The joy of victory shows in the faces of Stephen O’Neill, Brendan Walsh, Billy Byrne, John Hunt (partly hidden) and Tommy Hewitt at the cup presentation in Cooke Park, Tipperary
“Glory glory Clonmel Town” screamed the headline in The Nationalist in May 1994 in acclamation of the club winning soccer’s FAI Junior Cup for the first, and so far only time.
Before finally getting their hands on the trophy, Town had already won the Munster Junior Cup in 1968 and 1986. But the national trophy represented the Holy Grail for a club that had started life as Clonmel Bohemians in 1963 before a change of name to Clonmel Town in 1976.
The team’s long and arduous journey to the summit was guided by manager Martin ‘Blossom’ Quinlivan. A former player with the club, his sporting career was at something of a loose end in the summer of 1993, when he finished playing with Waterford United, having lined out between the posts for several seasons with the League of Ireland side.
He was approached by fellow Clonmelman and former Waterford player Sean Kiely and asked to become player/manager at Clonmel Town. It was an offer he eagerly accepted, although with regular goalkeeper Stephen O’Neill (a player who would subsequently go on to represent his country at junior level) in possession of the number one jersey, ‘Blossom’ decided that, playing-wise, he was surplus to requirements, and was more than happy to concentrate on his managerial duties.
Above - Celebration time for (from left) Jack Acheson, Seamus Murray, Paddy Ryan, Paul ‘Lally’ Hally and Brian O’Donnell after Clonmel Town’s great victory in the 1994 FAI Junior Cup Final - Pictures - John Kelly
Receiving a bye in the first round, the team started out on their FAI Cup odyssey in October 1993 with a hard-earned 1-0 win over Waterford’s Rathgormack in the second round, courtesy of Liam Butler’s late screamer struck from all of 30 yards. However that only tells half the story.
“We released about six players to play with Clonmel Commercials in the County Minor Football Final the same day”, says ‘Blossom’.
“I was relieved when we won because had we lost people might have been looking at me”.
In the third round they had a stress-free win over Thurles Town.
“By then we were going well in the Tipperary League, having already beaten the top teams St. Michael’s and Evergreen. We knew we were onto something” says the manager who, at the age of 28, was in the unusual position of being younger than some of his players, including Billy Lambe, Billy Greene and Joe O’Shea.
In the fourth round Town were pitted against Ballyduff FC in a game played at the early hour of 11am on a biting cold morning at the Waterford club’s ground. After a tough battle the game was still scoreless after extra-time and penalties were required to separate the sides.
As a tense shootout developed Ballyduff had the opportunity to win the tie, only for Stephen O’Neill to produce a vital save. Town came that close to being knocked out, and missing the opportunity to write the most famous chapter in the club’s history.
As it transpired a Billy Greene penalty saw them scrape through and sent Town on their merry way to the fifth round, an area semi-final against St. Michael’s. Their 2-0 victory over their major rivals in the county was described by the manager as them having claimed “a big scalp”, and which set up an area final (sixth round) against fellow Clonmel team Evergreen.
“Both teams qualified in December, and with the game not being played until the middle of January this local derby was the talk of Clonmel all over Christmas”, says ‘Blossom’.
Above - The Clonmel Town team, and backroom team, that beat New Ross Celtic 5-1 in the FAI Junior Cup 26 years ago
An Evergreen team managed by former Clonmel Town stalwart, the late Timmy ‘Coxy’ Hally (assisted by Michael Frieberg) included former Town players Seanie Brannigan, Eddie Farrell, Darren Joyce, Michael Nugent, Glen Conway and Franny Kelly, giving the occasion an extra edge.
In a match that attracted a large attendance to The Showgrounds (now the site of the shopping centre of the same name), Town won a closely-fought affair 3-2 after extra-time.
“In my opinion that was the winning of the FAI Junior Cup for that team”, says the manager.
“We really had to dig deep. Stephen O’Neill made a great save at one stage and Tommy Hewitt scored with a great header.
“It sent us out of the area with real momentum behind us. We were still unbeaten in all competitions and every Sunday became an adventure in some part of Munster or elsewhere in the country”.
In the last sixteen Town beat former winners Neilstown Rangers from Dublin 2-1, having slipped a goal behind before one of their young guns, Paul Scully, scored a great winner. They were now through to the last eight, with the reality of what was unfolding now beginning to dawn on the manager.
“Growing up I heard about the exploits of the Clonmel Bohs team that included Andy and Sean Hogan, ‘Coxy’ Hally and Eddie ‘Buddy’ Anderson being beaten in the semi-final in 1970; and I remember what an achievement it was when an Old Bridge team with Billy Lambe also reached the semi-final in 1981”.
Their quarter-final against another Dublin team, St. Paul’s of Artane, was a mirror image of their previous game; Town fell behind by a goal before drawing level and getting across the line with another late Paul Scully winner. When he rounded the St. Paul’s goalie to score, there was an explosion of mayhem among the Town supporters.
“The whole sideline invaded the pitch. We were through to the semi-finals and we were big news”, says ’Blossom’.
The semi-final against Renmore of Galway was played at Jackman Park in Limerick, a pair of Tommy Hewitt goals securing their place in the final. The team received a standing ovation from their fans when they adjourned for a celebratory drink in a pub in Limerick, although their manager missed the post-match celebrations as he returned home straight after the game to attend the funeral in Carrick-on-Suir of the father of his good friend TJ Lyons.
