Forty years ago a great Callan United soccer team won the First Division - now the Premier Division - of the Kilkenny and District League against all of the odds. They plucked the title from the clutches and near dominance of Kilkenny City clubs, writes Barrie Henriques
In recent times the Premier Division has been dominated in the main by Freebooters or Evergreen. It was somewhat the same back in 1973 when the tiny Callan United club set out on the road of expectation.
Not that there was anything tiny about the presence offered to opposition within and outside of the county as the Callan boys earned the admiration and respect of many. The most startling element of the achievement was that the Callan United team of 1973/74 had a playing compliment of 13 players, which was decimated even further when the ace goalkeeper, Paddy Kennedy was forced to emigrate with his young bride, Marion, a week before the League final play-off against Valley Rovers in Tennypark.
And talking about one of the bravest goalkeepers in the local amateur game that I have ever seen, the bearded Kennedy was very upset when he did not line out against Valley Rovers in that League play-off. It is a story worth the telling really.
Callan were flying close to annexing the Premier Division. Kennedy had never missed a game in the entire 18-match League campaign, nor in the McCalmont Cup campaign from which they exited early after a heavy defeat by Mooncoin.
Off to Toronto
He had planned to emigrate to Toronto, and he specifically had planned to depart after the last game of the season. To put themselves in an unassailable (probably) League winning position thus fulfilling Kennedy’s ambitions of departing with the title bagged, United had to beat Spa United in Johnstown in their last league game.
But there was a sting in the tail of that expectation. Valley Rovers had fallen way behind - four games in fact - the Callan lads. In the opinion of the majority of football enthusiasts in the county, Valley Rovers were not perceived as a team that could achieve the unachievable.
They had some outstanding players including Buggys, Fr Sean Scanlon and others. In a tight schedule for them, they stormed through their back log, ending with the same number of points as Callan. There were no scoring averages, differences, head-to-heads or such in those times. It was play-off!
Kennedy and his young bride were on their way to Toronto. There was a silver lining in the story, but more anon.
Let’s rewind to the origins of the story. Callan United had already won the McCalmont Cup in 1971/72 and repeated the feat a season later. They had established a reputation of being hard buckos, who could play a bit.
Nobody would have chosen to play Callan on their own patch, if they were offered an alternative. Their cup experiences had welded them into a well formed unit, with a great unity of purpose. They feared nobody. They were trying for the hat trick of cup wins in 1973/74, but they bowed out earlier than expected.
Even though they had demonstrated that they could match the best from any quarter, their numbers didn’t exactly explode. In the Premier year, they had 13 players, and it was a rare occurrence to use any of the subs such was the determination of the lads on the pitch.
There is a joke told of the time - yet to be verified - that when one of the subs was asked to go on in a particularly
tough encounter he was heard to reply to the manager: “I will in me a... I go on and we get bet, and I get blemt (blamed)”.
There was a tremendous sense of unity among the team. Facilities were Spartan, primitive even. The team used the underground floor of the local courthouse as a club rooms, and a dressing room, for themselves only. It was probably the dungeons in earlier times. No room for visitors.
Always got tae
Recently I was talking to Johnny ‘Gypo’ Freaney about times past.
“I loved going to Enniscorthy. There was always a huge crowd at the game, with a lot of screaming women. It was a long way from Callan, but it was the only place I ever got a sup of tae at half time. I remember on one occasion, Mossy (Power) was so cold, that the mug fell out of his hands. Tae gone,” Johnny recalled.
At home in Callan, Sergeant Tim O’Shea got permission for the club to use the underground facilities. There was no electric light, and players togged off in candle light. Dan Roche was charged to maintain the candlelight. On one occasion, I remember he had forgotten the candle.
Shops were closed (no opening on Sunday afternoons), but the redoubtable Dan raced off and returned with half a dozen penny candles ……… from the parish church across the street. There was only one practice football, and a match ball that was protected like the Kohinoor Diamond.
The costs of running the club were demanding. Everything is relative. The membership was about ten shillings. It cost three shillings to get the jerseys cleaned. On one occasion the club didn’t have sufficient funds to pay the referee.
