The big interview with Declan Daly: I loved every single minute of playing in the League of Ireland

The big interview with Declan Daly: I loved every single minute of playing in the League of Ireland
FAI Cup Final. Cork City v Shelbourne. Cork captain Declan Daly heads the ball goalward. Pic Eddie O'Hare.

YOU would think he’d have gotten his fill of the Cross after 19 seasons as a player, but for Declan Daly there is nothing more enjoyable than a Friday night watching League of Ireland.

With the heart of a lion and granite toughness, Daly inspired supporters as Cork City captain. He played like a northsider in the best possible sense. No-nonsense and totally committed.

Daly lifted the league crown in 1993 and the FAI Cup in ’98. Now he sits in the crowd with his son Conor and roars them on every step of the way.

Picture: Brian Lougheed.
Picture: Brian Lougheed.

“I never miss a game. I hate when the season finishes. I’d be counting down to when it starts up again. I’ve the same seats since I finished up in December ’03.”

He was 38 at that juncture. While he could see an exciting future with the talented squad City possessed, he knew the time was right to opt out. He owed that to his wife and then young kids, Sophie and Conor.

“I loved playing and when I finished playing I was happy with my decision. I didn’t need coaching. My first contract was 1985 and I packed up in 2003 so I was at a natural end and there was no one knocking down the door for me to stay on. That was fine.

“The last year Neal Horgan and Alan Bennett were coming in and I didn’t feature much. That was fair enough.

“I always feared I’d have regrets that I should have stayed on another year and that wasn’t the case. I loved every second of it but I just wanted to move on to the next thing.

“I remember George (O’Callaghan) coming in, Denis Behan, Johnny Flynn and I’d only one season with them but they were all serious players. You knew it was a bunch of players who were going to push all the way. George was a super player. He got fellas off their seats as they say, that’s what everyone loves to see in the crowd. John was a great striker too.”

It’s no surprise then when you ask Daly to recall his fondest moments at the Cross, he immediately picks one after his retirement.

“2005 was a great season. I think it was one of my best memories, that final game in 05. What I loved about it was the Derry fans. I was on the pitch for over an hour after that game and there were fans swapping scarves and hats. Derry and Cork have a great affinity. There’s a bit of a chip on the shoulder from both. The outsiders.”

Trips to Ulster were gruelling in the amateur era, yet Daly loved the games themselves.

“I loved playing up there. I hated the journeys but I loved the Brandywell. It was a great place to go for atmosphere. We played a league cup quarter-final up there on a Wednesday night, a replay, and it went to extra time and penalties.

“We left the Brandywell about 10 to 11. Our bus driver wasn’t a man in a rush, I’ll put it that way. We came down the west coast, by Sligo. I’d be great to have a sleep on the bus, I’ll always go off and I remember waking up thinking ‘this is great now, we’re nearly home’.

“We were still on the Galway side of Ennis. I got in home at 10 to seven in the morning. I’d a meeting with a few farmers down in Newpothouse. I’d passed at 6am and I’d to go back down there for half past nine!”

Taking on Derry's Stephen Parkhouse. Picture: Eddie O'Hare.
Taking on Derry's Stephen Parkhouse. Picture: Eddie O'Hare.

He is 23 years now working with Ulster Bank and supporting Cork City dovetails well with a busy schedule covering the south-east region.

“Being a sportsman never made work easy, but it certainly doesn’t hinder you. It won’t get you business but it’s great Cork is such a sports-mad place. It’s a talking point anyway, but look it depends where you go. There are plenty of places where it’s all rugby or hurling or GAA.”

There was certainly plenty to discuss during the 2017 campaign. Seani Maguire was on fire, Cork City blitzed everyone in the opening phase of the league and managed to cope with Maguire and Kevin O’Connor’s departure to collect the double.

“Last season was phenomenal. I think nobody will realise how good they were for another three or four years, when people start looking back and assessing it on numbers only, the amount of wins, goals scored and all that.

Daly with Stephen Dooley and Greg Bolger after the league was secured. Picture: Eddie O'Hare.
Daly with Stephen Dooley and Greg Bolger after the league was secured. Picture: Eddie O'Hare.

“The season was split, with the final third getting a bit messy. What is forgotten is that they won the league with two games to go and were in total control after about 10 games.

“They led the table from start to finish basically. How often does that happen? Even with your Barcelonas and your Man Citys.

“The achievement won’t sit where it should for a while yet. When you take out the emotion and put the numbers in it’s incredible. Ahead of what we did in 1993 and 2005, with a double on top of it, unbeaten against a fine Dundalk team and able to cope with losing three big players during the season.

