Donegal came out fighting to defeat Derry in 1992 Ulster Final: Joyce McMullin
LONG before ‘Armagh-Tyrone’, there was ‘Derry-Donegal’. Fighting it out for all the top trophies - the National League, Ulster, and the All-Ireland.
Literally fighting it out at times. The rivalry was personified by two midfield giants: Donegal captain Anthony Molloy and Derry’s Brian McGilligan.
Joyce McMullin, a regular half-forward for Donegal, recalls how those two were almost a separate contest within the meetings of the two teams:
“We’d great battles with Derry. The notable thing was Molloy and McGilligan always thrashed in midfield, the fight always went on, they battled and they battered the life out of one another.
“Whenever it was over, the two of them were standing up at the bar with a pint and laughing and arms around one another. It was refreshing, it was great.
“Even in challenge matches. I remember Manus [Boyle] going in to separate them one morning in a challenge match and us shaking our heads, ‘What are you doing, Manus?!’
“Of course, Manus got hit above the eye, nobody knows who hit him, and he had to go away and get stitches. We were just saying, ‘Manus, you should know to let them boys f---ing at it, let them do it!’
“We still have that good relationship with the Derry boys, we met up a few times afterwards for charity matches and that, and had good craic.”
Back in the late Eighties and early to mid-Nineties, however, there were few pleasantries exchanged between Derry and Donegal, certainly not on the pitches.
A rivalry renewed
Having not met in Championship since the 1979 Ulster semi-final, which Donegal won by a point to end a run of Derry successes, the rivalry began bubbling up a decade later, leading up to their first ever meeting in a provincial decider, in 1992.
“We had a quite a bit of history with Derry in the years before that” remembers Four Masters clubman McMullin. “We’d met them at semi-final level in ‘89 and ’90. We’d a good enough relationship with them, it was really good tough stuff but we got on actually pretty well, we were fairly friendly with plenty of their players.”
Donegal won both those semi-finals, losing the ’89 Final in a replay to Tyrone before collecting the Anglo-Celt a year later by edging out Armagh. They then reached a third consecutive final in 1991, but were well-beaten by Down, who went on to end Ulster’s 23-year wait for the ‘Sam Maguire’.
That had an impact on Brian McEniff’s men, acknowledged McMullin, who's now a media sales consultant with the Donegal Democrat and Donegal Live: “It had been working on us quite a bit. We took real heart from the fact the Down team that hammered us in the final went on and won the All-Ireland…
“Before the Down success in ‘91 we’d have always figured, we were struggling to convince ourselves that we could actually beat them [southern teams].
“We were giving good performances but never actually getting there. After the Down success, yes, things changed quite a bit. Not just within the squad but individually as well - we started saying to ourselves ‘This can be done’. That was a factor for sure.
“That gave us a wee bit of extra belief, ‘Look, if they can do it….’ We believed a bit more that it was doable. But obviously Derry were a big team to have to beat.”
McMullin found himself up against Johnny McGurk, “a good player, cute, smart, the Derry team were a good team, proved it afterwards, a lot of good players, from [Tony] Scullion right out, [Gary] Coleman and that, then the two boys in the middle [McGilligan and Tohill], and they had the forwards as well.”
Still, Donegal were quality themselves: “We were well-prepared going into it and quietly confident… We knew Derry were good but we knew we were pretty handy ourselves. It was, I suppose, a kind of ‘last hurrah’. We had improved as the year had gone on - well, obviously we had to improve.”
Derry were the new National League champions, having edged out Tyrone, and then beaten the Red Hands again in the Ulster preliminary round. Eamonn Coleman’s men then beat Monaghan in a quarter-final replay, before dethroning All-Ireland champions Down at Casement Park.
Donegal had started slowly, only beating Cavan in a replay, but although they hammered Fermanagh by 16 points in the semi-final, McMullin says the camp wasn’t pleased:
“A clear-the-air meeting took place after the Fermanagh match - the semi-final performance was…all right. The management took the decision to up the training and intensity, thinking further down the line if we were going to have to survive to September. That change of mentality kicked in. Training was fairly severe from then on.
“It wasn’t so much the performance on that day. It was the general feeling in the squad that we were kinda going through the motions again.
“Going training, doing your bit, and getting out of there… It was more a change of attitude from everybody, from management right throughout the squad.
“We realised that to do anything, to repeat what Down had done, we felt we had to do this, we had to improve dramatically as a team. And we had to believe more as a team that we could actually do something.”
Up against it in Clones
By half-time, however, it looked increasingly likely that it would be Derry representing Ulster in the All-Ireland semi-finals.
Although the teams were level at 0-5 apiece, Donegal were down to 14 men after the dismissal of corner-back John Cunnigham for two yellow cards, and attacking star Tony Boyle had gone off injured after being kicked on the knee as Derry midfielder Anthony Tohill went for the ball.
Derry also had what wind there was behind them - so Donegal fans may have feared being blown away.
Instead, Donegal produced probably their finest half of football - ever.
When your back is to the wall, you have to come out fighting. McMullin rejects - sort of - the suggestion that McEniff pinned him against the dressing room wall, as has been stated.
The boss did boot a water bottle above McMullin’s head, more than a decade before Alex Ferguson infamously kicked a boot which struck David Beckham above his eye.
“Well, yeah, yes… Look it, at half-time there was tension, McEniff was fairly animated, as managers could be, to get teams wound up and ready for action.
“[Blows out cheeks] I don’t think he pinned me against a wall, but he might have caught me by the scruff of the neck and said ‘You need to up the performance’.”
Donegal definitely did that, running the ball more, but also kicking long to find Tommy Ryan, who troubled Derry full-back Danny Quinn so much that he was replaced.
Best half ever?
“We weren’t under any illusions about what we had to do in the second half,” says McMullin, who's now a media sales consultant with the Donegal Democrat and Donegal Live. “We knew we had to play well - and thank God we did.
“I actually looked at it afterwards and some of the football was brilliant - but some of it wasn’t. I’d say Derry were disappointed with their performance: being favourites, being a man up in the second half, they had whatever wee bit of breeze was in it.
“They didn’t really take advantage. We got a sniff of it, and we did. It was very much a case of ‘We’re going to have to produce one of the second halves of our lives to survive this.’
“And we kinda did, from effort point of view. There were some great scores, [Martin] McHugh’s score and Tommy Ryan’s performance were outstanding.
“It was a great performance and one that we got a lot of satisfaction from when it was over. We really started to believe ‘There’s something big going on here and we can do something.’”
Donegal triumphed by 0-14 to 1-9, and went on to win their first All-Ireland, defeating Dublin in the decider.
McMullin finds the two final displays hard to separate: “It [the Ulster Final] was our stand-out performance, probably, that year - maybe the All-Ireland Final eclipsed it a bit.
“That second half was probably our best half hour all right. It was our most important half hour because we were up against it.
“We convinced ourselves afterwards that we had done something special and we had to build on it. There’s no point in giving that special half hour unless you make something more out of it. It gave us more belief than we had beforehand, put it like that.”
1993 and all that
Donegal continued their winning form well into 1993, with a 100 per cent record in Section B of the National League, earning a place in a new Division One for the following season.
They also beat Derry again, in the League quarter-finals, and Munster champions Clare - again again - in the semi-finals, before Dublin finally inflicted a loss on them, but only in a final replay.
In Ulster, though, Donegal mis-fired, performing poorly in edging past Antrim in Ballybofey, then needing a replay to overcome Armagh in the semi-final, albeit winning that re-match convincingly by 2-16 to 1-7.
Derry were a team on a mission, and with big players missing due to injuries, Donegal were second best in dreadful, sodden conditions in the final at Clones. Noel Hegarty was out, while All-Ireland winning captain Anthony Molloy was on the bench, as was ‘Rambo’ Gavigan.
Donegal led by a point at the break, 0-5 to 0-4, but Tohill inspired Derry to score the next four. Both Molloy and Gavigan came on in the final quarter but they couldn’t turn the tide sufficiently.
