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'To lose four All-Irelands in a row was tough. We just didn't perform in Croke Park'

Donie Shine Jnr and Eamonn McManus speak to The42 about Clann na nGael’s history of All-Ireland heartache.

Clann na nGael Clann na nGael were defeated in five All-Ireland finals. Source: Clann na nGael

FOR MUCH OF the 80s, the Clann na nGael club in Roscommon was a regular feature in Croke Park on All-Ireland club final day.

The trips to Dublin on St Patrick’s Day were almost an annual tradition for the people of Clonown, Drum, Johnstown, Monksland and Bealnamulla. That’s the fairly sizeable catchment area of Clann na nGael.

They travelled up five times — including a four-in-a-row run — in the hope of becoming All-Ireland champions. And each return journey across the Shannon was made without any silverware in tow.

Clann na nGael were Connacht six-in-a-row champions during this period, as well as kingpins in Roscommon, but those All-Ireland defeats left stings that went deeper and deeper each time.

After their last All-Ireland final loss in 1990, a report in the Western People suggested that Clann were “beginning to look like a spent force”.

As the 90s progressed, that prediction proved to be accurate and their momentum did eventually dwindle. They picked up four more county titles before drifting into barren terrain, failing to win another county title for 19 years.

They’ve tasted county success again since then to pick up their 21st senior championship and they’re back in the county final again this weekend.

But there was a stretch of time that Clann people will not look back on with any fondness.

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“In fact, we lost five,” Clann na nGael legend Eamonn McManus tells The42 about those painful memories. (The narrative around the club’s All-Ireland misery focuses on the four-in-a-row losses so much that the fifth defeat is often omitted from the tally.)

“We lost four-in-a-row and felt we should have won some of them,” McManus continues. “One or two in particular. We always felt we were good enough going into finals and the only one we felt we weren’t was against Nemo Rangers, they were much better than us.

“But the other three, we just didn’t perform on the day as we would have.

“To lose four-in-a-row was tough but we had a good side, we trained great, but we just didn’t perform in Croke Park.

“I would have lost the 1980 All-Ireland final as well with Roscommon so I didn’t have great success in All-Ireland finals.

“There was a lull there [for Clann na nGael] that we wouldn’t have expected. When we won our last county final, if someone said it would be 20-odd years before we’d win our next, you would have won huge money on that.

“It’s just the way it goes. We had underage success and we just didn’t transfer it into senior success.”

conor-counihan-of-cork-tackles-eamon-mcmanus-of-roscommon-1990 Source: James Meehan/INPHO

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That lull finally ended in 2015, as Clann na nGael returned to the summit of senior football in Roscommon after a narrow victory over their neighbours Pádraig Pearses. Interestingly, the Clann region is also in close proximity to the St Brigid’s club in Kiltoom.

The three clubs have dominated the county championship scene since 2010, with Brigid’s accounting for the crown on eight occasions, as well as the 2013 All-Ireland title.

Donie Shine Jnr, a minor All-Ireland winner with Roscommon in 2006, was key to that Clann revival. He acknowledges the natural rivalry that exists between Pearse’s, Brigid’s and Clann but adds that it was never overly fierce or vicious. He has friends in all three communities and has lined out alongside some of them while playing for Roscommon.

His father Donie was manager of Clann during that successful chapter in the 80s. He couldn’t but be aware of Clann’s record from that time and the horrible dip that followed. But the burden of restoring glory in his club was not a major intrusion for him.

“When I first came in on the senior panel,” Shine begins, “it would have been about 2006 or 2007 and we probably struggled in terms of maintaining our status at senior level a few years. Other years, we had decent form in the league and won a league title in 2013.

“We got to the semi-final of the championship in 2013 as well. But, no, never got to the final and struggled to be at the top table at the latter stages.

“And then in 2015, we made a bit of a breakthrough beating St Brigid’s in the semi-final and getting to the final against Pearse’s which we narrowly scrapped over the line.

“It’s kind of funny because when you’re a bit younger and you go onto a panel, you think you’re going to have loads of opportunities to go and win titles. You think it’s going to be an opportunity every year but I remember about three or four years into it wondering if it was ever going to happen or would you ever get your chance to win a county title.

donal-shine Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“It was a big relief in 2015. I remember the final whistle and just being very relieved to have gotten over the line finally and to have won a title. There were a number of players that I played with in the previous years who didn’t get their day but contributed an awful lot to the club.

“The club is a really good one [to win] because you have a community feeling and everyone’s part of it so there were great celebrations.”

A huge driving force behind Clann’s emergence as county champions in 2015 was the appointment of former Dublin footballer Paul Curran as manager. 

It was an interesting twist of fate that Curran would assume the helm of a Roscommon club after losing that 2013 All-Ireland final to St Brigid’s as the Ballymun Kickhams manager.

Curran would have his revenge as Clann boss in the 2015 county semi-final. He came into the post recognising the high quality of football in Roscommon, and the Clann players appreciated Curran’s status in return.

“His presence alone was a huge thing,” says Shine.

“He had a massive reputation, a really good track record in his previous jobs and he just brought a real level of professionalism. We were on an upward curve when he came in, and he just added that bit extra to it in terms of professionalism and it was kind of just belief alone for the players that he brought.

“It was enough to go and take on Brigid’s, that was probably the big game for us in 2015. We played them in Kiltoom and got over the line by a point or two on the day. It was just a huge win for us because we’d suffered a few beatings in the years before from them, and they were obviously a very good team that had their own success.

“We moved on from there and it was a key moment.”

