Paul Carr’s inter-county career was dotted over 14 years and looking back at that famous championship season of 1992, the memories that remain are positive.
The St Eunan’s clubman, who also played club football for Four Masters and Drumcliff in Sligo, saw his active participation in the 1992 championship season only covered the first two games but the Letterkenny native’s only regret is that Donegal didn’t add to their solitary Sam Maguire.
Carr was withdrawn against Cavan on a pressure cooker atmosphere type of a day and never reclaimed a starting position after a tumultuous draw at Breffni Park. And even though there was a glimmer of a chance of a starting place for the final come September’s third Sunday, following Martin Shovlin’s misfortune in picking up a neck strain, John Joe Doherty got the nod.
Men of lesser class than Carr might carry some begrudging opinions of the championship of 1992 but for a man who had been, by his own admission, “in and out for years,” it followed the trend of a career.
“It was a great period,” Carr says of the early nineties. “There were four or five years there where Donegal were going well and it was great to be part of it. There was great cohesion. If there is a disappointment it would be that we never managed to win another All-Ireland. The following year’s Ulster final, we went in with a couple of injuries to key players (Martin Gavigan, Anthony Molloy were out and Noel Hegarty suspended) against Derry and performed well in the circumstances. But it was just a complete lottery with the way the weather was that day and we missed out to Derry, who went onto win the All-Ireland themselves. It could have been us.”
Having played a part in the 1979 All-Ireland Colleges’ win with St Eunan’s College over St Fintan’s of Sutton in Tullamore, Carr was fast-tracked into the Donegal panel for the National League the following year.
In those days Donegal were not at the swelled heights of today even, but a raw 16-year-old was delighted to get a late run against Longford at Fintra in Division Three. There were patches of snow and ice on the pitch but Carr’s showing warmed up and then warmed the hearts of those who were in Killybegs that day. It was to prove manager Sean O’Donnell’s last match in charge of the county, while debutant Carr would have an involvement with the county for the next 14 years. Nobody younger has worn the Donegal jersey for a senior fixture.
“As far as I know,” Carr says in relation to his long-standing record still being intact. “I was very surprised to even get called up, never mind getting to play but I came on for the last 10 minutes. I didn’t do the Leaving Cert until the year afterwards and then I went to college at what was then called University College Galway to study commerce.
“I was in and out of the Donegal panel for the next few years, winning the U-21 All-Ireland in 1982 making the odd appearance here and there, although I do recall winning the Dr McKenna Cup in 1985. I wasn’t really regularly involved until Brian McEniff came into replace Tom Connaghan in 1989. I had been sitting accountancy exams until then.”
Looking back at 1993, Carr recalled just how close Donegal were to retaining their All-Ireland. But if the dust is scraped from the surface just a little bit more there were a couple of other years in which McEniff’s side could see the glint of Sam Maguire’s silver.
“We always took it on a game by game basis and Ulster took care of itself,” Carr recalls of the 1990 provincial crown, only Donegal’s fourth ever. McEniff had taken the Anglo-Celt to the Hills on three occasions but began to eye the big prize. Meath were back-to-back All-Ireland champions in 1987 and 1988, having defeated Cork in two blockbuster finals, but had lost their title to the Leesiders in 1989.
By 1990 the rivalry had extended to a fourth season, factious as it was, and with Cork already awaiting in the final once more having defeated Roscommon by seven points, only Donegal stood in the way of the familiar pairing meeting again.
A Manus Boyle penalty at half-time put Donegal level and in murky conditions and Ulster jerseys at a Croke Park where the rain could be heard crackling off the umbrellas, held their own until late in the game. But Meath knew how to win semi-finals. Donegal, after all, had never. Bernard Flynn’s fortunate goal confirmed the differing perspectives and fortunes.
“Inexperience cost us that day when we probably had the winning of the game,” Carr says of 3-9 to 1-7 loss, a result that looks worse in black and white than it did on the pitch. “Meath got a crucial score that bounced around the goalmouth for quite a while. They were a formidable team but having spoken to some of them afterwards they remarked about what a hard game they got and some suggest it might’ve even cost them an All-Ireland as they lost to Cork in the final.”
