Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Juan Wiley of Cork’s Blue Demons under pressure from Paul McStay, left, and Terry Smith, of Ballina during a National Cup tie in Killala. Picture: Keith Heneghan

by Anthony Hennigan

It was the best and the worst of times; a tale about burgers and beer (sort of) and a row (definitely). Okay, a big row. But someone should have known that Harp and Jameson don’t mix.

The year was 1990 and Ballina were beginning to make some noise on the court. Division 2 champions in 1984, promotion to the top flight had been followed in consecutive years by 8th, 8th, 7th, 6th and 4th place finishes, and now here they were, for the second season in-a-row, in the Top Four playoffs of the National Championship. Their progress was obvious, a first appearance in the National Cup final earlier that season serving as further evidence. But still there was no silver to polish, only a determination that this time things would be different. In many ways, they were never to be the same again.

It was St Patrick’s Day and Harp Ballina (as was their guise then) were headed for Dublin with an army of fans to play the greatest basketball team in Ireland at that time. Seven times in nine years Burgerland Neptune would end the season atop of the Super League – or Division 1 as it was known back then – and they picked up four National Cup titles along the way too. They were to the hoop and backboard what Kerry had been to Gaelic football a few years earlier. Unbeatable. Almost.

Having ruptured his ankle ligaments during a Christmas tournament in Sligo, Liam McHale was absent from the Ballina side that had already fallen by all of 29 points to the Corkmen in that cup decider in January. To understand his loss, you need only consider that en route he had scored an incredible 52-points against the holders Roadspeed Corinthians.

McHale, though, was back to full fitness by the time the rematch with Burgerland Neptune came about in the Top Four semi-final on March 17, but with their opponents aiming for a 27th game without defeat, the boys from the Moy were still given little chance of an upset. A little chance was all they needed.

“With a sense of purpose which was inspiring… Harp proved they are a match for the best and they went about avenging their ICS Cup defeat with a sense of purpose which was inspiring,” wrote Vincent Gribbin in that week’s Western People.

On this one night in Glasnevin, the Burger boys had bitten off more than they could chew. League and cup crowns already in the bag, their dream of a domestic treble had been torn to shreds.

“For my money the contribution of point-guard Paul McStay was possibly the most telling factor in an inspired display,” continued Gribbin. “The Ballina tour de force left Burgerland, considered unbeatable, reeling in the second half.”

“As a point-guard on the floor, McStay was so good you didn’t need a coach,” recalled Terry Kennedy this week. It was Kennedy who having only turned 30 five days earlier, had helped mastermind Neptune’s downfall. He had barely been in the job a year.

The boys from the Moy had trailed by two points at half-time but an 18 points blitz by Liam McHale thereafter gave them a foothold, and they raced their way to a famous 87-77 victory.

Martin Conroy and Liam McHale of Ballina putting pressure on Thorn Killester’s John Leahy during the 2001 cup final. Picture: INPHO/Andrew Paton

“To this day there’s not a player in the Super League comes near him and I don’t know how many years he’s retired now,” says Kennedy about the masterful McHale who had ended the game with 31 points. Older brother Anthony used his strength superbly to bag 25 (outscoring even his exceptional teammate and American import Deora Marsh), whilst the eldest of the McHales, Sean, “ran his heart out”, to leave the travelling support elated.

And yet this isn’t even a story about what then was the greatest victory in the history of Ballina basketball. This is a story about the match played the very next day, a match that led to a controversy labelled the greatest ever to have arisen in the sport. A match that could have been the breaking but ended up the making of Ballina.

Band of Brothers

It was an exciting time to be from Béal an Átha. A week earlier 2,000 people had packed into Belleek to watch the mighty Shelbourne play ‘The Town’ in the first round of the FAI Cup, a game the Dubliners won 4-0. Mary Robinson, meanwhile, was about to be selected as the Labour Party’s candidate to become president of Ireland and another of Ballina’s own, Jack Charlton, was not long after securing the Republic of Ireland qualification to their first ever World Cup finals.

