Donegal's hero of '92 still on a learning curve
Last November, a couple of months after turning 50, Manus Boyle went down to the local GAA ground in Killybegs to see his team play their final senior league game of the season against Milford. Learning that they had only 14 fit players, he skipped back home and picked up his gear. "We had to put out 15," he explains. "I didn't want the club to be fined or the game to be called off. I went in corner-forward."
Next September will mark the 25th anniversary of his most conspicuous late call-up, the one that has him written into All-Ireland legend. On the Tuesday before the 1992 All-Ireland final, he heard he was starting against Dublin, manager Brian McEniff tilting a 3-2 vote in his favour ahead of Tommy Ryan, who had finished top scorer in the Ulster Championship. That evening in the Grand Hotel in Malahide, Boyle received the RTé Man of the Match award, being quick to acknowledge Ryan, the man he deposed, in his acceptance speech.
Nine points, four from play, made Boyle's selection a masterstroke. It was the only match he started in the campaign apart from the first-round draw with Cavan, his opportunity emerging in the semi-final against Mayo. He went on seven minutes into the second half of a turgid match where Donegal's free-taking was just one of their shortcomings showcased. In retrospect, it could not have gone better. They had found their match-winner and given such a poor account of themselves that Dublin were left exposed to a hurricane of hype, widely perceived as champions-in-waiting.
Football still has a hold of Manus Boyle, who will travel to Ballybofey today to see Donegal and Dublin meet in the National League. Some of the players on parade weren't even born when he inspired Donegal's first All-Ireland win. Barry McGowan, corner-back that day and from the same club, will travel with him, a lifelong friend. The plan is to hook up with other members of the '92 team to explore how best to commemorate their silver jubilee.
This, he says, will be their last shot at it. In September they will be in Croke Park as guests of the GAA for the All-Ireland football final, where they will be introduced to the crowd as ritual dictates, the winning team from 25 years ago, led by Anthony Molloy. "Whoever turns up, we will sit down and talk about what we would like to do for the coming year," says Boyle. "About eight or ten of us met up at the Kerry (National League) game."
For 20 years Boyle has been running his own business, making goal nets. Last year he took a bold decision to take on a post-graduate course in Applied Health and Wellness Coaching. He spotted an advert for the course in a newspaper and something clicked. He went straight into work from school as a teenager, missing out on further education, and while his name is well-known, he finished playing county football in 1998. In recent years he has been writing a column in the Donegal Democrat.
Many of the Donegal team of '92 have ended up in management and coaching roles, several with county teams, but he has always been more interested in devoting his time to the club. Even still he might go down to the local field and join in one of their training sessions, being much fitter than most his age. Two years ago he was turning out for the reserves and scoring a winning point in the championship against Kilcar, and in 2010 he made a comeback as a bench option for the senior team - which reached the county final after an absence of 14 years.
But while football never held any fears for him he admits to feeling some trepidation about the prospect of pursuing a college education at this stage of his life. He speaks favourably of the GPA's career guidance services of which he has availed and which enabled him find a clearer understanding of himself and what truly motivates him. Maybe it will lead to something tangible, he's not sure, but he is enjoying the learning process.
"I have always been someone who worked manually all my life, I solved problems with my hands," as he puts it. "I might not be able to solve people's problems, but I might be able to help them help themselves. It is a different insight."
Through coaching and the personal relationships involved he has learned a lot over the years, and from his own time as player, when there was little in the way of counselling or formal services if someone needed help. There were times in his playing days, notably at a younger stage, when he would have gladly availed of greater support to see him through difficult times. During his time working with underage teams in the club he has gained a series of qualifications and is now a Level 2 accredited coach.
"I am not interested in taking on a county team," he says. "I had enough of that. I had a great time when I played football for Donegal. I was fortunate to have a 14-year career, and I never really had the appetite to go back to coaching at that level. Maybe someday I will. I took over the under-14 and under-16 teams for a few years. I enjoyed that. It's a good age to get involved in. It's funny, it's enjoyable, it is not too serious.
"I try to introduce different ways of training. I look at the senior game now, it is completely different to when I played it. I see how serious it is and how much of a commitment level is demanded. I just can't see the fun in it any more."
Coaching can't replace the experience of playing though, he accepts, recalling a chat with Jim McGuinness after Donegal won their second All-Ireland, 20 years after their first, in 2012.
"He said nothing beats playing. That's what you try and instil in players. This is the best it'll be. You have to enjoy it. You have to enjoy this and grab it. I know what it was like for me, from Killybegs, a soccer town, to get a chance to play for Donegal. I know what it was like that day I walked in for the first time. I loved playing for Donegal. I loved every part of it."
The local GAA ground, Eamon Byrne Memorial Park, is named after one of their players who died while playing for Killybegs in a senior league match in Ballyshannon in 1988.
"A horrific evening," recalls Boyle. "Out of that came our first county senior championship since 1952. Everybody kept everyone else going, we are a small community. We had 20 that came through the one time, we won minor, under-21, all that.
