Deegan reflects on Down’s glory days

Conor Deegan was part of the famous Down side which won All-Ireland titles in 1991 and 1994. History reflects very kindly on that team, but their status would have suffered had they lost to Derry for the third year in-a-row in the famous Ulster Championship clash in 1994. In NIALL GARTLAND’S in-depth interview, Deegan reflects on their battle to get back to the top and win a second All-Ireland, their savage training sessions, and the tragic passing of former teammate Eamonn Burns.

Niall Gartland: What was life like growing up in Downpatrick? When did you start taking Gaelic seriously?

Conor Deegan: We were very lucky from a Troubles point of view, we didn’t see too much. It wasn’t like today, we didn’t have an awful lot. You had a football, you had a wall – you played football all day and that’s all you really did to be honest.

Niall: Did you grow up in an estate in the town?

Conor: Well I mean, Downpatrick’s not a very big place. I suppose back then the streets were safe, life isn’t what it is today. You could walk anywhere, you couldn’t get away with too much because everybody knew everybody. But there were plenty of football pitches available to us, you know. It was what it was, it’s all we knew. It was very enjoyable, anyway.

Niall: Were you always a defender growing up?

Conor: Growing up playing soccer I would’ve been a defender. I don’t really remember too well, I just played football a lot, it was what we did.

Niall: I imagine there weren’t any development squads back then.

Conor: No, there was no such thing. I would’ve been actually quite small growing up. I had a growth spurt and went for a trial in Ballykinlar for the Down minors. At that stage I was about 17, I was the guts of six foot at that stage. Up until that point I wouldn’t have been tall, lets put it that way. Pete McGrath was the Down minor manager and obviously he’d seen in me a bit of something and I suppose minors who were tall were seen as handy, and that was kinda it. I had one year playing for the minors and we won an All-Ireland.

Niall: What year was that?

Conor: 1987

Niall: Do you still talk to Pete at all do you? Do you see him about?

Conor: Ach you’d see him about, but we don’t really. None of us really talk. We catch up every now and again, we have WhatsApp groups and we have bits and pieces. I think he brought a Down minor team to the All-Ireland semi-final in ’86 and then he took us the following year, he wasn’t too old back then. Great memories, we trained a lot in Rostrevor, up the Cloughmore stone. It was summer evenings spent training and playing and when you win something at the end of it, it’s very special.

Niall: Was there a sense at the time that a special team was developing?

Conor: The boys I was playing with in the minor team were all very good footballers, we’d a good side and we’d won a league tournament as well. There was no bullshit, the boys knuckled down and trained hard, there was no crap. I’ve great, great memories of that minor squad.

Niall: Was your run in 1991 a wee bit of a bolt from the blue because Down hadn’t even featured in the Ulster final in the previous years before that?

Conor: Ach yeah, but the only thing about it is the previous year we got to the national league final against Meath. Meath had already won a number of All-Irelands and we were only beaten by a few points, and we should’ve won that match so I think we all took a lot of confidence from it.

Niall: I imagine Pete was probably good at dispelling the whole aura around Meath at the time?

Conor: We knew ourselves how good they were to be fair. They had household names everywhere who won two All-Irelands back-to-back, they were a serious team. They were tough men but fair. We had a lot of battles with them and there was no quarter asked and none given.

Niall: Have you watched back the final against Meath much?

Conor: No, I’ve seen bits of it over the years, but we just buried one of our own, Eamonn Burns, this year so we’ve reflected on it. Eamonn was fantastic, he scored two of the best points you’d ever seen on the run, straight on, no mess, no fussing. That was that team that we had back then – there was just no fuss and we just got on with it and did the best we could. We had great forwards, we know that. We had good defenders, but we had great forwards. I suppose we tried to give the ball to the boys who could play football.

Niall: I was going to ask about Eamonn, is it something the players are still coming to terms with I imagine?

Conor: None of us can put it into words. We’ve met recently a couple of times as groups. We were in Croke Park for the 25th anniversary, Eamonn was there, then within two months he’s not with us any longer. It’s surreal to be honest. I remember speaking to my younger brother Gerard, and he said that when he first came on the senior panel Eamonn came over, shook his hands and wished him al the best, and he did the exact same thing for me. It’s still hard to comprehend, to be very blunt about it.

Niall: Yeah, he was such a likeable guy as well. Obviously I didn’t know Eamonn behind the scenes but he came across as quite shy when he was Down manager.

Conor: He didn’t look for adulation, he didn’t look to be spoken about. Eamonn was Eamonn, he was in many ways just a simple man who loved football, but with a couple of pints he’d sing a song and tell a story. There was no better man for telling a story and keeping a story going. It’s hard to comprehend that he’s no longer here.