And here was a small band of brothers, the McHales, McStay and Marsh, together with David McAndrew from Kilkelly, displaying to a nation that on their day, they were as good as anything out there. Better even. Neptune Burgerland included.

Those team names of the day, peculiar as they were, probably wouldn’t wash in today’s assimilations of the sporting and corporate worlds (just think how the IRFU and GAA are continuously hammered for long-standing associations with the drinks industry), but it was all par for the course during those heady years of Irish basketball. Indeed Harp Ballina were only one of several teams affiliated by name to alcohol, with a tipple to suit most fancies be they the lads of Team Smithwicks Belfast, Budweiser North Mon, Tennants Sligo, Queen’s Strongbow Belfast, Jameson St Vincent’s or the slightly more sober Team Shandy St Gall’s.

The teetotallers were catered for too in the likes of Lucozade Sport Killester, Team Britvic Blue Demons and Club Orange Marian. The latter pair eventually joined with Ballina in aligning themselves to dairy instead, becoming Team Connacht Gold and then Chambourcy, in Ballina’s case, or Dawn Milk Blue Demons and Yoplait Marian.

But it was still as Harp that the Mayo outfit had reached the 1990 National Championships Top Four final and given the St Patrick’s Festival weekend that was in it, you imagine their sponsors did a brisk trade out of the enormous contingent who had travelled east. With Neptune put to the sword, there was nothing for it but to overnight in the capital in anticipation of Sunday’s final, against Jameson St Vincent’s, on St Vincent’s home court.

What sort of a game it was is impossible to tell from the reports of the day because so little but the very last seconds were laid down in print. But there was a profound reason for that. Harp Ballina thought they had won their first National Senior title, except they hadn’t.

Six seconds out, Liam McHale had won an offensive rebound from a shot by Deora Marsh and landed the two-pointer which handed Ballina an 81-80 lead over their hosts.

“The crammed venue was in raptures and when the buzzer sounded moments later the court was invaded by jubilant Ballina fans,” recounted Kieran Shannon in his 2009 book, Hanging from the Rafters. “Then all mayhem broke loose.”

The referee, Tony Colgan, had deemed that a foul by McHale on Danny Meagher in the final play had happened before the final hooter. Ballina argued the game was over by more than a second but upon deaf ears their pleas fell and so two free throws were awarded to Meagher, Jameson’s professional player. The Canadian missed the first but sunk the second to force overtime. Except there was none; Ballina saw to that.

So mad were they, the men from the Moy tore off to the changing rooms and refused to return to court. No amount of pleading from officials could entice them out.

“Harp’s decision not to take any further part in the contest led to unruly scenes in the school gymnasium with both sets of supporters hurling abuse at each other for a long period after Harp had left the court,” wrote Vincent Gribbin in the Western People.

“Robbery! Robbery!” cried the incensed Ballina supporters, as St Vincent’s captain Joey Boylan was presented with the trophy, the Ballina team still in their bunker refusing to take any part in the presentation ceremony or to collect their runner-up medals.

Terry Kennedy told the Western People afterwards that he and the rest of the team had believed the game to be over when Liam McHale fouled Meagher and that Tony Colgan’s handling of the game had been disastrous.

“We only want fair play,” he said, adding that the decision not to play overtime had been a unanimous one.

30 years later, Kennedy’s sense of injustice hasn’t eased one iota.

“We got screwed that day, I don’t say that lightly but there’s no other way of saying it. We got screwed. And I’ll bring that to the grave.

“To this day I still say that the time was up because a coach always watches the clock and listens for the buzzer. That’s what you do. The game was well over, it wasn’t even something that should have been an issue.”

But it was. And a big issue at that. An insinuation was made that Harp Ballina didn’t want to play because they would have to make do without Liam McHale, as that decisive last foul was also his fifth, and so the final’s top scorer, with 34 points, was ineligible to play overtime.

