Sunday 24 March 2019

'It does leave a mark on St Patrick's Day' - The story behind one club's decade of All-Ireland final heartbreak

Former Clann na nGael star Tony McManus alongside the Andy Merrigan Cup.
Former Clann na nGael star Tony McManus alongside the Andy Merrigan Cup.
Will Slattery

Will Slattery

For 99.7% of the year, Tony McManus is able to leave the past in the past.

The Roscommon legend doesn't offer a backward glance for 364 days of the calendar, but then March 17 comes around and the memories hit him again like a blast of cold water to the face.

One final. Then another. Then another and another and another.

McManus can still remember the faces of friends and family, of neighbours and team-mates, who travelled to Croke Park year after year hoping that this time it would be different.

At first, it was disappointment. Then, it was anger. Finally, it was devastation.

Only Nemo Rangers and Crossmaglen have played in more All-Ireland club football finals than Clann na nGael. No other team has played in four deciders in-a-row, or won six consecutive provincial titles.

It's a fair achievement for a team in Roscommon to be in the mix on All-Ireland club football final day five times across eight years - as well as partaking in two more semi-finals - but coming away empty-handed each and every time on the biggest day is enough to turn anyone off our pre-eminent national holiday.

Even snakes don't associate St Patrick's Day with as much misery.

For McManus, who also lost an All-Ireland final against Kerry for Roscommon in 1980, memories of those five near-misses rear their head at this time every year.

"You wouldn't think about it too much but it does leave a mark on St Patrick’s Day," McManus says.

"Up until then, it doesn’t matter but on St Patrick’s Day you do think, 's**t, this hasn’t been a happy day for us'.

"The memories are bittersweet. We had great fun as a team and a parish. To get to five All-Ireland finals and four trips to Croke Park in-a-row is some feat. It’s bittersweet alright. We enjoyed our time but disappointed we didn’t come away with at least one of them."

At least one of them. Sometimes when a team gets so close over a period of time and falls short, it's easy to hyperbolically suggest that the players would do anything for just one winners' medal. But if you lose five finals, one hypothetical medal doesn't whitewash missing out on four others.

The frustrating thing for Clann na nGael is that they didn't discriminate during their run of prominence - they beat teams from Ulster, Munster and Leinster in All-Ireland semi-finals just as they lost to sides from all three provinces in Croke Park.

Portlaoise beat them by six in their inaugural final appearance in 1983 but McManus could live with the defeat, as Clann na nGael were a young side who had robbed St Gall's in a tight semi-final.

The 0-10 to 0-7 defeat to St Finbarr's in 1987 is one that still rankles, however, both for the opportunity that was squandered on the day and the nagging sense of self-doubt that it ingrained in the mind of the players, hibernating in the hippocampus year-round before annually emerging on a mid-March afternoon.

"The final against St Finbarr’s, we didn’t play near our capabilities," McManus says ruefully.

"If we had won that one, I think we would have gone on to win more. It was the one that hurt me. I didn’t play as good as I should have. I should have done better."

Such was their dominance in Roscommon at the time - they won ten county titles in 11 years between 1981 and 1991 - the players were able to gradually process the previous campaign's defeat before readying themselves for battle again later in the year. They didn't have to be at their peak early doors - if they had, it's unlikely they would have displayed such outstanding longevity in the first place.

1988 saw a final encounter with St Mary's Burren of Down, who had been All-Ireland champions two years earlier. When he looks back on that era, McManus singles out a win over St Mary's as his team's greatest triumph - unfortunately that was in a semi-final away from home the following year.

In Croke Park, Clann na nGael wilted in the second half and another chance at glory past them by like a stranger in the crowd.

"Against Burren, there was very little in it and we more than matched them," McManus says.

"Afterwards, I would have felt that we were the better side really. They had won a final before, which gave them an extra bit of confidence to kick on.

"We played well in the final against Burren. We played good football and we played well enough to win.

"The first two were there for the taking and after that it became a stigma."

After two close defeats, you suspect that the one team Clann na nGael didn't want to see in year three was the club kingpins. Nemo Rangers handed them a ten-point thrashing and to journey back from such a chastening defeat to contest one more final says more about the spirit in Clann na nGael than any single victory ever could.

In 1991, the players could feel it was their last stand. They didn't have perennial winners standing between them and a first Andy Merrigan Cup; the opposition was a game Baltinglass side.

The Wicklow outfit weren't world beaters, but the aura of defeat weighed heavily on McManus and his team-mates in the build-up to that final.

They were favourites. They had paid their dues. But deep down, the defeats had seeped into their psyche like damp running through the foundation of a house.

"By the last year, I think all the losses had finally got to us and that’s why we couldn’t kick on," McManus says.

"Against Baltinglass, there was probably a fear factor – 'here we go again'. We were favourites for that final but inwardly there must have been a fear factor because we had lost so many. Could we do it? In that final, we didn’t play anywhere like we should have played."

You could be forgiven for thinking that in the absence of social media and wall-to-wall 24/7 coverage, Clann na nGael's misfortune would have been an underreported oddity that only reared its head after their latest final mishap. McManus remembers it differently - he wasn't on the receiving end of nasty tweets reminding him of his side's final record, but the attention of whether or not Clann na nGael could get over the line became more and more of a distraction as the disappointments accumulated.

"We were getting plenty of media attention and it built up when it got to three losses in-a-row," he says.

"Then we were going for four in-a-row and that was a big thing at the time and it did get mentally draining. Here we are in so many finals and we weren’t winning them. Croke Park wasn’t a happy hunting ground for Clann na nGael."

The Baltinglass defeat was the full stop on their All-Ireland quest. Two more Roscommon titles followed but the subsequent Connacht crowns proved elusive.

McManus knew in his heart that the journey for an All-Ireland club medal had reached its conclusion, and to not be able to share the glory with his community broke his heart.

"After the first couple of losses there was still hope because we felt we could come back. After the Baltinglass game, it was devastation," he says.

"It really was a parish effort – the downhearted faces after the matches. I can still remember them. I remember all the hope and expectation going up on the train and then all the sad faces in Croke Park."

While St Patrick's Day may elicit a wince from McManus, he ultimately looks back on his days with Clann na nGael as a great adventure. His All-Ireland final appearance with Roscommon, however, which finished in a narrow three-point defeat to Kerry in 1980, is a game that doesn't require a national holiday to remind him of the hurt.

"The club finals were such a parish effort that they are special memories," McManus says.

"I look back on it as an achievement. Getting to four finals was magnificent and winning seven Connacht titles in-a-row was brilliant for a small club from Roscommon.

"You don’t have a medal but the memories last forever. It doesn’t leave scars afterwards.

"Losing in the 1980 All-Ireland final for Roscommon against Kerry left more of a scar than anything at club level. That left a scar that is still there."

Clann na nGael's All-Ireland club finals:

1983 - Portlaoise 0-12 Clann na nGael 2-0

1987 - St Finbarr's 0-10 Clann na nGael 0-7

1988 - St Mary's Burren 1-9 Clann na nGael 0-8

1989 - Nemo Rangers 1-3 Clann na nGael 1-3

1990 - Baltinglass 2-7 Clann na nGael 0-7

Online Editors

The Throw-In: Dublin's issues, Corofin's greatness and Waterford's quiet development

In association with Allianz

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport