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John Blong Snr - Our legendary double winning captain

posted 27 Sept 2018, 08:48 by Edenderry GAA   [ updated 28 Sept 2018, 00:27 ]

By David Farrell & Kevin Guing

If you enter the surname “Blong” into the search engine for The 1901 Irish Census, only 29 names will be listed. A usefully small number when one is trying to trace the origins of a local family. From these 29 entries there is one name that will prove especially important to the history of Edenderry and its future GAA successes. Christopher Blong is then eleven years of age and living in Clonmore, Bracknagh with his parents John and Lizzie (nee Mangan). He grew up in the area and began to play Gaelic football for his local club Bracknagh. In 1913 at 24 years of age he was a member of the Bracknagh team that won the Offaly junior championship, serving notice of his footballing abilities.

Christopher or “Kit” Blong, as he became known, married Sarah Shaugnessy in 1917 at the church in Portarlington and the couple relocated to Edenderry. Kit Blong began working for a local farmer as a land steward and moved into a house in Killane where he and Sarah raised their family. The house that Kit and Sarah Shaugnessy moved into is still occupied by the Blong Family and the Blong name is still associated with Killane to this day.

As Kit Blong arrived, Gaelic Football is struggling to get a foothold in Edenderry as the town is considered mainly a stronghold for hurling. The War of Independence and the Civil War that followed made championships and leagues difficult to organise between the years of 1919 and 1922. Gaelic football, as a result, already almost non-existent in Edenderry, is in real danger of completely dying out. In 1923 fresh attempts are made to revive football in Edenderry and eventually the club got enough players to enter the junior championship. Kit Blong, already a junior championship winner, resumes his playing days for Edenderry at the age of 35. It proves a fruitful move for both parties as Edenderry go on to win the junior county championship of 1925. Almost 13 years after his first junior medal win with Bracknagh, Kit Blong won his second with Edenderry. So begins the long tradition of Blong championship winners in Edenderry. By the year 2015, several more championship winning medals will be added to the Blong collection by sons, grandsons and great-grandchildren of Christopher Blong from Clonmore, Bracknagh.

(Kit's grandson John Blong Jnr (right) captained Edenderry to their last junior championship win in 1997)

For close to 100 years, starting with Kit, Edenderry GAA and the Blong’s have been linked. Since 1936 the club have collected eleven senior football titles, and amazingly, the Blong name will be associated with six of those famous wins. The Blong name echoes down the generations. Who could forget Kit's grandson, John Blong Jnr captaining our junior team to championship honours in 1997, or another grandson, Greg’s man marking job on Willie Reynolds in the 1995 final against Clara, not to mention his great grandson Gary’s last gasp point scoring cameo in the 2015 final win over Rhode. Each one of these men contributed greatly to the proud history of Edenderry GAA. But none of these men will disagree if one member of their family is singled out for special attention.   

(Greg Blong (far right) won senior championship medals in '85 & '95 with the reds)

The son of Kit Blong, the father of Greg and John Jnr, the Grandfather of the aforementioned Gary was John Blong Snr. A man who will forever be remembered for captaining two Edenderry teams to championship honours with Edenderry during a glittering career for club and county that spanned an impressive 17 years.  Even when his playing days were over he would continue to work tirelessly for his club and county. John Blong Snr was truly a legend of Edenderry and Offaly GAA..

This is his story.

Early Days:

In the “Tale of the Reds”, the brilliant book on the history of Edenderry GAA published in the mid 1990’s, there is a wonderful old story mentioned. It tells of a magical stone located in Killane and of how sitting on this stone will ensure that person will become a great footballer. This claim was backed up by the impressive list of legendary footballers to have come from the area with the likes of Mick Hughes and Ginger Moran all living in Killane at some stage. If the magical powers attributed to this stone are true, it can be assumed that a young John Blong must have sat on this special stone and in the process he ensured his career was going to be a long and a successful one. It might not be a bad idea for Edenderry GAA to immediately locate this magical stone and make every budding young footballer “take a seat”. If even one of these players turns out to be as good a servant to Edenderry as John Blong proved to be it will have been well worth the effort. 

