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'Leeds United were over for a second or third look at me the day I got my ankle broken in two places'

Con McLaughlin, the first Donegal man to score 100 goals in the League of Ireland, looks back on his career.

Con McLaughlin pictured playing against Shamrock Rovers in the 1982-83 season (credit: Finn Harps Media).
Con McLaughlin pictured playing against Shamrock Rovers in the 1982-83 season (credit: Finn Harps Media).

AS FOOTBALL FANS, it is tempting sometimes to look at seminal moments in the game and think ‘what if’.

What if Bob Paisley narrowly won the vote to become Ireland manager rather than Jack Charlton as had looked like being the case initially? What if Roy Keane was never spotted by Nottingham Forest and spent his career in relative obscurity? What if the controversial Paul Scholes ‘offside’ goal had been correctly allowed to stand, meaning Jose Mourinho’s Porto would have been knocked out of the Champions League by Manchester United rather than winning it outright in 2004?

Footballers sometimes play this game too. Con McLaughlin had two significant ‘what if’ moments in his career in which he was denied big moves across the water to Wolves and Leeds respectively.

But before delving further into why exactly those transfers failed to work out, involving teams that were highly regarded top-flight clubs at the time, some context is necessary.

1. Salad days

McLaughlin grew up in Donegal and helped his school, Loreto College Milford, become the first team from the county to win the All-Ireland U16 title. And around the age of 15, he started playing for Swilly Rovers in the Donegal League.

“I actually had to ask myself was I that good at that level,” he tells The42. “Obviously, I must have been pretty handy. I must have been okay. You wonder at times how good you actually were, but you’re really as good as people tell you.

“At the time I was playing, I wouldn’t have thought that I was that good or any good. I just went out and gave it 100% every time.

My father, God rest him, was a big influence on me playing. He would have encouraged me all the time to get out and kick a ball. People told me he was a good footballer when he was younger, but he got his leg broken in two places and never made the grade. He never played senior or anything — there was nothing when he was younger. It was just local level summer cups that he played in.

“The early influences probably were Richie Kelly, the time that he was the Donegal youth manager. He would have been quite an influence at that stage. And Eunan ‘Busty’ Blake, who signed me for Harps.”

McLaughlin was just 16 when he initially joined Finn Harps in the late 1970s. The youngster had impressed as part of a Donegal Select side against the League of Ireland club in a game arranged to mark the opening of a pitch for local team Cranford. The couple of goals he scored that day was enough to prompt ‘Busty’ to offer the teenager a deal.

conm McLaughlin scores his 100th League of Ireand goal on 17 November 1991 against a Limerick City side that featured Sam Allardyce. Image credit: Gerard McHugh.

2. Alternative career paths

During this period, the youngster was also expected to play GAA in school, though soccer was always McLaughlin’s preferred choice.

“I actually played a bit of Gaelic in 1983-85, around that time when I got married and moved to living in Falcarragh for a while,” he adds. “I signed with the local Gaelic team, Cloughaneely. I played a bit of Gaelic and was quite handy at it by that time.

“I probably blew my first interview for a job when I discovered that one of the members of the board who I was being interview by was a staunch Gaelic man. We had a discussion on the pros and cons of Gaelic versus soccer, and I don’t think he was too happy with me in the interview anyway.”

First and foremost, therefore, McLaughlin’s dream was to play in the League of Ireland.

“It would have been nice to get across the water,” he explains. “But it wasn’t the be all and end all. I was probably too backward inside at the time to push that end of it.”

However, McLaughlin did come close to getting a proper crack at English football at one stage during his teens, though circumstances conspired against him.

“I went over to Wolverhampton,” he recalls. “I didn’t hear about it until the Monday, the FAI [Football Association of Ireland] sent a telegram to Wolverhampton on the Friday evening telling me to report to Tolka Park in Dublin for a game against Northern Ireland. Wolverhampton sent back a message to say it was too late to organise a flight and all the rest.

“When I came back from trial, Wolves wanted me to go to Switzerland with their U20 team that Easter. But I had to get permission off the FAI. So I wrote to the FAI for permission from my home club, Swilly Rovers.

“Not only did the FAI not give me permission to go to Switzerland, but they also dropped me from the next two home youth games, which were against Holland and Finland. But I was very fortunate that I got playing in the two away games. I got the two trips away, but I didn’t get playing in the two other games. And Wolves lost interest then.

“The only other interest that I knew of — and I didn’t know this until my testimonial year in ’88 — was when ‘Busty’ Blake, God rest him, wrote a column in the testimonial programme to say that Leeds United were over for a second or third look at me against St Pat’s up in Inchicore the day I got my ankle broken in two places.

I was a boyhood fan and am still a fan of Leeds United. That would have been a dream come absolutely true, but it was quite a bad break. I was in plaster for about eight weeks. It took a long time to heal. I was about 20 at the time, it was ’81 or ’82. But I didn’t even know about it, ‘Busty’ didn’t tell me.”

McLaughlin was also not too pleased with the FAI for preventing him from continuing his Wolves trial and feels his background also counted against him.

“I think it was the fact that I was from Donegal and all the rest — that had a lot to do with it. If you were outside Dublin, they didn’t want to know at that time anyway.

“You needed to be something sort of half-exceptional. There was no organised coaching or anything in Donegal.

“Thankfully, things have progressed. For any young boy now that has potential, there’s every avenue open to him now to fulfil it.”

Packie Bonner saves a penalty in the shoot out 1990 McLaughlin played in the same youth teams as future Ireland legend Packie Bonner. Source: INPHO

3. Local hero

Despite feeling somewhat of an outsider at times, McLaughlin still managed to earn a couple of underage international caps, and was part of a panel that featured future Ireland players, including Packie Bonner, Ronnie Whelan and Kevin Sheedy, while scoring a couple of goals for his country to boot.

“I didn’t think when I was in that youth team that I was any better or worse than any of them,” he says. “I was maybe a wee bit shy. I came from the country, the back of nowhere. They were all city boys and all sleek. They were a bit more upmarket than I was.”

While part of the Irish youth set-up, McLaughlin struck up a friendship with roommate and fellow Donegal native Bonner, and the pair have remained pals ever since.

“I would still bump into him every now and then, and have a good old chat.

“Even the time they were in the World Cup, Packie flew in to Carrickfinn. I took my young fella to see him and he said ‘you’re off your head driving all the way down here to see me’. That was his reaction to it.”

Bonner enjoyed better fortune than McLaughlin when it came to getting a move abroad. Both players were part of the Donegal youth team that represented Ulster in an inter-provincial competition in Belfast. The future Ireland legend was only second-choice goalkeeper at the time, though an injury to number one Declan McIntyre paved the way for a key moment in his career. Bonner impressed amid a 4-0 win over Galway and got signed by Celtic as a result.

Football is like everything in life, you need that bit of luck,” McLaughlin adds. “If I had that bit of luck, who knows whether Leeds would’ve been interested or not after the game in Dublin. If the FAI had allowed me to go to Switzerland with Wolves’ U21 team, who knows whether I could have got a wee stint there or not. But they’re pipe dreams. They’re things you look back on and say ‘what if,’ but I enjoyed my career anyway.”

In contrast with the soon-to-be-international-star Bonner, McLaughlin would have to make do with the more modest surroundings of Ballybofey. At 18, he made his Finn Harps debut against Cork Alberts down in Flower Lodge. 

“Tom McGuinness came over and said ‘you scored the winner,’ whereas actually he scored after that as well,” he remembers.

“It was an amazing feeling to score on my debut. It was not spectacular, I just ran on past the defender and stuck it into the net.

“It was nice and easy, and believe it or not, most of my goals were nice and easy. Any centre forward will tell you, it’s not about the spectacular, it’s about knowing where to be at the right time. It was just a knack.”

brad-13-310x415 McLaughlin played alongside the legendary Brendan Bradley for a couple of years at Finn Harps.

4. Learning his trade

Despite this impressive start, in his early years at the club, McLaughlin found himself mostly playing out of position on the left or right wing. Competition for places in attack was intense in those early years, with the likes of Brendan Bradley, Terry Harkin and John McDaid vying for a spot up front at various points. Regardless, the inexperienced youngster was not complaining.

