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Derry legends always a step ahead

When Derry clashed with Dublin in the 1958 All-Ireland final, Lavey duo Tommy Doherty and Colm Mulholland were corner back and centre half back, respectively.

A grey heavy pebble-dashed wall forms the backdrop to a photo which is sixty years old. The still shows happy young faces which beam contentedly out through the glass fronted wall-cabinet. Positioned centrally, seated and lightly holding a football is Colm Mulholland. To his immediate left, arms folded, the act of which displays impressive natural biceps, is Tommy Doherty. No need for weight training in 1954, then. The two Lavey and Derry team-mates almost overlap and are framed to the front by Mick O’Neill and goalkeeper James McCloy – holding the silverware of the year, proudly won.

That was then, this is now.

Some things don’t change though. Take, for example, the recent black card and changes to the playing rules of Gaelic football. Many have remarked how it was removing the ‘manliness’ from the game.

Images from the 1958 All-Ireland final between Derry and Dublin prompt Tommy Doherty to remember the art of ‘defending’ the square. Pictured jostling with Dave Guiney – with the Dublin forward strewn over the Lavey man’s back like a sack of potatoes – the act of ‘holding back’ was part and parcel of the game as Doherty explains:

“It was tough around the goal mouth at that time. My job at the time was to protect the goal keeper. If a high ball is coming in, you’d have men rushing in after it. If I didn’t do my job, [Patsy] Gormley would have been buried into the back of the net, ball and all.”

“And it would have counted,” exclaims Mulholland.

Corner backs and full backs acted like American football style ‘blockers’ defending both their goal and goalkeeper entirely legally with third man tackles, the outcome of which were ‘down to how to the referee saw it’.

“Many a man had to be put hard on his back but that was just the way it was then,” says Doherty, defiantly.

It’s hard to believe therefore that the third man tackles Mulholland and Doherty describe were only officially outlawed at the 1983 GAA Congress which saw heated debate on the matter – and last year the offence upgraded to a ‘black card’ offence.

“There is food for thought there,” concludes Mulholland.

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Tommy Doherty and Colm Mulholland’s playing days were always closely linked. “Tommy was younger than me by around two weeks,” says Colm, before following up with: “And he still is.”

Mulholland’s first memories of Gaelic games are of being called upon whilst on the sideline of a schools game.

“I remember them just calling for me to fill in for someone on the team. My memory of the entire game wouldn’t be great but I can still remember that first call.”

Captain of one of the earliest Derry minor football teams in 1947, Colm Mulholland, like Doherty, went on to play for Lavey and Derry at all levels – minor, junior and senior – during careers which saw them grace many pitches the length and breadth of Ireland, and further afield.

1958 saw the two men played for Derry in a promotional challenge game against Galway at Wembley.

“We stayed in a hotel near Wembley stadium. We drove right into the circle in front of the stadium. There was a latch on the door to get into the stadium. Anyway, I saw this and thought to myself ‘I’ll have to be the first Gaelic player through the door at Wembley’. Jim McKeever would say he was the first man out onto the pitch – he was the captain – but I was first through the door,” says Doherty.

The 1950 All-Ireland Junior Final against Mayo, which featured a young Mick Loftus, saw Colm Mulholland partner the legendary Mickey McNaught in midfield – a man he describes as ‘a tireless player and a real warrior of a man’, to the approval of Tommy Doherty.

“We were done out of that match and I’ll tell you, we were done out of a lot of matches by referees in those days. It nearly made me turn against the whole thing to be honest,” says Mulholland, honestly and candidly.

“Antrim were going well at that time,” he adds. “They had the Rossa men who, I’d say, almost pioneered the use of the hand pass – like modern games. They had some great players like Paddy O’Hara. He was the Messi of football at that time, and small too.”

Doherty also has memories of O’Hara having marked him in a game in Glasgow:

“There wasn’t a blade of grass on the pitch. It was like cinders, shorter than the usual pitch and within view of Ibrox Stadium. There were some boys got awful injuries on that pitch. I remember Seamus Keenan [father of current county chairman, John] getting buried onto a row of forms which were alongside the pitch. That injury actually kept him out of the All-Ireland Junior final shortly after. If he had been on, I’d say we would have walked that final.”

As a minor, junior and then a senior Derry footballer, Doherty recalls a debut at Celtic Park whilst Mulholland’s first game was at the County Grounds, Magherafelt. The conversation flows but there’s an added poignancy when Mulholland declares: “In a way, it’s nice to look back but there’s also a sad tinge to it, in a way.”