In the early 1900’s, the streets were quiet, traffic was light and children safely played on the lanes and roads of their area. John Blong actually mentions in some old interviews of learning to play football with an old rag-ball and of setting up games on the road with his neighbours. He also spent hours practicing alone, kicking a ball against a wall, and learning to catch it high above his head. It’s an easy and pleasant scene to imagine, a young carefree John Blong learning how to become a great footballer. His father, Kit Blong, must also have been a huge influence in instilling a love of sport into the young John. As a child, he travelled with Kit to many local games sitting on the handle-bars of his fathers bicycle, and watched his heroes capture a junior championship for Edenderry in 1925. This must have been a pivotal moment for the young John, seeing the joy that a winning championship team can bring to a locality and wanting to emulate his fathers achievements must have only served to increase his ambition to one day be as good a player as he possibly could be. 

This drive to equal the achievements of the proceeding generation is a notable characteristic of the Blong family and is one, as outlined earlier, which has been repeated throughout the last 100 years of the GAA in Edenderry. Another significant factor in the shaping of John Blong’s early years must include the fact that there was such a sprinkling of great players, like the legendary Mick Hughes, living in the same Killane area during the formative years of John’s life. He got to watch his heroes close up and must have learned a great deal from studying these early pioneers of Edenderry GAA. It points to a childhood completely immersed in GAA and in particular Gaelic Football. It’s a great pity that match reports for games are not in great supply for the period that John Blong was a juvenile footballer, but if you factor in how important the Primary Schools juvenile championship was at producing future senior footballers for Edenderry, we can be sure that John Blong continued his improvement as a player while attending Edenderry Boys National School and lining out regularly for the national schools team. As the year 1935 begins John Blong is already a very good footballer and ready to enter the minor grade with confidence. He must also have harboured ambitions to break into the senior panel and play alongside the men he had watched so intently from afar.

(John Blong Snr played on the Shoe Factory team of 1948)

Minor & Junior Player

John Blong represented Edenderry and Offaly at minor Level for 2 years, 1935 and 1936, and again few match reports exist as to how he performed over these 2 years. But one report does show that John actually legally extended his minor career with Edenderry for an extra 3 Months. The 1936 County minor final will take place in Rhode on the 3rd March 1937. Edenderry will go down to a stronger and bigger Daingean team in the final, losing on a score-line of 3-5 to 1-2. “A battle of strength versus speed, and strength won” is how the match reporter sums up the game. John is listed at Midfield and the report states that, while Edenderry battled manfully, ultimately the bigger boys from Daingean would prove too strong. This was probably John’s last minor game for Edenderry and it must have been a disappointing way to end his days as an underage player. He was not to know it then but he would one day finish his senior playing days on a much happier note. On the county front John represented Offaly minors in 1935 and 1936 losing out to a very strong Louth team that would go on to win 2 Leinster minor titles in a row.

During the summer of 1936, the Edenderry senior footballers would embark on a remarkable championship run that would see them capture their first ever senior football title. A young John Blong had begun lining out for the junior team at the same time and it can be assumed he was also part of the senior panel during this glorious summer. The juniors eventually bow out of the championship in September 1936 on what must have been a notable day in the young life of the GAA in Edenderry. Both senior and junior teams played their respective championship games on the 19th September 1936 in their home pitch on the Carrick Road, Edenderry. John played at centre back on the junior team that lost to Durrow on a score line of 3-2 to 0-2. Match reports are far from complementary of Edenderry’s performance on the day, saying the team showed “obvious signs of a lack of training”, an accusation that has been levelled at many junior teams over the years. But John Blong is mentioned as “relieving a long spell of dull play” with some clever football. 

The disappointing performance from our juniors on this day would be soon forgotten by the crowd of over 1000 supporters as the senior team took to the field to play the reigning champions Tullamore in a county semi-final.   In what was deemed a huge shock, Edenderry upset the odds and won on a score line of 2-2  to 1-2 with the likes of Mick Hughes, Peter “Leesha” McGlynn, Willie Leonard, Mick Falvey and Willie Coyne giving brilliant displays on the day. John Blong must have looked on from his home pitch side-line with great excitement and pride as Edenderry qualified for their first ever senior county final.