To the knowledge of the members, there should have been somewhere in the region of £14 in the club kitty, but for reasons eventually unearthed, the money was gone.
Then there was the story of Callan’s first entry into the McCalmont Cup. Short of a goalkeeper, a likely lad was ‘found’ in Kilkenny City who professed to be a ’keeper. Dean Rovers beat Callan 6-0.
Getting back on the Callan bus after the game, the misfortunate ’keeper apologised to the manager, Dick Roche.
“Dick, I’m terrible sorry,” to which Dick replied in his own inimitable way, “so am I for pickin’ ya.”
The manager of the time was Johnny Power (Mill Street). He was excitable and very fair-minded. He always loved to win the Fair Play Award. Some of his players had greater ambitions, much to Johnny’s chagrin.
Dan Roche (secretary) and Willie Roche (postman) - not related - were staunch selectors, who could see no wrong in their players. Unfortunately both Dan and Willie have gone to their eternal reward, but Johnny is still with us.
Even now, after 40 years, Johnny, in poor health, still maintains that his team were all “geniuses”. Recently he referred to an article we had on Highview’s Mick Murphy.
“They were all great men in Highview,” he insisted. “There was a woeful slope on their pitch. The likes of Reddy, and the Kavanaghs were great, but Murphy was a rale Georgie Best.”
He wasn’t quite that good Johnny, we prodded.
“Well he was his first cousin,” he replied quick as a flash.
Speaking to ‘Gypo’ Freaney, he harboured great memories of that historic run to the Premier League title.
The quality of the games in those times was good Johnny?
“I remember around that time we had to travel to Thurles and Cahir, and I remember going to Enniscorthy Town too,” he opened. “Many of the Peake Villa lads later played with Thurles Town in the League of Ireland under the former Manchester United goalkeeper, Pat Dunne. In our division we had Evergreen, Valley Rovers, Emfa, Thomastown, Highview, East End and others.
“We played 18 games and won 12, drew one and lost five, three of them at home. We scored 50 goals (conceded 39), an average of over two and a half goals per game. Noelie (his brother) was top scorer with 18 goals, followed by ‘Nobby’ (McCormack RIP) with 13.”
John Brennan was a no-nonsense type midfielder who delighted in the challenge of dirty ball. He never flinched, and he never took anything other than a straight line to the oppositions goal.
“We had nothing else to do at the time,” he continued. “We trained as hard as anyone else, as training goes. I’d say that togetherness was the secret of our success. We stood shoulder to shoulder, and we minded one another at all times.
“Not too many teams liked coming to Callan, while we, on the other hand looked forward to the challenge presented in places like Enniscorthy, Graignamanagh, Thurles and Johnstown. Personally I loved going into the City teams. They had some terrific players, and I loved lowering their colours on the occasions it happened.
“We won because we didn’t contemplate anything other than a win,” he insisted.
Jimmy McCormack, one of three McCormack brothers in the team, was the youngest by far of the 13 man panel. During the previous two seasons of McCalmont Cup success, he craved getting into the team.
Bursting to get run
“With Mick and Nobby on the team, I was bustin’ a gut to get in, but for the entire two seasons I was forced to sit on the bench and bide my time,” he recalled. “I would get a little time if Tony (Condon) got injured, which was rare, but that was it. At home after the games, Nobby and Mick would be talking about this or that, but I felt aggrieved that I just couldn’t break into the starting eleven.
“But in ’73 there was no happier lad around than myself when Johnny Power told me that I was in. I was not 17 years of age, but I didn’t care about getting in with the big boys. It was tough for a young lad but the likes of yourself and Brennan and Tom McCormack were always looking out for me.
“I loved every minute of it, and the team ethic was, in my opinion, central to the success we enjoyed, a success that has not been earned since,” he reminded. “I never forgot what Nobby, God Rest him, said to me one evening at home. Nobby, in addition to being my brother, was my hero. My boots were all muck, and he just said to me, polish them boots and walk out a proud man.’Twas only years afterwards that I knew what he meant.”
How strong was that First Division, Noel?
