They lived in dread of being a nearly team, another nearly team from Leitrim, so when they look back on it now, the primary feeling is perhaps the most precious one of all: peace of mind.
If they hadn't got the job done, the business of looking back would be prickled with regrets, those psychological stab wounds that linger in the memory like needles. Unfinished business is a curse with no cut-off date, especially when there's nothing that can ever be done to fix it. Every sports person, every team, has a window of time in which to do what they need to do; if it doesn't get done, it will never get done.
These are dangerous emotions to be playing with; no one escapes unscathed; even those who have achieved what they wanted to achieve are haunted by the ones that got away. There are memories that can induce a cold sweat and a shiver down the spine: some moment or incident when something went badly wrong and must now be borne forever like stigmata on the soul.
So, what happens to those who never achieved what they wanted to achieve? How often in middle age and beyond do their minds cast back to that particular day when they came so close and yet were ultimately denied their hearts' desire? In some chamber of the mind lingers the disappointment that will always be there.
Peace of mind: the boys of '94 have it. But right beside it, right next door, are the inevitable regrets over other games in other years. It is not an unblemished tranquillity. But at their core there is not a vacuum still waiting to be filled; there is instead the psychic equivalent of a good meal sitting in the stomach, a sense of satiation and fulfilment; they found what they were looking for; they got the job done. And it is permanent, it is in the record books for all time; they will always have '94.
On July 24, Leitrim became Connacht senior football champions for the first and only time since 1927. This afternoon in Pearse Stadium, Salthill, they will be presented to the crowd before the Connacht final between Galway and Roscommon. Two weekends ago I sat down with three of them in one of the county's most famous hostelries, Gay Prior's of Ballinamore, to hear the story of how they did it.
Pat Donohoe (Drumreilly) played midfield, Pádraig Kenny (Drumshanbo) wing forward, Liam 'Willie' Conlon (Ballinamore) corner forward. I've known the first two for many years and the third for slightly longer, given he is my brother. Donohoe, a Garda, was 26 in the summer of '94; Kenny, a primary school principal, was 24; Conlon, a Garda, was 29. Like most sports people, current or retired, they are not inclined to be particularly sentimental when looking back. What mattered then and still matters now was the process, the practical requirements, the nuts and bolts that went into building a competitive team. It had been a long, hard grind that was at least five years in the making.
It all culminated in those famous scenes in Dr Hyde Park, Roscommon, with Declan Darcy lifting the Nestor Cup alongside 95-year-old Tom Gannon, the captain and last man standing from 1927, who went to his eternal reward in 1998. The photograph of the two captains has become a much-loved image in the GAA's iconography.
Post-interview, Kenny a few days later fleshed out his memories of the game's final moments in an email.
"The last seven or eight minutes had been very nervy. At one stage we were coasting then all of a sudden Mayo were within two points. I remember thinking, if we blow this we'll never forgive ourselves. But we had lost momentum. Barney (Breen, Ballinamore) had come on as a sub and won a free for us towards the end. As Rooney (Aidan, Manorhamilton) lined up the free, I made my way to the ref, Mick Curley, and asked how long was left. 'This is the last kick.' I raised my arms, partly in celebration and partly to make sure that he wouldn't renege on (what he said) and if the ball hit the post or something, he wouldn't give Mayo one last attack. He didn't, the free went wide and he blew the whistle.
"I shook hands with my marker, he wanted to swap jerseys but I wasn't giving away this one. I didn't get near any of the lads, the crowd just descended in seconds and we were swept along towards the podium. Somehow in the mayhem I met Johnno (O'Mahony, manager). I remember hugging him and thanking him. He was saying 'It was ye who won it, not me.' The stewards had made a semi-circle around the podium trying to hold back the crowds and they weren't letting me inside because in the crush they couldn't see that I was togged out. One by one we all got inside the cordon, hugging. Tom Gannon was up on the podium with Darcy. The mic Darcy was using was dodgy and went on and off. God knows what he said but at that stage nobody cared.
