Dan treasures his 'wee' bit of fortune
November 30, 2007
It was a topsy-turvy sort of game with neither team able to gain the upperhand for any significant period. Louth, the underdogs, had desperately needed a good start against a highly-fancied Cork side but the Leinster champions walked into a suckerpunch while the dying notes of the National Anthem were still echoing around Croke Park.
Ahigh, raking ball was unleashed on top of the Louth goalkeeper, Sean Og Flood, who was generally regarded as one of the best in the business. Dan O' Neill, watching from his midfield berth, expected Flood to comfortably field the ball and clear it back out the park. Never in his worst nightmares could he have anticipated the ensuing debacle.
"The ball just went straight over Sean's head and into the net. It was one of those kicks that caught the keeper unawares. It was a goal out of nowhere."
The Fluke goal meant Cork - beaten finalists a year earlier - had to put down a serious deposit on the coveted All-Ireland crown. It was now up to Louth to wrest it from their grasp. Harsh words were exchanged at half - time.
"I remember telling the lads that there were 40,000 Louth people in Croke Park and that we might never again get the chance to win an All-Ireland for them," says Dan O' Neill. "This was Louth's big chance for glory."
But no team is ever handed an All-Ireland senior title. Cork held grimly to their lead in the second - half as the two sides exchanged a barrage of points. The game was entering the final ten minutes when Louth won a sideline ball about 20 yards from the Cork goal on the Hogan Stand side of the field. Dan O'Neill's midfield partner, Kevin Beahan, trotted over to take it.
"Kevin was a small player for a midfielder but he was a lovely footballer," recalls O'Neill. "He was a great ball player and he was fantastic for winning the breaks around the middle of the park. The Hogan Stand was being built at the time (the old Hogan Stand) and all you could see was a building site on that side of the field. I can still see the scene as Kevin lined up that line ball. It has stayed in my memory all these years."
Louth had not won an All-Ireland senior title since 1912 and most football experts believed they had missed the boat in 1950 when they were narrowly beaten by Mayo. But redemption was now within their grasp. One point separated them from Cork as Kevin Beahan placed the ball on the Hogan Stand sideline. There were nine minutes left on the clock...
Life has a habit of taking ironic twists. When Dan O'Neill first began playing football as a youngster in his native Castlebar it was under the tutelage of a Louth man - a Brother Baptist who had come to teach in the local St Patrick's Boys' National School. That was in the late 1930s and football fever was in the air on the streets of Castlebar. Dan O'Neill was bumping into football legends every time he stepped outside the family home at New Antrim Street.
Castlebar was the epicentre of the Mayo footballing hurricane that had annexed an All-Ireland senior title in 1936 and six National Leagues in a row from 1934 to 1939. It was inevitable that Dan O'Neill and his young friends would want to take to the streets with a football.
"I grew up listening to stories about great Mayo teams of the 1930s. There were so many great players around Castlebar - men like Patsy Flannelly, Henry Kenny, Paddy Moclair, Paddy Quinn, Tot McGowan, Tom Burke - they had all been on the team in 1936. Then there was Josie Munnelly, from Crossmolina, and Tommy Grier, from Ballycastle, who both moved into Castlebar to work. There were so many great players in the town and to play for the Mitchels was everyone's ambition in Castlebar."
The 1940s was a golden era for Castlebar Mitchels. The club claimed six county senior titles during the decade and its rivalry with Ballina Stephenites assumed legendary status. In a 16 - year spell from 1940 to 1956 Castlebar and Ballina shared every county senior title with only one exception - Crossmolina in 1949. Dan O'Neill had been born into a footballing mecca.
"The Town Leagues started around 1949/1950 and there were nine teams of fifteen players each. I was in St. Gerald's at the time and we had a team - there were also teams from the Bacon Factory, the Mental Hospital, the Hat Factory and the County Council. Castlebar was the administrative capital of Mayo so you had lads coming from all over the county to live in the town. Padraig Carney worked in the hospital, for example. We were a League of Nations in that sense. I remember the Mitchels were able to field two junior teams in the West Mayo championships in 1950 -that's how much talent there was in the town at the time."
The embarrassment of riches in Castlebar meant it was no easy task for a young player to break into the senior ranks of the Mitchels. But Dan O'Neill was still only 18-years-old when he pinned down a place in the first fifteen for the senior championship of 1951. He won a winners medal in his debut year.
"The Mitchels won five county titles in a row from 1950 to 1954. I wasn't involved in 1950 but I was on the team for the other four victories. The five in a row has never been done since."
Dan O'Neill's scoring exploits for the Mitchels brought him to the attention of the selectors on the Mayo junior team. He lined out for the juniors in 1952 but they were beaten by Leitrim whose seniors had decided to opt for junior football that year. Consequently, O'Neill and his colleagues were determined to make their mark on the junior football championship of 1953.
