Offaly’s 1964 All-Ireland minor football win would prove the building block for the county’s later success — and Martin Furlong’s input was crucial.
ONE day in 1959, Eamonn Fox and Pat Heffernan, two young players in the Tullamore club, were engaging in a kickaround in O’Connor Park, where it was customary for young lads to race behind the goal and kick the balls back out to them. A ball hopped between two youngsters aged about 12 or so. One of them put his foot over it and jostled the other out of the way before claiming the ball.
“By Jaysus,” said Fox. “Mickey Furlong will never be dead while that young fella’s alive, whoever he is.”
Heffernan looked at him.
“Do you not know who he is?”
“That’s Mickey Furlong’s youngest brother.”
There are two ways you can go if you’re the youngest in a line of talented sporting brothers: feed off it or be intimidated. Martin Furlong largely chose the former, though he did have to put up with the usual “you’ll never be as good as your brothers” spiel.
“You’d have to say Mickey started the Furlong thing,” says Martin. “He was a good footballer and hurler so as it came to pass down along the line, well, Tom was a brother of Mickey so he couldn’t have been too bad. ‘The breeding is there’, or whatever. Then I came along and I was a brother of Mickey and Tom’s, so I had a name before I ever had a name.”
Martin may have outstripped his brothers in terms of his medal haul but emulating them academically wasn’t high on his agenda. Both Mickey and Tom sat their Leaving Cert and John started an apprenticeship shortly before he fell ill but as soon as full-time work presented itself to Martin, he was happy to leave the books behind. While on the way to school one day he saw a notice in the window of Wakefield’s, a local grocery store, advertising for a messenger boy. He expressed an interest and Dick Abraham gave him the job which paid 10 shillings for working four days a week after school, plus Saturdays.
He wasn’t attending the Vocational School in Tullamore very long when the opportunity to work there full-time came up. His wages tripled and his mother got 10 shillings a week, another 10 shillings was lodged in the post office and the rest he kept for himself. Séamus Morris lived up the road from the Furlongs in Spollanstown and Martin later started working a couple of nights a week in his chipper, the Capri Café.
“Séamus Morris and his wife Josie had a huge influence on me and so did Dick Abraham. They were a big guidance, no doubt. Séamus Morris was like a second father to me. He was very good to the family as well.”
Work may have kept Martin out of trouble as a youngster but so did football and hurling. Beyond his exchanges with Tom in the backyard and out on the road, his first introduction to the games came through the usual channels: school and playing for the Dillonites in the local street leagues. He wasn’t pigeon-holed as a goalkeeper from the off and, indeed, was centre-back on the Tullamore under-16 team that won the county title in 1962.
Despite his family background, however, self-belief never coursed through Martin’s veins.
“Confidence wouldn’t be in abundance. I just never felt that confident really. I don’t think any of us had any big ideas about ourselves or anything.”
Martin dabbled quite a bit in soccer in his youth and through that he suffered a harsh lesson in the formative years of his playing career. Early in 1963, he played for Tullamore in the FAI Youth Cup against Athlone Town, who had Turlough O’Connor in their ranks. O’Connor was an up and coming name and represented Ireland youths against West Germany around the same time. Come the spring he was on the Westmeath minor team that would play Offaly in the first round of the Leinster Championship.
Furlong was chosen in goal for Offaly but no sooner was he handed his first Offaly championship jersey but it was taken away from him. Fr Tom Gilhooley, a Westmeath native and curate in Tullamore, was head of the management team. He proved to be an immensely popular man over the years but not on this particular day.
“Just before we went out on the field, Fr Gilhooley came to me and said, ‘I’ll have to take the jersey back. We’re not going to play you because if Westmeath play Turlough O’Connor, which I think they’re going to do, we can object’. So I was broken-hearted, cried me eyes out.”
The game was played as the curtain raiser to the Offaly-Longford senior tie, in which Tom was to play in goal. He arrived early to watch his brother play but when he saw no sign of Martin as the teams emerged, he went down to the dressing room to look for him. He found him in floods of tears. Tom was enraged and initially refused to line out for the senior team. Bizarrely, the game started without him before he finally took his place in goal. Although county board chairman Fr Edmund Vaughan didn’t appear to have a direct involvement with Martin’s omission, Tom wasn’t in any doubt his fingerprints were daubed all over it. As it happened, O’Connor played in the minor game, Westmeath won and went all the way to the All-Ireland final with Offaly’s objections amounting to nothing.
Martin’s dalliance with soccer threatened to go further too. Séamus O’Brien, manager of Athlone Town, got in touch wondering if he’d sign for them. He was picked to play against Drumcondra one Friday night in Tolka Park. However, he was struck down by flu and had to pull out. He didn’t bother going back after that. It’s not a decision that keeps him awake at night.
“The same camaraderie wouldn’t have been in it that you would have with the Gaelic. That was the end of that anyway. I preferred playing GAA. It was more natural to me I guess.”
