Memories linger of seismic 1992 as Dubs and Donegal lock horns

Vinny Murphy inspired a comeback in April but Donegal won the big one in September

Most league games have a lifespan about as long as a Snapchat message but others linger stubbornly in the memory.

A damp April day in 1992 and Dublin and Donegal fans converged on Cavan for a league quarter-final that felt like a bit of an occasion. The challenges were robust, the fashion dubious. Both managers, Brian McEniff of Donegal and Dublin's Paddy Cullen wore the shiny and possibly flammable track suits which briefly ruled the sporting world at that time.

If the teams had anything in common, it was that they both possessed two of the most prized full-forwards in the game; powerful ball winners blessed with skilful scoring touches. Many Donegal fans still rate Tony Boyle as the best out-and-out scoring forward they have seen. And no real Dublin supporter remembers Vinnie Murphy with anything but huge affection; an irrepressible and unpredictable talent.

The Trinity Gaels man entered the match with less than ten minutes to go that day and Donegal were coasting, leading 1-10 to 1-6.


His contribution might just have sent that year's GAA history spinning in an alternate direction. First, Murphy made a magnificent high catch and threaded a smart ball through to substitute Paul Clarke who fired home a goal.

With anxiety levels suddenly rising throughout the ground, another long ball cannoned down on Donegal's full back line. Again, Murphy rose to claim it, powered his way through the first challenge and then somehow evaded the attentions of the entire back division to slide his shot beneath Gary Walsh. Just like that, it was 3-6 to 1-10. The entire tone of the match was turned on its head.

It is startling to see, in the surviving footage of the game on YouTube, visiting Dubs fans on the hill in Breffni Park, dancing and jumping and pure ecstasy. And the league doesn’t matter....

“We had played Donegal earlier that year in a friendly and they beat us,” recalls Murphy now.

“But league was a different kettle of fish and we felt we had the measure of them. We were knocking on the door around Leinster. Ulster had come out of the doldrums but there was no fear of northern teams at that time. I came on with about ten minutes to go.

“The first goal was by Paul Clarke. Donegal were on top at that stage when my goal came. I think there was just a couple of points in it at the end. Talking to a few of the lads about that game, if Donegal had won that game, we might have been in a better frame of mind for the All-Ireland.”

Tony Boyle remembers the atmosphere in the Donegal dressing room afterwards. It was one of deep, bitter disappointment. Donegal had been fairly pulverised in the Ulster final on a broiling day the previous summer. Down had gone on to win the All-Ireland in their preferred style: with flamboyance. Donegal felt further away than ever. Dublin were young but finding their feet.

“It was a big setback,” Tony Boyle recalls. “We felt that we had the game won. Then the following week we had to play a McKenna Cup against Monaghan. There was a shower of hailstones and we were absolutely hammered in the game. It was a turning point because the squad was at a low ebb and there some harsh words exchanged after that. The boys made a commitment after that.

“That loss to Dublin was lingering but the atmosphere was really bad after that McKenna Cup game. And I think the older boys said: let’s give it one last push. Funny, we probably turned a corner because we lost that Dublin game. Had we won that game and maybe gone on to win the league, we may not have won the All-Ireland.”

Superior team

In a weird way, that league quarter-final was regarded as one of the touchstones for Donegal’s first All-Ireland season. Had the teams not met again that September, the game may have been forgotten. But meet they did. And Murphy can’t help but feel that the way Dublin just conjured a win from nothing that day in Cavan didn’t help them when it came to preparing for an All-Ireland final for which they were red-hot favourites to win.

"It is well documented that we were well beaten in that final but I think some of that could be attributed to the Dublin players not being as focused as they should have been. In that league game, Donegal were the superior team but we got out of jail with the goals. They had a few old stagers – Anthony Molloy and Martin McHugh had been going for a while. But they had the likes of Tony coming through and they probably saw that year as a last opportunity to achieve something. And they certainly did that," Murphy says.

The 1992 All-Ireland final was a true upset. In the years afterwards, Dublin and Donegal clashes were rare but made for combustible material. Both Murphy and Boyle featured in a tetchy league final in 1993. In 2002, the counties played out a memorable All-Ireland quarter final draw and in 2011 they contributed to arguably the most heavily scrutinised All-Ireland semi-final in GAA history. In 2014, Donegal delivered Dublin’s only championship defeat of Jim Gavin’s period in charge.

Both Boyle and Murphy are still deeply involved in the game, managing their respective clubs, Dungloe and St Monica’s. Murphy, in fact, makes himself available for selection and occasionally puts himself in. “Tony packed his football into a decade: I’m trying to spread mine out over 40 years,” he jokes.

Both men will watch Sunday with interest but agree that the match is unlikely to carry anything like the significance of Murphy’s raid in Cavan town. As it happened, Murphy watched the recent league game between the teams with some friends from Donegal who were despairing of their team’s all-out caution. As Murphy sees it, they are just playing the long game for now.

“Donegal are in the top four teams in Ireland but when you stack them up against the other three, they are just a bit lighter in personnel. That has been proven over the years. Their players are as good as what are out there. They have gone for a certain style in terms of defence.

“At the league game, I was fairly amazed as a coach and player looking at it; three points down and no Donegal man in Dublin’s half. But all I’d say is that the management just decided to stick with this regardless. I can only hope that Donegal do have a counter-attacking system because if they don’t, it’s not going to cut it this year. But I don’t expect them to show anything on Sunday either because look, the time they want to really try and beat Dublin is when it matters.”

Everyone is expecting Dublin’s perfect streak to continue: the seven-from-seven from the league makes them look an even more ominous prospect than usual. Boyle appreciates that the manner in which Donegal scraped into the semi-finals is a mixed blessing. If tomorrow goes to form, then Donegal will have lost five league games on the spin ahead of the championship. Against that, the county has not put any premium on winning the league in recent times.

Five defeats

“All in all I don’t think it is going to have a massive bearing. But it is a nice game to get in that Donegal are far enough out from the championship. They have Colm [McFadden] and Frank [McGlynn] and Neil McGee coming back. The last thing you want to be doing is going into the championship on five defeats. All in all I don’t think it will have a massive bearing. But it is does give guys a chance to get back some game time.”

As far as Murphy is concerned, the current Dublin team contains some of the best players the game has produced. He agrees that his vintage could and possibly should have won more than that 1995 All-Ireland title. He’s not sure if the Donegal final was one that got away necessarily but laughs when asked when he would still go for goal if he was back in Cavan knowing how the year would turn out.

“I’m sometimes asked that about a chance I had against Meath the previous year in the championship. If the same thing happened tomorrow, would I do the same thing? If I had a second to think about it, maybe not. But then, instinct would generally take over and I yeah, I would have went for goal.”

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan

Keith Duggan is a features writer with The Irish Times