October 24, 1993
First All-Ireland winning captain from the six counties
Kevin Mussen's special place in Ulster Football history.
When the All-Ireland football Championship first started in the 1880s, few could have believed that it would be almost three-quarters of a century before a Senior title would be winging its way to the northern six counties. When it finally did happen, the honour of bringing Sam Maguire north of the border for the first ever time fell to Down's Kevin Mussen.
For many years up until the breakthrough of the Mourne County, it seemed as if it would be either Antrim or Armagh who'd be the first of the 'six' to take a Senior All-Ireland as they managed to annex a total of 14 Ulster titles between them before 1960, with Tyrone adding two more for good measure in the late '50s. However, Down didn't take their first Ulster Championship until 1959 - in what was only their third final. At that stage, Kevin Mussen of the Clonduff club had been playing with the county for eight years and saw the team progress from no-hopers to challengers for the All-Ireland during that period. "When I first started playing for them, they seldom won a match. It was only around 1958 that we started winning games and getting a good, young team together". The year 1958 saw them reaching the Ulster decider where they lost out to Derry by four points but the following year they went one step further, hammering Cavan by 15 points in the final. As it was their first ever provincial success that victory was almost the be-all and end-all as far as the Down men were concerned. "It was like an All-Ireland for us", recalls Kevin. In the All-Ireland semi-final, Down met Galway, a team they had beaten earlier in the year. However, on this occasion they proved no match for the Connacht champions. "We weren't hugely disappointed to go out at the semi-final stage because we knew that we were still young enough to come back again", he recalled.
And come back again they did, making their way inexorably to the champions throne in 1960, led by Kevin who describes being awarded the team captaincy as a "tremendous honour". From the beginning of that year, their gaol was to take home the Sam Maguire and anything less would have been a disappointment. "In 1960, we were thinking of nothing else but the All-Ireland title". Down again proved too good for Cavan in the Ulster final and they met Offaly in the All-Ireland semi-final. The Faithful County themselves were first-time semi-finalists but managed to put up a tough challenge to the Mourne men, taking them to a replay which the Ulster champions won by two points. So to the final and the threat of the champions, Kerry, loomed large before Down. However, even though it was the county's first ever Senior decider and they had no experience of Croke Park on the third Sunday of September, Kevin Mussen's men weren't intimidated in any way by either their opponents or the big occasion. "We really did think we were going to win and there was no doubt in any of our minds". It proved easier than many observers had expected as Down were crowned champions on a scoreline of 2-10 to 0-8.
So Sam was going across the border for the first time, but not before some pit stops in Drogheda and Dundalk and many other towns for the Down contingent on their way home to Newcastle. People turned out in their hundreds and thousands in every town to greet the victors, much to their surprise, "The journey from Dublin to Newcastle was incredible and it was early morning by the time we got there. We didn't expect all the stops along the way and there were receptions in all the towns. It was a really big evening for us'. Of course, we have become accustomed to such scenes in the last few years but it came as a complete shock back then", he mused.
One might have thought that Down would have spent so much time celebrating their first ever All-Ireland that they wouldn't recover in time for the next Championship but the eventual scenario proved far different as they actually went on to retain their crown, defeating Offaly by a point in the final of '61. "I think that our win in 1960 gave the county great confidence because they've never lost an All-Ireland final since then", remarks Kevin. "It's just a matter of a county getting confidence in themselves". Mussen himself retired in 1962, following a tour of America by Down, at the relatively early age of 29. "I suppose that, in hindsight, I probably quit a little early. But I had other things to do and I was after having a good run".
'A good run' is a bit of an understatement as far as Kevin was concerned as he has many honours to his name, stretching back to the early days when he was a youngster, kicking football in his native Hilltown where the Clonduff club is based. Hilltown is only a small village equi-distant from Newry and Newcastle, but the club there has always been to the fore in Down football and two of Kevin's uncles - George and Dan - represented the county in bygone days. "There was never anything except football here", explains the retired teacher. At Underage level, Clonduff weren't winning much in Kevin's time and his first honour came at school, while he attended St. Colman's College in Newry. "There was no escaping football there". The young Mussen was on the first ever team from the college to win to McRory Cup for Ulster Senior Colleges football, back in 1949. Kevin was just 16 or 17 when he first lined out for the Clonduff Senior side and in the years after that, won Senior Championships and Leagues with them. He also has an Antrim Senior Championship medal to his name, won with the O'Donovan Rossa club while he taught in Belfast.
The first time the Clonduff man pulled on the red and black of Down was for a Minor match in 1951 and he made the side in '52 as well but, although they had a reasonable team around them, Down went out in the first round of both Championships. "We unexpectedly went out to Antrim one year so that was a bit of a shock". He made his debut in 1951 for the Down Seniors also, against Antrim. "I'm almost sure it was against them anyway", he laughs. "I was delighted because it was always my ambition to turn out for the county". Kevin lined out at wing-back that day and remained in that position, rarely missing a game for the Mournemen before his retirement. Even though he was still a Minor, he performed well enough for his county that year to make it onto Ulster's Railway Cup team - quite a feat for one so young.
Kevin retired from playing football altogether around 1962 but he went on to manage Down in '64, leading them to the finals of the National League and the Ulster Championship - both of which they lost, however. This might seem like a reasonable record to many people but Kevin Mussen himself certainly isn't one to blow it up out of all proportion! "It was a highly unsuccessful year", he says with a laugh. "It was definitely enough managing for me". He has coached schoolboys in his time as well, before taking early retirement, and Ross Carr is one who passed through his capable hands in St. Patrick's in Hilltown.
Ross was a member of the '91 Down team which took the county's first All-Ireland since 1968 - a gap which Kevin felt was far too long. "I was surprised that they didn't win one sooner than that. It's hard to understand it really". The Hilltown man - now residing in Newcastle - is of the opinion that the Down players did a bit too much celebrating following their victory of two years ago but was delighted to see two other Ulster teams taking over the mantle. "I wasn't really surprised to see the Ulster teams doing well. In fact I was surprised at the lack of return for Ulster until now, considering the way they dominated the Railway Cup". Although he would love to see Down challenging for the Sam Maguire again in 1994, Kevin predicts another year of glory for the Oak Leaf county. "I still think Donegal and Derry are going to be battling it out, but I can't see anymore getting past Derry for a couple of years yet. I think they're very strong".
Kevin retired from the teaching profession a while ago and is not long back from Australia where he was visiting a newly-born grandchild. Married to Josie, they have five children in all - Grainne, Marcella, Fionnuala, Damien and Adrian. Damien actually played Minor football for Down in 1990 and the whole family remain committed followers of football, of which Kevin Mussen was such a notable exponent.
Written by the Hogan Stand Magazine
24th Oct. 1993
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