Sadly, Tom and Martin never got to play championship football together for club or county.
Tom’s 3-7 haul against St Rynagh’s in the 1963 quarter-final proved to be his last senior football championship game in Offaly prior to his suspension and Martin would make his debut in the semi- final against St Mary’s. They did play together in a few challenge games before that though, one of them against Ballinasloe. A row broke out around the Tullamore goal and one of the Ballinasloe forwards got stuck into Martin. Tom raced from full-forward and barely broke stride before flattening the aggressor with a box. The match was quickly abandoned.
Alo Kelly, the former Offaly star, was team trainer and still played up front but had filled in as goalkeeper in the St Rynagh’s game. Joe Bracken, a long-time team mate of all the Furlong brothers, went to Kelly and insisted that he promote Martin to the goalkeeping position.
“We needed a goalie,” says Bracken, “and I had seen Martin Furlong playing about three weeks before that for Tullamore minors and he was great. I got down on my knees and I asked Kelly. We were playing the army up in the Curragh in a challenge match and I said, ‘Give this lad a feckin’ run because I think he’ll be great’. I could see the potential and he’d been on the Offaly minor team as well and if he was good enough for the Offaly minor team in them years, he was good enough for Tullamore.”
With Tom having accounted for all but two points of Tullamore’s 3-9 against St Rynagh’s, people wondered where the scores were going to come from against St Mary’s in the semi-final. It was a game unique in Martin Furlong’s career, not just for the fact it was his senior championship debut for the club, but that he and his defence didn’t concede a single score as Tullamore, bizarrely, won by 2-9 to 0-0.
He had only just turned 17 and wasn’t exactly a commanding figure in the physical sense, say, compared to his brother Tom before him. In an era when goalkeepers were a hunted species by burly forwards, who could let them catch the ball and then plant them in the net, there was potential for carnage.
“You were open season,” says Martin of the goalkeeping trade back then. “It didn’t bother me, sure I had the finest of men outside me. I had good backs; I had Brendan Dagg, Dickie Conroy, Dermot Keegan. Outside that you had Phil O’Reilly, Tom Hayden and Gabriel Hayden. There was nobody going to hit me too handy.”
Like many of Tullamore’s county titles, they overcame indifferent form for much of the year to transform themselves come the business end of the competition. They beat Gracefield comfortably in the final. Having played in four county finals and won none before reaching the age of 18, Tom at least got a medal for the 1963 success, even if he was suspended for the final. The seven-year gap to Tullamore’s previous senior football title was the longest in the club’s history and the team toasted the success in Jack Digan’s pub on the Kilbeggan Bridge.
Club football wasn’t the limit of Martin’s ambitions, however. More so than when his brothers were emerging, there was an allure to playing for Offaly when he was coming of age on the back of the ’60/61 teams. He was still eligible for the minor grade in 1964 and would play a central role in one of Offaly’s most important and treasured successes — the 1964 All-Ireland minor final against Cork.
By now, most of the 76,498 crowd that would watch the senior final was present in Croke Park as Cork thundered up the field one last time. Playing into the Hill 16 end, they won a sideline ball over by the Cusack Stand. Midfielder Jim Downing arrowed the ball in the direction of the edge of the square, where Tim F Hayes, the big centre-forward, and full-forward Liam ‘Barney’ McAuliffe were lurking. Hayes rose highest and punched the ball goalwards. The ball seemed destined for the bottom right-hand corner of the net but Furlong sprawled cat-like across the goal to smother it on the line.
“It was a great save because I thought we had the goal got,” says Hayes.
Goalkeepers weren’t the protected species they are nowadays. Hayes and McAuliffe descended on Furlong bidding, essentially, to score a pushover try. Offaly full-back John Smith barrelled McAuliffe into the goal, where they got to know each other, while Mick Ryan grappled with Hayes.
“He was brilliant the way he had the ball covered,” Hayes continues. “I was on my knees right in front of him and when he went to get up, I gave him a bit of a shoulder and I thought it was over the line. I was looking at the umpire and there was no flag going up. I must have been the only clown that ever did what I did anyway, but I went over and got the flag and put it up myself. It was right on the line. I got a photograph sent to me some time after.”
“I saved it well outside the line,” Furlong insists. “There’s a photograph somewhere of it well outside the line and they tried to pull me in over the line.”
While Hayes waved the green flag, Loftus opted to give a free out as a result of the onslaught on the keeper. No sooner was it taken but he sounded the long whistle. Offaly were All-Ireland minor football champions. Essentially, it boiled down to that last-gasp save and proved to be a critical victory in the county’s GAA history.
Paddy Fenning, who would win several major honours with Furlong for club and county in subsequent years, was an impressionable 13-year-old in Tullamore who had begged his grandfather to allow him to rent a television that weekend so he could watch the game.
