Brendan Devenney spent a decade trying in vain to get his hands on an Ulster medal. Now his old Donegal team-mate and fellow amateur DJ Jim McGuinness has brought the county to the promised land, sparking feelings of fierce pride — and regret.
Spend a couple of hours in Brendan Devenney’s company and he’ll colourfully recall the thrill of tormenting some of the best defenders in the country, playing for his country in front of 50,000 in the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the privilege of playing for his county.
He can crack you up with stories about playing for some of the most endearing managers in football, laugh at some of the times playing and partying with team-mates, including an old friend by the name of Jim McGuinness.
But he’ll only do so upon your request. It’s up to you to bring up the old days because he won’t. “I try not to look back,” he says with a sigh. “I try to blank it [the past] out. Because there are too many regrets. It hurts too much. There were good days and good bits, for sure, but the big things like an Ulster and All-Ireland that you were looking for, you never got to and that’s why I’m afraid to look back. As I’ve grown older I’d be wild angry about it.”
Whenever he does look back, in this the McGuinness era, at all those old jousts against Armagh and Tyrone, he finds himself like the Mel Gibson character in The Patriot shaking his head watching from a height the American insurrectionists foolishly trying to outgun the Red Coats on an open battlefield. Operating by conventional rules, the old rules, someone else’s rules, lambs to the slaughter. Donegal had lost all those old games and battles before they even began.
“There was a stat one time in the paper while I was playing that showed that Donegal had won more games in the back door than any other team. There was a reason for that. We’d be knocked out of Ulster for playing conventional football, then out of Ulster we could play conventional football as good as anyone.
“We’d be in the qualifiers and tear through the Longfords and Tipperarys, beat the likes of Meath and Galway. They were the games that sustained you, that’s why we played football. But see going up to Clones? I’d be dreading going in the door.
“There were times I’d be thinking, ‘What am I doing here?’ That was my mindset before a championship match. I didn’t want to be there. How the hell was I going to perform? Looking back on it, there was no way it could go right. Because Armagh and Tyrone had us figured out. They’d lock down space.
“You look at Bernard and Alan Brogan against Dublin in that [All-Ireland] semi-final a couple of years ago. They looked like they wanted to walk off the pitch. Donegal messed with their heads. Bernard was in there on his own. He couldn’t make a channel run. When he did get it, right away he was running into three boys. That was me for years.”
With hindsight, Devenney knows now what he should have done. Come out to the half-forward line every now and then. Get on the ball, win a free or two, work hard, tackle. If you get a score or two, great. That’s all Jim McGuinness asks of any current Donegal inside forward. Devenney and Adrian Sweeney were nearly expected to score 1-4 from play every day they went out. When they wouldn’t — and against Armagh and Tyrone they wouldn’t — they were deemed not to be doing their job. So the whole thing would unravel, Devenney included.
At times the rules didn’t help them. Devenney remembers one game where his marker fouled him eight times and only got shown a yellow card. But too often Donegal didn’t help themselves.
He looks at the current Donegal full-forward line with a degree of envy as well as admiration. Three years ago Colm McFadden was taken off in the Crossmaglen massacre, the latest in a tradition and generation of Donegal inside forwards strangled and deflated by the Armagh phalanx. Look at him now.
“For years I knew just how good McFadden was, but there were so many games it wouldn’t go right for him because he was almost out there on his own. He had no back-up. Now he has. So of course I look at that and think, ‘Feck it, if I was in that set-up at that age...’
“You take Paddy McBrearty. He doesn’t have to score. Before last year’s All-Ireland final Michael Murphy had scored only two points from play but no one was talking about it. No one cares about who’s scoring for Donegal. Jim has deflected all that pressure from those lads. Whereas if McBrearty had come along in with me that time, he’d have been left in the corner and hung out to dry. He wouldn’t have developed as he’s been let to now. All Jim’s asking for is that you work.”
So for sure, yeah, he’d love to have been coached by McGuinness because for he’d have won that Ulster medal that eluded him over his 10-year career. Instead he had to settle for hanging out with Jimmy the player rather than Jim the manager. It was a decent and enjoyable consolation.
We look at Jim now as this austere, guru-like figure. That’s not the man Devenney knew as a team-mate.