Eleven months later Donegal were appearing in a fourth consecutive Ulster final, which wasn’t a common facet of what was a more democratic era in the northern province. Donegal could possibly lay claim to being the strongest of its competitors but whoever evaded the minefields to progress suddenly started to threaten for All-Irelands, something which, barring a couple of isolated incidents, hadn’t been managed since Down in the sixties.
By 1991 Down’s footballers had had their fill of the folklore of the heroes of yesteryear and the contemporaries rode into St Tiernach’s Park in Clones for an Ulster final with Donegal. Always known to be something of a swashbuckling team whenever the notion hit them, they were still considered outsiders against a Donegal side whom had shown steady progression. Whether or not it was a case of class against form, Pete McGrath’s side were outstanding. Donegal capitulated to lose 1-15 to 0-10. Perhaps the co-ordinates weren’t as far up the graph as the optimists might’ve anticipated.
“Although we lost well to Down in the end we knew we were hurt by that. We expected to beat Down in 1991 to some extent. The fact they went on to win the All-Ireland certainly gave us a bit of a kick. Of course we were very pleased to see them win it, there was a strong insistence we could’ve been there. Looking back now, we weren’t as together as we could’ve been. There was a wee bit of disquiet but that got ironed out the following year.”
In the days when the National Football League resumed in autumn, the champagne was still wet in Down’s glass while Donegal went through their paces of pre-season. An All-Ireland was now an achievable goal and as the Cork-Meath axis moved from the stage, there was a vacuum to fill and Down had shown Ulster’s champions the way.
When Vinny Murphy’s introduction tipped a National League quarter-final Dublin’s way at Breffni Park in the spring of 1992, Donegal learned another vital lesson. Their team had only one real problem position. And it was the jersey handed to Carr as Donegal returned to Breffni Park for their Ulster championship opener against a Cavan team who they had knocked out of the championship for three successive years.
“I was playing full-back all year and it was the one position I was never comfortable playing,” Carr recalls. “Centre-half-back was my favourite position but I would’ve been fine playing anywhere else along the back line. I didn’t play particularly well that day. They put us under a bit of pressure but we managed to get a draw and get it back to Ballybofey. But with the difference in winning and losing, we could easily have been knocked out of the championship that day. We got out of jail.”
Carr was probably unlucky to be the one volunteered to wear the No 3 jersey, something that might’ve been laboured on any one of his defensive partners. Matt Gallagher, though, grabbed the chance with both hands as Donal Reid came in as the right-sided wing-back and Carr was left looking in from the outside.
Donegal clinched the Ulster championship with a gutsy win over Derry after John Cunningham had been sent off and then defeated Mayo by four points. In the lead-up to that fixture there was some banter in Carr’s house, as his wife Ann is a native of Ballinrobe.
Approaching September’s third Sunday, Shovlin was the prime concern and on the morning of All-Ireland final failed a fitness test so early in the day some of the car loads hadn’t even left home. There was a chance that Carr, or even Cunningham, might’ve benefited. Doherty, however, got the vote and although there was an element of understandable disappointment from Carr, he was content to roll in behind the panel of which he was part.
“Everyone was looking at one another wondering who was going to get the shout but we heard pretty early John Joe was in,” Carr adds. “It was tough on Martin. He was such a great player and even lined out last year against my nephew Colm Flood in the county Junior B final.
“Everyone felt for Martin but we were on a wave. There was a huge buzz about the county as we went through the weekend. I would’ve loved to have got a run but I was delighted we won and was part of the squad. That was the bottom line, really. I was living in Donegal Town at the time and it was great to take Same Maguire back to the Abbey and then on to Letterkenny.”
Paul Carr’s Celtic Cross still brings with it warm memories. And instead of wondering what might’ve been, the current St Eunan’s club chairman is just glad to have been part of what did happen. After all, fact has always been stronger than fiction.