A sub-plot to the entire story was Town’s run to the final of the Munster Junior Cup, where they were beaten 2-1 by Limerick side Mungret Regional. Incredibly, it was their only defeat in 43 games that season.
“We didn't have an opportunity to watch Mungret before the final. It would have been helpful to have seen them. But we didn’t perform on the day”.
While obviously they would have preferred to have won, that setback may have been a blessing in disguise.
“We had won all 16 games in the Tipperary League and hadn't been tested enough”, says ‘Blossom’.
“The defeat brought us back down to earth and sharpened us for the FAI final”.
There, at 3.30 on Sunday, May 22, 1994, their opponents were New Ross Celtic, who had sprung a surprise by beating one of Limerick’s top teams, Fairview Rangers, one of the favourites to go all the way, in the semi-final.
He describes the build-up to the final as massive, from the extensive preview in The Nationalist to the well wishes of the people of the town.
“The team was buzzing and training sessions were attracting crowds”, the manager explains.
“The town was really behind us. Sixteen of the squad were born in Clonmel while Liam Butler, who was from Cahir, was working in Clonmel at the time. It was a local team and that really resonated with the people of the town.
“The club played its part too - on the evening before the game, chairman Richie Blanche called to each player’s home with club jumpers and ties”.
Above - Delight for Jack Acheson, Paddy Turner, PJ O'Reilly, Sean Kiely and Paddy Ryan
‘Blossom’ described the build-up to the Munster Junior Cup Final as “a bit of circus”, with supporters travelling on the team bus to the game.
This time, the preparation was different for what was the game of their lives, the club’s first FAI Junior Cup Final. The players were joined on the bus by just the management team of ‘Blossom’, Sean Kiely, PJ O’Reilly and Paddy Ryan.
En route to Cooke Park in Tipperary town, they stopped in Dundrum House Hotel. There they watched a Billy Connolly video to lighten the mood before the pre-match meal and chat.
Influential midfielder Billy Byrne passed a fitness test on a troublesome knee injury.
“He played for an hour. It was a sacrifice that Billy was prepared to make. It was a gamble and it paid off, thankfully, because he was such a massive presence in the team”, says the manager.
‘Blossom’ says he could see it in the faces of the players, and he knew it from their attitude that it would take some team to beat them. They might have lost to Mungret but it wasn’t going to happen again.
In front of a huge attendance, in what was their ninth match in the competition, Clonmel Town dominated from start to finish. They were two up after 18 minutes, the goals coming from Kevin Blanche and man of the match Olllie Cahill. They had one hand on the cup two minutes into the second half when Billy Lambe found the net.
Paul Harrington pulled a goal back for the Wexford side but Town put the outcome beyond any doubt when Billy Lambe and Kevin Blanche scored again to seal a 5-1 victory. Their success represented the first time in 20 years that a team from outside Dublin had won the cup, after St. Michael’s became the first winners from Tipperary in 1974.
‘Blossom’ continues the story.
“Those players are seen as heroes because they played champagne football that day. The supporters saw them wearing their best suits that day, in terms of performance”.
The manager’s only regret was that only two substitutes were allowed and he said he would love to have given Joe O’Shea a run, because of the generation of players he represented and because he had been such a fantastic servant of the club.
“However Billy Lambe got injured and I couldn’t bring Joe, who was a full back, on”, with Keith Fahey getting the nod instead.
After the game they all got a great reception when they paraded in triumph through their home town and were received at the Town Hall by Mayor Michael O’Brien.
It had all come right for Clonmel Town and their team that possessed that perfect, proverbial blend of youth and experience.
”There were three generations in that side, says the manager.
“You had experienced players such as Billy Lambe, Billy Greene and Joe O’Shea; younger players such as Tommy Hewitt and Kevin Blanche; and teenagers Ollie Cahill, Paul Scully and Brendan Walsh. They were only 19, yet they were fearless and very talented”.
The previous year Cahill, Scully and Walsh, along with squad member Glen Conway, were part of the Old Bridge side that won the Munster Junior Cup.
“The late, great Bradley Devine was involved with that Old Bridge team and asked me to help out with the coaching”, says ‘Blossom’, “so I knew how good those players were.
“But it wasn’t only about the eleven who started. Over the course of the season, everyone in the squad made a massive contribution”.
Above - Captain Cyril Conran lifts the cup as Clonmel Town celebrate a famous success in 1994
The team was captained by Cyril Conran, who by the season’s end had been crowned the FAI’s Junior International Player of the Year and went on to play for Ireland at junior level.
“It all just gelled. The team got momentum and as the season went on we became unstoppable. It was an amazing time”, says ‘Blossom’.
“Growing up, my hero was (Bohs/Clonmel Town) goalkeeper John O’Connor, and after we won the final it was great to sit down that night and share a pint with him, and see how happy he was, as were all the former players.
“Men went to their graves happy after witnessing that victory, the club meant so much to them. Thankfully there were some great men in the club at the time who are still with us”.
For the record, the team that lined out on that famous day was Stephen O’Neill, Billy Greene, Cyril Conran (captain), Brendan Walsh, John Hunt, Ollie Cahill, Billy Byrne, Paul Scully, Kevin Blanche, Billy Lambe and Tommy Hewitt.
Substitutes - Liam Butler for Billy Byrne; Keith Fahey for Billy Lambe; Michael O’Reilly, Jamie O’Flaherty, Paul Cahill and Joe O’Shea.
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