‘We were one of the best junior teams to come out of Dromore’

Past Santos players Clifford Lawson, Michael McGreevy, Joe Boal, Eddie Beattie, John Donaldson, Aidan Nicolette and Jackie Delaney.
Past Santos players Clifford Lawson, Michael McGreevy, Joe Boal, Eddie Beattie, John Donaldson, Aidan Nicolette and Jackie Delaney.

Back in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, a group of youthful Dromore lads launched an assault on junior football.

They were pretty good at it too.

By the time it all ended around 30 years ago, Dromore Santos had stamped their name in local footballing history as “one of the best junior teams ever” to come out of the town.

That’s the perhaps slightly biased view of former manager Jackie Delaney, who oversaw their final years.

“Anything that was going, we won it,” he says, backing up his claim.

“We won the West Down Summer League a few times. Rathfriland and Banbridge Town Reserves had teams in it. The Town team had a lot of players who had played first team football in it. We beat them 4-1 in one of the finals, when they were expected to stuff us.

“Some of the crowds that went to those matches would beat the crowds at Irish League games these days.

“We also won the McCarter Cup, which was the big Boxing Day final in Lisburn. We beat Wesley 4-2 in the final. We were also beaten in the final of the Mid-Ulster Shield by Rathfriland at Mourneview Park.”

On top of that, Jackie’s boys won the 1974 Lisburn League Second Division undefeated and finished runners up in the top league the season after.

Those were just a few of the honours picked up the team, who were nicknamed Delaney’s Donkeys in a famous poem written to be read by the boss at an end of season dinner.

Many of those ‘donkeys’ were far from it in terms of their ability.

“My players played good football,” said Jackie.

“They were only 17 or 18 years old. The oldest player I had was about 24 or 25.

“My captain was Walter Corbett. His management of the team on the pitch was great. I talked to them in the changing room before and after but on the pitch, I could have stood there and not opened my mouth. Walter did it all.

“I had hard men where we needed them and good players where we needed them.”

Delaney’s Donkeys weren’t the original Santos side. That team was run by Cyril Whithorn and player Jim Watson’s dad.

“It all started when a few of us got together and played for a bit of craic,” says star player James McCandless, who reckons it began circa 1964.

“We gathered a few players together and got into a league. We hadn’t any money as a club so we all had to buy our own red jerseys.

“We had a strong side and we really enjoyed the games. I was there from 64 to about 67. In 67, we got to a Cup final in the Lisburn League and we ended up winning it 2-1. It was on the same day that Celtic beat Inter Milan to win the European Cup.”

The club’s pitch was at Holm Factory, Lurgan Road. It was home and James recalls the less than glamorous surroundings with much affection:

“We had to get changed in the sheds at the factory. There were no showers in there so afterwards, we’d be washing mud off our legs for days. They were great times.

“There were no goal nets in my time so there were always a lot of debates on whether the ball had gone in or not.

“Behind one of the goals, there was a river and the ball used to always end up in it. It happened so much that we got a fishing net to fish the ball out with.”

Despite the debates, it was there that the club enjoyed so much success and when they lost their pitch, it was the beginning of the end.

“We had only been in the First Divison for one or two years when we lost the pitch,” recalls Jackie Delaney. “The council took it to build the Leisure Centre.

“They didn’t offer us another ground so we played out the Ballynahinch Road after that. You had to go away across a couple of fields and over a river to get to the pitch.

“There was no pavilion or anything. We even got changed in Murphy’s bar (Bridge Bar) before the games.

“It was a shame it ended. I think it was a shame for football in the local area too.”

Bridge Bar became a home from home for the side, especially after they moved out of Holm Factory.

“John Murphy owned the bar,” said Jackie. “He was the chairman at the time. He kept us going long after we could afford to when we lost the pitch. He put the money in for us when we needed it.”

John was given a warm welcome at the recent reunion of the team, the first time they’ve all been back together to remember the club since it folded.

“It was absolutely brilliant,” said Jackie. “Everybody was over the moon to get back together. People are still ringing me talking about it. Some of the guys missed it but it was great.”

Santos had certainly provided a place for the town’s young players to hone their skills and plenty went on to bigger things. James McCandless moved to play for Portadown and Banbridge Town before becoming a hit in the Amateur Leagues in Lancashire when he moved to work for Duple International.

“We had Eddie Beattie who went to Burnley and big Ged Hodgen went to QPR,” says Jackie of the later Santos side. “They went straight over there, no Irish league clubs invovled. That shows the potential we really had.

“Ged was 6’1 or 6’2. He was a big guy and headed the ball that hard he could have busted it.

“Some of the players I had, I didn’t appreciate them. Whenever I went on to coach at Glenavon years later, I was thinking that I wished I had some of the boys from Santos.

“They had the potential to play to that level but most of them were that dedicated to Santos that they didn’t want to play anywhere else after it ended.”

The club, then, held a unique place in Dromore’s footballing history and will long be remembered.

If you have any info or stories about Santos, get in contact at 02892 679111 or email us at sport@banbridgeleader.co.uk.