WESTPORT UNITED'S 1974 CONNAUGHT CUP WIN 50 YEARS ON

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1974 was a year of many newsworthy events around the world. Anyone old enough to remember events that year may automatically think of the Watergate Scandal, that saw President Richard Nixon resign, the only US President to have done so to the present day. 1974 was the breakout year for ABBA and their Eurovision winning song, Waterloo. Domestically saw one of our darkest days when 33 people were killed in the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, the deadliest attack during the Troubles. In sport, there was the famous Rumble In The Jungle when Muhammad Ali fought George Foreman in Zaire and there was the World Cup in West Germany, where Johann Cruyff and the Netherlands team lit up the tournament with their Total Football and it was the hosts that won the competition. This writer wasn't around in 1974, having only come on the scene a couple of years later, but will tell the tale of what happened on Sunday evening 16th June 1974.

The Westport United team of the 1973-74 season were almost invincible, having played 25 games, winning 21, drew 3 and their sole defeat came in the FAI Junior Cup. The team scored 101 goals and conceded 36, with a third of the goals scored by Michael McLoughlin. The squad still boasted a number of the 1968-69 FAI Junior Cup semi final squad but it was complimented with a number of younger players that emerged in the early 70's, generating lots of excitement in the town as they were looking forward to more silverware being added to the club's collection.

The Connaught Cup journey for this group of players began in the Sports Park on December 2nd 1973 with a thumping 6-2 win against Ballyhaunis when Michael Higgins and Michael McLoughlin grabbed a brace each, complimented by goals from Jim Ring and Martin Halpin. Westport United had to wait exactly four months on 2nd April 1974, for their second round game, another home tie against Ballina Town with Michael McLoughlin grabbing another brace and Martin Halpin chipped in with two and Jim Ring completed the rout. As the competition went deeper, the opponents got tougher and in the third round on May 12th 1974, Westport United  had a close, tough game against UCG with John Coffey scoring the only goal of the game to book their place in the semi final against Sligo Collegians, where goals from Sean McLoughlin and Martin Halpin gave the Covies a 2-1 win and a place in the June 16th decider.

Up to that point, Westport United won the Connaught Cup four times; a golden period in the 1940's that saw Westport win three times that decade; 1942, 1945 and 1949 and had to wait to 1961 to add title no.4. Going into the 1974 final, Westport had two surviving players from the 1961 squad in Chris Keane and Sean McLoughlin and many of the squad were only kids or teenagers when Westport United last won the competition.

The final was fixed for the Sports Park, where Westport United last won the blue riband of Connaught football 13 years earlier. This would elicit many emotions from various Westport United supporters, the kids having never seen Westport United win the competition, the young adults having memories of Westport's dominant win of 1961 and the older generation having fond memories of 1945 when Pierce Gill being carried shoulder high through the town with the cup, led by the local LDF band after Westport United came back from 2-1 down, to defeat UCG 3-2 in a thrilling finale to the game that saw O'Malley's field explode with some of the greatest emotions ever witnessed at a football match in Westport. The stories of the Golden Forties and 1961 would be passed from father to son, grandparent to grandchild and the town was getting ready to get behind their Red and Black heroes to bring home the Connaught Cup for a fifth time. The opponents for the final was Our Lady's Boys Club from Galway, abbreviated to OLBC and both sides met in the 1961 semi final, in which Westport United won and, like United, they had a veteran from 13 years previous in John Carr. The build up to the game in Westport was no doubt a talking point all over the town.

The team was managed by Brendan Halpin and he was putting the players through their paces and while the results were excellent, there was no room for complacency to creep into the squad and every minute mattered on the pitch and at training to be considered to be in the match day squad for the final and every player was undoubtedly on edge to find out whether they made the cut for the biggest cup final of their careers. They had a job to emulate their heroes that won on home turf both 13 and 29 years previous. Keane and McLoughlin were there before. They both tasted the sweet joys of victory and the bitter sting of defeat in the final. Most the squad would have witnessed the euphoric joy of 1961 in the Sports Park and the heartache of defeat against Castlebar Celtic in 1964 and the contrasting emotions that came with it. As a group, winning mattered not for themselves but for the town, Defeat was painful to the lads and every loss hurt immensely and every player owed it to their supporters and the town to give their very best for 90 minutes as a matter of local pride. When the customary post card arrived to inform each player that they were involved in the match day squad, they took it as their duty to to represent their town and parish with valour and put their bodies on the line for local glory.

