By Niall Gartland
IT was all worth it in the end. The knee injuries which plagued his career (his left knee was later described by team doctor Austin O’Kennedy as “one of the worst he’d ever seen”), the series of early exits in a barren spell in the mid-eighties, getting dropped in 1991 and seriously contemplating retirement.
But none of that really mattered when Anthony Molloy made history in 1992 by captaining Donegal to their first-ever All-Ireland title. At the time, he described it as the greatest day of his life, and coming up to exactly 30 years later, he still says it was a life-changing moment for all concerned.
It wasn’t a fluke and it didn’t happen overnight – it’s sometimes forgotten that Donegal reached five Ulster finals in-a-row between 1989 and 1993 – and their team was backboned by players from two All-Ireland U-21 winning squads (1982 and 1987).
Molloy was an integral part of that 1982 team which won the All-Ireland U-21 title for the first time in the county’s history. He played midfield – it was nearly always thus throughout his career – and it set the wheels in motion for more than a decade’s service to the senior side. They overcame Roscommon in the decider and his memories of that game haven’t been eroded by the passing of time.
Molloy said: “It was a great achievement and it only seems like yesterday. It was the first All-Ireland Donegal won of any kind really so it was a great thing for the county. There was a fair bit of celebrating, looking back on it.
“We beat Roscommon at Carrick-on-Shannon, it wasn’t a particularly good day but we won by three or four points. They had some very good players like Paul Earley so it was a good achievement looking back on it.
“The following year, six or seven of us played on the senior team and we won the Ulster title. That was the start of what led to the 1992 team, those players were still around along with lads who won the u-21 title in 1987, players like Manus Boyle, Barry Cunningham and John Joe Doherty. It was basically a combination of those two teams in 1992.”
Molloy grew up in a townland called Leamagowra in remotest Donegal. He came from a family of 12 and would go on to play for 21 years for his club, Ardara.
“There were only four houses in Leamagowra, it’s up in the hills of Glengesh and there’s no doubt it’s fairly remote. There was no electricity in my young days growing up, we used a gas lighter. We came from a simple, humble background. My father was a farmer, he had some cattle and a few sheep. The transport wasn’t the same back then, we’d have to make our own way to training and back.”
He established himself as a quintessential midfielder at a time when long balls thumped into the middle sector were the order of the day . There was something about the challenge of contesting for the high ball against some of the best players of his era that really appealed to him.
“It was the best place for me and where I was happiest. I tried out a few other positions for my club, full-back and a few spells at full-forward, but I played nearly all my football in midfield.
“I loved the freedom of the role, and I loved the challenge as well as you tended to come up against the better players on the opposition team. Like everything, it’s changed a bit today.”
It would be understandable if there was a certain defeatism among Ulster players of his vintage – Kerry won eight out of nine All-Ireland titles on offer between 1978 and 1986 (and their dominance would’ve been even more consuming only for a certain Seamus Darby), while Dublin had their spell of supremacy during the seventies. Molloy says he didn’t think winning the Sam Maguire was an unreachable dream, however.
“I wouldn’t say I felt like that to be honest. We got together as a young group at u-16 level, and I vividly remember we played a Dublin selection in 1978. It was a curtain-raiser to a National League final. It was a big occasion and the first time a lot of us were even in Croke Park.
“We beat the Dublin selection and we beat them well. We didn’t achieve much success at minor level but that game against Dublin lit the fire in a lot of us. We always knew we’d a lot of very talented footballers and it was just a matter of getting it together. In saying that it took a fair number of years before that happened.”
Donegal won the Ulster Championship in 1983 with a 1-14 to 1-11 victory over a strong Cavan team. They didn’t make it back to Ulster final day for another six years.
“It’s amazing in a way. When I won my first Ulster I thought it’d be like that every year as we’d a good team with a nice mix of youth and experience.
“But there was no backdoor in those days. We were beaten by a point or two in some first-round games and that was us for the season.
“But that’s the way it was. Ulster was a very competitive province in those years, between Down, Derry, Armagh, Tyrone, Cavan as well. That’s just the way it was.”
There was an exodus of intercounty players this year to the United States that led to a certain amount of tut-tutting in some quarters, but it’s a long-established tradition at this stage and Molloy himself won two New York Senior Football Championships in 1986 and 1992.
“I went to America for the first time in the latter part of ‘83. It obviously depended on your club situation – I certainly wouldn’t have gone out until we were knocked out of the club championship.
“There was a lot of emigration in the early ‘80s. Four of my brothers left Ireland and about half of Ardara’s senior team also emigrated, but we still managed to contest a few senior finals.
“I took a year’s special leave from work in 1986 and went over to New York in the summer which was great and I’d a few other spells as well.
“It was great for a young lad to play out there. I’d always heard of the great Cavan team that played the All-Ireland final in the Polo Grounds in 1947 and it was nice to maintain that tradition.
“I’ve read articles recently giving out about young lads going over there and I think that’s totally wrong, I’d advise any young lad to go there if he wants to travel.
