17 Jan 2022

'Have boots, will travel' - was always the Martin Shovlin motto

Closing in on his 61st birthday Martin Shovlin talks to Peter Campbell about his love affair with football

'Have boots, will travel' - was always the Martin Shovlin motto

Martin Shovlin

Anyone with a passing interest in sport in Donegal will know the story of Martin Shovlin and the All-Ireland winning team of 1992. The Naomh Ultan man suffered the heartbreak of failing a fitness test before the biggest game of his life and accepted the hand that was dealt him.

"That's life and you have to deal with it at the time and for years," Shovlin said this week. "We were an ageing team at the time, on the wrong side of 30. If there had been back doors at the time we could have won more. I think we would have won another one anyway."

It was and still is typical of the man. There were many ups and downs in his career, especially at intercounty level, but through it all he remains a role model for any young footballer, whether it be at club or county level.

Early next month he will turn 61, that means he was born in January 1961, and if Naomh Ultan are short come next summer, he will not hesitate to pull on the boots again. He did it last summer against Naomh Brid when team manager Dermot Brosnan could only find 13 players for their reserve championship game.

"We were going to have to forfeit the game. Colm (his brother), myself and Liam (Kennedy) were standing there. I said we're not going to throw the game and be fined €200 and we went on.

"But the week before the Reserves had 24 down in Naomh Muire. And the following week you were down to 12. I know the seniors took away a lot of reserves because they were hit by injuries. It was just unfortunate," said a fit-looking Martin Shovlin, when I caught up with him at the weekend.

He feels there is a big need to keep a second team: "I still think you need to have a second team because there is always that nine or 10 who won't get any football at all and you'll lose them," adding that you get to play 13-a-side in the league and maybe that should be allowed in championship also.

It all goes back to Shovlin's love of place, his club Naomh Ultan or as he says himself, Dunkineely. That's where it all began for a young Martin Shovlin, who traces his football to the club being formed in late 1974 - something he feels was the beginning of a whole new world for him and other young fellas in the area.

"There were no games until the following year when we entered U-12, U-14, U-16 and minor."

Martin was 14 that year but he played for all four teams, including the U-12s! That was his introduction to team football. "I played U-12 but I was overage but nobody noticed. Dunkineely was only starting. That was my first involvement. There was nothing else and I stuck at it."

By that stage Martin had started secondary school and went to Killybegs Vocational School. His brother, Colm, was also in Killybegs VS but initially the school only went to third year.

"I remember, Colm, who was a year ahead of me, he went to Donegal for a year after his three years in Killybegs. Colm and Donal Cannon and Vincent Blaine and then Killybegs got fourth and fifth year, so the boys came back. So I ended up on the same team as Colm.

"Frank McGhee (Ardara) introduced us to football in Killybegs at vocational school level. I loved vocational school football. I thought it was great. We played different techs - against Carrick and Donegal and The Rosses.

"Then we went into Vocational Schools football at county level and I got called up to that. There was a fella involved, I think he was from Milford, Gene McGinley and Danny O'Brien from Inishowen.

"Mickey Lafferty was involved with them as well. We got into Ulster. I remember we got beat in two Ulster Vocational School finals. Derry beat us in the two of them," said Martin, who remembers Damian Barton being involved in one of the Derry teams.

He also recalled one of the finals where the age limit for playing vocational schools was different when you went into Ulster and a number of Donegal players were not allowed to play in the final.

Amongst those he was playing against at that time at vocational school level included some future All-Ireland winning colleagues like Joyce McMullin, Sylvester Maguire, Anthony Molloy and the McHughs along with Lanty Molloy and his brother Colm.

"I wouldn't remember all the players because we never trained. We used to meet up in Lifford, the Intercounty Hotel. That was the first time you met them. Then you were asked, where to you play, and the team was lined out. Mickey Lafferty was involved for a while and he was very good."

Around the same time Martin progressed to the Donegal minor team where a similar level of organisation was in place. "I don't remember any training. You were just asked where you played.

"If you were lucky enough to get on then, that was the one. Because there would have been a lot of people on the fringe saying 'this man has to get on and that man has to get on'."

Where things changed for Martin was at U-21 level, not just at county but at club, where he joined up with Killybegs.
"At U-21 county level, that's where training became part of the scene. And I remember it was Edmund Brennan who provided the transport for me. He just pulled up at the house. He loved to be around it," said Shovlin, adding that Brennan's interest remains as strong as ever.

