CHARLIE McGeever was in the bog toiling hard in the summer of 1979 when a familiar car appeared on the horizon.
McGeever had just helped Fanad United to a memorable and historic FAI Youth Cup final win over Shelbourne.
It was unheard of then – and remains so – for a team from these parts to win the Youth Cup. Fanad, though, triumphed 3-1 against Shels, who had dumped out a highly-fancied Shamrock Rovers in the semi-finals.
A brace from Colm McGonigle fired Fanad to a famous win.
McGeever, who also played in Summer Cups with Fanad that year, was one of the sought after players. As he cut the turf, his eye was drawn to the distance.
“I saw the car with the L sign up and had no idea what was going on,” McGeever tells Donegal Daily/Donegal Sport Hub now – 41 years on.
“There was Patsy McGowan coming towards me, dapper dressed as always and a form in his hand.”
McGowan was the manager of Sligo Rovers and wasn’t leaving the west Donegal bog without McGeever’s signature.
“I had to get out of a hole, wash my hands and sign the form,” he says.
“There had been a bit of paper talk and rumour, but I didn’t pay much heed until Patsy down. Busty (Blake) spoke to me after that about going to Harps, but I had already the form signed with Sligo. I was going to college in Limerick and the journey to Sligo was handier.”
The Youth Cup win had helped put McGeever in the spotlight.
His career has been storied since that afternoon in Ramelton, but it remains right up there in the memory bank.
“That was a special achievement,” he says, That would stand up to any competition that was ever won.
“It still stands the test of time now all these years on. It is the best thing ever won by a team from Donegal.”
“I think that was Fr Mick’s greatest achievement. He was the man who harnessed us all together. He was very much a people person. In 30 years of working in education after that, he was the epitome of someone I took after.
“I was privileged to play on teams that had John McElwaine in them all through my career from that Fanad youth team. We actually looked at him in awe. He was a one-off. He would take matches by the scruff of the neck and at times it felt as if he was doing it on his own.
“He was the man the whole thing was built around. His ability was something else.”
THE first introduction the young McGeever had of soccer was in the hall in Gortahork, watching the parish leagues.
Fr Hugh Strain, the curate in Gortahork at the time, was instrumental in setting up the league.
“I remember watching Charlie Coll from Glenea, he seemed mesmerising,” McGeever recalls. “He was excellent.
“I started playing when I was about 11, but there was no real structure to the soccer. Then I came across Fr Michael Sweeney in 1974 in the school.
“The amalgamation of the schools, with Holy Cross joining the Vocational School and the Convent, was a huge thing. Fr Mick and Fr Sean (Gallagher) were two of the most influential people in my career, along with Patsy (McGowan) and Seosamh (Kelly).
“Fr Mick and Fr Sean were two young priests and they were influential in the school with Fr Mick taking the soccer and Fr Sean the Gaelic football.
“We won an under-14 county title and we went at under-16 level to win the national competition against Summerhill, who had John Barr playing for them.”
SLIGO Rovers reached the 1981 FAI Cup final but, in front of 12,000 at Dalymount Park, the underdogs lost 2-0 to Dundalk.
“Dundalk were exceptional,” McGeever says. “Brendan Bradley was with us and he was the big threat.
“Dundalk were the best team of that generation. The back four of (Tommy) McConville, (Dermot) Keely, (Paddy) Dunning and (Martin) Lawlor was formidable.
“I spoke to Dermot about it years later when he came to Harps. Him and McConville went to do Brendan after about five minutes, they collided and Dermot had to wear a head bandage for the rest of the game.
“It was unusual for me that year. I was on a run of winning things all the time. I wasn’t used to losing at all. We didn’t play well in that final, but I was young, still only 19, and thought we’d be back often.”
IN the summer of 1982, Tottenham Hotspur were on a real high. They were the FA Cup winners, having beaten Queen’s Park Rangers in a replay and two of their star turns – Ricky Villa and Ossie Ardiles – had just won the World Cup with Argentina.