“I was just happy to be involved with Finn Harps,” he says. “That was sort of the dream to play with a team from home. I think then more than now, even some with of the facilities for the young ones, the aspirations that they have are not that good. Players would prefer to stay playing with their own team rather than going to Finn Harps.

“I don’t know how much of an avenue is open for those younger boys getting into the first team. League of Ireland’s the most competitive [division] and you need to be really exceptional at underage to get into the set-up. There are not too many 17 or 18-year-olds breaking into the Harps team.”

Around the time McLaughlin made his debut for Finn Harps — 40 years ago now — they were one of the best sides in the country. The club finished the 1977-78 League of Ireland campaign in the runners-up position, ending up just two points behind champions Bohemians. Nevertheless, a decline set in thereafter. Their final positions in the following seasons, when there were 16 teams in the league, were as follows: 8th, 5th, 6th and 14th. After it was reduced to 14 teams in 1982-83, they came 9th two years on the bounce. 

In the 1984-85 season, the first after it was decided that teams would be split into two divisions, Finn Harps were relegated in 15th amid a dismal campaign that saw them lose 17 and win just six of their 30 matches.

Their descent coincided with McLaughlin beginning to establish himself as a top-quality striker. 12 goals put him near the top of the scorers’ charts, while he also helped the club reach the League Cup final, though they were ultimately beaten 2-1 by Waterford United.

The build-up was quite good, it was quite special,” he recalls. “Everybody was coming to interview you. All the people in the county were wishing you and all the lads luck. But that’s all forgotten about after 90 minutes when you get beat. You get the ‘hard luck’ thing for about one day and then everybody forgets about it.”

The accomplished forward had similarly bad memories amid the culmination of a 1980-81 FAI Cup run. Harps had been going well until the semis, where they came up against eventual winners Dundalk. The Lilywhites ultimately earned a hard-fought 1-0 victory.

A frustrating day for McLaughlin had been compounded by opponent Dermot Keely’s constant attempts at provocation. Eventually, the Harps player, thinking the referee was not looking, decided to kick his antagonistic opponent, resulting in a red card, thereby greatly diminishing his team’s hopes of a comeback.

Dermot Keely McLaughlin considers Dermot Keely to be among the toughest opponents he faced. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

5. Heartbreak

McLaughlin, though, describes Finn Harps’ subsequent relegation as “probably the lowest point of my career,” adding: “We always ended up about mid-table, but then when they made it two [divisions], for some reason or other, we started to struggle players-wise. We got relegated and they hadn’t the financials to keep the club going and stuff like that.

“It was a real downer to get relegated. It lost a wee bit of glamour after that. Instead of going to play the likes of Shamrock Rovers, Dundalk and Bohemians, you were going to EMFA [later known as Kilkenny City], Monaghan and places like that.

“The squad wasn’t strong enough. The club hadn’t the financials to bring in new players that were going to cost money. So the natural thing was that we got relegated unfortunately.”

Continual issues with sponsorship and funding added to the sense of doom and gloom. McLaughlin and his team-mates were asked to take pay cuts. As local lads, they felt obliged to comply.

The club were doing all they could, but again, it goes back to geography and the inability of the county to support a senior team. If you look at Finn Park, no matter what division Finn Harps are in, if the team are going well, there are big crowds in Ballybofey. Maybe it was a lack of knowledge of about how to go and raise funds and stuff at the time that held them back a bit.”

Though he feels himself and other local players were “taken for granted,” and not treated as well as they could have been on account of their natural affinity with Finn Harps, McLaughlin remained a one-club man despite seemingly more attractive offers to play elsewhere for better teams.

“Ray Treacy approached me to sign with Drogheda,” he recalls. “Tony Mannion wanted me to sign for Galway. The time Noel King and Jim McLaughlin were in Derry, they asked me to join. But I just stayed where I was. I liked being local, and loyal to the club, and all the rest — that was me. Maybe someone with bigger ambitions would have said: ‘I’ll make a few pounds for a couple of seasons.’