Shovlin was involved with the Donegal U-21s for three years but was an unused sub when Tom Conaghan's side won the All-Ireland in 1982. He remembers the previous year and the heartbreak of a narrow defeat to Monaghan in Lisnaskea.

"Donegal got beaten in an Ulster final in 1981 with Denis Bonner and Charlie McGeever at midfield. They were midfield because Anthony Molloy and Pat McCrea were injured."

But it was at club level in the U-21 grade that Shovlin says that he gained the confidence to go on and become a top performer at senior level for the county.

Naomh Ultan joined Killybegs for a couple of years and in 1980 they produced a great run which saw them reach the semi-final.

"We ended up with a mighty side. I think that was what gave me a lot of confidence. I always had this complex that I wasn't good enough to be there.

"When I saw the likes of Four Masters and Ballyshannon who were winning rings round them. And the next thing you were landed in among the likes of Brian Murray and Brian Tuohy and Tommy McDermott. And you always felt you weren't good enough.

"Then we amalgamated with Killybegs for the U-21. I remember we played Robert Emmett's in the first round. Donal Reid and them would have played with Robert Emmett's at that time. It went to three games and we beat them in the third game down in Glenties.

"Then we drew Four Masters and they had St Naul's players like John Gerard Griffin, John McGowan, Patrick McGroarty. They had Joyce McMullin and Seamie Meehan; they had a wile side, and we turned around and beat them in Glenties.
"That was giving us great confidence. We were saying 'we're not that bad'. I remember then who did we draw next but Ballyshannon in Donegal Town and we were saying we hadn't a hope here.

"Seamus Flynn was playing that time; Matt and Pauric Gallagher, Gerry Curran. And we beat Ballyshannon.
"There was a boy played with us called Vincent Henry from Offaly. He has an All-Ireland medal after that. He was a Customs man down there and you know Bernard Conaghan, he would take anybody. We had another two lads from Galway; they were great footballers, Bartley Lee and Stephen King. They were totally illegal. That time, who would have known.

"We then played Ardara in Glen in the semi-final on one of the wildest days ever known. It was just a storm and Ardara beat us by a couple of points. I think they went on to beat Kilcar in the final.

"It gave me the confidence that I was good enough. Before that, you were asking yourself, should you be here at all. How many times did I think I was in the wrong place," said Shovlin, who said there were cliques at county level but "once we got to know each other it was fine."

One of the great memories Martin Shovlin has from his intercounty days was playing junior for Donegal in the mid 1980s

"That's where Donegal picked up Des Newton. Des was playing with Urris at the time. It was a very good competition. It was played in the evenings as far as I can remember. I enjoyed that."
He also remembers the first time he was selected for a senior Donegal team, which came in 1983 in a challenge game against Galway.

"I remember in 1983 after Donegal were beaten by Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final, Galway wanted a challenge match down in Tuam about a week or two weeks after that game. I remember I was picked for that and we went down and Donegal beat Galway in that friendly. I think there was only about four of the original Donegal team that played in Croke Park. I remember Pauric Gallagher was full-back and Matt Gallagher was in the corner. He had missed the semi-final because of an appendix."

Throughout this time, Martin was an important cog in a Naomh Ultan team that were just finding their feet in Donegal.
"We were just battering away at junior football. We played Division Three and Division Two. We went up to senior league in 1986 but we only lasted the one year in it. I think the only game we won was against Glen here in the park.

"It was a fair achievement at the time. But we were just a junior club and to be honest we are still just a junior club.
"We won two Intermediates; we played in five in total if you count the drawn game against Na Rossa, which was a good achievement for the size of the club. We were always squeezed between Killybegs and St Naul's and Ardara on the other side.

"We produced some good players like the Byrnes, the Meehans, the Duddys and the Blaines. There were six Blaines from Benroe, Gerry, Sean, Vincent, Raymond, Francis and Eugene.

"Families that time were bigger and there was nothing else but football. Compared to now, there are too many other distractions."

But it is a different story for Naomh Ultan now and it is being reflected in their ability to have the numbers to play at different age levels.

"Numbers are very low. Underage next year is going to be a pure disaster," said Martin, who adds that they will have to again join up with Killybegs to give their players the chance of playing at an organised level.

That lack of numbers which forced Martin along with Colm and Liam Kennedy to tog out this year for the club is underlined by
the fact that the next generation of Shovlins are on foreign shores.

Martin's son, Danny and daughter, Sara are in Australia. Amy is in London and while Emer is at home at the moment, she is likely to be on her travels again after Christmas.