Although Ardiles would go on loan to Paris Saint-Germain on loan, he still had to report for training at Spurs, whose manager, Keith Burkinshaw, had a look at a young man from rural Donegal.
“They had so many flair players, the two lads from Argentina were exceptional,” McGeever recalls of his stint in north London.
“That was probably the best team Spurs ever had, certainly until the last couple of years.”
The World Cup winners were late back for pre-season.
“Burkinshaw wasn’t happy,” McGeever says.
“He expected them back at the same time as everyone else. They took ten days to come back.
“Burkinshaw thought he’d show them a lesson and he put on a dog of a session. He ran the legs off everyone. It didn’t flinch Villa. He was as quick as a hare. No-one could match him.
“Those guys were on a completely different level.”
Glenn Hoddle was another who stood out for McGeever. “Hoddle was unbelievable. He was just something else….He was as close a player to McElwaine as I’d ever seen.”
For McGeever, who had been recommended by Patsy McGowan, the month went as well as could be expected.
“It was great to get a chance to train with them, they were a great side,” he says.
“Fitness wasn’t a problem. Standard-wise, though, it was completely different. I was quite happy with how I had done at Spurs.”
He was two nights back in Derryconor when the phone rang. Seosamh Kelly was putting a Cloughaneely team together for a game against St Michael’s in a tournament match at The Burn Road in Termon.
McGeever’s mother urged her son to take it easy.
‘Sit in for a night and rest for a couple of days,’ she advised.
The teenager hardly took heed: “Of course I went on and played. I packed the bag and away I went.”
IN OCTOBER 1982, McGeever stood among the spectators in Carrick-on-Shannon and watched as Donegal Under-21s defeated Roscommon. A first-ever All-Ireland title for the county. McGeever should have been out there.
Instead, he was reduced to looking on.
“That was a hard experience,” says McGeever.
He can still feel the moment now. That night at the Burn Road, his mother’s words were ringing as he went for a ball and felt the bang.
“At that time, no-one knew anything about cruciate ligaments,” McGeever says. “I knew it wasn’t alright.”
Sligo Rovers were back in training for the new season and McGeever ‘hobbled about for a week or two’.
Two minutes into a game against Bohemians, the moment came.
“I went to head a ball and just buckled,” he says. “It was gone before that. I know that now.”
The injury robbed McGeever of an All-Ireland U21 medal. To rub salt in the wounds, Sligo won the 1983 FAI Cup final against Cobh Ramblers.
Keith Burkinshaw never phone back, either.
Carrick-on-Shannon was the one that cut him to the core.
“That was a Donegal team and something was going to happen with it,” he says. “That was harder than watching Sligo win the Cup.”
McGeever was captain of Donegal’s Under-21s the previous year, under Joe Winston’s management.
They defeated Down in Newry, but lost out to Monaghan in the Ulster final with McGeever at centre-field alongside Denis Bonner.
A group of seven made their way from Thomond College in Limerick for training and matches. McGeever was joined by Donnacha Mac Niallais, Pauric Gallagher, Jimmy Kennedy, Seamus Meehan, Michael McBrearty and Michael McGeehin, who would become a central part of McGeever’s career.
“Pauric, God have mercy on him, was the driver,” McGeever remembers.
“We were playing a good standard in Thomond. I had played no underage, structured Gaelic football, but I was in a really good team at Thomond. Odhrán Mac Niallais didn’t lick his talent off the table; Donnacha for instance was a great player.
“I enjoyed that group traveling up and down. We ran out of petrol one night in Knock. We had to sit ’til morning for the petrol pumps to open!”
AFTER being released from Sligo in 1984, McGeever signed for Finn Harps.
McGowan had just been sacked and Bobby Toland installed as boss. McGeever hit a debut goal as Harps defeated Drogheda United.
A year later – with Harps having lost the League Cup final 2-1 to Waterford United – McGeever, at 24, was installed as caretaker manager when Toland was removed after a 7-2 defeat by Derry City at home.