"Mayo had a good record in junior football in those days and had won the All-Ireland in 1950. It was a big disapointment to have been beaten by Leitrim in 1952 and we set out to make up for it in '53.
Mayo defeated Galway in the Connacht Final with O'Neill bagging a hat-trick. His fine scoring form continued in the All-Ireland semi-final against Cork when he accounted for 2-5 of his side's tally of 2-7. Cork won the game by two points but O'Neill had staked his claim for senior football that winter. He would soon be rubbing shoulders with Mayo's footballing legends.
Dan O'Neill can distinctly recall the first time he met Padraig Carney. It was at St Gerald's College in 1951 and Carney - still only 23 and a double All-Ireland winner - had been drafted in by the headmaster to offer some tips to the school's burgeoning footballers.
"I was the freetaker on the school team and I remember taking some frees with Padraig that evening. As we were coming off the field he put his arm round my shoulder and said: "You'll be on the Mayo team with me yet." That was a huge thing for a young lad like me to hear. Carney was one of the best players in the country and we all looked up to him. He was very strong, fast, committed, determined and ambitious. When you think that he made his debut for Mayo in 1946 when he was only 17 - that shows how good he was. He was pitted against Eamonn Boland from Roscommon that day - Boland was a giant but Padraig matched him all the way."
Carney was captain of the Mayo senior team when Dan O'Neill made his debut on a winter's afternoon in Charlestown in 1953. Leitrim were the opposition and the game was not going according to plan when the two teams jogged off the field for the half-time break.
"We had played terrible and were down by six or seven points at the break. As we were coming out of the dressingroom for the second-half Padraig stopped up and said: 'We were a disgrace in that half. But we are going out to win this game. And if ye won't win it, I will!"
Carney was as good as his word. He scored two goals in the second-half, including an incredible score that has stayed in Dan O'Neill's mind.
"I remember he managed to put the ball in the net while falling to the ground after he had been knocked left, right and centre coming through. That's how determined and forceful he was."
Carney was arguably at the peak of his powers in the National League campaign of 1953/54 He emigrated to America in March but was flown home by the County Board for the crucial semi-final clash with Dublin. The 'Flying Doctor' was the difference between the two teams and Mayo went on to comfortably win the league decider against Carlow. Dan O'Neill had claimed national honours in his first year with the Mayo senior football team.
"A lot of great players never manage to play on good teams and they win nothing. That's the tragedy of sport. I was lucky to be on that Mayo panel at that particular time. I was still very young and the older lads like Padraig Carney, Eamonn Mongey, Sean Flanagan and Tom Langan carried me to a certain extent. They were an incredible bunch of players and it was a daunting task to try and break onto that team. As a forward how were you going to put out Langan, Mongey, Carney, Mick Flanagan and Peter Solan? I was stuck in at corner - forward for most of that league campaign. I was 6'2" and not your usual corner forward but I was just glad to be on the team. I remember I was embarrassed when Peter Solan was dropped in favour of me for the league final. He was a marvellous player and he scored some brilliant goals for Mayo. I wouldn't have laced his boots."
But Dan O'Neill was soon making a name for himself as a free-scoring forward. Despite crashing out of the championship in 1954 to Galway, the men in green and red were convinced that it was only a matter of time before they re-laid their hands on Sam Maguire. All eyes were set on 1955.
"We still had the spine of the team from 1950 and 1951 and there were some good young players coming through as well. Guys like Willie Casey who, in my mind, was the greatest back Mayo ever produced and Seamie O'Donnell, from Ballaghaderreen, who was one of the best players to come out of St Nathy's. There was also a lad from Claremorris - Jimmy Curran - who was a brilliant little player."
Mayo defeated Roscommon in the Connacht Final in 1955 to set up a semi-final clash with Dublin. But victory came at a heavy price for Dan O'Neill. He had been performing brilliantly against the legendary Gerry O' Malley when he came crashing down on his ankle. The Castlebar man would miss the draw and replay against Dublin.
"We lost the replay to Dublin by a point and I have often thought that if I had been fit it might have made a difference. Certainly if Padraig Carney had been around we would have beaten them. Carney was worth five points to any team and we only lost by a point that day. Jimmy Curran was unbelievable in the replay. He scored 1-7 out of our total of 1-7! It was terrible to have to sit out both games but there was nothing I could do."
The Connacht Final victory against Roscommon was to mark the end of Dan O'Neill's involvement with the legendary Mayo team of the 1950's. He had assumed duty as a Garda officer in 1954 and a new chapter in his football career was about to begin. It would be sprinkled with golden moments.
The transfer to Louth made sense. It was too far to travel from Drogheda to Mayo for training and league matches so if Dan O'Neill was to continue his intercounty career he would have to pull on the jersey of the Wee County. But he was under no illusions about the potential of the Louth senior football team at the beginning of 1957.
"We weren't a great team to be honest. We had lost a number of key players through retirement - men like our full-back Tom Conlon and Jimmy McDonnell, a brilliant forward. We hadn't too much hope at the start of the championship."
Only a year earlier Louth had bowed out of the Leinster Championship at the first hurdle to Kildare, who went on to claim the provincial crown. Dan O'Neill picked up a serious injury in that match and spent two weeks recuperating in Our Lady's Hospital in Navan.
"I got caught between an opposition player and one of our own lads and took an awful wallop. I had bruised ribs and bruising to my kidneys, liver and lung. It was a bad start for me with my new team but I made a good recovery and was back for the '57 season."
O'Neill lined out at midfield when Louth met Carlow in the first round of the Leinster championship. He had been joined on the team by another Garda exile from Mayo -Seamie O'Donnell, the stylish Ballaghaderreen forward, who was stationed on the Border."
"I came across Seamie by chance when I called into a Customs Office on the Border one evening. He agreed to come and play for Louth and we got him a transfer to Dundalk. I think he was just glad to get away from the Border.
The Louth panel was further strengthened by the return of Tom Conlon and Jjimmy McDonnell. The latter made his comeback on the Leinster semi-final against the reigning champions, Kildare, scoring 3-3 of his sides 5-8. Louth were a team on fire when they took to the pitch in Croke Park for the Leinster decider against Dublin.
"It was a very wet day and I got a pair of gloves from one of the lads on the sideline who had bought them in America," recalls Dan. "They were terrific gloves and I was lording it at midfield, catching balls with ease!"
Louth were too good for the Dubs and they booked their place in the All-Ireland semi-final against Tyrone, who had been defeated by eventual champions, Galway, at the same stage in 1956. Louth were rank outsiders.
"Tyrone had some great players in those days. Guys like Iggy Jones, Jodie O'Neill, Jackie Taggart, the Devlins and the Donnellys," recalls Dan. "But we had some decent players ourselves and we beat them by seven points".
There was now only one obstacle between the Louth players and footballing immortality. Munster champions, Cork, had been beaten by Galway in the final of 1956 and they were hotly fancied to made good the disappointment of a year earlier. Having disposed of Kerry in Munster, Cork were now regarded as All-Ireland champions elect. Dan O'Neill and Louth believed they could prove the pundits wrong.
"Most people said Louth hadn't a hope at all. But what the pundits forgot was that we had some brilliant players in our ranks - guys like our captain, Dermot O'Brien; Red Meehan, who had been on the Meath All-Ireland winning panel in 1954 and Stephen White, who played Railway Cup for Leinster for 13 years in a row. We knew we would give Cork a good game."
There were nine minutes left on the clock when Kevin Beahan sent a teasing sideline ball into the Cork goalmouth. Sean Cunningham was not the biggest player on the Louth team but he could leap like a gazelle. He jumped straight into Louth mythology on that unforgettable day in 1957.
"Sean managed to leap higher than his marker, Dan Murray, and suddenly the ball was in the net," recalls Dan O'Neill. "We were two points in front and all we had to do was hold on for victory."
The final minutes were chaotic as the Wee County came close to losing the game on several occasions. Dan O'Neill can still see Red Meehan scooping the ball to safety as it trickled towards the Lough net with seconds on the clock. It was left to the imperious Stephen White to put everyone out of their misery by belting the ball into the upper reaches of the Cusack Stand.
The final whistle sounded and Louth were crowned the most unlikely All-Ireland champions in modern times.
Two Mayo men had played instrumental roles in their success, contributing a point each to the final score-line.
"I remember at the team function later that year the Louth County Secretary remarked that Mayo had defeated Louth in 1950 by two points. Louth had now won the All-Ireland by two points and Seamie O'Donnell and myself had both scored points. He remarked that it was proper compensations for what Mayo had inflicted on Louth seven years earlier!"
The majestic performances of Dan O'Neill in Louth's run to the All-Ireland senior title was also the ultimate return on an investment made by a Baptist Brother from Ardee in Co Louth in the late 1930s.
The young boy from New Antrim Street in Castlebar had given the football-loving Brother the perfect payback for those countless evenings of tutelage in St Patrick's National School.
The wheel had come full circle.
Dan O' Neill continued to play for Louth until 1962 when he returned to Mayo to take up a position as the Regional manager in the West for Calor Gas. He lined out with the Mitchels in 1963, winning his fifth county senior title against Crossmolina. A return to the Mayo colours soon followed and he scored five points in his comeback game against Sligo in the Connacht Championship of 1963. But the Castlebar man decided to hang up his boots later that year to concentrate on his career off the field.
He would later move to Galway to take up a post with Bord Failte, eventually transferring to Sligo as North-West Manager of the tourism body. He now lives in retirement with his wife, Nancy in Salthill.
Courtesy of James Laffey at the Western People. 11 September, 2007.
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