“I was lucky enough as I’d family out there to help me settle. In 1986 eight of my family between brothers and sisters were in New York. I’d an uncle there who was very much involved in the Donegal New York club as well. It’s a great city, there’s no doubt about that.”
While Donegal reached and lost an Ulster final in 1989, it seemed that something was missing. Their previous manager Tom Conaghan (a respected figure in his own right) had fallen out with some key players like Declan Bonner and Manus Boyle, but they were brought in from the cold by a certain Brian McEniff, who returned for a third stint in charge of the team in the winter of that year.
“Tom Conaghan managed us to the All-Ireland U-21 title so he was always going to manage us at senior level, and we had some good days.
“But Brian McEniff has been the daddy of Donegal football for a long time and we owe a lot to him. He’s totally synonymous with football in the county, he was player-manager on the teams that won our first two Ulster titles in the seventies and that was a huge achievement for him personally.
“He came back for the start of the 1990 season and we won Ulster. We lost to Meath in the All-Ireland semi-final even though we’d a lot of possession. We should’ve won that day but they scored three goals. We were kicking on the door and were an experienced enough bunch by the time 1992 came round.”
A word on that Meath defeat – Molloy, who was exceptional all year, was named man of the match. In normal circumstances, he’d have been a dead cert for an All-Star but he missed out on a technicality.
“I was given a red card on video evidence after a match but I wasn’t sent off in the actual game. I do feel hard done by because the rules have changed since those days. I think it was something brought in by the Ulster Council at that time. I probably would’ve been guaranteed an All-Star only for the trial by video. It was a stupid rule in my opinion.
“It’s disappointing because those accolades are hard to come by, especially in around the midfield area, there’s huge competition. I was lucky to get one in 1992 but I still look back and think I unfairly missed out that year.”
That aside, they knew they were getting closer to the Promised Land and in 1992 in particular they knuckled down and trained like their lives depended on it. It wasn’t totally primitive stuff but it was a world away from more modern training standards.
“We’d taken great heart from our performance against Meath in 1990. I know Cork beat them in the All-Ireland final but we’d given them a really hard game and then Down beat us in the 1991 championship and went on to win the All-Ireland. We knew we weren’t far away.
“We’d been around for a good few years at that stage and we thought we’d as much talent as Down. It was also the last chance saloon for a lot of us, I was in and around the 30 mark.
“Most of us were injury free and the team was picking itself, bar a few places. We trained harder that we’d ever trained before in 1992, we upped the training big time.
“We mostly trained in Ballybofey in those years, there was no Centre of Excellences or anything like that, it was anywhere you got hold of a pitch, we’d have to ask clubs if we could use theirs.
“We mainly kept it as central as we could, that’s where Ballybofey fits in, but we spread it around as well, we sometimes went to my own neck of the woods and other places. The facilities weren’t great in those years.”
Donegal were men on a mission and claimed their second provincial title in three years with a super performance against Derry in the Ulster final. This time there was to be very little celebrating after the game.
“We were back training on the Monday night. Normally you’d celebrate for a day or two but we were back at the coalface straight away which was a big change.
“Our discipline had been lacking a bit in previous years but we sorted that out, and there was a great spirit in the 1992 team as well. We had Dublin in the All-Ireland final and a lot of people genuinely didn’t give us a chance, even people in our own county, but we knew we could beat Dublin. We’d the training done and knew we had the players. We’d played them a few times in the National League as well and we felt we had the measure of them.”
The rest is history as Donegal won ‘Sam’ for the first time on a scoreline of 0-18 to 0-14. Described during the match as an ‘absolutely breathtaking game’ by RTE co-commentator Colm O’Rourke, Donegal produced one of their best ever performances when it mattered most.
“We possibly played our best football that year in the second half against Derry in the Ulster final, but when we settled after the first ten minutes in the final, we really did play well. Every player did themselves justice, you couldn’t fault anybody. Even the subs, lads like Barry Cunningham, had huge games. We all clicked and we knew that had to be the case if we were to have a chance.”
Declan Bonner’s late point into the old Canal End has gone down in Donegal folklore. It was effectively the insurance score and Molloy and his teammates were able to savour the final moments of the game.
“There was some sigh of relief when he stuck the ball over for the insurance point. It was a great place to be. It was one of the greatest days of my life and a life-changing moment for us all. The county went mad for months afterwards which is understandable really.”
Lifting the Sam Maguire as captain was another moment of a life-time, and he’s modest about his memorable winning speech (which he concluded with the exclamation “Sam is for the Hills”).
“It’s not hard to speak when accepting the most sought-after trophy in Gaelic football. It was a huge honour for me and my club and my family. I was the proudest man in Donegal. It was unreal and very hard to describe.
“It was pure electric and it was the icing on the cake that I’d the privilege of being captain. I’m very grateful for it, there’s no doubt about that.
“We’d a great following from the fans as well, and we had done for years. We’d decided after the game to go by train to Sligo because it would’ve taken a week otherwise to go through the likes of Cavan. About 10,000 people were waiting for us, and then we went through Bundoran, Ballyshannon and Donegal town. It was a fantastic night and I think it finished up about 5.30 or 6am in the morning. We got up again the following morning and toured through the Glenties and down through Declan Bonner’s country and so on. It was a great time and we travelled the whole county. It was 30 years ago but seems like only yesterday.”
