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Jim McGuinness: Pat Shovelin left a great legacy in Donegal

I have often spoken about the bond that I felt the Donegal boys had. Pat was the glue

Jim McGuinness and Pat Shovelin (right) on the sideline for Donegal. “It meant the world to Pat to be involved with Donegal, and he was so proud of the boys. And I just hope he knew that they were proud of him too.” Photograph: Jonathan Porter/Inpho

Anyone who follows Donegal GAA is no doubt aware that we lost an irreplaceable figure when Pat Shovelin died recently aged just 41. Since his passing I have found myself thinking of the immensity of the contribution he made to our group.

People see Gaelic or soccer or rugby teams now, and probably wonder what all the backroom staff do. Not many outside the group know the finer workings of a backroom team, and a lot of the time they get no acclaim or public recognition.

Yet within the group these people can be a bigger figure than the top-scoring forward or the All-Star wing back or whoever it may be. For us that was Pat.

He was the first person I went to when I was given the job of managing the Donegal U-21 team. I needed a goalkeeping coach. Pat was a goalkeeper. Over the years in the Donegal squad he became known as “Pat the Cat” because of his reflexes.

And he was also my cousin, and we had been friends since we were kids. He stood as godfather to our youngest child. I knew I could trust him. He was taken aback when I first asked him in. But I knew what he would bring to our group.

Pat was very particular: everything had to be spick and span, whether it was the shirt he wore or the lawn out the front, or preparing Paul Durcan and Michael Boyle in goals. For instance, in our first senior championship year Donegal didn’t concede a goal. He was proud of that. So he had this very attentive and serious side but he wore it lightly.

Jester

The role which he devised for himself was as a kind of jester to the players. He just brightened the room, whether it was before a big match or on those black nights at training in Ballybofey. He would have a line for everyone straight away.

I can still picture him walking into the team room. He’d have a pair of shorts and a wee sleeveless top with the guns [arms] out if there was any kind of weather – and often if there wasn’t. And that was irresistible to some of the boys. He’d have two or three boys squared away before he took his seat. And they loved it. He took the slagging in his stride.

He was always bouncing about, always had a word for everyone, and so he was an easy target. He’d often mention to the boys that he had been talking to Shay Given about whatever. And this was just petrol on the flames to the boys. You weren’t chatting to Shay Given, Pat! You don’t even know Given! And Pat would have the phone out to show some text they’d shared.

And I only realised in the last few months how much I relied on his presence, particularly in the early days. I remember with the U-21s we were driving into the ground in Enniskillen for our very first championship match against Armagh. I sort of knew that if we lost this I’d never manage any Donegal team again. And the floodlights were on, and it was very quiet and solemn.

Pat said: “What do you think?” So I told him what I was thinking. We couldn’t have done more in terms of the work we put in. So if this wasn’t good enough, then I’m not and we’re not.

Said my piece

Before the Ulster U-21 final I asked Pat if he wanted to say anything in the hotel on the evening of the game – U21 games are played on a Wednesday night. So 10 minutes before we were leaving, after I said my piece, I looked over at him and asked him if he would like to speak.

He stood up and looked down the room, and we were all expecting some speech. Because Pat could talk. But he just said: “Seize the day, lads. Seize the day.” That was it.

So we won the Ulster final, and headed down the road. I turned to him on the bus, and said: “What the **** did that mean? Seize the day?” And the craic started from there.

But the work Pat put in that year, and with Paul Durcan at senior level, was phenomenal. If you saw Paul and Pat standing beside each other it was an interesting dynamic because Pat was a small man and Paul is huge. But he pushed Papa very hard. And Michael Boyle too. Those two goalkeepers were always ready.

His capacity to care for other people and his willingness to learn was limitless. He was hugely interested in kickout strategies, and he knew how to implement them. It was all quick reaction stuff, and he could be a sergeant major when he needed to be. But he was always positive.

I am not sure if there was one person I ever met in my life who had a bad word to say about him. That is the kind of mix you want in a coach.

