For those who followed Donegal football in the 1980s and 1990s, the name of Sylvester Maguire is synonymous with commitment and an attitude that gave any team he was involved with a distinct advantage.
Many would say that he was sometimes too brave for his own good. He was prepared to put his body on the line with whatever team he was involved with - club, college or county.
While his only involvement in the 1992 campaign was a cameo appearance as a substitute in the Ulster final, he played his part by pushing his teammates in training from start to finish.
A broken leg just before New Year’s Day in 1990 in a charity game in Fr. Tierney Park probably put paid to his intercounty career. The break was a particularly bad one and took some eight and a half months to heal, but that steely determination saw Maguire back in the county colours for the league campaign of 1991/92.
But as he says himself, the lay-off led to him picking up other injuries when he went back to training at full tilt.
“We were involved in Sigerson with UCG in 1992 and when I got back into training with the county panel that year, the team was almost picking itself. There was a chance that I might have got a call from the bench in the final, but it didn’t come,” said Maguire, who feels the toll of playing six Ulster finals (five and a replay) from 1989 to 1993 finally took its toll on that bunch of players.
“When the breakthrough came quite a few of the squad were on the wrong side of 30 and that along with contesting six finals put paid to the chance. We probably needed to make the breakthrough a little earlier.”
But having said that, Maguire feels that the team would have won the 1993 Ulster final had the Gods not worked against them with the quagmire that was Clones that day.
“There had been slippage after the All-Ireland win with the celebrations. We went through the 1992/’93 league campaign with very little difficulty and without hardly training. But the Friday before the Ulster final, Brian McEniff gave probably his greatest psychological rallying speech in the Great Northeren Hotel and when the team left for Clones that weekend, they were ready. I have no doubt that they would have taken the title, but for what happened with the weather and the pitch,” says Maguire, referring to the downpour which turned the newly-laid Clones pitch into a quagmire.
As for the All-Ireland final itself. Maguire’s greatest memory was when the team arrived at Croke Park and he saw Danny Quinn, the Derry full-back, standing outside the Hogan Stand with his two hands in the air, wishing them well. They were all behind Donegal,” says Maguire, who has had many battles with the big Derry man at county and club level, Quinn being possessed of similar kindred spirits, enjoying the physical battles especially.
But like all players, crossing the bridge in Ballyshannon with the Sam Maguire was his greatest thrill. “I suppose for McEniff, it was crossing the Drowes and for Matt (Gallagher) taking the cup to Ballintra, but for us, crossing the bridge was special with Garda Joe Doherty, who was in charge of security, joining us in the car.”
The Aodh Ruadh man played on for another season after 1993, but injuries took their toll and he concentrated his efforts at club level, playing and managing the Ballyshannon men to three Donegal titles to add to the two he had picked up in 1986 and 1987.
But it could have been different. Born in Clyhore, close to the Fermanagh border, all of Maguire’s friends and neighbours were playing with Erne Gaels. Indeed, his next door neighbour was the Fermanagh senior goalkeeper. But when he went to secondary school in Ballyshannon, he was soon to represent the Donegal Vocational School team (alongside Joyce McMullan) followed by recognition at minor, U-21 and senior level.
His footballing skills were honed under the direction of another Donegal great, the late Big Frank O’Donnell, who was headmaster at Rockfield National School. “Big Frank always said if you could win a ball in the yard at Rockfield, you could play for any team,” says Maguire, who said Big Frank was always stuck in the middle of the action in the school yard.
“He had the match programme in tatters by the end of the minor final on All-Ireland final day with nerves and there were tears in his eyes when he saw me warming up. He was a big softie but had a huge influence on us,” said Maguire.
The other big influence on Maguire’s career at club level was Jackie McDermott, who he says “was ahead of his time with his coaching in the 1970s”.
There is one unique tag that can be attached to Maguire - being the only Donegal player to win championship medals in Ulster at senior and junior. It is a good quiz question and is explained by the fact that he was centre-forward for the Donegal hurling team in 1989 when they took the Ulster crown, being defeated subsequently in the All-Ireland semi-final by Tipperary in Fr. Tierney Park, Ballyshannon.
The county football career had started as early as 1982 when during the Ulster U-21 campaign, Maguire was called up by Brian McEniff to train with the seniors.
He would make his debut in the National Football League the following year and his championship bow came in the Athletic Grounds in Armagh in 1984 - the same day as Brian Murray and Gary Walsh also cut their championship teeth.
When the county career ended, Maguire continued to play a pivotal role for the club and that continues to this day. Even when he was sidelined with the broken leg in 1990, he took over the club’s minor team and led them to championship success.
Nowadays, he concentrates mostly with underage at the club and his ability to nurture and cajole young people makes him a valuable asset.
But he still remembers his days with Donegal and the 1992 success with great fondness. “It was a crazy time, but it was very enjoyable,” says Maguire, who adds that the memory can sometimes play tricks.
Apart from the All-Ireland win, one of his greatest memories is of winning a Sigerson Cup medal with UCG earlier in 1992, when they defeated a star-studded Queens team that included Kieran McGeeney and Joe Brolly.
“We were back at a reunion of the win recently and looking at a video of the game, it was great to see the way game was played. I have no doubt that the best team lost, but the will to win and a bit of thickness to fight for every ball meant we came out on top,” says Maguire.
You can just imagine it!