ST. EUNAN’S COLLEGE REFLECTS ON NATIONAL SUCCESS.
On a mild Letterkenny and somewhat drizzly evening in early April 2022, just as the gentle smatterings of rain were finishing up, a busload of youngsters returned home to a wondrous welcome after a football match.
A Garda Escort ushered these lads from the Port Road to the grounds of Saint Eunan’s College. A team full of beaming smiles and waves stepped off the coach with a bright shining cup in hand.
Under the night sky, with only the floodlights of the school building shining down on them, cameras flashed and the cheering applause rose up in appreciation of a great sporting success.
This was an impromptu celebration of families, friends, school staff (both former and current), past pupils of the alumni and ex-footballers who had once represented the school so well on the field in times gone by.
When captain, Leon Doherty, stood proudly on the front steps and raised the trophy aloft to a great ovation, this was a celebration, not just for football, but for a community.
Team manager, Michael Kelly, bestowed the title of ‘Heroes’ on his group of talented, highly-motivated players and correctly so.
This is the story behind the now seven-time winners of the FAIS Dr. Tony O’Neill Cup – the country’s most prestigious schools’ tournament – as told by the players, manager and backroom team of Saint Eunan’s College.
By Jonathan Foley
LEADING THE WAY.
Before the afternoon of Wednesday 6th April 2022, there was an all too real possibility that the current seniors of the College would leave the school in June on something of an anti-climax.
For the last two years or so, secondary school students have been forced to live a life of rules, regulations and uncertainty for what must’ve felt like an eternity.
It ran a seriously high risk that their memories of school would’ve been overloaded with dreary talk of being unable to work in groups at school, mandatory mask-wearing, distance-learning, accredited grades, no meeting up with friends, no discos, no going on ‘the shift’ and, for a long time, they weren’t even allowed to play football.
There’s an old proverb that states that the ‘night is darkest just before the dawn.’
Despite the abundance of barricades and enforced ordinance that these youngsters had to endure, it could be argued that they banished a lot of that built-up angst when Tiernan Brown’s 90th-minute penalty in Athlone struck the net.
With one trusted swing of his clinical left boot – where the ball almost took the netting off the goalposts, such was its velocity – Brown had secured a 3-2 for the College over Waterford side De La Salle in the dying moments of the FAIS Senior Cup Final.
Much more than that, as was evidenced by the inevitable pitch invasion around two minutes later, he along with his gallant comrades, had gifted the Eunan’s boys with a new memory of their school days.
One which they could cherish, treasure and behold forevermore.
Having had time to digest that success, players Leon Doherty, Ryan Creevy, Jay Maguire, David Boakye and Tiernan Brown took time out from revision to share their thoughts and feelings about how it’s been since being crowned All-Ireland senior champions.
“The first few days afterwards, for us anyway, I don’t think it had really set in. We were still in pure elation. It’s such a great feeling to be All-Ireland winners and the support we got from the teachers and our fellow students in the school was nothing short of amazing,” told captain Leon Doherty.
“My own memories from the game were probably when the heads could’ve gone down when we went 2-1 behind in the second half, but the way we dug in and how it ended with Tiernan’s last-minute penalty will be the main images that stick with me from the day. That and lifting the trophy at the end, of course,” he added.
“To be honest, I was bricking it when I stepped up to take it,” Tiernan admitted. “I was just focused on making sure I hit the target, but we had watched the semi-final and knew that their keeper had a tendency to dive a bit early, so I just planned on firing it down the middle and thankfully it worked out.
“If you look at the video of the goal, you’ll probably see that I didn’t react immediately. It seemed to take that extra few seconds to sink in, but as I say, I was very nervous taking that penalty, and when it went in, I think the main emotion I had was just pure relief. It’s a memory that will stick with me forever though,” he recalled.
“Surreal is the best way I could put it,” recalled David. “The support we got from so many people has been amazing. It’s come from everyone in the school, our own parents, families and friends and it’ll definitely be the best memory I take from my time here at the school”.
