Once in a lifetime.
Manus Kelly could go on to win another five Donegal International Rally titles, but nothing will ever surpass the emotion that rushed through his veins and bones on Sunday week as a lifetime’s ambition was realised when he took victory by just 0.5 of a second.
That he had the ability to cut it with the big boys at the business end of the sport was never in doubt. Getting the opportunity, though, through an expert team and a flawless plan was also going to be a must if the boyhood dream was to be realised.
Manus was hooked on rallying as a boy growing up in Glenswilly. He stood at the best vantage points he could, perched in field and or corners to get a glimpse of his heroes as they roared their way to success around the special stages of his native county. At the back of his mind, he was always thinking ‘maybe someday’. Maybe someday he’d lead the finishers of the Donegal International into the cathedral town and he’d be declared the winner of the most prestigious rallying event in Ireland.
Eight days ago, that maybe became a reality when shortly after 5.30 pm, himself and his co-driver, Donal Barrett from Milford, revved up their Subaru WRC onto the famous finish ramp outside the Mount Errigal Hotel in Letterkenny and climbed up on the bonnet to a hero's welcome. It’s hard to remember when a winning crew in Donegal received such a welcome at the end of his weekend efforts. Looking down at it all, Manus could see his family, friends, supporters, fans, old school mates he knocked about with and former team mates from Glenswilly GAA Club. He punched the air with sheer delight as those blew chanted 'Mandy, Mandy'. It was a moment to savour and one forever locked away in the happy volt.
That Manus and Donal managed to turn a 9.3 second deficit into a half a second victory over Keith Cronin at the end of the last stage has been well documented in the aftermath of the incident-filled event.
A year ago, he made a huge breakthrough when winning the national championship in Donegal with Donal in his Mk 2 Escort. It was all the more poignant given that he was involved in a serious accident with a spectator on the Saturday of Donegal in 2014. At the time, it looked like Manus and rallying were done, such was the effect the incident on stage 12 from two years ago had on him. But his luck changed for the better last year, and a win in Carlow earlier this season was the perfect prep for his bid for glory in Donegal in the big league. Manus’s approach to Donegal was extremely low-key, though the smart money locally would have been heavily placed on the the Glen man doing the business.
“I had intentions of getting as much as I could out of the car with my own ability. I felt if I could do that, I was in with a chance. But you’re looking at Garry Jennings, Declan Boyle and Donagh Kelly - all top class men - and knowing you’re going to be up against it,” he says.
Team Manus Kelly was headed up by Paul Crumlish this year and absolutely nothing was left to chance.
“I had a serious team of people. They aren’t all necessarily rally people or heavily associated with motorsport, but who do have unique skills which were all so important. All those skills put together got Manus Kelly across the line. The management by Paul Crumlish was just amazing and I can’t thank people enough.”
Looking back over an unforgettable chapter in his life, Manus was taken aback by the huge numbers who had come out to watch.
“Manus Kelly from Glenswilly, the son of a farmer sitting in a WRC heading to the start of the Donegal - sure it’s the stuff of dreams,” he muses as he recalls his feelings at the start of day one.
“When I was driving down the ramp I just thought this is unreal. I thought about James Cullen, the last local man to win the event and how he felt in his era 25 years ago. It was just class.”
Manus is keen to stress that he is very much part of a team, with Donal Barrett having an equal role.
“He’s very driven and very competitive. He’s probably mentally stronger than me, but the two skill nets combine and we just click together.”
Nothing rash was the plan for day one of Donegal, with staying in touch up top the aim. After the first stage, Manus was happy enough, but when they went out on the second loop, he backed off.
“I was very annoyed with myself. I backed off because I just wanted to see Saturday. I had a bit of a moment on the second run over the first stage at Glenkeogh.”
He was content to be 19 seconds off the lead on Friday night and set the second fastest time over Knockalla on Saturday morning.
An off on day two put a serious dent in their title hopes, however and Manus reckons he might have went for it a tad too early.
“I steered it away from a tree and put it through a hedge - it could have been worse. We would have been out in five seconds but the spectators couldn’t get the gate open for nearly two minutes. I went into service and I was so downhearted. To be honest I dropped the head and for the next two stages I was very slow. I came back into service and had a good chat with David McGinley. I’ll never forget him telling to ‘bare your teeth like a dog, that’s what a dog will do when it’s going to fight’. And that really got me going and we went out and set fastest times for the rest of the day.”
Declan Boyle went out on stage 14 when having a commanding lead. At the end of stage 13 he was one minute and 52 seconds ahead of Sam Moffett, with Manus well adrift lying two minutes and 37 seconds behind the leaders in fifth. By the end of stage 14, Sam Moffitt was the new leader, with Manus well poised to pounce in fourth 34.4 seconds off the pace.
“I didn’t get much sleep to be honest on Saturday night. I had David (McGinley) on my door that night and we had a long night. Mentally, we got ourselves into a great place and I went out the next morning and went for it.”
A decision to tackle stage 17 on Fanad Head in the wet with slicks paid off and was 18 seconds quicker that the next fastest car. Stage 18, however, was cancelled by the organisers in the interest of safety and it didn’t help the cause.
“It was a massive setback and put my plans clean out the window. I lost two seconds on the penultimate stage and that saw me chasing a 9.3 second cap. I knew I could have binned it on Atlantic Drive on stage 19 because it didn’t suit the car.”
The last stage was approximately 18 kilometres long and as himself and Donal waited for their final countdown, the sense of purpose and desire within the car was palpable.
“Donal said to me ‘what are are doing?’ and I said we’re going for gold. It was a mountain to climb.”
As he thinks back on the final stage, he says he never felt like anything like it behind the wheel when competing before. Tunnel vision set in. He saw nobody. The road was the only thing in view. Donal Barrett’s notes were all he could hear and he felt everything else through his hands and feet.
“It’s the nicest feeling in the world,” he offers.
“I knew that I had given all I had got. Win, lose or draw I was very happy with my performance on the last stage.”
Manus and Donal had an anxious wait before the official times for the last stage were declared.
“The time keeper told Donal we had won the rally by half a second and Donal told me.Then the whole place went crazy.”
A night to celebrate is being organised and when things settle down the team will regroup and take stock.
“We will take a look at maybe doing a bit more next year. But it’s all to be discussed and agreed upon,” he explains.
Manus says he’s indebted to the local business people who have supported him.
“I never would have done it without them. Letterkenny is a great town and Donegal is a great county and people like to see one of their own doing well. The support I got all through the rally was incredible. There are people who hadn’t their name on my car who were so good to me and they know who they are."
And many more people in the world of rallying now know who Manus Kelly is.
All in a lifetime.