As John Mitchels GAA Club prepares to celebrate its 80th Anniversary, Larry Cooney looks back at its contribution to Warwickshire GAA
The Oak Hotel in Hockley Heath, close to the Junction 4 on the M42, will be the centre of attention for many Birmingham-based Gaels this Saturday evening (6 July) when the John Mitchels GAA Club celebrates its 80th Anniversary.
Since the club has a long proud history at the forefront of Warwickshire GAA it looks certain to be an evening of nostalgia, reflecting on the club’s development since the 1930s and the personalities and achievements that have shaped it.
But before this major milestone, it would only seem appropriate to take the opportunity to reflect on the contribution of some of these individuals and their impact, not just on the John Mitchels GAA club, but on Warwickshire GAA.
Earlier this year, the John Mitchels GFC teamed up with their hurling namesakes to form the current club, which now offers all four popular Gaelic sports to its members.
Although the former hurling club played a big role in the formation of the original Warwickshire GAA County Board back in 1933, the football club was not actually established until 1939 – the same year as the outbreak of World War II.
Sean Cassidy was one of the founding members and it is that anniversary that is being marked this Saturday evening.
Although the former football club has had an unbroken 80 years of activity, the hurling club fell into decline in the 1980s only to be reformed in the early 1990s at underage level, when it first sported its now famous red, white and black colours.
Since the merger of the clubs earlier this year, all four teams football, ladies football, hurling and camogie now wear the traditional white jersey with blue trim.
One of the most high profile current members of the John Mitchels football club is undoubtedly Warwickshire GAA’s ambitious young chairman Mark McLoughlin.
Still playing for the club, the Dubliner has also been heavily involved in the current discussions over the future of Pairc na hEireann, as well playing a leading role in reviving his own club’s fortunes that it once enjoyed in the 1960s up to winning their last senior title in 2013.
“I have been involved in John Mitchels club for 15 years thanks to a telephone call from the then club chairman Tom Cleary,” said McLoughlin, who also teaches at St. Dunstan’s Primary School, Kings Heath.
“It’s exciting times for the club with all the recent underage success sowing the seeds of what should be the club’s future success at adult level.”
Birmingham-born Kevin McGinnity is the current chairman of the club. Although currently based in Coventry, Kevin grew up in the Billesley area of Birmingham on the doorstep of Our Lady of Lourdes’ Club, which has been the spiritual home of the John Mitchels football club.
“I’m well past my playing days now,” said McGinnity, who has Monaghan parentage. “I started playing at underage level in the U12 team and was also involved in the last team to win the senior championship in 2013.”
McGinnity added: “I’m privileged to lead this great club into an exciting new era where we can build on the club’s underage success and make a serious bid for senior honours on a regular basis.”
Although the John Mitchels football club has a long proud tradition since their first major success in 1946, when the team represented Warwickshire against Down in the first of their nine All-Ireland Junior Football finals, they had to wait until the 1960s for the first of their two ‘golden eras’.
The legendary Dr. John McAndrew was a significant player in that era when they claimed a three-in-a-row in 1968.
Having settled and practised in Bromsgrove for all of his professional life and then in retirement, Dr. John McAndrew was also a member of the last Mayo team to win the Sam Maguire Cup in 1951.
Another marquee player in the history of the John Mitchels was undoubtedly Cavan native Damian Sheridan, who served the club for almost 15 years before returning to live in Co. Meath in 1996.
“John Mitchels has always been a great family club and I have many fond memories, both on and off the field, of that period of my life,” said Sheridan.
Sheridan won three county titles with Warwickshire as well as being a member of the 1988 team who went all the way and claimed the provincial title after a famous 0-5 to 0-4 victory over London champions Parnells.
But Sheridan’s playing and management career was far from finished after his time in Birmingham, and he went on to achieve further amazing success in the Royal County with Navan O’Mahonys and Seneschalstown.
Sheridan holds no less than six Keegan Cup medals – three with Navan O’Mahonys before he emigrated and three after he returned, including three with Seneschalstown.
As a manager, he also achieved Keegan Cup success with Seneschalstown in 2007 and 2009 and was still playing in his early 50s.
Sheridan and his son Joe, who went on to become a Meath legend, are assured of a massive welcome in Birmingham when they return this weekend. Joe played his underage with Mitchels.
With Sean McDermotts dominating and even St. Brendan’s enjoying some success in the late 1990s, John Mitchels went through a very barren period until their last Warwickshire senior football championship success in 2013 – secured with a 0-12 to 1-8 victory over McDermotts.
That included a number of the current club stalwarts, including the current chairman McGinnity, current Warwickshire hurling manager Chris Brough and former county manager Cork man Stephen Ahern.
However, as McLoughlin previously referenced, John Mitchels current underage success appears to be providing the foundations for a change in fortune at senior level in what they hope will be the not too distant future.