We lost Johnny Cassidy and Danny, who went away together and now they can't get home (because of Covid).

"I know it goes on in other clubs as well, but there's nothing here. There is a bit of work in Killybegs but its mostly seasonal. Young ones now don't want to do that."

But having family away from home afforded Martin and his wife, Mary, a lovely trip recently as Amy was playing for Parnells in the London Ladies final, which they won defeating Holloway Gaels.

Sarah Shovlin has also followed in her father's footsteps and before emigrating to Australia she captained St Naul's to a Donegal Intermediate title in 2017.

The Shovlins enjoyed the trip to London and he adds that Parnells went on to reach the British final but Holloway Gaels reversed the result at the weekend. "I was watching the stream. Ah, they kicked it away. But it was nice to get over to see them," he said.

While Shovlin would not be a great advocate of putting 13 and 14 men behind the ball, as we see in present-day football, he would love to be part of the game at the moment because of the fitness needed.

"I would buy into it alright. Fitness is the big one now and that wouldn't have been a problem for me."
But like many, he wants to see the 'forward mark' abolished as quickly as possible. "As I always say, it does away with the wee sticky corner-back. Once this mark is got, it's called, the corner-back, what can he do, stand there. It spoils that. The corner-back marker is gone. The one-on-one now is gone.

"With 13-14 behind the ball, it's not nice. I was watching the Kerry semi-finals and it was woeful to watch. Pat Spillane was giving out about Tyrone and yet the Tyrone club championship was great to watch this year. Tyrone can change it; they went defence when they needed to and it got them two All-Irelands."

But as for the present day style: "I could have bought into this up and down, up and down. Unfortunately, we can't roll back the years. Sometimes I wonder, where did they go."

Fitness was never an issue for Martin Shovlin, and just looking at him last weekend, he would give most young fellas a run for their money.

This was something that he remembers at intercounty level back in the day when the National League was split before and after Christmas. And there was some tough sessions to get rid of the Christmas excess.

"Others would be going mad, especially after Christmas. It used to take them weeks to get back up to speed.
"They were great 'oul times. Now there are dieticians and they are on weight programmes."

Did he eat the right food for the intercounty game? "We ate whatever was put in front of us or we would go hungry,"quips Shovlin.

Asked who were his toughest opponents when lining out for Donegal and Naomh Ultan, he doesn't take long to come up with names.
"There were none of them that easy. I suppose Ross Carr of Down and Vinny Murphy of Dublin. Vinny Murphy used to play right-half-forward. I marked Vinny more times than anyone else when we were playing Dublin. He was a tough nut, but he played it fair. There was no malice whatsoever.

"Ross Carr also, a great footballer. Of course Dave Beggy of Meath was a flyer and I loved that. I could match him for speed."
In Donegal, he normally got the job of marking the top opposition player when he was lining out with Naomh Ultan.
"If we were playing Na Rossa, I would be marking Declan Bonner," said Shovlin.

One of the greatest accolades achieved by Shovlin came in 1990 when after Donegal won the Ulster senior championship for a fifth time, Shovlin was named as the Ulster Player of the Year.

"That was a shock, to be honest. I had a good enough year, but I didn't expect to get Ulster player of the year. It was a great achievement alright. I treasured it."

"That award probably came about because people liked his style of play, everything was left on the pitch and no tackle was shirked.

"I hated getting bate, even with club. It would always drive you on. You would hate to see anyone getting the better of you.
"In the earlier years, I was taken off quite a lot."

That probably stung a young Shovlin and made him even more determined. I'm quite sure he was never taken off while playing for Naomh Ultan.

Married in 1988, Martin continued to play for Donegal until 1997 when the PJ McGowan managed side lost an Ulster semi-final to Cavan. "I was 36 then. Declan Bonner got the job. I said I won't satisfy him to drop me," quipped Shovlin, who said he knew it was time to go.

There have been no county senior players from Naomh Ultan since then but he name drops a few who are showing up well at the moment.

"There are some good lads at U-17. Luke Gallagher, just give him the ball and he'll score. There's another lad in Bruckless, Matthew Huntley, and he's a good player. And Mickey Hegarty's son, Jack. But the big thing is keeping them at it nowadays."

But as for the 2022 season Martin doesn't rule out togging out again if needed. "Colm has the boots ready too. He doesn't have to be forced either.

"I haven't trained in years. I think it must be in the genes. You put up a lot of miles walking during work. It just seems to be natural. We don't carry weight, which is the big thing. I was blessed that way."
There aren't many like him.

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