“That, to me, was as important a save as the penalty in ‘82 and any other saves he made,” says Fenning. “I’m not saying we were losers, but we weren’t achievers until then. I’ll never forget looking at the team coming home in O’Connor Square and I saw these guys, you can imagine, 13/14 years of age, heroes.”
“It would have been horrific if it didn’t work out,” says Willie Bryan. “There was a huge effort made that time and, I would say, a lot of money spent on that particular minor team.”
It helped transform the county’s mindset. Eight of the players involved that day would go on to win senior All-Irelands. One of them, McTague, finished the game with 0-9. He was born in Rosscarbery, Co Cork, only a few miles from Tim F Hayes. If his father’s work as a guard hadn’t taken him to Ferbane, he would surely have been starring on that Cork team instead and Offaly mightn’t even have got out of Leinster.
The minor victory of 1964 spawned so much success which followed. For Martin Furlong, the win ranks as the best of his career. Better than Offaly’s eventual breakthrough at senior level and iconic victory of 1982, when he was a central character.
“It was hugely important,” he says. “In Offaly football I’d say it was the most important because it broke the duck, that Offaly could win an All-Ireland. I still believe if we hadn’t won that there’s a fair chance it wouldn’t have happened. It set the road for ‘71 and ‘72, and ‘71 and ‘72 set the road for ‘82.”
When the Offaly hurlers finally emerged as a credible force in the early ‘80s, the footballers’ success in previous years had ploughed a furrow for them to a degree with the county’s famed belligerent fighting spirit already well established. Maybe all those subsequent senior successes would have happened regardless of 1964. But, at the very least, they came easier on the back of it.
The difference in the subsequent fortunes of the two sets of minor players that took part in the curtain raiser at Croke Park that day is stark. Some of the Cork players went on to play senior and others, like Charlie McCarthy and Con Roche, starred for the hurlers but none had stellar football careers.
Eric Philpott was on the senior team that reached the All-Ireland final in 1967, losing to Meath, but his sending off in the minor final hung over him like a cloud. To a certain extent, it still does. That minor football final was the first broadcast live on television. The semi-finals and finals at minor and senior level were the only games shown live all year round back then. Sendings off were few and Philpott’s stuck in a lot of memories.
“It had a fierce effect on my future career because I played in two further All-Irelands, the under-21 in ’65 and the senior in ’67. I was more or less finished then by ‘69 and I missed out on the ‘73 win. It did affect me big time because I was never sent off up to that and never after.
“Down in Cork here, when people talk about me they never say, ‘You were the fella that played in the ’65 under-21 final or the ’67 senior final’, they always say, ‘You’re the fella that was put off in the minor All-Ireland’, because it was on the telly.
“Even the family, like. My brother and my father, Lord have mercy on the two of them, they’re dead. Jaysus, my father particularly was devastated for a good number of years in fairness. He spoke about it for a long time after.”
Philpott has never met Loftus since but in the summer of 2012 he was on holiday in France on the same weekend Cork and Kerry played in the Munster semi-final. There were a number of Irish people staying in the complex and one of them engaged in a bit of banter with him about the game. They got to talking and he revealed that he came from a family in Mayo steeped in the GAA.
“Really?” said Philpott, “what’s your name?”
“Michael Loftus,” came the reply.
“Your father was a referee?”
“He put me off in the ‘64 minor All-Ireland!”
“What did you do?”.
“The funny thing about it,” Philpott replied, “was that it was nothing. I didn’t do anything.”
The Offaly team adjourned to a reception at the Spa Hotel that night. “I remember being in bed, I don’t know whether it was my own room or not,” says Furlong. “Somebody had commandeered some alcoholic refreshments and they were up on the top shelf of the wardrobe and I remember partaking of some of that alcohol!”
A raucous reception awaited them in Tullamore the following evening. The players were piled up on the back of a truck as St Colmcille’s Pipe Band led them through the town and into O’Connor Square. Martin’s family didn’t toss any garlands at him but they passively exuded huge pride in what he had achieved. John would willingly contribute to the conversation when the minor success was brought up for years afterwards down in Wrafter’s pub. “I’d say John was the proudest Furlong of the whole lot of them,” says Martin. “That was how he got to express himself.”
Mick O’Rourke can remember seeing grizzled veterans like Noel McGee and Martin Fitzpatrick, two of John’s closest friends, in floods of tears as they were paraded to the crowd.
“The homecoming was unreal for us, coming down the town in a truck from the railway station,” says Eugene Mulligan. “It was incredible. That time the whole thing of safety, people weren’t as concerned then as they would be now. People were literally in on top of you.”
The captain, Seán Grogan, addressed the masses. “We won’t rest until we have the Sam Maguire Cup here in Tullamore,” he declared.
The Furlongs – The Story of a Remarkable Family, written by Pat Nolan, is published by Ballpoint Press. Proceeds from The Furlongs go to Dóchas, the Offaly Cancer Support Group.
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