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Donovan, McGuire and Harrison on their glory days with Sligo

Topic of new documentary from Rian Bailey 


Ross Donovan, Sligo, in action against Galway's Padraic Joyce in the 2009 Connacht semi-final in Markievicz Park. Pic: Ray Ryan/Sportsfile.

Ross Donovan, Sligo, in action against Galway's Padraic Joyce in the 2009 Connacht semi-final in Markievicz Park. Pic: Ray Ryan/Sportsfile.

Ross Donovan, Sligo, in action against Galway's Padraic Joyce in the 2009 Connacht semi-final in Markievicz Park. Pic: Ray Ryan/Sportsfile.


Noel McGuire, Ross Donovan and Charlie Harrison played as a full back line for the Sligo Senior footballers from 2006 to 2010. Three players with legendary careers within the county, who formed a special trio during a time of great success for the Yeats County.

In a new documentary as part of his final year project as a University of Limerick journalism and new media student, Tourlestrane sports broadcaster and journalist Rian Bailey spoke to the lads on their career highs and lows while getting some input from past team mates.

Rian, who is behind the podcast Ball Talk with Rian Bailey, said he really enjoyed making the documentary, aptly called The Back 3, which looks back on the trio’s acclaimed careers in the black and white jersey.

He said: “This documentary is a first of mine, which of course leaves me with things I wish I had and hadn’t done with this piece! The requirement for the project was 10 minutes hence the shortness of the piece.

“A big thanks to all contributors who are credited at the end of the documentary.”

There is lots of input from their former Sligo teammates who also recall their memories of the famous back line.

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Former Sligo and Tourlestrane star Gerry McGowan said that Sligo has always had great full-backs and corner backs throughout the years.

David Kelly said that the three of them individually were very good, but they took huge pride in that full-back line and they were always supporting each other as well.

Colm McGee added that if you look back at that three and how established they were, you’d have done well anywhere in the country to find a better, more settled full-back line with experience, with a bit of cuteness but with football smarts as well.

The documentary begins in the year 1997 with Sligo heading for a Connacht final meeting with Mayo.

A young Leaving Cert student from Easkey catches the county’s eye while playing with the U21s. Noel McGuire is introduced to inter-county football.

Eamonn O’Hara added that it was a real insight for him in terms of what it was all about and he was lucky to get the experience of a Connacht final. “He had someone to aspire to in Dessie Sloyan and Dessie was always there and a top forward in the country and before that you had Fintan Feeney coming from Easkey so Noel coming into it, it was seamless for him I suppose.

“A full-back is a specialised position, you’re playing against at a time when you talk about forwards, Padraic Joyce was the full-forward for Galway for many a year and an exceptional footballer. For us to say who do we put in marking him, it’s very very specialised.

“Noel just sort of came into that role and was physically able to manhandle the bigger guys and it was a time of the ball being kicked in and you had to deal with the high ball coming in,” the former All-Star pointed out.

Rian’s documentary then fasts forward to 2005 and a year after making his inter-county debut at London, Charlie Harrison makes his bow for Sligo.

The St John’s man recalls; “My main memory I suppose was my debut in the National league against Down in Newcastle. I got pulled off after 17 minutes because a ball went over my head and they scored a goal and it was just one of those things and I thought my inter-county career was over more or less but I got stuck in and it was just something that I wanted to do, so I got in with a good group of lads who just had the same ambition as myself to do well for Sligo. And just enjoyed it for the next fourteen or 15 years.”

To complete the trio, Eastern Harps’ Ross Donovan soon joined the pack. “I remember at the time thinking oh yeah, there was a bit of a buzz about it. And it was gas, you’d look around and there would be men there I wouldn’t know bar their club jersey or being on the pitch you wouldn’t have even rightly spoken to them and it was just a really good feeling about it, a good sense about it, that we were going to train together now for awhile and see how that works out,” he recalled.

Rian explains that 2006 saw the trio play together as a full-back line for the first time in the championship where they would have to wait for the following year for their first win in Connacht. Although it wasn’t exactly in Connacht, he adds.

Donovan says; “It would have actually been my first trip to New York. Whoever got to play New York got to travel and I remember there was a good few of us young lads new to this and the buzz we got going away, we thought it was fantastic. Going away for a weekend to New York, yes we had to play a game of football, but the whole buzz and thrill, I do think we fed off that as a group. We had five days away and it was great, the atmosphere.”

McGuire explained the team travelled to New York on the Thursday, trained on Friday with the game on the Sunday and they stayed on until the Thursday again.” Donovan added that Tommy (Breheny) and the lads really had stuff set up for the team and they really bounced from that as a team.