“I’ll admit I’m still a bit lost for words about it all,” Ryan Creevy acknowledged. “Leading up to the game, you’re just hoping to do well, but you’re never sure if you’re going to win it. Then when you do, it’s just very special. Maybe after we won the Ulster title against Carndonagh, we started to think we will go the whole way, but it’s hard to name a turning point in the season,” he added.
“Since the final, I find a lot of people asking me about it. Sometimes when I go to work, I wear my Eunan’s College tracksuit bottoms and when they notice the crest, they tend to ask me if I was playing with the team and it’s great to be able to tell them that I was”.
As the conversation developed the general consensus was that this particular day in Athlone would become the shared best memory that these youngsters would take with them from their five / six years at the College.
In a modest and respectful manner, they were all fully aware of the relatively short (officially) but nonetheless hugely successful tenure association football, has had in the school’s history.
“Six other teams have done what we’ve done,” Leon said. “It’s something else to be talked about in the same way as those great teams of the past have been. We’re now the seventh winners and I’m sure someday we’ll come back here to the College and see our team photo up on the wall alongside theirs,” he added.
The lads were honest enough to admit that it wasn’t all plain-sailing throughout the season. During the winter months, training numbers had dropped significantly for a time, so a degree of chasing-up had to be incorporated by players and management alike.
Overlooking that, manager Michael Kelly, stayed true to his beliefs that there was a bigger prize at stake if the commitment levels from a number of players was raised. Speaking of their gaffer, the batch of players in this particular interview let us in on some trade secrets about the workings of their boss.
“Mister Kelly’s not so much fire-and-brimstone or hair-dryer treatment. Then again, he’s not overly-tactical in the dressing room either. The best way I could put it is that he’s a good mix of both” Leon said. “He’d put up plenty of posters about what we should do for set-pieces, but I think we’d all agree he’s like Shakespeare when he talks,” he laughed.
“That man’s vocabulary is off the charts. You could tell he’s an English teacher anyway. Sometimes we’d be thinking that we should’ve brought a few dictionaries into the changing rooms with us”, they quipped and laughed together. “Joking aside though, he was genuinely very heartfelt and made us feel like a family”, Leon concluded.
THE TEAM BEHIND THE TEAM.
Ryan Creevy attested “the more experience you have behind you on the sidelines, the better you will train and the better you will play on the day. They don’t just tell you what to do, but also what not to do”.
Essentially, Ryan was making a subtle, yet nonetheless immeasurable thanks to the coaching staff who had guided the team to victory on the national stage.
Largely thanks to the input of Neil Barrett, another past pupil of the school and local business owner, the team was set up with a guided nutritional program in order to prepare in the best way possible.
Leon Doherty revealed that the emphasis on nutrition “was something that we’d never really had before”. “We were often briefed about self-discipline, but having a proper nutrition programme was ideal. We learned a lot about what we should eat and drink just before a game – carb-loading, hydration and isotonic drinks etc – which was a huge help to us on the field”.
While the players confessed to abandoning parts of the plan during the Christmas period, they quickly fell back in line with the diet program once the new year rang in. The sausage rolls in the canteen were put on the back-burner for the time being as they set their sights on success on the pitch.
“I’d say it was the semi-final against Athenry where we all noticed the nutrition plan paying off”, added Jay Maguire. “That was a tough game that went into extra-time. They were tired and we were tired, but I would say that by sticking to the healthy eating agenda, it gave us that little bit extra and helped us go on and win that game late on”.
Another key figure involved in the backroom team was Garrett McDaid.
Well-known in local circles already for his many years of loyal service to Letterkenny Rovers, as a player, a physio as well as numerous coaching roles, he joined the staff at Saint Eunan’s last summer when a role within the Additional Support Needs department became available.
