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Joe McKelvey: In search of a winning formula

By Ciaran O’Donnell

It’s been some odyssey.
Regardless how the rest of the season pans out for Joe McKelvey and his tried and trusted down Killygordon way, It’s bonus territory from here on.
On Saturday night in Celtic Park, Red Hughs were crowned Ulster junior club champions after victory over Limavady. And that was bonus territory, too, for the man who calls the shots at the famous club at The Cross. Even though greater glory may well beckon, for the Fintown native who has spent practically all his life in the game, nothing is likely to surpass the moment Red Hughs players made their way to the winners’ enclosure on county final day, having put Urris to the sword, and headed down the steps with the silverware.
It is, therefore, a pragmatic take on things from the bainisteoir when one considers that Red Hughs had drifted for almost four decades in the doldrums, with nothing but the hardest of hard luck stories to decorate the trophy cabinet.
When Joe took charge of Red Hughs at the start of the year for a second time – he had previously been at the helm the season before last – delivering a Donegal championship was the aim. Building a good management team was crucial. He leaned heavily on Thomas Devine, John Crane, Del Wilson and Johnny Sweeney and their contribution was a major factor in the success.
“Red Hughs left a championship behind them in the three of the previous four years,” he says.
Back in the early nineties, when they were cutting it with the best of the senior sides the county had to offer, Red Hughs failed at the final hurdle a couple of times, too. During his playing days with Naomh Conaill, Joe had many tussles with them and was well aware of the passion within the parish.
“That no team ever delivered was a rope around the neck of the present crop of players. Certain players played senior football, but very few of this generation ever did,” he points out.
“I was there two years ago and made a lot of good friends. I’d consider Gerard Melaugh as a really good friend. Sometimes you don’t go back, but Gerard would have had a lot to do with me going back. He’s a real bouncy character and would be very passionate. I’ll be honest, if he wasn’t captain of the team, I’m not sure how things would have worked out. He’s central to everything that’s going on and is highly respected by everybody in the area.”
Red Hughs lost to Naomh Colmcille in the decider last year, suffered a semi-final defeat the previous year to Muff and lost a final to Naomh Ultan after a replay in 2015.
With the help of Gerard Melaugh, the team’s natural driving force and spiritual leader, the manager got things rolling early for the start of the current season. Competitive in the league throughout, Red Hughs saw off the challenges of Robert Emmets and Carndonagh without a lot of fuss in the championship.
“Then we lost to Convoy which looked like it could have been a disaster. But there’s one thing I know in my experience of football – if you don’t lose an odd game, you’re not going to win many either. There are very few teams who manage to go from one end of the season to another winning everything. Gweedore managed it this year. But it rarely happens.”
The defeat by Convoy served to allow all involved to self reflect.
“When you lose a game it refocuses the mind and we got a couple of lads back who had been sliding away.”
Fortunate to beat Moville in the quarter final in Buncrana, things were far from hunky-dory when trailing by seven points against Letterkenny Gaels in the semi-final. But they came back from the dead and a Callum Browne free at the end edged them over the line by the minimum.
The focus of the players on final day is something Joe was quite taken by. They were in a different zone and were acutely aware of the how high the stakes were.
“The final had become a situation that had to be dealt with. The winning of the county final for me was a more joyous occasion than the Ulster final. Because this is what was needed to be done. To lose another final would have be a disaster for them. You could smell the pressure. That said they were all so focused. In truth they had Urris beaten at half time when leading by nine points. The only thing that could have happened that day was to capitulate and that would have been even a greater disaster than anything that had happened prior to that.”
Two late goals against Antrim champions, Con Magees, saw them win their Ulster quarter final by nine points. Next for shaving came Emyvale from Monaghan who were hotly fancied.
“We were 5/1 to win the game. Emyvale were a savage team and were all over us for 40 minutes. We could get nothing done and a lot of what we were doing all season wasn’t working. We were losing the ball in the middle of the field. They were kicking wonder points. They had David McAllister who is in the Monaghan senior team and he was incredible. It wasn’t that he wasn’t being marked, it’s just that everything he pulled on went clean over the bar. They were five up ten minutes into the second half and probably thought the job was done.”
Hanging on my their finger nails, Red Hughs eventually got to grips around midfield.
“They went from winning every single ball to pretty much losing every single ball. We just started popping points – Calvin Bradley scoring one after another. Next thing there’s a goal. I remember at one stage thinking we were level and I looked at the scoreboard and we were three up. 

“It reminded by very much of Donegal and Dublin in 2014. Dublin were so comfortable they probably went home midway through the first half. But when Donegal got the tap turned on, Dublin could do nothing about it. And Emyvale were the same. Emyale really thought they were going to beat us. They thought it was a matter of showing up.”
The latest chapter in the annals of Red Hughs GAA Club was written on Saturday night in the Maiden City.
This week, Joe’s found himself taking stock of things. He’s thought of his days as a lad lining out for
Féile na Finne, the junior team that played before Naomh Conaill’s senior team. Sunday was always a day of big activity in the McKelvey household where football was the constant.
His thoughts have drifted back, too, to his late mother, Margaret Coyle. A native of Gortahork, she passed away at the age of 58 from cancer.
“She had no football in her background, but she took to it in a big way,” Joe explains.
He thinks about his mother often and has been thinking of her a lot since the weekend. Having turned 50 earlier in the year, Joe says he’s done quite a bit of reflecting of late.
“My mother and myself shared the same birthday. She was a determined woman. Was she stubborn as well? I’m not sure. She died on the 8th of July and she taught in school until the end of June. What she had to have been going through those last few weeks and days couldn’t have been easy and couldn’t have been good. It’s at times like this you think of your mother and your father. They are the biggest influences in your life,” he comments.
“When I was at college in Limerick, they used to land down. The two of them would sleep in the single bed and I would find a floor space somewhere,” he remembers with an obvious fondness.
As a player, Joe enjoyed little or no success. And despite having reached the half century, the Coláiste Ailigh teacher has no intention of hanging up the playing boots.
“I’m still playing the odd game, but I’ll never retire. The GAA isn’t a game you retire from. People like myself owe so much to the GAA.”
Joe is an individual who likes to get as much as he can from life. Even though the season is still very much alive – Red Hughs meet Dunedin Connollys from Edinburgh in the quarter final of the All-Ireland championship – the question about his plans for next year is posed.
“You have to wait to be asked,” he quips.
“It’s hard to know. When you land new and you have all these ideas…but they’ve seen it all now. Management largely is about a lot of frills and stuff. That’s what a new manager brings – a new voice and a set of frills. How do you up an Ulster title at junior level? How do you better it? If you look at the quality of Glenfin and Ballyshannon who met in this year’s intermediate final, we have a lot of stepping to do.”
Indeed.
Yet, the club that eventually found its Mojo after almost 40 years in the hard-luck saloon is just a couple of steps away from the cusp of even bigger glory. For now though, Joe McKelvey and Co are happy to sit back and enjoy the ride, come what may.
That’s what life, loss and winning does to certain folk.
The odyssey continues.
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