The 1958 Derry team contained many famous names: McKeever, Gormley, Breen, Stuart and the Gribbins, to name but a few. However, rather than reminisce blandly, Colm Mulholland and Tommy Doherty are keen to analyse. You can sense a little frustration:

“I have to say that there was far too much talk about characters on football teams in those days. There wasn’t enough talk about ‘upstairs here’,” says Mulholland pointing toward his right temple.

“We lost games through just not have the right talk done,” agrees Doherty. “I hardly heard tactics talked in my life when I was playing. At that time, a committee just picked the team. You’d have been told things like ‘just keep the ball in front of you’ – the last words I think we were told going out for the 1958 final.”

The men are describing tactical naivety in an age where the game of Gaelic football was played totally ‘off the cuff’. Innocent maybe, but not for the betterment of the sport according to both.

Committees are, of course, nothing new to either man. Doherty having first ‘come up to the club’ in 1944, has not missed a club convention since – something of which he is rightly proud.

“When I was a young boy, you’d have had the likes of Joe Hurley, Jack Convery and big Master Fay around the place. He was a great man. Great at selecting teams, he would have been cute and known all about the opposition.”

“Mick Crilly was first class too. I remember one day Mick stood at the goalpost.

Well, the posts weren’t concreted in at that time. Mick put his shoulder to the post at one stage, moving it just enough to result in a ball going wide from the opposition which wouldn’t otherwise have gone wide”.

“A true story,” laughs Doherty.

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With Master John Fay at the helm, Doherty, Mulholland and the rest of the smiling faces went on to become Derry senior county champions in 1954:

“The whole team went to Dungiven chapel before the game. It was against Banagher. Each one of us lit a candle and when we were finished, we walked down from the chapel and across the road. There used to be a big row of trees up there. Well, that’s where the county final was played and a boy Friel from Belfast was the referee,” says Doherty.

The team wore new jerseys for the occasion; nothing new in that you might think. However, in an era where ‘you could hardly have got jerseys for a club’ the story unfolds that these black and orange numbers were purchased in Dublin following an All-Ireland final. Customs being what they were in the 50’s, the jerseys had to be smuggled into the north, worn by a few carefully selected women.

Outside football

When the serious issues of Gaelic football are shelved, temporarily of course, Mulholland and Doherty swap a shared passion for individual pursuits.

A honorary member and a past captain of the nearby Moyola Golf club, and one of the principal architects of the course which he believes is now among the best in the country, Colm Mulholland loves the sport which he believes has now gone ‘sky high’:

“Golf has been very good to me over the past years. It’s a great game. Some people think it’s maybe an auld women’s game running after a wee ball but I think it’s something else. I would advise anyone thinking of taking up the game to go and play it.”

A famous name in Derry football, but an equally famous name in traditional music circles in the county, Tommy Doherty developed a lifelong association with Comhaltas, becoming a renowned performer with the squeeze box. With movement in his arm now restricted, Doherty recalls some significant achievements in the discipline:

“We gathered up a team from around Portglenone with three or four of my own family. We won the Ulster championship in Donegal. We won a lot of big tournaments and it was a time I really enjoyed. It’s pleasing to see that the whole thing has really taken off. I went up to the Fleadh in Derry there for a day last year. It was a sight to behold. Powerful.”

Equally impressive are the magnificant surroundings of the Lavey club and facilities, which both the men populate regularly.

“The man that owned this place was Jimmy Diamond, a brother of John Joe Diamond. I was asked at a meeting could I maybe get in touch with him. He was in England at the time so I wrote to him. He wrote back and said he’d be back on holidays and we should arrange to meet. So myself and Brian Mulholland eventually rigged it up. I can’t remember how it finished but they signed it over anyway. I think it was about twenty three hundred we paid – cheap at the time.”

Modestly, Doherty refuses to take much credit for the land deal which gave birth to the magnificant surroundings enjoyed by the local community, and beyond, today but eventually admits the letter had ‘a big part in it’.

“We have good men at the top and it’s powerful what we have here now. I come here myself every Thursday to work with Tommy Stevenson, who’s a marvellous type of character from Lurgan. There’s about fifty people in the hall there and they’re all a brave age of people, doing all sorts of exercises.”

Young at heart and sharp of mind, Tommy Doherty and Colm Mulholland are two of the finest gentlemen of Derry GAA. With stories told and games relived, they re-enter club life seamlessly.

“McIver’s doing a great job,” says Colm lifting a nearby publication.

“How many national draw tickets are sold now?” Tommy enquires of a club official.

Two men always thinking ahead.

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