"Later I met my father (Leo, RIP) outside the dressing rooms down by the main gate. He was on Cloud 9. After we had togged in we went into the Hyde Centre for tea, sandwiches, drink I think if you wanted it. It was unbelievably subdued there after everything. We just sat around chatting as if it was after a challenge match."
That was then. Twenty-five years later, this is now: the lads supping slow pints on a sofa and trying to put the reins on a galloping horse of memories, thoughts and emotions.
Pádraig: I suppose the photo has that fairytale-ending look, but getting to that point was no fairytale. When the final whistle blew in that match, yes there was a great sense of accomplishment, but an even bigger feeling of relief. Like, I know how completely insignificant winning one provincial title looks from a distance. I know that in the world of sporting achievement you wouldn't give it a second glance, but for us it was everything.
Willie: It's obviously not a thing you'd be thinking about all the time. At the time we wouldn't have fully appreciated the history of it so much but now as the years have rolled on, we are more aware of the significance of the achievement, especially when it hasn't been done (since) or doesn't look like any way near being done either.
Pádraig: I just find myself, as I get older, you'd be thinking about other games where you could have won or maybe days when you didn't play well. But, the fact that you won it, kind of just leaves you more content about it. I don't have to think about it, it's not something that's niggling at me, I think a bit more about the other ones that escaped us, you know?
Willie: Yeah, when we do meet up, the one we talk about more is the one we didn't win - 1995.
Pat: 1995 is still a bit raw, isn't it?
It was the Connacht semi-final and Leitrim had been leading by two points with less than five minutes to play. They'd dominated most of the second half but couldn't convert possession into enough scores on the board. Late points by Jarlath Fallon, Seán Óg de Paor and an injury time free from Niall Finnegan got Galway out of Carrick-on-Shannon with the spoils. They beat Mayo easily in the provincial final. The championship was still straight knock-out in those days; Leitrim's reign as Connacht champions was over.
Willie: There was devastation on the day that we let that one slip.
Pat: I remember Johnny (O'Mahony) crying in the dressing room after the game. When I looked over and saw that, I knew then . . . There was a bigger picture in Johnny's head, he knows we've left something bigger behind us that day.
If 1995 remains a "raw" memory, then how much more raw would their memories be if there hadn't been '94? The fact is that they'd been knocking on the door since 1990 and as the setbacks mounted with each passing season, there was the very real prospect that they would never make the history they coveted. They had no tradition of success to inherit; they had to learn how to win by themselves; they had to build their own confidence from scratch. It seemed that every lesson had to be learned the hard way. The process was painful and littered with disappointments. There was never any guarantee that they wouldn't become just another hard-luck story in a county where hard-luck stories were ten a penny.
The revival began with the appointment as manager of the redoubtable PJ Carroll in 1989. The Cavan man made an immediate impact. Leitrim won promotion out of Division 3 (North) at the end of the 1989/'90 national league. Then came the first of many gut-wrenching defeats.
Pádraig: We took on Roscommon in the Connacht semi-final (of 1990) as rank outsiders, but coming down the home straight we were leading. They got a late goal and we collapsed.
Pat: Then the 1990/'91 league, we won our first five games and then we had two games to see it out (get promotion to Division 1). We played Derry in Carrick-on-Shannon and RTÉ were down and all . . .
Pádraig: We suddenly had a high profile in the media, thousands were coming to the matches and PJ Carroll was God! We just needed to win one more of our two remaining games to reach Division 1, which would have been unimaginable a couple of years before that. We were at home to Derry and thousands turned up for our coronation, we ended up kicking 17 or 18 wides and losing to a Derry team that started without a number of their key players.
Willie: And they were actually apologising to us afterwards.
Pádraig: (We ended up) in a play-off with Kildare, we played them in Navan on Easter Sunday and (they) beat us well in the end. Like, we'd promised so much but delivered nothing. Not getting to Division 1 went hard on me now; it would have been fantastic to spend even one year up there playing the Dublins and the Kerrys.