Sunday 16th June 1974 was match day and a town was excited for the evening kick off and there was a carnival on tour. The locals went to Mass that morning, had their Sunday dinner and for anyone interested in GAA or in particular, Michael Higgins, tuned into the Sunday Sports Show on RTE Radio to hear the updates from Tuam Stadium as Mayo were beaten by Galway on a scoreline of 3-11 to 0-13. In the meantime, both teams arrived in the Sports Park while there was transport waiting in Tuam to take Michael Higgins back to the Sports Park and the clock was ticking.

Meanwhile, up to 2000 supporters were in the Sports Park waiting for the Connaught Cup final. Westport United were waiting on Michael Higgins to arrive. This added to the tension to the ground. Surely, the Sligo officials led by Willie Bradley had to get on with the game. Was it going to be Higgins or Alger in goal, supporters wondered. Then, suddenly in a scene that wouldn't look out of place in a Hollywood blockbuster, with supporters and mentors going through the mill with anxiety, Michael Higgins dramatically entered the Sports Park still donned in the Green and Red of Mayo and hurriedly changed into the Westport United goalkeeper jersey with only a minute to kick off. The high drama entry of Higgins set the stage for a memorable final, up to that point one of the greatest Connaught Cup Finals played and one of the greatest games played in the Sports Park then-21 year history. The 2000 supporters were then treated to 110 minutes of pulsating, tense, exciting action that was ping-pong in nature. Higgins had a storming game in goal, pulling off miraculous saves, particularly two top drawer stops. The Westport defence were really tested by John Carr and John Cleary and held firm under pressure. Westport were threatening in attack and had opportunities of their own. Westport were given a golden opportunity when they were awarded a penalty and up stepped Michael McLoughlin. McLoughlin was expecting the keeper to pick a side and dive across with his penalty going down the middle. It did go down the middle but it was saved by the OLBC goalkeeper. While the match was entertaining, it failed to produce a goal over the 90 minutes so extra time was played. Eventually, the breakthrough came in extra time and it came when Michael Higgins produced the Packie Bonner punt downrange, the ball flicked on by Michael McLoughlin for Martin Halpin to thump home from the edge of the area and the cheers of the supporters when Halpin scored thundered through Horkan's Hill as the Sports Park erupted with delight. When the final whistle blew, the Sports Park erupted with joy as the supporters stormed the pitch to embrace the players who have just brought honour and glory to their town. The outpouring of emotion was immense and team captain, Sean McLoughlin, was presented with the Connaught Cup and thrusted the trophy high into the Westport sky accompanied by a thunderous roar by the home support. The celebrations truly began and the players made their way to the Clew Bay Hotel while the supporters headed to the likes of Stuff Walsh's, Blouser's and Jackie Nolan's to celebrate. I'm sure that everyone went home early.......the next morning and the celebrations continued for some time afterwards.

Westport United didn't win the Connaught Cup again until 1987 and Michael McLoughlin was the sole survivor from 1974 in that game, being an unused substitute. Among the current older generation, the 1974 Connaught Cup success is still fondly remembered and the following players played their part in a memorable Sunday evening at the Sports Park; the last time the trophy was won at that venue were: Jim Ring, Jimmy Harley, Michael McLoughlin, Michael Higgins, Niall Halpin, Martin Halpin, Sean Alger, John Glavey, Brendan Gibbons, Chris Keane, Sean McLoughlin, Ger Smith and John Coffey.   

The surviving members of the Westport United Connaught Cup side of 1974 will be honoured at United Park this Sunday at 4:30pm following the Westport United B v Ballina Town Calor Gas Super Cup match. All are invited and welcome to attend.


 

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