HIS TALE is littered with the what ifs, but Marty Carlin’s regret from 1992 is not the obvious one.
He remembers where he was – in the Cusack Stand, next to St Michael’s stalwart Danny Lafferty – at sometime around about 4.30pm on September 20, 1992.
Picture: Marty Carlin out watching Red Hughs in a Junior Championship game. Picture by Michael O’Donnell
Carlin, a drinks sales rep, dealt with Lafferty, then the proprietor of the Corncutter’s Rest in Creeslough, often.
Lafferty later told Carlin that he ‘had never seen a man as far through’.
“It was a tough day,” Carlin says now.
“I didn’t realise what my emotions were like at the time until Danny told me.”
Carlin, you see could have been there. Many would argue should have been.
At the end of 1990, he paid Brian McEniff a visit and told him he was taking a break. McEniff attempted to change his mind, but it was already made up.
“I felt that I had to be playing,” he says. “I wasn’t playing much and it was a wild commitment. I just couldn’t put in that effort and constantly be on the bench so I took the break.
“I left the panel and little did I know…
“I was delighted for the lads, of course I was, but you can’t help but think: ‘I should have been there’.”
After the 0-18 to 0-14 win, Donegal – already in a dizzy spiral – went daft as Sam Maguire came back fro the first time.
Carlin’s Red Hughs colleague Donal Reid played in the final at Croke Park. The crowds turned out in force as Reid took Sam back to the Crossroads.
“I remember that day so, so well,” Carlin says. “I knew the place would be packed, but I had to go down. If I had stayed in the house there’d have been some smart boy asking or saying something.
“There was a lorry set up for them at the Cross, just down at the Creamery. Donal got up to speak. He said how he was disappointed that I hadn’t been a part of it and asked me up to the stage…That was so tough. When you give so much to the club and the county, that was the big one to miss out on.
“It’s long gone now and once it’s gone, it’s gone. If I’m being honest, I wouldn’t have played on that team anyway and I’d have been a sub.”
1992 carries a regret of a different sort when Carlin looks back.
Red Hughs were reformed again in the early 1980s.
Within five years, they were in the Donegal senior football championship final of 1986. They were beaten by Aodh Ruadh, Ballyshannon and another near miss followed in 1991, when they were edged by Killybegs, who had become their great nemeses.
In ’92, Red Hughs were back again for another go.
Carlin was fully committed to the club having parked his inter-county days. John Lynch had arrived in from Aghyaran just across the border in Tyrone. Gerard McColgan – who missed out in ’91 due to a bad injury – was also in tow again.
They were in command, leading Killybegs 0-7 to 0-4, in a semi-final when the tide turned.
Lynch and Killybegs’ John Cunningham were sent off. Soon, Paul Callaghan and’ Mark Boyle netted for Killybegs and the Fishermen were on their way to the final.
“Of all the disappointments, that was the worst day of my life,” Carlin says. “Ever. Killybegs beat Glen in the final and I just knew we’d have won that Championship. That semi-final was the worst day.
“I thought that in ’92, we had the best team we ever had in the Cross. They team had come together and we had added the bit of experience. There were a few others teams not giving the club a full attention. Sean (his brother) was training us and we were super fit. We had come all the way and it nearly seemed perfect.
“That defeat to Killybegs was hard to take. Just because I knew what we were capable of doing.”
He played it all as a young caddy around the Crossroads.
“You couldn’t sicken me,” he laughs now. “I just loved playing. I would kick ball every single day of my life, place kicking on a regular basis with footballs or rugby balls.”
Gaelic football was the first love, but he’s dabbled at it all: soccer with Curragh Athletic; rugby with Letterkenny Rugby Club (which once got him into a spot of bother with Tom Connaghan) and golf at Rosapenna as a single handicapper.
Sport was always in the veins, though. He was always destined to be a sportsman.
His father, John, had been one of the early lieutenants to Patsy McGonagle after the formation of the Finn Valley Athletic Club.
John was an Ulster high jump champion. Another son, Sean, still holds the Donegal decathlon record of 7,226 points and discus record of 42.62 metres, to this day. Sean was earmarked as qualification material for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, but a hamstring injury snapped the plans. “He was a special talent and his dream could have been a reality,” recalled McGonagle in his 2019 memoir ‘Relentless’.
Marty Carlin cleared a best of around 5.10m in the high jump: “I loved cross-country, but I was never much good at the high jump.”
The very spot where they trained in those innocent days remains a treasured piece of Crossroads turf for the Carlins.
“Dad is buried where we used to do the high jump,” Marty says. “We all trained there. The Church asked him for the field to extend the graveyard at one time. When he gave them it, they said to him: ‘John, pick your own spot’. And there he is.”
The rugby proved problematic in the spring of ’87. Carlin and Charlie Mulgrew played for Letterkenny in a Forster Cup final win over Malone at Ravenhill. Carlin kicked 17 points, including five penalties.
Connaghan was unimpressed and promptly dropped the pair from the Donegal squad.
“We were gone for a year,” Carlin says. “We tried reasoning with him, saying about the time of the year. We went on and played in the game. Tom being the disciplinarian that he was, he cut us.”