Before Jimmy was winning matches, Jimmy played tunes. On his music deck. Jimmy Tunes they called him, giving it loads in the DJ booth with that Zappa-like beard when he wasn’t on the dance floor himself.
Devenney was another part-time DJ, with his own little club at the side of his house, the Spy Lounge.
McGuinness was one of his best partners in crime.
“Jim was big into house. I’d have been more into hip-hop and R&B, but I loved house too so we’d party together to that. Looking back, that team was mad and Jimmy was one of the worst of the lot! He was the kind of boy that if you were drinking with him, he just wouldn’t let you go to sleep. He’d batter you to stay awake to go to some early house.”
That’s what a lot of people don’t really get about McGuinness, he reckons. Everyone talks about his tactical nous and sports science knowledge but what they don’t really get is that his greatest calling card is his affability and his relationship with his players. Beneath the public sober exterior is someone who knows when and how to make his players laugh, smile, so they may shine.
For all the laughs and drinks they shared together, Devenney got to see the serious, mentoring side of Jim too. When Devenney got called up to International Rules trials after his scintillating debut season in 1998, McGuinness went along with him, taking him under his wing. Years later, when frustration was threatening to consume Devenney’s career, McGuinness sat him down in a hotel room and took out a pen and paper.
“He drew a line down the middle of the page and said ‘Right, over here is what you can control, and on this side are things that you can’t’. And we went right through it. I could control my skills, my diet, my fitness. I couldn’t control the referee, the weather conditions, things that maybe I would let affect my performance. That was the first time someone had talked about my mental preparation for a game.”
He still had some good managers in his time and has some great memories of them. Probably his most enjoyable year was 2002 when John Morrison teamed up with Mickey Moran. “John was great. You asked him a question, he wouldn’t just give you an answer, he’d give you three.”
Brian McEniff was another father figure. More than once he’d phone Devenney up when the latter was checking out the female as well as coastal scenery of Donegal and sense his young star was distracted.
“Divvy, will you listen to the old man?” The old man was full of McEniffisms. He’d endearingly refer to his wife as “my good friend Caddy”. Before a league game in Cork he’d reveal to his players, “As I was leaving the house this morning, men, my good friend Caddy, a Cork woman, said ‘The Cork boys will beat you today, Brian’. I said to her, ‘They will in their feck, Caddy.’ Well, that’s not the language I use with my good wife, men, but that’s what I thought!”
Another priceless McEniffism was Red Time. Before the 2003 Ulster first round game against Fermanagh, he came up with this cue from Australian Rules for his team to raise their intensity. Red Time! With 20 minutes to go in Brewster Park and Donegal down by two points. The word comes in from the sideline: Red Time! Red Time! With 10 minutes to go, they’re down three. Red Time! Red Time! They end up losing by four and that night in Letterkenny’s Bar Mono the players nursed the hurt through a few pints and gallows’ humour, roaring at one another all night ‘Red Time! Red Time!’.
Two months later they were in an All-Ireland semi-final, playing in front of 82,000 people. Before the game McEniff addressed his team. “Gentlemen, you laughed at me a few months ago about Red Time. Well, where are we now, boys? In Red Time, boys! Red Time!”
The things Brian McEniff did for Donegal. The things he had to put up with them. Take the aftermath of the 2004 Ulster final. The clamour for an Anglo-Celt Cup was so big in the hills the game was too big for Clones, it had to be moved to Croke Park. That created its own problem, especially after Donegal were hammered.
“There was no food for us in Croke Park because nobody thought of it. Ulster Council were in charge of the game, not Central Council, so we get onto the bus, traffic jam all the way out, none of us having eaten since 10 that morning. By the time we stop off in Virginia boys are beyond hungry. They can’t eat. They’re all over the place. Instead they go in, have a few pints, the board buy at least one crate of beer and some boys buy a few bottles of vodka and Red Bull.
“Next thing we’re down at the back of the bus, going mad. [Kevin] Cassidy is up at the top of the bus, virtually naked, interviewing McEniff. We land back in Donegal town and instead of being depressed we might as well have landed in Ibiza. Boys are going loop the loop.
