When you play in a first ever All-Ireland final there are a million little things, many that are new and the majority of which you can only pray go your way.
For Noel Hegarty that was true of course but as he stood for Amhrán na bhFiann he did so beside Dessie Farrell, the young Dublin forward whom had played with back home.
Farrell played his club football for Na Fianna in Glasnevin. There and Glencolumbcille, where Hegarty called home, was a world apart. But with the Dubliner’s mother Anne a native of Crove, he had spent many a dusting summer evening playing ball with the welcoming locals in south-west Donegal.
Twelve minutes into the All-Ireland final, one in which Donegal started in jittery fashion, the two men collided and referee Tommy Sugrue immediately signalled for a penalty, arms outstretched facing the old Canal End, which was bedecked from top to bottom in green and gold. A Dublin goal would’ve put them five clear but Charlie Redmond put the kick wide and Donegal sprung to life.
“Allegedly,” Hegarty responds when queried as to whether he fouled Farrell. “It’s hard to know but he seemed to have the ball kicked when I pushed him. We met a good few times since and spoke about the game, although more in a general sense than concentrating on one issue.
“Dessie would be down for a kick-about and trained with us a lot and his uncles Seamus and Noel would’ve won a county championship with Glen in 1990. If Charlie Redmond had’ve scored that penalty it would’ve been a different scenario, maybe insofar as saying there mightn’t have been a way back for us.
“In fairness, Dessie was sad to lose but if he were to lose to anyone it would’ve been Donegal. His mother was from here and all his family were there shouting for Donegal that day. When someone misses a penalty you can take great heart from it and we certainly did. That was the moment we settled.”
Donegal led 0-10 to 0-7 by half-time and Hegarty, who played every minute of the 420 that summer, kept Farrell quiet and helped Matt Gallagher snuff out the threat of Vinny Murphy, whose bark was more than his bite.
As the second half took shape, Donegal maintained their arm’s length advantage before the element of trepidation of what they were within reach of achieving began to sink in. Paddy Cullen’s Dublin reduced the arrears once more to three points, running the ball instead of constantly bombing it in, and Sam Maguire was slipping through Donegal’s fingertips.
A year beforehand, Martin McDermott had roomed at the Great Northern in Bundoran and shared a pot of tea with his host, the hotelier Brian McEniff. The Roscommon manager described how he could see his team losing the initiative to Meath in that year’s All-Ireland semi-final, but felt helpless to stop it.
McEniff, speculating to accumulate like the good business man he was, took it upon himself to react, charging onto the field, twice, to tell captain Anthony Molloy to maintain his stance at centre-field. The fine was to prove the best £600 the county board would ever spend.
“Maybe we didn’t expect to be in that position,” Hegarty adds of the closing stages. “Barry Cunningham had come on and made a great difference. Some of the Dublin players weren’t happy with Vinny Murphy for not doing enough with the ball and we could see that.
“Brian came on the pitch. When you’re within touching distance of an All-Ireland, whether you get fined or are never allowed to stand on a touchline again as long as you live, you do what you have to do. That’s what he did. It was only when you’re standing there on the steps of Hogan Stand you realise you’ve actually won. It takes a while to sink in.”
Noel is one of the seven sons of Frank and Mary, his father being from the neighbouring parish of Kilcar. Added to the seven sons, James, Brian, Frankie, Michael, Paddy, Noel and Paul are five daughters Irene, Bernadette, Bridie, Treasa and Nora. Only Bernadette, who was and is in Perth in Western Australia, wasn’t in Croke Park that day in September.
The Hegarty family would probably still have been there, even if Noel had not. In 1990, he wasn’t long out of his teens but was left out of the Donegal panel for the Ulster championship opener in Ballybofey against Cavan and thought it best to opt out - he could’ve won an Ulster championship and should’ve been part of the set-up for the All-Ireland semi-final against Meath.
“I didn’t even go to Dublin that day at all,” Hegarty recalls of that 1990 semi-final, when the rain fell in sheets at Croke Park on Donegal’s Ulster jerseys. “I had been part of the panel but having not made the subs, well, Brian McEniff jokes to this day I pulled out.”