"Eamon Byrne was the oldest player on the team; we used to call him grandpa, even though he was only 32. He had a great way with him. I tell you the best way I could explain it was that he inspired us when he played, and he inspired us after he left. He is always in the forethoughts of all those players that were there that evening. We tried to put away the number seven jersey only the authorities they wouldn't allow it, but we wouldn't wear the number seven jersey for a long time. Football was our therapy. We also took the view that football wasn't everything. To me, it wasn't everything."
They gave Byrne the ideal tribute in winning the '88 county championship, the first of five county medals Boyle won during his career. "We wanted to do something to always remember him by. We had a fair bit of luck along the way, but we achieved it. But it was something, I suppose, that later in life you appreciate. As a group when we gathered together in 2013 for the silver jubilee for that team, everybody no matter where they were, they all came home for that on the day of the county final. Nobody missed that thing."
Boyle didn't get overwrought when selected for the All-Ireland final in spite of it being the county's first ever appearance in one. He had been Man of the Match in the 1987 All-Ireland under-21 final drawn game and replay when they defeated Kerry. In the earlier stages of the championship in '92 a quad muscle injury impaired his movement, limiting his appearances, and when he came back into the team he felt fresh and ready.
"I was in the room when Martin Shovlin said he could not play. The man was honest. When someone is honest like that and there for the group rather than for themselves, those are the moments you remember.
"McEniff would probably have figured after the Mayo game it was important we had a free-taker against Dublin. No point going out without a recognised free-taker. Sad thing is that Tommy Ryan had to give way. Without Tommy we would not have got there, so there were sacrifices for everybody."
Boyle's mother is from Ringsend in Dublin. She met his father, a fisherman and native of Rutland Island off Burtonport in Manchester, and they married and resettled in Killybegs where they reared their family. Asked about the All-Ireland final, and his role in it, Boyle immediately recalls an early goal chance which he missed, the ball striking the crossbar. Over the years he has joked that this was down to his shock at receiving a pass from Tony Boyle, his fellow inside forward.
"I was relaxed," he says. "But a lot of people will tell you I am like that anyway. The ball hopped for me. I think I had about 11 chances and I got nine of them and I think one in the second half was over the bar but ruled wide. You don't get those days that often. The fact that it came in an All-Ireland final, you'd just be grateful. It is humbling. You see what it meant to people. It is extremely humbling. We were at the Kerry match in Letterkenny (in this year's league) and a Derry man came over to me and talked about that day. And that was a Derry man."
It had the potential to radically alter a man's course. "Ah 'twas mad," he confesses. "You went back to work. You had to make a living. You could get carried away with it. You could have went and done many things."
When he finished in 1998 in the Ulster final defeat by Derry, Declan Bonner, the final scorer in the '92 final, was managing. The majority have had some say in management or coaching teams. His approach to coaching, whether the senior team in Killybegs he helped last year or the various juvenile sides, is to make it interesting and not be dictatorial.
"I don't like the roaring and shouting concept. I don't like the running 'round cones concept. I don't like the ringmaster, 'You do what I say' approach. That is not the vision I would have. But even what I have come to learn in the last six months from doing the course, it is very much about empowering people to take it on themselves, just it helps them along in a way that shows better respect and humility towards people. We see too much of a lack of it. I have gone to matches, at under-12 and under-14, where I see parents roaring at children.
"I can't be having it. I can't be at a county match when they start criticising our own players, I usually end up getting up and going to a quiet corner. Maybe it's because I was roared at enough myself.
"These are people doing their very best, for nothing. I will pin-point players who can't walk now, who have no job security because of that commitment, because of their early years playing football, because this was where we make our foundations for work, and there is a group of people who give up that because of a love of their county. It is totally unique.
"I have looked at the way Jim Gavin has been over the last three years, I totally respect how he does it. He doesn't roar and shout. He is not rearing up on linesmen handling the line. It is not life or death. It is a game of football. If people could learn from his approach I think the game would be better off. I don't know what he is like behind the scenes but I don't expect he is any different. But it is not about him. It is about the group."
On the weekend of GAA Congress, with rising discontent among club players who feel let down by the policy-makers, he has first-hand experience of how clubs have suffered in Donegal.
"We won the All-Ireland 25 years ago and the county board put us out in the county semi-final the week after, which was a crazy decision because there were so many players involved. It was just a crazy thing to do. And 20 years later what did they do? They did the exact same thing because there are no protocols in place by Croke Park to deal with this.
"I have two under-16s that are saying 'no' - they are playing soccer. I can't tell them when they are going to be playing. There is an under-16 soccer league in Donegal, they have 24 games and they can tell them when they are playing. If it is not grabbed shortly, it will be gone. Because the age group that is getting involved with the CPA are of a generation where I suppose it means everything, the GAA was the cornerstone of your community. The next generation may not feel the same way."
To Ballybofey then, and a fixture that will always bring back memories of '92.
"There is a great goodwill towards that group," says Boyle of the Donegal squad that brought Sam to the Hills for the first time. "We would like to give something back for charity or whatever by organising a few things before September. It will probably be the last time we will be together officially."