Here's to the George Best of the GAA

Frank McGuigan's groundbreaking career was cut tragically short, writes Michael Nicholas

Frank McGuigan is widely recognised as one of the greatest Gaelic footballers. Not just of the modern era, but of all time. His effortless fielding, combined with an ambitextrous striking ability meant that nobody in Tyrone was surprised when he became a member of Ardboe’s senior team by the age of sixteen, and the holder of three county championship medals before his nineteenth birthday.

McGuigan was born on November 20, 1954, in Lurgyroe, Ardboe. Third eldest of a family of 12, he is son of fisherman Tommy and mother Annie. While their fathers were fishing, he played football with his brothers and neighbouring families on the shores of Lough Neagh.

At the age of six, McGuigan began his playing career with Co Tyrone team Ardboe O’Donovan Rossa. After primary school, he moved to Rainey Endowed, Magherafelt, where he became involved in the game of rugby and was considered a fine player.

In 1968, Ardboe O’Donovan Rossa won their first ever Tyrone Senior Football Championship, with McGuigan as an avid, fourteen-year-old spectator. This win heralded the arrival of Ardboe as a force to be reckoned with on the Tyrone club scene, and from there on they and McGuigan were at the forefront of Tyrone GAA.

The early seventies were years of great glory for McGuigan. When Ardboe won the Tyrone Senior league in 1970, McGuigan picked up his first senior medal, having made his debut as a goalkeeper.

The first of many honours at inter-county level came McGuigan's way in 1971 when Tyrone won the Ulster Minor Football Championship. In the same year Ardboe completed the first of three consecutive Tyrone Senior Football Championships, in which McGuigan played a vital role.

McGuigan had the distinction of playing championship football in three grades for Tyrone in 1972, as well as playing in both minor and senior Ulster finals on the same day.

That year he captained Tyrone minors to another Ulster title and added an Ulster U21 Championship and a Tyrone Senior Championship to his medal haul.

In 1973, aged 19, McGuigan captained Tyrone Seniors to the Ulster Final where he became the first Tyrone man to lift the Anglo-Celt Cup since 1957. He went on to represent Ulster in the Railway Cup.

On October 8, 1977, McGuigan left Shannon airport for New York as a member of the All-Star touring party. But Frank did not return from America with his teammates.

Instead, he found work in the building trade, got married, and started a family. McGuigan returned to help Ardboe through relegation difficulties and to fulfill County duties. It was not until 1983 that he returned to Ireland, and in 1984 he produced his best ever display in the red and white of Tyrone.

McGuigan made GAA history in the 1984 Ulster final against Armagh, when he scored 11 of Tyrone’s total of 15 points - all from play, five with each foot and one with the fist. The exhibition he put on that afternoon in Clones went down in GAA folklore and established him as one of the all-time greats, known affectionately by many as ‘King.’

Tyrone were beaten by Dublin in the subsequent All-Ireland semi-final, and this was to be McGuigan's last appearance. He won another county title that year with Ardboe, but tragically, was involved in a serious car accident returning home from a club game against Moy. This accident proved to be the end of McGuigan's playing career.

McGuigan continues to be involved in his native Ardboe, and his sons continue to represent their county. Frank Jr, Brian, and Tommy have all played for Tyrone in recent years, with Brian the best known, and like his father, an All-Star.

Greg Blaney, former Down footballer and two times All-Ireland winner, described McGuigan as a player who could transform a game with one touch of the ball.

‘Frank McGuigan was an extraordinary talent - the George Best of Gaelic Football. He could excite a crowd by simply catching a ball.’

The memory of McGuigan’s exploits on the playing field still bring pleasure to many and his performance in the 1984 Ulster Final was one of the best ever seen. A fitting finale to a remarkable career.