'I hit the table and blew the cups and saucers away, breaking about half a dozen'

In late May, Justin McCarthy will make a familiar journey north to Antrim to be honoured along with the players he coached for the county’s first All-Ireland title 50 years ago.

'I hit the table and blew the cups and saucers away, breaking about half a dozen'

In late May, Justin McCarthy will make a familiar journey north to Antrim to be honoured along with the players he coached for the county’s first All-Ireland title 50 years ago.

The significance of that intermediate final win over Warwickshire isn’t lost on the Saffrons. Occasions like the senior final appearances in 1943 against Cork and ‘89 against Tipperary were landmark occasions but defeats, nevertheless.

What happened in 1970 was different. It was a victory.

Recovering from the motorbike accident that ruled him out of the 1969 All-Ireland final, McCarthy was asked by Cork coach Fr Bertie Troy if he would be interested in speaking to a couple of Antrim men.

After a League game in Limerick that November, he met Frank Smyth and Neilie Patterson. And so it was that one man’s difficulty became a county’s opportunity.

“The Troubles were rife at that stage and you’re taking a bit of a chance but I always said when it comes to hurling it’s worth it and my policy has always been to try and bring success to those who haven’t achieved a lot,” says McCarthy.

“During the day I would do a bit of coaching with lads in Loughgiel then during the evening the Antrim team would come together and we had some great training sessions there.

The biggest problem we had was them understanding my accent and me understanding theirs because when you go that far north it’s almost like the Scottish accent. We still laugh about that.

Antrim defeated Galway and Dublin on their way to the final where up to half-time it looked anything but rosy. “At half-time, they had been a bit slack and Neill Patterson said to me, ‘God, Justy, we’re not doing the business.’ I said to him, ‘There’s another half to go.’

“You’d get a cup of tea at half-time in Croke Park back then and I remember getting a hurley off a fella and at the end of giving a speech I wanted to shake them up a little bit so I hit the table and blew the cups and saucers, breaking about half a dozen of them.

By God, they weren’t long about waking up in the second half. They were a different team.

Only 25 at the time, McCarthy was preaching to men several of whom were older than him but it didn’t matter to him nor his congregation.

“Eddie Donnelly would have played in any team. Brendan McGarry was a brilliant half-forward. They had lively players too. Andy McCallin and Aidan Hamill were two of those on the U21 football team that won the All-Ireland the year before.

“They had great variety but the one thing about that team was they had a blend of country and city fellas. If Antrim is to progress, they need the cuteness of the city player. There is something like 10 or 12 teams on the Falls Road alone.

The durability of the country lad is great but combined with that city cuteness it’s a great combination.

That triumph was the start of a relationship that continues to this day including a spell as assistant manager five years ago, bringing his Waterford and Limerick teams there for training weekends and challenge matches during the 2000s as well as helping out the county in the early 1980s as part of the Christy Ring Hurling School.

“When you see the standard of hurling s up there, the way they go about their business, the standard of pitches they are doing everything they can to do right.

"They had kitmen when we had never heard of kitmen. They had laces for the boots, the boots ordered, jerseys and towels laid out, drinks. They had picked up a lot from professional sport.

They were ahead of their time and they have always been innovative but it was hurling where they just needed that bit of help and confidence more than anything else.

What has held Antrim back is geography, of course, but as McCarthy knows lip service too. “I made out a three-year plan and it would be to have the All-Stars playing a Rest of Ireland team in Antrim one year, Down the next and the Derry after that. They need bigger games up there.

"Include in the Rest of Ireland team at least three players from the county where the game takes place.

“Before each game, have a hurling weekend and invite coaches from strong hurling counties to the county for a conference and coaches from Ulster would have access to them free of charge. They need another lift. They’re not stuck for enthusiasm. So spend money on them and don’t have half do it.

Put in a place a director of hurling specifically for Ulster for three years and let him link in with the coaches and managers.

“We’ve a group in Ulster who are mad about hurling and the popularity of hurling is growing but to bring it to another level in Ulster should be the next goal. We need doers, not just people who will say they will talk to them and not go to them.”

That’s not to say Antrim have to help themselves too.

“The clubs are very strong and I’ve seen in the past some of them not releasing players. To play for your county is a great honour and Antrim have a proud record of club hurling but they’re going to be measured on county success.”

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