Saturday 24 August 2019

Dermot Crowe: 'Plunkett Donaghy's passion for Tyrone burns brighter than ever'

Plunkett Donaghy is upbeat about Tyrone’s chances against Kerry today. Photo: Conor McCaughley
Plunkett Donaghy is upbeat about Tyrone’s chances against Kerry today. Photo: Conor McCaughley

Dermot Crowe

There was no mistaking Plunkett Donaghy in his pomp. If only for the name alone. But then there was the football, for which he attained an All Star distinction, with his central role in Tyrone's re-emergence in the 1980s. And that's before we get to the hair.

When Tyrone began to enjoy increased prosperity and inflated profile, Donaghy became a familiar sight in the thick of battle with the conspicuous blond thatch. Before Tyrone began to win All-Irelands there was no more identifiable Red Hand figure than the midfielder from the Moy.

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In 1986 he went to Croke Park for Tyrone's first ever All-Ireland final appearance to mark the already legendary Jack O'Shea. They faced an empire: a county aiming for its 30th win, its third in a row and eighth in 12 seasons. They had planned meticulously for every conceivable scenario except the one which visited them shortly after half-time when a goal from Paudge Quinn and a point from a penalty by Kevin McCabe opened up a seven-point lead.

You didn't anticipate that? Donaghy is asked.

"No, sure how could you?"

They were well prepared and yet unavoidably new and naive. But the foundations they helped lay, the hours spent on the training field, the disappointments suffered, all created a legacy which carried enough hope on to the next generation - the one which would break down all the barriers and bring Sam to Donaghy's homeplace three times over.

When there's bread on the table it's easy to forget when everyone was hungry. When Donaghy won his second Ulster medal in 1986, it was only the fifth time Tyrone had conquered the province. His own father, Pat, was on the team that won the first two titles in 1956 and '57, and his father-in-law, Dessie Ryan, the highly regarded Sigerson coach, was also part of that successful pioneering era. Tyrone might not have been successful for a long time but football was in the blood and in the conversations that filled his ears during childhood.

"The father was a great man for talking football in the pub," he says. "Eugene McKenna said one time, 'Is there anything else your da can talk about only football?' But he loved talking football. In '86 (ahead of the All-Ireland final) Paddy Downey came up from The Irish Times. Of course him and my dad had to go and drink some whisky. The two of them went to this wee bar down here, PB's, so one story followed another. He knew lots of stuff back to the '50s, the Gunner Brady and the great Cavan team - all those stories.

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"But there was nothing else. When I was young my uncles would come to my da's place and they'd play 25 (cards) and I'd keep the (bedroom) door open, because you'd all be put to bed. Then they'd start to say the Rosary. They'd play 25, but the whole conversation was football. I got to know Gunner Brady and all these fellas. Victor Sherlock. You got to know these things. That is what the whole talk was."

Donaghy has six children and a successful construction company that concentrates on small projects. His son, Steve, was on the Tyrone minor team beaten by Kerry in the All-Ireland quarter-final this year. If that is not a huge surprise given the lineage, then his father didn't place any pressure on him to follow that path. But football travels bring him into contact with people who remember him and they revive memories of the past.

When in Tullamore supporting his son for that minor game two weeks ago, he was telling an Offalyman that his last time playing there was for a Matt Connor benefit match the spring after the brilliant forward suffered the accident which ended his playing career. Donaghy started playing under Art McRory in 1983 and had his last match in the 1994 Ulster final defeat by Down, damaging cartilage in his knee which needed an operation and hastened his retirement. By then he was about to turn 34, and had a young family and a business which needed a big time and labour commitment. He was the only remaining survivor from the 1986 team that reached the All-Ireland final. Asked back in '95, he declined. The county went on to reach another All-Ireland final, losing to Dublin, but he had no regrets.

Football didn't open the doors it opens now, but it was still a way of seeing the world, with tours of Canada, America and Australia, Donaghy being part of the 1986 international rules trip with Kevin Heffernan in charge. They were away for a month and won the series under the captaincy of Jack O'Shea.

Damien O'Hagan was the only other Tyrone player on the tour. "There was an awful lot of social stuff," says Donaghy. "There would be certain people picked to go to different functions almost every night. Of course Kevin Heffernan had spies to see who'd come in late at night time and stuff.

"Mick Lyons and Paudie Lyons and them boys were all good crack, we would all knock about together. But they got to know who was spying; Peadar O'Brien (a journalist with The Irish Press) was reporting the lads coming in. So we got him this night, he had the clothes and all on, and threw him into the swimming pool, like. That was the end of that."

In the context of the grim Ireland of the 1980s, a month-long adventure in Australia was bound to leave lasting memories. "See after the matches?" he says, "it was unbelievable. You had pink Champagne. I'd never seen pink Champagne. There was plenty of money floating about."

Before he left for Australia some locals helped organise a music night with country stars like Philomela Begley and Susan McCann which earned him a tidy sum of disposable income ("1,400 or 1,500 pound") which went with the allowance each player received as part of their selection on the Irish panel.

