He saw off Kerry’s Tom Spillane and Meath hard man Mick Lyons in the space of a few mad weeks almost 20 years ago. So what ever became of Down powerhouse and All-Ireland winner Peter Withnell? Brendan O’Brien tracked him down
HE was 21 before he made his senior debut with Down and just 28 when he called time on his inter-county career but Peter Withnell squeezed all he could from his playing days.
In one memorable four-week period in Croke Park in 1991, he terrorised the Kerry defence and went toe to toe with big, bad Mick Lyons. But his is a career that can’t simply be shoehorned into one summer, or even one code.
As a Protestant growing up in the village of Drumaness, soccer was his first love. Withnell simply never thought about trying his hand at Gaelic football until he was persuaded to give it a go by some friends one day when he was 16.
It worked out well for all concerned.
He was big and stocky, had a good spring and a dependable pair of hands. The men on the line took one look and knew that they had been gifted a ready-to-go full-forward.
From then on, Withnell would juggle his soccer and GAA commitments. For the most part, he was able to keep both balls in the air but his refusal to drop one for the other sometimes left him with tough choices.
“It was quite hard at times but I loved playing both codes and I always kept myself in great shape. People felt I should have knocked the soccer on the head and concentrated on the Gaelic because there was a feeling I was better at it.”
That didn’t matter.
Soccer had colonised his heart long before Gaelic began to woo him. As a teenager, he was invited over to England for trials with Leicester and then Reading, where a broken leg was compounded by homesickness.
The Irish League offered him the promise of home comforts and game time and over the years he had spells on the books of Ballymena United, Larne, Glenavon, Cliftonville and Crusaders.
Dundalk came calling at one point, too, and Withnell spent over four seasons with the Louth club, during which time he won a League of Ireland medal, finished top scorer and played European football.
He was approaching his mid-20s and at Oriel Park when Mick McCarthy’s Millwall approached with another shot at life in England. The offer on the table was a nine-week trial and wasn’t tempting enough for Withnell to bite.
He had fewer suitors in Gaelic circles at first despite featuring on a Drumaness underage panel of considerable talent. A handful of county minor trials came and went and, though Withnell made it as far as the final auditions every time, he never survived the final cut. “After two or three times I got fed up of that, as kids would, and I said ‘right, I’ll move on’.”
Except he didn’t. He continued to play his club football and recognition finally arrived in 1990 when Pete McGrath drafted him into the senior panel. His debut followed that October in a league game against Cork in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
Down lost by a point but the rookie claimed a goal. Three more league games and the three Ulster championship ties passed by without him raising another flag of either colour but McGrath kept faith with him and was repaid in spades.
The 91 All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry was to be his breakthrough album. Withnell finished the game with 2-1 off Tom Spillane. The goals came in the first and fourth quarters and his point was just inches from being a third goal instead.
It wasn’t just the scores but the manner of them. Both goals were clinical low shots delivered at full pelt. Charlie Nelligan had little or no chance. That seven points separated the sides. He had arrived.
Down were flush with forwards that summer. Mickey Linden, James McCartan, Greg Blaney and Ross Carr but Withnell’s emergence provided them with the target man they had previously lacked.
“Peter really did appear out of nowhere,” says Linden. “He made a huge impact in 91. That sheer size and stature was something we had never had before. He caused havoc.
“Even nowadays, having a big man at centre-forward has impact. Peter replaced Ambrose (Rogers) Sr but they were different players. Peter was in the mould of Eoghan O’Gara for Dublin this year.”
The country woke up to him after Kerry. Reporters, sucked in by the combination of his meteoric rise, his religion and his soccer background made a beeline for him.
An extra layer of colour was added to the story when it emerged that he had stepped onto a six-inch nail some days before while working as a joiner and had to have a piece of the intruding object removed from his foot.
As it transpired, the full forward’s scoring was already done for the year although some Down supporters remember his tussle with Meath’s bogeyman of a full-back with even greater affection. One banner on the red-and-black bedecked Hill 16 that day read: ‘Withnell tames Lyons’.
Lyons played with an injury and was taken off in the second half. Martin O’Connell was assigned to Withnell with good effect but the Down full-forward cared little about the identities of the men marking him.
“From Pete McGrath’s point of view, my game was probably all about my strength. I had no fear and I was quick. The whole full-forward line was quick but I was there to win the ball. I suppose I was a bit of a battering ram.
“I was on Mick Lyons in the final and people feared him. I respected him but I didn’t fear him. I treated everyone the same and I thrived on guys like that, I thrived on getting a wallop. I’d just say ‘right, I’ll get you back for that’.
“When I look back on it, the amount of times I was fouled in a scoring position was huge. I probably contributed 10 frees in scoreable positions per game but I felt I was better at midfield. I thought I had more to offer there.”
He would contribute less and less as the years went by. In 1992, he featured in almost as many games as the year before despite Down’s truncated season but what followed was a long and drawn-out goodbye.
In November of ‘92, he wasn’t considered for an NFL game against Offaly after playing for Drumaness Mills in a local soccer league. Down had a rule at the time forbidding players from other sport commitments during the season. He returned two months later, left the panel again, came back… and on it went. By the time, McGrath took Down back to an All-Ireland final in 1994, he was having to make do with rare appearances here and there.
A sub in the Ulster final defeat of Tyrone, he went unused against Cork and Dublin but his lack of game-time hasn’t in any way devalued his second Celtic Cross in his own eyes.
“It is about a 30-man panel. We all played a part. There might be one guy who gets a goal and he is a hero but the guys sitting on the bench are putting in the same commitment.”
Memory tells him that his last game for Down was in 1997. He was still turning out for Dundalk at the time and he makes a vague mention of another falling out with the county that prodded him on his decision to retire.
Future marriage plans provided another compelling reason but, contrary to what some believe, he was not hounded out by a wave of sectarian abuse from the terraces.
“There were one or two idiots but it was the same in the soccer. It was just because I had a strange name and we all know what the north was like during the 80s and the 90s. There was a few scumbags who would turn up at games but that was it.”
His inter-county career had been meteoric but his GAA longings have lingered. He featured in a Masters International Rules series against Australia last year and turned out for Clonduff veterans only last Sunday.
He still turns out for the local soccer club now and again, but this week the focus has been on Down and an increasingly fraught search for an elusive ticket. “I’ll be alright,” he says. “I’ll not be left outside.”
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