THE ‘other place’: To James Carroll, it was a world that didn’t exist. Even if it did, Donegal and its footballers didn’t belong there.
A freezing November Saturday in 2009 and Jim McGuinness was in full flow inside the sports hall at the Aura Leisure Complex.
McGuinness, rejected for the senior job twice, was appointed the Donegal Under-21 manager and had big plans.
Carroll can still feel the moment now.
McGuinness recalled in his memoir, Until Victory Always: ‘I held up a photograph of the Cork U-21 team that had won the All-Ireland and told the players that this is who we are going to be. James Carroll gave a laugh. He wasn’t being disrespectful, it just sounded outlandish to him. It sounded daft to them all. And I lit up, not at James but at the mentality’.
McGuinness seized the chance to drive his message. Nothing only the words of the Glenties man could be heard. Even the air itself seemed to pause when he spoke.
‘What are we laughing at? Do we want Tyrone to win it again? Because we aren’t good enough in Donegal? Is that it? We will just fuck around for a few weeks? If we stay in this place, nothing is going to change.’
“Donegal people never thought they’d be able to get there,” Carroll says now, on the tenth anniversary of Donegal winning an Ulster Under-21 crown that paved the way for the Glory Days.
“It was my facial expression, I think. He had the picture of the Cork team and he held up his diary. It was opened on the page that was the date of the All-Ireland final. ‘That’s the day we’ll be the All-Ireland champions. We’ll be on this page of the diary.’
“It was crazy how Jim had the belief in us before we even got going.
“He would always question us. Every single night. He’d ask us did we believe if we were able to do it. Did we believe that he was telling the truth?”
The words are clear, even after the passing of the years.
‘You’re saying that you believe – but do you believe?’
The truth of it was that, at the beginning at least, they didn’t believe.
FOR Dermot Molloy, the lightbulb moment came on a crisp January Saturday in Maynooth.
McGuinness arranged a two-day camp for his squad. It was the first indication – to players and, indeed, the County Board – of just how serious he was taking things.
In Maynooth, McGuinness arranged a challenge game on a Friday night and his men defeated Kerry.
“That woke the boys up,” Molloy says.
“There was a serious bit of hitting going on that night. Both teams wanted to get to a Championship pace. We both knew that the Ulster and Munster champions would meet later on. There was a kind of laying down a marker feel to it. It was a slog of a game, but it was a big stepping stone for us.”
It was the first night a group of Donegal footballers would use McGuinness’ grading system. Each of them would be handed a piece of paper to score themselves out of five under a variety of topics from the game.
“Back then, Donegal football wasn’t at the races,” Molloy says.
“The underage wasn’t producing and the senior team was nowhere near it.
“We had it in our minds that we wanted to win something but around Donegal, it was still a bit of: ‘Ah, sure, ya know, we’re just Donegal’.”
Molloy played under McGuinness at Naomh Conaill in 2009 when they lost to St Eunan’s in the county final. He was more aware than most of the new manager, whose talents in Glenties had never been in question.
“I was well used to Jim,” he says. “It was still different that year with the county under-21s. Jim brought something new to us every single night.”
ARMAGH still cut a haunting shadow over Donegal – and would again later in 2010 on the day the plates shifted beneath John Joe Doherty’s tenure in Crossmaglen.
Many of those inside of McGuinness’ huddle had already had their own experiences of the Orchard.
The minors of 2007 were beaten, 2-9 to 0-11, by Armagh. The Under-21 class of 2009 suffered a rather more painful defeat in Ballybofey. Armagh came into Donegal’s back garden and won by seven, 1-10 to 0-6.
McGuinness reminded his men of this as Armagh came into view again.
Carroll says: “Armagh beat us in Ballybofey by a cricket score and that was a big thing for Jim: That Armagh had disrespected us; Armagh had laughed at us; Armagh toyed with us.”
The Gaoth Dobhair man was to start at corner-forward and the instructions were crystal clear: Run to the ‘D’ and, if the ball doesn’t come to you, go for goal.
With Donegal 0-3 to 0-2 behind, the moment arrived in the 21st minute. Daniel McLaughlin arrowed the ball towards Michael Murphy. The Donegal captain won and off-loaded for Carroll, who did the rest, riffling past Ryan McGuinness, the Armagh goalkeeper.
Goal. And not even a fist pump from Carroll.
“Jim told us to be men and not to showboat. I was so afraid to celebrate the goal, I just went away back and marked my man.”
Molloy hit six points on that March night in Enniskillen.
“That night was one of my best performances that year for the under-21s,” he says.
“It was nice to get straight back to work after the disappointment of losing the county final with the club.
“I was playing with real confidence and kicking really well. It was a joy to play on that team. Michael was playing inside with me and James playing off him.
“I played on the loop and played the best I ever did, I think. Michael was surrounded by two or three men all the time and things opened up for us.”
Donegal defeated Armagh 1-9 to 0-9 and McGuinness had a question afterwards as his troops gathered.
‘Now, do youse fucking believe me?’
