Former Donegal star Joyce McMullin spent an eventful Christmas as a selector with Four Masters minors. Michael McMullan caught up with him to recall his playing career.
IT took a while for Gaelic football to fully cross the sporting path of Joyce McMullin. When it did, a farming life in the outdoors was the perfect foundation for a 14-year inter-county senior career that peaked with stifling Dublin’s all action half-back line in the 1992 All-Ireland final.
A back problem in the late eighties troubled him for a season, but he had an otherwise unbroken career in the Donegal starting 15. The joy etched across his face backs up the fondness with which he envelopes his career.
“I absolutely loved it,” he summed up of a lifetime of memories. When he meets those he shared a dressing room with, there is always a laugh. Their success and an All-Ireland medal helps.
“There are a lot of other people who have come through their long careers and worked as hard as I have and haven’t been lucky enough to do that, so I am grateful for that.”
In recent years, he has never been far away from his daughter Kate and son Michael’s Four Masters underage teams. When leaving them to training, it’s as easy to stay and lend a hand, with Michael part of the current minor squad his father is a selector with.
Joyce, the youngest in Jim and Bridie’s family of eight, didn’t have any of the set of underage medals his son now holds. Growing up in the mid-seventies, soccer was the main game. A yard or a pitch, it didn’t matter, with cousins also in tow, they’d find somewhere to play.
“Even at school, we played soccer, but I always loved football and it didn’t take me long to adapt to the GAA when I started playing,” McMullin explains.
During his days at Barnesmore National School – now known as St Francis’ – he played his first game of Gaelic football in an era when club underage didn’t begin until the u-12 grade when his career took off.
Brought up in Meenadreen, a rural townland five miles outside Donegal Town, he’d have to borrow a pair of boots in the early years.
“Things were tough, there are no two ways about it,” he points out. “The mid-seventies was a tight time. We were born on a farm and money just wasn’t there. I remember my mother, God rest her, she bought me a pair of Gola boots when I was 13 and I can see them yet. Nobody is wearing them now.”
He is grateful for those who put the time into his underage development. People like Frank Muldoon, Walter Espy, Paul Duncan and Liam Mullin collected him for training until he was old enough to cycle in and out to the pitch.
”That’s the way it started and I am very grateful to those people to this day,” McMullin added of those that helped him step on the ladder that could take him to the top of the game.
His progress was gradual but he really loved sport and had an aptitude for it. Small and stocky, by his own admission, in the early days, he just loved soloing and carrying the ball. That’s where his active time in the great outdoors paid dividends.
“I was pretty athletic because I was born on a farm and did a lot of cycling and running and was always busy. Working on a farm, I didn’t need any gym. I was at the hay and the turf in my youth so I was well enough developed and the football came naturally to me,” McMullin said of his upbringing.
When he moved on to the local Abbey Vocational School in Donegal Town, Eamonn Harvey – who also coached Sonia O’Sullivan and Catherina McKiernan – enlisted him for the school athletics team.
“There was a great tradition of sport in there when I was 12 or 13,” McMullin said of his secondary school years.
“Michael Lafferty was a coach there, who I ended up playing under when I left school and he captained Donegal in ’83. He was a great influence and a great motivator and he put you on the map in the school.”
There was soccer with Donegal Town and a brief stint at Finn Harps that had Patsy McGowan interested in snapping him up for Sligo Rovers before GAA came knocking after a promising underage career.
“I had a few (GAA) stalwarts gave me a severe talking to a couple of times, then (Brian) McEniff called me into the Donegal panel and that was the end of my soccer career.”
Derry’s back-to-back Ulster minor winning teams of 1980 and 1981 stopped the promising Donegal side McMullin played on from getting their hands on silverware.
They got their revenge by beating the Oakleafers in the 1982 Ulster u-21 final on their way to the All-Ireland title in a memorable year that also saw McMullin feature for Four Masters as they won the first of their three Donegal senior titles.
Under manager Tom Conaghan, Donegal u-21s needed a replay to get over Down in Ulster and had one point to spare against Laois in a low-scoring All-Ireland semi-final played in poor conditions.
Five points from Martin McHugh helped see off Roscommon in the decider, with Donegal holding them scoreless in the second half, and Brian Tuohy becoming the first Donegal man to lift an All-Ireland cup.
“We had a good stock of players,” McMullin said of a team that would produce eight of their Sam Maguire winning team a decade later.
Goalkeeper Michael Kelly, Michael McBrearty and Seamus Meehan joined McMullin on the Four Masters team looking to avenge their 1981 final defeat to Ardara.
Conaghan was also at helm and enlisted the help of Mick O’Dwyer for their preparations.
