him to Newcastle, in order to play on the Down side in a Railway Cup trial against the Rest of Ulster.

“It was a great thrill to be travelling in the same car as some of my heroes. Then the manager, Barney Carr handed me the No. 11 jersey, and I thought there must be some mistake. But James McCartan had been injured, so I got my big chance.”

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008