The reluctant hero of Gaelic football, Peter Withnell

After years of searching and tinkering by Pete McGrath, Peter Withnell proved the final piece in the puzzle that brought Down to the 1991 All-Ireland football title.

Peter Withnell's meteoric rise to prominence in 1991 caught the whole GAA world off guard. Picture: Bill Smyth

Withnell’s name won’t be forgotten in Kerry or Meath, but he was a somewhat reluctant hero.

Uncomfortable in the public eye, for many years he endured sectarian abuse on the field and from the terraces and eventually soccer took him away from Gaelic football.

The men’s toilets of any hostelry aren’t normally the place you would want to spend too much time of an afternoon but on Sunday, August 11, 1991 the restrooms of the Carrickdale Hotel outside Newry are like a Wall Street trading floor.

Amid the sound of running taps and whirring hand-dryers, groups of men happily stand and shoot the breeze. Cigarettes are lit, smoked, and stubbed before another is swiftly pulled from the pack.

The thronging crowds outside can wait, the pints will still be there when they come back. For now, serious business is under discussion.

“Unbelievable… just unbelievable.”

“What about Witherall?”

“Who?” “Big Witherall… isn’t it Witherall?” “Withnell?”

“Aye, the big lad who got the two goals?”

“That’s him.”

Just hours earlier, 60 odd miles down the road, they had watched in awe as Peter Withnell trod all over Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final.

If some of those Kingdom stars were already seeing the light go out on their distinguished careers, they were plunged into near darkness that day.

The Down support didn’t care. At long last, the red and black were back in an All-Ireland final, the first time since 1968.

Then, young men like Brendan Sloan, Mickey Cole, Ray McConville, and Colm McAlarney strode fearlessly onto the hallowed turf at Croke Park to secure instant legend status within the county.

Now they had another. Twenty three years of age, Withnell was the wrecking ball forward Down had been crying out for.

Chest puffed out, shoulders as broad as the Mourne Mountains and sporting a crew-cut hairstyle that saw him bear closer resemblance to a US marine than a Gaelic footballer, he didn’t like the big stage — he loved it.

And once you saw Peter Withnell, you never forgot him.

“I’d never heard tell of him before this year and then he goes and does that.”

“Ah, it was unreal. Spillane couldn’t handle him, couldn’t get near him.”

“Witherall had his number from the start.”

“Withnell…”

“Aye, that’s right…”

“They’ll not forget his name down in Kerry any time soon, that’s for sure…”

Looking out the window of Costa Coffee on a mizzly afternoon in Newry, Peter Withnell furrows his brow and pauses for thought.

The conversation has turned to the reunions that took place last summer to mark that momentous All-Ireland success 25 years ago.

“The sad thing is,” he says, “when we all finished our playing careers, we went our separate ways. I feel we all should have stayed in contact, even if it was only once or twice a year.”

They were a band of brothers that summer, no doubt. But Withnell was always different, right from the very start.

While the likes of James McCartan, Mickey Linden, and Ross Carr were honing their skills in the hot and heavy environs of schools football, Withnell was messing about with his mates on the concrete jungle out the front of Ballynahinch High School.

Gaelic football couldn’t have been further from his thoughts. A couple of sessions with the Loughinisland under 10s wasn’t enough to reel him in and, besides, he was already receiving admiring glances from Irish League soccer clubs after starring for the underage teams at Drumaness Mills.

But when some of his friends started going to training at Drumaness GAC a couple of nights a week, Withnell decided to give it another go not long after his 15th birthday.

“We used to go out to the local field, Paradise Park. If you’d seen it, it was far from paradise. It was like something from The Jungle Book. If you were playing in the forward line, it had a slope like that,” he explained, holding his hand at a 45-degree angle, “and then it levelled itself off.

“There were two electric poles at either side that went right across the field, the sheep were the grass-cutters, they grazed on the field so you had sheep’s shite all over the place. The changing room was an Ormo bread van.

“You might have been able to hear all the action, but you couldn’t see it because of the slope. Then all of a sudden you saw this clatter of heads… then the ball… then the shoulders and the chest and the legs would all appear. Suddenly there was a stampede coming and you had to get ready for action. That was Drumaness.”

Work, or a lack of it, took Withnell to England towards the end of his teenage years. A trial at English league side Reading showed promise, but he wasn’t in the mood to wait around at youth level for a chance to prove himself.

Homesickness expedited his planned return, and soon Withnell was back out on Paradise Park. Having attended development squad trials in the past and been left frustrated, the county team wasn’t on his agenda.

