St Comgalls mourns the loss of ‘The Master’
By John Hart – Photos – Thanks to Damian McKee
Naomh Comhghall GAC is mourning the loss of one of the most significant figures in its history, with the passing of Sean Smith.
In the 1970s ready employment in British Enkalon and Belfast being the most intense crucible of the troubles led to an explosion of Antrim’s population. The local parish had to rapidly respond with a new church and school to cope with the increase in numbers.
A state-of-the-art campus was the result in the form of St Joseph’s and to head up what would become one of the largest ever primary schools in the region, Sean arrived as a young educator ready to make his mark.
With a nod to his teaching background he was revered in his adopted club of Bryansford as ‘The Master’ after steering them to an all-Ireland Club Final in 1971 so he came with a huge GAA pedigree and before long he was drawn into the St Comgalls fraternity.
One of the mainstays of the squad at the time was no-nonsense defender Ronnie McNeilly and he recalls the impact that Smith had on the club.
Ronnie McNeilly said, “In those days club training was a pretty haphazard affair, but Sean brought in new methods, new drills and most of all a culture of performance. He didn’t suffer those who wouldn’t buy into his methods, but then he had achieved at a much higher level than any of us, so why should he?’
“Backs vs forwards, staggered runs, flexibility, hand-passing under pressure, and playing the percentages were all new concepts. No doubt his educational background influenced how he thought about the game, but he schooled us in the art of tactical play, studying the opposition, and nullifying their most potent aspects.”
Ronnie said this was most famously exhibited in the match where St Comgalls secured its first Junior County Championship in 1972.
“We had the wind in the first half and with my brother Raymond scoring a goal and couple of points we were 1-6 to 0-5 up at half-time. With the breeze at their back, Sean was wary of the threat of three county players in the St Enda’s ranks renowned for picking points from range. He dropped our half-forward line, and our midfield deeper into defensive mode, and by stopping St Enda’s from getting into any sort of fluency, we won the match 1-11 v 0-8.
His influence was observed too by the press at the time with reports in the Antrim Guardian noting “…..St Comgalls were sharper, fitter and more inventive, and in their jubilation the influence of former Bryansford mastermind Sean Smith could be detected.”
Victories followed in the league in 1978 and the South West Championship in 1982, but Sean didn’t just confine his efforts to the sideline, he also got involved in club administration serving as Vice-Chair.
He was famous for his exploits with Bryansford and the Down County side but his influence on young people in Antrim and his bringing success to the men in Green and White will always be remembered with pride.
A native of Maghery in Co Armagh, Sean won an All Ireland Minor medal in 1949 with his home County. It was though with his adopted County of Down that Sean came to prominence as the manager of the great Bryansford team of the late 1960s early 70s.
Sean had two spells as Down Senior team manager guiding the team to Ulster Senior Finals in 1974 and 1975 and then again in 1986. An Anglo Celt victory was to elude him but he helped provide many memorable days for Down supporters during his terms as manager. A man who was passionate about the game and who was a great exponent of coaching, it was often said that Sean Smith was ahead of his time.