In a sense, Molloy was fortunate. His left knee had given him terrible trouble throughout his career, and he contemplated retiring after the 1991 season. He decided to give it another lash, spurred on by manager Brian McEniff, and the rest is history.
“I’d knee problems from very early on. I broke the kneecap when I was about 14 and had my first operation in my late teens, I was only 19 at the time. I’d a lot of trouble with my left knee in particular. I got a total knee replacement ten years ago.
“I’d a lot of knee cartilage loss and I had about six arthroscopics and different operations. I’d two operations on my right knee as well.
“I’m lucky after all the operations I had, it held up in 1992. In saying that it was nearly bone-on-bone in 1992. I tried to play on for a few years after that but I had to take painkillers and it kept swelling up as well. It was difficult but I got on with it. I’m not sure I’d have been able to play today in the same situation. but it was the same for a lot of players in those days. Constantly icing it, bandages and painkillers.
“I was going to retire in 1991 as I didn’t make the team when we played Down and I thought that might’ve been the end of the road. 1991 came and went and I met Brian and he asked me to give it another go. He didn’t have much asking to do really. Maybe it’s fate but I went back and we won the All-Ireland. I didn’t have an easy time of it with injuries and I had to work a lot harder than some players who were injury free. You had to be in good shape especially around the midfield area, but looking back on it I’m very thankful and I’ve absolutely no regrets at all.”
Molloy missed their ill-fated Ulster final against Derry in 1993 (remembered above all else for the horrific weather conditions) through injury. His time was nearly up, and he played his last game for Donegal against Tyrone in 1994.
“Derry had a very good side, they gave us a serious game in 1992 and they proved themselves in 1993 when they went on to win the All-Ireland.
“It was a terrible day and it probably suited Derry. They were a bigger, more physical side than us and we had a few lads out injured, including myself. We’ve always wondered what might have been, we could’ve won another All-Ireland but fair play to Derry, they went on and did the business.
“We played Tyrone in the 1994 semi-final, it was a good Tyrone team I’d have to say. I was taken off that day and I knew that was the end of the road for me. You always remember the day you’re taken off. I also remember that day, Martin McHugh shipped a very heavy knock and was more or less carried off the pitch and then I was taken off too.
“On the whole I’m very grateful. There’s a lot of players who play for years and never get much out of it. There’s great players who haven’t even managed to win a provincial title and I often think about those lads. They’re in every country and they put in as much effort, if not more, than the ones who win the big medals. Through everything and all the pain I managed to get my hands on an All-Ireland so I’m very grateful.”
Molloy had two stints as Donegal minor manager in the years following his retirement, and they won the Ulster title under his tutelage in 1996. A number of his players would end up playing their part in Donegal’s All-Ireland success in 2012.
“When I retired I took over the Donegal minor team in 1995 and 1996 and I really enjoyed it. We won Ulster in 1996 and lost to Laois by a point in the semi-final. They beat Kerry in the final by nine points so I often think that one slipped us by.
“I came back in 1999 for a second go at it, and after that I managed my own club and was chairman of Ardara for a period as well. Then I went to Naomh Columba, my neighbouring club, and managed them for three years as well.
“It was probably something I had to do to fill the void. I packed it in for the club and county and there was a massive vacuum there, there was nothing to do on a Tuesday and Thursday evening and on a Sunday, so I went into management and got huge enjoyment out of it. In 1999 we lost to Down in the Ulster final and a lot of those lads ended up winning All-Irelands in 2012, lads like Colm McFadden and Rory Kavanagh. I’d have managed them as young lads so that gives me satisfaction.”
Molloy has already gone on the record of backing Jim McGuinness for an unexpected return as Donegal manager. He’s realistic to know that isn’t going to happen any time soon, but he’s a huge fan of his former teammate.
“Jim always stood out,he was a good player. He was on the panel in 1992 when he was only 18 or 19. Sometimes he’d mark me during training.
“I always thought he was set for stardom of some description and he brought a different dimension to things when he managed Donegal. I know people gave out about the style of play but they won an All-Ireland with his style of play. If he came back I’ve no doubt he’d bring something different as well.
“People must remember when Jim took over it was nearly 20 years since we won the All-Ireland and things weren’t looking good for us. People said at the time that we hadn’t the players. Jim changed football forever in many ways, but he’s as own man and as far as I know he’s going to stay with Derry City.”
That leaves the obvious question – would Molloy ever consider taking the job himself? He’s thought about it in the past but these days he’s happy to watch from the stands.
“I was going to go in with Jim as selector the first time he went for the job but he didn’t get it. Back in the nineties I was going to go for it as well, but I withdrew as Declan Bonner was going for it too. To be fair I did think about it. The game has changed so much now, managing an intercounty team is a full-time job if you’re going to do it right. People don’t realise the amount of effort the likes of Jim, Bonner and McEniff have put in and it’s only getting even more demanding. The players spend a massive amount of time training as well, it’s frightening. In say that we did train hard as well, especially in 1992.”