Peter Withnell wasn’t on Pete McGrath’s radar either. The pair were brought together when the Down boss received a phone call out of the blue suggesting he check out the powerhouse midfielder running the show week in, week out for Drumaness.

“Despite the fact I had been managing the minor team in the county since 1982 prior to all of this, I had never come across Peter Withnell — I knew nothing about him,” admitted McGrath, the man who masterminded Down’s All-Ireland wins in ‘91 and ‘94.

“I got a call from a man in Drumaness saying he was worth a look. There was going to be a training session in Newry that weekend and I thought ‘there’s nothing to be lost’, so I asked him along.” By now, the likes of Linden, McCartan, and Greg Blaney were household names across the county, but their status meant nothing to Withnell.

“I walked into the changing room and I didn’t know anybody. They all knew each other, but I didn’t know anybody.

“My path didn’t cross with these guys because they were playing Division 1 or Division 2 football, and I was only back from England.”

Being a fish out of water didn’t bother him. McGrath missed the challenge game against Louth with the flu but assistant John Murphy liked what he saw and Withnell was invited back for winter training.

At an indoor training session the following week, McGrath recalls his attention being instantly drawn to the new boy.

“We were doing circuits and that kind of thing, and I just remember thinking ‘this guy, if nothing else, dammit he’s athletic’ because he was just bouncing off the floor.”

“I was super-fit,” adds Withnell.

“Pete used to have us running up the mountain at Kilbroney Forest Park, it was hard going alright, ask any of the boys, but I was well able for it.”

By the time the National League hit full flow, Withnell had made the number 14 jersey his own. The Mournemen had an indifferent campaign but, as ever, expectations were high heading into the Ulster Championship.

Armagh were cast aside in the quarter-finals, and Down needed a replay before getting past Derry. Defending champions Donegal lay in wait. Withnell missed a gilt-edged goal chance but his bustling, all-action style had given Down something different, something new as his unsettling influence afforded space for the other forwards to run riot.

“He brought something that was maybe lacking in Down forward lines for quite a while,” explained McGrath.

“Down always had very talented players who could play over the top of the ground but we were maybe lacking that raw physical strength to allow players to play off that.

“Peter brought that and as the season wore on he gained experience, his decision-making became better and better. He had explosive power, strength, and fearlessness.”

Having got their hands on the Anglo-Celt, Down were back at Croke Park — and so too was Withnell. In 1988, as a raw 20-year-old, he was an unused sub when London fell meekly to Meath in the All-Ireland junior final.

Little did he know then the memories he would create at the famous old stadium three years later.

With each win, each surge of momentum, word spread further about Down’s new ‘bear in the square’. Not that Tom Spillane had taken much notice.

Injury meant he hadn’t featured for Kerry all year, only to be drafted back in by Mickey Ned O’Sullivan for the semi-final.

A four-time All-Ireland winner and three-time All Star, the veteran full-back was more concerned with getting himself right rather than worrying about Withnell.

“Not a bit, not a bit,” he said when asked whether he had studied his opponent ahead of that last-four clash.

Ten minutes in, Spillane might have been regretting that decision. Beneath a baking hot summer sun, Withnell left his vaunted opponent in his wake as he played a clever one-two with Mickey Linden
before lashing the ball low past Charlie Nelligan with his left foot.

It would get worse for Spillane. With seven minutes left on the clock, and Kerry trailing by three, Withnell beautifully read the bounce from a long Barry Breen ball to find himself in space.

Spillane desperately attempted to close the space but, just in the nick of time, Withnell fired home an unstoppable shot, this time with his right foot.

“He was a very fine footballer, very aggressive, hard but fair,” recalls Spillane.

“Of course, that was a fine Down team as well. When you have McCartan and Mickey Linden and like-minded fellas like that alongside you, weaving their magic… but he was the perfect match for the players around him.”

With Spillane slain, excitement levels went into overdrive as Down supporters excitedly got to work on ‘Withnell tames Lyons’ banners ahead of the All-Ireland final showdown with Meath. There was only going to be one winner in this titanic clash.

Mick Lyons is regarded as one of the toughest full-backs ever to lace up boots, and Sean Boylan’s Royals team was filled with fearsome opponents, men who — along with Cork — had dominated the All-Ireland scene in the late Eighties.

A daunting prospect for some, but not Withnell.

“That was the good thing — I wasn’t deeply involved in GAA. I didn’t know all the top players around the country. Names and players didn’t really mean anything to me; it was just a game of football.

