Fergal Murray: a unique place in Westmeath GAA history
With the Dublin football juggernaut continuing to monotonously saunter through the so-called race for the Delaney Cup, there seems to be little or no chance in the near future of a Westmeath man replicating the unique achievements of outstanding former Athlone defender, Fergal Murray.
Indeed, ‘former’ is a term which can only recently be labelled to Fergal who proudly represented his club at senior level aged 41 (he turns 43 next September). His medal haul will take some equalling, never mind beating – a Leinster winner as a senior, U21 and minor, and in the latter two cases Luke Dempsey’s charges went on to win All-Ireland titles. “A nice record to have”, is how Fergal modestly describes it.
Fergal, the third eldest of six children, spent the first six years of his life in Mullingar, the homeplace of his civil servant father Bill, who sadly passed away three years ago. Bill and his wife Rosaleen (née Noonan), a native of Athlone, moved to the Shannonside town, a switch which was to benefit the cause of many blue and white-hooped teams for three decades, with Fergal starting as the youngest player on the senior side in 1996 and ending up as the oldest in 2019.
Bill (“a very quiet and unassuming man”) and his brother Joe, still hale and hearty and living in Mullingar, “trailed the country” in support of Fergal, who provided them with so many fabulous memories in the maroon and white colours.
Fergal’s first year in school was in Mullingar before switching to St Mary’s NS in Athlone and then the Marist Brothers primary school. “That’s where I took up football. Our teacher was Tommy Greally from Ballygar and he also trained the Athlone U12 team. I have a Cumann na mBunscol medal from when we beat Cornamaddy NS in the final. Our strategy that day was for two of us, two small lads, to jump on the back of ‘Shaugho’ (David O’Shaughnessy) to keep him down. And it worked! He was that big compared to the rest of us,” Fergal reflects.
In his second level education at Marist College, Fergal won a couple of North Leinster Leagues “but didn’t really make an impression in the Leinster championship despite the best efforts of John Parker and John Kinahan”. Indeed, Fergal compares his alma mater, near-perennial bridesmaids in the race for the Bro Bosco Cup, with Mayo in their quest for Sam: “Marist have been unlucky with the bounce of a ball here and there. It’s like the so-called Mayo curse at this stage. It’s a monkey on their back which is a real pity with such talent going through the place from Westmeath, as well as parts of Roscommon and Offaly.”
A Gerry Reilly (U16) Tournament winner in Oldcastle in 1994, Fergal was the youngest member of the ground-breaking Lake County minor team the following year, only turning 17 in the days before the All-Ireland final win against Derry, the eighth match of a campaign which will, frankly, never be forgotten by those of us who attended every game, and many who jumped on the bandwagon throughout.
In that regard, Fergal recalls: “The crowds were ridiculous for underage games. In particular, there was an amazing atmosphere at the first and second Leinster final replays against hot favourites Laois in Tullamore.”
“Luke was great in that there was absolutely no pressure on us and we played with a freedom. We had some very, very good forwards. We went through some very tough games and they stood to us. The Laois games were probably the most enjoyable games I ever played in,” he adds, in relation to Westmeath bridging a 32-year gap since his future father-in-law Paddy Buckley and his colleagues had last won the title in 1963.
“That in itself was a great achievement,” Fergal states, “and there was still no pressure on us even after we won the Leinster. Luke and the management team played off that lack of pressure, and we had players on the bench capable of doing a job.”
Victories over Tipperary, Declan Browne et al, and the aforementioned Derry led to an unprecedented outpouring of emotion among hitherto success-starved Westmeath fans.
Fergal takes over: “When we arrived back at the Spa Hotel (in Lucan) that Sunday night, it was something a lot of Westmeath people had never experienced. The minors grabbed the imagination of Athlone people who follow a team in any sport that is going well, as the town is active in many sports. Coming down the street on the Monday evening, it took us nearly an hour to get from Millie Walsh’s to the Mullingar Town Park. It was phenomenal and it would put the hairs standing on the back of your neck.”
Only Fergal, Shane Deering and Moate's John Deehan, who was appointed captain, were underage again for the U18 grade in 1996. Deering (“he had ridiculous talent” says Fergal) only came on for the second half against Laois in the Leinster semi-final when the O’Moore County triumphed by two points in Croke Park.