As a former student of the school himself, ‘Gaga’ as he is affectionately known, joined up with Michael Kelly and his troops and was immediately on hand able to offer an abundance of advice based on his own extended experience within the game.
Perhaps on another level, Garrett also had bittersweet memories of this very same competition. In 1996, he was a part of the College side who lost out in that year’s final after going down 1-0 to Drimnagh Castle.
Over a quarter-of-a-century later, and now upon his return to the school, he was granted the opportunity to rectify and maybe even banish the memories of that particular heartache. Joining some of the players taking part in the interview, Garrett reflected on the season that has been.
Garrett explained: “when I came back here as an SNA in September, I was only too delighted to get back involved with the senior team when Michael asked me along to help out. I’d been working with a lot of youth teams and reserve teams at Rovers for a long time, but it was great to come back here and lend a hand”.
“After the first few training sessions, you could tell that there was something there with this team. At first, I wasn’t sure how far we could go but I definitely thought early on that there’s an Ulster in this team at the very least. We left it late in a few games – well maybe all of them actually – but we often dominated teams and that pushed us on”.
Upon arrival to the Ulster final against Carndonagh Community School, Garrett recounted how he believed that a victory in that game, at the provincial level, could be the start of something truly special. Even if it meant keeping those premonitions a secret from the manager.
“I remember going into that game and I turned to Shane McBrearty, who was helping out as a physio that day, and saying that there could be an All-Ireland in this team. I didn’t dare say that to Michael though in case I jinxed it. It was one of those “don’t mention the war” moments around him, I suppose,” he revealed with a typical smile.
Another member to join the backroom team was James Doherty. He’s the first to admit that his invitation to the set-up was with a degree of pure luck.
The Kilmacrenan pocket rocket revealed how he “was called in as a substitute teacher earlier in the year when Michael asked me to take a training session. The numbers weren’t great that day – maybe 12 or so – but they trained well all the same. I could see there was some real talent, but I still spoke to them about making sure they get the numbers up”.
“Later in the year, I was asked back to sub again and around this time, the team was planning a meeting. Once again, Michael asked me to speak to the lads and that was me officially involved. The coaching staff asked me along to the final in Athlone and, of course, I was more than happy to help out where I could”, he added
“In the run-up to the final, I’ve never seen a school team prepared as well as this one. The school rowed in behind them with a pre-match meal beforehand, everything in the warm-up was perfect and I was struck by the understanding they all had of what their roles were. It was as good a preparation as any League of Ireland team could wish for,” he concluded.
Just before wrapping up, the boys discussed how normality was quick to set in once again. Within a few days of that famous cup final, they had to quickly turn their attention to their impending Irish oral exams.
While they had no qualms admitting that there wasn’t much practice done for these on the bus back from County Westmeath that night, they raised a gentle smile about what they remembered seeing and hearing as the bus pulled up at the gates of Saint Eunan’s College.
The spectacle of the occasion wasn’t lost on the management team either.
“It was unbelievable coming down past College Farm Road. You could see the cars and the hundreds of people who had come out to welcome us home”, Garrett recalled.
“Sometimes people who you didn’t even know were that into football stop you on the street to give their congratulations so you can see how much it means to so many people”.
When asked if they were looking forward to the day that they would see their picture go up on the wall, there was again a quiet tip of the hat to the sides who had gone before them.
“The wall that runs along rooms two and three look pretty full-up already, but I suppose that’s a good problem to have, isn’t it?”
IN THIS SIGN, YOU WILL CONQUER.
In the year 2022, the ‘Old Grey Lady’ is approaching its 120-year anniversary and has developed into a most wonderfully diverse and multicultural school.
Among the various creeds, ethnic backgrounds and numerous languages that are observed and echo along the corridors nowadays, Latin may not be a popular method of communication anymore, however, the spirit of ‘In Hoc Signo Vinces’ (‘In this Sign, You Will Conquer’) remains a notable embodiment of the school’s ethos.
