Donal Reid has been there, done that – and bears the scars
Ex- Donegal player’s book details the emotional trauma sparked by an assault on the pitch
Donal Reid after Donegal’s famous victory over Dublin in the 1992 All-Ireland final. Photograph: Inpho
Donal Reid (left) and Joe McCloskey celebrate with Donegal manager Jim McGuinness after the victory over Dublin in the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final at Croke Park. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Twenty-five years later, Donal Reid knows who hit him even if he still struggles to understand what hit him: what it was that summoned the casual malevolence behind an unprovoked punch which shattered his face.
A quick morning glance in the mirror is sufficient to remind him of the accompanying physical consequences: the broken jaw and nose may have healed but the structural damage to his mouth continues to bamboozle dentists.
He thrived for a decade during a hard, hard period in Gaelic football but the reverberations of that attack have lingered with him through the past quarter of a century.
“And it has,” he says softly in an undiluted mid-Donegal accent.
“It was only this morning I was thinking about it. Every morning I brush my teeth, I see that I have very few teeth left in my head. And that’s a result of that bang.”
Reid can easily place himself back in those nightmarish seconds: the closing seconds of a local championship match in high summer, 1992, when Donegal – team and county – were lurching towards a fantastical All-Ireland autumn after which nothing would be the same again.
Brian McEniff, ever the custodian, had been fretting over his charges the previous week, warning the county men to stay out of trouble in their club games.
Nonetheless, Reid was insatiably competitive and had been banging at midfield against an opponent eager to assure him that his county status meant nothing.
But now the match was into injury time and Red Hughs, his club, were comfortably ahead so he could hear the hotelier’s pleading rattling around in the back of his mind. The day was done. Reid decided to be wise and take himself up into the quieter pastures of corner-forward for the closing minutes.
Donegal were scheduled to play Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final less than three weeks later. Reid was in unholy pain and distraught. He was vaguely aware that he was an appalling sight.
His club mentors were pressing him to go straight to hospital but Reid made for the dressing-room of Termon, the opposition club, bloodied and outraged, asking for his culprit to come as far as the door so he could ask him why he would this. The man never appeared. He has never received an explanation, let alone an apology.
Jim McDaid, the future minister of sport, was the Donegal team doctor at the time. He accompanied Reid to Letterkenny General Hospital and as Reid sat for 18 stitches across his gums, he could see from the expression on McDaid’s face that things were bad.
When he was discharged, he was driven home where the expression of his wife, Maura, told the same story. His young daughter started crying when she saw him. She was frightened. Six weeks later, Reid won an All-Ireland with Donegal and the event became blurred; a small indelible stain on a glittering career.
But when Reid sat down last winter to write a memoir of his sporting and personal life, he was forced to confront the true impact of that moment. He belongs to a generation of Gaelic footballers in which the random outbursts of violence could flare from nothing. The tradition was to put up and shut up.
“It is not the physical trauma,” he says on the truest of January mornings, the sky rinsed with freezing rain and all cars bearing full headlights through Barnesmore Gap.
Although Reid is chatty and naturally upbeat, he navigates his way through this incident carefully.
“It . . . as I say in the book, I was never any angel. I rarely provoked anything but I would certainly retaliate. And at the time, that’s how football was. But this was . . . at least when you face a man, you can brace yourself. I was caught cold. My legs turned to jelly and I was conscious of blood everywhere.
“It was out of nothing. At the county board meeting, the linesman, who was from their club, said that I had fallen against a wall. There was no reason; it was because I was a county player. I suppose they were worried I would take legal action and its one of the big regrets I have. Because it was the same as being assaulted walking down the street in Ballybofey.”
The extent to which a life can revolve around the notional prestige of playing for the county is at the heart of Reid’s biography, Confessions of a Gaelic Football Player. There is a religious twist in the title: Reid rediscovered his Catholic faith in recent years.
The book came as a surprise to his friends and former team-mates: written entirely by himself and offering luminous, vivid accounts into the haphazard, sometimes comical nature of elite football in the 1980s and 1990s. It is in places funny and high-spirited but in a way revolves around a delayed, incidence of chronic depression which he suspects was provoked by the sudden absence of inter-county football. Because of this, he is donating all proceeds to Pieta House.
Donegal have four All-Ireland successes in their history and Reid alone has direct involvement in three: as a starting player on the 1982 All-Ireland winning U-21 team and on the senior side that eclipsed Dublin and all expectations ten years later. A decade after that, he was a member of Jim McGuinness’s back room team in 2012.
Like other survivors of the ’82 All-Ireland side, he was acutely aware that Donegal’s summer was a literal last chance. He made the team; played well and all of a sudden, Donegal were champions. And on the bus out to the victory hotel in Malahide, he was overcome with panic rather euphoria.
“The bus was packed. We couldn’t breathe. And I think the stress of the previous few weeks had built up and I felt overwhelmed.”
He was uncomfortable at the banquet and told Maura he needed fresh air and slipped out, walking along the promenade at Malahide.
“And I was feeling worse by the second. I sat on this bench then and two elderly ladies stopped and asked if I was okay. And I said, “No, I’m not good. Not at all”.