Just three days before Christmas in 1984, McGeever took charge of Harps for the first time.
“Here I was, only out of college at 24, managing Finn Harps,” he says. “Bobby had asked me to train the team so I did a bit of that. I wasn’t able to play much at that time, but I did play the odd time.
“I was four months as caretaker and the first game was against Derry at the Brandywell. The place was packed.
“We drew them in the FAI Cup then and there must have been 12,000 in the place.”
The FAI Cup game, when Derry won 3-0 – with Harps icon Brendan Bradley netting twice – saw hundreds converge in the City Cemetery, which looks down on the Brandywell, to get a view. It was quite a baptism for a rookie manager.
McGeever spent part of the summer of ’85 in America and was vexed at how Harps appointed Tommy McConville as manager in the interim.
“I was sore enough,” he says.
“The club did have to decide on a manager, which was fair enough. I was sore that there was no contact from the club about it at all. These things happen but, after seeing things through for the last while of the previous season, I thought they could have made contact – but there was nothing.”
MCGEEVER might have been a part of Donegal’s All-Ireland senior win in 1992, but he shrugs that notion off.
He was starring for Cloughaneely, playing in a two-man full-forward line with Con McLaughlin, who had moved to Falcarragh, when Brian Mceniff invited him to train with the county seniors in 1990.
“I was playing club football on not much more than one leg,” he says. “Brian was always out watching games. Out of respect for Brian, I went up and gave it a month. I was nowhere near it and, in fairness, I have no regrets about not being in the squad for ’92.
“I gave it a go at training and was well off it. I played against a number of those men. They were great players.
“I had been reluctant anyway as I knew I wouldn’t be at the pitch of it when I got the shout.”
He was working again with McLaughlin, albeit in a different code to what they’d been used to.
McGeever says: “We had a good crack with Cloughaneely, too. Con was so fast and strong. Kicking the ball over the bar was almost nonsensical to him. Con would go out and score maybe 2-0 in a game. If you got it, you just popped it off to Con.”
HAVING left Harps, Fanad was the natural port of call for McGeever, given his connections to Traigh-A-Loch.
He was fine to play again with surgery performed by Mr Dandy in Cambridge, the same surgeon who had performed a corrective procedure on Kerry Gaelic footballer Pat Spillane, aiding his return.
“Sligo didn’t spare any expense in trying to get it sorted,” he says.
“I was well known to wear a bandage for the rest of my days. I played from I was 20 until I finished with one and a half legs.
“I had a knee replacement about seven years ago as a consequence, but I knew that was coming down the track anyway.”
At Fanad, he was part of the glory years, winning an Intermediate Cup in 1988 having been part of the squad that reached the semi-finals of the League Cup in ’87.
“I wasn’t signed for the first few games of that League Cup run,” McGeever says. “I got involved before we beat Sligo and then we came up against one of the greatest League of Ireland teams ever, that Shamrock Rovers side.
“We lost to Rovers, but what a great Fanad team that was. That was the best period for Fanad.
“We had a team in Fanad that was better than what Harps had….at the very least you could have an argument about that.
“John O’Neill probably wasn’t made aware of what was around. We started to dominate in the Ulster Senior League, but it was left largely untouched.”
At Dalymount Park in ’88, Kenny Harkin struck gold for Fanad in a 1-0 win over Tramore Athletic as Fanad won the Intermediate Cup for the first time.
“No-one wanted to even miss training back then,” McGeever says. “There were five of us traveling from the west – myself, Bosco (Gallagher), Sean Ferry, Liam (Sweeney) and Michael O’Donnell. That squad had some unbelievably talented players.”
PATSY McGowan returned as Harps manager in June 1992.
McGeever, Kenny Harkin and Liam Sweeney were recruited from Fanad.
In 1994 and 1995, McGowan’s Harps missed out on promotion to the Premier Division after play-off defeats, first to Cobh and then to Athlone.