Donaghy's most pervasive managerial influence was undoubtedly Art McRory, which went back to St Pat's in Dungannon and continued through most of his county career. But he also had a flavour of Heffernan in Australia and the kind of man he was.

"He was very, very strict. Heffernan was very strict. And if he wanted to have words with you, you were to meet him one-to-one. He had all the one-to-one stuff done before he announced the teams. He wanted you to put your neck on the line. He was intense. He'd want to ask you questions like, 'are you going to do this?' And you'd say, 'well, I am gong to give it my best shot'. But your best shot wasn't good enough."

Donaghy is delighted with Tyrone's progress since he retired from inter-county football 25 years ago. He has seen huge changes in every aspect of Tyrone's preparation to the point where it became a model for others to copy. "We have Club Tyrone now, a lot of us pay into Club Tyrone, it's great to see but when we went to our first All-Ireland semi-final, 1984, we didn't have a sponsor. I can remember going to Omagh to a function a week before that match and the players were selling tickets. You wouldn't be allowed go now."

After being beaten by Derry on the first day out in early June 1985 he went to America for the summer and thought about staying on. Instead he was lured back by the knowledge that if Tyrone won Ulster the following summer they'd have the Connacht champions in the All-Ireland semi-final and better prospects. It all went to plan: they won Ulster, with Donaghy scoring a highly controversial goal in the final - the Down 'keeper deemed by an umpire to have caught the midfielder's punt behind his line. In the semi-final they overcame Galway by three points, creating a new chapter of history.

"For us, it was a great experience to get there," he recalls. "Plus the fact you were breaking the ice to get through a semi-final, because we had never won a semi-final. We'd only been there in 1956, '57, '73 and '84. So that's only four visits to Croke Park. It was a big breakthrough for the county. And then after '86 things started to blossom here, the Troubles and all started easing up a bit, and with the football a lot of people got involved and it became a trendy thing up here.

"Frank McGuigan coming back from the US was a massive boost to us - the players were very supportive of the idea. When we knew Art was getting him back that was the start of us thinking of going down to Dublin to take on the likes of Kerry and Dublin."

Having reached the All-Ireland final in '86 their form collapsed the following year, as they struggled past Antrim in a replay and then were beaten by four goals by Armagh. They won Ulster again in '89, before losing to Mayo in the semi-final, and then failed to win another championship match until '94.

"You take your sports serious," he says, "you train hard and you play hard but it's not life or death. You get up (after losing) and you give yourself a shake. You still have to go to work on Monday."

One of the national newspaper match reports from the '86 All-Ireland final described Donaghy's display as "towering" although he was deemed partially culpable for the goal from Mikey Sheehy which brought Kerry level during their second-half comeback. He fielded a ball before being dispossessed by Ger Power whose kick found Sheehy lurking behind the Tyrone cover. He makes the point that Power may have been pulled for a foul another day; replays show he has some justification in saying it. But it is not an issue which torments him.

"There was a seriously strong breeze blowing down the pitch (with Tyrone in the first half), people didn't realise it. It was a bit like the day we played Derry in the 1992 National League final. People didn't realise the speed of the wind. See the goal that (Anthony) Tohill got that I went to catch? The ball was going four times faster than it normally would."

That goal, when Tohill's 45 went through his hands and deceived the unsighted goalkeeper behind him, brought Derry level. At the time Donaghy's county was closing in on its first ever national title. He explains how the ball sways on windy days in Croke Park, potentially changing altitude at the last second when a player is attempting to read its flight. "I remember going for one with Jack O'Shea, it was probably one of the best catches I ever had. In the early stages a ball came out under the Cusack Stand and I was behind him getting ready to punch it. But whenever I went up in the air the ball took on a wee lift and I stayed up and caught it. But it was only because the wind lifted it and he missed it. Everyone thought it was a great catch but it wasn't."

When Donaghy finished with the county after '94 he returned to serve as player-manager with his club for a year. It wasn't something, he found, that suited him. "It's not easy to tell somebody you know this game is not going to suit you today," he says. "You are going to make enemies."

You disliked it because of that aspect? "That was one of the aspects. Another was that I wouldn't have minded getting away to do a bit of fishing. And I wouldn't have minded getting away for an odd weekend. And I wouldn't have minded going out and playing a game of golf. So I wanted to try that for a while to see was I really going to miss the football. Because if you are in the football, especially here in Tyrone, it's very tight. There's a lot of good teams in it. And you don't have a life outside of it. I was looking forward to a wee bit of that life outside of it."

Donaghy is upbeat about Tyrone's prospects today. Tyrone shook off any hang-ups about Kerry with a landmark All-Ireland semi-final win in 2003, leading to their breakthrough All-Ireland the following month. In 2005 and '08 they defeated Kerry in All-Ireland finals. History and custom turned on its head. Kerry, being Kerry, still command respect. But they don't incite any fears. "I think the draw is perfect," says Donaghy. "We wouldn't have a great record against Mayo or Dublin. I think the team can handle Kerry. I don't think Kerry are the finished article yet."

