Memories. Good days. Bad experiences. Games to remember. Encounters to forget. It was during the days after Donegal fans spilled on to the hallowed turf at Croke Park to savour the victory of their team over Dublin in September 1992 that it really hit home to Joyce McMullan just how far he and Donegal had come.
Joyce had just played his part in the never-to-be forgotten four point win over Dublin, willed on by up to 30,000 Donegal supporters, yet his mind drifted back to days less fruitful.
“One of the worst lows was in the mid-eighties when we travelled to a national league game against Tipperary in Division Three. We were knocking around the hotel before the match and usually there were crowds around. But on that particular day there was one car-load of supporters from Donegal and they were driven by Michael Kelly. Also with him were Paddy Muldoon, Corny Carr and my late brother, Gerry. The other individual with them was Johnny Maguire, who has also passed away, had travelled from Dublin by train. They were the only Donegal supporters I saw at the game that day. That was as low as things were.”
Life in the world of Gaelic football for Joyce began in the early seventies. Donegal won their first Ulster senior championship in 1972 and Seamus Bonner and Donal Monaghan were two locally-based players who helped create history. To the wide-eyed nine-year-old, they were both heroes.
“I used to see Seamus and Donal at Mass and I was just in awe of them. I didn’t get to see them playing until I went to Tir Chonaill Park around 1975. They had a huge impression on me. They were on national television and their success was all over the local newspapers. My sister, Breege, kept all the cuttings about them from the Donegal Democrat at the time,” he recalls.
Frank Muldoon and Liam Mullin introduced him to under-11 football. He doesn’t recall a whole lot about his early days, but he does remember being full of running.
“I would have been very shy at the time and would have found it difficult mixing. It was football that brought out the personality. At the time I didn’t realise I was that shy.”
He was part of the Four Masters squad that won the Donegal under-21 title in 1979.
Before that, he had lost more minor finals to Aodh Ruadh, Ballyshannon than he cares to remember.
Jackie McDermott brought Joyce into the Donegal minor set-up in 1979 when he was just 16. It was a massive step and something he was extremely proud of.
“Donegal had reached the Ulster final that year and had played their opening game against Tyrone in Irvinestown and we played in the minor game. The senior team was well beaten by Monaghan in the final. We had a good crop of players in the minor team. We had a good team again in 1980, but lost to a great Derry team in the semi-final. We were getting plenty of experience, were training well together and were also enjoying ourselves. We were getting to know each other better and good friendships were starting to be forged.”
Joyce says that Tom Conaghan was responsible for rejuvenating the Four Masters club in the early eighties and also took on the Donegal under-21 team manager’s role.
“We had a great under-21 squad in 1981, and we would have won the Ulster title and maybe more but for a few injuries and some bad luck. I was still a minor so losing an Ulster final didn’t affect me too much. The following year we were as strong and we knew from the word go. We got it together and while there was talk about this player being in and that player being out, as a squad we were very tight,” he points out.
They trained hard, played hard and got their just reward. Winning the under-21 All-Ireland gave all who were part of the well balanced squad a much needed boost of confidence. But Donegal as a county were well down the pecking order in the senior rankings.
“I can’t say honestly after the 1982 final that I considered us All-Ireland winning material, because we weren’t of course. But it gave us a taste of success and that’s always in your head – if you’re successful once you can do it again and bring that forward and be a great senior team.”
Joyce’s first game in the senior ranks was against Antrim in national league fixture when he was still only 18 in 1981. He remembers coming on the team which had Seamus Bonner at full-forward. Being part of a team with so many household names was the real deal for the teenager. His first championship game was against Armagh in 1982 and that was where it really began for him in the big time.
“I remember quite a lot about that day. We played extremely well and lost by a point. It was hugely disappointing because Armagh were highly rated at the time and we had the beating of them.”
Donegal, with a rich blend of talent, youth and experience got even the following year with Armagh as the county won its third Ulster title. An ultra competitive province meant it would be seven years before a Donegal captain would get his hands on the Anglo Celt again.
“There was no back door then and we lost so many matches in that period by a point,” he remembers, adding that the 1989 Ulster final - Donegal were well beaten by Tyrone in the replay – as one that got away.
Back they bounced in 1990 to regain the Ulster crown which set themselves up for an All-Ireland semi-final showdown with Meath. That defeat by the Leinster champions proved the turning point for the Donegal team, according to Joyce.
“We took an awful lot of stick that day, both from Meath and our own supporters. That galvanised us. We didn’t take too much heed of what was being written about us or what the supporters were saying. But we got tighter as a unit and made a few subtle changes from within. That was the day we said to ourselves that an All-Ireland final is not out of our way and is not too much to expect. We believed we could do it.”