On the 4th October 1936 Edenderry would go on to defeat a strong Walsh Island team in the county final and capture the first of our eleven senior titles. The towering Mick Hughes, the Killane neighbour of John Blong, would collect the cup on behalf of his team mates. What a sight this must have been for John, seeing one of his boyhood heroes and neighbour captaining Edenderry on such an historic occasion. It could only have fuelled an already burning desire to one day emulate these legendary figures.

(John Blong's neighbour Mick Hughes captained the reds to their first ever title)

Senior Stalwart

In his later years John Blong gave a short interview to the writers of the aforementioned excellent book “The Tale of the Reds”. One quote stands out above all others, it sums up all that made John Blong the player he was and the club and county servant he became. It is easy to overlook the words he chooses in this interview and read them without much thought. They are words that have been used by many different people over the years and can seem to some like a throw away comment. But the reader, in this instance, should be in no doubt that the words are completely genuine and honest. They are the words of a man who has spent 17 years of his life playing senior football for both club and county. They are the words of a man who grew up wanting to emulate his father and the heroes of his youth and who saw it as a personal crusade to at least equal their achievements. They are also the words of a man contented that he has left his own mark on the history of his club and are the words of a man who is trying to leave a clue to those who follow as to how to achieve your goals as a footballer.

“I was always proud to wear the jersey, let it be an Offaly jersey or an Edenderry jersey. That's the difference. It should be an honour to play for your club or your county".

– John Blong Snr.

The Frustrating Forties

John Blong would continue in 1937 and 1938 to line out for the Edenderry juniors as well as making some appearances with the senior team. It must have seemed to him at this stage that Edenderry were set to win more titles in the coming years such was the talent still at the clubs disposal. The championship winning team of 1936 was still very much a competitive unit and most observers at the time would have considered it just a matter of time before Edenderry would win their second senior title. By 1939 John is a permanent fixture in the senior team and fills most positions in the back line at one stage or another. The club struggle to build on their 1936 win and it is 1941 before things start to look up again for the seniors. A brilliant early championship win against Rhode in Edenderry would start a run that would see Edenderry reach the final of 1941 only to fall at the final hurdle. Another final defeat following on from the minor final loss of 1936 must have caused John to begin to question if he ever was going to win a county medal.

Things would not improve much for Edenderry or for John personally over the following years. The 1940’s would prove to be a barren and frustrating time for the club. Edenderry would lose out in another senior final in 1948 and also narrowly bow out at the semi final stage on 4 other occasions during this period. On a personal note John would break his collar bone playing for Offaly in a Leinster championship match against Louth in 1942 and tragically his Mother, Sarah, would sadly pass away in 1944 at the age of 50.

On the footballing front there was something missing in the Edenderry teams of the 40’s that prevented them from achieving the ultimate prize. Some supporters attributed it to bad luck and more blamed the odd bad decision by a referee but tellingly John makes reference to this period in Edenderry’s history during an interview he gave in the 1980’s when he says, “We should have won more in the 40’s, we had the men to do it, but we were always pulling against each other in Edenderry”.
(Offaly footballers in 1943 that faced Louth - J Blong circled)

And so, as a new decade began, a 32 year old John Blong had played for Edenderry and Offaly seniors for over 10 years. He had made 28 appearances for his county. He had played in 2 senior finals for Edenderry but he is yet to be on a championship winning team. He served on the clubs committee during these years and had worked tirelessly for Edenderry GAA both on and off the field. He was completely immersed in the life of the GAA but Edenderry seniors were still searching for the “difference” that would make them a winning team. Edenderry needed to find 15 players who felt, as John said himself, that it was an “honour to wear the Jersey”. The clock is ticking and John has not emulated his heroes. His mind must have been filled with doubts and with one important question. Had his chance passed him by?

(The reds were beaten in the 1948 final by Tullamore)

The Promised Land

1951 would open with good news for Edenderry and its GAA followers. A former Clara footballer called Archie McLoughlin had begun working in MP O’Brien’s store in Edenderry and the word was that he was transferring to Edenderry. Archie McLoughlin was already a very talented county footballer at this stage and his arrival would prove to be a huge coup for Edenderry. He was a deadly free taker but could play in defence or attack. He would prove to be a massive addition to the team of 1951. John Blong knew all about Archie from their involvement together with Offaly. Archie would be the first piece of the jigsaw.

