We look back on the December 1990 day when Tir Chonaill Gaels came within touching distance of making history and reaching an All Ireland Club SFC semi-final
It’s a date etched in Tir Chonaill Gaels’ history; Sunday 9th December 1990. The day the Greenford club came as close any from these shores to delivering that elusive victory in the All Ireland club senior football championship.
Since 1976, the British and then London champions (from 2005 onwards) threw themselves with gusto into the challenge. The greater the odds, the greater the glory.
Some came closer than others. Britain’s first-ever representatives, Birmingham’s Sean McDermotts, came within a point of Roscommon Gaels in 1976, while six years later London’s Parnell’s suffered defeat to Mayo’s Garrymore by the same margin.
The majority, though, fared less well. Tir Chonaill themselves were left licking their wounds after their first excursion into the competition in ’83 – Down’s Burren handing them a heavy defeat. Welcome to the All Ireland club championship.
But seven years later, the Greenford outfit were back, fresh from clinching their second provincial and London titles. This time it would be different.
Under the astute leadership of manager PJ McGinley, and with a team containing future All Ireland winners James McCartan (Down) and Barry Cunningham (Donegal), and a runner up in Tyrone’s Mattie McGlennon, they came within the proverbial kick of a ball of knocking out Ulster and Derry champions Lavey, before going down in extra-time by 2-11 to 1-12.
In Ballinascreen that December 1990 day, Tir Chonaill came close, mightily close.
Kingpins of London GAA for the past 30 years, for some it’s hard to imagine a time when Tir Chonaill Gaels weren’t the dominant force in the county.
Nineteen years after the club was founded, 1983 was its breakthrough year, bringing that first senior title.
But empire building would have to wait. Between 1984 and 1989, the Gaels added just one more trophy to the cabinet, the Conway Cup in ‘86.
1986 was Owenie Bonner’s first year playing football in London. He would end it an All Ireland winner, as part of Pat Griffin’s London junior winning team that stunned Cork at Ruislip.
“We caught Cork on the hop that day – it was some achievement,” he recalls.
That ’86 Conway Cup victory was secured thanks to two penalties from the boot of PJ McGinley, in a 2-12 to 0-12 win over St Anne’s.
Arriving in London in 1980 from Glen, McGinley had a short spell with Robert Emmetts before transferring to the Gaels. He lined out at centre back on the club’s ’83 senior title winning team, and for the Gaels’ club championship baptism of fire against Burren.
“They gave us a good hiding,” says McGinley.
McGinley’s transition into management was hastened by a serious leg break in 1987. He never played again.
Instead, when John McPartland stepped down as TCG boss in 1988, he took on the role, with Tommy McFadden (Kilcar) as his assistant.
McPartland was player-trainer on the ’83 team. The manager was the “unassuming” Paddy Burke – the club’s “corner stone” and an ever-present “rock”, says McGinley, since his arrival in 1968.
Burke was senior manager from 1972 to 1984, before forming the club’s underage.
“Paddy kept the club in existence through the barren years of the ‘70s, while the creation of the minor board will go down as one of his greatest legacies. It provided the sustainability for what the club is today,” said McGinley.
Frank Glynn was another instrumental figure in the early ‘80s.
Despite another difficult year on the pitch in 1989, progress was being made. The Gaels reached the senior semi-finals, only to lose out to Garryowen by a point.
“The focus was on winning a championship. They (McGinley and McFadden) had a very professional approach to training,” says Bonner.
McGinley recalls: “I remember Proinsias Redican of Tara coming out to me in the middle of the pitch at Ruislip in the summer of ’89, and he said ‘Tir Chonaill Gaels will be the team for the next ten years’.”
All the while, he and McFadden were busy constructing a panel for 1990. One of those to arrive, though, was much closer to home – and he came to them.
Robbie Henneberry was the “best player in London”. The Sligo-native was playing for Parnell’s, but switched to TCG as his brother, Seamus, was already at the Greenford club.
It was also an endorsement for what was building at TCG.
“Robbie called one day and said he’d like to play with his brother. We never chased any player from any other club in London.” said McGinley.
Another to arrive was London-born Barry Cunningham, via a brief stint in New York. He’d go on to win an All Ireland with Donegal in ’92.