To anyone who remembers his talents, it seems almost absurd that the sum total of his Championship appearances in the green and gold are six games – including the Ulster final and replay of 1989, which Donegal lost to Tyrone.
Carlin cut his teenage teeth playing underage with Robert Emmets before going to Red Hughs after their rebirth in 1990. He was 18 and thrust immediately into adult football.
Red Hughs rose rapidly through the ranks and won a Junior Championship in 1981. By ’83, they were in the senior ranks.
In 1986 they caught fire and reached the senior final. Carlin was red hot in the semi-final, kicking seven points as Red Hughs defeated Killybegs (them, again). It was perhaps Carlin’s greatest hour as a player.
“To reach a final in ’86 was beyond belief,” he says. “That semi was an amazing game and it really gave us a lot of confidence. To reach the final was incredible. Never in our wildest dreams did we ever think that we would reach a senior final. In truth, it was a poor final. The two teams were poor. Aodh Ruadh were far superior to us..
“We really strengthened after ’86 as a team and we were very strong for the next eight or nine years. We probably deserved a title, but we never managed it. We came up the ranks so quickly. We really challenged those years, but we just couldn’t get over the line.”
In ’91, Carlin found himself in something of a bind at the business end of the Championship.
Irish Ferries ran a competition for a two-week holiday in France. A sister of his wife, Annette, won the trip. Marty and Collette joined them for two weeks in Les Sables-d’Olonne on the Atlantic coast.
Irish Ferries nor the Donegal County Board had taken each other’s plans into consideration.
Slap back in the middle of the trip, the Donegal SFC semi-finals were pencilled in.
Red Hughs v Sean MacCumhaills.
A derby. A semi-final.
“I couldn’t not come back,” he says.
“We were staying in this lovely country house and I took the runners out with me and did a bit every day.”
Red Hughs needed him and arranged a rapid return trip.
He caught a TGV train to Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport on the Friday, was driven back to Donegal by Sean.
After kicking four points to sink MacCumhaills, he was back on the road by Danny Cullen on the Sunday morning to rejoin the group for the second week of the holiday.
He says now, laughing: “The journey took about 22 hours by boat and there were no phones in those days…I was waiting an hour for Collette on the platform at the Montparnasse train station.”
A couple of weeks later, the Carlin brothers all lined out in the Red Hughs squad for the county final, Sean as the trainer with Marty, Eugene, Joseph and Declan all playing members of the panel.
It was Killybegs who dashed the dream in the final. A pair of soft goals – netted by Conor White and Rory McNelis – gave Killybegs an early impetus.
So near again.
So far again.
“We only lost by two points (2-7 to 0-11), which showed how close we were,” Carlin says.
Ten years ago last weekend, March 21, 2010 – the date will forever be etched on his mind – was the first time he knew that something was amiss.
He felt grand as he got up and went about his normal Sunday morning routine, pre-golf.
“I was feeling as right as rain and I passed a bit of blood…I just knew i had to get it checked out,” he says.
Dr Forkan arranged for a colonoscopy in Sligo General Hospital.
The verdict hit harder than any opponent.
“When you heard that word, it stops you in your tracks,” he says.
“The had found three spots on the bowel, two of them high up and they were suspicious. It was 50/50 if they were cancerous. I never had any doubt what it meant. I had a battle on my hands.”
The bowel cancer diagnosis sent his head into a spin but, ten years on, he’s a fit and healthy 58, playing off a handicap of seven at Rosapenna.
“I was lucky to get it checked early,” he says.” That’s a lesson to anyone. I went immediately and got it early. The day after I passed the blood, I was in with Dr Forkan for a check.
“I was so happy I didn’t have to go through chemotherapy. I had a tablet. I didn’t need it due to my age – I was only 48 – but I got it as a precaution.
“I’ve had no hassle since, thank God.”
The pain of ’92 bit hard for Carlin and for Red Hughs. The following year’s draw, as if fate was playing a darkened game, paired them once more with Killybegs.
It was the days of the home and away first round jousts. Killybegs drew first blood, but Red Hughs exacted their revenge at the Cross. A third, decisive game was needed.
Some 2,000 people turned up for the third instalment in Ballyshannon.
Red Hughs were decimated.
Lynch had just gone to America days beforehand, Ollie Reid was suspended and Donal was in goal due to a broken jaw.
A late fisted goal by John Ban Gallagher was the separator.
Carlin was named as the Donegal Player of the Year in ’93 and he was convinced to return to the county squad for a final year.
Red Hughs did get their hands on a senior trophy in 1994 when they won the Division 1 League crown.
“It was a great achievement to win that – and we beat Killybegs, too, so that definitely made it sweeter,” Carlin says. “It was great for the club to get a senior title of some sort.
“We had so many hard luck stories.
“The League maybe compensated in some way for not getting Dr Maguire.
“The big one would have been a Championship. For Red Hughs to have won a senior championship and get the name onto the role of honour, that would have substituted an All-Ireland medal for me.
“Unfortunately, I missed the two of them.”Tags: