Elvis Presley, Wembley Stadium and the missing Dungiven Championship medal!

Quick, off the top of your head, name the last Limavady man to play at Wembley Stadium?

Tuesday, 16th June 2020, 3:04 pm
Dungiven players and supporters celebrate their 1983 Derry senior Championship victory over Magherafelt.

Would it help if I told you he was playing Gaelic football beneath English soccer’s famous twin towers?

No. Right, one more clue then. Let’s see ... oh yes, he knows Elvis Presley!

Okay, fair enough, ‘knows’ might be a tad strong but when you’re talking to John Somers, impossible is just a couple of weeks in the 70s!

Derry line out in Croke Park before the 1975 All Ireland semi-final against Dublin.

“I don’t know the meaning of the word bored,” laughs Derry’s 1977 All Star goalkeeper, taking a break from compiling sheets of music in his Shanreagh Park home from where he’s helping conduct a weekly community concert to complement the NHS Thursday clap that has become such a feature of the lockdown. His latest venture requires his not inconsiderable talent as a renowned local jazz musician but more of that later.

For now, we’re interested in Wembley and a certain Mr. Presley.

“As yet, I’m the only Limavady guy I’ve ever heard of who’s played at Wembley Stadium,” adds Somers who can count two Ulster Championships, an All Ireland U21 Championship and Railway Cup medals among trophies garnered from a glittering county career

“It’s a nice one to have but I don’t even have a photograph. I had one for years, that bit behind the goals, the big semi-circular part of the old Wembley. I can still remember grabbing a bit of sod when I was lifting the ball and placing it inside my hat before the match. It was only a wee bit of a thing and for years it stayed in my garage but when we moved house it disappeared. In saying that, you wouldn’t have known what it was by that stage!”

Keeper John Somers watches the ball sail wide during Dungiven's 1983 Derry Senior Championship victory over Magherafelt in Ballinascreen.

The O’Gorman Cup has been all but lost to the sands of time but it remains a little known fact that during the late ‘50s through to the early ‘70s, the four top county teams from Ireland were annually invited over to London to compete for the trophy at the city’s iconic stadium thanks to an arrangement between the GAA in England and the English FA. Traditionally held over the Whit weekend, the games were viewed as championship preparation by the counties involved, and a way of promoting Gaelic Games by the GAA in England.

“Derry won Ulster in 1970 so were invited to London in ‘71 and they won it, so I was with them when they went back to defend it again in 1972,” recalls Somers.

“We beat Galway in the semi-final and Cork in the final at the old ‘Twin Towers’. For a soccer loving boy from Limavady, playing at Wembley was a bit special alright. I’d say there were about 20,000 people at the games so the stadium looked a bit empty but still impressive. They were only using the one side but we did the whole Wembley thing, going up around the royal box, pretending to win the FA Cup and all that stuff.

“I think the idea was to promote the game over there by getting the top teams to showcase it and we were lucky enough to win it. It was a good experience but 1972 was a very busy year!”

The Derry and Dublin players make their way around the pitch in the pre-match parade before the 1975 All Ireland semi-final.

That’s busy in the sense that 2020 has been eventful!

Derry had already played host to Fermanagh in their Ulster Championship opener before visiting Wembley and within days of lifting the O’Gorman Cup, the Oak Leafers had set off once more, this time bound for America and New York City.

“The following week we headed off to New York for two weeks. We played New York twice and were up in Connecticut on the interim Sunday. Playing New York in those days was like playing the rest of Ireland. We beat them twice but they had a really good team, particularly for the second game.

“The rumour was they were on quite a lot of money to beat us. It was a humdinger of a match, not for the faint-hearted I’m telling you, but we had a big team. There were maybe only one or two lads under six foot and we could look after ourselves. You’re talking about fellas like Matt Trolan, Gerry O’Loughlin, Tom Quinn, Chris Brown, Adrian McGuickin.

“Our minor team won the All Ireland in 1965 and then the Under 21s in ‘68 and that team was basically the same side as the minor team. There were about three changes and I was lucky enough to be one. Then there were a few more mature players in there as well, the great Sean O’Connell of course, Mick McGuckian, Lawrence Diamond, people like that. You could have called us an outfit that was able to take care of things, let’s just say. That’s the way it was then.”

If the New York ‘double’ secured the sporting highlight of the trip, an unexpected encounter with the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll provided an interesting aside for the Limavady man.

“We were based in Manhattan and I remember it was on West 55th Street, not that far from Madison Square Garden which is down around 31st. Myself and Jimmy Hasson, the two keepers, were downtown and as we were walking this big limousine rolls past with crowds of people chasing it.

“We knew it was someone famous but hadn’t a clue who it was. Hasson and me were as fit as fiddles so we hightailed it after the limo as well. The car pulls into the forecourt of a hotel surrounded by security guys who shut the gate but we were quicker and fitter than most so we were right at the front. And who got out of the limo but Elvis himself, coming from a matinee performance of the show ‘That’s the Way it is’. He was coming from Madison Square Gardens.

“We were no more than eight feet from him. It was a bit of a shock but neither Hasson nor me had a camera. Some of the boys had cameras and were clicking everything that moved in New York but Hasson and me hadn’t one between us!

“It was exciting though to see Elvis alright. He stood there and let people take photos and we could hear him talking because we were that close. I would say he stood for a few minutes, waved and chatted, then headed off. It was a bit surreal.”

Surreal, yes. Believable, no, as the star struck duo were about to find out.

“You can imagine when we got back to our hotel, back to the crowd of lads we had with us. We were saying, ‘Guys, guess who we saw today?’” laughs Somers remembering their triumphant return.