“I don’t think they got the credit they should have, in Cork even, and it was a case of only being as good as your last game and obviously the run in wasn’t as impressive.”

How many of the class of 2017 would make a great City side of all-time?

“I can never pick a best Cork City 11 because they’re different eras.the atmosphere was great, it was something special and the regulars at Turner’s Cross knew that.

“There was a buzz all year. John (Caulfield) is passionate about Cork, he loves the soccer, loves Cork City, everything about Cork really. He knows everything that’s going on in all sports, he’s a nerd for sports and I know that from going up and down the road with him for 20 years.

“The team around him is like that too. John Cotter and the lads. I’ve gone out to Bishopstown a few times just to see what the training was like and the sessions are superb.”

It was more basic when Daly started out as a raw young fella whose father Joe was steeped in St Mary’s. Declan and his brother Ken soon followed in his footsteps.

“My father Joe played a season with Cork Hibs. He was a soccer man but he just loved sport, whatever we played he followed. The pub leagues were very strong for a while and because you had to have a few over35s he always had teams looking for him to play.

“When they opened the pitch in Kilcully, City had won the cup so we played Mary’s. I was City captain, Kenneth was Mary’s captain and my father was there as well. It was brilliant.”

If St Mary’s were his first love – and his son Conor is a third-generation player in the club now – he had a serious grá for hurling as well.

“Hurling and soccer were my two passions really. I played football but I couldn’t say I loved that.

“Na Piarsaigh had a really young population so they’d enter A, B, C and D teams into the U12 and we’d be nine or 10 playing with the fourth team.”

Taking part in the Na Piarsaigh puc fada.
Taking part in the Na Piarsaigh puc fada.

The natural progression as a Piarsaigh hurler was to pursue a Harty Cup in the North Mon. Unfortunately they couldn’t get over the line to capture the Harty.

“The Mon won the Harty and the Croke in ’80 and the Harty in ’81. We lost the Harty final then in ’82 to Flannan’s, I was on that when Teddy Mac was our main player.

“We lost the final in ’83 to Flannan’s again, I was on that. We lost to Farna then in ’84, I was on that. They won it then in ’86, the two years before me and then two years after!

“I played minor with Cork. We were beaten in the ’84 semi-final against Limerick. I was midfield a lot of the time in my own grade, but in the first year of the Harty I played corner-back. Sure where ever you could get in for the Mon.”

If Limerick put paid to his hurling hopes with the Cork minors, his first port of call in the League of Ireland was on Shannonside.

“It wasn’t a preference for soccer, genuinely, it was just the way it happened. The year after playing minor hurling for Cork I got the international cap and that opened the door up to go to Limerick. It just happened. I was always right full or centre-back. It worked for me so I was happy there.

“I got a junior cap for Ireland when I was 18 with Mary’s. Joe O’Mahony was manager of Limerick at the time and asked me. We’d played Scotland and someone had seen me. Cork had a team in the League of Ireland but I wasn’t asked by them, it wasn’t as if I’d three bidding for me!

“When I started with Limerick in 1985 there were full internationals Pat Nolan, Brendan Storey, Johnny Walsh. There were plenty of serious players then but it was just a different era.

“I’d a year, which I loved, but Noel O’Mahony asked me to join Cork in 1986. At the end of ’87 Noel went and Eamonn O’Keeffe was coming in but I didn’t know where I stood. Billy Hamilton was coming into Limerick and we’d played Limerick in Turner’s Cross, one of the last games of the season, and he phoned me after that.

“I ended up there for three more seasons. It wasn’t a desire to leave Cork but it’s just the way it went and I had no regrets.”

Paul O'Connor and Christy Donovan, Na Piarsaigh, battle with John Fitzgibbon and Robbie Murphy, Glen, in 1987.
Paul O'Connor and Christy Donovan, Na Piarsaigh, battle with John Fitzgibbon and Robbie Murphy, Glen, in 1987.

He certainly made he didn’t have any regrets on the hurling front by wearing the Na Piarsaigh geansaí in the ’87 senior hurling championship, reaching a county final against a crack Midleton outfit. That involved a special clause added into his contract with Limerick.

“I was playing with Na Piarsaigh when I signed back for Limerick and I’d a county semi-final coming up against Blackrock. A huge thing for the club so I said to Billy I needed permission to play two hurling matches, hoping we’d get to the county final.

“He said: ‘No way, hurling? Not a hope!’ I said, ‘I have to play these matches for Na Piarsaigh, have to’. He came back anyway and I have the contract at home somewhere and it says in it ‘permission to play two hurling matches’.

