By his own admission, Galway’s 1980 Liam MacCarthy-winning captain Joe Connolly only played one game of football in his life.
It is 38 years since Joe lined out for UCG in a Galway senior championship semi-final against Ballinasloe in Tuam Stadium, but the background to how that came about has a special relevance this coming weekend. Joe and his comrades from the 1977 UCG Fitzgibbon Cup winning side will come together on the 40th anniversary of their win and to honour the late Joe McDonagh, who was also a member of that team.
On the first Sunday in August 1979, McDonagh and Connolly played on a Galway team that surprised Cork in an All-Ireland semi-final.
The following Sunday, Connolly and his five brothers – Pádraic, John, Micheal, Gerry and Tom – helped Castlegar to defeat Athenry in a county championship semi-final, a giant step on the road that would eventually lead them to All-Ireland club success.
With the win over Athenry in the bag, the Connollys were looking forward to a rest from club action and a chance to give all their attention to Galway’s effort to win an All-Ireland senior hurling title for the first time since 1923.
Joe had stowed away the gear in his bag and was ready to head home from Pearse Stadium when he was approached by Castlegar team trainer Tony Regan.
Tony also was Connolly’s trainer in UCG and after graduation he stayed on in the college as Head of Sport and over the years was involved in many Sigerson and Fitzgibbon teams.
Regan’s message was direct. UCG were playing against Ballinasloe in the semi-final of the Galway SFC in Tuam at 6 o’clock that evening and with fellows gone abroad for the summer holidays and busy with their own clubs, they only had 14 players. “You have to tog out,” said Regan - more of a demand than a request, as those who trained under him will understand well.
Connolly agreed, grabbed a quick sandwich and travelled to Tuam to play in his first and only football match, in which Ballinasloe beat the students by five points.
His allegiance to his trainer was not the only reason Joe Connolly was willing to chance injury in a game he had never played, a couple of weeks before the most important hurling match in his life.
The kinship and closeness he felt to his fellow students and players in college put as much pressure on him to play.
That same bond in all the third-level colleges of the time created the outstanding Sigerson and Fitzgibbon weekends of the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. They are still great competitions, but whether it is due to the extra pressures today’s students are under, or that life in general has changed in the intervening period, it is hard to imagine that what Joe Connolly did would be repeated now.
I know of inter-county players who never turned out for the colleges they attended and in the closing stages of this year’s Sigerson and Fitzgibbon competitions, some teams have had to do without players who were club-tied in the closing stages of the All-Ireland championships.
That ’77 winning UCG Fitzgibbon team being feted this weekend included four men who led their teams on All Ireland hurling final day – McDonagh (’79), Connolly (’80), Pat Fleury (Offaly ’85) and Conor Hayes (Galway ’87 and ’88).
It also included Cyril Farrell, Galway’s manager in those three wins.
College competitions created a bond that is stronger than any other I have come across elsewhere. In the organisation of tomorrow night’s event honouring Joe McDonagh and his ’77 comrades I have spoken to men I have not seen in 40 years – yet, after the initial ‘dia dhuit’, you would swear we were still sitting side by side in the Cellar Bar in Galway’s Eglington St in the mid 1970s.
Faraor, tá ár laoch, ár gcroí, ár bhfonnadóir agus ár ‘nGile Mear’ imithe uainn. Ní bheidh tú féin ann a Joe McDonagh, ach beidh do chuid scéalta, do chuid éachtaí agus do chuid amhráin á n-inseacht go dtiocfaidh éirí gréine.
As for Joe Connolly’s football prowess, when recently asked about it, Tony Regan said that the debut was somewhat premature. Apparently while attempting to solo in Tuam Stadium that August Sunday in 1979, Joe several times kicked the ball about four feet over his head.
“Perfect for today’s new rule about the mark,” quipped Regan, “but 40 years too early.”
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