Pat: We didn't deal with setbacks well in games, I think.
Pádraig: But we still headed into the 1991 championship with some confidence, we beat Sligo and had Roscommon in the semi and the build-up to the match was huge after our run in Division 2 and our clash the year before. But we didn't perform, they had the extra touch of class up front and deservedly won.
Pat: Roscommon in '92 then, we were four or five points up (in Hyde Park) and it was the first year I felt on the field that the Roscommon supporters felt that, 'Leitrim are going to win this game today'. But we left a few real good chances behind us and then it just took an innocuous free (from) way out on the wing and it went straight into the net. And from playing really good football and controlling the game, suddenly a mistake like that, the team felt it, the supporters felt it, and we ended up losing by five points.
Pádraig: And I suppose it was just the hallmark of a team that couldn't close out (games) or didn't believe in themselves. And that could have been our legacy: that we couldn't get the deal done, that we had a good team but never actually achieved anything.
At this point in the conversation, Donohoe suddenly recalls a story that probably tells a lot about the physical and mental strength that is needed for hardcore championship football. And the nonchalant ruthlessness that is taken for granted too. The point of his story is that if they were learning the hard way, they were still learning. And the lesson was simple enough: this was no place for weakness or innocence.
Pat: I remember Willie, in 1990, Des Newton giving you a hard time in Hyde Park, physically. And some night after that, we were having a few pints and the next day you were hungover and down in yourself and your father said to you: he didn't want to see you back on a field unless your attitude was right and you were physically and mentally ready.
Willie: Yeah, 'You need to sort yourself out, sonny'!
Pat: He didn't want to be looking in and seeing his son getting bullied round a field. And that resonated with me too, that your parents are in the stand looking in and if you're having a bad spell in a game, they must be (feeling it worse).
Willie: Yeah, I just wasn't at the pitch of it, mentally or physically. He was your typical corner back, big man and a right hard nut, and I just got a rude awakening of what inter-county championship football was about. I'm not complaining about it but me father (Tommy, RIP) was desperately disappointed that I didn't do anything about it on the day - and even worse, hadn't the wherewithal to do anything about it. And it was only when he said that, that the penny dropped. Like, 'You really need to sort yourself out or forget about it.' So I started to knuckle down. Went training in the Phoenix Park with Murray (Brian, Donegal), Jack Sheedy (Dublin) and Ashley O'Sullivan (Wicklow). They used to do the Magazine run (the old Magazine Fort), up and down the slopes, sit-ups, press-ups, more hill work; circuits of running followed by more press-ups, sit-ups, back over the circuit again.
And this was extra training, supplementary to what ye were doing with your own teams?
Willie: This was extra work that they were doing on their rest days. And they were so far ahead of me in terms of strength and physical fitness. But I did months of it with them, in fact a couple of years of that, and it helped me no end.
Pat: So then in 1992 . . .
Willie: Playing Roscommon again, marking Des again, in the Hyde again. And I got this ball and headed straight for goal and at the last second he comes for the tackle, I just flick the ball off and kept going for Des and whatever way I met him - I met him with a shoulder down the front and I could feel him lifting off me shoulder. And down he went and he was out cold. As he was lying there I leaned down to him and said, 'Ya weren't fit for that ya fucker ya.'
Newton reportedly ended up with concussion and a broken jaw.
Willie: And he played on! (That'll) give you an idea how tough he was. But that was in my head for two years, the shit that I got (in 1990). And that kinda put that to bed.
But still, they lost again, and Kenny headed to Chicago for the summer.
Pádraig: And I'll always remember, my father rang me one Sunday and told me Clare had beaten Kerry (in the Munster final) and jeez, I nearly had to sit down. And it suddenly wiped away all excuses that we ever had, that we couldn't win a Connacht title. After that I said, 'This is it, we have no excuses, we either do it or we don't'.
