One-to-one with Ollie Ralph
Never doubt Ollie Ralph, the man who left Dundalk FC and ran riot at Newry
One-to-one with Ollie Ralphby Caoimhín Reilly
Jim McLaughlin and Terry Eviston made the mistake of underestimating Ollie Ralph, a man who recovered from a career-threatening, potentially life-changing jaw break to smash every record there was in the history of Newry City.
“He didn’t know me and I didn’t know him,” the latter says of his later managerial partnership with Eviston.
“We were out on the field one night - Wardy (David Ward), Derek Delany, David Hoey - and he told the boys how many goals he’d scored for Dundalk. He turned around and asked me, ‘how many goals did you score in Newry?’
“I said: ‘304’ and he looked at me. ‘What?’ The boys were laughing, big Pádraig Gollogley and the lads.”
All the then Lilywhites boss had to do was ask Linfield’s all-conquering back four of the late 1980s.
“Lindsay McKeown and David Jeffrey were playing as the two centre-halves at Linfield and I remember scoring against them,” Ralph continues. “(George) Dunlop was in goals and I chipped him. McKeown says, ‘it won’t be long ’til you’re here’...”
He never heard another word, but the sentiment is significant. McLaughlin, the greatest supremo in League of Ireland history, doubted the lethal striker in his heyday, only to taste stomach-churning regret.
“I think Jim did say one time that he made a mistake, which we all make, over letting me go. For him to come back and say I want you for the Cup final in ’88, I felt that was (vindication).”
Back to that later, though.
His gaffer at Newry in 1987, Matt Bradley, was hesitant in accepting what Ralph could produce on occasions, too, as a yarn from City’s pre-extra-time huddle in that year’s County Antrim Shield semi-final suggests.
“We were getting beaten 1-0 up until the 90th minute, so I hooked the ball across for Harry Fay - who would manage with me later - and he scored to put it into extra-time,” he recalls.
“Matt Bradley had us all gathered around before extra-time. I hadn’t played that well, but I just felt… I said to Matt there’s nothing to worry about, ‘I’m going to score’.
“‘What do you mean?’ he said in front of all the boys. ‘I know I’m going to score’ and he looked at me, but I scored two in extra-time and we won 3-1.”
Wily Ronnie McFaul subsequently took his strike partner, Marty Magee, to Portadown, but he flopped in a season where Ralph banged in 37 for Newry.
“I met Ronnie one day and, says he, ‘I picked the wrong one’.
Turlough O’Connor couldn’t have been convinced, either, when he asked Ralph, who was tearing Irish League defences asunder, to undergo “a trial” during a time in which Dundalk were falling down the domestic pecking order.
What would have been had ‘Turley’ just taken a chance?
THE TURNING POINT
His father, Joe - a Dundalk FC legend of the 1950s, wasn’t sure if Ollie would ever don the football field again in 1982. And, compounding matters, Dundalk had lost their hold of the FAI Cup following a four-game semi-final saga against Bohemians.
Ollie, now a fixture in McLaughlin’s plans, struck in one of the three drawn encounters, only to be left panned out in the process of scoring, with Bohs’ No1 Dermot O’Neill and team-mate Eamonn Gregg using him as a landing pad.
“I didn’t even know I scored,” Ralph says. “All I remember was seeing Mick Fairclough coming out celebrating and me thinking he’d finished it.
“I got up and didn’t feel good.”
Paddy Dunning eyed him in the dressing room afterwards and having had prior experience of the injury, alerted the medics and from there Ralph was hospital-bound for weeks. His tilt at an FAI Cup winners’ medal, gone; his work in Navan’s Tara Mines, over; a promising football career, in major doubt, according to the specialists treating him for a treble jaw fracture.
Of course, they didn’t know Ollie Ralph.
“My jaw was wired from top-to-bottom, I couldn’t move it,” he says. “I had to eat through a straw. I’d never wish it on anyone.
“I didn’t know in the middle of it all that the doctors had told my Dad that I’d be very lucky to play again, he never told me. I just couldn’t understand in myself how I didn’t have any energy. I went out one day to fix a puncture on the car and caught my father’s eye jacking up the car. I couldn’t turn the jack.
“But I loved training in Ravensdale and I was going for about three weeks on my own on the mountain, months after the incident. I ran up one day and McLaughlin was there with some of the Dundalk players. He looked at me and I knew the way he looked at me, he obviously knew a wee bit more than I did.