For 18 years now, Michael Kelly has been a teacher of English and History at Saint Eunan’s, but his affection and commitment to the school reaches back far beyond the day when he first took up his role as a teacher.
A member of the Eunan’s alumni, he epitomizes all that is good about the school. A man who speaks most eloquently, coupled with a rapid sense of humour to boot, Michael has consistently personified the school’s mission of ‘developing the student as a whole person with tremendous aplomb.
This year, while traipsing and pacing along the touchlines of football fields, his devotion to cohesion came to fruition when his ‘Heroes’ – as he openly called them on the day – lifted the FAIS Dr. Tony O’Neill Cup after a dramatic and enthralling victory in the final.
One month has now passed since that day and he kindly took time out to reflect upon the past season.
“To be honest, I think some of our lads wanted the celebrations to go on a bit longer. Make you want of that,” Michael joked. “In all seriousness though, there’s a great tradition of the sport in this school and now these lads take their place in that history”.
“During Covid, everyone was a bit down in the dumps, especially because they couldn’t even play football. Thankfully we’ve come out the other side as All-Ireland champions. We’ve joined the list of great teams from the past to win our seventh title at this level for the school and these guys now have their own Dr. Tony O’Neill to talk about”, he added.
The College first won this trophy in 1979 and these successes were followed up with back-to-back successes in 1985 and 1986 and that feat was repeated by the classes of 2004 and 2005. Having reached the final in 2020, the powers-that-be declared that the honour would be shared due to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s part of our identity to be successful. There are a lot of great pictures on the wall that celebrate the wonderful achievements of teams of the past, but they’re no longer ghosts-on-the-wall, so to speak. The players who have reached the most recent milestone are in our classrooms and hallways at this very moment in time”, he added.
Often teams who follow in the footsteps of esteemed brethren can go one of two ways. They can either be inspired by what their predecessors have done or they could possibly become daunted and intimidated by it. Michael seems to take his own unique personal approach to this particular topic.
“In the mid-1980s, Michael Houston was the manager; a gentleman in the history of Saint Eunan’s. He was my Irish teacher when I was here, I had him for P.E in first year as well, and in the team photo, I can’t help but notice that he’s sporting a rather dashing Fred Perry jumper. The man just looks resplendent in it”, Michael chuckled.
“Going by his attire, maybe Mickey was something of a Pep Guardiola in the making, even back then. When I look at the 1979 team, I don’t know how far we were behind fashion in those days, but there seems to be a lot of lads sporting haircuts of the Bay City Rollers in that one, so it’s lovely to pick up on all the different eras of our success stories”.
On a deeper level, one of the driving forces behind Michael’s dream of success was celebrating the legacy of the previous generations. Some of it occurred naturally by his recruitment of the backroom team, three-quarters of whom were past pupils, while some historical gems surfaced with a degree of luck.
“History repeated itself in some ways. The 1985/1986 team was sponsored by Jochim Loughrey. He was a boarder here along with his brother, John and he’s an uncle of Johnny, proprietor of JT Physiotherapy. Both Jochim and John were fine players in their own right. They probably played the game here during the days when it was banned. Johnny was a talented footballer himself and acted as physio to this year’s senior team physio as well as being a major sponsor this time around”, he told.
“You can see that I get rather superstitious about these things”, Michael laughed.
In a tribute to Johnny Loughrey, who attended the school between 1997 and 1999 before enrolling at a new school in Milford, Michael expressed profound thanks to him. By his own admission, Michael declared that some of Johnny’s responsibilities were not the most enviable to undertake.
“We can’t thank Johnny enough for all he did for us. He provided excellent physio treatment at no charge to the players and his knowledge and wisdom was second-to-none. Having said that, he sometimes had to be the bearer of bad news. He’d have to break the news about injuries and players missing games and that’s not an easy undertaking”.