In the early months of 1951 three more players would join the senior panel. These three players were all minor footballers at the time and would go on to make a huge contribution to the history of Edenderry GAA. The legendary trio of Christy Carroll, Mick Brady and Michael Nolan would join Archie McLoughlin on a new look panel for the championship of 1951. These 4 men, combined with the experience and leadership of John Blong and others on the team of 1951, would mean that Edenderry had found the players that would make the “difference”. These were men who felt it was an “honour to wear the jersey".

On the 26th August 1951 as the referee sounded the final whistle of the Offaly senior county final one can only imagine the wild scenes of celebration as Edenderry supporters swarmed O’Connor Park to be with their footballing heroes. Edenderry had beaten Cloghan by a single point. The winning score would come from the boot of Archie McLoughlin, one of seven points he would score in a man of the match performance. John Blong would play a captains role on the day and he would score two points out of his team’s total of twelve. Edenderry had captured their second senior football title. It had taken 15 years and it had been a long journey for Edenderry to get to this point. John Blong had taken every step of the way on that journey. As supporters spilled onto the field all around him the bitter taste of previous failures melted away and every disappointment was forgotten. He had finally done it and matched the achievements of his father and the other heroes he had watched and admired back in the mid 1920’s and 30’s. As a young man he had watched Mick Hughes from Killane lift the cup in 1936 and now he would have the same honour of collecting the trophy on behalf of the men of 1951. With what must have been a sense of pride mixed with relief, John Blong, captain of Edenderry, raised the cup aloft on that day in late August 1951. He was a county champion at last.

(John Blong Snr pictured with the ball as Edenderry are crowned senior football champions 1951)

A Sporting Reminder

It is often mentioned how cruel sport can be and of how it has a unique way of making yesterday’s heroes, the villains of today. So 1952 would prove to be for Edenderry senior footballers. They would cruise their way to a final meeting with Durrow in August 1952. They were heavy favourites, but, on the day, nothing would go right for Edenderry. Archie, the hero of the previous year’s final would not register a single score and John Blong would have to leave the field, injured after only 10 minutes of the final. Durrow would finish the stronger and win on a score line of 3-4 to 1-4 on a bitterly disappointing day for Edenderry. John Blong must have looked on from the side line as the final whistle blew and wondered would that be his last game for Edenderry. He was now 34 years of age and could say he had at least won the medal he had so long craved. Was this the time to step aside?

It’s hard to know if having to leave the field so early in the final of 1952 was a major factor in John giving it “one more year” but, at a guess, to end on such a sour note could not have sat well with this dedicated player. John Blong would again captain the Edenderry senior footballers in the championship of 1953. What the sporting gods had taken away in 1952 they would return with interest in 1953

The Last Game

A record crowd of 6000 people would attend the county final of 1953. Even to this day, only one club fixture in Offaly can draw a crowd of this size to O’Conner Park. The people turned out in such numbers to see the age old rivals Edenderry and Rhode battle for the right to be the county champions of 1953. John Blong, as captain, led the men from Edenderry on to the field that day in what proved to be his swansong. He was 35 years of age, the same age his father Kit Blong had been in 1925 when he collected his second county medal. Of course there is no way of knowing if John was aware of this fact as the ball was thrown in or even if it would have meant anything to him if he had known. But, in an ironic twist of fate, after an hour of pulsating football, John Blong would also win his second county medal at the age of 35 years.

The game itself was as an epic encounter. Legendary names littered each team sheet. Mick and Paddy Casey from Rhode, Sean Foran, Alo Brady, Liam Moran, and Fran Gorry from Edenderry were just a few of the greats that played on the pitch that day. Archie McLoughlin would again line out for his adopted team and Sean “Hooper” Farrell would give what is described as a man of the match display in the full back line for Edenderry. Youngsters Christy Carroll, Mick Brady and Mick Nolan would, after only 3 years of playing senior football, claim their second county medals. It had taken John Blong 17 long years to win his two county medals but in his final appearance for Edenderry, in the biggest of games against the biggest of rivals he had equalled his fathers achievements.

