GAA Football

When Loughman and the Farney mixed with the Best

The last time Monaghan were in the All-Ireland semi-final was 1988, when a certain soccer legend made his way to the Castleblayney sports shop of Farney wing-back Declan Loughman, who spoke to Cahair O'Kane...

George Best with John McAviney and Jack O’Shea at the launch of Declan Loughman Sports in Castleblayney in 1988. Picture: John McAviney

DECLAN Loughman’s self-titled sports shop had been on the go a few years but the walls were still fresh enough for an opportunistic opening bash.

It’s seldom seen excitement like the last few weeks. A conscription of Monaghan jerseys landed last Friday, and they were all gone within days. The bandwagon is in danger of needing ‘sold out’ signs.

Based in Castleblayney, the owner was wing-back on the Monaghan side that had just won the 1988 Ulster title. At just 23, it was his second in four years.

His father Tony had worn the white and blue too, and was an Ulster club winner with the Faughs club, and it was in his footsteps that the young Declan followed in so many respects.

Tony worked in music promotions and when Monaghan saw off Tyrone in July ’88, his contacts book came in handy.

The launch was attended by “nearly 1,000 people”, most of them there to see the headline act George Best, and Kerry legend Jack O’Shea, who was no mean understudy.

“At the time he wasn’t that reliable to come when he was booked, more often than not he didn’t show, but for this one he did show to everybody’s surprise at the time.

“My father got him, I don’t know where he made the contact with him but it was him that tied him in. He said he’d be the boy to have and went on the hunt for him and got him.

“I’m not sure how he managed to get him, but the big surprise was that he actually came.”

Thirty years on, the photos of that night surfaced again recently on social media. Half the Monaghan team were on the podium that night as well, their stars shining bright after they’d edged out Tyrone.

Nudie Hughes’ goal off Aidan Skelton’s fumble gave Monaghan a lead they only briefly relinquished just before half-time, though Tyrone kept chipping and were sore that Noel McGinn wasn’t awarded a last-minute penalty in a goalmouth scramble.

Little did they know at the time, but that would be the last of it. Having beaten Kerry in the National League earlier that year, they carried confidence into the All-Ireland semi-final against Cork, but found themselves beaten at half-time after choosing to playing against the wind in the first half.

The absence of Eamon Murray from full-forward through injury at the heart of that summer robbed them of a major attacking presence – “he was Allstar material at the time and probably should have got one” – but Loughman doesn’t recall any lack of self confidence.

“At the time, when you’re in the circle, you would have certain belief. Ulster coming out playing Munster, it was always expected to be whipping boys no matter who the Ulster champions were.

“But I don’t know if belief came into it. We took Kerry to a replay in ’85. It was always the next game and we never looked too far ahead

“I’d say the current Monaghan team aren’t talking about winning an All-Ireland, even if in the back of their minds they realise how close the thing has come.”

What didn’t exist was any kind of succession plan. They’d won three Ulster titles in nine years, having waited 41 years for one between 1938 and 1979.

Loughman’s inter-county career was only beginning, and didn’t end up Derry took them in Celtic Park en route to their last provincial crown in 1998, but after Cork blew their All-Ireland dream apart on August 14, 1988, things started to unravel fairly quickly.

He spent the rest of his career toiling, an odd win here and there, but mostly looking on in envy as Down, Donegal and Derry rewrote Ulster’s place in the reckoning.

“The backbone of our team – Gerry McCarville, Nudie Hughes, Eamonn McEnaney, Francis Caulfield – they were all of an age that wasn’t going to carry them into the ‘90s.

“The ‘90s was probably a lull, if you want to class it as that, through no fault of the players playing at the time but there were just teams better than us, it was as simple as that.

“The age profile wasn’t in our favour, and the idea of development squads and nurturing young fellas through wouldn’t have been the case at the time.

“You pick your best 25 players playing club football at the time and form your county panel. There probably wasn’t great insight into what was coming in the years behind or how to sustain it.

“There is now, which is a major plus for the game. Take Monaghan’s work in the last 10 years, you won a minor title for the first time in 60 years a few years back, another one this year.

“We’re competing in the top six in Ireland at senior level, but there’s more focus on what are we going to be doing in four or five years’ time when Conor McManus and the likes are gone.

“They are looking at that. There are development squads at under-14 and a lot of work being done. Success has been showing at under-16, Buncrana Cups, minor level – people seem to forget they’re in an All-Ireland semi-final on Sunday for probably the first time in 60 years.

“The eye hasn’t been taken off the ball this time. There’s more focus on how we sustain this and filter in fresh faces every two or three years.

“That’s the same with every county, but in the 80s that wouldn’t be the case. You had your county panel and there wasn’t great foresight to think too far ahead.

“Going back to ’88, we were an aged enough team and there was no great prepared plan for two or three players to be slotted in every year. It just happened without planning, and we paid the consequence for it.”

The man credited with turning Karl O’Connell down the path of Gaelic football when he took Tyholland in 2006, Loughman is currently in charge of Emyvale. Their junior championship campaign was due to begin this weekend, but there’s hardly a ball being kicked in the county right now.

“Football’s on a standstill. We were to play the championship this weekend but it’s off and will be until Monaghan’s interest’s over, and the longer it’s off at this stage the better because you just want Monaghan to keep going.

“I know it’s hard on club players and teams, but in Monaghan at the minute, nobody cares if there’s never a club match played at this stage, the people are on that much of a high.”

If Monaghan were to win an All-Ireland, he’d surely be under pressure to put on a show.

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