Reading Joe Connolly the Galway hurler’s interview in the Sunday Independent (last week) got me thinking about Donegal and games that got away.
Connolly, who after he retired, was a member of Galway's hurling management said in his article that they were a bit light as a management, a comment which to say the least was exceptionally honest.
Connolly had the special distinction of leading Galway to All Ireland success in 1980 and his brother John was an outstanding hurler while he also had another brother Michael as part of that All Ireland winning panel.
No doubt Gaelic games are a key part of our everyday life. They are the focus of endless debate and speculation, they set the mood of Mondays’ post match workplace and dominate pub talk.
For many, it almost seems as if life and death run second to major GAA events. But there is also so much fun in our games, and our supporters are very quick-witted in victory or defeat.
One example of that quick wit took place back in 1996, after the All Ireland semi-final between Tyrone and Meath.
Following the game, two irate Tyrone fans were loud in their condemnation of the Meath team, particularly their alleged ill-treatment of Peter Canavan. A Meath fan made an interesting and revealing slip of the tongue in response, ”You can't make an omelette without breaking legs”.
Getting back to Donegal I am sometimes asked why it took the county so long to make the breakthrough in Ulster because over the years Donegal had many outstanding footballers.
Indeed in the sixties players of outstanding ability like Sean Ferriter, Paul Kelly, Bernard Brady, Sean O Donnell, Frankie Mc Feeley, Michael McLoone, Seamus Hoare and P J Flood all played in the Railway Cup when getting an Ulster jersey was a real honour, and especially at a time when the great Down team were in their hay day.
Donegal’s first ever Ulster final appearance was in Cavan against Down in 1963 and it was a game when Donegal simply imploded, and were well beaten.
That same day, a very good Donegal minor team also played Down in the minor final and were narrowly beaten, but there was absolutely no emphasis on the minor side and with even reasonable management that team was good enough to play in or even win an All-Ireland minor title.
Moving on to 1966 and Donegal are back in their second Ulster final with Down again providing the opposition.
This final was played in Casement Park, Belfast and was the first ever televised Ulster final. The game was shown live by the BBC. At that time, Down were in decline and Donegal were expected to prevail, but the team selection and playing three injured players - which was a criminal offence - saw Down win again this time by two points.
Donegal that day played the late John Hannigan from Letterkenny at full forward when he was an exceptionally good defender, and that along with leaving Brian Mc Eniff - who had returned from Canada and was playing great club football - on the bench along, with another very good player Brendan Dowling, were major factors in that defeat.
So the wait ended in 1972 when the first Anglo Celt Cup came to Donegal.
With Brian Mc Eniff in the role of player manager it was going to be almost impossible to deliver in both roles. Brian made the inspired decision to coax Mick Higgins, the Cavan man who was a wonderful centre forward, to come on board as Donegal coach. Higgins had captained Cavan to an All-Ireland final victory and he instantly gained the respect of every Donegal player because of his achievements on the pitch and his very refined personality off the pitch.
Mick was simply a gentleman. I well remember him tellin us the story of his time as a coach with his native Cavan when they were playing Armagh in the Ulster championship.
As the match reached its climax Cavan’s dominance was threatened as Armagh took control at midfield. Corrective action was urgently required and Higgins decided to send on a sub, big Jimmy O’Donnell whose high fielding prowess was just what Cavan needed. O’Donnell though didn’t seem to realise the urgency of the situation. After going on to the pitch, he strolled back to the sideline, seeking the slip of paper with his name on it for the referee.
A few minutes later O'Donnell was back again looking for a pair of gloves! A minute or two later he came back to ask, ”Mick would you ever mind my false teeth?”
As he calmly handed Higgins his molars, Mick’s blood pressure hit record levels.
Mick Higgins was an excellent choice as coach and his engaging and cool personality was just what Donegal needed, and his tactical awareness was something that Donegal needed, especially when the manager was otherwise engaged out on the pitch.
The other game that Donegal lost on the line was a league semi-final against Longford when the lack of tactics and team selection was a major factor in the team's defeat, so while winning the first Ulster and then Sam was worth waiting for, I have no doubt that with more astute assistance from the side-line and a less parochial approach to team selection Donegal would have more silverware.
Thankfully the arrival of the role of “the manager “ has gone a long way to alleviate those difficulties.
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