“I didn’t fear anybody. I didn’t fear the Mick Lyons’s of this world, and I’m sure Mick Lyons didn’t fear me. Tom Spillane, Tony Scullion… it was just a game.”

And Pete McGrath wasn’t about to start overloading his full-forward with information about the task ahead. Withnell was a player who acted on instinct, McGrath recognised that and let him at it.

“We had players who would have played Kerry over the years and been very aware of Kerry’s pedigree in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Peter Withnell wouldn’t really have been too impressed by that because he didn’t know a lot about it.

“To him, going in to play Kerry in an All-Ireland semi-final was just another game. Coming up against Tom Spillane… he wouldn’t have known a lot about the Spillanes, their history or anything else.

“Withnell went in with an adventurous way about him, like a child nearly. He
believed he was good enough in any company, and I wasn’t going to interfere with that.

“If you start setting out parameters for a player like that, you’re just going to mess with his head.”

September 15, 1991. Down v Meath, Croke Park Stadium, Jones’ Road, Dublin.

The instructions issued to Peter Withnell were simple — get out there and be first to as many balls as you can. Despite being 33 and in the dying embers of his inter-county playing days, Lyons remained a fearless competitor.

However, a twisted ankle towards the end of the first half signalled the end of the Meath veteran’s day. Typically, he soldiered on for 17 minutes after the break - perhaps against his better judgment, in hindsight, as the Mournemen took the game by the scruff in this period.

“I shouldn’t have come out at half-time,” laughs the Summerhill man.

And like Spillane before him, Lyons hadn’t spent too much time before the final worrying about Withnell.

“Not really,” he said.

“The thing is, Down had a good team, but they had a very, very good full-forward line, right across, so you weren’t just worrying about one man. They were all dangerous.”

Withnell didn’t get on the scoresheet that day, but his nuisance factor was enough to destabilise the Meath defence and allow others to flourish.

He also provided one of the defining images of the 1991 final. On his knees, hands on the ground in pursuit of the ball, Lyons attempted to walk over the top of Withnell like he wasn’t there.

Instead, Withnell lifted his head and shoulders between Lyons’s legs like a bull at a rodeo before dumping the Meath man to the ground. Red and black flags fluttered as one of the loudest roars of the day went up.

Despite a stunning second-half comeback from the Royals, Down weren’t going to be defeated — Sam Maguire was heading back to the Mourne County for the first time in 23 years.

And after years of searching and tinkering, it was Withnell who had provided the final piece of the perfect puzzle for McGrath.

“The forward line was maybe the strength of the team,” said the Rostrevor man.

“You can look at each individual player and see a unique role they played and when you put it all together, you’re approaching the ideal forward line. Take one of them out and, suddenly, something’s not going to work. In that sense, Peter was vital.”

From relative obscurity to hoisting aloft the Sam Maguire Cup in the space of a year, his story was the stuff of scriptwriters’ dreams.

It was no longer just the men gathered in the toilets of the Carrickdale Hotel who had his name on their lips — the whole country was now talking about Peter Withnell.

And as he would discover in the years after that momentous day, it wasn’t always for reasons he would have wanted.

“Write away by all means, you’re the journalist, but please just don’t make it about religion.”

It’s no wonder Peter Withnell is still wary 25 years on. In the months after his All-Ireland winning exploits with Down the public, particularly inside the county, wanted to know more about the man who had come from nowhere to the steps of the Hogan Stand on the third Sunday in September.

First things first; Withnell, where was the name from? Someone had heard he was a Protestant. Another rumour doing the rounds suggested he was in the RUC.

In the pre-ceasefire era, this wasn’t the kind of talk you wanted flying about the terraces.

As if sinking Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final with strikes off his left and right shouldn’t have been enough to end talk about what foot he kicked with, such speculation refused to die.

“I’ll be quite honest, I did not know and still don’t know what Peter’s persuasion is. I’ve no idea,” says Pete McGrath.

“I couldn’t have cared less if he had been a Quaker, a Mormon, a Free Presbyterian or whatever. Inter-county footballers heading into an All-Ireland campaign, the last thing on their mind is religion, apart from the prayers they say at night.”

Inevitably, the matter infiltrated Withnell’s life on the field, with opponents giving him plenty in the hope of drawing a reaction. Even in the Irish League soccer career that intersected and eventually superseded his Gaelic football days, sectarian barbs became a common occurrence.

The name-calling often brought the best out in him, he says, though Withnell admits he found it bewildering at the time — and still does to this day — that people took such an interest in his background.

“To be honest, the talk about religion, I hate that shit. That isn’t me, it never has been me.