“We beat the Rockies in the semi-final and we were beaten by Midleton afterwards in the final and I was mangled by Pat Hartnett. That was the John Fenton team, flying at the time, at their peak. I was centre-forward but I ended up out on the wing for the final.

A grá for hurling:

“I’d marked Pat Horgan against the Glen, Frank Cummins for Blackrock and then Pat Hartnett. That made it a great season, even if Pat destroyed me in the county final because I was playing against top hurlers.

“He was a good hurler, nasty, strong, just brilliant, a winner.

“We’d a good team now, Tony Sull, Christy Coughlan, Paul O’Connor, Richie McDonnell, Christy Connery. Loads of hurling. We just didn’t get over the line.”

Daly eventually got his county medal with the Piarsaigh heroes of ’95.

“I got a county in 1995. I missed the last two matches because I’d done my cruciate. I was out of contract at the end of that season with City so I didn’t need permission.

“I got injured playing down down the Dyke, a friendly match. Most of the injuries I got were in friendlies. It’s when you’re not going through the ball, you don’t go flat out, ‘it’s only a friendly’.

“I went to head a ball one time against UCC and instead of making sure I got the man and the ball, he came up under and I ended up with 16 stitches. If it was a league game it wouldn’t have happened.”

During his second period with Limerick, Daly actually trained with Cork City which was unusual but meant his return was inevitable. As was the case with Piarsaighs, it often takes a defeat before an exhilarating win.

Dundalk in 1991 was certainly harrowing. Needing only a draw to collect the league at Turner’s Cross, a Tom McNulty goal put paid to that.

Battling Terry Eviston of Dundalk in 1991.
Battling Terry Eviston of Dundalk in 1991.

“Dundalk was the first one really, losing that league the way we did. It had to be the biggest disappointment. It was the old Turner’s Cross and the showers were beaten the dressing rooms so for the width of a wall we could see Dundalk celebrating, popping champagne. We were dead on our feet.

“In Cork we were coming after the double in 1990, Cork Con winning the rugby, Neptune with the national league in basketball, so we could have made it potentially five national champions in less than 12 months and we lost! We were like something you’d pick up on your shoe after that. Going round the town head down.”

That was followed by a cup final loss in a pretty dour struggle with Bohs in ’92. Redemption came a season later, by way of a drawn-out play-off series and thanks to a certain Tom McNulty.

“It was a funny league because you’d a three-way play-off that became another play-off, 38 games. We’d it lost twice really.

“There was a midweek match in the normal season and we drew it so we’d to go again. We’d a game finished in Bishopstown and Bohs were going to Dundalk but their bus got delayed so they kicked off 40 minutes after us. That meant we were waiting in the dressing room to see if Bohs would win the league and then Tom McNulty popped up with the winner for Dundalk.”

The Noel O’Mahony-managed crop of ’93 were brilliant ball players, especially Patsy Freyne in midfield and Pat Morley in tandem with Caulfield up top. They came runners-up again in ’94 before a difficult period involving a failed move to the grounds in Bishopstown and Damien Richardson’s departure as boss when the team was flying high.

“The thing was we were competitive for nearly all the time. Top three for the most part and that’s what you love as a player. Would you like to have won more? Sure of course, but that’s the way it goes.

“The age profile of league winners has come down because when it was a part-time league teams peaked when the main players were in their late 20s. The summer football has changed it too because the pitches are better and so are the facilities. I remember going to Terryland Park and, literally, unless you were the first few into the dressing room you got no shower, it was a pipe not a nozzle!

“I was lucky with the dressing room because we’d so many great players but also as people and strong characters. We’d a group you’d want to play to, to battle for, it was a really incredible time to be in Cork City colours. I see so many of them now, John on the sideline, Dave Barry, Stephen Napier, Cormac Cotter, Phil Harrington and more of the lads.

“The bones of that team was there for 10 years. Liam (Murphy) went to become manager, Davie the same and now John. That’s three managers, good managers, all doing well, from one team alone.”

The 1993 league-winning team. Picture: Eddie O'Hare.
The 1993 league-winning team. Picture: Eddie O'Hare.

While 1995 offered the bonus of that county medal with Na Piarsaigh, Daly had to battle back from a serious injury.

“I was always confident I’d come back. I was 29, missed a full season, but I was very driven and there were enough fellas I knew who came back strong.

“I always worked on the logic if it’s fixed, it’s fixed. I’d the same chance of doing the cruciate again as you would for the first time. I couldn’t play worrying about an injury, it’d slow you down.”

His reward was an FAI Cup triumph in 1998, when he was centre-back alongside the towering Derek Coughlan: the ideal blend of youth and experience.

