When push comes to ‘Shov’

Martin Shovlin rejoiced and enjoyed in Donegal’s success as Anthony Molloy raised aloft the Sam Maguire in Croke Park, but amid the euphoria there were mixed emotions.

Martin Shovlin rejoiced and enjoyed in Donegal’s success as Anthony Molloy raised aloft the Sam Maguire in Croke Park, but amid the euphoria there were mixed emotions.

One of Donegal’s stalwarts, he had played no small part in the journey that took Donegal to the Promised Land.

But All-Ireland day itself was a different story for the likeable Dunkineely man, better known to the legion of Donegal football followers simply as Shov. In truth it was nothing short of a nightmare; a worst ever life experience!

An injury picked up at training three days before the final showdown with the Dubs ruled Martin out of biggest day in Donegal sporting history and denied him his boyhood dream of parading behind the Artane Boys band on All-Ireland final day.

He suffered a neck injury in a kickabout the end of the final training session on the Thursday night before the final in Tir Chonaill Park, and was forced to make the biggest call of his sporting life on the Sunday morning of the final, a mere four hours before the throw in.

A scan three weeks later discovered that Martin had damaged a number of discs in his neck and was never in with a chance of playing in the 1992 final.

“People have often said to me down the years that it was a brave decision. Believe me there was nothing brave about it. The simple fact is that I was not fit to play. I had played a number of times prior to that with injury and if I was in any shape at all I would have played,” insists Martin 20 years on.

“I remember going out that Sunday morning with Brian (McEniff) and Dr. Austin O’Kennedy, Mickey Lafferty and Seamus Bonner were there too. I had also received a pain killing injection from Dr. Tim O’Brien who had come out to the hotel earlier that morning.

“But once I kicked the first ball I knew that I was not going to make it and it was all over for me and what I had dreamed of for years. My head was all over the place and I have to confess I shed a few tears. Here I was looking forward to playing in the final and all of a sudden I was going to miss it. It simply was devastating and there is no other way to describe it.

“I had been going to All-Ireland finals for years with Terence McGinley. I’d safely say for the previous ten years I hadn’t missed one, and I remember sitting up in the stand and looking out on Croke Park and thinking wouldn’t it be great to one day play in a final.

“And here were Donegal in their first ever final and I was going to miss it. And it was not a case of that I was not fit enough to start but would be in the subs and in with a chance of being called on at some stage and maybe play a part in the game. But that was not for me. I was not going to play any part at all. I was out. All the emotions imaginable were swirling around in my head.”

The game itself, Martin, admits was a complete blur: “It was difficult to concentrate and I don’t remember much from the game. My head continued to spin for a good few days afterwards though I do remember we had a good night on the Sunday night in the Grand Hotel and the homecoming and the crowds coming out to greet us in Bundoran, Ballyshannon and Donegal on the Monday night was something special.

“The throngs that greeted us on the tour of the county afterwards will always be with me. It was brilliant and I must say people were very good to me and very sympathetic and kept reassuring me that I had played my part. The rest of the players and the management were very supportive, too, and all that did ease the pain and the heartbreak.”

But despite all the kind words and support from his colleagues Martin, while accepting that he had played his part and had been part of a long journey, it does not make up for playing on the big day.

“It’s good to know that I was part of a great team and the first and only one from the county to win the All-Ireland, but nothing compensates for missing out on the big day. It was a huge disappointment and I suppose it will always be with me and that is not for one minute to say I haven’t great memories from ‘92 and the campaign and my career in general.”

That 1992 neck injury was not the first to scupper Martin’s chance of featuring centre stage for Donegal on an All-Ireland day.

Ten years earlier a freak accident at work, days before Donegal set out on their ‘82 All-Ireland U-21 campaign, ruled Martin out of Donegal’s Ulster championship opener with Cavan.

And it ultimately cost him his place in the team as Donegal went all the way to an All-Ireland final victory over Roscommon in Pairc Sean MacDiarmada, Carrick-on-Shannon.

“So much for the saying, ‘lightning doesn’t strike twice’. The Thursday before the first round U-21 championship game with Cavan, I had been named on the team at left full-back, but I fell off a pole at work and burst my ankle and missed the rest of the season. I played a half against Down in the drawn game but I missed the rest of the run and had to sit out the All-Ireland.

“That was a huge disappointment at the time, but it was nothing compared to missing the big day ten years later. I don’t know what it is about me and All-Irelands, but I’d have to say I’ve had the worst of luck; maybe it was just as well we didn’t reach many more finals,” he jokes.

But in a glowing career that saw Martin pick up an Ulster player of the Year award in 1990, an All-Star replacement award the same year and a host of other accolades, the teak tough Naomh Ultan man was a darling of Donegal followers.

His trophy cabinet also boasts two Ulster senior (1990 and ‘92), an Ulster U-21 and two All- Ireland Masters (2002 and 03) and a Masters All-Star from 2006.

And there were those tours to Canada in 1990 as an All-Star replacement and Australia in 2006 with the All-Star Masters team.

“It was heartbreaking and disappointing to miss the All-Ireland but there were great days too and great memories and I have made many great friends from my years playing with the county.

“The ‘92 squad were all great friends as well as teammates and I’d say looking back I would have played more football and spent more time with some of that squad than I did with players from my own club.

“Myself and Anthony Molloy, Joyce McMullan, Sylvester Maguire went all the way back to our Vocational Schools days and county minor days. But we were all good friends and more like a club team than a county team. There was a great bond between us and I suppose that is why we enjoyed the success we did. The only other regret I have is that we don’t meet often enough.”

Like so many of his team mates have stated in recent weeks, Martin’s is that they did not go on to win another one or two. He certainly feels they were good enough.

“We definitely should have won more than we did. We were one of the top teams at the time and while we contested a number of league finals we did not get another crack at an All-Ireland and I suppose it is something we all regret. I have no doubt if we had the qualifiers back then we would have at least reached another All-Ireland whatever about winning one. We certainly would have been in the shake-up, but it did not happen and there is no point dwelling too long on it now.”

The years have ticked by and Martin has long hung up his county boots. But having just turned 50 earlier this year, believe or not the Lion hearted Martin has begun another season playing for his club’s reserve team.

His county duties now are confined to transporting his two daughters, Amy and Eimear, to county minor training with the Donegal ladies minor football team.

But he will always be remembered for missing out on that big day.

“The disappointment will always be with me, but I’m looking forward to the re-union.”