The All-Ireland club championships started in 1971 – and what a competition that has turned out to be. Second only to winning the Sam Maguire Cup! I was proud captain in 1970 when we won our fifth championship in seven years and so qualified to play in the first Leinster club championship. When we were at full strength we had a strong team well able to handle ourselves in the more physical aspects but with plenty of stylish and talented footballers as well to match the best.
But when we met our neighbours from Gracefield, the champions of Offaly and one of the top counties in the game at the time, in O’Moore Park, we were unfortunately short one third of our team – and what a third we were missing – Pascal Delaney, Alfie Lewis, Mick McDonald, Tom Walsh and Harry Mulhaire. They were fit to play on any county team so it seemed we were just fulfilling the fixture. But we had good players to fill the gaps and we had the never-say-die attitude of the great Portlaoise teams. In a game that could have gone either way right up to the last kick, the bounce of the ball went Gracefield’s way – and they went on to capture the first provincial club title.
With Mick Murphy now as captain, Portlaoise beat The Heath in the county final to earn a second bite of the cherry. Pascal, Tom O’Reilly and myself missed the opening round through injury. Our opponents were the Offaly champions once again, but this time it was Tony McTague’s and the Grogans’, Ferbane and we were playing at their venue. If you are to succeed at the top you need some luck on your side and we surely had it that day. My good friend and fellow Grattan Street man, John (Fornie) Walsh, was no mean hurler but had never played senior championship football in his life. Yet he donned the jersey and came to our aid that day. Out of the blue he found the net to earn us victory. This was surely the stuff of dreams!
Having put away the Carlow champions, Tinryland and then a strong Carbury team in the semi-final, we qualified to meet the Westmeath kingpins, Athlone in the final. In the Carbury game we were in bother in the opening half and it took a great goal from Harry Mulhaire to keep us in touch. Eamon “Atch” Whelan came on with Pascal on the restart. “Atch” had one arm in a sling yet he set the place alight by sending over a point at the first touch. Pascal then sent a great delivery to his brother, Brian, for a super goal. We had to come from behind, as we did in every game, and that helped us feel almost invincible.
In the final in Carlow we were soon brought back down to earth. Athlone rang rings around us in the first half and led us by 1-8 to 0-4 at half-time. Within a matter of minutes of the restart we were all of eleven points down and our heads were beginning to droop. Then the sideline made a few astute switches and little by little we edged ourselves back into the game. The sideline men that day were Ned Harkin, Tommy Keogh and Martin O’Sullivan and lets not forget the invaluable part played by the former Tipperary hurling genius and gentleman, Phil Shanahan, as trainer and coach.
We were only a goal down and still ten minutes to go. But now it was Portlaoise who were calling the shots. Brian Delaney was brought down in the small square and John Fennell found the net with a magic touch from the spot. Then Harry Mulhaire, who was supreme that day, sent over two beauties and, all of a sudden, it was our day after all. It was another “never-say-die” performance – probably the greatest comeback in not only our club’s history but in the history of the competition.
As this was my first year as club chairman as well as player it was a day of double delight for me. Delight to be chairman of my beloved Portlaoise, working with some of the great clubmen such as Bill Phelan, Jimmy Cotter, Paddy Brennan and so many other great townies, and playing with such wonderful club legends of that or any era.
We went on to play Derry champions, Bellaghy, in the middle of a much troubled North, with armed British soldiers all round the pitch and army helicopters flying over our heads. It did not intimidate the men from Bellaghy and it did not intimidate us Portlaoise men, either. It was a battle royal and two Bellaghy points in injury time left them one ahead. And, of course, Bellaghy won the All-Ireland. Unfortunately all too many of our comrades from that golden era have gone to their rewards. Giants of men and friends to the last! We remember them with pride.
It was a campaign to spur on other Portlaoise teams into the future and one that helped us become the top club in Ireland in the years ahead. Now fifty years later it is just a memory but a memory that all of us that were part of it will never want to forget. Despite the journey and the risks involved, I remember, we had a great following that day, and their vocal support kept us up to the job. Every one that was at either the Leinster final or the game against Bellaghy will all have very special memories of those two days.
Now, after so many stunning campaigns there is a little lull for our teams on the playing field. But our club has shown down through our history what we can do when our backs are to the wall. We will rise again like the phoenix, on the field and off the field, with all the passion and goodwill there behind us always – the greatest supporters in Ireland – and wise counsellors to run the show. So we can look back with pride and look forward in confidence.
C’mon the Town!
Portlaoise: Mick Mulhall, Mick Murphy (Capt.), Jim Hughes, Mick McDonald, Tom Walsh, Teddy Fennelly, John Grant, Mick Dooley, Cyril O Meara (0-1), John Fennell (1-6), Harry Mulhare (1-3), Larry Dunne, Brian Delaney (0-1), Pascal Delaney, Mick Carroll.
Sub: Louis Harkin.
The referee was Paul Kelly (Dublin).