A football education

Down’s innate sense of their own worth comes from schools success – and nowhere is more pronounced than in St Colman’s in Newry. Brendan O’Brien paid a visit to the home of the All-Ireland SFC colleges champions

BUDDY HOLLY used to sing about how it was raining in his heart even though the sun was out and the sky was blue. Turn that sentiment inside out and you begin to get an idea of this morning’s mood on Newry’s Violet Hill.

Last Monday dawned cold and miserable. All but the lower reaches of the Mourne Mountains were smothered in a fog of grey clouds and yet the only thing blue about St Colman’s College were the school’s distinctive colours.

The explanation can be found five strides inside the main reception. There, in a fully-stocked trophy cabinet the size of a garage door, sit the MacRory and Hogan Cups. Both of them are resident after a 12-year absence.

Eight of last year’s side are still wearing the uniform this term and the next few years promise further scope for optimism, what with the younger boys adding the Corn na nÓg to the collection of silver last spring.

Another success for Down at Croke Park this Sunday would bestow further, reflected, glory on a school that is no stranger to it and which has long played a pivotal role in the county’s sporting fortunes.

All five of Down’s All-Ireland successes have been achieved with Colman’s men in the vanguard and the latest attempt is being driven by James McCartan whose face adorns many of the walls in this venerable institution.

The links between college and county, past and present, are everywhere.

Some of the current crew will suffice as an example: senior coach Cathal Murray won an All-Ireland with Down in the 90s, trainer Declan Mussen was coach to the county side and Corn na nÓg joint-manager Ronan McMahon is county PRO.

The transition of talent from Colman’s on to the Down senior panel through the years has been smoothed by a shared ethos of quick, simple and honest football that has been passed down through the generations.

“There is a similar style of football and it is a pure football,” says Murray. “It is never so much a case of stopping the opposition from playing. It is like Kevin Keegan. They can score nine and we’ll score ten.”

MURRAY’S own school days in St Colman’s coincided with those of ‘Wee James’. They both learned about football under the eyes of Ray Morgan and Pete McGrath who, in their time together, delivered five Hogan Cups to the school between 1975 and 1998.

Morgan and McGrath also secured All-Irelands for The Burren and Down respectively but they didn’t light the torch. Fr John Treanor was that trailblazer.

Fr Treanor was driven to emulate the likes of St Jarlath’s of Tuam and St Patrick’s of Armagh and his obsession with winning a first Hogan Cup for his alma mater was strikingly similar to Matt Busby’s quest for the European Cup.

Fr Treanor achieved his goal after two decades trying in 1967, a year before Busby, but his legacy echoed that of Bill Shankly whose Boot Room predecessors secured Liverpool’s continued prosperity.

Morgan and Murray are both past pupils and players. So, too, are Mussen and McMahon and their appreciation of tradition is accentuated further by family ties.

Murray and Mussen are nephews of Patsy O’Hagan and Kevin Mussen, respectively, who played with Colman’s and won All-Ireland medals with Down in the ‘60s, while McMahon is a grand-nephew of Fr Treanor’s.

When Murray emulated the school’s footballing pioneer by claiming the Hogan Cup last April, he talked to tv about how another Down team had come to Croke Park and played with the county’s renowned verve and vim.

In doing so, he touched a nerve.

St Colman’s may be in Newry but it lies on the Armagh Road and is technically on Armagh soil even if it is considered a Down school. The road running past the gates is festooned with red and black bunting this week.

The school body is split between boys from both counties. Jimmy Smyth, Jarlath Burns and Diarmuid Marsden have worn the blue jerseys – which changes to white for Hogan fixtures – as have Kevin Mussen, James McCartan and Greg Blaney.

Smyth was one of those on hand for the Hogan breakthrough in ‘67 and the BBC commentator has never forgotten the lead-up to that game when their mentor emitted the sort of confidence which has since become synonymous with Down football.

“There was a creamery at the bottom of the avenue and the bottles of milk used to have gold and silver tops on them,” said Smyth who was born in Down but played for Armagh. “On the morning of the final against St Jarlath’s he brought us up to a dormitory. He took a load of gold tops out of his pockets and laid them out in every players’ position nice and neat and then took out all these crumpled silver ones and just said, ‘Jarlath’s of Tuam, crushed already’.


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