There have been many wonderful stories behind the historic breakthrough of Donegal GAA in lifting the Sam Maguire for the first time in 1992. One of the most abiding memories surrounds that of one of Donegal’s most talented footballers of that era – Tommy Ryan from Termon.
Tommy did not play that famous day in Croke Park, as Donegal cast aside championship defeats to Dublin going back to the 1930 All-Ireland junior semi final.
But when the final whistle was blown by Tommy Sugrue on September 20, 1992, Anthony Molloy would not have been able to lift the Sam Maguire without the significant contributions of the Kilmacrennan man over the course of that now famous campaign.
The story goes that manager Brian McEniff was in a dilemma as to who would be his sixth forward that day in the final in Croker. It was a flip of the coin between Tommy and the talented Manus Boyle from Na Cealla Beaga.
It is said that McEniff rang both regularly as well to speak to them in person, as he tried to decipher some psychological affirmation that would help him decide.
Manus had produced the goods on big occasions before, while Tommy had equally stepped up to the mark just two months previously when a 14-man Donegal pulled out a magnificent second half display of raw courage against Derry in the Ulster final in Clones.
History records that Killybegs’ Manus eventually got the nod and in doing so, notched up a man of the match performance and an incredible nine points in the All-Ireland football final.
Tommy does not recall the same drama but says that the manager always announced his team days in advance to the players, so he would have known in advance that he was starting on the bench.
“We usually knew the team on the Tuesday or Wednesday before matches. At the end of the day you see the call that was made. Those matches were about winning matches and it’s not about what you personally think about the call. I was lucky enough to play on that team for the length that I did. I could name five or six players like Donal Bonner or Luke Gavigan and it could have been that neither myself nor Manus had the chances that we got. So I really had no complaints.”
Tommy also recalls a horrible leg injury to a young St Eunan’s classmate and minor Peter McIntyre, who had also shown great talent at underage level. “I look at it that I was very fortunate to be associated with that 1992 team, rather than not playing in the final. When you were playing at the time, the way players’ lives were structured, you focused on your next training session. Trainer Anthony Harkin was there ready to push you to the limit, so that was what you were concentrating on. People looking in might think that there was a lot happening, but you were concentrating and working hard and that takes your mind off many things, including whether you should be playing in a particular match or not. And you only need to speak to the lads to know how competitive it was at that time.”
While it certainly was the correct decision for that day, that was not to take anything away from the lion hearted Tommy and his dynamic displays throughout 1992, which made him one of the top scorers in that year’s Ulster championship with 1-10. He played in all of that year’s campaign up to and including the Mayo All-Ireland semi final.
Tommy’s blistering second half performance against Derry in the Ulster final, the unfortunate roasting he gave Danny Quinn that day and the energy of Gavigan, McHugh and Barry McGowan amongst others will long be remembered for a team which went into the interval 0-5 apiece and down to 14 men.
Tommy was already showing the signs of his prodigious talent while attending St. Eunan’s College and that lucrative left foot was to mark out a career that saw him centre stage in some of the greatest footballing achievements of the past half century in Tir Chonaill.
It began when he won his first Ulster Championship medal as a minor in 1985. It was a significant victory for Donegal as it was only the county’s second ever U-18 provincial championship victory following on from 1956.
Two years later, he was pivotal as Donegal defeated Kerry in the 1987 All-Ireland under 21 final – a draw in Tuam followed by victory in Dr Hyde Park, Roscommon.
But the spiky hair and boyish good looks were not to be mistaken for the Olympic type pace and pure tenacity of focus, when he had the ball in his possession.
Now with an All-Ireland under 21 medal in his pocket, Tommy notched up his first senior intercounty championship debut against Armagh in 1988, having been blooded the previous November against Roscommon in the National Football League.
In those halcyon days of no ‘back door’ revivals, Donegal were well defeated 2-10 to 0-8 by the Orchard county.
It may have been a painful day in many respects, but it was also a watershed moment.
For other championship debutants that day included John Joe Doherty, Martin Gavigan and Martin Shovlin. Sprung from the bench was Barry Cunningham and all were later to play significant roles in the ultimate All Ireland glory of 1992.
1989 saw Tommy notch up an impressive 1-4 in Donegal’s 3-12 to 0-14 quarter final victory over Cavan. He was on the scoresheet in all the ’89 games, including two points in Donegal’s heavy defeat to Tyrone in that year’s Ulster final replay.