By November 1989, Bonner could see that a “really decent team” was beginning to take shape. Some of the training was different to anything he’d experienced before, though.
“During pre-season in 1990, I remember going up to Acton Town, beside the Gin Palace, for yoga classes once a week. A lot of folk would have laughed at us,” he recalls.
“When the season started we threw ourselves into it completely. A lot of us were living and working together, and we’d formed a good bond.”
An early double fillet arrived in May, as TCG won the London Irish Sevens on a scorching day in Sunbury. McGinley recalls rushing out that morning to buy vests for the players to wear, rather than their TCG jerseys which would have been far too hot.
The Gaels followed that by winning the Garryowen Nines, as well as reaching the final of the B&I Sevens.
By then, however, TCG had already swept aside all before them in the league. Thomas McCurtains (2-10 to 0-4), Wembley Gaels (3-13 to 0-5), Moindearg (4-6 to 0-6), St Brendan’s (2-17 to 0-3) and Acton Gaels (6-19 to 0-0). McCurtains had also being despatched by 3-13 to 0-7 in the Tipperary Cup.
In June, the club travelled back to Ireland to take part in Comórtas Peile na Gaeltachta, an annual All Ireland Gaelic football competition contested by clubs from the Irish language-speaking Gaeltacht areas of Ireland.
That year, it took place in Donegal. TCG were eventually knocked out by Donegal side Kilcar by just a couple of points, but the trip had served its purpose.
“It was excellent; we didn’t go for a social weekend – it was serious,” McGinley says. After that, TCG knew they “were heading in the right direction”.
Bonner adds: “That trip gave the players confidence that we could go over and compete.” They would call on all of that experience six months later.
Despite not reaching a senior county final since ’83, TCG’s form was beginning to gain them the favourites tag.
But TCG had a physiological barrier to overcome – the Kingdom and Parnell’s were the traditional powerhouses in London.
“You had to believe that you could compete with them – they were the kingpins,” said McGinley.
During the course of 1990 James McCartan was added. An All Ireland Minor winner with Down three years earlier, he began ’90 by making his senior debut and helping the Mournemen reach the Division 1 league final.
His performances in ’90 earned him an All Star and he went on to win All Irelands in 1991 and 1994. He won another All Star in ’94.
“We had a really, really strong squad. We would have had an eye on the All Ireland club championship that year from far out. People might say it was arrogant, but we rated ourselves,” says Bonner.
“Timmy Connolly from Antrim was another fantastic player.”
The thrice-weekly training sessions were “fierce and really competitive”, recalls Bonner. Everybody wanted a jersey.
“It led to a lot of fairly heated training sessions. One night it ended up in a free-for-all after one of the defenders mistimed a tackle on a forward,” he said.
“By the time we got back to the dressing room we were all pals again, but it was the competitive nature and edge at the time.”
The Gaels proceeded to “steamroll” through London and the All-Britain, justifying the favourites tag bestowed upon them.
Moindearg (0-16 to 0-3) and Wembley Gaels (4-22 to 1-3) were seen off as TCG booked their place in the senior semi-finals, although Bonner ended the latter with a busted eye.
“Frank Glynn told me to hit the Wembley full forward with a shot to ‘soften him up’. So I said ‘alright’. But Frank didn’t tell me that he was an amateur boxer!,” he recalls.
“I hit him in the back, and ya man turned round and I hit the deck. I was carried off with the eye busted.”
That set up a semi-final with Eamonn Coleman’s Round Towers – Coleman went on to lead Derry to an All Ireland in ’93.
If the Gaels’ self-belief had been checked by a five-point defeat to the Kingdom in the league in the lead up, it didn’t show as they bounced back to beat Parnell’s 2-12 to 0-5 (also in the league).
They then ran riot against Towers in the championship semi-final (6-8 to 0-5) – Robbie Henneberry scoring a hat-trick.
Writing in the Irish World, Pat Griffin said TCG’s display “would have done justice to the great Kerry team of the last decade”.
The county final pitted TCG against St Brendan’s – a club appearing in its first senior final, but one that the Gaels had thumped five months earlier. This encounter would be different.
TCG, without James McCartan and the suspended James Henneberry, justified their “firm favourites” label by racing into a 0-9 to 0-2 half-time lead, only for Brendan’s to launch a second half fight-back on the back of Alfie Mahon’s early goal.