The 1995 defeat to Athlone on penalties still cuts raw with those who were at St Mel’s Park that night.
“We had practised penalties all that week,” McGeever recalls. “In extra time, I went to Patsy to get me off. Number one, I wasn’t going to take one and number two, Sean Barrett was scoring all the penalties that week.”
Michael O’Connor, the Athlone player-manager, unzipped his own tracksuit and entered the fray, too.
In the shoot-out, Barrett blazed over the top and O’Connor stroked in the winning penalty.
“It was like a ‘Panenka’ but slower,” McGeever sighs.
The following season, Harps would win promotion but not without controversy.
IN December 1995, Harps sacked McGowan for the fifth and final time in his managerial career.
The decision didn’t go down well with the players. Paul Hegarty played his last game for the club and Jonathan Speak asked to be put on the transfer list.
While Hegarty departed, Speak reversed his decision and stayed pit.
“Paul was a leader of men,” McGeever says, “The club is bigger than any individual. Paul went to Derry. I had said to him about staying to keep the show on the road.
“I just felt that people had to play. There was a parting of ways with me and Patsy too, but he was fiercely influential in my development.
“I was in a caretaker situation again. I was too young, only in my early 30s. I wasn’t near experienced enough.”
McGeever steadied the ship and had three months at the helm until Dermot Keely arrived in late February.
Harps won promotion and the club was on a high.
With Harps, the next car crash is never far away, though.
An attempted takeover from a Donegal-based consortium was turned down by Harps. In a period that was fraught with uncertainty, some committee members resigned before Keely also walked.
Once more, McGeever was into the breach – this time as the permanent manager with just weeks to prepare for the Premier Division.
“I didn’t even have registration forms,” he says.
“The whole episode was very sad. I was very much a Harps man and we were left with very little with the season just around the corner.
“I wasn’t too enamoured with how it all developed. We played Ards in a pre-season friendly. Dermot had a load of players signed, but unfortunately none were registered. That night we played Ards, we went to Gallen’s after the game.
“Their manager came up and thanked me for the work out – then landed the bombshell on me: ‘It was good to see those lads get a run – they’re coming to Ards next week’.”
McGeever jumped into his car and drove to the home of one player, Stephen Kelly, in Longford.
He persuaded Kelly to stay put before signing Davy Derry and Conor Frawley.
“We got good commitment from lads, but it was a bit cobbled together at the start. We were getting players just to fulfil the friendlies at the time. Paul Hegarty was still a massive loss. He was the outstanding Donegal player of his generation.”
HARPS established themselves as a useful top-flight side in their maiden season before reaching an infamous FAI Cup semi-final in 1998.
After a 0–0 draw in Ballybofey against Shelbourne, Harps lost the replay 1-0 at Tolka Park. On a night when a bomb scare delayed the game by 40 minutes, the goal that won it still sticks in the craw of Harps supporters.
With Jody Byrne, the Harps ‘keeper, behind his line, wiping his gloves on a towel awaiting a penalty, Stephen Geoghegan rolled the ball into the net. The goal stood and Harps were out.
“We just didn’t have the experience,” McGeever diplomatically says 22 years on.
“We were a bit like the Sligo team I played in: We had started to get Cup runs and should have finished higher in the League, but it was a building block.”
A year later, after a controversial Cup run that saw Kilkenny City thrown out for refusing to field in a replay in Ballybofey, Harps reach the final.
Michael Reddy, a Kilkenny player, was on the Irish U21 squad and Kilkenny asked for their game against Harps to be deferred. The FAI refused and Kilkenny didn’t board the bus.
Harps went through to overcame Cork 1-0 in a replay before defeating Galway United 2-1 on Easter Sunday in a memorable semi-final.
“Gavin Dykes was a huge influence for us,” McGeever says. “He was solid as a rock. We had a lot of good players.
“The big regret for me in all my career is that that Finn Harps team didn’t reach its potential.”