Kept it going

I think the plan for Declan Bonner was to bring him back into the fold for next season. Pat had had his diagnosis when he went in with Declan to coach the U-21s, but he kept it going and he saw them win the Ulster championship. So he won the Ulster U-21 twice and three seniors and an All-Ireland, and was also involved in two other All-Ireland finals in the space of six years.

He was operating at the top end of the game, and saw so many big games and pressure situations. And he could read pressure moments as well. He added so much in so many ways.

Pat’s diagnosis with cancer came shortly before I moved to Beijing. I was in constant conversation and communication with him the whole way through it.

And then about three weeks ago I got a phone call from Charlie, the team doctor, to say he wasn’t well at all. I jumped on a plane and headed up to Glenties. And I am so thankful we had those few days.

It’s funny, when Donegal were going well I would room with Pat the odd time in Johnston House. And I was thinking about this when I went home to visit him. He was quite alert and energetic then.

I had four or five days just calling up to the hospital and chatting to him. At times I’d be half lying in the bed beside him and have the arm around him and we would talk through the whole thing. Just about the games and about times in Glenties and Lough Fad, his home parish.

And it was kind of similar to how we killed time in those championship weekends. He would lie in the bed in Johnston House and chat away about stuff from years and years ago. This would be after you’d have turned out the lights. Same as kids, really. And we would talk about my late brother Mark too.

We both knew we weren’t going to be involved in these big championship games forever, so I suppose we were prolonging the moment or the night when the game was still ahead of us. Then it would go quiet, and he would say: “What d’ya think?” And that was the signal for all the fun to transfer into why we were here, and what we had to do in order to win the game.

We would talk through the match-ups and the football, and that conversation would last 10 or 20 minutes, and then it would come to a stop and it would be getting late. There’d be a silence in the room, but we’d both still be awake. Then he’d finally say: “Good Night.” And that would be that.

Very funny moment

In the hospital I was stepping around the room telling this story and we were both in stitches. And I knew I’d never see Pat again. Pat knew that too. But it was a very funny moment. A nurse came in when I was going through this rigmarole of a story. She wanted to know what all the commotion was about. Pat just looked up at her, and said: “He’s just telling a story.”

There was so much learning in those couple of days for me. The humility that he showed all the way until the end. The courage he showed in facing this illness down.

Himself and Chrissy never got good news. He had good news on the first scan, but after that every single result was the opposite of what we were all hoping for. They never got that bit of light or hope.

But in the face of that he carried himself in a certain way. He never became bitter or lost. His only focus was making sure that things would be okay for Chrissy and the boys Ethan and Tom. And the way he approached the final days of his life will live long in my memory.

On the day I was heading back to Beijing, there was no acknowledgment that we wouldn’t see each other again. The attitude was: we both keep going. If there was a big goodbye it would have been a concession that the illness had won. So it was very hard walking out of the room and down that corridor that day and leaving him behind.

Passed away

We had an away game a week later in China. I got a text from Gavin, his brother, to say the nurse was in the house and that he had a few hours left. I was getting ready for the game. And I sent him a text. And that was it. Then I got a phone call in the middle of the night. It was actually Shay Given to tell me that Pat had passed away.

He got a huge send-off. So many of the players were there in their Donegal shirts, and there was a massive attendance at his funeral. The numbers in the crowd reflected the way he lived his life. People understood that. If you live your life a certain way and you are positive and try to do things the right way and have fun and enjoy things, it leaves an impression. And people don’t forget.

He has left a great legacy. He achieved a lot in his life, and the children will grow up and know who exactly their dad was. And I think that is very important. It is people like Pat who galvanise a group and make it become something very special.

Pat knew exactly what he was doing in all those moments when the boys were teasing him, and he was taking it or when he set himself up for a fall. I know I’ve often spoken about this bond I felt that the group had. And he was the glue.

He was the person who, when he walked into a room, created the atmosphere. It was like a bright energy. You could feel it.

He created the dynamics in our group where fun was okay. It meant the world to Pat to be involved with Donegal, and he was so proud of the boys.

And I just hope he knew that they were proud of him too.