In the autumn of 1992 Carroll was replaced by John O'Mahony. If Carroll had put in the foundations, the new man took the project to a whole different level.
Pat: From our very first meeting with him, down in the Longford Arms Hotel, he did something that hadn't been done with us before. He had Ollie Honeyman with him, who'd been a legend of Leitrim football, he had Joe Reynolds, the same. I think Frank Darcy (father of Declan) was maybe with him that evening as well. He'd surrounded himself with good people but when he sat up at that table and talked about a vision, and going on a journey together, as he spoke, you believed what he was saying. We knew we had a man managing us who was really, really top drawer. We knew that he was going to up the standard of everything we did.
Willie: And he absolutely did create the essence of what a team is. And every function he carried out was geared towards the team.
Pádraig: The training under PJ was severe, he flogged us, but then when Johnno came in it got worse again, constant 400 and 800 metre repetitions, it was ultra-competitive and there was no sympathy for slackers.
Pat: And he brought us up to Strandhill (Sligo) as well for running the sand dunes. It was torturous training.
Pádraig: Slogging up these nearly vertical sand dunes.
Pat: These massive sand hills, and he'd have a cone at the top and a cone at the bottom, cone at the top, cone at the bottom, zigzagging up and down, up and down. It was absolute torture, you'd be thinking about it all day before you'd go training that evening. You'd be dreading it all day.
Willie: And a few nights the weather was so bad that when you'd get to the top of the dune, Johnno would tell us to get into a huddle for a bit of shelter - and he wasn't into sheltering you that much - but for a bit of protection from the wind and the torrential rain and the sand up your arse and the whole lot. Pat: We did a lot of hard training in Kells as well (with the Dublin-based players) and on the beach in Sandymount.
Willie: But Strandhill was the torture chamber. Except for Noel Moran (Drumshanbo), he could fly up them dunes.
Pádraig: Ah he was on a different level to the rest of us, he had an outrageous engine.
It was a closely-guarded secret at the time, but O'Mahony had also recruited a specialist, a Scotsman named Bill Cogan, to work on the psychological side of the equation.
Pádraig: He wasn't technically a sports psychologist, he was one of these guys who'd go into businesses and kinda kick them into shape. We used to meet him regularly.
Pat: We met him a lot, he'd meet us sometimes after training sessions in Páirc Seán (MacDiarmada, Carrick-on-Shannon). We'd go back into the Bush Hotel, there'd be a team meeting and at the end of it then, Bill would talk to us as a group: positive thinking, putting negatives to the back of your mind, always the next game, the next ball. And then he'd have private one-on-ones with you.
Willie: Which most players availed of.
And how did ye find him?
Willie: Very good.
Pat: I found him tremendous.
Pádraig: He had an aura about him. He wasn't just your average guy.
Pat: Stuff like how to control your nervous energy before a big game.
Willie: The noise.
Pat: And dealing with setbacks. If a ball ends up in the net, it's no big deal, it's absolutely no big deal.
Willie: Calmness, complete calmness all round.
The new regime scored its first big win in May '93 when Leitrim beat Galway in Connacht for the first time since 1949 - and away from home as well. Galway led by four, ten minutes into the second half; Leitrim responded with six points without reply. Ja Fallon equalised for Galway with a minute to go.
Willie: And I remember distinctly while that ball was in flight, McHugh (Martin, Aughnasheelin, goalkeeper) was already scurrying around his post to get a ball, put it down and get the kick-out (going). And I will never forget that image. He lashes it out the field, knowing that some Leitrim player is going to win it. Pat wins it, shifts it to Rooney and . . .
Pat: And Rooney stuck it over the bar left foot from 40 yards out.
Willie: And the conviction of that score just said everything about Johnno and Bill. Another time, we'd have slowed that game down and (here) we are going for the winner in Tuam.
Pat: Let's fuckin' do it today.