“My mum used to say ‘clean the dirt around your door, then you can look at somebody else’s’. A lot of those people are the ones who go to matches week-in, week-out and want to tar some young fella… sport shouldn’t be that way, and thankfully now it doesn’t seem to be.

“I come from a mixed marriage but religion was never mentioned in our house, all my parents wanted was a peaceful life. My attitude was always ‘call me what you want, next minute you’ll be on your ass’. I just waited on that 50-50 challenge to burst that guy.

“I didn’t give off or cry if somebody rattled into me and hit me a dig or whatever. That’s not me trying to sound like the big lad, because I never saw it like that. No matter what happened on the field, I would always have shaken hands with my opponent after the game.

"It just went with the territory I suppose. But once the game was over, it was over. History.”

He may dismiss it as “sticks and stones”, but occasionally Withnell would rise to the bait. The kind of player he was, standing six foot tall and built like a brick outhouse, meant he often found himself at the epicentre of any physical tussles taking place.

That confidence, that swagger, that attitude, it must be in his DNA, right? Wrong. His off-field persona is at odds with the perception held by most people who have followed Withnell’s sporting career.

Quiet and extremely private, being in the public eye never sat comfortably. He viewed football, like soccer later on, as a job. Once he crossed the white line, regardless of code, his only concern was doing the best he possibly could for himself and his team-mates but when the big stage arrived, you could always rely on Withnell to deliver.

Stevie Small played alongside him at Cliftonville in the late 1990s, the latest stop on a nomadic but goal-laden Irish League career that also took him to the Reds’ north Belfast rivals Crusaders, Ballymena United, Newry City and Glenavon before drawing to a close at Lisburn Distillery in 2006.

Reds boss Marty Quinn had been keen to bring Withnell to Solitude for years and, after two failed attempts to prise him away from League of Ireland side Dundalk, finally landed his man in January 1999.

Cliftonville had won the league the previous April but when Withnell arrived midway through the following season they were struggling badly and ended up finishing second bottom of the table and facing a relegation play-off with Ards.

Cometh the hour though, cometh the man, as Withnell came off the bench to score the winning goal in the away leg before bagging a hat-trick at Solitude to help secure the club’s top-flight status.

“That was his moment, those two legs, and he’ll always be remembered fondly at Cliftonville because of that,” says defender Small.

“One thing that sticks with me about Peter was his confidence on the big stage. When some others were nervous, Peter was like ‘this is brilliant’. He lived for that kind of pressure.

“When Marty Quinn was trying to sign him, he told him ‘I want to put crosses into the box, in Tim McCann we’ve got the quickest player in the Irish League’, and Peter turned round and said ‘you haven’t seen me yet’.

“Tim was lightning quick, but Peter didn’t lack for confidence. He just had that belief in himself, and it stood to him.”

When you’re standing on the top of the mountain, the only way to go is down.

After the highs of 1991, Withnell was one of Pete McGrath’s blue-eyed boys, but cracks were starting to appear in their relationship.

Soccer had always been in his blood — McGrath knew this. Often, Withnell would show up at training wearing the jersey of one English club or another.

On other occasions, he would infuriate the Down boss by heading the ball into the back of the net before wheeling away in celebration. His team-mates laughed and, so long as he was dedicating himself exclusively to Gaelic football at weekends, McGrath could see the funny side too.

The lines became blurred, however, when he started playing at a semi-professional level for Dundalk. Out of work and offered a few quid to kick a bit of ball, Withnell didn’t see the issue.

McGrath did. Playing soccer one day, Gaelic football the next was simply not an option under his regime.

“His soccer career was becoming a factor that was taking away from what he could contribute to the Down senior squad.

“For anyone to try and balance a semi-professional soccer with a full-blown inter-county career was just impossible, despite the fact he was a very fit fella. He was missing out on other things — maybe working harder on Gaelic football to bring other dimensions to his game.

“For a player to become an even better player, like the way Eoin Liston did for Kerry, you have to be focused exclusively on what is a very demanding sport. Peter was being pulled in different directions and it did set him on a collision course with his inter-county career.”

Withnell’s attempts to play down his extra-curricular activity didn’t help. Team-mates
recall him being asked outright by McGrath if he had been playing soccer at the weekend.

Withnell would answer no. McGrath would ask again.

“Are you sure Peter?” “No, definitely not Pete.” Then, McGrath would produce a newspaper cutting showing Withnell playing for whatever club he happened to be featuring for that weekend. Eventually, he could offer up no more denials, as the other players sniggered like schoolboys in the background.