He played alongside Manus Boyle in the victorious Ulster final of 1990 and came on as a substitute in the All-Ireland semi-final against Meath.
Back in 1992, Tommy particularly remembers the first Cavan game, which Donegal could so easily have lost.
“It was very close and Martin McHugh got a mighty point in injury time. I remember thinking that if Cavan had played us for a week, they would not have beaten us, yet on the scoreboard they nearly had us beat. But that was my thinking during the match when I was playing, but afterwards I realised just how close we were to losing it.”
Tommy believes that this belief came from the relative success of Donegal at that time, coming off an All-Ireland victory in 1987, making it to the Ulster final in ’89 and victory in 1990, before another loss to Down in the 1991 decider.
“So we had three decent years of Ulster Championship football campaigns. Call it that wee bit of confidence or what, but that is, I think, what got us through that day. The easiest team to manage is one that has 22 to 23 players really wanting to be in those 15 jerseys.”
Reflecting on the success of Donegal last year, did he ever think that it would be so long before Donegal would have to wait to get another Ulster senior championship?
“I believe there were a number of factors that came together in 1992. You had a very good Ballyshannon team. The marker for Killybegs was Ballyshannon and beating them. Then you had Glen and Kilcar and Ardara who were looking to Killybegs and saying that if they can’t beat them, they were not improving. So individuals like PJ Buggy and Jimmy White were also catalysts in shaping the bigger picture that would ultimately be gelled together by Brian McEniff himself.”
Tommy also cites previous minor and under 21 success as reasons for the ultimate glory of 1992.
“We have had relatively limited success at these age groups over the twenty years. There were minor titles in 1996 and 2006 and Jim got us to an under 21 All-Ireland final in 2010, but victory at these levels has been hard to find. I think it would be great if we could make the breakthrough more regularly at these levels.
“That 1992 team all had relative success at minor and under 21 level. They just did not arrive in Croke Park in September 1992. It’s not about blaming anyone since, but there are areas like Ulster Colleges football, where we are still way off the mark.”
On the club front, it also proved a fortuitous time for Tommy as he led his home team to their first ever final victory in the Donegal Intermediate Championship against Bundoran in 1991, who had been assisted by former Mayo dynamo Padraig Brogan. Tommy, may not have been as big as the Knockmore man, but coming in just short of six foot tall himself, he was to score seven points, six of them in the second half that would ultimately destroy the Seasiders’ shortlived romance of victory (1-15 to 1-7).
While a less dedicated person may have hung up the boots after 1992, Tommy continued to represent his county and was involved in the 1993 and 1994 Ulster campaigns. He came on as a substitute in his final Ulster championship game in 1994 in a semi-final defeat to Tyrone 1-15 to 0-10 and last played competitively for Donegal on April 30th, 1995 in an NFL encounter with Laois.
Back on club duties, he still packed a punch and he was there again when Termon took their second Intermediate title in 2000 after a replay against St. Michael’s. Just three years later he was managing and playing with that same team in the senior county final, only to be defeated by an excellent Four Masters team. Tommy struggled to get fit for the final, after sustaining a broken foot that year.
In 2008, a talented St Eunan’s team were to again deny Termon a senior championship. A week later Eunan’s played Crossmaglen minus Brendan Devenney and with six minutes left, there was just a point between the sides.
Later after John Joe Doherty was selected as Donegal manager in 2009, Tommy accepted a role as selector.
While success eluded that team in the championship, eventually opening the path for Jim McGuinness, Tommy believes there was a new attitude and approach brought into the motivational thinking and training at county level. For example, one of the country’s most highly respected sports injury specialists from the University of Limerick, Ger Hartmann was used. But comments about 1992 type training were well off the mark.
But he reflects: “You are ultimately judged on results at the end of the day and that is the marker and you have to accept it.”
He adds that the scenario which followed the whole selection process of manager that time also hung over that particular management team, but again he has no regrets.
Married to Eileen, the Ryan family already have the next talented crop of footballers emerging with their two daughters very much involved with the Termon Ladies teams.
His eldest girl, Ashling, recently was on the team that won the All-Ireland Senior Gaeltacht championship and is part of the hugely successful ladies team that has won multiple awards. Younger daughter, Aoife, is also following the same pattern as is son, young Tommy.
Have no doubt that the Ryan DNA will continue the long tradition of GAA footballing success in the years ahead and that Tommy Ryan will always be remembered as a prominent member of that special ‘band of brothers.’