To add insult to injury, two of Brendan’s three ex-TCG players, and Donegal natives, had combined for Mahon’s goal – Frankie Gallagher and John Duffy.
Gallagher was TCG captain the previous year, while Duffy was already an underage star at home. Two years later Duffy returned to London, joined TCG and forced his way into the Donegal senior team.
Brendan’s third Donegal player was Tommy McDermott. The presence of all three added a “bit of edge” says Bonner.
Straight from the kick-out, following Mahon’s goal, TCG goalkeeper Ger Boyle could only then watch as Paul Duggan’s shot hit the inside of his post. The rebound flashed back across goal, but stayed out. By such slender margins.
Ollie Reid, giving a “Pat Spillane-like performance” in attack, rallied the Gaels, but when Duffy then set up Gallagher for St Brendan’s second goal, the game was in the melting pot, with just the minimum now separating the sides.
Barry Cunningham’s free made the margin two points.
In a dramatic finish, John O’Dowd burst through the TCG defence only for the superb Boyle to prevent what the Irish World’s match report described as “an almost certain goal”.
“Had that gone in, God knows,” reflects McGinley.
TCG broke straight down field and Timmy McBride put three points between the sides.
With seven minutes to go, enter corner forward John Kelly with a “marvellous individual goal”. Picking up the ball 40 yards out, and with a tremendous burst of speed, Kelly “dodged two tacklers” before planting the ball past Mick O’Sullivan in the Brendan’s goal.
“They had us on the wire only for Johnny Kelly’s unbelievable goal,” said McGinley.
The senior championship trophy was on its way to Greenford for the second time, but the final scoreline (2-14 to 2-4) scarcely reflected just how close it had been.
Two weeks later the Gaels added the Conway Cup, beating the Kingdom in a replay by 2-10 to 1-8. Mattie McGlennon scored both goals, while James McCartan “delighted the crowd with some spectacular bursts”.
TCG’s passage through the All-Britain was comfortable. Manchester’s St Brendan’s gave them their sternest test in the quarter-final, holding them to 4-9 to 1-8.
McGlennon, who went onto feature in Tyrone’s 1995 All Ireland final defeat to Dublin, bagged a hat-trick.
But Western Gaels (Bristol) 9-21 to 0-0 and Brothers Pearse (Huddersfield) 3-13 to 0-4 were well-beaten, as the Gaels added another piece of silverware.
What the trips up to Birmingham did do, was help further bond the team together.
“It was great Craic; we’d all meet outside Mandy’s Irish shop in Willesden,” recalls Bonner.
Uncatchable in the league, the county board declared them the winners. They’d effectively wrapped it up in September when they beat Parnell’s, 2-12 to 0-5.
TCG’s only ‘domestic’ loss of 1990 came the previous month, when the Kingdom beat them by 2-7 to 1-5.
The weekend before Lavey, TCG picked up trophy number five when St Mary’s failed to field for a second time in the Tipperary Cup final. Clean sweep completed.
It was now all guns blazing for Ballinascreen on 9 December, and an All Ireland club quarter-final with Ulster and Derry champions Lavey.
After seven years, the Gaels were back in the All Ireland club and a chance for the survivors from ’83 – McGinley, Frank Glynn, Seamus Carr, Paddy Burke and Stephen Campbell – to bury the memory of Burren.
McGinley and McFadden had a good idea what to expect. While St Mary’s were handing TCG a walkover, McGinley and McFadden were amongst the crowd to see Lavey beat Cavan’s Kingscourt to claim a first Ulster title.
They were also able to glean some intelligence from McGinley’s hometown club, Naomh Columba, who’d played Lavey in the first round of that year’s Ulster club championship.
Lavey had earned their place in Ulster on the back of easing past Ballinascreen in the Derry senior decider (3-14 to 1-7), for their seventh title.
The challenge before TCG was formidable. Six members of that Lavey team would win an All Ireland with Derry in 1993.
They were Seamus Downey, Colm McGurk, Anthony Scullion, Brian McCormack, Johnny McGurk and Henry Downey, who captained the ’93 Derry team. Seamus Downey and Johnny McGurk were both All Stars in ’93.
Speaking ahead of the game, Johnny McGurk admitted they knew little of the TCG players, but that the Londoners had James McCartan in their ranks was enough to command their respect.