“I enjoyed both positions. I nearly played more at centre-back because that’s where I was all the time with Limerick. You might get up the pitch a bit more at right back but it’s great being in the middle of things as well.”

City went agonisingly close to their second league in 1999. They had an epic battle with a crack St Pat’s side powered by Paul Osam in midfield.

“We’d record points that year. Any other season and we’d have won the league. We were runners-up plenty of times and it’s hard to argue with it because in a league the best team wins the cup really.”

With the league cup trophy in 1998. Picture: Eddie O'Hare.
With the league cup trophy in 1998. Picture: Eddie O'Hare.

They couldn’t get the breaks at Inchicore in what was effectively the title-decider, which included a controversially disallowed goal. It was the same the year after, runners-up. After the final game of the campaign at the Cross, Daly led the team down to the Shed, climbed up on the wall, addressed the supporters and vowed they’d roar back.

“I remember that. What was I thinking? It didn’t work anyway!”

That was the stuff of dreams all the same, in perfect synch with the Cork City faithful. Did he have ambitions of playing in England though?

“Every year! I’d love to have been a full-time footballers. Who wouldn’t? It’s such a small percentage can do. That’s why the European games were great, being a pro for three days, training in the morning and afternoon and getting a feel for a ground before the game.

“We’d Munich, but there was Slavia Prague, Galatasary, Cologne, Lausanne, a lot of top clubs in their leagues. That famous photo on the Echo, Cork City 1 Bayern Munich 0, sure that was incredible. I got Stefan Effenberg’s jersey out in Munich. It’s at home somewhere, I better dig it out!”

Declan Daly battles a Slavia Prague attacker for the ball a UEFA Cup clash in 1994.
Declan Daly battles a Slavia Prague attacker for the ball a UEFA Cup clash in 1994.

Even if Daly couldn’t live the life of a pro, he got immense satisfaction from seeing young guns from Cork thrive in England.

“I remember Damien Delaney coming up and he didn’t spend much time with City before going across but he’s had a fabulous career. He’s the least spoken about Cork soccer player ever.

“For me he’s up there with the Denis Irwins and Keanes, because he’s still on a Premier League squad and he’s 36.

“Brian Barry-Murphy had a great run as well and even if he didn’t make it to the Premier League, the clubs he was with are a big deal in their areas.”

That’s the thing about playing for Cork City, and one of the reasons Karl Sheppard turned down a switch to Dundalk, you’ve a major profile, but also great expectation.

“I’m looking forward to the season and I think they’ve a really good chance, once they start the season well.

“Rovers and Dundalk will be the teams to beat and I’d like to see Derry challenging, after a year when they had tragedy and were out of the Brandywell. It’s important you’ve strongholds in Derry, Cork, Sligo, Galway, Limerick and Waterford. Otherwise it’s a Leinster league.

“It’ll be interesting to see how the Dundalk investment pans out. We had Arkaga and it almost finished City off, the club folded. Dundalk’s investors seem more genuine. We’ll see.

“I think the turning point for Cork was when they won the President’s Cup, in 2016, and they went to only lose one of 11 games against Dundalk.

“It’s subconscious really. It’s more that reporters always bring it up. They’ll say ‘is it that you haven’t beaten them in 10 games a problem for ye?’ and you’re like ‘well it wasn’t until you brought it up for me!’ Focusing on yourself is vital.”

Overall, Daly believes the club is thriving.

“You’ve Colin Healy, Dan Murray, Billy Woods back involved, Conor McCormack involved with the underage. They’re all top-class guys. That calibre puts City ahead of any club.

“How do improve on the double? Progress in Europe? The treble? We have to be realistic. The thing is John and the lads have been very good in their signings, very few haven’t worked out and I think they’ve brought in a few quality players now again.”

He’ll be there cheering them on. He might even get back in training for another marathon. That was one of the ways he coped with his first year when he wrapped up as a player.

Marathon man:

“I started running. Doing marathons. I finished up and the soccer preseason was in January so I started training for the New York Marathon which was in November. That covered me for the season.

“It suited the family because I’m a morning person and you’re your own boss. I could be up at 6am on a Saturday morning, out for the run by quarter to seven and back home again by 9.30am. You fit it in around your day. You could do an hour at lunchtime without interrupting anyone.

Declan with his son Conor at a run in Macroom. Picture: John Delea.
Declan with his son Conor at a run in Macroom. Picture: John Delea.

“I did New York twice, Chicago, London, Berlin, Cork… a few half-marathons as well. I might still do one more.

“I could have gone playing Munster Senior League or something but I genuinely didn’t have the desire to. The football chapter was finished.

“I’d a fabulous time in the League of Ireland. I loved every single minute of it.”

You could tell.

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