Northern Great: Brian McEniff part two

In the second part of an extensive interview about his life and times, Brian McEniff tells Cahair O’Kane about reaching the top of the mountain with Donegal and the tight twists and turns of the winding road from that highest of vantage points...

Brian McEniff at home in Bundoran. Picture by Hugh Russell
Brian McEniff at home in Bundoran. Picture by Hugh Russell

DOWN the barrel of the gun.

That’s where Martin McHugh was told to go. Get the ball, run at Keith Barr and open Dublin up.

The first time Brian McEniff watched the All-Ireland final of ’92 back afterwards, he found himself annoyed that they hadn’t had the goals that their performance deserved.

It was little to annoy him, all the same. Twenty years after playing and managing Donegal to their first ever Ulster title, they had finally scaled the mountain.

Long before McGuinness and the man up the tree, Brian McEniff had Sean Ferriter spying on Dublin training. He had gleaned all that he could from Art McRory, John O’Mahoney and Pete McGrath about how to deal with an All-Ireland final.

Still, nothing could have prepared him for being told that the brother of one of his players, Joyce McMullan, had died just before the game.

McEniff composed himself and decided that he would keep the news to himself until after the game. As it happened, the news wasn’t true. What would have become of Donegal’s day, and their dream, if McEniff takes it at its word and dispenses the news?

Because this was it.

1992 was a dream that died many times before it became reality. The 1983 All-Ireland winning U21 team had presented for duty McHugh, Anthony Molloy, Donal Reid, Joyce McMullan, Matt Gallagher.

Their chances looked near shot. The All-Ireland team had four men in big knee bandages, which McEniff has always attributed to the sand-based pitches in the county.

“By the time Molloy retired, he was running sideways, he couldn’t run straight any more. He had the knees of a 70-year-old.”

But they’d hardened over a tough winter’s training, knowing that this was their last throw of the dice.

It was almost over before it began. Forget Dublin or Mayo or Derry, it was the 1992 Ulster quarter-final that Donegal had to wrestle hardest to win. Fintan Cahill was determined to wreck it all on his own, making boys of men.

They would need a second outing back in Ballybofey, where Philip Smith’s early red card eased passage.

The course of history was replotted. Donegal would survive Seamus Downey’s scrambled goal in the Ulster final. They’d live on their nerves in an All-Ireland semi-final win over Mayo that was described in The Irish Times as the worst semi-final ever played.

Dublin were the supposed unbeatables. But in scoring three goals against them in a league game in Ballybofey, Donegal found solace.

McEniff told his team to attack Dublin like the Waves of Tory, harking back to his musical interests.

‘And you will go down the barrel of the gun’, he told McHugh.

“I knew when he did that the boys had lost all inhibitions, that they had no regard for Dublin.”

It was only when Declan Bonner’s effort turned its nose inside the post, putting them four up with time gone, that the country kind of went ‘Donegal are actually going to win this thing’.

All through the year, McHugh had run the show. He was named the Texaco Footballer of the Year.

Outstanding in the All-Ireland final, brilliant against Cavan, and at his leisure against Fermanagh.

But it was against Derry that he was arguably at his best, playing a game fifteen years ahead of himself as he tied the rope around his 13 team-mates and pulled them to victory.

“I remember running on to the pitch and I hugged him like I would a child, threw him up and hugged him,” McEniff recalled several years ago.

They’ve had no relationship to speak of for almost 20 years. McEniff took exception to some comments McHugh made as a pundit in the early noughties that he felt questioned his service to Donegal football.

McHugh, having sought but failed to acquire the job in 1994 when McEniff left, was approached by the then-chairman to take it at the end of 2002 but declined.

The Kilcar man was then standing for McEniff’s soon-to-be-vacant Central Council role in 2009. The former manager was calling time but threw his backing behind Noreen Doherty, a long-serving administrator and sister of his good friend PJ McGowan. Doherty narrowly won the vote.

The 20th anniversary reunion without any healing and by the time it came to going to Croke Park five years later to be presented to the crowd, McHugh didn’t go to the Skylon Hotel with the rest.

Both men would have their own take on what has caused the bad feeling.

“I would be sad [about it], I wouldn’t be sore,” McEniff rues.