EVEN a Cup final defeat was not straightforward.
It took Harps three visits to Tolka Park before they succumbed to Bray Wanderers. Harps led three times over the three games, but came unstuck on day three.
In the first replay, Harps had their hands on the prize. Leading 2-1 deep, deep into injury time, the sucker punch came when Bray were awarded a penalty.
Even then, there was an added sting.
Brian McKenna, the Harps goalkeeper, saved Colm Tresson’s penalty, but Kieran ’Tarzan’ O’Brien – who had encroached into the penalty area – netted the rebound.
“Yer man was right in beside Brian,” McGeever says. “But we have to blame ourselves for losing. We were a better side. That still hangs for me that we didn’t achieve better and the Cup final is a huge part of that.
“Donegal hadn’t seen soccer days like that in a while. It was tough to lose that and it had a long-term effect on the club.
“The whole thing was very deflating. We felt like we let people down. We had a bit of a function planned three times. It was like groundhog day.”
Harps lost six of the first seven games in the 1999/00 season and McGeever tendered his resignation.
“I definitely had a hangover from the final,” he says. “It was difficult to shake. I pulled the plug because I felt it wasn’t fair to stay. The squad was good enough – and they showed that – but we were on a slide and I just had to go.”
TO quell the free time, McGeever signed for Bonagee United, then managed by Barney O’Donnell, before he and his family upped sticks and moved to Clonmel.
“My family had barely seen me,” McGeever says.
“I was an absentee father who was never in the house. Even home matches to Harps were a journey. So we moved down and we both got employment in Clonmel. Fionnuala and I moved bag and baggage down the road in 2002 and we settled in here.”
The old urges came back and McGeever took over Clonmel Town, winning six Leagues in a row and reaching the FAI Junior Cup semi-finals in 2011.
Brian White – the former inter-county referee – and Tommy Kelly coaxed him to get involved in Clonmel Commercials, helping in a team his son, Cathal, was lining out for.
“They were an exceptional group of players,” McGeever says. “They were unbeaten from aged 14 to 21.
“When Tipperary won the minor All-Ireland in 2011 there were seven of them on it.
“That was the best minor team that Dublin has produced, too.”
The likes of John Small, Ciaran Kilkenny, Jack McCaffrey, Cormac Costello and Paul Mannion lined out for the Dubs, but Tipp – backboned by McGeever’s class – had the measure of them.
Michael Quinlivan, one of that golden age of Tipp footballers, is an All-Star now.
McGeever still yearns for an All-Ireland club title with Clonmel. “This was to be my last year, so I don’t know what’ll happen now,” he says.
Last year, David Power asked McGeever – who has since managed Tipperary minors, guiding them to an All-Ireland final, which they lost to Kerry in 2015 – recruited McGeever as a selector when appointed as the Tipperary senior manager.
There, too, is Michael McGeehin, who has been a constant for McGeever.
He was one of the gang of seven from Thomond who commuted back to Donegal’s Under-21s. McGeever sought McGeehin’s assistance at Fanad and it was the Letterkenny man who was the trainer when Harps reach the ill-fated FAI Cup final 21 years ago.
“Michael has been my buddy since ’82,” McGeever says. “He was with me in Fanad and I turned to him at Harps as well. We are like minded.
“Michael was central to the Commericials too. He was the coaching head behind that.”
He keeps a close eye on matters at home and believes Declan Bonner is ‘on the verge of something’ with Donegal.
At Finn Park, an old Fanad colleague, Ollie Horgan, is working the wonders. “We were 10 or 12 years together at Fanad and we soldiered at St Eunan’s College, too,” McGeever says. “He has done a great job with Harps. I’m delighted for Ollie and for Harps.”
He’s keeping in touch with players now via WhatsApp and they’re conducting training over Zoom.
A far cry from the day when he had to climb from a bog hole to sign a form for Patsy McGowan, but sport remains his driving force.Tags: