Flashback: Donegal v Dublin, 1992 All Ireland final
By Cian O'Connell
“I remember walking down the famous hill in Clones after being hammered by Down in the 1991 Ulster final, and I was thinking to myself that we would probably never be involved at this stage again." Fourteen months later Martin McHugh’s life in Donegal had altered dramatically.
Patience and perseverance rewarded, Sam Maguire hoisted by Anthony Molloy, an All Ireland title safely secured: Donegal were perched on the summit of the Gaelic Football world.
McHugh left Croke Park charmed and contented. “There is no doubt, it was a really special day. Nobody expected us to win it, we were lucky in that going in as underdogs is a very good way to go into a match like that.
“We had come through a very bad semi-final, but one thing that was important for us was that we had no injuries that year. It really helped us.
“It was a special day for the county, I just remember in the aftermath of the game, on the pitch and even in the weeks after it that older Donegal people would say to me that they could die happy having witnessed the county winning an All Ireland. Those kind of things show what an All Ireland means to people.”
It was a painful defeat for Dublin, who were appearing in a first decider since 1985. “I suppose the Donegal game came in the middle of a very good period for Dublin football, we were strong around that time, but I feel it would be disingenuous saying we lost it against Donegal,” popular centre back Keith Barr recalls.
“What happens in these things, and I am not blaming the media, but the previous final Dublin had been in was 1985. So Dublin had gone the best part of a decade without being in a final so there is always that type of hype in the lead up.
“It was a very good Donegal side, they proved their worth. They came in under the radar, but they weren’t pot lucky.
“They were an experienced side with the likes of the two (Martin and James) McHughs, (Declan) Bonner, (Matt) Gallagher, (Anthony) Molloy, and (Brian) Murray. Donegal were very experienced, they were a battle hardened team.”
That is precisely what McHugh felt that was missed by many in the build-up, the fact that Donegal’s panel dripped with seasoned players under manager Brian McEniff. “We had played in the 1990 semi-final, we had contested the 89, 90, 91, and 92 Ulster finals,” McHugh commented.
“It was a great way to come into it as underdogs. Everybody was focused on Donegal having a good day out, and maybe Dublin even bought into the hype. We certainly felt no pressure and what I think people dismissed a bit at the time was that we were an experienced team. Most of our players had been around a long time.
“We had far more experience than people thought. Even though we hadn’t played in an All Ireland final, we had been involved in big matches.”
What dominated the conversations in Donegal, though, was ticket talk. Everybody in Donegal wanted to make the trip to the Jones Road venue. “The great thing about the All Ireland final was that everybody just wanted to talk about tickets,” McHugh chuckled. “In a weird way it took pressure off us, nobody was talking much to us about the actual match. Everybody was just focused on getting tickets.
“We came into Dublin the night before, some of the lads went to the dogs, while three or four of us visited a man from home that was in hospital called James Thomas McNulty. There was great banter in the hospital, Dublin people were there too, so we had a great time.
“It was all very relaxed, Donegal people always want to have a good day out, but even there I remember people talking about tickets. That really was what people were talking about.”
Twenty four years later Barr acknowledges that pride and honour was taken from how Dublin responded following cruel losses. There were plenty of matches that could have been won, but Dublin always came back. “We didn’t push on to win it, we were hot favourites no doubt about it,” Barr accepts. “Most of the team had been on the road for a while through 88, 89, 90, we then had the four Meath matches in 91, then we big matches like Donegal in 92, Derry in 93, Down in 94, and Tyrone in 95.
“On the day against Donegal we weren’t good enough, when you lose there are always reasons, when you win you forget about things. I suppose sport is all about opinions, but looking back it was a very good Dublin team with good players on it.
“People shouldn’t underestimate Donegal because they were very good. Coming into it we felt we had a good chance, we played in lots of big games at the time. We lost a semi-final to Cork in 89, then the Meath games in 91, Donegal in 92, Derry in 93, Down in 94 - the common denominator is that most of those teams went on to win the All Ireland. So any team that beat us was a serious team.
“We were very consistent, we were very resilient, the team was full of characters and leaders. What was great about the team was that we came back every time. All you have to do is look at that spell, we did bounce back.”
McHugh stresses the importance of how cool Donegal were dealing with the All Ireland final environment. “I played in the 1983 All Ireland semi-final and my main recollection was that the game was over before you knew it.
“In the final you are out on the pitch so early you’re able to soak up the atmosphere, and to sample the whole occasion. It was a different build up, and I enjoyed it. What I had found with my first semi-final was that it went by so quickly, I actually found the final easier.”
Barr reckons that ‘there wasn’t a person left in Donegal’ such was the explosion of joy when Declan Bonner drilled over the insurance score late on. “It was Donegal’s first ever win in an All Ireland, it was a great day with a huge crowd, the colour was phenomenal, there wasn’t a person left in Donegal,” Barr joked. “I don’t think most of them left Dublin for a week.
“The best thing about that period was to see different teams winning All Irelands. It was a great period for the GAA.”
Those involved for Dublin went on to make a significant sporting and coaching impact too according to Barr. “People from those Dublin teams have gone on to make a very valuable contribution to the GAA in Dublin. Jim Gavin, Pat Gilroy, Paul Curran, and Dessie Farrell have all been involved with victorious Dublin and club teams.”
In 2012 McHugh sat proudly in Croke Park watching his son, Mark, help reclaim Sam Maguire for Donegal. There had been tension and tough times in the intervening two decades, but Donegal’s second All Ireland certainly scratched an itch. “It is a harsh thing about sport, the fact that teams are always judged against successful teams from the past,” McHugh said about the issues subsequent Donegal outfits had to deal with.
“It puts pressure on players coming after, particularly in Donegal when we only had won one. It was great to get that second All Ireland.
“I was very fortunate to be associated with the next team with Mark being involved. Before that win the team that had won an All Ireland was nearly a burden on teams that followed in Donegal. That is why it was so great to win another one.” The journey for further success continues.