“We’ve no communication, which is rather sad. Because when all the players meet, he’s the one that’s missing.”

It’s a footnote that’s not uncommon with All-Ireland winning teams. The two years after winning the All-Ireland would test a lot of Brian McEniff’s relationships with players.

But for all but one, the bond of winning would prove stronger than the forces of defeat.

* * * * *

WHEN all the celebrations had settled and they returned to the Ulster final in ’93, it was a washout.

Rather than eating outside the town, they went to the golf club in Clones. They couldn’t fight the crowd and the bus ended up late to the stadium. McEniff was the last down the steps outside the changing room, by which time Martin McHugh was already over with referee Tommy McDermott.

“Fair play to wee McHugh, he went straight to Tommy and said ‘this pitch isn’t playing Tommy’.”

Martin Gavigan and Anthony Molloy both had bad knees. Donal Reid had a broken jaw. Noel Hegarty was suspended whether it was played in Clones or elsewhere, having been sent off in the replay against Armagh.

“But the biggest loss of all was Tony Boyle. I’d give away the four for him. He got a mysterious injury, had him out for 12 months.

“I love Donegal with a passion. After that, I love Ulster.”
“I love Donegal with a passion. After that, I love Ulster.”

“We sent him everywhere. My uncle, a priest, had bones from saints. Tried everything.”

Their crowns were stripped by Derry, who went on to repeat their neighbours’ historic achievement of 12 months previous.

There was a picture of McEniff addressing the victorious Oak Leaf changing room that afternoon. Directly in front of him was Jim McGuigan, and to his right Danny Quinn.

The Donegal manager was a hyper presence on the sideline. When they’d beaten Derry in a league semi-final, McEniff had run over and jumped on McGuigan’s back. At one stage, he’d run on to the pitch to try and switch Declan Bonner across on to Quinn.

“He reached over and hit me a box on the side of the head!”

In the Ulster semi-final, he’d pushed McHugh to full-forward in a bid to move Kieran McGeeney out of his comfort zone.

“McGeeney was on McHugh the first day and bate the living bajaysus out of him. I lost it and ran on to the pitch and said: ‘McGeeney, if you’re only gonna do that, I’ll come out and I’ll f***ing bust ya!’”

He admits Donegal wouldn’t have won the All-Ireland again in ‘93. Too many miles and too many knee bandages.

McEniff was as delighted for Eamonn Coleman as he had been for “gentleman” Pete McGrath in ’91, and would be again in ’94.

“Aw I loved Eamonn. I remember getting him in before the Tyrone match [in 2003] and he gave me good advice.

“But when we got to the Ulster final, he wouldn’t give me any advice because he was a big mate of Joe Kernan’s, as was I.

“When they went to the All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin, I had him down here and gave him all the details I had from the year before. I told him all about Cork.

“So we were very close. But no two tighter boys on the pitch, we would fight like two Rottweilers.”

If he could do it again, he’d have quietly dropped out of the race for the National League. Instead, they ended up beating Derry to reach the final and cramming their schedule.

But that’s grand to say now, nearly 30 years on. Without the instinctive will to win – especially against Derry and Down – they would never have been what they were.

Donegal were on the bus on the way back to the Abbey Hotel, where he planned to tell the players of his decision to step down a year after winning the All-Ireland.

“Molloy came up the bus and said ‘you’ll stay on’ and I made a stupid decision that I would. I didn’t enjoy the last year. There was a certain amount of acrimony crept into the squad.

“There was stuff that happened after the All-Ireland. That’s why I would have liked to have quit in ’93. I didn’t like the back-biting that was going on.”

Players were griping, in private and public. Then there was a row over expenses from a holiday that some players came home from early, with plans having been made for a second 10-day trip before championship that then failed to happen.

The players who stayed the full two weeks were given money as such, while players who came home after a week were only given half the money.

And there were all the bouts of indiscipline, having to drop men for going off-piste. That was a theme of his reigns in the ‘90s and noughties.

There were various drinking incidents, including a hotel game naked pool that led to him cutting two men but of which the details still haven’t got out. All sorts.

His last game in charge was a qualifier defeat by Cavan in 2005. Training had been light during the week and he couldn’t believe his eyes when they were heading in at half-time seven points down.