Kilcar were their opponents in the final. Martin McHugh – their only scorer – was kept scoreless from play by Jack McGroarty and he notched a free early in the second half before the game’s crucial score.
A ball landed in a ruck in the goal area where Joyce McMullin won a difficult possession before recycling to Brendan Martin who lofted the ball across goal and into the net for the only goal of the game in a 1-4 to 0-6 win.
Four Masters lost their grasp on the the Dr Maguire Cup the following year before returning to see off Ardara in the 1984 final with McMullin in fine form. He was popping all over the pitch in a 0-9 to 1-2 victory, controlling the game after the concession of Ardara’s goal.
So, it was two senior medals in a career where underage success eluded him. McMullin, who adopts the “win or learn” mantra, feels he had a good club career.
“I laugh at these (current) minors, some of them have won everything from they started playing, u-10, u-12, u-13, u-14, u-16 and minor championship medals and an All-Ireland Féile.
“I haven’t got a single medal at underage level, not even at u-21 level. The comparison is stark, that’s the way it was.
“When we were growing up, we came up against a good Ballyshannon team. Maybe it made me a bit more hungry when I did get to senior.”
Another title arrived in 2003 with Paul Durcan between the posts, Karl Lacey and Barry Dunnion attacking from the defensive flanks with McMullin’s fellow minor selector Shane Carr partnering Barry Monaghan at midfield.
“Our senior wins are important and we haven’t won one since,” McMullin added.
Now it’s about bringing in the youth and hoping to break into the top teams, Glenswilly, Naomh Conaill, St Eunan’s, Gaoth Dobhair and Kilcar.
“The challenge for the club at the moment, bringing these players to the stage where they can represent the club at senior level and hopefully represent their county at senior level,” he said of the current minor crop. “There are all sorts of difficulties and just because you have the players, it doesn’t always happen, they can drift away very quickly.”
Brian McEniff liked the Joyce McMullin he saw stepping out of the 1981 minor grade. He saw enough to make the teenager chose a GAA path ahead of signing for Sligo Rovers.
“He invited me into the panel for the National League at the end of 1981,” said McMullin, who made his debut against an Antrim team who gained promotion from Division Three with Donegal finishing bang in the middle of the table.
McMullin made his championship debut at home to eventual Ulster champions Armagh in a one-point defeat tinged with the regret of letting it get away.
With u-21 All-Ireland success and Four Masters’ first Dr Maguire triumph, McMullin’s form continued to rise.
A Charlie Mulgrew goal helped Donegal to victory in the rematch to open the 1983 championship. Mulgrew sustained a broken jaw in their semi-final with Monaghan, a game Martin McHugh missed with injury, but McMullin hit 1-3 to shoot Donegal to an Ulster final date with Cavan.
McMullin hit three more points in the final and Donegal were Ulster champions, with McHugh again to the fore and late Seamus Bonner – also of Four Masters – hitting their goal from a penalty in a 1-14 to 1-11 win.
Donegal went down to Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final, but a seven-point win in a challenge game before the Tribesmen’s All-Ireland final defeat to 12-man Dublin left Donegal lingering with regret on narrowly missing out on an final place.
Val Daly’s long free-kick went all the way to the net for a fortuitous Galway goal and Donegal were denied an equaliser in the closing stages when a Galway defender wasn’t punished when he appeared to have taken too many steps.
“My early success came in a two-year spell and I thought I have this sorted, but it is not the way it works,” said McMullin, with Donegal failing to win a championship game over the next five seasons.
Wins over Cavan – with McMullin hitting two goals – and Derry booked their spot in a 1989 final they looked to have won until the Red Hands were awarded a controversial free in the latter stages.
John Connors stood up against Damian O’Hagan who had his head down and running out of options. Referee Michael Greenan awarded the free and Stephen Conway lofted the ball between the posts and into the O’Duffy end to mark his birthday with a fourth point to force a replay the Red Hands won at a canter.
“It was dodgy free and Stephen would admit it himself, but we weren’t ready to win at that time,” McMullin admits.
“We should’ve put that game away but we didn’t. It sort of changed the course of history a bit. Tom Conaghan was the manager that year and McEniff took over the following year…we were a really experienced team.”
From the 1987 All-Ireland u-21 winning team, captain John Cunningham joined Manus Boyle – Man of the Match in the final replay over Kerry with a 1-7 tally, Tommy Ryan, Barry McGowan and Barry Cunningham on the senior side.
It was the prefect boost to a strong core from the 1982 u-21 group as Donegal stepped into a 1990 campaign that saw them back in an Ulster final after a facile win over Derry in the semi-final.