“‘How are you feeling,’ he says. ‘I’m coming,’ says I. ‘Will you join us’, says he. He told me to come back up (to Oriel), but I never got back to myself until nearly the end of that season. He called me, Willie (Crawley) and a few more towards the end of the year and said there was a clean- out, ‘I’m letting you go’.”
Out on his ear, UCD were supposedly in touch, but the interest wasn’t mutual. Johnny Fearon, a Newry stalwart and family friend, offered him a chance, which he took, scoring in a trial and landing a deal, but only after a last-ditch attempt by wealthier Glenavon to coax the frontman.
He even played a match for the Lurgan charges, registering a couple before turning their advances down in favour of the club where he would achieve legendary status.
“We played Glenavon after four games and I scored two. I’ll not tell you what the manager of Glenavon called me. ‘I’d have given you anything,’ he says. But I wanted Newry.”
He adds: “I’m glad I never left because I get phone calls from Newry every week and I’m now the President of the club. I go down whenever I can and am treated very well. I just love Newry.”
THERE IS A BUT...
It was 1988 and The Lilywhites were chasing the double, with McLaughlin’s Derry City standing in their way of an FAI Cup success. Dundalk won, 1-0, courtesy of John Cleary’s controversial penalty, only for Derry to win the lot the following year, becoming the only team ever to win the treble - a feat which remains intact.
Believe it or not, Ralph could have been a part of that.
“I got a phone call from McLaughlin on the quiet,” quips Ralph. “I dunno if people remember that Derry took a player (Calvin Plummer) over from Nottingham Forest to play in the final? Well, I was supposed to play.
“Jim had phoned me and told me he was trying to get me for the Cup final. RTÉ were coming to do an interview in the town with Barry Kehoe and myself - I was waiting on a call from Newry, but they wouldn’t let me go.”
There are no regrets, though. From his playing career, anyway. In 1989/90, his 42 goals, in a campaign where Newry finished in mid-table, earned him an awards’ treble: Ulster Footballer of the Year, NI PFA Player of the Year and NI Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year. They accompanied his top scorers’ gong and a Mid-Ulster Cup victors’ medal.
Newry, its people and players, helped him achieve it all, he insists, hence why the ‘what may have been’ ponderable is redundant from memory.
“Newry went to the wall a few years ago and it was horrendous. They have some fantastic people involved and the night it went, one of them phoned me in tears. He was after being down the town buying locks for the gates and the groundsman phoned me to ask if I could keep the lawnmower - I was in Ravensdale at the time.”
He managed the club across several spells, temporary and otherwise. He saved them from the drop in 2004, but the extent of the exertion played hell with his health and so he stepped away and hasn’t returned to the dugout.
But towards the end of his time on the pitch, he slipped into a player/coach role as the club floated with oblivion financially.
“Eric Wilson came in and said, ‘Ollie, if you could put out any sort of a team for Saturday, I’ll make sure we’re alright next week’. Everyone had walked out, the club was gone.
“I phoned all the players, but only a few of them would come. The late Tony Scappalicci, who we were told was “trouble” when he signed, was there. I got on great with Scapp, he was a villain.
“We were playing above in Omagh and I’d a few up from Dundalk, Alan Todd, who was playing in town for Rangers, and a few more. None signed!
“Roy McCreedy was the Omagh manager and he says to me before it, ‘Ollie, I’ve looked at your teamsheet and they don’t look like the boys (listed)’. ‘I’ll talk to you after, Roy’.
“I says to Alan, ‘whatever you do, don’t get booked’. The game was on 15 or 20 minutes and we were doing rightly, even though we’d no chance, and Toddzer clipped someone… So the referee is running after Alan with a yellow card and Toddzer’s running after me, ‘what’s me name?’
“I remember going into the referee’s room afterwards to apologise and I told him what had happened, but it was never reported. They beat us 1-0 and Roy McCreedy came into me after, ‘if we hadn’t beaten you…’
“Toddzer signed and it was great. I still see him on the street and shout ‘what’s me name’!”
The club thrived thereafter, qualifying for the Intertoto Cup in 1998 after finishing fourth. That was Ollie’s cue to step away. Go out at the top.
Democrat: “Who do you support in England?”
Ralph: “Man City… from day one. Francis Lee and Colin Bell. I’ve been through the good times and the bad.”