“I was in the public eye because of soccer and I couldn’t hide it,” he says with a rueful smile.

“I did try but then somebody would show Pete my picture in the Sunday World or the Sunday Life. When you’re in and out of work and somebody offers you a nice pay packet every week, you know...”

Withnell was still an automatic pick for most of 1992 when Down lost to Derry in the Ulster semi-final, but the years that followed saw him fall down the pecking order. By the start of the 1994 campaign, which would end in a second All-Ireland title in four years, Rostrevor’s Aidan Farrell was the man wearing 14 on his back while Withnell stewed on the sidelines.

“When me and Pete locked horns, it was probably the beginning of the end.

“Pete’s rule was ‘no soccer’. He’s a true Gael and that’s the way he wanted to run his team and he was quite entitled to do that. Maybe I thought I was bigger than Pete.

“Players have to be handled in different ways — some like an arm put around them, some need a few fucks thrown at them. I think I needed an arm around me. I can see now that he did it for the best of the team.

“But I don’t have any regrets over what I did on Saturdays.”

But surely there are regrets that, when the Mourne County silenced the Hill by beating Dublin in the 1994 final, he was on the periphery? That but for his self-inflicted wounds, he would have been out there enjoying a second All-Ireland title?

Withnell came and went for a couple of years after 1994 but as some of the old guard fell away, so too did he, pulling on the red and black jersey for the last time in 1997. Soccer became the priority yet, no matter what he went on to achieve elsewhere, there was always a sense of regret about how his Down career had petered out so prematurely.

“I could’ve done more — I quit too early,” he says. “It’s a regret on my behalf but I think it’s also a mistake on Pete’s behalf. I had a great relationship with Pete, I still have a great relationship with Pete, but I think that because I was equally good at soccer, that heavy hand came down and I was punished for it.”

In the midst of it all, McGrath insists, the pair always remained on amicable terms.

“Eventually, it meant his Down career came to a premature end because he could have played for a number of years longer than he did.

“There would’ve been issues, we would’ve had differences of opinions, but in the middle of it all I never fell out with Peter Withnell.”

Forty-eight years of age. Where did the time go?

Sat amongst former comrades as they waited to be paraded before the All-Ireland final meeting between Dublin and Mayo, it was a strange feeling returning to Croke Park.

Standing in the middle of the field he once graced to such devastating effect, receiving polite applause and offering up a wave every now and again, Withnell couldn’t escape the nagging feeling he didn’t belong.

This pomp and ceremony wasn’t really for him and, besides, did any of those people even know who he was? The years after the sun goes down on a sporting career can be hard.

Until recently, Withnell was still lining out for the Down masters side and played home and away games for a Northern Ireland over-40 select in soccer.

If there was a charity game going, a fundraiser or just a kickabout, just give Peter Withnell a call and he’ll be there in a flash. He never fell out of love with sport, with the buzz of competition.

Now, working away from home most of the week, he simply doesn’t have the time. He goes out for the odd run to keep himself in check, but the buzz has gone.

How do you go about replacing it? You don’t.

“The hype’s gone, you’re out of the bubble and you’re on your own.

“It is what is. That was a part of your life but it comes to an end. Football’s short-lived and it’s hard to leave behind, but you’ve no choice. You put your energy into other things — your family, your work. It’s that simple.

“Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice when somebody recognises you or comes up and talks about Down, or your days at Dundalk or whatever. But you don’t hang on to that stuff forever. Sport was a big part of my life but it isn’t all that I am.”

Not that anybody who was stood on the Hill those momentous days in 1991 could ever forget Peter Withnell, no matter how hard they tried. Neither will Tom Spillane, Mick Lyons or the many full-backs, midfielders or centre-backs he came up against during his career.

“I played with a great bunch of players from one to 30. It wasn’t one to 15 that won that All-Ireland, it was all of us. We all have that respect for each other, that bond. I have the utmost respect for all the guys I played with and more than anything, you miss the craic and the banter. That’s why it was great to see everybody again during the summer.

“Some people might look back and think you were good, others that you weren’t fit to wear the Down shirt, and there’s others who’ll say you were in the right place at the right time. I just think I was lucky to play in a great team with a great manager at a great time.”

“The fact is he reached the very top in Gaelic football,” says Pete McGrath.

“When Peter Withnell was in his heyday, he blazed a trail and made a massive impression on people not only in Down, but on people who saw Down play in those years— he was like a meteorite going across the sky.”

This interview first appeared in The Irish News. It has since won the 2016 National Media section of the GAA’s McNamee awards.


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