GAA Football

The tale of '97 and Ballyshannon's boardroom title

Kilcar's appeal against Naomh Conaill's victory in Saturday night's Donegal SFC final has dredged up memories of the 1997 saga that saw St Eunan's stripped of their title after beating Aodh Ruadh, Ballyshannon for using an illegal player. Cahair O'Kane spoke to those at the heart of a debate that rumbles on 24 years later…

John Haran in action for St Eunan's. The current club chairman says he still considers himself to have won eight county medals, not seven as the official record books show.

ON a panel debate in Donegal a few years ago, inimitable local journalist and broadcaster Charlie Collins was MC for the evening.

Brendan Devenney was one of the guests and when it came his turn to be introduced, his clubmate Collins got to the St Eunan’s man’s CV.

‘Five-time Donegal championship winner’ was the blurb.

“I said to him, hi, you reintroduce that other one or I’m not f***ing coming up!” laughs Devenney.

The ‘other one’ was the sixth county title he still considers he’s owed from his playing days. John Haran says he has eight, not seven, and that St Eunan’s have 15, not 14.

1997 is seldom a laughing matter.

This week’s events in the county have brought it all back. After losing the much-delayed 2020 decider to Naomh Conaill in a penalty shootout, Kilcar lodged an appeal on Tuesday night against the result.

Their argument is that the Glenties used a sub too many, and that Charles McGuinness, the last one on, had a material impact on the result by scoring his penalty.

The appeal landed on county chairman Mick McGrath’s desk shortly before the deadline two days ago.

McGrath’s own mind must have been cast back. He was the chairman of Aodh Ruadh, Ballyshannon when they lodged the appeal against St Eunan’s victory 24 years ago.

Ballyshannon’s case was that the Letterkenny men had used an illegal player.

Leslie McGettigan was a former county player operating out of America, where he had been living for a number of years, and was flying home to play for St Eunan’s.

McGettigan, whose father James ‘Gouldie’ was a former Donegal player and club chairman, was born and bred Letterkenny who had gone to the Big Apple in search of work and found a life out there.

At home, St Eunan’s had struggled, as all of north Donegal had. Their previous championship in 1983 was the last time it left the west-coastal heartlands. It was all Ballyshannon, Killybegs, Kilcar, Ardara, Naomh Columba for 14 years.

St Eunan’s had produced three strong minor teams in a row from 1993 to ’95. They’d just brought in Brendan Kilcoyne, the Sligo captain who had taken a job in the Ulster Bank in the town.

Brendan Devenney had gone to England for a few years after minor and only returned in ’97. For years, they couldn’t get past Naomh Columba. John Joe Doherty was an impassable object at full-back that they just couldn’t get around.

Two weeks before the quarter-final, the idea of McGettigan being flown home was put to the players.

“The boys sort of said ‘aye why not’,” recalls John Haran.

McGettigan didn’t even have to do much other than occupy Doherty. That freed up space for others. St Eunan’s clambered over the hurdle and into a semi-final with Kilcar.

The two-time Hogan Cup winner with St Jarlath’s Tuam flew home again and played well in a classic in Donegal Town, winning by a point.

By the time the final came around, McGettigan had become a talking point. The media were debating whether he should have been allowed to play, given that he was in championship action in America too.

But Naomh Columba and Kilcar took their beatings. Neither club objected to their defeat and so Donegal county board couldn’t act.

Aodh Ruadh didn’t do anything about it before the game. Part of that was perhaps that they felt they didn’t need to.

They were huge, overwhelming favourites.

On the bridge that leads out to Bundoran in the middle of the town, a lorry was parked up in the middle of the town from early in the morning of the game. It was there to ferry the players around when they brought the cup back home

Distinct from the St Joseph’s amalgamation that dominated Donegal football in the 1960s and ‘70s, Ballyshannon were back operating on their own and had won titles in ’86, ’87 and ’94.

St Eunan’s young team tore up the script.

“We beat them by a point against all the odds,” says Haran.

“The referee played seven minutes of injury time, which was unheard of at that stage.”

Devenney had scored 1-7 and was the new star of Donegal football.

The lorry lay empty in Ballyshannon while the open-top bus headed to bring the Dr Maguire Cup north for the first time since ‘83.

Brendan Devenney's introduction to the St Eunan's forward line in 1997 helped propel them to a county final victory over favourites Aodh Ruadh, but the title was taken off the Letterkenny men after a protest by their opponents. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

“We had the whole side of this county behind us, it was massive.