Pádraig: That was our first decent scalp in the championship and it was some feeling. During the late '50s Galway had beaten us in four Connacht finals on the trot and (we) lost to them in a couple of close games in the '80s. There seemed to be an innate acceptance in the county that we could never beat them so it felt like we achieved something incredible when we beat them on their home patch. And it also felt that we had finally learned how to win tight, important matches.
And what did they do next? They went out and lost to the Rossies, again, in the semi-final four weeks later.
Pádraig: Carrick was heaving, the new dawn had finally arrived and we lost by two points. That was four years on the trot we had lost to our nearest and dearest neighbours. Every time we put our heads above the parapet they just shot us down. It was a tough one to swallow, it looked like we would be a team of false dawns.
Tell us about the fella you met in Dublin?
Pádraig: We were all up in Dublin for Paddy's Day and this Leitrim supporter comes up to Joey (Honeyman, Ballinamore) and says to him, "Are ye fellas training at all?" You know?! We were killing ourselves! And this guy comes up and says that! So, I knew that if we never won a Connacht championship, it was all irrelevant. I knew that if we were climbing Everest twice a week it would all be dismissed if we didn't win Connacht. That's how we'd be defined as individuals and as a team. And I know it sounds completely irrational and pathetic now, but I believed at the time that my life would be meaningless if I couldn't win a Connacht title. Pure madness, when I look back on it, but we were all desperate for the same thing. I'd have done anything. It's easy to understand how religious cults form - I'd have been ripe for some religious cult to brainwash me at the time!
In 1994 they finally got the Roscommon monkey off their back, winning 1-10 to 0-12 in the quarter-final. They drew with Galway in Carrick-on-Shannon.
Pat: We weren't at our best that day. Galway went into the lead in the last minute.
Willie: I was having a shit game and I came out for a ball and was dispossessed. I was sloppy with it and that was going to be the crucial turnover. And Pádraig McLoughlin (Aughavas) had come on and his tackling was really . . . and in a flash he'd made him (the Galway player) over-carry. Talk about getting me out of jail. What a sigh of relief. Every time I see him I want to buy him a drink!
Pat: Declan kicked the equaliser.
Willie: From 40 yards out, off the ground, last kick of the game.
Pádraig: When I think of the disappointment of '95, I often look back at that moment and think, 'This could have gone altogether.' I mean it's swings and roundabouts and we got that call that day.
Pat: And the replay in Tuam, last 15 minutes of that game I was out on my feet, it was relentless. You (Willie) scored a tremendous point, Dugdale (George, Mohill) kicked some great points, but it was tit-for-tat the whole way. We won it by a point.
Pádraig: Yeah, another cliffhanger.
Pat: Seamie Quinn (Gortletteragh, full-back, All Star in '94) was just outstanding that day.
Pádraig: That day in Tuam, he repelled everything.
Pat: He was unbelievable.
How good was Quinn?
Willie: You could name Darren Fay (Meath), any of the great ones, he was up there with them.
Pat: Dominant in the air and he was quick over the ground too.
Two weeks later they were champions: Leitrim 0-12 Mayo 2-04. If it still rankles that they didn't put two titles back to back, they take comfort in the fact that the one they did take was probably the hardest Connacht title ever won.
Pat: Yeah, it means a lot. It's very satisfying. No one can turn around and say to us that you got a handy draw. There was nothing lucky about it and that is very satisfying. I'm really glad that when we did win it, we took out them three teams.
Pádraig: There was a great sense of completion of a journey. After the years of trying and frustration, to actually get there and get over the line, it's just a sense of completion. Like, look at Mickey Quinn (Aughawillan, All Star in 1990), he was still playing at 34 and to be there on the field, to stick it out that long and to be able to physically compete at midfield, which he was, more than able, it was an incredible personal achievement for him.
Pat: He was a leader, we had a lot of leaders. Declan Darcy (Aughawillan) was a tremendous captain.
Pádraig: He was.