QUARTER-FINAL; Wednesday, March 24, 2010, Brewster Park, Enniskillen; Donegal 1-9 Armagh 0-9
Donegal: Peter Boyle; Eamon Doherty, Ciaran Boyle, Paddy McGrath; Declan Walsh, Kevin Mulhern, Leo McLoone (0-2); Conor Classon, Danny Curran; Mark McHugh, Danny Murphy, Dermot Molloy (0-6, 3f ); James Carroll (1-0), Michael Murphy (0-1), Daniel McLaughlin. Subs: Cillian Morrisson for Carroll (49 mins), Peter McGee for Classon (56 mins), Peter McNelis for McLaughlin (56 mins).
CARROLL, like most in Donegal, was scared to get ahead of things initially, but perhaps ought to have seen some signs.
The early days of that year, he spent watching and wondering. A knee injury had sidelined the flame-haired forward. In November, a scan was arranged for him at the Santry Sports Clinic. The earliest available date was January 15.
An hour later, Carroll’s phone rang.
It was McGuinness.
‘Can you get to Santry next Wednesday?’
“I knew right then that he wasn’t going to mess about,” Carroll recalls. “He was just mad for me to get a scan to see if I needed any procedure and to make sure I’d be alright for the Championship.
“It was crazy how Jim had the belief in us before we even got going. He seemed to have months of work done before he even got us together. He had people already marked down to play in certain positions. Jim seemed to know what was going to happen – and when it was going to happen.”
DERRY lay in wait in a semi-final, but a spate of heavy rainfall saw the game postponed with the Donegal squad tucking into a pre-match meal in the Abbey Hotel.
“That took the air out of us,” Carroll says.
“You’re building up for it and then it’s gone, but we just had to get all guns blazing for the Saturday. Jim had a great way of getting you to focus on what you could control. If you controlled certain things that was the key to winning the game.”
McGuinness and his players boarded the bus and made for the Aura. They’d still manage to make the night count for something.
“Jim never allowed any kind of negativity to creep in,” Molloy says.
“We never had negativity,” Carroll says. “Even later that year, coming into the All-Ireland semi-final, none of us knew about (Paddy) McGrath’s jaw being broke. We knew something was up, but not how serious it was. None of us knew that he had his jaw wired.”
The Donegal bus pulled up to Brewster Park on a sodden Saturday. Those on board were ‘totally tuned in’, as Carroll remembers. The bus parked and just as Donegal’s players rose, McGuinness halted them right in their tracks.
‘Sit the fuck down!’
Carroll says: “He pointed at the Derry bus: ‘Look at those fuckers – they think they’ll walk all over us. They don’t realise that they’re going to lose by ten points’. We beat them off the park.”
Donegal won by four, 1-11 to 0-10, with Murphy landing 1-2. They had to go through the mill with Peter McGee – drafted into the starting XV in place of Danny Murphy – sent off for an incident in the first half that ruled him out of the final.
Goalkeeper Peter Boyle, still a minor, made a superb save from Benny Herron late in the game and the Aodh Ruadh man plucked two Derry efforts from above his crossbar.
“Peter had a brilliant game that day,” Molloy says.
“His kick-outs were coming to the fore at the time. We had tactic where, after a score or when we felt in a bit of trouble, Peter would just do this big bomb of a kick to the far ’45 for Michael. Things in games were just coming natural to us.”
Donegal now had just four days to get ready for the final – and a meeting with Cavan.
Molloy says: “There wasn’t much ‘build up’. We got over Derry and were straight to the hydro pool the next day. We were doing triple sessions there to get the legs going and get the bodies right. Jim was well ahead of other coaches with that stuff. Religiously, we had to text him and let him know we’d done our bit.
“Jim was very sharp. I think one of his biggest strengths was his contact with players. God almighty, he could ring you at 8 o’clock, you’d look at your phone and all of a sudden it would be 11.30.”
SEMI-FINAL: Saturday, April 3, 2010; Brewster Park, Enniskillen; Donegal 1-11 Derry 0-10
Donegal: Peter Boyle; Eamon Doherty, Ciaran Boyle, Paddy McGrath; Declan Walsh (0-1), Leo McLoone (0- 2), Danny Curran; Conor Classon, Kevin Mulhern; Mark McHugh, Peter McGee, Dermot Molloy (0-3, 3f); James Carroll (0-1), Michael Murphy (1-2, 2f), Daniel McLaughlin (0-2). Subs: Antoin McFadden for Carroll (half-time), Ciaran McGinley for McLaughlin (56 mins), Thomas McKinley for Curran (56 mins).
DONEGAL hadn’t won an Ulster Under-21 title since 1995.
A big crowd converged on Brewster, by now a familiar venue. Cavan arrived in huge numbers and it made for an electric night by the Erne.
“It was the tensest match we had that year in Ulster,” Carroll says.
“We knew what Cavan were about. They had a lot of dangerous footballers and they proved that in the following two or three years.”
It was a night where Murphy paved the way.
He and Molloy scored the 2-8 between them – Murphy 1-5, Molloy 1-3 – as Donegal won by seven, 2-8 to 0-7.
