Award-winning club doyen Noel McLean reflects on his own considerable contribution and also the input of a number of other legendary club stalwarts
By Larry Cooney
Sean McDermott’s GAA Club celebrates its 60th Anniversary with a Gala Dinner- Dance in the presence of GAA President Aogan O’Fearghail later this month at the Heart of England Conference Centre. From the club’s modest beginning, under the chairmanship of Eddie Brady and treasurer Jimmy Smith at their Small Heath base in 1957, ‘The Macs’ have become one of the most distinguished and accomplished clubs outside Ireland. But the club owes much of their achievements to the vision and ambition of Noel McLean who has been involved for 53 years.
One of the most decorated dual players of all time in Warwickshire GAA, if not in Britain, with over 90 trophies/medals to his name for club and county after a playing career that had spanned three decades, Cork native Noel McLean has become the club’s major figurehead off the field which included 25 years as chairman.
Away from his clubs Noel also played a pivotal role in helping Warwickshire GAA realise its ultimate ambition of owning its own headquarters in Pairc na hEireann, which opened in 1989.
“At the Warwickshire GAA Annual Convention in 1986 Fr. Paddy Sheridan proposed me to lead a team in the planning, design, fund raising and development of what is now Pairc na hEireann and it was indeed a proud day for the GAA in the Midlands when what became the ‘hub’ of GAA for the entire country was opened in October 1989,” said Noel.
Away from his sporting interests Noel McLean and his wife Mary (from Ballyvourney in Co. Cork) have reared four children – two sons Adrian and Noel and daughters Caroline, Michelle who have provided the McLeans with twelve grandchildren.
“I actually met Mary in Birmingham when she took me in as a lodger at her mother’s house,” says Noel who enjoyed success at business level in construction groundworks, civil engineering and property development.
Although Noel took a back-seat from running club matters ten years ago he still maintains a keen interest in the club’s fortunes, as well as the fortunes of his native Rebel County, and recently received a thoroughly deserved Irish World Award for his services to GAA in Warwickshire. As he looks forward to celebrating another decade of achievement for the club, the 70-year old reflects on his life in the game since he made Birmingham his home in early 1964.
“I was only 16 when I first came to Birmingham and began work at Lucas’ on the production-line,” says the Skibereen native who lined out for the famed O’Donovan-Rossa club at underage through to minor level when he won two county titles in 1962 and 1963. He was therefore still eligible at minor grade for two years at the beginning of his playing career in Warwickshire.
St. Chad’s were the first opponents in a senior football championship quarter-final in Glebe Farm when Noel made his McDermott’s bow in 1964 and by the end of his illustrious playing career his honours included nine senior football championships (including a seven-in-a-row in the 70s).
He holds three provincial club football championship medals and has also annexed 17 hurling championship medals. At county level Noel led Warwickshire to a famous victory over Louth in the 1973 All-Ireland junior hurling final in Ardee.
That victory was also the county’s last achievement at All-Ireland level until the 2013 Lory Meagher Cup success against Longford four years ago.
Other notable credits include his representation on the Britain team that played against Donegal at Wembley in 1973 along with club-mate and Westmeath man Mick Behan who claimed Footballer of the Year in Britain that year. By 1985 Noel’s oldest son Adrian was following in his footsteps and was a regular on the senior football team.
The feat earned the McLeans an award for being the only Father and Son to play at every grade for his County. Dr. John McAndrew among the Warwickshire ‘greats’ Apart from Mick Behan, Noel singles out Dr. John McAndrew, John Burns, John McDonagh, Oliver Brady, Mick Kenny, Tommy Tolan, Eamon Molloy and Paul Higgins as the best he played against or alongside.
“Warwickshire’s best hurlers in the late 60s and early 70s were Des Dillane, Dicky Dunne, Louis Maloney, Charlie Crowe, Liam Dalton, Tom Ryan and best of all was Laois man Larry Moore for his career longevity and sheer class.
“Warwickshire GAA has had many fine officers over the years but I must single out Sean McDermott’s club founder Jimmy Smith for a special mention.
“His vision about starting a successful underage structure in the mid-70s has paid huge dividends and remains his greatest legacy since his passing in the mid 90s.
“Other notable figures who have played a huge role in the development of the game in Warwickshire GAA include Joe Roarke RIP, Billy Collins RIP and George McGuigan.”
Noel on notable milestones during his time in Warwickshire:
Warwickshire GAA: “Acquiring planning permission and producing all the design-work for Pairc na hEireann as well as all the necessary fund-raising and the development was a major project and achievement in just over two years.”
Sean McDermott’s: “Fund-raising and development of the club as well as the later development of its own pitch, adjacent to Pairc na hEireann. This pitch was bought by Warwickshire GAA County Board with the help of the GAA Provincial Council of Britain because Warwickshire GAA’s number one pitch had become the County ground.”
GAA in Schools in 2002: “Assisting with Kevin McEvoy, Brian Roberts and Anne Sweeney in the development of underage GAA which later became the life-line in keeping the club alive. This development with our new team has made Sean McDermott’s one of the strongest clubs in Britain in underage GAA development and followed the visionary work of Jimmy Smith from the mid-70s”
When asked what has given him the greatest satisfaction of all during his involvement in Warwickshire, Noel replied: “I have really enjoyed my involvement in game especially when I look back and see where I was involved in some really major developments at county and club level and especially developing the pitches at Pairc na hEireann for Warwickshire and Sean McDermott’s and on the field it would have to be the part I played in guiding The Mac’s to being a top club.”
Noel’s amazing record both on and off the field speaks for itself. His iconic leadership and determination has inspired the club to go from strength to strength and his service to the club has set a precedent for others to follow his legacy of making Sean McDermott’s the successful and vibrant club it is today.