However, Naomh Columba lifted the Dr Maguire for only the second time in their history, their first in 12 years when they defeated Killybegs in Ballybofey and for a while had the beating of Derry champions Lavey in the Ulster club championship. Despite the provincial disappointment, Hegarty’s abilities and versatility had been showcased and the Donegal panel soon had a fresh reinjection.
“I had a good year with Glen and Brian was on the ‘phone with me a bit so I came back and made my championship debut in 1991 against Fermanagh, marking Paul Coyle, who did all the scoring for them,” Hegarty adds. “I was pretty worried going into the game but things worked out and we won well that day. I was corner-back from then on.”
However, Donegal were well beaten in the 1991 Ulster final against a Down team whose talents were only realised by many two months later when they finally broke the four-year Cork and Meath stranglehold on Sam Maguire. But whilst Hegarty was not yet 23, a lot of the panel, many of whom had won an All-Ireland U-21 championship a decade beforehand, were skating around the 30 mark. Whatever about the ice, time was getting thin.
“After 1991, some players were talking about pulling out, one of them seriously so, and Brian McEniff had to cajole some to stay involved and managed to get them to stay,” Hegarty says. “At the start of 1992 we played Monaghan, who were no great shakes, and they beat us well in the Dr McKenna Cup. Things were at a very low ebb.
“Maybe drawing in Cavan in the first round of the Ulster championship, when we got that little bit of luck, set us on our way. There were plenty of other years when we didn’t get a slice of luck.”
Coming to the final, whilst the county was awash with bunting, the Donegal starting team seemed almost set in stone. The only real topic of debate centred on Tommy Ryan or Manus Boyle, who had steadied the ship against the Mayo. However, closer to Hegarty’s part of the field there was a forced alteration.
After breakfast on All-Ireland final day Hegarty learned his teammate from Naomh Columba, John Joe Doherty, would be making his first championship start of the year. Martin Shovlin had failed a fitness test.
“It was a terribly sad story for Martin,” says Hegarty of the man who lined up directly in front of him, the man he used to occasionally share a lift to and from training with, alongside Doherty, James and Martin McHugh.
“He played for years for Donegal, week in and week out and not be able to play in the All-Ireland final was very sad. I couldn’t have had a better player in front of me. Martin was honest enough to admit he wasn’t able to play. A lot of players wouldn’t do that.
“John Joe was working in Paris the previous winter and only came back at Easter, then he was suffering a pelvic injury. To be honest, he wasn’t even up to speed for club football but knuckled down and by the time of the All-Ireland semi-final and final was flying in challenge games.
“When John Joe was named at first, I presumed he would go in at corner-back because that’s where he was most natural. Maybe Barry McGowan or I would’ve been moved to the wing, that’s what I hoped anyhow! But it was a direct swap.”
So, with Doherty playing in an unfamiliar wing-back role and Farrell by his side, Hegarty, the second youngest of the 1992 team after Tony Boyle, etched his name into the history books. Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh mentioned in the RTE radio commentary: “The corner-back Noel Hegarty, the sheep farmer. There’s a sheep fair in Falcarragh on Tuesday. I wonder will Noel be here.” As it turned out, Hegarty didn’t make it to Falcarragh but the innocence of youth from then is something of a regret now.
“Back then I thought we would win it every year,” Hegarty adds of Sam. “I was young and didn’t understand we mightn’t. Looking back, I should’ve taken more in and even by 1995 we should’ve won more Ulster championships and definitely another All-Ireland.
“If it was the backdoor system then we might’ve had a chance to, as now the most consistent teams always end up in the last four.”
Hegarty played senior football, at 42, for his club Naomh Columba as recently as five weeks before Christmas, compensating, he says himself, for the numbers streaming out of the area in search of work many miles from home. But last season, he insists, was his last.
“If from the day you started off playing you heard you were going to win an All-Ireland, then that would be more than enough,” he concludes. “But whatever else we might’ve won, we can be happy with what we did win.”