“We get back to the hotel where the board are supposed to have booked some rooms for us, but turns out they haven’t. So boys are lying around on the couches in the foyer. They wake up the next morning, a complete mess walking out onto the streets of Donegal town and then the crap really hits the fan. We’re eejits, wasters, the boys who got beaten up a stick the day before. One or two boys let themselves down by letting their trousers down but you’ll always get a fool in every setup that gives everyone a bad name.”
Those Ulster final defeats scarred him. He thinks back to the build-up to his first Ulster final in ’98 and how joyful and innocent he was, taking the back road from Dungloe to Donegal town and his heart jumping at the sight of all the flags in people’s gardens. Donegal would endure another three provincial final defeats though in his playing time and every one of them stung worse than the one before.
The greater the buzz and hopes they raised, the greater the letdown. Sometimes he nearly thinks they’d have been better off not having challenged and raised those hopes at all.
But then he checks himself. There were good memories too. He started 1998 playing Division 4 club football and ended it with an All Star nomination playing against Australia in Croke Park. Three years later he was Ireland’s leading scorer playing under McEniff in Melbourne. He played in 11 county finals for St Eunan’s, winning seven. He kicked scores, ran up tallies most of us can only dream of.
And he helped others dream too. In the lead up to last year’s All-Ireland final, Mark McHugh remarked in an interview that as a kid he’d kick about in the back garden thinking he was Brendan Devenney. He got a lump in his throat when he read that. And he went absolutely mental when that group of players made their Ulster breakthrough in 2011. Devenney was working as a sideline commentator for BBC that afternoon, but once the final whistle went, he temporarily abandoned his professional duties to invade the pitch and embrace old team-mates.
He’s in good form these days. His three-year-old son Matthew is the light of his life. He’s in his element as a sales manager for Larsen Building Products, a job his convivial manner is made for (while we’re talking over a coffee in a hotel he refers to the helpful waiter by his name , “Good man yourself, Peter.” In two decades of interviewing sportspeople, I’ve never met anyone who has gone to the bother of extending that kind of considerate human touch). He still considers it a blessing to live in the county he does, often stopping off at some beach for a quick dip before putting back on the suit to make a few sales more.
A few things grate him though. While he appears to be in good nick for a 36-year-old, he has to do a lot of stretching just to be able to walk normally. Three years ago he underwent surgery to alleviate a niggling pain on his hip. It was meant to help prolong his club playing career but ended up terminating it.
“I’d say to anyone undergoing any surgery, really do your homework. Get a second opinion. Nobody said to me there was a prospect that it might not work. When another surgeon told me to stop fighting it, that I couldn’t play anymore, the tears blinded me on the drive back home.”
He would turn to coaching instead, managing St Eunan’s last year to the county title, but stepped down after their Ulster club campaign. There’s no escaping football, though. He is constantly in demand for media work and GAA talk nights, with this week particularly keeping him busy.
He finds it impossible to call who’ll win in Ballybofey tomorrow, only that it’ll be a point or two in at most, either way. Donegal’s league form doesn’t concern him.
In 2007 Devenney was unmarkable and his team unbeatable throughout the league. Even for one McKenna Cup game against Armagh they nearly took the dressing room door off the hinges in their anxiety to lay down a marker. By the time of their last-12 qualifier against Monaghan that July, the dressing room was flat. So was their performance.
McGuinness has chosen his battles to rile a team that has won two Ulsters from the preliminary round.
Either way, he knows this team won’t let down the county. Donegal isn’t like Tyrone where nearly every nationalist seems consumed by Gaelic football. There’s soccer, music, while the recession is still there too; Sam didn’t alleviate the county of that hardship. But there is a tangible difference within the county mood, he finds.
“There’s a wild pride there. All I wanted and anyone wanted was to have a team that worked hard and were in the game all through and wouldn’t get blitzed. If you look at Galway last week, they robbed any Galway fan and themselves of any pride. And there were times in Donegal we let ourselves down like that too. With Donegal now you know that’s not going to happen. You can come to the game with a real sense of pride.”
And if you’re Devenney, look down from above, knowing there’s a good chance his old buddy Jimmy Tunes has ensured the battle has been won before it’s ever begun.
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