Peter Campbell firstname.lastname@example.org @dgldemocrat
Donegal GAA honoured four of the All-Ireland winning team at their annual Banquet in the Mount Errigal Hotel on Saturday night last.
The quartet of Christy Toye, Neil Gallagher, Rory Kavanagh and Karl Lacey retired during 2017 and were presented with the customary Green Jacket at the awards night to mark their service to Donegal and their part in the All-Ireland success.
It was a night for nostalgia and the four players honoured have provided plenty of memories since they burst onto the Donegal senior team in the early Noughties.
All four had remarkable careers for both club and county. Between them they have 10 Donegal senior club championships - Christy Toye the only one without a senior club championship medal.
Christy Toye was the longest serving of the four and would surely have surpassed his clubmate, Colm Anthony McFadden, only for a rare nerve injury which deprived him of two seasons, and an achilles injury suffered in 2009.
“It was great to have the opportunity to play for Donegal. I suppose it was 2001 that I started. It was such a long career and eventually we won stuff,” said Christy, who felt that it was difficult in the early years because of Tyrone and Armagh.
“You don’t really have any regrets,” said Christy, who paid tribute to all the managers who he played under. “I was talking to Brian McEniff in there and he had a huge influence on my career. He was probably telling me things at the time, I was only 19 or 20 at the time, but they made more sense later on in the career.
“Probably Jim McGuinness had all the traits mixed in together; he was a psychologist, a coach and a motivator; he had everything all in the one,” said Christy, who agreed that the 2012 All-Ireland was the big memory. “It gave everybody a lift, in the middle of the recession. It was just a great, great experience,” said Christy, who remembered a special moment down in Laois when he made a comeback from injury. “I came off with a blood injury and there was a huge applause. I thought it was for some Laois player and couldn’t believe that it was for me. Those are the moments that you remember.”
As for his Croke Park goals, Christy said the ones that came with victories remain the most special - the goal against Kildare in 2011 just after coming on, and the one against Meath in 2002 were the goals that stood out.
Donegal’s All-Ireland win in 2012 and their victories over Kerry, Cork and Mayo in the final three games, will always be synonymous with Big Neil Gallagher and his domination of midfield.
The Glenswilly man was as laid back at the awards ceremony as he was on the field. “Ah, it’s great to be recognised by the county and by GAA people, “ said Neil, who said it was nice to look back because when “you were playing, you didn’t think about awards or winning, it was all about the next game”.
“As footballers, you are never really happy. You want to keep going and win the next match. When you look back and see that in Donegal we have only won two All-Irelands and to be part of one of them was special,” he said.
Gallagher also has the distinction of being the only Donegal man to captain the county to Division One National League success in 2007. “I remember that year well. We beat all the top teams, including Kerry in O’Donnell Park. It was a massive achievement.”
Talking about the All-Ireland success in 2012, Neil has special memories of the final whistle. “I just remember the final whistle went, and four points up or whatever. I just remember Neil McGee running out to the right; Paul Durcan came sprinting out past me. You just ran after them celebrating. Michael Murphy came over and a few others. It was definitely brilliant,” said Neil, who said in the end, stepping down was an easy decision.
“The body made the decision for me. Commitment wise it was never any bother. You had to want to do it, but whenever the body wouldn’t stick it any more,” said Neil, who added that it is never easy after 14 years.
The Glenswilly man counts the 2014 final as the low point with a regret that the team did not perform on the day.
As for his days of high fielding, he agreed that the Cork game in 2012 was probably the highlight. “I would love watching boys like Dara Ó Sé, Tohill, John McDermott, Anthony Molloy. I would get more enjoyment with catching four or five kick-outs than scoring a couple of points,” said Neil, who said it was a privilege to run out on Croke Park and to do so with winning Donegal teams.
Lacey’s great legacy
Donegal’s most decorated footballer, Karl Lacey, has left many memories for Donegal supporters, firstly as a corner-back and then as a cornerstone of the Jim McGuinness template from centre half-back.
“There are some great memories. When you’re playing you’re in that wee bubble, but now we can sit back and take it all in,” said the Four Masters man, who said he was happy to walk away after giving his all.
“I came into the squad in 2004 and it wasn’t easy to get results. Antrim beat us very early on in my career. We stuck at it and Jim came in and drove us hard and we eventually got the success.
“That famous meeting in Downings with Jim in 2011 got a lot of things ironed out. It was kind of new and then a sense of belief came, especially for the boys who were there from 2004. We were saying ‘Jesus, we never had this before’. That belief came and we worked off each other and we got to the final and the rest is history,” said Karl, who said retiring wasn’t difficult, but it was the body that made the decision.
“If you could do a lot of things without your body, without your legs, I would keep going. Even last year was debatable. I said I would give it one last shot and I can walk away now knowing that I gave it everything and I’m happy with that.
“I have been lucky to be called in now by Declan to help with the squad. Hopefully, I can add some value to the squad and bring them forward,” said Karl.
There can be no doubt that Lacey’s presence with the group going forward has to be a big plus. If he can impart the skills, defensive and offensive, as well as the tigerish will to win, then we can look forward to plenty of more big days out with the county.
For St. Eunan’s man, Rory Kavanagh, it was a second retirement, having made a comeback, but he leaves the scene with great memories and few regrets.
“It was an enjoyable number of years. It was hard to leave it. I’ve made a lot of friends along the way,” said Rory.
“We had some great days; plenty of tough ones too. But we hung in there and it worked out for us too,” said Rory, citing the National League win in 2007 and then three Ulsters and the All-Ireland.
“We had plenty of tough days too against Armagh and Tyrone. We learned the hard way and they were great teams too. We had to bide our time,” he said.
The stylish forward/midfielder remembers his debut under Mickey Moran in a league game against Cork in Ballyshannon and is full of praise for Moran (“a fantastic person, fantastic coach, and you can see what is doing with Slaughtneil now”), Brian McEniff, Brian McIver, John Joe Doherty, Jim McGuinness and Rory Gallagher.
“It was fantastic to get that experience working under all those coaches and all of them legends in their own right.”
Asked about highlights, the answer is the same for Rory - winning the All-Ireland in 2012, although he says there were others!
“There are plenty of highlights when you are rooming with Big Neil Gallagher, but I can’t go into them now,” quipped Rory.
“It was a good All-Ireland in terms of the teams that we beat. Winning against Kildare in 2011 was a big monkey off our back, and it gave us belief when went back against Kerry in the quarter-final in 2012,” said Rory, who felt the semi-final win over Cork was probably their best performance.
His great memories are of pulling on his first Donegal jersey; first Ulster final (even though it was a bad memory) and the first Ulster final that we won in 2011. “There was just a great outpouring of emotion in Clones that day,” says Rory.
There is also the friendships, none more so than with his midfield partner, Neil Gallagher. “We schooled together, room together, play golf together. We share that bond for ever more Amen.”
Thankfully, just like Karl Lacey, Rory Kavanagh is not cutting the cord completely with Donegal as he has just been appointed as the U-16 manager and it is something that excites him.
“It was something that I would always like to do. It is an environment that I enjoy, being physically out on the field working with players. It is gonna be something that I’m looking forward to,” said Rory.