Mickey Hegarty was just nineteen when Declan Bonner called him into the Donegal senior squad at the end of 1998 and had just turned 20 when he made his championship debut against Armagh in June of that year.
Hegarty came off the bench and hit the equalising point as Donegal twice came back in the closing minutes to force a replay.
It was to be the first of 36 consecutive championship matches which the Kilcar man played for Donegal between 1991 and 2007 - a fantastic appearance record. On Sunday next the Crowkeeragh man will be playing his 48th championship match for Donegal, opening a four game gap on Brian Roper.
That familiar loping, lazy looking style has been a feature of Donegal teams for a long period. Now the father-figure of the squad, 32-year-old Hegarty can cap it all with a first Ulster medal. His cabinet has only one championship medal - an Ulster minor medal from 1996, while the only other success has come at National League level, Division One and Two medals and Dr. McKenna Cup.
Sunday will be his fourth Ulster final - he is the only member of the present Donegal squad to have played in the three previous Ulster finals - 2002, 2004 and 2006 - all against Armagh and all ending in disappointment.
Even at club level, Kilcar won a minor championship in 1998 - a year after he exited the grade - but it has never seemed to deter him.
Younger brother by seven years, Noel, recalls the excitement that was in the Hegarty household when he was called into the senior panel: “I remember him getting called up to the panel and there was a big buzz about it at the time. He would have been the only Kilcar man in the panel at that time.”
Coming from a household that had four boys and two girls, there was always expectation as his father Connie Andy was always described as a talented footballer - the first man to captain a Kilcar championship winning team when the won a Junior Championship in 1972.
From an early age he showed promise. Noel takes up the story again: “I would come home from school. I would be home before him and when he came home he would get me standing in goal and he would be taking shots at me all evening.
“He used to have a pitch set up for himself, soccer goals over in the park. Even at that time he looked an exceptional player. Liverpool were going well at the time and he would have a running commentary on himself and he would always be John Barnes. With me standing in goals, he would tell me that I was Grobbellar, ” said Noel.
“Martin never had big interest while Paddy had good interest when he was younger but when he headed away to Dublin when he was 16 or 17, that finished him.”
After Declan Bonner stepped down at county level, Mickey Moran came in and Donegal made it to the Ulster final in 2002. However, for Michael, it was a difficult time as his mother, Brid, was seriously ill.
“Mum would have passed away a week after the Ulster final and it must have been tough on Michael. It would have been fierce hard to concentrate on the football. I remember myself at the first game against Cavan up in Breffni. That was the last game that mum was at. At the time we didn’t know how bad she was as she was always putting on a brave face. She was happy that Michael played very well that day and she was fierce proud of him, ” said Noel, who said that Michael had been very close his mum.
Noel said that his mother didn’t miss many games that Michael played in. He remembers travelling to places like Omagh and Enniskillen following minor games. “I suppose I was at an age when I didn’t know what was going on but was just following the gang. She would always support him and go to all the matches.
“With having Michael playing county football it was great to look up to him and it was something to aspire to. I was playing minor for a few years and he was in the county seniors and there was a good buzz about the house.
That was a year or two after our mother died and it helped to take our mind off it, ” said Noel.
For a long number of years Hegarty was the only Kilcar representative on the county panel and for a number of years the only representative from south-west Donegal which meant lots of travelling to training, much of it on his own.
There was always a myth surrounding Hegarty that he was not the greatest lover of winter training and this has finally been confirmed by his brother Noel. “That’s definitely true. He was the kind of buck who would have an injury in January or February but it would always clear up around St. Patrick’s Day. He didn’t care much about the winter training.
“He would look after himself very well. You wouldn’t see him about the streets or drinking very much. He wasn’t that kind. He has always been very lean and never overweight. He would also look after himself in what he eats.”
When asked if he kept himself fit while on the hills after sheep, Noel quipped: “But he’s fond of the quad when doing that.” Much of the Kilcar man’s football has been played in the No. 11 jersey and Noel feels that has always been his best position.
“His best position is on the ‘40’. I can’t remember him playing anywhere else. I think one year (Brian) McEniff had him in corner-forward but I don’t think it suited him that well. When you play in one position, you get used to it and when you come to a certain age it’s hard to change your style of play. Michael was always a good playmaker and always had a good eye for a pass.
“When it came to club he could play anywhere. I think he might have started off his career as a half-back as a minor but I would think centre-forward is his best position.”
A laid-back character, like most players, he has his own way of finding relaxation. “Michael is always composed and relaxed person. He would never get carried away or excited and he definitely wouldn’t show it anyway. But any big game that would be coming up for the county, you would see him coming down home on a Saturday afternoon and he would like to go up the Mulnanaff hill after the sheep. He would be up there for a couple of hours rooting about.
“He would have a Lady Gaga CD in the van and he always seems to listening to it. He likes to listen to the motivational songs. He would be coming into the house and at times he would be humming to Lada Gaga. I don’t know if that’s a good sign or not. He’s fond of that kind of music but he wouldn’t let on, ” said Noel.
Now coming to the end of a glorious career, the Kilcar man has respect in the county and beyond for the way he plays his football. He has an uncanny knack of winning vital frees.
“He’s good at winning frees. He has a knack for it. I’ll tell you, he would have made a good actor, ” says Noel.
The Hegartys are cousins of the Carr twins of Carrick, Padraig and Seamus, and they are just as proficient when it comes to talking.
Padraig has an Ulster senior championship medal from 1983, but I’m sure he would be happy if his cousin could come home with a winners’ medal on Sunday next. As a role model, Michael Hegarty would be perfect - rarely in trouble on the field and always playing the game in a sporting manner. An incident in the recent Kilcar-Killybegs club championship game underlines this. Late in the game the Killybegs ‘keeper went for a short kick-out to the wing-forward and as he was about to make the catch, Hegarty arrived but didn’t make the ‘hit’ which few would have resisted. He just waited for him to come down and then made the tackle.
Now happy married to married to Finola and living in Dunkineely, they have two children Jack and Sara, and young Jack is beginning to show up well. There could be good days ahead for Naomh Ultan!
“He has already played in three Ulster finals and not many will play in four Ulster finals. No doubt a win would crown a long career. He never really had much success come championship. This year he is putting in as big an effort as he ever put in. I have no doubt that they will do the business against Derry, ” said Noel.
“For Michael, he has played as long as he has and all he has is two league medals. To finish such a career without a championship medal wouldn’t be great. I have no doubt that he will finish with a championship, and who knows, maybe more, ” said Noel.