It was a fitting finale for Edenderry’s greatest captain as he collected the trophy on behalf of the players and supporters of Edenderry. At the beginning of 1951 John Blong had yet to win a county medal and must have been filled with doubts about continuing his playing days, and now, in a remarkable turn of events, just two years later he had captained two winning teams to county glory. In the 65 years that have passed since that day in 1953 no other Edenderry senior player has matched this achievement. John Blong remains to this day the only Edenderry man to captain two teams to senior championship glory. Maybe the old saying is true, “good things come to those who wait”.

(The men of 1953)

Retirement, legacy & next generation

At a reception given for the winning Edenderry team at Nolan's restaurant in the days following that final win in 1953, John Blong was asked to say a few words. He keeps it simple but mentions how all victories are sweet but none sweeter for him than the win over Rhode the previous Sunday. He makes reference to the fact that he has played his last game for Edenderry and of how “we must all pass along and make way for the youth”.  John would indeed make way for youth but would remain heavily involved in the GAA in the years that followed.

John would watch on in 1957 as Edenderry would win another county senior title. He would take up a role as selector with the Offaly senior team and no-one was prouder to stand in Croke Park in 1960 as the county would win their first ever Leinster senior football title after years of disappointments. He would remain heavily involved in the GAA in Edenderry and serve on the committee for many more years. The GAA was in his blood.

It would be 1985 before John would see his beloved Edenderry capture another senior football title but the Blong name would again be proudly represented on this winning team as his son Greg would collect a winner’s medal. Ten years later, Greg Blong would remarkably match his fathers and grandfathers achievements by adding a second championship winning medal to the families growing collection. The next Blong generation, not to be outdone, would add two more senior winning medals to the Blong medal haul. John Blong Snrs grandson, Gary Blong would be a member of the winning panels of 2011 and 2015 and ensure that the legacy of the Blong name would remain as relevant today as it was way back in 1925 when Kit Blong was on the team that collected the clubs first ever football championship. 

(Gary Blong kicked a crucial winning point for Edenderry in the 2015 victory over Rhode)

When Kit Blong moved from Bracknagh to Edenderry over one hundred years ago it was impossible to predict the impact he, his son, his grandsons and his great grandchildren would have on Edenderry GAA. Kit, his son John, his grandsons Greg & John and great grandson Gary all collected championship medals. The Blong legacy continued through to the new millennium when Jonathan Blong, Kit's great grandson, made his senior debut in 2008 v Gracefield. Ironically and somewhat fittingly the game took place in Bracknagh, the birthplace and club that Kit had won his junior championship medal in 1913. 

(Jonathan Blong made his senior debut in 2008 in Bracknagh)

Not to be outdone by the Blong men, Kit Blong's great granddaughter and John Blong Snrs granddaughter Sandra was also a prominent Edenderry footballer before emigrating. In fact, Sandra was part of the Edenderry senior ladies team that won the Leinster club championship in 2010. They remain the only Edenderry side to win a Leinster title. Ross Blong, Greg's son and John Snrs grandson, is currently a member of the U15 footballers that are in the quarter final of the championship and also the U17 team who have qualified for the semi final.

(Sandra Blong (Front Row: 2nd from right) won county and Leinster titles with Edenderry)

Honour your jersey, honour your home

So, what would John Blong Snr make of the game we see played today? Like most observers of present day Gaelic Football it can be assumed that he would not be a big fan of the constant hand passing and ultra-defensive approach of most senior teams. The “no risk” strategy of many current team managers would be something that he would not be able to understand. But maybe something in the modern game would upset him more than the bland style of play that is seen in most games today. Again the clues are in the words he spoke when summing up his footballing life.

“I was always proud to wear the jersey, let it be an Offaly jersey or an Edenderry jersey. That's the difference. It should be an honour to play for your club or your county".

These are the words of a man who dedicated 17 years of his adult life to achieving something for his club and he never wavered even when he encountered disappointments and failure. Put simply, John Blong cared. He had a long-term view of his footballing career with Edenderry. He knew that there could only ever be one winner of a county title each year but he was willing to be patient and wait for his turn to call himself a champion. So maybe this would be the biggest difference that this great legend would notice about the game today. To see the short-term, quick fix & easy blame view adapted by a lot of players in the modern game would, to John, be a sign of players who don’t care enough and who don’t feel it is an “honour” to wear their clubs jersey.  That’s the difference.