Niall: I’m sure football doesn’t seem so important in that context. When you won that final in 1991, what was it like, obviously teams generally struggle to do the back-to-back.

Conor: [laughs] Struggle to do back to back? We struggled to get back to back wins in the league let along anything else. 1992 was a disaster, in many ways but it was what it was. None of us had experienced winning an All-Ireland before before, we weren’t used to it, we didn’t know what to do. People want to see the trophy, you took it to clubs and what not so we were being dragged left, right and centre, and rightly so because the supporters deserve to enjoy it as much as anyone else. You were were glad and willing but there was no doubt about it, it took its toll and the training wouldn’t have been as focused. Pete would’ve wanted you to be focused, and you went out and trained but it wasn’t the same obviously. We beat Armagh in the Athletic Grounds reasonably comfortably but then we were beaten by Down in ’92 and ’93, and ’93 was a bad one. ’93 hurt, it hurt us all.

Niall: Just the manner of losing the ’93 game?

Conor: Well, we lost by nine points

Niall: Oh, ok…

Conor: We got the shite kicked out of us, physically, emotionally, mentally

Niall: Did you have your best team out?

Conor: Ach aye, there’s no excuses. We just weren’t good on the day. Too many of us had had bad games and that happens and when you get overrun we just didn’t react properly. I suppose that was the combination of two years of being soft. I mean we’d gone soft, that’s it, we had gone soft.

Niall: Yeah, and was it different then in the Winter between ’93 and ’94, was there kind of a sense that ‘we need to do something here’ to rectify things?

Conor: Ah, nah there was a lot of things going on. When you bring a lot of fellas together at any stage there’s going to be conflicts, there’s going to be disagreements, there’s going to be a lot of things happening. Over the winter James [McCartan] and Greg [Blaney] had both opted out of the panel…

Niall: Was that big news at the time?

Conor: It would’ve been yeah, back in the day it was. The two boys opted out for a variety of reasons. Pete tried to do his best and he tried to bring fellas together. He appointed DJ as captain, DJ is related to both the boys in some shape or form and I can remember the two of them coming back to training one night, it was in Hilltown. The lights were on, the place was covered in snow, balls were solid. Players weren’t privy to everything that was going on, and there were obviously discussions in the background, but James and Greg were back. I think more importantly we got our heads out of our backsides.

Niall: Did the team have an arrogant streak?

Conor: No, it wasn’t arrogance, we’d just gone soft. You might’ve thought you were training as hard but you weren’t. It’s not the same as it was today but we weren’t looking after ourselves in the same way with nutrition and all that carry on. Then we basically we trained like absolute savages after that. It was barbaric the amount of training that we undertook. You know it’s only when you’re in the darkest places that you actually realise what you’re made of. A lot of younger players were starting to come through and it added a bit of freshness, we knuckled down and the hunger was back. I would suggest we trained as hard as any team has ever trained.

Niall: Even compared to how teams train nowadays?

Conor: It’s very different. During the Winter months we weren’t fed after training. You got a pint of milk, you got biscuits and if you were lucky they were chocolate. There was nothing sexy about it, it was running up mountains and running around the forest park in Rostrevor. We were a fairly large team physically but we ran a lot and it was brutal, putting it mildly. There wasn’t much emphasis on weights or anything of that nature. We worked a lot on basic skills and on our absolute physically fitness.

Niall: Was Gaelic your life at the time?

Conor: Ah Christ, aye. I was working in Dunnes at the time, but football was your life, that’s what you did. I could be wrong in this but I have a notion that Pete said that we trained something like five-six days a week for an eleven month period. Lads who were married, like Greg, I don’t know how they were able to do it because the commitment was absolute. We had Derry in the first round of the championship and we had a big point to prove. We put so much into it, it was a seriously high stakes game.

Niall: Is it fair to say that it was more competitive than the two All Ireland Finals you played?

Conor: In many way the All Ireland finals are easy because you either win or lose and that’s the end of the journey. It was higher stakes than an All-Ireland final because either team was in with a very good shout of winning the All-Ireland. I doubt that panel would’ve come back if we’d lost that game because we had put so much into that year. We were two of the four best teams in the country. The setting was perfect, we travelled to Celtic Park, the weather was perfect with a great crowd. Tommy Sugrue refereed and let the game go. There was no defensive mindsets or tactics, the two teams beat lumps out of each other but there wasn’t a bad blow in the entire game. The two teams knew if they didn’t go for it they were out. Any vitriol disappeared during the game because there wasn’t time for it. That was a fantastic Derry team with fantastic players and it probably hurts them that they didn’t add to their All-Ireland title, and rightly so because they were so good.

