Monday 14 October 2019

'The first two finals were there for the taking. After that, it became a stigma'

Will Slattery on the story of Clann na Gael’s decade of All-Ireland club final heartbreak on St Patrick’s Day

Clann na Gael’s Owen on McManus is challenged by Brian Fitzpatrick of Baltinglass during the 1990 All-Ireland club final, a defeat which weighed heavily on the Roscommon men. Photo: Sportsfile
Clann na Gael’s Owen on McManus is challenged by Brian Fitzpatrick of Baltinglass during the 1990 All-Ireland club final, a defeat which weighed heavily on the Roscommon men. Photo: Sportsfile
Will Slattery

Will Slattery

For 99.7 per cent 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.

Former All-Star Tony McManus remembers their five near-misses every year when St Patrick’s Day rolls around Photo: Ray McManus / Sportsfile
Former All-Star Tony McManus remembers their five near-misses every year when St Patrick’s Day rolls around Photo: Ray McManus / Sportsfile

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 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 arrive 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."

Fitzpatrick lifts the Andy Merrigan Cup at Croke Park. Picture: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE
Fitzpatrick lifts the Andy Merrigan Cup at Croke Park. Picture: Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

At least one of them. Sometimes when a team gets so close over a period of time and falls short, it's easy to suggest that the players would do anything for just one winner's 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.

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Robbed 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.

"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."

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 on - 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. "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. 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 victory ever could.

In 1990, 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. They were favourites. They had paid their dues. But deep down, the defeats had seeped into their psyche.

"By the last year, 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. 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.

"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 Connacht crowns proved elusive.

"You don't have a medal but the memories last forever. It doesn't leave scars afterwards," McManus concludes. "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."

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