'People were set upon with bottles, sticks and fists in the most violent scenes I have ever witnessed at GAA Headquarters'

In April, 1973 the National League quarter-final between Derry and Kerry ended in anarchy
'People were set upon with bottles, sticks and fists in the most violent scenes I have ever witnessed at GAA Headquarters'


April 8th, 1973 began with the death of Pablo Picasso at 91 in the town of Mougins in the south of France. 

Within hours supporters of Derry created their own surrealist scenes on the sideline of Croke Park in one of the few menacing pitch invasions in Gaelic games.

Matchday referee Paul Kelly was set upon, dozens of Gardaí failed to control the crowd which multiplied to around 200, identifiable by Derry colours in the contemporary news reports of the time after Kerry fashioned a late rally to draw the National League semi-final, compiling 0-11 to Derry’s 2-5.

On the front page of The Cork Examiner, GAA correspondent Jim O’Sullivan had the lead story alongside a dramatic picture of a Garda sergeant scrambling off his knees with punches coming from various angles.

O’Sullivan claimed ‘about thirty young Derry supporters ran on to the field and group of them set upon the referee, Paul Kelly.’ The Irish Independent had similar notions and a picture taken a split second before the Examiner’s. The headline was a pulled quote; “’They came like wild animals’ – Ref.” 

As for Padraig Puirseal in The Irish Press, he opened up the shoulders somewhat.

‘Referee Paul Kelly was lucky to escape relatively unscathed from a concerted attack, after he had blown the last whistle, by a mob of spectators… for several minutes thereafter, Gardaí, stewards, a linesman and even Director-General Seán Ó Siochain were set upon with bottles, sticks and fists in the most violent scenes I have ever witnessed at GAA Headquarters.

‘Indeed, seldom can the good name of the GAA have been brought more blatantly into disrepute and when the Activities Committee, which now deals with such matter, meets to consider a date for the replay, nobody will be surprised if that body also calls for an enquiry into this unsavoury game and its’ sequel.’ 

And the sequel, well, it never actually happened.

First to Kelly. He happened to be a Maths teacher in Belvedere College. As a referee he was on an upward trajectory and might have reached the level of an All-Ireland final only for Dublin’s involvement in six consecutive deciders from 1974.

The cause of the bother was prompted by two red cards in quick succession. Kerry had 14 frees to Derry’s four in the first half, but Kelly’s attempts to establish authority led him to send off Chris Brown for a robust tackle.

Within a few minutes Tom Quinn was sent off for a foul on Kerry captain Tom Prendergast. 22 years before Charlie Redmond did the same stunt, Quinn popped up again in a passage of play being ordered off for good this time.

With Derry clinging on, Kerry were helped by the veteran Mick O’Dwyer who notched seven points in total to claim the draw.

There had been a rivalry, as well as a sense of hard-done-by brewing among the Derry panel for years prior. They met Kerry in the 1970 All-Ireland semi-final and missed two penalties either side of the break to let them off the hook.

In 1972, the year of Bloody Sunday, the team were invited to spend time in America that summer and only arrived back to play and lose to Tyrone in the Ulster semi-final, a game inexplicably played in Dungannon.

“At that time, the story was that these Ulster teams go down to Croke Park and they get walked over by the southern teams,” recalls Adrian McGuckin, who usually took up an attacking berth but that day found himself at corner back keeping John Egan scoreless.

“So I think we went down in 1973 to play Kerry and, well, we weren’t going to stand back. Let’s put it like that. That was the mood of us going into the game.

“It was a rough game by both teams. But being honest, we were edging it a wee bit. The referee went haywire against us and sent off Tom Quinn and Chris Brown.” 

Things turned even progressively nastier and the final whistle brought out some thuggery.

Veteran RTÉ broadcaster Mícheál Ó Sé started that game at wing-back, later moving to midfield with John O’Keefe to gain some traction in that area for Kerry.

“I remember some of the seats being thrown onto the pitch. A bottle just missed my head, when I was lying on the ground,” he recalled this week.

Despite the carry on at the Hogan Stand side, the players were able to get to their dressing room at the other side in a world of peace. Ó Sé wasn’t impressed, nor intimidated.

“At the time we didn’t take all that much notice at all. Looking back now, I don’t know why but I hardly gave any notice of it. I thought there was more made of it in what was written after, than what I had experienced. But I suppose nothing like that would be tolerated now.

“But you might encounter trouble like that in club games! Or even worse!” 


While Derry may have felt that on the pitch referee Paul Kelly had handed Kerry a few soft frees to even the scores up, they had their own grudge to cling to.

The Derry veteran Sean O’Connell had replaced Frankie O’Loan at half-time and while some Derry players surrounded the referee disputing a decision, O’Connell was seen to be lying prone on the floor having been struck by a Kerry player.

Despite that, when the Activities Committee came to review the game they imposed a £500 fine on Derry, and also issued a further suspension to O’Connell. This was based on the ‘evidence’ that a Kerry player alleged in writing he had been struck by O’Connell.

The Ballerin man was summoned to Croke Park but refused to go, thereby incurring a three-month suspension. His club then promptly pulled themselves out of all activity for the same period.

On reminding Ó Sé of those developments this week, his reaction was of shock.

“Oh my God! And Sean was such a gentleman,” he said. “I am amazed to hear that because Sean was a pure gentleman. I marked him in the 1970 semi-final and you couldn’t have marked a finer player.

“Ah yeah, Sean, nothing rough about Sean. Pure skills. All the skill. And he was very skillful, a very fine player.” 

The following week, Derry lost 0-7 to 0-6 to Donegal in a Dr McKenna Cup game. It was refereed by Antrim official Hugh McPolin who commented afterwards it was the easiest game he ever had to handle, with opponents helping each other off the ground after collisions.

The replay was set for the end of April. The county board made clear they would pick a team at a meeting in Bellaghy the Tuesday of that week. On Friday night, representatives attended appeals against the sanctions by the Central Council.

There would be no reprieve. And then Derry Chairman Patsy Breen was informed that a referee had been appointed for the reply; Paul Kelly. He promptly informed all present that this was contrary to what had been previously indicated, insisted Derry would not play the game and left the meeting.

The replay never happened. Kerry got through to the final by default, where they beat Offaly.

That Derry team then broke up, much to the hurt of Adrian McGuckin.

“How we didn’t win an All-Ireland, it still sickens me to this particular day,” he laments.

More in this section


Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up