“I’m saying ‘what the f***’s going on? It was two weeks later I found out some of the boys had gone drinking on the Sunday night in Letterkenny, then hired a bus to go to a big concert in Dublin on the Monday. Came down home on Tuesday, drank Tuesday night. That was par for the course.”

In an interview with Keith Duggan before the 2003 championship opener against Down, he’d allowed that the one year would nearly do him. He’d had a bad back and had hurt it tying his laces before the league game out against Galway. The whole premise was wondered aloud.

They’d finish the year in an All-Ireland semi-final, finally picked off by Stevie McDonnell’s late goal having played most of the day with 14 men after Ray Sweeney’s early red card.

As a county, he always felt his kinsmen lacked self-belief. But in his heart of hearts, he didn’t quite believe himself that the early noughties team had in them what the early nineties team had achieved.

They’d lose to Fermanagh in 2004, another chance wasted, and Cavan would close the door on him for once and for all the following summer.

The fifth reign would be the last. Between 1972 and 2005, he’d been manager for almost 20 seasons, won five Ulster titles and an All-Ireland with a county that hadn’t raised a gallop until then.

He wishes now he’d gone ahead and ignored Anthony Molloy on the bus in ’93 and quit. When he was in Canada, he fell in with Manchester City players Tony Book and Malcolm Allison, who spent a summer in Toronto.

Allison was regarded as the genius behind Manchester City’s success in the late ‘60s and was due to take over from Joe Mercer, who had agreed to step aside in 1970. But the success went to Mercer’s head and he clung on to power for a while.

“Then all of a sudden, he quit,” ponders McEniff.

“And he said that he thought success would bring everything he wanted in the club. Instead it brought bitterness and acrimony, and he couldn’t handle that, so he quit.

“That always stayed with me.”

* * * * *

ULSTER always formed such a huge part of McEniff’s soul. He’d played in the Railway Cup but even before that, there was the 1967 All-Ireland semi-final between Cavan and Cork.

He was sitting beside Cautie watching her brother-in-law Mick Burke run the show for Cork. The next thing Cavan make a run on it and he’s out of his seat, willing them as if they were his own.

“The wife looks at me. All I can say is: ‘I’m an Ulster man!’

“I love Donegal with a passion. After that, I love Ulster.”

He managed the Railway Cup team over 25 years, winning 12 titles after setting himself the target of seeing Ulster pass out Leinster on the roll of honour.

The passion for the GAA won’t leave his body until he takes his dying breath. It’s one thing the glory and honour of winning titles as Donegal manager. It’s quite another sitting through county board meetings or spending days just inside the doors of SuperValu in Bundoran selling lotto tickets for the club.

He’d pick any brain he could find, tormenting everyone from Babs Keating to Johnny Giles and Mick O’Dwyer – “you’d try, but he was coy” - always believing in the old say that ‘wise men learn more from fools than fools learn from wise men’.

The child-like enthusiasm for playing never left him. When Derry took Donegal’s titles away in 1993, McEniff was asked to manage a Rest of Ireland select for the GOAL challenge in Bellaghy late that year.

McEniff, wearing 24, put himself on and kicked a point, wheeling away in front of 12,000 hollering supporters.

He won his last Donegal senior championship at 37 and played reserves for Bundoran until he couldn’t play any more, and his final game was the last ten minutes of a GAA exhibition in Australia when he was Ireland manager for the International Rules series in 2001.

The game was arranged to fill the Sunday morning but as it tends to do, Sunday morning came after Saturday night.

“I started to go around the rooms to get them out – could I get them out? No chance!

“With the insistence of [RTÉ journalists] Micheal Ó Muircheartaigh and Brian Carthy, we’d the game won with 10 minutes left, I went in.

“Then Graham Geraghty, great footballer, hit me the most beautiful ball. I caught it, took a hop and kicked it over the bar from 35 yards out. The crowd roared!”

You can still almost see the lift of that roar in his boyish jowls to this day.

He can recall the most minute, insignificant detail of games that happened 70 years ago. It's a memory bank that will keep him smiling for a while yet.

The man who forgets nothing, Brian McEniff will never be forgotten.