Under the Official Secrets Act, after 30 years, the decisions of the Government can be told.
As the Donegal tourism advertisement says: “Up here it’s different”.
As we all awaited with great anticipation for the Dublin versus Donegal semi final of 2014, I thought what would Jim Gavin or Jim McGuinness have done if they were told that only the first 15 players were allowed to kick a ball in Croke Park and the rest of the panel had to go directly to the dugout.
Well, that’s what happened to Donegal in the 1983 All-Ireland semi-final against Galway. As we prepared to leave the dressing room, and as our manager Brian Mc Eniff was giving his final motivational instructions he finished with: “Only the first fifteen are allowed on to Croke Park. All the subs must go directly to the dugout and stay there.”
As we left the dressing room, confused and astonished amid the roar of the Donegal supporters in the background, Seamus O’Reilly who has since gone to his eternal reward (and former U21 All-Ireland winner with Mayo) came over to myself, Eunan Mc Intyre, Frank Rush and asked me “What are you going to do?”
I thought quickly and I said I was not going to risk taking the chance. He (McEniff) won’t play me, I said to myself, as I was the first substitute listed that day.
Eunan, Frank and the rest of the players were reluctant to chance it, but Seamus insisted as we left the dressing room, “If we all go together, what can he do?”
“Well”, says O’Reilly, “I’m going to kick a ball in Croke Park today whether he plays me or not.”
And so he did, but on his own.
We all went to the dugout to discuss the burning question, as we viewed the Galway subs at the other end kicking around on the hallowed ground. Brian McEniff came into the dugout and was confronted as to why we were prohibited from going on the field.
Former Donegal manager, Brian McEniff
Time and again he insisted that these were the instructions from Croke Park. We asked him who from Croke Park gave him these orders but he would not divulge.
“So, it’s Liam Mulvihill,” I said, to which he stayed silent.
I remember thinking it has taken us 97 years to get to our third All-Ireland semi-final and we are not going to get fair play today. Such an issue would never have been tolerated by Micko, Heffo or Boylan.
To understand the story fully, I should go back eleven days before the semi-final when our manager informed us that he had organised a training session for us in Croke Park.
The instructions were for us to drive to Dublin by car for an evening session and it was imperative that we tell absolutely nobody what we were doing.
We met at a designated location and the six cars drove up to the gate entrance. It opened up and soon we found ourselves in the dressing rooms togging out.
Before long, we were on the hallowed ground for the first time, togged out and going through our paces, doing some shooting practice and playing backs and forwards.
We were only on the pitch for 15 minutes when we heard the most aggressive shouting and roaring. We were told to get off the pitch.
Donegal - Ulster champions 1983 with Padraig Carr on the back row, extreme right
Some of us thought it was a joke as we found it entertaining and started to laugh. I for one did not recognise the man who demanded to know how we got in, and who was in charge.
It was Liam Mulvihill and he left us under no doubt as to where we should go. He told us in no uncertain terms to go back to Donegal.
He was not a happy Director General as he took Brian Mc Eniff away out of earshot while we played until his return five minutes later. Brian ordered us to the dressing room, and instructed us to get dressed immediately.
As we are about to leave for home he warned us all that nobody was to divulge what happened that evening at Croke Park. Not even family and especially not wives or girlfriends.
Travelling back on the final leg of our ten hour round trip to Croker we talked about what happened with anger, but mostly with humour as you would treat the fiasco that it was.
I remember Michael Carr asking the four of us in the car who we thought gained the greatest benefit from our 15 minute training experience in Croke Park that day.
We couldn’t think and he reminded us how during the game when Martin Mc Hugh was about to shoot for goal, he got this roar two or three times for a pass. Who took the ball on the run and put it over the bar? It was our trainer Austin Coughlan RIP (uncle of Mary Coughlan, former Tánaiste) who exclaimed with a big smile “I can always say I scored a point in Croke Park.”
We could have cried but instead we laughed and wondered about our first venture to the hallowed ground on our long journey home. Little did we realise the repercussions and impact this event was going to have on semi-final day ten days later.
Mickey Lafferty should have been the first captain to lead Donegal into a senior final in 1983. Anthony Molloy and the other players from that panel had to wait another seven years before they got their chance to do the same in 1990.
But for a lucky goal and the fact there were no substitutions made until the final eight minutes, victory could have been snatched from the jaws of defeat.
My main regret is that I didn’t take the opportunity of going for a goal myself, instead of passing the ball out to Tommy Mc Dermott who put it over the bar.
Shortly afterwards the referee blew the final whistle and we were beaten by one point.
It was a very poor final and I’d like to think had we progressed we would have beaten Dublin in the All-Ireland final, especially if like Galway, we had an extra player, never mind two.
All we wanted was to get the opportunity to play at the highest level. But sadly, we never got the chance again on that field of dreams as our manager’s choice between supporting his players and Donegal, or placating the Croke Park officials was a simple one. But sadly, like the Director General, it was not one of his finer moments.
I never met Liam Mulvihill to tell him it was an injustice what he did to the players and people of Donegal.
Looking back, Seamus O’Reilly was right.
“Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness on the Donegal air.”
Adh Mor Dhun na nGall.
Yours in sport,
The first sub that day.
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