'I’ve a sore neck from it still - it was an absolute whack': Drew Wylie on why Donegal always brought out the best in Monaghan

Having led the fight as Monaghan went toe-to-toe with Donegal when their rivalry was ignited a decade ago, Drew Wylie will watch Saturday’s Championship clash from the wings after bringing the curtain down on his county career. Neil Loughran talks to the former Farney stalwart…

The coming together of Drew Wylie and Michael Murphy in the 2016 Ulster semi-final remains one of the abiding images of the Donegal-Monaghan rivalry. Picture by Aidan O'Reilly
The coming together of Drew Wylie and Michael Murphy in the 2016 Ulster semi-final remains one of the abiding images of the Donegal-Monaghan rivalry. Picture by Aidan O'Reilly

IF you were searching for a single moment that embodied the no-quarter-given, all or nothing depth of the Donegal-Monaghan rivalry, look no further than the shoulder.

Those inside Breffni Park on a sticky Saturday evening seven summers ago will never forget the sound of 16,287 people gasping in unison, tremors reverberating as the heavyweight collision between Michael Murphy and Drew Wylie shook the old ground to its foundations.

Car alarms went off outside, mobile phone networks blacked out and sleeping babies were wakened a mile away. That may be an exaggeration.

But TV could never do it justice, much less super-slow motion replays capturing the coming together in all its bone-crunching beauty. No. You had to be there, man - real time, right down in the corner at the town end, what a rush.

Barely anything else about that drawn game has been deemed worthy of retention in the memory bank, but the shoulder remains, clear as day – Wylie moving towards the play as Murphy picks up an offload from Martin McElhinney, Murphy careering towards his target, Wylie planting his feet and closing his eyes, braced for impact like a stray cart on a railway line.

Murphy made no attempt to divert his course, Wylie stepped in and turned his shoulder, meeting fire with fire while also accepting the inevitable with momentum against him.

“Ah stop,” says Wylie, wincing, “I’ve a sore neck from it still. It was an absolute whack. But listen, that was just two men going for the ball.

“There was nothing else mattered.”

Roars from the Tir Chonaill crowd filled the night sky once the collective intake of breath finally gave way. Typically, Wylie dusted himself down before embarking a couple of forward forays, winning the free from which Conor McManus edged the Farney ahead during a fiery, to and fro second half.

And that, in a nutshell, is what Donegal and Monaghan delivered every time they entered the Championship arena between 2013 and 2016; a stubborn arm wrestle for supremacy that moved back and forth only in millimetres across three Ulster finals and two provincial semi showdowns.

Having both brought down the curtain on county careers, Murphy and Wylie could well cross paths on the other side of the line at Healy Park on Saturday evening as the counties meet in Championship for the first time since the 2016 replay back in Breffni.

If they do, a shake of the hand and a chat will be the order of the day. Unlike some of the GAA’s other, often more parochial rivalries, there is little lingering animosity a decade on from when it all began.

In the moment, though, it was there, and it was real. Coming into 2013 as Ulster and All-Ireland champions, Donegal were the scalp everybody wanted.

Working out how to beat them, and avoiding falling into the trap of believing the Tir Chonaill were unstoppable under Jim McGuinness’s spell, that was something else entirely.


Drew Wylie held Colm McFadden scoreless from play in the 2013 Ulster final. Picture by Colm O'Reilly
Drew Wylie held Colm McFadden scoreless from play in the 2013 Ulster final. Picture by Colm O'Reilly

DREW Wylie didn’t play minor football for Monaghan, and only featured in the final year of U21s. Despite being brought into Seamus McEnaney’s senior panel in 2010, he left before the League was over.

After coming back in when Eamonn McEneaney took over, Wylie was handed his first start in the opening game of the 2011 League against Galway. It didn’t last long, the 21-year-old replaced at half-time.

The months that followed were largely spent on the bench. Having headed off to America the previous summer, there was a temptation to do so again. But Wylie had come back a different player, a different man.

He was determined to make it count this time around.

“It probably just didn’t work out for me [against Galway], is the simplest way of putting it.

“The easy thing to do would have been to pack it in and walk away, but I knew myself I wanted to be successful, I wanted to play county football, and I was going to do whatever I had to do. I sat on the bench until the following year then, didn’t really get much of a run…

“Then it was really Malachy’s era when it took off.”

The appointment of Malachy O’Rourke to the Monaghan hot seat coincided with one of the most successful periods in the county’s history, the former Fermanagh manager wholeheartedly embracing the opportunity to pit his wits against McGuinness and Donegal.

It wasn’t long before that filtered down to his players. Wylie was one of a clutch of up-and-comers still finding his way among a changing room filled with men who had seen it all, even if they didn’t have the medals to show for it.

Their hurt, and their ambition to carve out their own portion of history before the boots were hung up for good, was a critical factor.

Despite not pulling up any trees in semi-final victory over Down, Donegal were 1/6 favourites going into the 2013 Ulster final.

Wylie, though, could sense something different was afoot, a training camp in Portugal weeks out from their date with destiny cementing his belief that, after so many disappointments, the 25-year wait for the Anglo-Celt was about to end.

“I came away from that saying ‘we’re not going to be beat here – we’re winning this’,” said the Ballybay man, whose wife Aoife hails from Burt in Donegal.