“I actually probably had it in my head all the time that I would have stayed with Harps, but it was nice to listen to what the offers could have been. I could have went to train in Derry, because when I was with Harps, both of them were training in Derry or Strabane. Dermot Keely asked me to sign with Sligo, but he wanted me to go to Sligo one night a week and train the rest of the time here. It was 189 [miles] to go to Sligo and back.”

screen-shot-2018-07-19-at-15-56-00-390x285 McLaughlin broke former Derry player Alex Krstic's record for most goals in a single First Division season.

6. Scoring for fun

So McLaughlin remained at Finn Park, though his talent was not mirrored throughout the team. The striker was approaching his peak now and finished the season as the First Division’s top scorer on four separate occasions: 1985-86 (11 goals), 1987-88 (19 goals), 1990-91 (12 goals), 1991-92 (12 goals). But regardless of these impressive feats, the team failed to gain re-entry into the Premier Division, though they came close — finishing five points off the promotion spots in 1987-88 and two points off in 1988-89. However, they were confined to mid-table mediocrity on a few occasions too and McLaughlin in hindsight concedes that some of the players simply were not good enough.

That is not to say, however, that the star’s time in the First Division did not bring him a degree of joy. He looks back on ’87-88 with particular pride, as he broke ex-Derry striker Aleksandar Krstić’s record from the previous season for most goals ever scored in the division over the course of a single campaign. He was 28 at the time and afforded a testimonial by the club, having been there for over a decade.

“That season was probably the high point — things seemed to go right for me,” he says. “It was also the year that my son was born.”

Once McLaughlin hit his 30s and without the sophisticated understanding of sports science being commonplace in that era, the ageing player could feel himself losing an element of sharpness as his body declined markedly.

“The training structure, diet structure, everything that’s involved today, there was no such thing as that when we were playing.

When I started first under ‘Busty’ Blake, it was three nights a week plus a game on Friday. But after ‘Busty’ left, it was down to two nights a week with Harps. But you always got a bit of your own [training] as well to stay fitter. We had no facilities like the gym and stuff. It was all running. Running was the biggest thing you did to get fit.”

McLaughlin combined playing football with a full-time job in Donegal Creameries, with the latter accounting for the majority of his income.

“You had to have a job for all the money that we were earning,” he explains. “We went for a few [pints] Sunday night after a match. The money you got for playing was nearly gone [by the end of the night], because in my time, I think the highest wages were about £60.

“All of the matches were on a Sunday, so if we were in the likes of Waterford or Cobh or Cork, you’d be back at three or four in the morning and then getting back up for work again at half seven or eight o’clock. It was more tiring than anything else and it took you a few days then to get back into the routine again.”

Ray Treacy 1996 The late former Ireland international Ray Treacy was one of the managers who tried unsuccessfully to sign McLaughlin. Source: © Billy SticklandINPHO

7. Wave goodbye

With no sign of the club’s fortunes improving significantly and having found himself out of the starting XI more than he would have liked, McLaughlin ended a 17-year association with Finn Harps in 1993. 

“I think it was Patsy McGowan [who was manager at the time], we basically knew the time had come that I was ready to leave senior football.

“I’d got to the stage, after 15 or 16 years [in the first team], where I’d had enough of the travelling all over the country. The high enjoyment that I got in other years had gone out of it. It had become a bit of a grind and it was the right time to finish anyway. There’s no point in trying to play on and being seen as a has-been. I didn’t want them to remember me for playing rubbish in the last couple of years, hanging on too long, rather than having a fairly decent career.”

Yet while a 33-year-old McLaughlin left the League of Ireland behind, he did not hang up his boots entirely. He continued playing in the Ulster Senior League, spending two years with Milford United and another 12 months at Letterkenny Rovers.

“I got my appetite back for playing in the Ulster Senior League because I was good as anything in it,” he says.

McLaughlin also spent a season as player-manager of Swilly Rovers, the club where it all began for him, though he does not look back on this experience with fondness.

I hated it. I used to spend on average about four or five hours on Saturday evening, making sure we had a panel of 15 or 16 for the Sunday. The meeting point was Sunday morning and we might have had nine players. You had to get into the car to go and get young fellas out of their bed, and nearly make them their breakfast, before they would go and play for you.”

A veteran forward by now, he also spent a couple of years playing for Lough Neagh in the Donegal League, before eventually retiring for good at the age of 42. 