“It was never stronger than around our time,” he felt. “It really was a South East Leinster League with teams from Tipperary, Wexford, Carlow and Laois competing. When we won the title, teams like Freebooters, Enniscorthy, Lions, Paeke Villa were in the Second Division. Even now when I reflect, the quality of the players around were very good.
“We had the Evergreen lads like Connery, Rusty (Scanlon) God be Good to him, Jordan (Eugene), Larry Drennan all great players. Then we faced the likes of Murphy, Liam Reddy, the Kavanaghs and the Prendergasts in
Graignamanagh. There were none of them lads easy,” he said.
“I think that much of our confidence came from being so close most of the time, and the long-distance travel helped too,” said ‘Gypo’. “Jackie Nolan and his driver, John Hogan, drove us all over the South East.
“We always had great support at home, and we filled Nolan’s bus on every away trip. I can still see the likes of Gerry and Dolly Guiton, Ben McCormack, Richie and Maisie Condon, Tommy Grant, Joe Kennedy,Tommy Hickey and many others on that bus. That certainly helped the cause too,” he assured.
What teams caused the greatest trauma for you that year, ‘Gypo’?
“Valley Rovers certainly did,” he said without hesitation. “Evergreen were always formidable, as were Ormondevilla. Ber Scott played with them at the time. He was a remarkable footballer.
“Then there was a very young Emfa, who pulled a lot of support from the St Kieran’s seminary. I particularly remember a Ray Fulton. As we have already said, Graignamanagh were superb too. Spa too were very tough. They had lads from Rathdowney like Johnny Keegan, a magnificent player, a Fitzpatrick, Peter Quigley, and a left back by the name of O’Brien.
“Then they had the Ryans’, P.J., Joe, Paschal and Laddy, Ger Henderson (when not hurling with Kilkenny) and more. Freebooters the year afterwards were a team of all talent. When they got promoted, they came with the likes of Dessie Murphy, Nicky Walsh, Ma Cody, Pat Mulcahy, John Gargan, John and Dan Brennan. I don’t think that there is quality around like many of those now.
“They were totally dedicated, with a great passion for proving that they were the best there was,” said the man who scored eight goals on the run to the title.
What memories had you of the final, Noel?
“Because Valley Rovers were so far behind in their schedule, I felt that after we beat Spa up in Johnstown, that the Title would be ours,” came the reply. “I never expected them to win all four games. Then things took an unexpected twist in that one of the Valley back games was postponed, and that finished Kennedy’s expectations of being available in the still unlikely possibility of there being a play-off.
“I remember Mossy (Power) got injured before the Spa game, and the selectors put you back to mark their danger man, Johnny Keegan. That certainly worked. Nobby, who was a terrific leader on the field, grabbed a great goal, and Tom McCormack got a second. How our backs held out that day is still a mystery to me.
“Yourself, Mick and Tony were on fire. Kennedy would have stopped a Pamplona bull that day if he came at him. We were going well in the first 20 minutes of the final, but then Valley stormed into the fire. They were hardy boys.”
A bogey team
“They were a fierce bogy team for us,” piped in ‘Gypo’. “They could have played us five times and if we could win more than one, it would be a bonus,” he said.
We could have lingered longer, but time and space were our enemy. However, when one reflects on the enormity of the Callan achievement, one can only laud and acclaim the dedication and pride the success and the achievement of a bunch of 13, reduced to a dozen honest, decent Callan young men in winning the Blue Ribband of Kilkenny football against a groundswell of improbability.
In muck and frost, in rain and darkness, under the light of a candle, they faced adversity, addressed the challenge with ambition and courage and won. That was all of 40 years ago.
The feat has not been replicated. Bravo to all involved!
Squad - Paddy Kennedy, Paddy ‘Nobby’ McCormack, Mick McCormack, Mossy Power, Tony Condon, Jimmy McCormack, Noel Freaney, John Brennan, Barrie Henriques, Johnny ‘Gypo’ Freaney, Tom McCormack, John Kirwan, Mick Corcoran. Manager - Johnny Power.
Selectors - Willie Roche and Dan Roche (Collins Park, both deceased).