John Devlin: still going strong with Tyrone hurlers - 26 years after his debut
Ireland’s oldest inter-county player says he has no plans to retire, and if the 2020 season is lost, he’ll be back for more next year.
John Devlin is still going strong with the Tyrone hurlers at 44, a remarkable 26 years after making his debut.
He burst upon the scene as a teenage attacker way back in 1995, but in more recent times established himself as the Red Hands’ reliable net-minder.
The highs and lows of life in the small ball game’s lower divisions have kept him motivated through thick and thin, never taking a backward step in his loyalty to the county he has served with pride, even stepping in as an emergency manager at one stage.
Nowadays, Conor McElhatton is Tyrone’s first choice goalkeeper, but Devlin has pledged to fight to win back his place in the starting fifteen.
He had planned to retire from the inter-county game at the end of last season, but was persuaded by manager Mattie Lennon to stick with the squad.
“There’s that competitive streak in me, and I’ll want to push for my place. I wouldn’t want to be there just for the craic, I’ll be looking for my place in the team, that’s the bottom line. I told Mattie that at the start, and he said he wants me fighting for it,” said Devlin.
“I’ll never say never. I’ll see where the body is. I do a lot of swimming, which keeps me right, it’s very good for the muscles. If I can stay injury-free, why not do it?”
It was a catalogue of injuries that put an end to Devlin’s promising career as an attacker, robbing him of a number of seasons, before ultimately prompting an accidental switch to the last line of defence.
Cruciates and hamstrings conspired to become a frequent reminder of the frailty of the human frame, and eventually a constant torment.
Football was in fact the first love for a sports-mad youngster who grew up with a talented bunch of Dungannon Clarkes lads that included Gerard Cavlan, who was to go on to win All-Irelands.
They dominated Tyrone under-age competitions, winning successive league and championship doubles right through from U14 to Minor.
Devlin played wing back on the team that powered to victory in the 1993 Minor Championship, and it was while preparing for the Ulster semi-final at St Paul’s in Belfast that the first in a debilitating string of injuries struck him down.
“We won the double at every level in Grade one football from U14 upwards with that team, a real strong team. Gerard Cavlan was part of it. But unfortunately it never carried on and materialised at senior level.
“We won two Minor Championships in a row. The first year we were playing in Ulster, we were training in Augher, because the Ulster competition was played in the winter, and Augher was the only place with floodlights at the time.
“We were training for the Ulster semi-final, and I went for a ball and did the knee.
“That was in October, and I got the operation in the following August, a keyhole operation.
“So I missed the Minor Championship the following year, but I got back in time for the Ulster tournament. We were beaten in the Ulster final, unfortunately, by Bellaghy.
“That was the last time I played football, the last time I kicked a ball for Dungannon was that Ulster final against Bellaghy.”
The small ball game had by now taken over as the first preference code, and he was cutting a dash with the Eoghan Ruadh club as a skilled hurler with an eye for the posts.
But the curse of the cruciate wasted no time in reminding him of an enduring propensity to injury.
“The following year I was playing in a club hurling game and I did the knee again, this time the cruciate. I was playing corner forward for the Dungannon senior team, and I played for three or four years with a torn cruciate.
“To be honest, I was doing more harm than good, but at that time it was hard to get an operation for cruciate, so I didn’t get it until 2003.
“And then when I came back on to the senior team, I kept tearing my hamstring on the same leg.
“Then one day in 2006, we were training, and Brian McIntosh said to me – go into goals there. He started taking a few shots, and I did okay, and it developed from there. I have been there ever since
“And I was in the county squad as a goalkeeper from then onwards.”
Life as a Tyrone hurler may have lacked the glamour and allure that giants like Kilkenny and Tipp brought to the game, but there were nonetheless special days to be savoured.
Memorable afternoons in Croke Park saw the Red Hands lift Lory Meagher and Nicky Rackard silverware, and make significant progress on the NHL front.
“I missed out in 2009 when we won the Lory Meagher Cup, because I was in Dublin working that year.
“I was away for two years, but I came back on to the team for 2011, and we were beaten in the Lory Meagher Cup final by Donegal – a goal with the last puck of the game. Then we won the Lory Meagher again the year after that.
“Mattie Lennon came in as the new manager in 2014, and we won Division 3B of the National Hurling League and went on to win the Nicky Rackard Cup.
“The next year, we actually won Division 3A, back to back promotions.
“That was probably the best year Tyrone ever hard, two league titles and the Nicky Rackard in the space of a year. It was great winning those.”
Waterford’s Kevin Ryan succeeded Lennon as manager in 2016, answering the call at the eleventh hour as a stop-gap measure.
He was also in charge of Wexford club Rathnure, but managed to avoid any clashes until a May afternoon when Tyrone were due to face Longford in the Nicky Rackard Cup at the same time as a Wexford SHC tie involving Rathnure.
Ryan felt obliged to stick with the club, and delegated Red Hand management duties jointly to Devlin and Carrickmore’s Jason Kelly.
“Kevin Ryan came in as manager and he came in late, so things weren’t well organised.
“He asked myself and Jason Kelly of Carrickmore to take the team. We were beaten anyway.
“It didn’t work out that day, but that year in general, things hadn’t been going well.
“Whenever you’re managing a team that you have played with, it’s not the same. You have your own view of players, and I suppose it’s not fair.
“You need to be coming in there on a neutral basis and giving every man a fair chance.
“When you’re playing, you’re friends with people, and you don’t want to insult anybody. It makes it that bit more difficult.”
Lennon subsequently returned for a second spell in charge, and Tyrone have continued to make progress under his guidance.
By now, Devlin was in his forties, but still a key member of the squad and a figure respected by one and all among his colleagues, the majority of whom weren’t even born when he first pulled on the Red Hand shirt.
As the end of the 2019 season moved closer, contemplations on his future brought him to the conclusion that it was time to call it a day.
But a spectacular run to the Ulster Club IFC final with Eoghan Ruadh gave him a new lease of life.
Devlin was a heroic performer throughout that county and provincial adventure, including the Ulster final, in which the Dungannon men lost out in a dramatic penalty shoot-out to Naomh Eanna of Antrim at Celtic Park.
He saved three penalties in a nerve-shredding sudden death sequence, but the Saffron champions squeezed through to take the title.
“I wasn’t going to play this year, but Mattie asked me to come back.
“I was playing well for the club and it was probably one of the best years I had in my whole career.
“I had a really good year and my confidence was high, we got to the Ulster final, so I decided I would go back to the county.
“We probably should have had it won, we were up seven points at half-time. Maybe it was game management, we should have had the game buried.
“But that’s the way it goes, there’s no sentiment in sport.
“It was sore, especially for us older lads, knowing that we haven’t much left in our careers, the likes of Terry McIntosh and my brother Marty. They all put in some good years, but there still as fit as anybody in the team.
“It was disappointing to lose, for you might never get that opportunity again.
“Mattie rang me, he said, ‘I hear you’re playing well, will you come back up’.
“I said I’d think about it, for there was nobody really coming on from the youth ranks as goalkeeper, so I went back to help out, take a back seat.”
So he’s set to link up once again with Lennon, the manager who has made the greatest impact during his Tyrone career.
Brendan Harkin was the man who handed him his debut back in 1995 in a league game against Leitrim at O’Neill Park, while
Antrim’s Kevin McNaughton also had a spell as Red Hand boss, and it was Derry man Tom Magill who appointed Devlin Tyrone senior captain in 2013.