Faith healer Doherty revives Donegal belief
John Joe Doherty has not shirked the hard calls and Donegal are all the better for it, writes Dermot Crowe
ON the morning of September 20 1992, John Joe Doherty was about to board the bus bringing Donegal from their Lucan hotel to Croke Park when he learned that he would be playing in that day's All-Ireland football final against Dublin. If ever an experience told him to be prepared for any eventuality, then that was it.
A few hours later, having replaced the stricken Martin Shovlin, he lined up behind the band. Not long after that he savoured an unforgettable victory.
Nothing will ever surpass the almost mystical expedition of the Donegal football team of 17 years ago, leading to Anthony Molloy's historic embrace of the Sam Maguire and then the storied journey home to the north-west frontier for the first time. Today, as manager, Doherty charts the same route for a quarter-final shot at Cork but that's where the comparison ends. The same road it may be, but it's not the same journey.
If a surprise turn of events led to his most memorable day as a player, sport's enduring scope for the unexpected also handed him one of his darkest and bleakest sentences earlier this summer. Antrim came to Ballybofey, with its reputation as a fortress, and bludgeoned the odds. In a county like Donegal the outcome had the potential to wreck their season and cause deep recrimination and division. Instead, it proved to be the making of them.
They shut the dressing room door tight and waited -- there had been no plan for this eventuality. It had to be off-the-cuff. Spontaneous and uncensored. They left themselves at their own mercy. Players and management talked it over and by the time they reopened the door to the judgement of the outside world, Doherty felt a great deal more secure that the team had a future and, crucially, that he had their confidence.
"Look, it's not the first bad defeat I've had in football and it'll not be the last," he begins. "This county has had heartbreaking results in football but definitely I felt before we left the dressing room that evening that we had a bit of a plan in motion for the qualifiers. The lads left Ballybofey in a very disappointed mood but at the same time there was a determination there that we were going to try to redeem ourselves.
"We wanted to talk before the boys went out into their communities because we knew everything was going to be very negative after that. So it was important for us to have a wee chat and by and large it worked out. I've seen in my own playing days after a bad defeat where you'd have three or four boys and come hell or high water you wouldn't keep them in the dressing room; they'd just want to get out and go back home and forget about football. But we went back training the following Thursday and I think the appetite was there to go back. Everyone took it on the chin."
And what was the overriding feeling leaving Ballybofey that day? "That we were not that bad a team. Even, I remember, I told them before that (game, how) in my own playing time, twice, we played Antrim in the championship and we only fell over the line both times. It always had the potential to happen. Now, the county couldn't see it happening and maybe that got through to the players."
He isn't overly keen on harking back to 1992, even though there are the obvious links. Tony Boyle is one of his valued selectors, along with Tommy Ryan, who starred in the 1992 Ulster final, and the widely-regarded Michael McGeehan. All of them add useful experience and a keen appreciation of what makes players tick. Doherty treats 1992 like an overbearing parent, unhelpful to a fresh generation with its own life to live. From the despair of losing to Antrim, to their two uplifting wins over Derry and Galway, they are in a happier place.
"I never mention '92, it hasn't been mentioned once in the dressing room in the six months I have been there, and it won't be either," says Doherty. "Through nobody's fault that has been one of the problems, it has had too much emphasis. I compare it to the situation that you had in Kerry right after the great team of the golden era (broke up); they went ten years without an All-Ireland. That's why there is a massive longing in Donegal now because there is a whole new generation who wouldn't even remember that ('92)."
He took the job, he says, because his two children are still young and won't miss him as much if he commits the time to it now. Doherty is a relative novice and surprised many with his interest in the job when Brian McIver left. A few years as player-manager with his home club in Glencolmcille and, more recently, time spent with Naomh Mhuire, further north, a junior club in the Gaeltacht district of Donegal, is his total club experience. He also had one year in 2001 working as a county selector with Mickey Moran.
But he is well versed. Of the current Donegal panel, the only player he didn't know previously or play against is Karl Lacey. A long-time job in sales has given him extensive knowledge of the county's nature and expectation levels. Donegal has been the sick man of football, failing to win an Ulster title since '92 and housing various controversies and self-inflicted catastrophes.