By contrast, John Mitchels hurling club have been the leading lights of Warwickshire during their years of activity, and particularly since their revival in the early 1990s. They have dominated the honours at underage and senior level.
Among the leading figures in the club’s revival were the late Billy Collins, the late Frank Healy and his wife Ann, and the late Martin Gannon.
John Mitchels are also the current Provincial Inter-County JHC champions – their third provincial title since 2007.
The fruits of the John Mitchels underage revival were first realised when they won the 2004 Provincial final, after a famous 1-10 to 0-6 victory over Bros Pearse (London).
That win was the club’s first provincial success since 1970 when the legendary Billy Collins captained the team.
Mention of the John Mitchels club without reference to the impact and contribution of the late Billy Collins would be an unforgivable oversight.
After the quietly-spoken Limerick native passed away in 2008, tributes poured in, honouring his contribution to the club and the game he loved.
A “proud Limerick man, a proud hurling man”, Billy carried that quality from his first breath to his last. His teammates of old would add words like “determined”, “inspiration”, “heart” and “will-to-win”.
“I could only say he was the best man I trained under and I trained under a few,” said Louis Moloney, one of the greatest if not the greatest John Mitchels hurler of all time.
Originally from the Ballyhale Shamrocks club in Kilkenny and an All-Ireland winning midfielder for Warwickshire in 1969. Billy Collins played at left-half forward, as well as training the team.
“He was a fitness fanatic,” added Moloney. “He had us out training four nights a week. This in a time when most senior county teams would have struggled to do half that amount.”
The team talks Billy would deliver were both “inspirational and tactical,” recalls Moloney. “He knew how to lift everybody. He had a heart of gold.”
But even more important than Billy Collins’ career at so many levels of GAA administration, was the close links he established with John Mitchels since 1954. The club would later benefit from Billy’s skills as a hurler, trainer, referee and club delegate.
He went on to become a county board representative for Warwickshire and held numerous posts during an unbroken record of 25 years as chairman of the board, before standing down in 2002.
The current JHC provincial cup that John Mitchels regained after ten years under the management of Tony Joyce last November, poignantly bears Billy Collins’ name.
His son, Michael, has followed in his footsteps with John Mitchels – as a team trainer for a number of years and is also the current county secretary having served a number of years also as county chairman.
Billy Collins was also heavily involved in the establishment of the John Mitchels Social Club situated above Burtons on the Stratford Road in Sparkhill, which became the home of the GAA club as well as being a popular Irish social centre during the 1970s and 1980s and early 1990s.
“Emulating my father’s legacy would be almost impossible. I am very proud of what my late father achieved and also my own association with this great club, and all that it has achieved over the past 80 years,” said Michael Collins.
Among the other officers of the newly merged club is Padraig Crehan – vice chairman – who has been involved with the John Mitchels and Warwickshire hurlers since 2010.
“Discussions about merging the hurling and football had been underway for some time and now that all the underage training arrangements have been finalised it has definitely been a step in the right direction,” said Padraig, a native of Ennis.
“With more than 400 expected to attend Saturday evening’s function, it’s the perfect launch of a new era for the club.”
This preview of the club’s 80th Anniversary is not intended to be a potted history of the John Mitchels GAA club over eight decades, but merely a snapshot of the club’s immense contribution to Warwickshire GAA.
For that reason there will be a number of people who deserve a mention, but have unintentionally been omitted.
Time and space have prevented a further and more detailed account of the last 80 years of club activity.
The club can be very proud of some of the fine sportsmen who can lay claim to an involvement with John Mitchels over that time, including former Meath football star Joe Sheridan and Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish, who both donned the famous white and blue shirt when they first learned to kick a ball.
All have played their part over the last 80 years of the club’s rich and proud history. Saturday is about recognising that, but also looking to the future.
Vice chairman Padraig Crehan summed it up best; “With more than 400 expected to attend Saturday evening’s function, it’s the perfect launch of a new era for the club.”
Damian Sheridan and his wife Geraldine, along with long-serving club stalwart Jimmy Walsh, are credited with introducing ladies football to the John Mitchels in 1988.
The sport has become very popular since that time and currently the club’s training ground in St. Peter’s School, Monkspath attracts up to 30 at adult and underage levels.
John Mitchels have enjoyed considerable success at county level and have also reached two provincial club finals, winning one of them in 2006.
John Mitchels camogie club dates back to the early 1990s around the same time that the club’s underage hurling development was also being introduced.
Along with Erin Go Bragh, the two clubs have kept the game very active in Birmingham.
Current Warwickshire hurling captain Dean Bruen and clubmate Kelvin Magee have been the team’s coaches for the past couple of years, and they recently enjoyed some success when John Mitchels travelled to east London and defeated Thomas McCurtains in the intermediate league cup final.