They’d also been given a warning by new Derry boss Eamon Coleman of Round Towers – underestimate TCG at your peril.
In the build-up, some newspaper articles questioned TCG’s involvement in the competition. The British champions had, after all, yet to taste victory.
“They were trying to undermine us a bit by saying ‘you’ve got players from every county in Ireland, you shouldn’t be in this competition’,” says McGinley.
“But that gave me a massive boost. It was an indication of how much they respected and feared us. We were seen as a threat.”
TCG selector Tommy McFadden retorted: “People at home think football is not that important over here. We hope to make a lot of them eat their words.”
The TCG players departed London on the Friday (7 December) and stayed in their own homes that night.
The weather that greeted them that weekend was “savage” – Ireland had been hit by a snowstorm.
On Saturday, they all met up in Donegal Town before making their way to the Greenvale and Glenavon Hotel in Cookstown, Co Tyrone. There they were joined by supporters of the club and past TCG players.
Also among them were Round Towers’ duo Eamon Coleman and Brian Devlin, who managed London in their Connacht Championship debut against Mayo in ’75. Both were proud Derry men, but felt TCG could have the beating of Lavey.
After dinner, McGinley named the team. The vibe amongst the players was “relaxed”. The calm before the storm.
On Sunday, TCG made their way from Cookstown to the ground, Ballinascreen in Derry.
During the journey, Bonner recalls Eddie McGinty walking up and down the team bus with his video camera, with Johnny McPartland interviewing the players.
“It was a bit like Match of the Day at the FA Cup final!,” he says.
TCG arrived good and early. It was “quiet”, almost “serene” even. It would be anything but come throw in.
Bonner vividly remembers sitting in the dressing room 30-35 minutes before throw in.
“Barry [Cunningham] said to me ‘come on, we’ll stretch the legs’. So we went for a walk around the pitch,” said Bonner.
“My God! The place had gone from a quiet and calm atmosphere to a caldron. It was full of intimidating and passionate Lavey supporters.
“You realised then you were going to be in a battle. They were more or less telling you ‘this is our patch’.”
McGinley describes the atmosphere as “great and “parochial” in equal measure, the like of which he’d never experienced before.
“It was raw, but it was also good,” he said. It was also very, very loud.
“When we came together on the pitch just prior to the match and started to say a few words, we couldn’t hear each other.
“All I could say was ‘that noise is respect to the Gaels – that’s how much they fear us’. That’s the only message I could relay.”
The Gaels, though, were “focused”. While they didn’t know quite how good they were, they were as well prepared as any team today. They were ready.
And so to the action. Johnny McGurk opened the scoring in front of a 2,000 plus crowd, but McCartan’s free in reply was the first of five unanswered scores for the Londoners.
It put TCG 0-5 to 0-1 up after 25 minutes with Barry Cunningham taking control of midfield.
McCartan’s contribution was otherwise “limited”, due to some “very tight, hard-hitting marking” observed the Donegal Democrat.
By the end of a “niggly, foul-ridden” first half-time, the Gaels’ lead was 0-6 to 0-3.
For McGinley, three epic battles stood out that afternoon; TCG full back Joe Neely against Seamus Downey, Timmy Connolly versus Henry Downey and Barry Cunningham’s tussle with Brian McCormack.
“You contested your position, and you won your position. It was individual tussles,” he says.
Cunningham gave TCG the perfect start to the second half, firing over after just 40 seconds, but Lavey responded with a devastating six-minute spell to turn a four-point deficit into a one-point advantage.
But then came Lavey’s opening goal; Seamus Downey created the opening for Colm McGurk to slam home. Don Mulholland followed that with a point, and the Ulster champions seemed poised to ease away.
But TCG were not prepared to go quietly into that Derry night. They fought back, and with nine minutes to go led by a point (1-7 to 1-6) – Mattie McGlennon bursting through to fire to the net.
Timmy Connolly and McGlennon’s free extended the TCG lead further (1-9 to 1-6), to leave Derry needing a goal with the minutes ticking down. And then came the drama.
The Gaels looked “home and dry” wrote the Donegal Democrat, the tie “as good as over” said the Irish Independent, only for “catastrophe” to strike two minutes into added-time, as 42-year-old former Derry All Star Anthony McGurk turned super-sub to fist home and force extra-time.