Con McLaughlin October 18 Now aged 58, McLaughlin has worked as a referee for the past 15 years.

8. Man in black

McLaughlin subsequently decided to give refereeing a go, and discovered he enjoyed it. And the 58-year-old continues to officiate matches 15 years on, though he is planning to retire from this role soon. He would have finished already, but was convinced to stay on, owing to the current shortage of available men in black.

The highest McLaughlin can rise as a ref, however, is the Ulster Senior League, due to a rule in place at the time that stated you must have officiated before the age of 30 in order to take charge of League of Ireland fixtures. He feels more ex-players should be encouraged to take up this pursuit, which allows them to stay in the game and comes without the obsessive levels of dedication required to be a manager.

“I always say that ex-players understand reffing,” he says. “Players who have played at a decent level, they tend to have more of an idea how to ref a match than people who just learned out of the lawbook. There’s a lot of common sense in refereeing. If you have played the game, you know how a player reacts to certain situations and know that there’s no maliciousness in what he’s saying, even if he lets out the odd ‘fuck’ or whatever. It’s just the heat of the moment. Some players that have never played wouldn’t tolerate that thing at all.

“I’m not saying ‘there was never a day where I made mistakes,’ but I never had a really bad day refereeing.”

Manchester United v Newcastle United - Premier League - Old Trafford McLaughlin is not a fan of Jose Mourinho's Man United and the negative tactics that pervade modern football. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

9. Different ball game

While McLaughlin still regularly attends Finn Harps games, he feels football has changed irrevocably since his era. He is not a fan of the increasing tendency of teams going out “not to get beaten” rather than to win the match, citing Jose Mourinho’s Man United as a prime example of this overtly cautious approach.

I was standing in Finn Park with Brendan Bradley talking about current football compared to when we were playing. We both agreed that football was totally changed and that players were a lot fitter now and things have changed. But we turned, looked at each other and said: ‘But we don’t think it’s any better.’

“The warm-up they do now would have killed us when we were playing. Players now are a lot more physically fit than when we were playing. Everything is athletic now. They are athletes.

“It’s all about money. And even some junior football has gone that way now as well. There are teams in the Ulster Senior League that are paying players, which puts added pressure on the managers to get results.

“It was fun to play, you’d get enjoyment out of playing [in our era]. I don’t think they have as much craic as we had after matches. The social end and stuff, I think they just hop on the bus and go home. It took us half a day to get home.

“We enjoyed ourselves on and off the pitch. The few hours in the pub afterwards brought players closer together rather than keeping them apart.”

In addition to being the first Donegal native to score 100 League of Ireland goals, McLaughlin’s feats with Finn Harps mean he is currently 33rd on the all-time scorers list, having found the net 110 times in total.

I wasn’t aware I was on it when I finished playing, but 33rd’s not bad, especially given the fact that for a few years, I was playing at a club that didn’t have the players to provide the ammunition to score goals. I spent my first five or six years playing on the wing or in midfield — I probably could have had a few more. But I’m still proud of the fact that I scored the amount of goals I scored.

“It’s more in later years [you reflect on it]. At the time, you were just playing and getting on with doing what you were doing.”

He continues: “The best advice I could give to a young striker is just be true to yourself. I would advise anyone who has natural ability to just go onto the pitch and show it.

“They’re telling young ‘keepers now that they’re not allowed to kick out balls. They have to roll it out to the full-backs and stuff like that. It’s nice to watch Barcelona and Man City and teams like that doing it, but it’s horrible to watch an U12 boy throwing out the ball right to a centre forward and the centre forward scoring.

“It sort of benefited me growing up, playing a lot of street football. Once you got your homework done and had your dinner, you went out and were playing football for three or four hours on the street. There were no such things as U12s or U15s. It was seniors, young lads and everyone just playing a game. If you had a wee bit of skill, that helped you.

“Football was fun when I was growing up and I think we had more fun than they do now, although the young lads today are told that this is the way to do it. So they probably think they’re having fun as well.”

The dream move to Leeds may never have come to fruition, but it is clear from talking to McLaughlin, a local legend, that there is not a hint of regret in his tone as the former player reflects on a remarkable career.

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Paul Fennessy

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