Late 1980s. Clann. A machine. Ruthless. Awesome. Merciless. Stylish too. Joey Connaughton dancing up the wing. Mike Keegan all but grinning and holding a ‘Thou Shalt Not Pass’ sign aloft. Eamonn Junior weaving and tormenting. Wily Senior – lethal. Fran Nicholson, calm and composed. Paul McManus, oiling the machine. The sublime Tony Mc, twisting the feet of defenders before striking with clinical intent.
And on the sideline, Donie, wise head on a young man…Donie staring at every movement, every motion of the game…Donie thinking, pondering, learning…directing. Donie. We were in awe of Donie, Donie and his ruthless team of the ages.
Ploughing my journalistic furrow in Longford and Cavan, I had got the call from home – the offer of a job at the Roscommon Champion.
It was 1988, sports reporting was my business, but I knew very little about club football in Roscommon.
Although I was an enthusiastic fan of the Roscommon County GAA team, the club scene had passed me by, save for a few outings supporting Kilglass Gaels (Highlight: 1985 County Junior title win). At grassroots level, I was more of a Junior Soccer man, having played with little distinction (trust me) for Dynamo Rooskey and then Strokestown United FC.
As a reporter, I had been immersed in club football in Cavan and Longford, under the tutelage of Eugene McGee, then a local newspaper Editor.
On arriving in Roscommon with notebook and pen, I surveyed the GAA landscape of 1988.
I quickly discovered that in a field of dreams just outside Athleague, men from small but proud hurling strongholds clashed the ash. And I discovered that a host of football clubs, many with success-laden histories, others with aspirations of glory, were utterly frustrated, indeed demoralised, because of the presence of a ruthless footballing machine in Johnstown. Based in Johnstown but happy to bring their mercilessness on tour, were mighty Clann na nGael.
And I discovered, very, very quickly, that Donie Shine, their manager, was a young man who was becoming a GAA colossus before our eyes. Clann won thirteen county titles in sixteen years, including an eight-in-a-row. And they won six Connacht titles in succession (seven in all). They reached, but lost, five All-Ireland finals, including four in a row.
Following them around the county and country, I soon became familiar with this exceptional team. On a good day, they destroyed opponents, Clann bagging huge scores. They had many stars, but it was their togetherness that made them so formidable. They were truly a team; every man worked for the cause, not for personal glory. How those of us who were outside the Clann camp wondered about that man Donie Shine. He would only have been in his mid-30s at the time, and yet he was managing this group of players to extraordinary success. He was unassuming and friendly, but I was in awe of him. They were a mystery that no team in Roscommon or Connacht could solve. They were the untouchables.
These club championships, whether for the victors or the vanquished, are very, very special. What makes this club structure so special is perhaps the fact that it is full of ordinariness.
It is uncomplicated. We are drawn to the GAA, because it is our history and tradition and identity wrapped up and presented before us on cold evenings and sunny afternoons.
It’s the never-ending story with interchanging characters but the same plot.
The glamour is in Croke Park and at provincial grounds on certain days, but the heart of the GAA is in small villages and towns, where the pitch is a kind of promised land.
The pitch, the park, the clubhouse…the grounds…they belong to the people and this is where the club championships reveal their mysteries.
As a journalist I’ve observed the great passion that exists in small parishes for the club championships.
In recent years I haven’t gone to matches as much as I used to. I regret that and intend to reverse the trend. Because there is something very precious about these games, and about how they add so much to our lives.
As a young sports reporter I enjoyed the annual odyssey…from Hyde Park to Athleague to Johnstown, Tulsk, Castlerea, Elphin and other venues…watching the contests that meant so much to the locals.
In the club championship, local bragging rights are at stake. Local derbies are so special. On the pitch, the players carry the weight of the expectations of the people of the parish. On the sideline, yesterday’s heroes now directing the inheritors of the great tradition. In the stands, the critics and amateur comedians!
It has been a pleasure watching so many stylists, some mighty hard men, not to mention quite a few characters. And while Tony Mc and Frankie Dolan and Nigel Dineen and others thrilled us with their class, it has been a pleasure also to see the quintessential club players – men who might never get a county call – modestly display their quality week in, week out.
The characters change, the plot doesn’t. The years go by but the grass in the park waits, the green stage awaiting its cast.
In the last few days, the GAA in Roscommon organised a photocall to kick-start publicity for the 2017 club championship in Roscommon. You can see some of the photos on the ould twitter machine. It’s all a long way from the late 1980s.
At senior level, St. Brigid’s are now the team that everyone is trying to beat. They of course reached the All-Ireland summit in 2013, and what wonderful ambassadors they have been for Roscommon football.
At every level, men and women will enter the fray driven on by sheer love of the game, love of the club. We all want intercounty success; but the real magic of the GAA is in these small grounds, with their epic pasts and their promise of a great future.
As the Roscommon GAA family prepared last week for the upcoming Championship 2017 throw-in, a very special man passed away in the company of his loving family. Donie Shine, only in his mid-60s, succumbed after a brave battle with illness.
He was a friendly and modest man. In constructing his team of the ages, I don’t know what his secret was. What he and his players chieved with Clann will never be surpassed, never forgotten either.
I was in awe of him. Donie. Donie and his team of untouchables. I’m sure his wish would be that every man, woman and child who stands at a club game in Roscommon in the future savours the unique magic of what we have, savours their own journey at the grounds that Donie graced with such distinction.