“That had nothing to do with it,” insists Terry Kennedy firmly. “He’s the best Irish player ever to play the game without a doubt, even to this day there’s no one as good as him, but the thing is that we had already played half a season without him after he did his ankle yet we still beat St Declan’s and Lennie McMillan in the cup semi-final.

“Maybe we’d have won in overtime but what happened had taken so much out of us, we were so flat in the dressing-room and the guys were just so angry. I was as pissed off as they were. We all felt time was up so we took a vote not to play on.”

Maybe it was Kennedy’s sense that the authorities were destined to take a dim view of Ballina’s actions that led him to try and smooth the waters somewhat a week later, when he conceded to the Western People that even though the team still felt wronged by what had happened in Glasnevin, their actions perhaps “might have been a bit hasty”.

Badly done by

The manager’s hunch about the IBBA and its disciplinary committee turned out right, but ending up joined by Paul McStay and Deora Marsh in receiving a one match suspension for the start of the next season for verbal abuse of the match and table officials was the least of Kennedy’s or Ballina’s worries. At a time when money was hard come by, the club was also fined £2,000 and banned from the following year’s Top Four should they qualify, which, of course, they did, by finishing second to Burgerland Neptune in the table.

Their absence from that year’s National Championships was made all the more acute by the fact they had already beaten Neptune to lift that year’s National Cup, their first ever senior title, again denying the Cork side the domestic treble. The odds on Ballina adding the Top Four title too would have been very short.

“Looking back with hindsight our decision to walk off was probably the wrong one,” admits Kennedy now. “We went the wrong away about things. If we had signed the score-sheet under protest, they might have looked at the video. But that wrong decision was one we made together as a team, the players, coach and staff, because we felt that we were badly done by. If we had any doubt at all about what had happened we wouldn’t have disputed anything.”

At the time, Harp Ballina were denied from seeing the video of those controversial last few seconds. You’d wonder why, especially when the Dublin side, who did get to see the video, claimed the clock was still running at the time of Liam McHale’s foul. Their opinion differed, however, with a report in The Irish Times that said “the video of the incident serves only to confuse matters even further”.

Terry Kennedy, however, who would eventually get to see the same footage, says there was no ambiguity whatsoever.

“You could see the clock ticking down, the ball hadn’t been released. The ball has to be gone out of your hand. Not even Michael Jordan would have pulled it off.

“It was all very disheartening. We had come so near to winning our first national title at the highest level and to think that on a referee’s decision or a table’s decision… the game was even in the St Vincent’s gym.

“After fourteen years building, to have that taken away from us. It wasn’t something nice,” he reflects.

What we do know is that Ballina returned a stronger and more united force, winning the cup in ’91 and ’96, and the league in ’92. From something bad had come something good.

The Ballina team that returned from the disappointment of losing both the finals of the National Cup and Top Four Championship in 1990 to win the Cup in ’91. Pictured standing, from left: Terry Kennedy (coach), Liam McHale, David McAndrew, Sean McHale, Deora Marsh, Brian Collins, Anthony McHale (captain), Gary Kelly and club chairman Pat Rouse. Front row, from left: Michael Quinn (team manager), DJ Naylor, Daniel Cunningham, Paul McStay, John McManus, Declan Fahy and Barry Murphy (statistician). Picture Henry Wills

“It made us more determined to win a national title,” Kennedy reckons. “We never had big numbers but we always stuck together and whatever we had, everyone pulled together.

“You see, we were badly treated down through the years by Basketball Ireland, especially with our gym, they reckoned it wasn’t big enough. They put us into Division 2 and I think we won it eight times while waiting for the new gym to be built.”

It’s unlikely we will ever learn for certain whether Harp Ballina would have returned to the court in St Vincent’s School that Sunday night in March 1990 if Liam McHale wasn’t suspended from playing overtime. What we’ll definitely never know for certain is whether Ballina would have won the overtime – with or without their star man.

“It was something that left a sour taste in our mouth,” concludes Terry Kennedy. “Even to this day fellas will remind you we should have had that title. I think the Vincent’s fellas even knew it!”

Some things are just too painful to forget.

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