O’Connell, Sean

08 January 1993

Sean O’Connell leading the Derry team out at Croke Park for the team’s 1970 All Ireland semi final tilt with Kerry.
by Bernie Mullan

The word ’star’ is bandied about freely in the current world of GAA. A player only has to score an important goal and he is being touted as star material. If that is taken as par for the course then Sean O’Connell must step immediately into the superstar bracket.

The tall Ballerin and Derry forward has set records that will never be broken. He played in All-Ireland finals nineteen years apart and National League finals seventeen years apart. He played his first senior club game with Ballerin in 1953 and his last in 1978.

He was born in the village of Garvagh shortly before the Second World War, the second boy in a family of five sons and four daughters. His father, Pat, a small farmer, was noted for his skill in five-a-side soccer. The lady of the house, Brigid, formerly McKenna from Slaughtneil, was a school teacher. Sean was later to follow in that profession.

The Ballerin club was formed in 1944 and swung into action in the spring of ’45. sean and his elder brother Seamus, now parish priest in Maghera, began to take an interest and would cycle the two miles out of town to Ballerin’s tight sloping pitch. There they would pick up the occasion loose ball in the rough and tumble kickabout. That was the only method of training at that time.

Being a member of Garvagh Boxing Club did no harm when it came to getting out of a tight spot on the compact playing areas at Ballerin and the Bishop’s Field at St. Columb’s College Derry. Sean entered St. Columb’s as a border when he was eleven.

It now seems incredible that St. Columb’s didn’t play in open competitions in those days. Games were confined to house and class matches. The annual summer holiday period was eagerly awaited. Ballerin played in the North Derry Leagues, minors played first and seniors second. Soon the O’Connell boys were playing at both level for the club.

North Derry football was hard and tough. Ballerin were challenging the traditional sides like Glenullin, Faughanvale, Dungiven, Claudy and Park. Young players from the ’College’ were sometimes seen as upstarts who had to be put in their place. Sean’s superb sidestep sent many a burly defender grasping at thin air.

1953 was a momentous year for the fifteen year old. Ballerin reached the county minor and senior finals. Both were played at Magherafelt back to back. The minors were beaten by Bellaghy. Sean was one of the eight Ballerin players to go back into action with the seniors. Not surprisingly, they lost by 4-9 to 0-2 against Desertmartin. Not in his wildest dreams did Sean ever thing that nearly twenty four years later he would play for Ballerin in an All-Ireland Club final at Croke Park.

Sean was one of half a dozen promising Ballerin players to make the breakthrough to county minor level. That well of talent was to be fully exploited as the club at last, made the big breakthrough. In 1957 they beat Ballymaguigan by 3-8 to 2-6 to take their first senior county title.

O’Connell was now a strapping 6’2” nineteen year old. His opponent on that day was the great Jim McKeever, both excelled in their own way. Sean scored four valuable points. He was now on the Derry senior team along with club mates Brian Mullan, Seoirse McKinney and Michael Mullan. All four played against Galway at Wembley on Saturday 24th May, 1958 in an exhibition game watched by a crowd of thirty three thousand. Sean recorded the first ever point to be scored at the famous stadium, but Galway were the winners by 3-9 to 2-5.

1958 was to be the year of all years for Derry football, the county reached their one and only All-Ireland final. After beating Down in the Ulster decider, it was on to Croke Park. The heavens opened and the script was torn up. A brilliant solo goal by Sean O’Connell proved crucial as Derry went on to beat the might of Kerry by 2-6 to 2-5. That Kerry team continued players like Mick O’Connell, Mick O’Dwyer, Paudie Sheehy, Tom Long, Tim ’Tiger’ Lyons, Jerome O’Shea, Tadgh Lyne and John Dowling. Unfortunately, Derry’s dreams were dashed by Dublin who beat them in the final by 2-12 to 1-9.

Kerry gained revenge in the ’59 league final winning by 2-9 to 1-9. Soon the single minded O’Connell was to have his first brush with authority. An outspoken opponent of Rule 27, he stepped over the traces and played Irish League football with Coleraine in the centre half spot. His cousin Seamus was a famous and unique soccer player in England. He played first division football with Chelsea, played for England Amateurs and won an Amateur F.A. Cup medal with Bishop Auckland. He turned down many offers to turn professional.

Sean was back in the red and white of both Ballerin and Derry in 1961. Derry again reached the National League final. Kerry were the opposition and it was anybody’s game at half time as Kerry led by 0-8 to 1-3. The second half was to see Mick O’Connell play arguably his best half hour of football as Derry crashed to a 4-16 to 1-5 defeat.

When Derry won the 1965 All-Ireland minor title, O’Connell was the team trainer, three years later the under 21 title came to Derry for the one and only time with Sean at the helm. It is still the source of some surprise that he was not given control of the senior team after that.

He won three more medals in 1970, 1975 and 1976. In the ’76 final replay against Cavan at Clones he came off the bench in Derry’s 0-22 to 1-15 victory to turn the tide when Cavan looked like taking over in extra time.

Derry contested the 1976 League final, losing by 2-10 to 0-15 in what was considered the greatest ever League final. The opposition was provided by Dublin and Sean was close to his thirty eighth birthday. Derry lost in the All-Ireland semi final by 3-13 to 3-8 with Sean scoring one of the best goals ever seen at Croke Park.

The Ballerin club had emerged surprise winners of the Derry Championship beating Castledawson, Magherafelt, Kilrea and Dungiven to take their second county title. O’Connell was in great form as they surprised Dungiven in the final by 0-9 to 0-3.

Ballerin were labelled ’poor champions’ and it stung. In the Ulster Championship first round they hammered St. Josephs of Donegal by 1-11 to 0-7. St. Josephs, with Brian McEniff at right half, were the reigning Ulster champions. Enniskillen Gaels were beaten in the semi final and former holders, Clan na Gaels of Armagh, were outplayed in the final. O’Connell at full forward gave an exhibition.

With two seventeen year olds, one eighteen year old and one nineteen year old on the Ballerin forward division, Sean was the conductor of the orchestra. Ballerin simply sent the ball in and Sean did the rest. Killereran provided the All-Ireland semi final opposition at Tuam, but it was no contest as Ballerin won by 5-9 to 1-4.

Sadly in the final, Austin Stacks of Kerry were to deny O’Connell his last chance of an All-Ireland medal. They won by 1-13 to 2-7, but it was only in the last three minutes that the great Mike Sheehy clinched the game. Such was the esteem in which Sean was held that virtually all the Austin stacks players rushed to commiserate with him after the game.

In 1973, he had his second brush with authority. Derry had drawn with Kerry in the National League semi final and had two players sent off at a stage when they were five points in front. A Kerry player alleged in writing that he had been struck by Sean O’Connell. He was summoned to headquarters but refused to go, on the grounds that if players started informing on each other, then discipline would break down. He was given a three month suspension and the club pulled out for three months in protest.

He combined his suspension with a long awaited operation. After six months he was back and scored 1-9 against Magherafelt in his first game. Some of his individual club feats are legendary. In the 1967 Dr. Kerlin Cup Final, Drumsurn led Ballerin by eight points at half time. O’Connell turned the game upside down by scoring 3-3 in the second half. Ballerin won by 4-8 to 4-2. In the 1965 county semi final against Newbridge, Ballerin won by 0-12 to 0-5. Sean scored 0-11.

At inter county level, he finished top of the national scoring charts in 1974 and 1975. On successive Sundays at Ballinascreen, Sean scored 3-4 against Armagh and 2-4 against Donegal. He was a consistent scorer and such was the length of his career that his record is unlikely to be surpassed.

On the club front, he served five years as Chairman and the same as team manager. Recently retired as headmaster of St. Patricks High School, Dungiven, he lives in Limavady with his teacher wife Margaret and four children. There is a certain Sean Og O’Connell starting to catch the eye. He enjoys the occasional game of golf and still takes an interest in the game. Sean’s brothers were all useful footballers. Seamus played with Derry in the fifties. His clerical calling ruled him out of the ’big time’. Paddy and Gerard played under 21 for the county and current club youth officer, Cahir, was a useful club player in the sixties and early seventies.

Perhaps the best way to sum up O’Connell’s career is to look at the statistics.

Captained Ulster to Railway Cup success and holds five medals; captained Derry to Ulster title and holds four medals - 1958, 1970, 1975 and 1976; five Dr. McKenna Cup and one Lagan Cup medal; All Star replacement in 1976; Ulster Club Championship medal with Ballerin; two Derry Championship medals with Ballerin; played in Derry finals in 1953, 1958, 1964, 1965, 1972 and 1976; coached St. Patricks High School, Dungiven to Ulster title in 1965; coached Derry minors to All-Ireland title in 1965 and Under 21s to All-Ireland title in 1968; leading national scorer in 1974 and ’75; played an estimated 200 games for Derry.

A number of years back, Ballerin, a strong club in Scor, was holding a quiz elimination for their Scor na nOg team. The question master asked who in Irish history is known as ’The Big Fellow’? The young boy’s eyes lit up and his hand shot up without hesitation. He replied ’Sean O’Connell, sir’!

Taken from Hogan Stand magazine
8th January 1993