Niall: You won by two points, do you think you were the better team or was there a bit of luck involved?

Conor: There was nothing to separate us. Fergal McCusker got a deflected goal so they had a bit of fortune there. Ciaran McCabe’s goal was top drawer. But if you win a game by a point or two, by definition you’ve had a bit of luck somewhere along the line. It was a big thing for us. It was end-to-end and I can tell you that the game went by in seconds. There was a huge amount of effort that went into it, relief as much as anything else. We’d proven we could beat that Derry side.

Niall: If you’d lost that match history would probably reflect on that Down team quite differently. You’d have been beaten by Derry three years in-a-row.

Conor: It was knock-out, today you have backdoors and can still win an All-Ireland. I think there’s a very strong chance that if there was a backdoor that it wouldn’t be beyond the realms of possibility that we’d have met Derry in an All-Ireland final.

Niall: Was the rest of the Ulster Championship a bit of a formality?

Conor: We played Monaghan next the day after the Loughinsland massacre. It was horrendous and very surreal for the team, especially Gary Mason and Ciaran McCabe. It was really desperate. There was no atmosphere at the match, the supporters and players were all numb. We’d a lovely night recently at Loughinisland commemorating 25 years. I think the football helped the people of the village at the time as a form of escapism. We commemorated Eamonn that night as well and it showed what winning an All-Ireland really meant, which is something we hadn’t fully appreciated before. It was a very tough match. We felt comfortable enough playing Monaghan at that stage, then we played Tyrone in the final and won fairly handy. I think physically we were too big at that point and dominated for long periods. We’d gone quite for 10 or 15 minutes and Barry Breen stepped up to kick a point and we stepped on again.

Niall: I heard the semi-final against Cork wasn’t a great game.

Conor: It was crap. We dominated but didn’t get away from them. Aidan Farrell was very good that day, I think he punched one into the net and punched two over the bar. We got through it. I don’t think we were massively over-stretched in the game to be honest. Then we had Dublin in the final.

Niall: There was talk that Dublin were due an All-Ireland at the time.

Conor: You’d talk about that, Dublin were Dublin, everyone still wanted to play them especially in Croke Park. They set up in a certain way which didn’t do us any harm. They put Paul Curran back on Mickey Linden which helped us because Paul was one of the best attacking wing-backs in the country and he was now marking our most potent threat. They went a bit negative on that one and we took advantage. They came back at us but you’ll get that in any game. We had to dig out a result but we managed it and it was huge vindication for that group of players.

Niall: Was it more satisfying than the 1991 All-Ireland?

Conor: Well 1991 was new. We understood what was coming this time. In 1991 we trained and trained and trained but in ’94 we trained with a purpose behind it. We drove ourselves because we wanted to prove we weren’t a one-hit wonder. We’d been questioned so we were hugely driven to try to answer the critics. In fairness we were own biggest critics as well and we didn’t want to let ourselves down either, we wanted to reach our potential.

Niall: Things didn’t go well in the following years, what happened?

Conor: Things change, players’ lives change. Back in the day a lifestyle change made a massive difference. Today people make a lifestyle change to suit their football. Back then you didn’t. You had your life and you fit football around that. Medically they’re better looked after now, they don’t drink as much. It’s just a completely different era.

Niall: Did you have a drinking ban at the time?

Conor: No…you were training so hard at the time I don’t think it mattered. You weren’t messing around as much. DJ was our captain and he used to have a couple of pints of Guinness the night before every game. That’s just what he did. You don’t change what you do. As long as you didn’t get a bad pint, you were fine. We were exceptionally fit, but that’s how it was done then. I didn’t drink, a few of us didn’t, but the rest of the boys enjoyed a pint. We were grown men, it didn’t do us any harm and probably lightened the load a bit.

Niall: When did you eventually retire from playing with Down?

Conor: I think it was 2000 during the national league. I had a bad back which caused me serious issues. I’ve three discs that are completely shot. It’s just one of those things, boys played with pain and you get on with it. I remember Ross Carr taking an injection on his groin during a national league final, I’ll never forget the look on his face. Boys did anything to out and play. I don’t think it’d be done today. We didn’t know any better and it was nobody’s fault, we wanted to play. I’d moved to Dublin as well and it was generally becoming more and more difficult. I’d been on the go with the county since I was a minor. We’d achieved a lot as a group and enjoyed ourselves, we’d a lot of highs and an awful lot of lows. The good memories definitely outlast the bad ones – the bad ones just fade away.

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