Magical memories of '92 still etched clearly in Donegal minds

Wed, Sep 19, 2012, 01:00

TWENTY YEARS ago Michael Carruth won gold and Wayne McCullough won silver at the Olympic Games in Barcelona, Leeds United won the championship in England, Nick Faldo won the Irish Open in golf, Shelbourne won the League of Ireland and Bill Clinton became president of the United States of America.

In the world of the GAA, Kilkenny won another Liam MacCarthy cup and Donegal won their one and only All-Ireland senior championship – and I was lucky enough to be part of it.

The years have dulled many of the memories of the past, but the championship of ’92 and a wonderful summer when the whole county went mad are still etched firmly in the mind. It may be hard for supporters of the traditional counties to understand the hysteria that surrounded that campaign. We had won Ulster championships in the past but had fallen at the semi-final stage and many of the squad’s older players might have thought their chance of ever getting their hands on Sam Maguire was behind them.

When we went back to train after the Ulster championship we decided that if we were going to break our duck we had to get fitter, we had to get mentally stronger. And the fear of Croke Park had to disappear. We didn’t play well against Mayo but we went into the game believing that we could win it; not many Donegal teams in the past had that same belief.

We couldn’t have asked for better when Dublin defeated Clare in the other semi-final. We knew most of the attention would be on them. They would go into the game as clear favourites and their supporters would demand success. We had nothing to lose and, having played Dublin in the quarter final of the National League earlier in the year, knew we had a chance and didn’t have any reservations about playing the Dubs in their back yard.

The build-up to the game was surreal. There were four of us from the Killybegs club so the town was awash with green and gold. Everyone wanted a ticket and if they didn’t get one they were going to Dublin anyway. The only things left in the harbour that weekend were the seagulls and the boats.

The night before the game we stayed in Finnstown House in Lucan, had a brief team meeting, watched Match of the Day and then played a bit of cards. Everyone was relaxed and looking forward to the game.

Sunday arrived and everyone just wanted to get to Croker. The journey into town with the huge crowds lining the street was something you don’t forget. Soon we were running out underneath the corner of the Hogan Stand and the noise hit us. Nothing can prepare you for that almighty sound that takes the breath from you. As we paraded behind the Artane Boys Band the green and gold seemed to be everywhere.

The game started at a frantic pace, with very little opportunity to take a breath or take water on board. Every time we scored the noise was electric, then the final whistle – mayhem.

I got to see big Anthony Molloy lift Sam from the bottom of the Hogan Stand. All the training, all the travelling and all the disappointments of the past were gone. No longer the whipping boys – finally winners.

Watching the supporters celebrate was something you don’t gear yourself for, including grown men crying. People who supported the team for years and who were present in the bleak days were speechless. That moment when you get to see your family and finally when you reach the dressing room and sit down with your team-mates – they are memories that will live with me for a long time.

Arriving in Donegal on the Monday night and seeing how many people were there to greet us was breathtaking. Every town we went to was the same. Coming home to Killybegs and walking through the town with the two Barrys (McGowan and Cunningham) and John (Cunningham) holding Sam Maguire, meeting your friends and neighbours – it still sends a shiver up my spine.

The younger supporters loved the moment but it was the older people who savoured it most. Not in their wildest dreams did the diehard Donegal Gael ever believe they would see such sights.

There were 28 players in the squad that year, all of whom believed they were good enough to be in the first 15, all of whom weren’t afraid to impose themselves either in the dressing room or at training. But if they believed they were above anyone else they would have been brought back down to earth with a bang. I could tell you we all got on well most of the time but that would not be the whole truth. There were plenty of times when egos would get in the way but when you crossed the white line to play everything was forgotten and everyone got on with their job.

Even now after 20 years, that stubborn mentality that made us is still there but we usually just have a good laugh about it now.

Since ’92 we have only come together a couple of times; 10 years ago we played a charity match against Derry in Fanad and even then nobody wanted to lose. We gathered again this year for a charity dinner and that friendship and bond that was formed all those years ago is still there.

I’ve often been asked whether winning the All-Ireland changed my life. It’s a difficult question to answer, as no one is sure what path their life will take regardless of what comes their way.

As a lad growing up in Killybegs I dreamed of playing for two teams: Leeds United and Donegal. The Leeds thing never worked out, probably because my soccer skills were never up to much, but I got a chance with Donegal. Diego Maradona said: “My greatest pride and joy was always playing for the national team, no matter how many millions of dollars they pay me nothing compares to playing for Argentina.” The same could be said of how most Gaelic footballers feel about playing for their county. I was no different, although getting a few bob wouldn’t have been that bad either.

It’s true that when Donegal are going well in the championship it evokes a lot of old memories for everyone. Sometimes you may hear, while walking down a street or in a shop: “See that fella? He played for Donegal once.” It was a great honour to play for Donegal but what made it better was the friendships that were made on the way, the night out either celebrating a great victory or drowning the sorrows after another defeat, the nights we trained in the wind and rain with everyone giving out – but no one giving in.

Was it worth it? Of course it was. It’s not until you are that bit older that you can appreciate how much it meant to everyone – especially ourselves.

Manus Boyle played for Donegal in the 1992 All-Ireland football final. At the weekend he turned out for his club, Killybegs, scoring 1-1.