Armagh stood in their way, but late Manus Boyle points gave a cushion big enough to absorb Shane Skelton’s late fightback and Donegal held on for a one-point victory.
“Again 1990 was a disappointing one,” McMullin sums up. “After winning the Ulster Championship we lost to Meath in the (All-Ireland) semi-final and that took a bit of sting out of us.
“We lost in ’91 to a really good Down team. Although we played terribly in the final they went on prove they were good and won the All-Ireland.”
By the time the ball got rolling in 1992, there was belief in the squad and the quality on board albeit without brimming in confidence.
McMullin, now 12 years on the panel, felt the stars aligned somewhat and pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place.
A McMullin goal, a rasper off the underside of the bar, gave Donegal the early boost in a league quarter-final against Dublin in Breffni Park.
“We should’ve had the game sown up,” he said of a game they lost when the Dubs hit late goals from Paul Clarke and Vinnie Murphy to snatch victory.
“So we were under the radar a bit, but we had that experience and had a lot of football played at that stage.
“We were obviously getting that bit older so, as a group, we were conscious of the fact that we hadn’t many more chances.”
McMullin believes in the slice of luck winners need and Donegal began to get the bounce of a ball. They were almost gone against Cavan in the opening championship outing only for a Martin McHugh free to save the day.
“We really could’ve been out,” McMullin admits. “McHugh’s point was a great kick at the time on the day.”
Donegal had no bother with Cavan in the replay before a second-half demolition of Fermanagh in the semi-final.
The turning point of the season came minutes later in the Healy Park dressing room where Martin McHugh stood up and demanded for an increase in effort.
Training was taken to a whole new level, with the balls put to one side and MacCumhaill Park used as a running track.
It was make or break at half time in the Ulster final and every extra inch was needed after having John Cunningham sent off late in the first half.
“The Ulster final against Derry is the one that sticks out for me,” McMullin said of the season’s defining moment.
“We went in at half time a man down and playing into a wee breeze in Clones. I remember (Michael) Lafferty saying to us we’d have to come up with the best half of football we played in a long time.”
And they did. Tommy Ryan and Martin McHugh came to the fore with Donegal’s running game tested to the full with Seamus Downey’s goal asking more questions of them.
“It wasn’t a classic but we dug it out and we got there,” McMullin added. “From a performance point of view, we were really happy about that and it gave us a real boost too.”
“We were conscious that we’d have to take it to them and it was a warm day too. Derry were kicking themselves and I heard (Tony) Scullion recently on a podcast saying how silly they were that day.
“That’s the way it goes…they did a few silly things and we obviously got a few breaks and got over the line.
“Just as ’93 sickened us, that game was played in a quagmire and we had injuries. Things just didn’t go for us, the weather was atrocious and (Anthony) Tohill decided to have a big day.”
With the Anglo Celt Cup heading back to the Diamond in Donegal Town and with the satisfaction of their unforgiving training paying off, they were on the Croke Park trail again and aiming to do what no Donegal side had ever done – win a semi-final.
It was one to forget for a series of wides, but getting the job done was all the mattered and Martin McHugh took a point from a late penalty to seal their spot on September’s third Sunday.
It was Dublin in the final and McMullin felt it fell well for Donegal. The watching Dubs’ eyes over their semi-final would hardly have been quaking in their boots.
Dublin hit Clare for three goals in their semi-final. One came from a long ball to Vinnie Murphy on the edge of the Hill 16 square before hammering to the roof of the net, energising fans who saw their side’s form rocket as the season progressed. Donegal, by contrast, had crawled and stumbled over the line.
“It was perfect for us and it wasn’t perfect for them…they thought they were home and hosed,” McMullin feels.
“You could see why and we’d have been the same ourselves. It was great going into that final under the radar so much and we had real confidence that we could do a job.”
Front and centre to Donegal’s victory was McEniff’s analysis of Dublin’s attacking half-back line of Paul Curran, Keith Barr and Eamonn Heary.
“We had a nice plan to stop them in some quarters and get at them and attack them in other quarters.
“That was a good strategy and it worked very well for us on the day,” said McMullin of a plan that saw him in a defensive role on Curran.
“We also saw it as an opportunity because they were so good going forward and keen to get forward. We felt that if we could turn them over when they were going forward, we could be in.
“James and Martin (McHugh)…they were better scoring and attacking forwards than I was, so I was definitely given a defensive role.”
McMullin didn’t mind. It was all about the team, so watching Curran and leaving space for others ambushed Dublin on the biggest day of all.
