On Matt Gallagher’s mantelpiece at his home at Foyagh in Ballintra there’s a framed photograph he holds close to his heart.
It was taken by the tunnel at the base of the old Hogan Stand and was captured perfectly, just at the exact moment the full-back embraced his mother Mary Joe as an All-Ireland champion for the first time.
Gallagher had just finished a post-match interview, sharing his thoughts on the 0-18 to 0-14 win over Dublin to any home or public house in the north-west still quiet enough to listen.
He hadn’t expected to see his mother but had an optimistic look to where she had been after the semi-final and sure enough, there she was with her sister Kay. Intense emotion ran through their veins as they hugged: Delight at Donegal’s marvellous victory, while they spared a moment for the thought for those who were looking down from above. Gallagher and Mary Joe had lost a father and brother, a husband and son, Tommy and Pauric.
“I’ve a picture of me meeting my mum right afterwards,” Gallagher says of that famous day. “My father had died and my brother as well and they were two huge GAA supporters and that was going through both our heads, so it was mixed emotions.
“My outstanding memory was the final whistle. It just engulfed you. You’re swept away and the stewards are just tugging you to try and get you in the enclosure. The final whistle is the only time you get to enjoy it. For spectators and family, they’ve all enjoyed a huge weekend, while we had to make sure we didn’t enjoy it. Until it was won.”
Twelve months earlier, Gallagher was also at the All-Ireland final, cheering on Down, who had beaten Donegal in the Ulster championship final. Ulster football followers are famed for following their provincial champions and that afternoon Pete McGrath’s team did more than win an All-Ireland, they broke the Meath and Cork axis, signifying that Sam Maguire was a lot closer than many might’ve believed.
“Seeing Down win the All-Ireland the year beforehand gave us a massive lift,” Gallagher adds. “I was down where Barry Breen got the Down goal. It was a fantastic win, really brilliant, and was a huge confidence boost to us.
“Down had beaten us when we had played so poorly. But there was a time when we were only within a kick of the ball of them. We knew we had the ability; we just had to express it a bit more. The feeling wasn’t that the chance had passed us, we genuinely felt it was still there.”
Although Gallagher had flirted with the idea of full-back before, the 1992 championship opener at a sun-baked Breffni Park sealed his fate. Paul Carr struggled to get a grip on Fintan Cahill, before Brian McEniff put Gallagher on the square’s edge. Donegal sneaked a draw.
“We were lucky,” Gallagher adds. “They’re a proud football county and in those days you played the same county at home one year and away the next and we had beaten them in 1989, 1990 and 1991. Their whole championship for four years was in games against us.”
When people look back at the meetings of Donegal and Cavan in 1992, rather perversely, memories of Damien O’Reilly’s cracking point or Martin McHugh’s free spring to mind. The replay, played in a murky Ballybofey, saw Donegal win 0-20 to 1-6, successfully negotiating the hurdle, albeit by skimming their backside on it on the way over.
A north-western fable suggests a reporter made his way tentatively through the muck to Gallagher as he walked off and asked him about Donegal’s full-back problem. “What problem?” replied Gallagher without so much as breaking stride. An Ulster semi-final win, 2-17 to 0-7, against a substandard Fermanagh followed in Omagh.
Still, unease many felt at the performance led to an increased emphasis on fitness. And although the physical burden increased, so too did the spirit within the camp. Derry, league champions and unbeaten in over a year, had ended Down’s reign as All-Ireland champions and entered the final in the cauldron of Clones as favourites.
“As a team who had consistently been in Division One and consistently beaten Derry, we wouldn’t have feared them no matter what anyone said,” Gallagher says. “The landscape in Ulster was different and without Down, there was a opportunity.”
While superfluous language can often be used to dress up the characteristics in a football match, there was substance intertwined with style when describing how Donegal’s 14 men toppled Derry, 0-14 to 1-9, that hot summer’s day.
“If you look back at those games now you can be cynical but football was different then,” Gallagher says. “We had our full-forward taken out of the game, Tony was kicked by Anthony Tohill (so much so the Derry player broke bones in his own foot while Boyle was taken off with knee ligament damage), with no retribution. It was a red card and we lost John (Cunningham) to a sending off that was very harsh.