Had that duo been fit to start it might have been a different outcome,” McMullin hinted
“Injuries had a big influence that year, wear and tear had taken their toll, although we had decent strength in depth that kept us afloat, kept us going.
“They were boys who would have thrived in those conditions, or would have been well comfortable in them, with their power and strength. Tohill obviously came to the fore and dominated the match to an extent, scoring and being good in general play.”
Donegal’s reign as Ulster Champions was over, and Derry would go on to take the All-Ireland crown too.
“It’s always going to be remembered from our perspective for the final that was lost, in those conditions in Clones.
“You don’t want to be going on whinging about it, the conditions were the same for everybody, it was unfair to both teams that the final was played at all, it really was.
“We were annoyed about it at the time, but sure what the hell? It’s 30 years ago now. You’ve got to get on with it.”
Regret? They have a few
Having said that, McMullin acknowledges there are still regrets: “You always think about the ones that got away, the ones that you missed. That’s life, isn’t it? You’re always looking back.
“As a team, in 1992 we had been getting older, a long time together. We’d won an All-Ireland [U21] in ‘82 and for 10 years we really got nowhere.
“That was the problem. We really should have come a bit stronger in the late Eighties and we didn’t, for one reason or another. By the time ‘92 arrived, we were well shot as a group.
“There were a lot of young lads coming through, like Tony Boyle and Mark Crossan, but the older group, [Martin] McHugh, Molloy, [Donal] Reid, we had a lot of miles up.”
His Donegal career ended a year later: “I finished in ‘94, after Tyrone beat us in Cavan. I’d 14 years of it done. At the time I was playing OK, I was fit enough. That was just the way it was. There was a new manager [PJ McGowan] in place and he wanted to freshen things up, and rightly so. The squad needed a lot of freshening up.
“PJ decided he wanted to do things his way. I’d been in the squad since ‘81, a lot of commitment given. I was disappointed at the time, but after a few weeks I was dead happy with it.”
And forever happy to have played his part on those days in July and September 1992.
1992 Ulster SFC Final teams:
Donegal: Gary Walsh; John Cunningham, Matt Gallagher, Noel Hegarty; Donal Reid (0-1), Martin Gavigan, Martin Shovlin; Anthony Molloy (capt.), Brian Murray (0-1); James McHugh (0-2), Tommy Ryan (0-2), Joyce McMullin; Martin McHugh (0-4), Tony Boyle (0-1), Declan Bonner (0-3).
Substitute: Barry McGowan for Boyle (inj., 27).
Derry: Damien McCusker; Kieran McKeever, Danny Quinn, Tony Scullion; John McGurk, Henry Downey (capt.), Gary Coleman; Brian McGilligan, Dermot Heaney; Anthony Tohill (0-1), Dermot McNicholl (0-1), Damian Cassidy; Declan Bateson, Seamus Downey (1-0), Enda Gormley (0-6, 0-5 frees).
Substitutes: Damian Barton (0-1) for Tohill (h-t, inj.); John McErlain for Quinn (50); Joe Brolly for Bateson (54).
Referee: Jim Curran (Tyrone).
1993 Ulster SFC Final teams:
Derry: D McCusker; K McKeever, T Scullion, J McGurk; Fergal P McCusker, H Downey (capt.), G Coleman; A Tohill (0-1 free), B McGilligan; Brian McCormick, D Barton (0-1), D Cassidy (0-2); Stephen Mulvenna, D Heaney, E Gormley (0-3, 0-2 frees).
Substitutes: D McNicholl (0-1) for Heaney (30); J Brolly for Mulvenna (54); K Diamond for McNicholl (64).
Donegal: G Walsh; John Joe Doherty, Matt Gallagher, B McGowan; Mark Crossan, Paul Carr, M Shovlin; Michael Gallagher, B Murray; J McHugh, M McHugh (capt.) (0-1), J McMullin (0-1); D Bonner (0-1 free), Manus Boyle (0-2 frees), John Duffy (0-1 free).
Substitutes: Mark McShane for Bonner (51); A Molloy for J McHugh (54); M Gavigan for Michael Gallagher (61).
Referee: Tommy McDermott (Cavan).