Being a History teacher, Michael couldn’t help but notice how things went full-circle again once Tony Blake joined up; initially as a goalkeeping coach and one that was instrumental in the team’s development and success.
“It was just fabulous to be involved and I was delighted to come on board back in October. I think the original plan was to get me in as a goalkeeping coach but my duties quickly grew legs from there, I can tell you”, Tony laughed.
“The night we came home with the trophy, I logged onto my Facebook account and posted that it’s been 38 long years, but now I’d finally won an All-Ireland with Saint Eunan’s College. The guys were great to work with. They bought into everything we told them. Our original focus was to win Ulster – anything after that would be a bonus – but to go all the way in the All-Ireland, it was just magnificent to be a part of it”, he added.
Michael cast his mind back to when the possibility of getting Tony on board became a possibility.
“I was hesitant about asking Tony to help out but this was because of me, not him”, Michael informed. “I’ve this funny tendency whereby I hate asking people for favours … but I’ll still go ahead and ask them anyway! I didn’t like the idea of annoying anyone. Fair play to Gaga for sorting that out and, low and behold, Tony said he was genuinely honoured to be asked along”, he explained.
“We all know that Tony’s father, Eunan ‘Busty’ Blake is right up there with some of the best football players to come out of Letterkenny and is Derry City’s greatest ever right-back”, Michael remarked.
“I had no idea that ‘Busty’ had worked alongside Father Leo Mohan when the school achieved its first national success at senior level in 1979. When Tony subtly revealed this nugget of information on the bus back from one of the latter provincial clashes, I dared to believe that maybe this team may make history.”
Footballers by the name of Blake have an intrinsic legacy with Saint Eunan’s College sporting triumphs. It certainly continued with Tony in 2022. Michael’s superstitious nature and Tony’s personal pilgrimage to Athlone along with a sprinkling of coincidences, Michael described as ‘poetry.’
It is testament to how the Letterkenny community hold Saint Eunan’s College so dear and are naturally pivotal contributors to the school’s identity; past, present and future.
As Tony recalled:
“My father was manager of Finn Harps in the late-seventies and Father Mohan asked him to come in and help him out. Nowadays he’d probably be called a ‘consultancy adviser’ or something like that”, he joked. “But yeah, to have the chance to follow in my dad’s footsteps like that was very special for me.”
In the modern era, training methods and approaches to games are a vital component of any team’s ambitions. With new-age technologies and tactical systems being considered as integral as physical fitness. Michael was also lent support from Letterkenny Rovers Donegal League side manager, Stephen McConnell.
Stephen, a graduate of the College from the Class of 2003, has had great success with his own Rovers side recently. They sealed promotion from Division Two in emphatic style and his input to the Saint Eunan’s side – where many of his own players were also togging out for the school – did not go unnoticed.
Every local club made a huge contribution to the team’s success and were very understanding when our players had to miss their training or games. Undoubtedly, the spine of this Saint Eunan;s team was drawn from Bonagee United.
Youth team manager at Dry Arch Park, Gary McCroary, was one of the key figures operating in the background.
“He organised two friendlies and gabe tremendous support and encouragement from start to finish. We are indebted to Gary for the selfless role he played in our success”, Michael acknowledged.
Michael recounted, “on one hand, Stephen was a sponsor through Sprint Education Supplies, but he was more than that. We played against his teams twice. Obviously, he had his own team to run and he was always very understanding when some of our players had to miss out on games with his team if they picked up a few knocks, so he was great in that regard.”
“He also had the facilities to record games and study them afterward. Through this, we were able to gain a greater understanding of where we needed to improve and develop things as well”, Michael added.
A league title or cup is never won in one day. It takes months, some might say years, to reach that pinnacle. In praise of his captain, Leon Doherty, Michael felt obliged to give an equal measure of thanks to Gareth Nee; an art teacher in the school who had noticed Leon’s leadership qualities when playing for his underage teams in the past.