Even Doherty's appointment was mired in sulphurous controversy over an apparent misunderstanding with the county chairman. From players drinking to administrators displaying a poor grasp of the most basic tenets of human relations, Donegal has been something of a mess from top to bottom. So, you ask this gallant John Joe, why on earth? "Something I wanted to do. I had limited experience surely but I didn't see that as a disadvantage really. I knew from the little bit I had done that I could get the best out of players and I had been looking at that Donegal team a few years previously and I just felt in a way it was unfortunate: we seemed to be that tiny bit short, and I had a feeling I could provide that little bit extra. Donegal have talented players and they're probably rated higher outside the county than inside.
"Donegal have had some great players in the last ten years who haven't won Ulster championships, fellas like Damien Diver, Adrian Sweeney, Brendan Devenney, they were great players, could have played with any county. I don't really know what was wrong; they were unlucky in that Tyrone and Armagh were very strong. Armagh have really been Donegal's bogey team. Maybe it was a lack of belief on Donegal's part."
Why was his team of 1992 different? "We were hammered the year before (in 1991) by Down in the Ulster final and won the Ulster championship the year before that, before coming up against Meath. Meath and Cork were very strong at the time. Different times. You can't compare it. Clare came out of Munster that year. Kerry were in the doldrums. Mayo came out of Connacht and they had their own difficulties at the time, and the great Meath team had gone off the scene a bit. So there was an opening for an inexperienced team like Donegal to come along and win it.
"I didn't see an awful lot wrong with the current Donegal team. Och, just a matter of getting a regime up and going to get a higher work-rate. I genuinely do believe that it was a lack of belief that left us short over the last ten years. If you ask me if there was any one thing I wanted to do, it was to try and install a bit of self-confidence into the team."
Donegal's reputation as football's version of the Rat Pack has also impinged on his short time in charge. Earlier in the league, Ciaran Bonner, one of their better forwards, was left off the panel for breaching discipline, later reinstated, then removed once again, this time without any prospect of immediate parole.
In the second episode, Bonner's club colleague Neil Gallagher, the captain when Donegal won the league a couple of years ago, was also let go. Gallagher is popular and many players felt he was hard done by, given that it was his first offence, but it is understood he was persuasive in getting Bonner back and was party to the second breach.
In the past, players have been brought back after a temporary sentence but Doherty has refused to concede. Even recently, one of the Donegal players claimed that Gallagher's absence was having a negative effect on the team. It has the appearance of a test case and there have been no reported breaches of discipline since then.
Bonner and Gallagher were let go after the Antrim defeat and Donegal's four qualifier wins have helped contain the controversy. Donegal are now where they would be had they gone on and won Ulster. Doherty believes Donegal's disciplinary issues have been exaggerated. Some incidences are from the distant past and tend to be re-heated.
"We came with an open mind. It soon became clear to me that there was a very dedicated bunch of players there, who would more or less go through a brick wall for you. Whereas what I was hearing before getting the job was that this was a very hard team to manage. On the ground it was very different.
"There was a perception there and it wasn't without foundation, but nine times of out ten the Donegal team behaved impeccably. There were a few times they dropped their guard and they got bad publicity. Maybe we're harder on our men up here."
Or softer? "No, no, I don't think so, no. Whatever leeway you would give players during the league, when it comes to championship time everyone has to put their shoulder to the wheel. It is really the only way it can work. There is no guarantee you are going to succeed doing that but you really have no chance if you don't. It's a case of getting it into the players' mindsets so that they know they have done the work.
"It's tough. I do realise that the lads (dropped) are popular and it was a hard call to make. You just have to move on and hopefully continue your run in the championship, but it's no benefit to myself or the players to be dwelling on that, especially leading up to a big game."
The management team hasn't shirked tough calls. Colm McFadden was dropped after the Antrim match and in the same tie they opted to include Lacey and Barry Dunnion, despite both being short on match practice, looking at the bigger picture. There was nothing about their preparations that Doherty would have done differently a second time around. "They appear to be enjoying their football and they have brought an intensity to their game I haven't seen this while," he observes. "I would never question the ability of our players. In our time we are credited with winning an All-Ireland but we lost an awful lot more big games than we won."
So here they are, back down from the hills. Up and running and lengthening their stride. And refilling their glass with a measure of hope.
Cork v Donegal,