Curran was a stylish player. Quick and athletic if he got away, but McMullin’s days on the farm in Meenadreen and cycling to training tuned his engine for the finest hour. Eamonn Harvey’s sprinting coaching too.
“Attacking half-backs are pinpointed as players you can get at,” McMullin added. “If you get him turned, he is not always the best defender on the team if he is so keen to go forward.”
When Charlie Redmond missed an early penalty it gave an already growing Donegal juggernaut another boost on their way to a swashbuckling performance in a 0-18 to 0-14 win, a victory more comprehensive than the scoreline suggests.
By half time, there was little to be said. Looking around a calm dressing room, it was about mixing composure with keeping the scoreboard ticking over. This was Donegal’s golden opportunity to fuse two u-21 winning teams into the county’s trailblazers.
McEniff had kept his players away from the limelight in the week of the game, with Dublin in the glare of the media. Even a pre-match interview with Tommy Carr radiated Dublin’s elevated confidence.
Donegal were relaxed but had to absorb the loss of Martin Shovlin who failed a fitness test on the morning of the game after a knock sustained in an “innocuous” challenge at training the previous Tuesday.
There was a ripple of disappointment in the Donegal squad that one of their warriors was going to miss his greatest hour, but it was eased with the realisation that his replacement John Joe Doherty would slot in.
“We were confident that we wouldn’t be weakened by having John Joe in the team,” McMullin said. “He (Shovlin) was one of the most committed players you’d ever meet.
“He gave absolutely everything to Donegal football and still does. Missing out on a final is terrible, but we were determined not to let it set us back too much.”
While Manus Boyle kicked nine points in another All-Ireland final Man of the Match performance, it was a Donegal side with nobody operating below par.
“We knew we had to play well and we did play well as a group,” McMullin added.
“Manus will admit himself, it (kicking frees) was a piece of cake for him, so he wasn’t really stressed by it. We all played reasonably well and that’s what you are aiming for when you are sending your team out.”
Donegal lost their titles in the Clones monsoon against Derry 12 months later with McMullin calling time on his inter-county career after a defeat to an up and coming Tyrone team in the 1994 championship.
He’d later pull on the county colours and pick up another All-Ireland with the Donegal Masters’ team. Looking back, he’d a “reasonably healthy” career on the pitch.
“Training was easy for me,” he admits. “I do believe a lot of it is in the genes and genetically I had no problems with weight.
“I loved training and was doing plenty of physical work in my younger years. I enjoyed going for a run or going for a cycle. It was easy and I am very thankful for it.”
There were great days away from the white heat of action. An All-Star in 1990 saw him travel to Toronto and get a chance to play with those he soldiered against.
The Donegal group had their share of trips to the sun for bonding sessions ahead of the new season. Togetherness is something he fully believes in. It doesn’t kick the ball over the bar, but it helps.
“Some of us had been in the same dressing room for 10 years and we knew each other well. We got on well; there was very little animosity between the players,” he said.
“That social aspect is fantastic. You need that, you need a team to be tight and managers like that. They are spending time in each other’s company. When you go out on the pitch with somebody you are really good friends with, I think you’ll get more out of your team if they are a good, tight bunch.
“We had a strong group and we had plenty of craic together. We socialised maybe too much together after games, but that was the way it was. It didn’t do us any harm, when training started, we trained and that was it.”
The man who pulled all the pieces together, Brian McEniff, was “obsessed” with football. McMullin now wonders how his former boss was able to mix running a thriving hotel business with managing a team at the cutting edge of sport.
“He would ring you morning, noon or night to tell you about a boy you’d be up against on Sunday, that you’d need to watch him, he turned onto his left side or whatever,” McMullin said.
“He was thinking about it all the time. He did a lot for Donegal football, he was involved in most of the high points. He is one of those boys that is obsessed with football and is recognised across the country as a football man and always will be, a bit Mick O’Dwyer, one of those boys, and he did it very well.”
McMullin’s focus is now on Four Masters and helping grow a team that can follow in the footsteps of the men of 1982, 1984 and 2003. But looking back, his own career has brought great joy and offered a togetherness.
“The GAA is such a social outing, you meet so many people and you become friends with a team,” he sums up.
“It really helps you integrate and I was really grateful for that because I was a shy individual when I was young.
“I didn’t mix that well, so football was a great outlet and I got to know people and got a bit more outgoing as I grew up.
“I would know a lot of the Derry boys and we’d meet an odd time and it great to have that social connection with people from across Ulster and all over the country.
“I was playing against people that you would meet socially and that is really nice.
“I am very grateful for that. Having the medals is great, but to have great friends and the social gatherings is very important as well and it helps keep the head right.”