A shock loss in the 1998 U21 opener to Dublin (yes, it was a shock when Dublin won certain games in Leinster then!) was more than compensated for the following year when Fergal and Shane doubled their All-Ireland medal hauls.
Of course, it would have been entirely different had “a very good Kildare team featuring Dermot Earley and Johnny Doyle” not missed an ‘unmissable’ free to win a replayed first round. This time it was a seven-match campaign which ended with a truly unforgettable and thoroughly deserved win against a star-studded Kerry team in Limerick.
Fergal reflects on aspects of the historic win in the Gaelic Grounds in May 1999 as follows: “The crowds outside the Davin Arms and approaching the pitch were unreal. There was a lot more expectation then because of the minor win four years earlier. We outnumbered Kerry fans ten to one. The crowd on the field afterwards made it more special than in 1995, looking down from the presentation area at a sea of maroon and white.
“In the game itself, we lost James Galvin early on and Derek Heavin came on, but he was not a natural full-back. I was switched there and was marking their star player Aodán Mac Gearailt. They took him out of there, so I must have been doing something right. I was four years older and more mature than in 1995, so I was able to take it in more and enjoy it more. The same with my family and that made it a bit more special. Luke was clever in both those successes as he had Eunan McCormack with the minors and Michael Lydon with the U21s. There were two very good tactical men and had big influences in those wins.”
At this stage, Fergal was already a Westmeath senior player. Indeed, he and two U21 colleagues were withdrawn at the eleventh hour from the team which faced Carlow in the Leinster SFC first round in Carlow six days before the trip to Limerick. Fergal reflects: “Brendan Lowry and Lar Bracken were a very good trainer and coach respectively. Brendan was a very good players’ manager. We lost to Laois in 1999 but we beat them in 2000, and went on to do okay against Dublin in Croke Park. Some lads were coming to the end of their senior careers, while others like myself were starting ours. Luke came along then and we had a great league campaign beating Cork in the Division 2 final.”
The first year of the ‘back door’ saw Westmeath’s senior footballing stock rise to an all-time national high and an eight-match championship adventure was spoiled only by three unsuccessful attempts to end the Meath bogey. Those games are still fresh in Fergal’s mind, as he concedes: “I was going through old jerseys recently to give to my niece Emma Kelly who is playing for the Westmeath ladies. I pulled two Meath ones from 2001 out of the press which haven’t been touched since I threw them in there, and I gladly gave them to her!”
However, Ollie Murphy and co apart, it was a marvellous campaign. “The team was probably a better team than in 2004, but we just didn’t get the luck. Dessie Dolan and Martin Flanagan in the full forward line alongside team captain Ger Heavin, who had a super year – there wasn’t a full back line to touch them. Rory O’Connell had a super year at midfield also. We were a very big team – huge men who were all good footballers. We could even interchange lads at midfield. It’s a struggle nowadays to find one midfielder. We don’t seem to be breeding them anymore. In the photos, I look like Peter Stringer beside Paul O’Connell and Donncha O’Callaghan!
“The run that we had in the Qualifiers was so enjoyable. The day we beat Mayo in Hyde Park, there were no medals given out but I would compare it with the two All-Ireland wins. After the game it was even better than Limerick with the crowd on the field and it took us nearly half an hour to get into the dressing room. It was a special day,” Fergal opines.
He continues: “Things petered out in 2002 and I did my cruciate in a challenge game for Athlone in St Brigid’s. I was rushing to come back in 2003 and we went out in the Qualifiers to Monaghan when Tommy Freeman was in his prime.
"Then along came Páidí and it was exciting at the start for us to be bringing in a manager of his calibre. We didn’t think we had that sort of pulling power. If you didn’t learn from him, you’d learn from nobody. He was a man who had achieved what he did in the game. You kind of stood back in awe as he was a god of the game. When he spoke he’d put the hairs standing on the back of your neck.
“We had a disappointing league campaign in Division 1, but Tomás (Ó Flatharta) can take a lot of credit for the preparation of the team. He had us in tip-top shape. Like Mick O’Dwyer, when the cuckoo crows Páidí got tuned in. I played some of the league games and I was probably unlucky not to make the championship team. It looked like myself and Donal O’Donoghue were vying for one position but I missed out, and with the form of James Davitt and John Keane, I didn’t get a look in at any stage.