Down knocked Donegal off their perch in 1991 and went on to win the All-Ireland.
Donegal defeated Derry in their fourth consecutive Ulster final the following year. And while they overcame Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final, it’s a game Joyce would gladly forget.
“People talk about last year’s semi-final between Donegal and Dublin being a nightmare for supporters, but the 1992 semi-final was just as bad. The only difference was we got a result. There was a huge sense of relief because it was all about the result. I had a stinker that day and wasn’t on my own.”
Once Donegal got a few scores on the board against Dublin after a nervy opening, Joyce fully believed they were going to push on and win. While he reckoned the favourites were good enough, in his eyes the Dubs hadn’t any real stand-out players.
“Their half back line of Curran, Heary and Barr was strong and that provided the McHughs, James and Martin, and myself, with a big challenge. We spoke about how we would contain them and it was a matter of tracking them and not let them get forward. Once Charlie Redmond missed the penalty, we always had a fighting chance.”
The sound of the whistle at the end was a euphoric moment and one he’ll always treasure. Two decades might have elapsed, but it’s still something he’s asked about and he’s more than happy to talk about it.
“It was fiercely enjoyable and a great feeling to have achieved. It was an extremely proud moment as well. So many great players had played for Donegal before me and they hadn’t experienced what I was experiencing.”
Immediately after the game, Joyce was pulled to one side in the dressing room and told that his brother, Gerry, who had been diagnosed with leukaemia the previous May, had died earlier in the day. While he wanted to travel to the game, he wasn’t well enough to go.
“Matt Gallagher and myself had done an interview with Charlie Collins for Highland Radio. When we came back into the dressing room, I expected the place to be buzzing and lads spraying champagne. But they’re all just sitting around and I was pulled into the shower by Brian McEniff, Michael Lafferty, the Bishop and Dr Austin O’Kennedy to tell me this news. Emotionally I had lost the plot because I had been speaking to my sister, Maureen, before I came in and she didn’t say anything about Gerry. Donal Reid gave me a scapular and I still have it with the tracksuit top it’s in.”
Joyce’s plan was to get a taxi and head straight home until Maureen burst in through the dressing room door. She had heard that one of the player’s brothers had died, added two and two together and made it her business to rubbish the rumour. For the previous 15 minutes, the dressing room had been a sad and sombre place. A few of the players, along with Seamus Bonner, who was big friends with Gerry, were in tears.
“Emotionally, it was incredible. To be honest I didn’t recover that night at all. I wouldn’t have been shy about partying, but I went to bed early,” he recounts.
Joyce spoke with Gerry by telephone and he was “over the moon” at the result.
“There was a great party in my parents’ house that day. They had watched the game on television and locals arrived with a few drinks and Gerard was among them. He died the following year in October. He was a great supporter.”
The homecoming at The Diamond in Donegal Town on the Monday night after the game is another chapter that Joyce looks back on with the fondest of memories.
Within two years, Joyce had hung up his intercounty boots – his last game being the Ulster semi-final defeat by Tyrone. McEniff left as well, an era had ended and PJ McGowan took over.
Retirement wasn’t something Joyce had given a lot of thought to. But the new manager selected a new panel of players. While still just 31, he had been in the senior set-up for almost 14 years.
“I had a good innings and it was time for new players to come in.”
It took a while for him to adjust to life away from the cut and thrust of intercounty football.
Golf filled the void – he was a six handicapper when he was on top of his game. He was still single and had plenty of time on his hands.
But things change, These days, Joyce is busy juggling fatherhood with work – himself and his wife Emer (nee Galligan) have two children Michael (7) and Kate (5)..
He’s in his fifth year involved with the Four Masters senior management team headed up by Joe Lacey, having been involved for a time with the under-12s.
“It’s more time consuming now being involved with a team,” he comments.
Looking back on his time as a player with Donegal, Joyce says he’s made lifetime friendships with many good and decent people both inside and outside the county.
“I think of the likes of Shane Carr and Barry Monaghan, who gave huge service to the county, and were unfortunate not to win any silverware. They would have enjoyed their careers as much as I have.”
Joyce believes that Karl Lacey and Michael Murphy are two of the best players Donegal has ever produced, while he also rates Paul Durcan and Neil McGee highly.
And it’s those players who are providing newer memories now for one of Donegal’s most trusted and loyal servants. Good days like last Saturday when Donegal simply blew Derry away.
Lacey and Co could do worse than follow Joyce McMullan’s footsteps.