Sporting Greats Of The North West

Author Richie Kelly uncovers weird and wonderful sporting stories from Derry~Londonderry and beyond

Back in the days when leather footballs were inflated by pumping air into rubber bladders and the Adidas Telstar ball was about to be volleyed on to the stage of the 1970 World Cup, County Donegal was experiencing an upsurge of interest in the game.

Summer football tournaments were a huge attraction, although the football authorities on either side of the border, the Irish FA and the Football Association of Northern Ireland, frowned on aspects of what went on. They offered well-known footballers the chance to play under assumed names, and be handsomely rewarded for their efforts. 

In 1969 Finn Harps entered the senior ranks of the League of Ireland. The 10-2 defeat to Shamrock Rovers in their first home game seemed to justify the scorn of those who felt that these rural boys were really out of their league. By 1974 that tune had changed. Harps won the FAI Cup and qualified for European football – the first of several such adventures. The club had paid its dues.

The stories of those heady days, and many others besides, are described within the covers of Richie Kelly’s recently published Sporting Greats of the North West. Kelly’s capacity to recount these tales is helped not only by the fact that he covered some of them in his role as a sports journalist with BBC Radio Foyle, but that he was also directly involved on occasions as well.

'I played with Finn Harps in the early years and was on the bench the day of that 10-2 defeat to Rovers,' he says in recalling what could vaguely be likened to a Carlos Tevez moment. 'Patsy McGowan, the manager, wanted to bring me on when it was 9-1, but I declined. I didn’t think the large crowd would have appreciated it.'

What readers will appreciate in this collection of over 60 stories is the rich depth of the North West’s sporting heritage. It stretches west from Kelly’s native Donegal across Derry~Londonderry to the Antrim coastline, and southwards into parts of Tyrone. Some six years of research has discovered much new material.

'It became apparent to me that there are people in their 30s and 40s who have no idea of the extent of our sporting heritage and what this part of the world has achieved,' remarks Kelly.

'There may not be world famous sports people, but there are many extraordinary examples of resilience from people, particularly in the times before grants were available and people had to work for a living and train at the same time.

'It’s an incredible achievement that, in spite of all the turmoil of the time, Derry sent four competitors to the 1972 Munich Games: swimmer Liam Ball, boxers Charlie Nash and Neil McLaughlin, and Terry Watt in judo.

'They were so used to the disruption of life here that they were better able to deal with the impact of the terror attack on the Olympic village.'

Kelly’s writes of the villages and parishes where cricket, gaelic football and boxing dominate. The exploits of Donemana, St Johnstone, Brigade and Limavady are given added spice by the gypsy curse that is believed to have afflicted Ardmore cricket club.

'I recall once an irate listener calling Radio Foyle and wanting to know why we gave so much air time to cricket,' says Kelly. 'I reminded him that many of the players in the North West leagues had played test cricket around the world. This was at a time when some parts of the country were against the use of professionals.'

For every Dekker Curry and Boyd Rankin mentioned in the pages of Sporting Greats Of The North West, there is also a Henry Downey and Eamonn Coleman who have given everything for gaelic football.

'I was lucky enough to be in the Derry dressing room after they beat Cork in the 1993 All Ireland final at Croke Park,' adds Kelly. 'Downey was an immense captain and his commitment was epitomised by that famous remark about being "a player first and captain second, because the other way you get beat".'

Another branch of the Kelly clan put the city’s name on the map when Jimmy ’Spider’ Kelly won the British and Empire featherweight titles in 1938. 16 years later, Jimmy’s son Billy made history by winning the same belts.

Beyond the wicket creases, punch bags and penalty spots, Kelly’s book gives athletics, swimming and rugby their place. How many are aware of the toil and dedication of marathon runner Danny McDaid, for instance, or the enormity of the decision by City of Derry, Ireland and Lions number eight Ken Goodall, who switched to professional rugby league despite the club’s historic league and cup double.

The city’s swimming club, meanwhile, was the first in Ireland to embark on a trip to the United States in 1980. They took the easy way and flew there.

And for those who might feel that football appears to dominate, is it any wonder? The incredible stories of how Derry City descended into despair and disappeared from the Irish League only to return again in the League of Ireland is full of intrigue. So, too, John Crossan’s first-hand account of how his professional career was blighted by a ban imposed by the Football League.

'There are a lot of fine books about sport in the North West, but not one of them encapsulates them all together,' says Kelly. 'I hope that this will go some way to letting everyone know how special this part of the country is.'

Sporting Greats Of The North West by Richie Kelly is published by Guildhall Press Price £11.95.