“But I never considered packing it in because the training was so enjoyable and the group of lads were a great bunch. We are still all in contact. The Leinster win was bigger than the U21 and the minor. In the homecoming, we watched grown men cry. It was my third homecoming, every one of them better than the other. But there was more in the team. Winning the Leinster was like winning the All-Ireland, but 100 per cent we left that quarter-final behind us against Derry. The following year, I didn’t want to go back on the bench as I wanted to give the club a good go,” he adds.
Reflecting on his very lengthy Athlone career, Fergal states: “I was unlucky as a young lad to come up against great Garrycastle and St Loman’s, Mullingar teams, and I won no medals with the club until the 1996 U21 championship when we won the county title under ‘Dobsey’ (David Prendergast), Liam Downes and Joe Finlass," recalls Fergal, part of the full back line with Paul Mullen and Barry Browne.
"I started with the seniors in 1996. It was knockout then and in 1997 we lost to eventual champions Moate All Whites. I was marking Ger Heavin and he would have been on fire that year.
“In 1998, we won it out when I was still only 20. The late Brendan Clarke from Ferbane was the manager. He was an excellent trainer and a huge influence on my career overall. Denis O’Sullivan, an uncle of Darran, was with us all the way up. Most of my highs as a player were between 1995 and 2001. The last 20 years weren’t as successful, unfortunately!
“Last year, Liam McHale came knocking. I was hoping to play another year but Liam wanted me as a selector, and that was an opportunity that I couldn’t turn down to work with a man of his calibre, albeit in a condensed year. We probably needed more time to imbed a game plan. We have a young squad and are building from recent underage successes. We are hopeful of a good number of lads coming through and we should be there or thereabouts in the next year or two,” he adds.
As regards the state of Gaelic football overall, Fergal opines: “The game has changed since I started out, but I adjusted my own game as things evolved. I have always been lucky with the managers I worked under. The Athlone way down the years was never a negative playing style. That’s something that we would promote and I would never instil negativity in a team. In many ways, I don’t like the way the game is evolving."
Fergal is known only as a back in Westmeath, but recalls playing as a forward in Marist, jovially adding: “I was a third midfielder really and when we played St Joseph’s, Rochfortbridge, my job was to run into Damien Gavin so that Tom Stuart Trainor could catch the ball!”
He concedes that Dublin’s domination of Leinster football is unhealthy for the other ten counties who are trying to compete for the Delaney Cup: “Before the ball is thrown in, you’re nearly three or four points down psychologically when you face the Dubs. I never played on a team that was coming up against opposition who were so formidable. They are manufacturing these players – and that is what they are doing, manufacturing them – from an early age, and they are just head and shoulders above what we have, or any other team in Leinster for that matter, and the championship is a write-off. John (Connellan) provides a good argument, but the GAA want to get behind the Dubs as they are the money-spinners who fill Croke Park.”
When it comes to naming difficult forwards he had to face for club and county, and in training matches for the latter, Fergal names his club colleague Joe Fallon (“as good a forward as there was when injury-free”) and, unsurprisingly, Dessie Dolan, in addition to Alan Mangan.
He was delighted to have kept Mickey Linden scoreless in the NFL Division 2 semi-final in 2001, having always admired the Down man. Other legends of the game whom he directly faced included Colm ‘Gooch’ Cooper in the league and Ciaran McDonald in the aforementioned fourth round championship Qualifier in 2001. “I enjoyed pitting myself against the big boys – it was always a challenge,” he states.
After finishing in Marist College, Fergal went to Athlone IT to study business studies on a two-year GAA scholarship, where he played in the Sigerson Cup under both Val Daly and Dessie Dolan Snr. Thereafter he followed his father’s footsteps by joining the Civil Service, initially in Dublin before moving home to Athlone.
Fergal is married to Catriona (née Buckley) and they have two children, Conal (9) and Sadhbh (3). They have lived in Tang for the past 14 years.
He had great respect for his late father-in-law, Maryland legend Paddy Buckley, about whom he states: “Paddy was a fountain of knowledge and I loved our Sunday afternoon chats, bouncing things off him. We’d often have a debate, but it would turn out that he was always right!”
Indeed, yours truly has a wardrobe full of losing tee-shirts from similar ‘debates’ with the former Westmeath forward par excellence!
While Westmeath fans will fervently hope that Fergal Murray’s medal haul for the Lake County will be surpassed in years to come, it seems highly improbable. One way or the other, he is assured of a special place in the annals of Westmeath GAA.
- Gerry Buckley