It was a bitter pill for the Gaels to swallow, especially because of the manner of the goal.
James McCartan, going up the wing, was “dumped out over the line by a heavy tackle”, wrote the Donegal Democrat. That lit the blue touch paper – a “melee” broke out as tempers flared.
Opinions differ on who’s ball it should have been. The linesman’s flag indicated a Lavey ball, while Gaels supporters were convinced it should have been theirs.
The Irish Independent called the decision “doubtful”, with TCG fans “astounded” to see a Lavey free awarded.
To add insult to injury, referee Mick Cranny allowed Henry Downey to take it from an “infinitely more favourable position”.
“It threw our concentration off,” says Bonner. “There was a lot of pulling and throwing. Some of our players jumped in, and some of their players jumped in. In my opinion it should have been a hot ball.”
McGinley has no doubts: “It was our sideline ball. Lavey created a bit of a hubbub about it. The decision was reversed and Lavey given a free.”
From Henry Downey’s ball in, Damian Doherty fired a shot which cannoned back off the woodwork, and Anthony McGurk fisted home the rebound to plunge a dagger through Gaels’ hearts.
One umpire signalled for a square ball, only to be overruled by the referee.
“We were in Derry…..there’s no way any official was going to disallow it,” says Bonner.
McGinley adds: “It was a square ball without a doubt, but you didn’t get a fair hearing no matter what you contested or disputed that day.”
Unphased, the Gaels rallied in extra-time – the bitter cold of the day now long forgotten.
TCG struck first through Timmy Connolly and Johnny Kelly, with Lavey ‘keeper Brendan Regan called upon to pull off a “marvellous save” and then Brian Scullion cleared off his own goal-line.
Lavey hit back through Seamus Downey and Colm McGurk to leave the half-time score at 1-11 to 2-8. Still all to play for.
Hugh Martin then had the chance to finish it, when Lavey were awarded a penalty after Seamus Downey had been fouled by Joe Neely.
The excellent Ger Boyle, though, came up with a save to keep the Gaels alive.
But Lavey would still get their three-point lead – Colm McGurk, Johnny McGurk and Anthony McGurk all on target.
Seamus Henneberry pulled one back for the Gaels, but it wasn’t enough – the dream was over.
The players, and supporters and family members a-like, gathered at the Abbey Hotel in Donegal afterwards.
“We were in bits; we were physically and mentally drained. We were black and blue; Timmy McBride couldn’t remember the second half. There wasn’t one man who wasn’t in trouble,” said Bonner.
Lavey went on to be crowned All Ireland club senior championships, beating Galway’s Salthill-Knocknacarra in the final at Croke Park.
“That would have been us,” says Bonner adamantly. “Had we got over Lavey we would have gained nothing but confidence.”
Small consolation perhaps, but in an article which appeared in The Irish News, to mark the 25th Anniversary of Lavey’s achievement, Seamus Downey pointed to the TCG match as their toughest on route to being crowned All Ireland champions.
“They (TCG) had a super team and that was a hell of a game,” recalled Downey, who admitted Lavey rode their luck that day.
Ten years ago, Bonner bumped into Seamus Downey, Johnny McGurk and Henry Downey at an underage tournament in Newry.
“Seamie said ‘to this day, no matter where we go in the world, someone will always ask us about that game’. We had a cup of tea and it was nice to have the Craic about it,” recalls Bonner.
Remarkably, the two sides met again in 1992, this time at Ruislip. The Gaels, despite having only five survivors in their ranks from ’90 still carried “a fair bit of baggage” into the rematch, Bonner recalls.
“You could cut the atmosphere with a knife,” he says.
Two points was again the margin (0-12 to 1-7), though, in Lavey’s favour, as TCG finished with 13-men. Again, Lavey went on to win the All Ireland.
But it’s to Ballinascreen in December 1990 that TCG will always point.
“Lavey deservedly won in ’92, but we deserved to shade it in ’90 without a doubt,” concludes McGinley.
“It  was probably the best game of football I’ve ever been involved in,” he adds, but it’s also the one that “sticks in the jaw most”, even though 30 years have passed.
“In hindsight, we were better prepared than we realised. Just as we should have won the game, that Tir Chonaill Gaels team should have gone on and won an All Ireland club.
“But many teams have that story.”