“Michael really stepped up and grabbed the game by the horns,” Carroll says.
“It was very businesslike coming into the final. We knew what we had to do. We never saw it as a last step. We were going further; no question about it. We were going to win that game.”
“Michael was brilliant,” Molloy agrees.
“He led by example and he always had a knack of delivering on the biggest days. That day of the final, Michael led us from the minute we went to the warm-up pitch. You always felt that Michael had your back.”
Murphy netted late in the first half and it was Molloy who put the game beyond Cavan’s reach with the second Tir Chonaill major, eight minutes from the end.
Mark McHugh robbed a Cavan defender and popped off to Molloy, who lashed beyond the helpless Martin Smith.
“I just put my foot through the ball,” Molloy says. “The goal was a nice moment for me. It was like everything you want as a young fella, scoring a goal in an Ulster final. It was magical.”
Gavin Corrigan’s final whistle sent the Donegal minds into a tailspin.
“There was, I don’t know, a sense of relief at the final whistle,” Carroll says.
“It was unreal. After the work had gone in…it was crazy. There was this intense man telling us for months how we were going to win Ulster and now we had won Ulster. You just sort of though: ‘Jesus, where will this finish?’ It was massive for Donegal.”
“No-one was used to seeing us win much in Donegal,” Molloy adds. “When you win something like that, it gave us the hunger to go bigger and better, Thankfully, Jim took a few of us with him to get the biggest one of all.”
FINAL: Wednesday, April 7, 2010; Brewster Park, Enniskillen; Donegal 2-8 Cavan 0-7
Donegal: Peter Boyle; Eamon Doherty, Ciaran Boyle, Paddy McGrath; Declan Walsh, Thomas McKinley, Conor Classon; Kevin Mulhern, Danny Curran; Mark McHugh, Michael Murphy (1-5, 2f ), Dermot Molloy (1-3); James Carroll, Leo McLoone, Daniel McLaughlin. Subs: Antoin McFadden for Carroll (44 mins), Sean O’Kennedy for McKinley (58 mins), Peter McNelis for McLaughlin (58 mins), Danny Murphy for Curran (60 mins).
A WEDNESDAY night it might’ve been, but it was important for McGuinness to give his squad an insight.
A homecoming was hastily arranged and the bus made a journey that would become very familiar in the coming years.
“We only realised coming into Donegal town what it meant for some people,” Carroll says.
“Donegal football wasn’t in a good place generally back then. There was such a crowd out for us on a Wednesday night.”
As the bus approached Pettigo, a man at the front grabbed the microphone. Once again, the players were speechless.
“That was the first time we had heard the song ‘Destination Donegal’,” Carroll says.
“We were coming into Pettigo and Jim was singing away. A few of us were there like ‘What the hell is he singing?’.”
They could party that night, so long as it didn’t linger long into Thursday.
“We were so tight as a group,” Molloy says. “We just emptied ourselves at training in November and December out at the Aura. We trained Christmas Eve and everything.”
The journey only ended in a heartbreakingly narrow All-Ireland final defeat to Dublin.
But the seeds were firmly sowed for Donegal – and things would never be the same again.
Molloy was living in Galway in a house that was Glenties from the chimney to the foundations. Leo McLoone and Seamus Corcoran, also on the Donegal U21 squad, were there and Anthony Thompson, their Naomh Conaill team-mate who had already made it to the Donegal senior panel, joined them. Others, like Martin Gallagher, Ian Molloy and AJ Gallagher were under the same roof.
“We had a weights room in the hallway,” Molloy remembers.
“Leo had a great year with us in 2010. Leo had himself in serious shape and he actually took me along with him.”
The two were making their way back to Galway in the days after that All-Ireland final loss to Dublin.
Molloy’s phone rang and he didn’t recognise the number.
John Joe Doherty was on the other end, inviting him up to the Donegal senior squad for the first time.
LATER in 2010, nine of that Under-21 squad sat in the crowd and listened as McGuinness delivered his maiden speech as the Donegal senior manager in a Downings hotel.
Little did anyone – bar McGuinness – know what was possible.
“If we hadn’t won that Ulster, it probably would have been harder for Jim to go in and convince the senior players,” Molloy says.
“But with the under-21s, he had proved that he could win and we were a whisker from winning an All-Ireland with that team. Who knows what would have happened if we hadn’t won that?”
Carroll has fond memories of ‘a special team’ that had ‘wee Pat at the heart and soul of it’. It will be three years in October since Pat Shovelin, the always-smiling and ever-mischievous goalkeeping coach of that panel, lost his battle with cancer. His memory firmly lives on with those who joined him on that journey.
“There is still a bond,” Carroll – on a year out from teaching and building wind turbines for Cosmic Wind in Tazmania – says.
McGuinness often reminded his players of the significance of what they had done: ‘No-one can take that away from you, no matter where you are in years to come. That medal will bond you for life.’
Ten years ago today, Donegal football took its first steps to the ‘other place’.Tags: