September 17, 1993
Remember Mickey Niblock? The Derry star of the late sixties
Nowadays based along the banks of the Lee, the big centre half forward cum midfielder is in an ideal situation to assess Sunday's showdown
Not everybody living within the confines of the Cork county border parameter will be cheering the Rebels on when they venture to Croke Park this Sunday in a bold bid to bring Sam Maguire back to the banks of the Lee for the third time in five years. Mickey Niblock resides in Ballinlough, a stone's throw away from Pairc Ui Chaoimh in Cork city and has been a Rebel County resident since 1978. But when it comes to the weekend's big clash the Magherafelt-born former Derry inter-county star's loyalties are still nestled deep in the heart of the Oak Leaf County. As he says himself: "We're due to win. It'll be Derry all the way for me."
It is common knowledge that Derry visit Headquarters on Sunday seeking their first ever Senior All-Ireland title. Mickey Niblock, however, has won both the Minor and U-21 versions of the game's most sought after accolade with his native county, collecting his Minor medal when the Foylesiders pipped Kerry by four points in a memorable final in 1965 and adding the U-21 honour three years later as Offaly's challenge was firmly swept aside in the decider. Niblock lined out at centre forward in both finals and was flanked by current Derry team supreme Eamonn Coleman. For some reason that promising outfit didn't go on to achieve great times at Senior level - but, nevertheless, there are very few honours the Magherafelt man didn't pick up in the course of a long and distinguished career.
Mickey first played Senior level for Derry when he was still a Minor in 1966 and continued to play for them up until 1971 at which stage he emigrated to America. He spent seven great years playing football in the States before finally returning to the Emerald Isle and settling down on Leeside. The 1970 Railway Cup medal winner explains the beginnings of his Cork connection: "I met a girl from Youghal - my wife Dolores - in New York while I was playing there. She was reluctant to live in the North because of the troubles and I was a bit wary myself. I already had experienced Cork when I did soccer trials here with Cork Hibs, so we decided on coming back from America in '78 to settle down in Cork." It was during the 1971-72 season that Mickey last pulled on the Derry shirt for a Senior competitive match, flying home from New York on that occasion to play against Kerry in a League game at Croke Park.
Across the Atlantic the big versatile midfielder/centre forward played for a Monaghan team in NY under Alan Clancy. Monaghan had a keen rivalry running with the Kerry side over there and were one of the first "outside" teams to defeat the Kerrymen. Mickey transferred to Jimmy Nocholson's Sligo outfit and had the rare distinction of winning Championships with both combinations. Indeed, his services were in popular demand Stateside. "My team wouldn't have been involved in a game in Gaelic Park every Sunday", he points out. "When they weren't playing I'd go down to play for clubs in Chicago, Philadelphia or Boston. I used to play a good bit for Tyrone under Owen Tracey in Philadelphia." At home Mickey played all his underage football with the O'Donovan Rossa club in Magherafelt. His uncle Frankie, who was on the Derry side which won the National League in '47, was a big influence on him during those early years. When he moved to Cork in 1978 Niblock played with Douglas in the Intermediate League for a while before Donegal man Charlie McLoughlin advised him that Nemo Rangers were a more football orientated club. That persuaded him and the switch was instantaneous. He was hugely impressed with Billy Morgan and the rest of the backroom staff at Nemo and enjoyed his playing days there to the full, picking up All-Ireland club medals in '82 when they hammered Garrymore of Mayo by eighteen points in the final at Ennis and in '84 beating Meath's Walterstown convincingly in the club decider at Athlone.
As you can appreciate, it's not easy for a player who's been around as much as Mickey Niblock to pick out his most memorable game. "There's so many, to be truthful. I enjoyed the U-21 final when we beat Offaly and I had a good game in the '65 Minor semi-final against Roscommon. In the 1971 Ulster Senior final against Down I scored 2-4 from play, which was overtaken by that great player from Tyrone Frank McGuigan," offers the former Derry star. In 1978, while he was playing his club football in Cork, Niblock travelled north and helped Magherafelt win the Derry Championship. It is, of course, a breach of the rules to play for two clubs in different counties at the same time, but as the Derryman explains, he had genuine motives: "I couldn't resist it. Three of my brothers were playing in that final and it gave me a great thrill to win the Championship alongside them." As it transpired that minor indiscretion deprived him of the opportunity to line out for Cork as he was later selected to play but wasn't allowed to take his place on the team.
With accomplished players of the calibre of Sean O'Connell, Tom Quinn, Tommy Diamond and Eamonn Coleman playing alongside him at the time, Mickey is convinced that the Derry team of his era could have reached much dizzier heights. "Derry should've won an All-Ireland before now. We had a lot of great players. Most of the lads had the football ability but their lack of fitness showed in the last ten minutes when we went to Croke Park," he says. Up until this year he was playing Junior 'A' in midfield for Nemo with Billy Morgan in goals but the nomadic clubman has now hung up his boots and limits his involvement in the game these days to a bit of coaching. Understandably the former Derry player was disappointed with his county's performances in the '91 and '92 Championships. "I liked their style of play which was always pretty direct. But Donegal had a good patch and persevered with their short-passing game, which can be perfected. I always had a lot of confidence in this team though and wasn't surprised to see them do so well this year." He adds: "They had their sights set and I knew they'd do well. The defeats of other years have spurred them on - there's a real will to win in this team and they certainly won't be found wanting in the final. They're very solid from the goalkeeper up to the middle of the field. It's going to be a very intriguing final. Both sets of backs are very good at moving forward and aren't afraid to cross the opposition's forty metre line" he reasons.
Mickey has his own ideas as to why things have fallen nicely into place for the Derrymen this year. "We have a good panel and they strike me as a very committed bunch - I'd put that down as number one. Also, they have a great backroom staff which is essential," he forwards. The player in the Red & White who has most impressed his has been skipper Henry Downey. He believes that in Downey, the two corner backs and the centrefield area lie Derry's main assets. Realising that the hunger is there, Niblock is quick to concede that hunger alone is not enough. "You have to have the skill factor and they're up against a very skilful team in Cork, who are very like Donegal in that respect so we should be used to it by now. It's well within their grasp - a lot will depend on how well our forwards cut off their half backs."
Niblock knows only too well that Derry aren't going to get things all their own way come Sunday and is wary of the threat posed by the Rebels. "This Cork team got a bit of stick at the beginning of the year", he explains, "but they've played good football and are very good physically, with the best forward line in the country. John O'Driscoll is on fire at the moment. He is one of the more hungry members of the team and is going to take a lot of holding." Derry have certainly had a tougher path to Croke Park than their opponents and this could stand them good stead on Sunday. "I've rolled it over in my mind," says Mickey, "and I think it's advantage Derry on that one. They've revelled in their games so far."
Mickey and Dolores Niblock have two sons, Trevor (14) and David (11), both already showing a keen interest in all areas of sport. He is proprietor of the East Cork Lighting retail shop and has recently took on a new project, having bought the franchise for 'Beam Built-in Vacuuming' providing a built-in vacuuming service to premises all over Munster. His brothers Laurence, Dermot (RIP), Hugh, Brendan and twins Robert and Raymond all played for Magherafelt, Hugh playing alongside Mickey for Derry. An observation which hasn't escaped the attention of the man with the proverbial boot in each camp is that both counties involved in this year's All-Ireland decider boast great organisation at college level. He cites St. Columb's, Derry and St. Patrick's Maghera as examples up north and Colaiste Chriost Ri and St. Fachtna's, Skibbereen down south. "the college scene gives footballers a great baptism to the game and you have a great continuity of players coming through. It's a great recipe for success," he notes before signing off.
Written by the Hogan Stand Magazine
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