Callaghan was worthy understudy

Eagle-eyed motorists might notice the last remains of green and gold silage bags stapled to a telegraph pole on the main road through Burt.

Eagle-eyed motorists might notice the last remains of green and gold silage bags stapled to a telegraph pole on the main road through Burt.

It’s the last remnants from a time when All Ireland football fever last gripped the area. A time of celebration and unbridled joy for a small community with its own close link to that history-making Donegal team.

Paul Callaghan bucked the trend back then. It was rare for an Inishowen man to line out for his county. Rarer still to bag an All-Ireland winner’s medal.

“I was just lucky to have been asked to join the panel around then,” Paul says. “There were a lot of good goalkeepers to have played with Donegal over the years but won very little. I was proud and privileged to have been part of that team.”

Paul was only 19 when he was called into the county senior panel in ‘91. He was goalkeeper with the U-21s at that time but recalls being overlooked for the county squad when he tried out for the minors a few years beforehand.

“Obviously I was playing with Burt and I remember going to a minor trial. I got a second half, took one kick out and hardly touched the ball,” he said.

“Back then it was frustrating. Very few Inishowen players made the senior team, never mind the minor team. Managers just weren’t aware of you. They didn’t know who you were. They played Inishowen against South West that day and I played a half but the manager probably didn’t know who I was.”

The young Callaghan might have been struggling to make an impression at county level - but on the soccer fields, he was already making his mark. He played in goals for the now defunct, Grianan Celtic and was a member of the Scoil Mhuire, Buncrana side that reached the All-Ireland senior schools’ soccer final. Even though still only 17, his performances for that side prompted offers of trials with Leeds United and Bradford City.

“I didn’t go,” he points out. “Someone at the time told me to stay and become an Irish League or League of Ireland ‘keeper before going across the water. Maybe I was just a home town lad.”

Paul eventually made the county U-21 side, managed by Hughie McClafferty from Downings and recalls meeting Tyrone twice in the Ulster Championship semi-finals in the early ‘90s. “They went on to win the All-Ireland on both occasions but only beat us by a point and by two points. They were a good side - they’d Peter Canavan and Adrian Cush. We had them beat in Ballybofey but a couple of defensive errors cost us.”

Then came his elevation to the senior panel. At the opening of the new pitch facilities in Urris in ‘91, Paul played in goal for an Inishowen select against Donegal. His performance caught the eye of Brian McEniff who was on the look-out at the time for a No. 2 to Gary Walsh.

In the days before mobile phones, McEniff got in contact with a Burt club member, Rosaleen Campbell, to get the message to the young ‘keeper. “We’d no phone in the house in those days,” Paul explained.

“Our neighbour, Rosaleen, called in and asked could I ring Brian McEniff. I had to go down to the local Post Office and ring him at the hotel.”

Paul says he thought he might be invited for a trial with the senior panel. “But he asked me would I give a commitment and to go along to see how things would go. I was just happy to be asked to be involved. I had been a Donegal fan for years and was privileged to get the call.”

Danny Gallagher of Dungloe and Michael Kelly from Four Masters had been previously squad members. Now McEniff was offering the chance to an Inishowen man.

“It wasn’t all that common for someone from Inishowen to play for the county then,” Paul adds. “Des Newton from Roscommon played when he was with Carndonagh. Liam O’Neill from Malin played a couple of league games but he didn’t make the championship panel.”

Despite his call-up to the Donegal senior squad, Paul kept his options open by continuing to play soccer at a decent level. During an impressive career, he played for Finn Harps, Derry City, Omagh Town and Ballymena United.

He might best be remembered for his time playing with Omagh and was first choice goalkeeper when the club was thrown into the media spotlight following the Omagh bombing in August ‘98.

He played for Omagh in high-profile fundraising games the following year against Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool. “We played against some world class players and looking back it was nice to get the chance - even if it was in such sad circumstances. It was a tough time for everyone then. I knew the players, the supporters and I was associated with the club for so long.”

Undoubtedly an even better claim to fame is being part of the Donegal squad of ‘92. Twenty years on, Paul still speaks of his pride at being involved with so many quality players.