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Clann na nGael’s first appearance in an All-Ireland final dates back to 1983. Paired with Portlaoise in the decider, the sides produced an unusual scoreline of 0-12 to 2-00. Unfortunately for Clann, they were the team that got the two goals.

The painful four-in-a-row stretch began in 1987 against Cork side St Finbarr’s. Down’s Burren were up next the following year before Nemo Rangers and Baltinglass of Wicklow all stepped forward to deny Clann in the subsequent years.

But despite all the agony that came with falling short in Croke Park, the build-up was always exciting for the locals.

“St Patrick’s Day became an annual outing and everyone was geared for that,” McManus recalls. “We didn’t really train that hard for Roscommon and I’m not being disrespectful with that, but when you are aiming to win an All-Ireland, you have to gauge your year and plan your full year.

“We went to Croke Park on four St Patrick’s Days in a row and there was huge buzz around the parish. Football means so much to a parish like Drum. It wasn’t a big area at the time and it was a huge success and a great time. We were kingpins of Connacht and kingpins of Roscommon.

“So there was huge buzz around the parish and people just live for football.”

The McManus name was well represented in the Clann squad. Eamonn was joined by his brother Tony who is also an All-Star for Roscommon. There were five other players with that name in the team, including his cousin who is also called Eamonn.

He became known as Eamonn Jnr while Eamonn speaking here adopted the title of Eamonn Snr.

“He made me very old at 24 or 25,” comes the reply as he casts his mind back.

Having two sons playing for Clann was a great honour for Eamonn’s family. It was a hectic operation too.

“My mother had a full-time job,” McManus remembers. “We weren’t trained to use the washing machine at any stage and it was all done for us.

“What I didn’t appreciate at that stage was that we went to matches, and okay we were nervous going but once the game started, [we were fine]. We’d no appreciation for what parents went through on the sideline, the nerves and all that.

“The family all came home when we were in a Connacht final and the house would be full the night before but we could not be disturbed. There had to be silence around the house. They were great times.”

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After making the breakthrough in 2015 to end that long famine for a county title, Clann only needed to wait another three years to lift the trophy again.

Donie Shine was the team captain for that success when they were convincing winners against St Brigid’s in the final.

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It was a day of great celebration, but equally, it was one of great emotion for the Shine family following the death of Donie Snr in 2017.

“You see your family after the match and it’s a bit emotional,” Donie Jnr recalls. “I was just very happy to be able to do that and one of my favourite moments to look back on because I had a lot of friends on the pitch as well.

“It was great to be able to win the title with them and to captain the team, and to see the family afterwards was just a really big occasion. It’s something I look back on fondly.

“We were introduced to football from an early age so it was nearly the done thing that you just played football and you trained. Obviously he passed away in 2017 and I was very glad to have won the county title in 2015 and he got to experience that.

“Another good moment was 2013 when we won the league and my brother Mark played that day too. I had three cousins playing too so it was a good occasion.”

McManus served under Shine and Tony Whyte during Clann’s glory years. He was involved for all five of their All-Ireland quests, but was unable to start the ’88 final against Burren due to a hamstring injury he was carrying that year.

While they did have talents like Tony McManus in their ranks, Clann’s run of consistency wasn’t born out of skill alone. They trained like horses.

“Training was tough and it was the same as a match situation,” Eamonn McManus says. “If you survived training, you’d survive any match so training was really competitive. We had 30 players and most nights were a full-blooded match for half an hour.

“There was so much competition for places and the talent was so strong and management had the structures in place and there was fierce rivalry for places within the squad.”

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Clann na nGael are preparing for another county final appearance later this afternoon. And once again, they’re facing neighbours Pádraig Pearses in the decider after edging out Roscommon Gaels in the semi-final.

Former Tipperary football manager Liam Kearns is in charge of the team these days following his appointment ahead of the 2020 season.

Things will be slightly different this year though. After playing such a central role for the club in their last two county triumphs, Donie Shine will not be involved at all this time around.

He announced his retirement from football at the start of this year due to injury struggles. Shine has undergone five knee operations since 2014 and notes that he had a “very frustrating season” in 2020.

The former Roscommon star also has a young family, and is an avid golfer. Life is just a bit fuller now, with no wiggle room for high-level football anymore.

Since some of the Covid restrictions have been loosened, he has attended some of Clann’s games this year with no regrets about his decision.

“I’ve attended a few of the games so far this year. It’s definitely different watching a game as opposed to playing but I probably wouldn’t be able to do the amount of work and training to put myself in a position to contribute to the team. So, I’m happy enough with my decision and I’m looking forward to seeing the lads playing.

“Things are going well, they’ve a really good team. I’ll be down shouting them on.

“I fancy Clann’s chances in getting over the line, I think we’ve got a little bit more up front and we’ve a solid base. Pearses are a difficult team to put away. They’ve also got five or six Roscommon panellists.

“But I think Clann can do the business.”

McManus feels equally optimistic about Clann’s odds. He was a selector with the senior team for a spell but has spent much of his coaching time at underage level.

From what he has seen on the production line, he’s hopeful that another golden period could materialise in Clann’s future. Perhaps more trips to Croke Park may be on the cards at some point down the line too.

But the first job is finishing the year as county champions and completing a cup double after their Ladies team won the Roscommon senior championship on Saturday.

“With the underage structures and success in Clann na nGael, I think they are a coming force,” McManus concludes. “I have no doubt that if they get over Sunday, they will give the Connacht title a rattle and see where it takes them.

“You get momentum and it’s a different game at that stage. You move up from the teams you’re meeting every week. It is a different thing but I’ve no doubt that if Clann can get over Sunday, we can look forward to a real crack at Connacht.”

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