They lived nearby and insisted that he accompany them back.
“They passed no remarks on me. They were just home from bingo. And they brought me in and were out making tea in the kitchen and I was in the living room watching The Sunday Game. They landed in with tea and buns. They were very, very nice. And then the man of the house came home. And he saw the crest on the team blazer I was wearing. So I told him I had been playing that afternoon.”
The highlights were on the television. The man was looking at the screen and seeing Reid pop up in a passage of play. Then he would look at Reid on his sofa and then back at the screen.
“He got a fair shock,” he laughs.
“He wanted to drive me back straight away. But I wanted to see who got the man of the match. So I ended up watching The Sunday Game there. Lovely people.”
He skipped the celebrations that night, going straight to bed with painkillers but made up for it in the days that followed. When the team finally made it to Donegal Town on Monday night, they were effectively imprisoned in the bedrooms.
All of the players gathered in the room that night will find it extraordinary that 25 years have slipped through their fingers since then. They will suit up and do the jubilee circuit this year, waving to the crowd on Ulster final day in Clones and on All-Ireland final day.
When Reid launched his book, almost all of the squad were present: the few who couldn’t make it genuinely couldn’t make it. That was the first time they had any inkling of the crashing halt which Reid suffered in 1999.
By then, he had moved from hotel management – and his chapter on life as a raw Donegal kid in London’s Metropole hotel is a hoot – to physical therapy and had volunteered to work at an orphanage in the Romanian town of Siret, hard on the Ukraine border. The group he travelled with had been given thorough instruction on what to expect. But they were still catapulted into another world.
Reid’s task was to chat with the youngsters until they trusted him and then carry them into an area where he could wash away weeks of grime and faeces and give whatever physical therapy they could take; many had suffered appalling physical privations.
Through the misery, the kids he encountered were a wonder: open, brimming with spirit, delighted to see Reid and others. Unquenchable children, basically. The experience instantly flipped his perception of life at home in Donegal. And he had found a new outlet for his energies.
“Once I go at something, I go at it. So between my initial visit and my next visit, I met a Romanian guy who was a mechanic here. And I asked him to teach me the language because it was a barrier. And Romania was the only thing in my head then: I was going to save the world. But one can’t prepare for that experience. Unless you can smell those smells and touch those children and hear the noise, nothing can prepare you. I felt I was a big strong Gaelic footballer and I could handle it all. And I just couldn’t.
“It was a breakdown. It was a combination of things. And I see now it was making me forget the inter-county thing and feel as if I was giving back to the world. It was hands on. And it was good. But once I saw how bad it was, I became fixated with it and I realised the enormity of it. And that I was helpless to change it. I was useless. Couldn’t answer a phone, couldn’t eat. I had to force myself.
“Maura would drive us places and my head would be down. I couldn’t function. Mental health was still stigmatised then; it was seen as a weakness. You know: this fella can’t be trusted. So I just avoided people and stayed in the house. But the morning, knowing I had a full day to face, was just terrible. It is nothingness. Your kids don’t matter or your wife. Nothing physical. Just this terrible pain. I was suicidal 24/7 for a time. I couldn’t be left alone. So I looked forward to nine o’clock and bed.”
It lasted a full year: counselling and psychiatric visits and medication slowly brought him out of it.
Remarkably, the Reids managed to present a front in which Donal was still the robust, outgoing number seven. It is only now, with distance, that he thinks the breakdown was a delayed response to the absence of the routine which playing for Donegal had given him from the age of 17.
“That is traumatic. You get up one day and it is gone. Every day revolves around those training sessions and they become your identity. And then you see things you have been ignoring and you look for things to fill this void. Nothing really does. You need to reach a point of acceptance.”
He made it beyond that point and has, happily, recovered his equilibrium. He was on the Donegal ‘Masters’ team with many of his All-Ireland team-mates a number of years ago. But although he enjoyed it on one level, he felt it was a parody of what they once could do on the field.
“So it is,” he laughs. “Naw, naw. You can’t get there. Your head is still flying but the legs can’t keep up. I remember telling Matt not to pass it so far ahead of me. We took it seriously because we are competitive. But naw . . . you see guys you admire not able to do it anymore. And it’s tough. And it’s sad. But that’s reality.
“And again, it is about accepting these things. So it is a good eye-opener to go train at a Masters. And see it for what it is. That is that! Accept it. That is life. You will never bring back what was when you were in your prime.”
Football remains a huge part of who Donal Reid is but he shakes his head quickly when asked if he would ever kick a ball around an empty pitch on a summer’s evening for the pure pleasure of it.
“Naw. I wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t even attempt it.”
Then a grin spreads across his face.
“But, well, an amazing thing. There isn’t a night now that I wouldn’t dream about football. About back in the day. If any other player tells you different, they are lying. Because it’s in you. Even last night I had this dream when I was in some county set up. McEniff was for taking me off and I wouldn’t come off! And there was all these young fellas waiting to come in. And I think it was Odhrán MacNeilis, actually, and I was there, ‘aye, ok, I will step aside’. And then you wake up and you think: ‘boy, that was a bad dream’.”