BY CHRIS MCNULTY
CONNIE McMahon will make a familiar pilgrimage on Sunday when he sets off for Clones.
The Fintown native, accompanied by his sons Conal and Paul, will join thousands of supporters hoping to see both the senior and minor teams win Ulster titles.
Two weeks ago, Connie celebrated his 78th birthday and has overcome a battle with cancer in recent times, but that won’t deter him. “I’ve got the all clear and I’m as fit as I was twenty years ago,” he smiles.
Sunday will be the nineteenth time for Donegal to contest an Ulster senior championship final and Connie has an unblemished attendance record.
He remembers Donegal’s first Ulster final appearance in 1963 clearly. “I had Sean O’Donnell, Harry Lafferty and Sean Ward back home with me in the Beetle after Down beat us,” he says.
“The whole was county was so excited. It was a unique time because we’d never experienced the likes of it in Donegal before.
“It was one of the hottest days of the year. It must have been 25 degrees in Cavan. The tar was lifting off the road. In those days we went down to Cavan via Bundoran, Kinlough and Manorhamilton.
“The Donegal minors were in the final that day too and Val Kane played in both games for Down.”
His first game watching Donegal in the flesh was a National League semi-final against Cork in April, 1952. “That was Donegal’s first Croke Park appearance at senior level and Conal McCauley from Killybegs scored Donegal’s first point,” he points out.
“Two years later I was at the All-Ireland Junior Final when Kerry beat Donegal 3-6 to 1-6. Tom Spillane, the father of the famous Kerry Spillanes, was on the Kerry team and I remember Jackie McDermott of Ballyshannon playing in goal for Donegal in the first half and going out to midfield for the second half.”
Donegal waited a long time before they savoured Ulster success. With Brian McEniff as player-manager they finally got over the line agianst Tyrone in 1972 and they collected the Anglo-Celt again two years later.
“Those were great times watching Donegal,” Connie says.
“We waited a long time before we won it, but they were special. I was working in Rhode, County Offaly at the time. I came up to Fintown on the Friday and Donegal was so exciting. Everyone was talking about this big final.”
Twenty years later, Donegal went crazy as Sam Maguire was won for the first time in 1992. Connie’s voice excites even now as he recounts that fabled summer.
“My God, that was something else,” he says. “Dublin took us for granted and Manus Boyle’s nine points got us the win.”
Between 1989 and 1993 Connie watched Donegal in five successive Ulster finals. This Sunday will be the fourth on the bounce for Jim McGuinness’s team.
“Then and now were real golden periods for Donegal. Times are exciting now again. We were in Clones every summer in the late 80s up to the 90s and it’s the same now since Jim has come in.
“It has all been on the up again since Jim went in to manage the Under-21s. I’ve known Jim and his family well over the years. You could always see the manager in Jim. Columba McDyre, a great footballer from Glenties who won an All-Ireland with Cavan, always said that Jim would make a top manager.”
There have been plenty of dark days, too. “The most disappointing was in 1993,” he says.
“I lived in Dun Laoghaire at the time. Clones was flooded and it was a bloody disgrace that the match was actually played. The Ulster Council said it had to be played and so it was.
“I have never cried after games but I’d feel sad on the long trips home after a defeat.
“I’ve been at them all and there aren’t many games missing. I can remember all the players and all the teams, good and bad.”
He counts Martin McHugh as the best Donegal player he’s seen, but the late John Hannigan, Sean O’Donnell, Sean Ferriter, Brian McEniff and PJ Flood from days of yore are highly acclaimed.
He was good friends with the late Dan Bonner, who passed away last August. This Sunday, Dan’s son Declan manages the Donegal minors. “Myself and Dan were good friends and I’ve known Declan over the years. He’s doing a great job.”
As Donegal aim to beat Armagh to win a first Minor title since 2006 and as the seniors prepare for a revenge mission against Monaghan, Connie think that he could be set to witness a first-ever ‘double’ by Donegal on Ulster final Sunday. He says: “Yes, definitely. I’m looking forward to the double on Sunday. I’m very confident for both the teams.”
DECLAN BONNER will look to collect the first piece of silverware from his second tenure in charge of Donegal.