“It wasn’t just Malachy, you had ‘Dropsy’ [Leo McBride], Ryan Porter, some of the work them men put in… and there was a strong group too, some massive leaders like Owen Lennon, Paul Finlay, Vinny Corey, Dick [Clerkin]. They were hungry for this success and you could see it in them.

“They were coming off losing a couple of Ulster finals against Tyrone, it made the group stronger looking on and seeing how much these lads wanted this – it made me want it more.”

Wylie held Colm McFadden scoreless from play as Monaghan grabbed the game by the throat and didn’t let go, Clones brought to life in a sea of white and blue as Donegal’s aura suffered a hammer blow.

“I remember watching them against Down in the semi-final thinking they weren’t just going the same as they had been. That was something Malachy would have seen as well.

“I know a few men made a bit of money on us that day. We had the men to do it; we felt, on paper, we had men to match these lads all over the pitch.

“We weren’t building them up to be on any kind of a pedestal - we weren’t going to sit and wait and let them dictate the game. We knew they had threats all over, boys who were All-Ireland winners.

“But there wasn’t one of our boys you could look at and say he hasn’t put the work in… everybody was striving for the same thing.”

Refreshed and rejuvenated in McGuinness’s final year, Donegal gained revenge on the same stage 12 months down the line.

The Celtic-bound Glenties man had stoked the fires in the weeks before, warning about the perils of aggression crossing the line as the ante was upped.

Monaghan were unable to find the answers this time around and, when the same pair came together again in the 2015 Ulster final, Wylie was forced to watch from the wings after picking up an injury playing for Ballybay.

Accepting defeat, though, has never been his strong suit.

“I tore my medial ligament and had a cracked bone in the side of my knee, there was talk of the cruciate at the start, thankfully it wasn’t, but obviously you’re being told your season’s over… I wasn’t going to let that happen me.

“I met Malachy, I was so annoyed, and told him I’d be back for the Ulster final,” he says with a laugh, “I’ll be back, I will be available. I know starting might be out of the question, but I will be on the panel and I will be ready to go.”

Remarkably he togged out and was there, if needed. But Monaghan were able to clinch a second provincial crown in three years, even without their dog of war.

“I was strapped up, I put myself through a lot to get back on the pitch, and these are the things men were willing to do – not just me, there was loads of fellas on the team putting their bodies on the line and going through all sorts of measures to make sure they were ready.

“And with Donegal, we were that familiar with each other - every year you had to bring something new… the team was evolving. That was the great thing about Malachy, he just kept the thing fresh.”

Heading towards the 2016 Championship, there were few better defenders in Ireland than Drew Wylie – shutting the door at one end, rumbling forward in that familiar fashion at the other.

This time around the Tir Chonaill gained the upper hand, edging into the Ulster final after a replay and, as the counties prepare to renew acquaintances in Omagh on Saturday, Patrick McBrearty is the only Donegal survivor.

In contrast, Monaghan can still call upon Rory Beggan, Ryan Wylie, Kieran Duffy, Darren Hughes, Conor McManus, Karl O’Connell, Ryan McAnespie, Shane Carey and Fintan Kelly.

Drew Wylie, though, has taken his leave. The last few years hadn’t seen much game-time and, in the weeks after Ballybay’s county title triumph, he met with former comrade Vinny Corey to talk shop.

“When we were competing at that top level, I’m not afraid to say it, I wanted to be the best full-back in the country. Like, if you’re not setting that bar for yourself, why are you playing? You want to challenge yourself and you want to compete at the highest level.

“You only really have a relatively short time to compete at that level, as you get older you start to slow up and lose that wee bit of an edge maybe, even if the mind is still strong.

“When you’re not playing, it’s hard. I still wanted to give to Monaghan football - the last couple of years I was training as hard as anyone. I was putting myself there, but you’re not always going to be selected to play.

“We had a good year for the club, the easy thing would have been to plough on and go again, just get yourself into that bubble, but I had to think a wee bit more… over them 12 years, you’re a selfish bollocks you might as well say.

“The wife and kids, maybe not going to weddings, stag dos, changing a child’s christening to another day when you’re not training… everything takes a back seat.

“So I just said no. The time was right to step away.”

It was only when news of Wylie and Colin Walshe’s retirement came out in the media that the enormity of his decision began to sink in. The adjustment has been relatively straightforward, though Donegal always brought the best from him.

“The person sitting beside me could be getting the odd elbow or the odd kick,” he smiles, “I’d still be playing every ball.”

And there are no regrets, no what might-have-beens, instead just respect for some of those alongside whom he soldiered for so long, and the hope that Monaghan can continue to defy the odds.

“At the time I went to Vinny, I didn’t do any media, didn’t come out with no statement or anything, but then Vinny was obviously asked a question… it was only the day it came out in the paper that it really sort of sunk in with me.

“I’d told a couple of close friends and family that I wasn’t going back, but when it came out, there was a sadness there… it hit home - ‘that’s it’. Because every December you get back on the horse and go again, nothing else mattered. Now you weren’t doing this.

“That’s just the way it goes. Loads of players will come and go after me, look at some of the lads, the likes of Karl O’Connell who has been phenomenal – a man with twins and a newborn there as well.

“It’s a bit weird still, but I haven’t second guessed myself. And I know I won’t.”