“‘Who’d you two see then, c’mon tell us?.

“We saw Elvis!’ we announced proudly.

“The boys burst out laughing. ‘What the hell are these two on here lads? Get me some of what they’re on.’

“I think most of them eventually believed us but not before a hell of a lot of p***-taking about it, as you’d expect. It’s a nice one to have to look back on though. We were just in the right place at the right time. We had no idea who was in the car when we ran after it!”

Ulster Champions, Wembley wins and the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll yet none of the above hit Somers like finally claiming the club medal he thought had got away from him with Dungiven in 1983.

With no club in Limavady, and after briefly turning out for Glack, Somers became a mainstay in the Magpies goals for over a decade. Yet for all the talent in Dungiven, the Derry Senior Championship looked like eluding him as he approached the twilight of his playing days. A 1982 final defeat to Ballinderry after a replay seemed to have sealed his fate. Somer’s final game for the county came in an Ulster Championship defeat against Cavan at Ballinascreen the following year but men like John Somers do not go quietly into the night.

“At Dungiven we were the sort of team, when we look back now, that underachieved over the years. We had some really good sides but always seemed to be bridesmaids rather than the bride when it came to the big day. We were beaten a couple of times in county finals and numerous semi-finals before finally managing to make the breakthrough in 1983 when we beat Magherafelt. Then we came straight back and won it again in 1984!

“We had lost the 1982 final and at that point I was resigned to finishing my career without a county medal. Then, when we won it in ‘83, and again in ‘84 in the centenary final when we beat Castledawson by a point, it was all the more special.

“I thought it was going to pass me by, no doubt about it. The guys from the county team who I was friendly with all had their county medals; Gerry O'Loughlin, probably my best mate in the county set up, he had his medal.

“It was something I dearly wanted. The night we won the championship in ‘83 I didn’t even see the presentation. I was so overcome by the whole occasion, I didn’t see it. Now, I had been lucky enough to win the Under 21s, I got a Railway Cup medal, a couple of Ulster Senior Championship medals and a Wembley tournament medal but I’d never shed a tear at any of them. Yet the night we beat Magherafelt, I was in the tunnel at Ballinascreen in absolute bits.

“Funny thing was, we’d won and I was being consoled by Gerry ( O'Loughlin) who was playing for Magherafelt! Gerry was there right after the match and I remember him coming in. He had his own unique way of consoling me: ‘For God’s sake Somers, what are you griping about? Didn’t you win? What the hell would you be like if you’d been beat!

“I suppose you could say I had kept the best for last but Gerry was a class act, on and off the pitch.”

In the style of public transport, once that first county championship arrived, the second wasn’t long behind as Dungiven successfully defended their title in ‘84 before succumbing to an up and coming Glenullin side who would go on to lift the trophy the following year but as most old footballers will tell you, it’s not the medals that are recalled when the final whistle sounds.

“I remember Jimmy Keaveny, the great Dublin player, telling me something on the All Stars tour about how he valued the friendships football gave him more than anything. I told him, ‘It’s easy for you to say that Jimmy with three All Irelands’ but his reply has stayed with me. He said, ‘Believe me, John, I mean it. I’d have to look for my medals. I know they’re in the house somewhere but I haven’t seen them in years. What’s more important is knowing if I was in Derry I could ring you and we could meet up. That’s priceless.’

“It’s thanks to football I have good friends in any county you care to name. Being a goalkeeper, everyone always joked we had our own union and remember we played 150 yards apart so we weren’t going to be kicking the s**t out of each other during a game (laughs). The best friends I had were some of the other keepers.

“One of my best was a fella called Lawrence McGlynn who played for Down. He was from Castlewellan and we were together on Ulster panels. I remember in 1975 we were pitted against Down in the Ulster final. Down were favourites but by some stroke of fate both teams were in the Creighton Hotel for the pre-match lunch.

“Down were upstairs and we were downstairs. All the bags were just thrown in the foyer, Derry bags, Down bags and with no big fancy buses, the boys just walked up in dribs and drabs. When I was coming out this fella was just coming down the stairs. I realised it was Lawrence and he recognised me. We said hello, shook hands and walked up to the ground together, through the crowds of supporters.

“We chatted up to the old changing rooms, the ones right behind the goals, shook hands again and wished each other good luck. We beat Down that day thanks to a couple of secret weapons Down knew nothing about. One was called McElhinney and one Lynch, Gerry McElhinney and Mickey Lynch.

“Right after the final whistle, Lawrence was there to shake my hand and we became firm friends that day. That’s football.”

Retirement brought a place on Eamonn’s Coleman’s backroom team for ‘93, a goalkeeping coach role of which he’s justifiably proud, as well as a crucial role in the birth of his hometown club, the Limavady Wolfhounds.

“I have great admiration for the Wolfhounds and everyone associated. I consider myself very lucky to have been involved from the outset of the club in a very small way, literally coaching underage teams. I started off coaching the U12s but was always very keen to see it get going in the town though I did very little compared to a lot of other people.

“I was delighted to be involved and seeing them win the Intermediate and Junior titles over the years were proud days, especially when the club recognised me and asked me to say a wee bit for it. That’s something I keep in my locker, something I’m very proud of. The development of the club in the town, it fits very well in now. It has maybe taken it a time to get there but it sits well in the local community now. It’s part and parcel of the community and that’s how it should be.”

Back to the Jazz then. Just over an hour in John’s company provided more anecdotes than even the most generous word count would allow. Besides, my time’s up and even at 70 years of age, John’s not slowing. He has a concert to prepare for.

As a friend of his might say....A little less conversation!