McGuire said it wasn’t a coincidence that it was that year Sligo won Connacht because it was a real bonding for the team and the group really got stronger after that trip. “There really was a good buzz about the team,” the captain that year explained.

Victories over New York and Roscommon brought Sligo to a Connacht final meeting with Galway. “Some were confident of landing the Nestor Cup after a 32-year wait, others not so much,” Rian quips.

McGuire said: “On the morning of the game, when I was leaving, I said something about lifting the cup and I heard afterwards my mother saying she felt so sorry for me because she didn’t think we had a prayer coming up to play Galway in Hyde Park! There was obviously something in the back of my head that I felt that something was going to happen that day and it’s easy saying it afterwards but that’s the way it worked out.”

Harrison too shared the same sentiments as his captain. “It was always a certainty that we were going to win, I don’t know what it was about that squad, we were very close-knit.”

Donovan added; “Playing it back, we made awful hard work of winning it, we should have won it easier.”

The documentary features McGuire’s emotional victory speech from that day and the celebration pictures that summed up perfectly that unforgettable moment in Sligo GAA history.

A Connacht title in ‘07 was followed by back to back Div 4 and 3 titles in 2009 and ‘10 were the highlights of a great run of form for the Sligo team, Rian recalls. The dominance in the full-back line was not only helping in defence but also helping the Sligo forwards get to the top of their game and lead to some great battles in the club scene and on the training field.

Gerry McGowan said; “Harps were our nemesis throughout the noughties, we would have played Harps a lot and I was probably the marking forward for Tourlestrane and Ross was the man marker for Harps. It was always going to be a battle between us on any given day. The 2007 county final was no different and Ross was marking me and it was just a battle. Ross was a phenomenal player, I think he was nominated for an All-Star that year and very unlucky not to get it.” David Kelly also agreed that his biggest battles were against the Harps man. “I still remember in training, Ross just hitting me with his chest and absolutely flooring me with his chest, he ran straight into me with his chest and being holy Lord! He was as solid as a rock and he was a tank, quick, powerful and we had great battles. I knew if I was getting the better of Ross in training I was in a good place.”

McGowan said McGuire and himself came into the panel around the same time and he remembers a lot of the battles they had marking each other in training and Noel played in many different positions, corner-back and full-back. “We would have had manys a tussle throughout the years in training and for a big guy, very quick and me being the small guy it’s always a nightmare to have a big guy who could run so fast as well.”

Colm McGee recalled in the lead up to the championship in 2010, it was Mayo in the first round in the quarter-final and in the lead to that Sligo would always have training games and manager Kevin Walsh would always try and get the team club jerseys of the same colour, St Pats in Sligo the green and red the same as Mayo. “For the Galway game, it was Shamrock Gaels’ jerseys and I remember Francie Quinn from Shamrock Gaels coming in with the maroon and white jerseys. Two days I got matched up with Charlie and two days my jersey was torn down right to the middle of my chest because of the tussles we’d be having! Charlie was really at the top of his game at that stage and he obviously got his reward at the end of the year with his All-Star as well,” he added.
Rian says McGuire, Harrison and Donovan were three of the best defenders the county has ever produced and left behind a great legacy in the Sligo jersey. Their final game as a full-back line in championship was the 2010 Connacht final which was won by the Rossies. “However, the boys haven’t strayed too far from the field, as Noel McGuire has rejoined the Senior county set-up as part of Tony McEntee’s backroom team,” Rian added.
McGuire said; “I love it and it’s very challenging, it’s a change and evolving all the time, the systems and the level of professionalism that’s going into it.”
After 15 years of service to the GAA as a player, Charlie Harrison went even further becoming National Cúl Camp co-ordinator. Since then he has gone on to take on a new role in the GAA on a more global scale as international manager. “As part of my new role I look after 450 units across the world from Abu Dhabi to New Zealand to Riyadh, there are GAA clubs everywhere. When you’re talking to those people internationally and the amount of enthusiasm and energy they have about running their clubs in their regions, it just brings on a whole different dimension,” the St John’s man said.
Donovan has also gone down the coaching route. “If you’re playing inter-county you have to have interest there, I was working with Sligo GAA so I got into coaching there so it became a passion of mine and I really enjoyed the coaching. It’s being involved in that environment still, I’m still going into dressing rooms even though I’m not a Senior player and I’ll still be part of that environment hopefully in the next 5 or 6 years I’ll still be working at some level coaching and involved in football because I think it will always be something that will be a part of me and it will be for a long time,” he added.
You can watch the insightful documentary called The Back 3 in full on ‘Ball Talk with Rian Bailey’ on YouTube. A memorable trip down memory lane.