Would they have done it without O'Mahony at the helm - could they have done it without him?
Willie: No way.
Pádraig: No, I don't think so.
Willie: With Johnno it wasn't one big moment, it was a thousand little things. Everything was just created meticulously, methodically, structured.
Pádraig: Johnny didn't say one thing and do another. He lived it. And he had us all one unit: the county board, the (team) management and the players.
Pat: The county board were really important too. Every one of them bought into it. Tommy Moran (secretary), with his humour and support, he was an absolute figurehead from start to finish, and a very capable man too.
Pádraig: And Tony McGowan (chairman, RIP). Tony was a believer through thick and thin.
Willie: He was a genuine man, Tony.
Pat: Declan Loftus (the team doctor).
Pádraig: My future father in law!
Pat: We never wanted for anything.
Willie: You were given the best.
Pat: Treated the best. All the (training) gear, the clothes, he (O'Mahony) wanted us dressed like winners.
Willie: Hotels, restaurants . . .
Pat: The coaches we travelled on, they had to be top notch. The sponsors, the McGovern brothers (of Aughavas), Jimmy O'Connor (RIP, owner of Jimmy's bar and restaurant in Dromod). Going to New York (on the team holiday), he actually gave us a hundred pounds each.
In his never-ending quest to leave no stone unturned, O'Mahony produced another rabbit from his hat along the way. Friends with Tommie Gorman, the RTE correspondent, he commissioned the broadcaster to produce occasional video packages for big pre-match meetings. These were slick highlights reels that stitched together inspirational Leitrim scores with equally inspirational music.
Pádraig: Tina Turner, 'Dreams' by The Cranberries, everything was positivity, positive reinforcement. O'Mahony got a consistency of language from everyone. There was no 'If we win on Sunday', he would say, 'When we win on Sunday.' Consistency of language. If you said 'if', God help you.
In the hours and days after bringing home the cup, night became morning and morning became night.
Pádraig: The tour (of the county) was the next day (the Monday). Sure we got on the bus about 12 (noon) and didn't get off it till about three or four the next morning. Tony insisted that this was a win for the county and that we'd visit every parish in the county and we duly did.
Pat: On Monday morning I went into McGoldrick's (Paddy's Bar, Carrick) and it was absolutely buzzing. Shannonside (Radio) were in (broadcasting live) and the place was full of happy faces. And the night before, I came back to Ballinamore and it was nearly five o'clock in the morning and Gay's here was packed. And I was thinking to myself, jeez it's very late to be going into a pub! But a big roar (went up) when you went in, it just went straight to your heart.
Pádraig: That was the last stop on the tour. And at some stage myself and Noel Moran decided to head for home. We started hitching to Drumshanbo! And the fella who picked us up was going to work so he dropped us back at Jimmy's of Dromod. The match was being replayed on TV. We were back training in Kells on Wednesday night, party over.
Pat: Times have changed, those were the best of times.
Pádraig: It was a fantastic time.
Pat: And we're all still alive.
Willie: To tell the tale.
Pat: And the bond is forever.
They are all agreed on that. They enjoy each other's company. Around Leitrim they have become known as 'The '94s'. A group of them meets up for the crack every Christmas.
Willie: And we had some crack along the way too.
Pádraig: I remember that first meeting with Bill in the Bush (at the start of the '92/93 season). We all walked into this room and there was loads of chairs set out and there was Bill standing up with one of these flip charts and on it he had written: 'Welcome Leitrim, Connacht champions 1993'. And obviously that didn't work out. And then the following year we were back in the same room again and there was the flip chart and, 'Welcome Leitrim, Connacht champions 1994'. And Joey turns round and whispers to me, "That's the two in a row!"
In the end they had to make do with the one in a row.
Pádraig: But if we hadn't won it at some stage, it would probably still haunt me to some degree. The fact that we did, just gives me peace of mind. All our failures were washed away with that win. Everything that had happened before, now had meaning.
And it has meaning still.