To Hell or to Connacht! That was the Cromwellian call back in the 1600s. But it almost had a sequel in 1973 as a result of an Ulster championship game between Donegal and Tyrone in MacCumhaill Park, Ballybofey.
The game was a first round encounter and a repeat of the previous year’s Ulster final and Donegal’s first Ulster Senior Championship success.
It all occurred on Sunday 24th June, 1973. The lead story in the Donegal Democrat of the week in the immediate aftermath of the game described it under the banner headline, ‘Donegal GAA will withdraw from Ulster?’ The description was of a pretty raw and physical encounter that left a sour taste among Donegal supporters and officials.
One Donegal player ended up in Letterkenny General Hospital, and a number of others required attention after the game. Tyrone did not leave MacCumhaill Park without their walking wounded either. One of the county’s star forwards of the time was stretched out in the course of the game and another watched the second half from the side line after getting his marching orders from the referee,on the day Hugh McPolin from Antrim.
It was a day too that saw MacCumhaill Park witness a hail of bottles and cans from Tyrone supporters. Donegal fans were intimidated on the terraces. And such was the terror and fear generated by as the Democrat described them an ‘element of Tyrone supporters’ after the game that a number of pubs in Ballybofey and Stranorlar closed their doors.
The game and the report on the encounter, not only made the sport pages of the Democrat the following week, but also was the lead story on the front page.
‘As a result of their experiences in recent cross-border games in general and last Sunday’s deplorable scenes, in particular, Donegal County Board of the GAA may seek to leave Ulster and affiliate with Connacht’, was the opening paragraph to the Democrat story.
Acting Donegal county secretary at the time, the late Frank Muldoon, also confirmed to the paper that he had spoken to the Ulster secretary, Gerry Arthurs, on the Monday morning after the game.
And while Donegal did not look for a replay or anything of the like, the late Frank Muldoon told how he had conveyed to the Ulster official that what happened in MacCumhaill Park the previous day was totally unacceptable. He also called for an investigation into the game and the ugly scenes witnessed in and around MacCumhaill Park in the course of the game and after the game.
He also told of how following Sunday’s scenes in MacCumhaill Park and a number of other incidents at games in the six counties, that there was a mood among officials to withdraw from Ulster and to join Connacht.
The incident that seemed to spark the unsavoury atmosphere was the felling of Donegal star forward Neilly Gallagher by a Tyrone defender 15 minutes into the game.
“It was only my first game back playing with Donegal after two years and I was playing well and had scored three points in the first ten minutes or so,” Neilly told the Democrat this week.
“Myself and my marker Mickey Joe Forbes had hit a few thumps on each other. But then just 15 minutes into the game he just drew out and hit me.
“I was facing him at the time and wasn’t expecting it. He caught me totally by surprise and I went down and the next thing I knew I was being carried from the field. They took me to a cafe in the town and an ambulance came and took me to the hospital in Letterkenny. I got seven stitches and I was concussed. I spent the night in hospital and that is all I remember of the game.”
Neilly, speaking publicly on the incident for the first time said: “He hit with his fist. The reason that he opened me the way he did was because he was standing so close to me when he struck out.”
The Gaoth Dobhair man, one of the leading forwards in the game, also told of how he never received an apology from the player or any Tyrone official afterwards and he had never crossed paths with Forbes in the intervening 40 years.
”I was at left half forward against Tyrone the following year in Omagh, but he was on the opposite wing and he never came near me,” said Neilly.
Kieran Keeney, a 20 year-old from Ardara, replaced Neilly and scored the Donegal goal in the second half that almost won it for Donegal. It was also his senior championship debut.
“I remember very little about the actual game,” Keeney recalled this week.
“I had even forgotten that I actually had come on in the game and scored the goal until you read the report to me,” said Kieran Keeney.
“You never tend to remember games when you lose them. My abiding memory from that game was sitting in the dugout and the bottles and stones flying off the roof of the dugout and for the subs not being able to warm up.
“It really was a frightening experience and it got worse after Neilly got hit and had to go off injured. Neilly was a real hero and favourite with the Donegal supporters and they got very vocal after he went down and added to the tension.
“And then Tyrone had a player sent off and it got even worse. The atmosphere in MacCumhaill Park, which was packed that day, was such that I think most of the Donegal players wanted to just get the game over and get out of the ground and Ballybofey.”
Kieran Keeney, to this day, is baffled as to what prompted the unruly and intimidating attitude among Tyrone supporters blamed for being behind the ugly scenes and downright aggressive attitude.
“It came totally out of the blue and certainly we were not expecting it. There was no great rivalry between Donegal and Tyrone at the time. Down and Derry had been Donegal’s rivals during the 1960s, and had been the teams the county had met most frequently. But there was no great history between Donegal and Tyrone and as a consequence no great rivalry as such.