“We went back to the Mount Errigal that night and I’d swear there were 3,000 people there.”

The Aodh Ruadh players went off home to lick their wounds. But quickly attentions within the club had turned to lodging an appeal.

Not among the players, though. A few supported it but it was a protest essentially driven by the club committee.

It was a fairly cut-and-dried case. Leslie McGettigan was playing illegally. He ended up with a 12-month suspension out of it. The club chairman and secretary got three months each.

St Eunan’s were stripped of their county title. They appealed to Donegal and Ulster, but the decision was upheld. There was no DRA at the time.

“My father said we should have gone straight to the High Court and got an injunction against Ballyshannon playing St Paul’s in the Ulster Club,” says Haran.

“It would soon have been gathered up, emotions were running high.”

* * * * *

AT no stage, though, was a replay on the cards. Instead of making them battle it out again, the powers-that-be awarded it to Ballyshannon.

The objection wasn’t a popular move among a considerable section of the Ballyshannon changing room.

When the medals were presented to the players at the end of the year, one handed his back. The rest held on to them but not too many would have them on the mantlepiece.

The St Eunan’s players have medals too. Not official ones, but the club commissioned their own and presented them at the end of the year.

Many of the Ballyshannon men would make no bones about it - they only won one championship, the following year, 1998. (To add another link to this week’s events, Ballyshannon’s captain that day Val Murray was one of the officials at Saturday night’s decider).

Even though they went on to play St Paul’s in Ulster a few weeks later, a lot of Ballyshannon men don’t feel they won a championship in ’97 – but they don’t feel St Eunan’s won it either.

They would point to the fact that Niall McCready was in New York at the time, actually playing club football alongside Leslie McGettigan over there, but they didn’t consider bending the rules to bring him in for the club championship.

Donegal’s roll of honour shows St Eunan’s on 14 and Aodh Ruadh on 12. The scoreline that day still reads St Eunan’s 1-11 Aodh Ruadh 2-7, but 1997’s champions are – officially – Aodh Ruadh.

The Aodh Ruadh Ballyshannon team that were awarded the 1997 Donegal title after protesting St Eunan's use of Leslie McGettigan in the county final.

24 years on, it remains contentious.

Bad blood simmered between the two clubs for a few years after, and would have continued to had they not both gone off in different directions.

St Eunan’s played in four straight finals from 1999 until 2002, winning two, and would then win three-in-a-row between ’07 and ’09.

Ballyshannon’s descent through the leagues began soon after the ’99 final.

Their team had come to a natural end and with nothing behind it, they dropped down the divisions. But having won last year’s intermediate championship, they have in the last few weeks at last won back promotion to Division One football.

The Letterkenny men had a serious axe to grind in ’99. They had taken it very personally. Games between the two had become very thick, physical affairs.

Devenney battered them around the place in the second final, tearing up three different markers to score a sensational 14 points in front of 7,000 people.

The following morning, a couple of beers in, the Ballyshannon lads organised a bus to take them to Letterkenny. They all went in and spent the day drinking with the St Eunan’s boys.

“We were going to put it to bed,” said one former player.

That’s where they would prefer it to stay. The Ballyshannon contingent weren’t keen to dredge up the past on all this. Several declined to speak on it.

That the 2022 Donegal county final is likely to pass without the traditional parade of the champions from 25 years ago tells you all you need to know.

This week’s events have brought it all back to the fore.

The circumstances are different and the same. Kilcar have followed down the path that Aodh Ruadh did in ’97, asking the county board to step in and hear their grievance.

Just like Aodh Ruadh’s, the grievances had some legitimacy.

Unlike 24 years ago though, it’s unlikely to have such an unsatisfactory outcome.

If there’s any lesson to be learned from back then, it’s that both sides agree now that a replay would have been the best-case scenario.

Even though St Eunan’s had their celebrating done and Aodh Ruadh had settled into the pits of defeat for the winter, they’d both have loved another shot at it.

The result might have been different, and it might have been the same.

Leslie McGettigan’s influence might have been missed, or St Eunan’s might have been so angered by having to play again it wouldn’t have mattered. Those are the imponderables.

But a replay was never on the table.

Behind closed doors, the decision was made. St Eunan’s were stripped of a title their players still count as theirs, and it was given to a Ballyshannon team that didn’t want it and don’t count it.

Much of Ballyshannon would consider the club to have 11 county titles, not 12.

But they’d argue far more strongly that St Eunan’s have 14, not 15.

Agreement on it, after 24 years, is unlikely.

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