The logistics of the journey south have changed since his playing days, with an open border and the towns that slowed you now by-passed on a fine stretch of motorway. Physically and psychologically the journey to Croke Park has been fundamentally altered. All that progress doesn't mean they don't have moments for pause and reflection. In May he was at the funeral of Fr Sean Hegarty, a native of Blackwatertown in Armagh, once described as the "mighty atom" by Michael O'Hehir. At the funeral Donaghy met a number of former Armagh players like Jimmy Smyth, Joe Kernan and Paddy Moriarty. They shared a story about Fr Hegarty from the time he was managing his native county.

"He was a wee character," says Donaghy, "he was like Sherlock Holmes, with the wee black cap, sidelocks, he was only this height (he holds out his hand not more much more than five feet off the floor). In 1984 after the Ulster final he came into our dressing room to congratulate the Tyrone team and he was starting with his team talk over at the door. Course nobody could hear him, and our full-back Ciaran McGarvey came in, 6' 4", and he went over and lifted him up on to the table. And at that stage he was the same eye level as Ciaran."

On the day they laid Fr Sean to rest this was one of the stories that came to mind and brought it all back to life again. The memory of the skyscraping McGarvey lifting the diminutive opposing manager and priest clean off his feet and placing him on the table so everyone could see and hear him. When we have finished talking he takes me to a room in his home where the football photographs are placed proudly on the walls. There is one of his father from an American tour in the late 1950s. A powerful man in his prime, he died in 1991 from cancer at just 61. Donaghy's mother, Maisie, a famous ballad singer whose stage name was Eileen Donaghy, and who toured all over Ireland and different parts of the world, died in 2008. Her nephew Sean McNally played in the '86 final.

Football gave Plunkett Donaghy the best years of his life, he freely admits, and what he gave football is for others to judge.

Before we finish I read him a letter. It is from the Strabane Chronicle, published in 1993 after Tyrone lost to Armagh. By then Tyrone were on a long losing streak and Donaghy was getting no younger. Down had won the All-Ireland in '91, Donegal the following year. Derry would win in '93. Tyrone were after losing their first match for the fourth successive summer and were out of the championship. The letter writer, anonymous, professes admiration for Donaghy's actions immediately after the game.

"On Sunday last, after the close encounter with Armagh in the Ulster Championship, one could have forgiven Tyrone captain, Plunkett Donaghy, if he had made his way off the field as quietly as possible to reflect on how his inspirational leadership had failed to get his county past the first round of the Championship for yet another year.

"Whilst others made their way off the pitch, it was for this writer an inspiring sight to see an obviously crestfallen Tyrone captain, hiding his own disappointment, make his way to the sideline to where the handicapped sat in their wheelchairs to give a hug and a word of comfort to a tearful little Tyrone supporter proud to wear his county's colours, who could not believe that his heroes had lost a game they seemed destined to win.

"It is little incidents like this that, in my eyes, makes a person great, and I am sure in the heart of that little supporter Plunkett Donaghy will now be a giant amongst mere mortals who can forget for a moment the winning of Ulster or appearing in Croke Park just to comfort one who can only dream of such feats."

He is emotional hearing these words. Because amid all the laughter and tears there were days when people left different grounds singing the praises of Donaghy. That connection between the player and his people is as precious as it is eternal. Having heard the letter, he says: "I have a sister, Catherine, with Down syndrome. You don't think (in a moment like that). You just do whatever comes naturally."



Will this, on a rainy August weekend, mark the flowering of Kerry’s feted youngsters?

They face Tyrone, a team of greater experience and characteristic resilience. But Peter Keane’s side are seeking to demonstrate — like those fledglings back in 1975 — that they’re ready to make the step up and launch a new era of dizzy achievement for football’s most decorated county.

For all their exuberant talent, David Clifford and Seán O’Shea will be making their first appearances in an All-Ireland senior semi-final, as will a number of others. Kerry is a river about to burst its banks but the mystery is when that will be.

The shooting talent is there for all to see, with totals of 1-20 and above through the Super 8 and all the classic tell-tale marks of a Kerry forward line in their effortless movement and beautiful harmony. But the story at the back is more obtuse.

Even in Navan, against a feisty home team with nothing to play for but pride and a forward line dotted with young fellas, Kerry were in bother more than you’d expect a serious contender to be.

Can Tyrone make hay? The system they employ has undergone some changes, but it remains a counter-attacking creed. Cathal McShane has magnificently shouldered the majority of the scoring responsibility, with admirable assistance from Peter Harte.

Kerry remain unconvincing defensively and in an unsettled midfield. But the attack glistens with promise, even if conditions are not ideal for it to thrive.

Stephen O’Brien has recaptured his best form. Paul Geaney remains a serious threat and Killian Spillane, almost by stealth, racked up three points in each of the last two matches.

Tyrone have experience of last year’s final and this is their fifth appearance in a semi-final in the last seven seasons. For all of that their last win over a top-three county was in 2008, when they confirmed their supremacy over Kerry in the All-Ireland final, their third title of the decade. 

Kerry have already made progress on last year. With forwards like theirs they may well go a step further, but Tyrone can find a way and upset the odds.

Verdict: Tyrone

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