“For so many games, you’re standing on the hill (in Clones) watching players and all of a sudden you’re in the changing room with them,” he said.

“Myself, Mark Crossan and Jim McGuinness were all relatively young then so we joined at the right time. Noel Hegarty and Tony Boyle were a couple of years ahead of us but the rest of the squad were a bit older.

“At the time, I was just happy to be involved. I knew that Gary (Walsh) was No. 1 and barring him being injured, I knew he would be playing.

“Gary made very few mistakes. He was a very solid goalkeeper and that was the nature of the position. If you were a defender or a forward, the manager might squeeze you in somewhere but when there’s only one position to go for, you’ve got to sit tight.

“It happens in some counties where ‘keepers are fairly good and they’re there for a long number of years. In Dublin, John O’Leary was there and I’m sure they went through a number of sub-keepers.

“But I had a very good relationship with Gary Walsh. We both backed each other up 100% and we’re still good friends even to this day. We stay in contact.”

A number of games and incidents stick out for Paul when he looks back on Donegal’s journey to All-Ireland glory. He recalls a National League quarter final against Dublin in Breffni Park in ‘92 when a win for Donegal would have guaranteed an outing at Croke Park.

“I remember I was really looking forward to going to Croke Park,” Paul says. “I remember thinking, we’re four or five points up here, close to the end and all of a sudden Vinnie Murphy got the ball and bang, bang, they’ve beaten us by a point.

“I remember Martin Gavigan hitting Vinnie Murphy during that game. He hit him that hard, he spun him right round to face the goals.

“We learned our lesson in that game. We were devastated in the dressing room because we thought we had Dublin beat. We kept mentioning that defeat throughout the whole campaign and the importance of playing to the final whistle.”

Like so many Donegal supporters, Martin McHugh’s late point at the same venue against Cavan in the Ulster Championship first round is also fondly remembered by Paul. After the semi-final win over Fermanagh, he recalls some of the senior players asking for training to be stepped up. “As a goalkeeper, I wasn’t that fond of training at the best of times,” he adds.

The pairing with Derry in the Ulster final had added significance for a player who lived along the Derry border. “We put in a massive performance that day. Some of the scoring was brilliant - I remember some great scores from Tommy Ryan and Martin McHugh.”

The victory over Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final was achieved despite Donegal playing poorly. “But we seemed to get the rub of the green. Things just went our way.” And so McEniff’s team were suddenly looking forward to a first ever All-Ireland senior final.

“What can you say about that time, it was fantastic,” Paul enthuses.

He recalls the excitement around the county in the build-up to the game. The squad’s preparations ahead of the final included a night at the dogs at the Shelbourne Greyhound Stadium. The punters were given match boxes and lighters with the words ‘Dublin All-Ireland winners ‘92’.

Only last year, Paul ran into the owner of a pub in Dublin who back in ‘92 had special commemorative glasses bought in to celebrate Dublin’s pending success. “He told me he ended up selling them to Donegal supporters for a fiver a go.”

After Donegal’s victory, Paul remembers the journey home, the celebrations and the tour around the county when Sam was brought to every parish, town and village. He was employed with Telecom Eireann back then. Nowadays he works as a Regional Development Officer with Ulster GAA, overseeing coaching and other aspects of the game in Donegal, Derry, Fermanagh and Tyrone.

Married to Karen (McSheffrey) from Carndonagh, they have two children, Lee (4) and Grace (2).

His playing days are behind him - “the hamstrings aren’t the best”, but he coaches at underage level at Burt where he’s now club secretary. “It’s only when you stop playing, you realise what goes on in a club. You realise the grass has to be cut, the pitch has to be lined.”

A son of the late Seamus and Delia Callaghan, Paul has two older brothers, Martin and Dessie, all of whom were in the crowd in Croke Park in September ‘92.

They were also in the packed community hall in Burt the following Friday night when Paul proudly carried Sam Maguire onto the stage. “The place was jammed to the rafters and there’s a photo taken from the stage where I was standing, looking down onto the crowd. There are faces there of people who sadly are no longer with us and the expressions of joy and emotion are amazing. It’s a fantastic picture and probably sums up just what winning the All-Ireland meant to so many people.”