“We thought at half-time the gods were against us and we still had to play ‘up the hill’ in Clones, as they called it. In the second half, though, we played really well. We just chased them down. When we got our opportunities we took them.”
Whilst Donegal celebrated a fifth Ulster championship win the realisation their wretched All-Ireland semi-final record brought sobering thoughts. In a democratic era, Mayo, the Connacht champions, would provide the opposition as the novel pairing of Dublin and Clare made up the other last four tie.
Nine years earlier, after winning his first Ulster championship, a 20-year-old Gallagher didn’t tog for Donegal’s heartbreaking loss to Galway in the All-Ireland semi-final with appendicitis and watched in horror as Val Daly scuffed a last minute winning goal, even though he had shot for a point.
In 1990, Donegal also tasted a bitter loss when Sean Boylan’s battle-hardened Meath side left it late before sealing a 3-9 to 1-7 win, on an afternoon when Gary Walsh dived to stop Bernard Flynn’s pop at goal only for the ball to rebound back off the crossbar and in off the unfortunate goalkeeper.
“That was a horrendous match,” Gallagher recalls of the 1992 semi-final. “We were nervous having had such a dismal record, which hasn’t improved much, having played four and lost four. We couldn’t seem to get a rhythm. Mayo were a powerful team, but that game turned when Tony Morley was straight through and hit the woodwork. From a great goal chance he didn’t even get a point.”
Both teams misfired continually as the sense of the occasion overpowered them but Donegal improved as the game bore on to win 0-13 to 0-9.
“We missed free after free, opportunity after opportunity,” Gallagher recalls. “But we were experienced and that had taken us through in Cavan and against Derry. We could easily have thrown in the towel but when Manus Boyle came on we managed to pull away.”
Whilst the Dublin panel were splashed upon the national newspapers, Donegal were effectively in hiding. The necessary pre-match media work was conducted courteously.
Gallagher, who ran the Bradog pub in Bundoran, left his wife Cathy in charge, spending most of his time in the living quarters upstairs while his younger brother Dermot took over his delivery van for the week leading up the final.
“There was big talk about Dublin. Papers are sold more in the capital because there are more people living there and that’s just economic fact. Sometimes you feel a little sorry for the Dubs with the media pumping them up but if they’d won we would have been slaughtered. You don’t win matches in newspapers. You win them on the field.”
Despite hiding in the underdogs’ kennel, McEniff instilled a sturdy level of confidence that would never spill over to arrogance. “If Donegal were to play Dublin in Ballybofey would you be confident of beating them,” he asked. As the heads nodded the Donegal manager told them Croke Park was just another playing field.
Donegal started slowly but found their rhythm after Charlie Redmond’s struck a penalty wide at the Canal End, which was brimming with folk from Glengad to Glencolumbcille. Declan Bonner’s point was the final score on a famous afternoon.
At Tommy Sugrue’s final whistle, the crowd galloped onto the pitch as fast as if the banks of the Erne had burst before Anthony Molloy famously declared “Sam’s for the Hills.” After making his way down the Hogan Stand steps, Donegal’s record appearance holder, with 147 senior inter-county outings, met his mother for that famous photograph - a copy of which resides at home in Foyagh, and also sits at the Sheil Hospital in Ballyshannon.
“Unfortunately now my mother is an Alzheimer’s sufferer,” Gallagher adds. “Her condition is a terrible way to be but it’s a picture I have, just because someone took it. And although there will be a tinge of sadness, that was still a fantastic day and in the photograph we both have emotion of joy, which is etched right across our faces.
“One thing I’ll always remember is after the train journey home to Sligo, which was a circus recorded on video by the late Michael Gallagher from Pettigo, was making our way into Bundoran and Ballyshannon and then on home. Myself and my mother were featured on RTE News from Ballintra. It was brilliant just landing at the community centre back home with the players, so many of whom I have such a strong bond with even now, to see my clubmates, friends and my family with Sam Maguire.