“But there was certainly an unsavoury atmosphere prevailing in MacCumhaill Park that day. I had never experienced the like before and thankfully never since,” said Kieran.
Andy Curran from Castlefin and then a Sean MacCumhaill’s player, also wore the green and gold that day. An experienced defender with five years ‘championship experience behind him, was one of the Donegal players ‘grassed’ (Democrat report). In other words stretched out on the pitch. Brian McEniff, the then player manager, and Joe Winston were the others.
“I was marking Seamus Donaghy that day and he got sent off after giving me a box on the nose and busting it. The Tyrone supporters got very annoyed after that, which happened after Neilly Gallagher got hit and had to be carried off,” Andy Curran recalls.
“There was a terrible atmosphere in the ground afterwards and there were wild tackles going in. It is a mystery how more players weren’t injured.
“After receiving treatment and cleaned up I played on for the rest of the game.” And going by the report which described the game as a ‘bruising and gruelling encounter’ laced with ‘rib-cracking shattering knocks’ Andy was one of Donegal’s better players on the day. St. Eunan’s Anthony Gallagher at centre half-back was Donegal’s best player on the day.
Tyrone and their over physicial tactics was the main butt of the match reporter’s criticism in his comment piece on the game. He did not spare the rod either when it came to the Donegal management, who he blamed ultimately for the defeat and the surrender of the Ulster crown.
“Tyrone did not beat Donegal - Donegal beat themselves or rather Donegal’s management, mentors or whatever you call them,” the reporter said in the comment piece under the heading ‘Bad memory.’
“The players needed help from the sideline, but received nothing. The players did their best and some of them were off form.”
The game, he said, was won and lost at midfield as Frank McGuigan was given the freedom of the park but the management did nothing about it.
(And they think being critical of managers and players is a modern day phenomenon. I can’t help but feel if that reporter was to turn up today for a press briefing or ask for a post match interview, he would not walk away with a whole lot of copy.)
And the poor old referee Hugh McPolin felt the full brunt of the reporter’s pen. He felt the Antrim official was out of his depth. It is worth noting that Donegal, the following year, bounced back under the same management team to claim a second Ulster title, beating Tyrone, in the first round in Healy Park.
Donegal won in Omagh, 1-9 to 0-8 having lost the battle of Ballybofey twelve months earlier 1-7 to 0-12.
Interesting, too, the following year, Donegal togged out in Ballybofey, got on the bus and drove to Omagh, got off the bus, into the dressing room and to the pitch and played the match.
Immediately after the game, it was back onto the bus and straight back to Ballybofey, where they showered and changed back into their street clothes.
Ulster Council Investigation
An investigation was launched into the game by the Ulster Council and Mickey Joe Forbes was suspended. Donegal’s secretary, Frank Muldoon and player, Andy Curran, were warned although no reason was given in the case of Curran. Muldoon was admonished for his criticism of events in the Donegal Democrat in the immediate aftermath of the encounter. Donegal Co. Board said they did not accept the findings and were far from happy with the suspension given to Forbes.
But like many other disputes, the matter petered out and time was the greatest healer. Tyrone went on to win the Ulster final but were well beaten by Cork and Donegal remained part of Ulster.
Democrat 1973 Comment Piece
I expected a good game at Ballybofey on Sunday - so did a great many others judging by the record-breaking crowd in McCool (sic) Park. What a let down!! The ‘game’ was forgotten, and an ill-tempered physical brawl developed. Poor Donegal - Tyrone forced them to play it their way - and they were no match for them in this ruthless affair.
But it was not Tyrone who beat Donegal - Donegal beat themselves, or rather the management, mentors or whatever you call them. Donegal were leaderless - they needed and deserved help, from the sideline but received nothing. The players did their best and some of them were off form - poor Mickey Lafferty was thrown in at the deep end and was swamped. Frank McFeely tried bravely to play centrefield on his own and was blotted out. It was here the game was won and lost, but what do the mentors do - damn all.
They had their options - Declan O’Carroll was on the sideline. Anthony Gallagher or Seamus Bonner could have slowed Frank McGuigan down, but no he was allowed to roam freely in the centre of the field. It’s time the players demanded an explanation.
After all if one of them has a bad game he is dropped but when the sideline display their incompetence as they did so well on Sunday nothing happens and they remain as a threat to the progress of the team. This is the heart of Donegal’s troubles and until it is resolved good players will continue to feel frustrated and abused.
Two other points in the course of this game must be mentioned - the referee was well and truly out of his depth. Anyone who saw last year’s game in Clones knew this one would need tight control. The scenes afterwards amongst the Donegal team and its supporter were to say the least, a disgrace.