Throughout the course of one season, there’s more often than not, a significant turning point in the year that sets the alarm bell ringing, however quietly at first, that greatness is within an arm’s reach. For this team, some felt it was the Ulster Final win over CCS, others suggested the late winner in the All-Ireland semi-final.
An abiding memory for the manager came much earlier.
“We have something of an adverse rivalry with Scoil Mhuire [Buncrana], but it’s one based on complete respect. When we played them in the early stages, we came through a titanic battle with them thanks to a 3-2 win. It was a great game and I’m full of admiration for how Paddy Carr had them so well drilled that day”, Michael recalled.
“They’d beaten us in the Brandywell at under-16 level but we learned from that defeat. We weren’t interested in revenge or anything like that. We just stayed focused on ourselves and getting that monkey off our back. We may have won that Ulster quarter-final but they could’ve easily been the best team in the country this year. It was perhaps then that we started to gain that bit of momentum”, he added.
Every manager has their own approach and their own motivations to guide them along the way. Michael Kelly is no different in that regard, but in a moment of self-reflection and self-evaluation – things that come part-and-parcel with being a teacher – he conjured an explanation for, what he believes, works best for him.
“You have to be your own man. That’s something that my father taught me. I was lucky enough to have so many coaches in my own time that I could draw on to help; people like Trevor Scanlon, Ollie Horgan, Paul Browne and Liam O’Donnell to name only a few. I wanted to do things right, to be inclusive but there were times I had to be ruthless too”, he said.
Michael admitted that there were times when he had to rotate players to the bench and made no secret of the fact that he instructed his uncle and his cousin to go and watch De La Selle. He dissected opposing sides by watching them on live streams of their games in a bid to identify and exploit strengths and weaknesses respectively.
Even with all that dossier-like information to hand, there was still time to learn more about the game.
“There’s no better Conseiller than Garrett McDaid. He would remind us to never get too fixated on the opposition. It was a heartening perspective and yes, we could provide the lads with information about who we were facing, the focus was still on us and how good we were. It’s wonderful to have his experience right here on our doorstep”, Michael told.
When Tiernan Brown’s winning penalty came close to bursting the net, loud cheers echoed around the Athlone Town FC Stadium. Fist-pumps and hugs coincided with applause and shouts of encouragement and yet the calmest man there was Michael himself.
“There were still two minutes to play after the penalty. My thoughts were ‘we scored a counter-attack on them in the first half, so there’s no reason why they couldn’t do the same.’ It was that age-old adage that ‘you’re at your weakest after you’ve scored’ but when the final whistle did go, it was just surreal”, Michael recalled.
“Shane McBrearty was on the sideline. He’s a big guy and I think I remember getting a bear-hug off him. Then the other guys all jumped on top of me and all I could hear was the muffled shouts and cheers from the pitch and the stands. My memory of it is a tad hazy, to be honest it was just complete disbelief.”
“The journey home was quite possibly the nicest journey I have ever taken. I was in dreamland. Just sitting there and looking at the trophy at the front of the bus was special. I may have never got to play for Liverpool, but this was something that I’ll never forget. To come home with a Saint Eunan’s team as All-Ireland winners! Phenomenal!”
Just as the team bus exited the Dry Arch roundabout and the town was now coming into sight, there was a momentary pause as the Garda Escort took the reins of leading the coach through town for the cavalcade.
“We stopped on the Port Road for a minute. The Garda were going to be leading us through the town from this point on. I looked around and saw, just a few cars back, Joel Gorman in a car with [his father] Anthony. Joel was the midfield general, along with Jack Dwyer, of our under-17s team that lost out a few years ago, but there he was, cheering us all the way home.”
“If this victory showed us anything, it’s that there’s still an unspeakable amount of goodwill towards Saint Eunan’s College. It showed what it means to the people of this community.”
And with that, the school with the Castle-like structure that overlooks Sentry Hill now has new memories made and a new chapter in its already famous history.