Democrat: “So, Liverpool, those games in 1982. Playing at Anfield.”
Ralph: “It was an incredible experience and something I’ll never forget. I was wide on the right and my job was to stop Alan Kennedy - who had a steamroller tied to him! - from going up and down the line. I never saw a player of his physique, pace and power in all my life. An experience I’ll never forget.
“I played against Man United, an English League selection and an Irish League selection for the Northern League, but the experience of walking out at Anfield, you just looked around, it was unbelievable. To tell your grandkids you played at Anfield and against Man United, I’ve a granddaughter now, Autumn (2), and my grandson, George (eight months).
“I have the ball that I scored my first hat-trick with at Dundalk and I’m doing up baby George’s room for his birthday and I’m going to get the ball mounted and sitting for him. That’s the next thing on the agenda.”
That ball is from a Leinster Senior Cup semi-final in ’81. McLaughlin had picked him after watching him star in the famous five-a-side matches in the Friary. A couple of B team games, one of which saw him score against Shamrock Rovers at Milltown, later and he was in.
“On the Tuesday night I turned up for training and McLaughlin says, ‘you’re not training tonight, you’re playing in the first-team’ the following night against Bohs, the Leinster Senior Cup semi-final. I scored a hat-trick and that was it.
“I didn’t realise there was a lot of Dundalk people who wanted to see me in the Dundalk team, I couldn’t see that. The reaction I got, people phoning me and at work, I couldn’t get over it.
“I give a lot of credit for it all to John Murphy. I had played for John with Bank in the Leinster Senior League. ‘Your father looked after me at Oriel Park when I was coming in, now it’s my turn,’ I remember John telling me.
“I won lots of awards and got a junior international cap at that stage, which alerted McLaughlin. I love John, he was a fantastic manager.”
“I arrived late for a game in Oriel Park during a spell where I couldn’t score or run, I could do nothing.
“I couldn’t even score with the B team. When I went into the changing room the only jersey that was left was No6, so I put it on and scored two goals that day.
“When I was in Newry two or three months, the manager asked if anybody preferred any jersey. I said I wouldn’t mind No6 and I wore it until the day I left.”
A TALE OF TWO PICTURES
After his spell alongside Eviston in the Dundalk dugout, Ralph contested for the manager’s job for the first time, losing out to Martin Murray, only to be called by the appointed gaffer minutes later. ‘I need you’.
He accepted, remaining as No2 over a few turbulent years before all the hardship and struggle paid off. FAI Cup final day, 2002.
“We were dead late getting to the game and went down through (the supporters) outside Tolka. The place was black and white and the boys are looking…
“The team picked itself at that stage and there was a whole lot of Dundalk-based players on the panel.
“We called out the team and about 15 minutes before kick-off Martin called me over and says, ‘we’ve a problem, John Whyte’.
“John’s sitting there shaking, David Crawley was in and out of the toilet and Hoeyzer… These were only young lads.
“I said ‘I know John, don’t worry’. Next thing John’s in and out of the toilet. Frank O’Neill comes over and says ‘we’re pulling John Whyte, look at him’. ‘Leave the team alone’ I says, ‘he’ll be grand, I know him’.
“Maxi had got down to the sideline, near the dugout. I says to Maxi, ‘we’ll be grand today, we’ll be alright’.
“Frank and Martin were sitting together - me and Martin always sat together - so I’m at the other end. The first ball that went up to Glen Crowe’s feet, John absolutely poleaxed him. Hit him on the halfway line and Glen just went down’.
“I turned around to Murray and he was smiling at me. ‘John’s settled’ and he had a blinder, all the boys had smashing games.
“The Cup run was something I’ll never forget. I got a picture standing with the Cup for my Mam. The last picture she had of that Cup I was standing in it…
“Maxi still shouts at me down the town, ‘you were right’.”
The FAI Cup, after all, is of special meaning to the Ralphs.
“Dad had won a Leinster Senior and FAI Cup medal when he was still living in Legion Avenue. St. Nicholas’ Church approached the parishioners to ask if they’d any gold to make a statue of Our Lady and the beautiful story was that Dad gave his two medals to melt down for the status - all he had in his career - and the following year he won the same two medals back.
“Mam still wears the ’58 medal around her neck. It’s an incredible, true story.”
Like the rest of it.