Barry McGowan was selected for the first time in the No. 2 shirt in the All-Ireland semi-final of 1992. Whether it was by accident or design, it was one of the best decisions ever made by Donegal management.
McGowan had been filling in at half-back and half-forward, but when called in during the Ulster final in Clones, he had made his mark and was destined to make the position his own.
Throughout his prodigious underage career, corner back was never an option; his talents were always wanted much farther forward.
Looking back on it now, the mercurial Killybegs man acknowledges that as a utility type player, he never really got to nail down a position on the county team until then. “It was probably my own fault, but Lady Luck shone on me eventually,” says Barry, who felt the roving role was not available in Gaelic football back then.
“I would love to play in the game at present system as an attacking half-back, but back then as Molloy used to say, ‘every man look after your own corner’.”
Winning the All-Ireland went some way to erasing one of the worst memories in Barry’s career, defeated by Cork in the All-Ireland minor semi-final of 1985. “It was a crushing blow, losing as the minor dream was coming along nicely,” said Barry, who says the memory of that defeat never left him. “To this day I can’t listen to the minor semi-final or final because it brings it all back.”
Maybe that was one of the motivating factors used by McGowan and others in the 1992 final.
“The build up was memorable. On the Saturday morning I had three separate visits from priests. Maybe it was divine intervention,” says Barry, who felt the preparations were well ahead of their time, although there was tension.
Barry was rooming with Martin Shovlin and Martin Gavigan in Finnstown House, with all three carrying knocks. “Maybe that was why we were selected, but sadly Martin Shovlin, the fittest man we had in the squad, didn’t make it.”
McGowan recounts the news being given the squad in the diningroom and being rattled. “I had to go to my room for ten minutes to get my head right,” he says.
“On boarding the bus we were more determined than ever to win it for Shov.”
Then on to Croke Park and the Magee Tailored jerseys everywhere. “By the time we reached Jones’s Road, Donegal were outnumbering the Dubs two to one. Out on the field to ear piercing noise but I don’t have too many memories of the game.”
The Garda escort to Malahide with wives and girlfriends; RTE gate crashing the dinner for the Sunday Game; another Garda escort to the train station (“we could get used to this”); a marvellous train journey to Sligo with crowds at every station; the same on the way from Sligo the Drowes (with as many in Grange as if Sligo had won); on to Donegal Town, “an unbelievable scene”.
“I never saw so many grown men cry, and that was just on the bus,” quipped McGowan.
“Tina Turner was in full flow with ‘Simply The Best’ and for that moment we felt we were the best.
“Those were the days before mobile ‘phones so we had no warning. Then Dom Breslin must have got a bed for everyone in Donegal Town that night.”
Like most players, taking Sam Maguire into Killybegs was the proudest moment, but amazingly Barry has only watched the game on video a couple of times since 1992.
McGowan had made his debut against Kerry in 1989 in the National League in Ballyshannon and admits to having a poor game. He says he was in awe of the likes of Jack O’Shea and made Charlie Nelligan look good by dropping a few balls into his hands.
His call up came after bagging every honour available with his club and then lifting an Ulster Minor Championship in 1985 and Ulster and All-Ireland U-21 honours in 1987.
“We were probably a little lucky in the first game in the U-21 final in Tuam against the mountainous Mick Galwey, but by half-time in the replay in Roscommon, we knew we were the better team. That was special, but Cavan were waiting for us in the long grass in Cootehill the following year,” says Barry.
The Killybegs man feels, apart from the motivation of winning the final for Martin Shovlin, losing to Down in 1991 and seeing them go all the way to win the final was a kick up the backside for us.
“That was a motivating factor, as was our run for Derry the following year in 1993.”
Although the 1992 side was predominantly made up of two U-21 All-Ireland winning sides - 1982 and 1987 - McGowan says he never felt as if there was a gap between the sides. “We always had a good number of characters and there was always a gang at the back of the bus for entertainment purposes, but it helped us bond,” he says.
After 1993, McGowan’s involvement was always interspersed with injury - a factor that was a huge hindrance to his club and more importantly Donegal.
“I had picked up a serious knee injury and had hamstring problems and I seemed to be spending most winters recuperating, but it was always a patch-up job,” said McGowan, who hides any annoyance that might have built up because he missed so many games.
His sheer talent on the ball was a joy to watch and that was reflected by supporters in Donegal when he was selected on the Donegal Democrat Team of the Millennium in 2000. “I cherished that award and it brought home to us what supporters thought of us,” said Barry.
The Killybegs man went on to play for his club until 2002 when, as he says himself, “the enjoyment was gone”. But he still remains with the club, acting as manager alongside Manus Boyle for a few years and has had various stints at underage coaching.
That nimble footwork on the football fields will be put to good use for the club next month as he is one of the participants in the Killybegs Strictly Come Dancing which takes place in the Blue Haven on 24th March - he should look good in Magee Tailored once again.