The 1992 All-Ireland final had barely taken shape when the first real altercation took place in front of the old Cusack Stand between Donegal centre-fielder Brian Murray and Jack Sheedy of Dublin.
“No love lost there then,” said Ger Canning on the RTE commentary. “The Donegal man came out the better on that one,” added Charlie Collins on Highland Radio to confirm Murray’s sign of early stature.
Sheedy had held onto the ball following the award of a free and was bumped by Murray with reasonable force and ended up on his backside. The Ballyshannon native was, and is, a Garda based in Kilmainham, and Sheedy was employed by the force in the same district, in his case at Kevin Street station.
The challenge was one that didn’t any contain particular malice. Murray admitted afterwards he didn’t even know which one of the Dubliners he had pushed. It was, though, just a little indicator that showed Donegal were not going to lie down to anyone on a day when many thought they would.
“We would’ve always had a bit of banter and played against one another quite a lot in Dublin,” Murray says of Sheedy. “Jack was playing with Garda and I was at Civil Service. What happens on the field stays on the field but off of it we were great mates. The shoulder caught him by surprise alright. It was a bit of craic more than anything.”
Murray now lives in Kildare, and last weekend was at the local club, Kilcock, for their 125th anniversary celebrations, as GAA President Liam O’Neill was present for the switching on of the floodlights as Kildare welcomed Clare for an inter-county challenge.
Murray is married to Della, from Enfield, Co Meath, and they have two children; Ciaran, who is 19 this year and Lorna, 15. Both represent their local club whether with ball or sliotar and the family were present at Croke Park last July in their respective county jerseys as Donegal toppled Kildare in spectacular fashion thanks to Kevin Cassidy’s point in the depths of extra-time.
Even in his teens, Murray had the body of a man and played full-forward as De La Salle from Ballyshannon won the All-Ireland Colleges title of 1980.
Around that time, he used to watch famous Monaghan side Scotstown, who possessed his uncles Sean, Eamon and Packie Forde and won three successive Ulster club championships between 1979 and 1981. Aidan, Brian’s father, had also represented Monaghan as a minor.
Kilcock may be home now but 20 years ago the Civil Service team Murray represented had such a strong Donegal link it made the the banks of the Erne seem shorter.
‘Red’ Jim Gallagher from Ballyshannon was full-back. Noel McCole, formerly of St Eunan’s, kept goal. Inishowen native Michael O’Brien, county panellist Michael Gallagher from Glenties and Murray’s brother Alan were all involved.
In fact, there was almost a famous personal double for Murray in 1992, only for his club side to lose the Dublin county final 0-11 to 0-10 against Kilmacud Crokes.
Living, working and playing football in Dublin in early September 1992, Murray’s stance in the cockpit meant he perhaps felt the pressure of the build-up more than his teammates tucked up in the north-west.
After taking a fortnight’s leave and staying at home, that gauge was heightened as approaching his county’s first ever appearance in an All-Ireland final – unquestionably the biggest game of his life – Murray had problems with his hamstring and Achilles.
“The hamstring wasn’t too bad but I had to be cautious,” he says. “But the Achilles was a little worrying. I had never had a problem with it previously. Brian McEniff would always be trying all sorts and he called Sean Boylan, the Meath manager, to see was there anything I could do.
“Boylan said to keep up the physio but to go into the sea twice a day. Up as far as his thighs. Let the salt and the cold at it and keep turning on it.
“So there was this lunatic in the month of September swinging about in the water, with people walking the strand or whatever wondering what the hell he was at. I would have physio in Sligo in the morning so I’d be off then to Rosses Point for a dip and then later on to Rossnowlagh. Twice a day. Everyday.”
As the Donegal panel arrived at Croke Park on September’s third Sunday and took their seats in the Hogan Stand for the minor match between Armagh and Meath, Murray was given an injection by Dr Austin O’Kennedy to give him every chance of making it through the 70 minutes.
“It was history and I had to be part of that first 15,” Murray recalls. “I would’ve done anything, just like any other man would’ve. I felt fine and was marking Paul Clarke and he and I would’ve had plenty of battles over the years, as he played with Whitehall Colmcilles.
“I knew how to play him. He was going well but I just had to get into him and contest everything. Seamus Bonner was a selector for McEniff and was also involved with me at Civil Service. He knew I could play Clarke as well and he would’ve fought my case. I just wanted to make it onto that team.”
Dublin were overwhelming favourites and Donegal’s semi-final win over Mayo had swayed few of the floating voters. Their 0-13 to 0-9 win over the Connacht champions meant they were the least nervous of the two teams, some suggesting they had fallen over the line.
But as Murray lined out alongside Anthony Molloy in the middle of the park awaiting Kerry referee Tommy Sugrue to throw the ball in for the first time he was confident the margins were much closer.
“Dublin might’ve watched us against Mayo and we weren’t great,” Murray says. “Maybe they underestimated us and that was to their detriment. Everyone was expecting them to win an All-Ireland around then. Donegal was seen as their perfect opportunity.”
Donegal took a while to settle and with 12 minutes played Charlie Remond blasted wide a controversially awarded penalty, after a coming together between Noel Hegarty and Dessie Farrell.
The Canal End goals, that had seen Mikey Sheehy, Kevin McCabe and Jack O’Shea all miss important penalties down the years, had another victim. Dublin have always been famed for their fast starts to games, something that can whisk the frenzy in front of large crowds. But thanks to Redmond’s miss, the famous start they had been expected to deliver, didn’t arrive.
“It could’ve been very different if they had scored the penalty,” Murray adds. “A lot of our guys stepped up to the mark. There was pressure on some more than others. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me saying it, but Martin McHugh was the one they all knew and they said he would bottle it. Martin was brilliant, with Keith Barr on him.
“Look at the Dublin half-back line. Barr, Eamon Heary and Paul Curran and everyone was raving about them and their abilities to push up and get scores. Our boys, Martin and James McHugh and Joyce McMullan, just went straight at them and it was the Dubs who were on the back foot. Our boys went to town on them. That was the platform of the victory.”
Donegal overcame their early jitters to produce a solid conclusion to the first half, going in 0-10 to 0-7 in front. Murray was tiring, though, and was replaced by Barry Cunningham midway through the second half. Watching was harder than playing. As the shadows began to lengthen, the Leinster champions, chasing a first All-Ireland title in nine years, just wouldn’t go away.
“Barry came on and did brilliant,” Murray adds. “He put in a great shift with the fresh legs. It was probably between him and me who would be starting but it was a great substitution. We were three or four up but a goal could’ve turned the whole thing around. But we kept playing our own game.
“In 1990, we came and tried to take on Meath in the All-Ireland semi-final at their game and they beat the shite out of us. The football was left at home. In 1992 we played our game.
“Dublin’s big thing was putting big balls into Vinny Murphy but Matt Gallagher never even went for a ball. He would just wait till he came down and then he’d be on top of him.”
Donegal kept Dublin at arm’s length. Declan Bonner famously cut in on his left foot and swung over the insurance point, fisting a punch of delight at the Hogan Stand. Moments later, that same stand, and two of the other three-quarters of the ground burst its banks.
“To win it was one of the best things of my life,” Murray continues. “Watching Kerry and Dublin winning as a youngster I always dreamed of playing for Donegal and then winning an All-Ireland. It was a huge honour. I’ll never know what it would’ve been like to win four or five but one was more than enough for me.”
“We deserved that All-Ireland. We were one of the top three teams in the country at that time. It wasn’t a fluke. It was brilliant to win it and to beat Dublin was an added bonus.”