Jim McGuin­ness on the legacy of Pat Shov­elin

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Jim McGuin­ness

Any­one who fol­lows Done­gal GAA is no doubt aware that we lost an ir­re­place­able fig­ure when Pat Shov­elin died re­cently aged just 41. Since his pass­ing I have found my­self think­ing of the im­men­sity of the con­tri­bu­tion he made to our group.

Peo­ple see Gaelic or soccer or rugby teams now, and prob­a­bly won­der what all the back­room staff do. Not many out­side the group know the finer work­ings of a back­room team, and a lot of the time they get no ac­claim or pub­lic recog­ni­tion.

Yet within the group th­ese peo­ple can be a big­ger fig­ure than the top-scor­ing for­ward or the All-Star wing back or who­ever it may be. For us that was Pat.

He was the first per­son I went to when I was given the job of man­ag­ing the Done­gal U-21 team. I needed a goal­keep­ing coach. Pat was a goal­keeper. Over the years in the Done­gal squad he be­came known as “Pat the Cat” be­cause of his re­flexes.

And he was also my cousin, and we had been friends since we were kids. He stood as god­fa­ther to our youngest child. I knew I could trust him. He was taken aback when I first asked him in. But I knew what he would bring to our group.

Pat was very par­tic­u­lar: ev­ery­thing had to be spick and span, whether it was the shirt he wore or the lawn out the front, or pre­par­ing Paul Dur­can and Michael Boyle in goals. For in­stance, in our first se­nior cham­pi­onship year Done­gal didn’t con­cede a goal. He was proud of that. So he had this very at­ten­tive and se­ri­ous side but he wore it lightly.

Jester

The role which he de­vised for him­self was as a kind of jester to the play­ers. He just bright­ened the room, whether it was be­fore a big match or on those black nights at train­ing in Bally­bofey. He would have a line for ev­ery­one straight away.

I can still pic­ture him walk­ing into the team room. He’d have a pair of shorts and a wee sleeve­less top with the guns [arms] out if there was any kind of weather – and of­ten if there wasn’t. And that was ir­re­sistible to some of the boys. He’d have two or three boys squared away be­fore he took his seat. And they loved it. He took the slag­ging in his stride.

He was al­ways bounc­ing about, al­ways had a word for ev­ery­one, and so he was an easy tar­get. He’d of­ten men­tion to the boys that he had been talk­ing to Shay Given about what­ever. And this was just petrol on the flames to the boys. You weren’t chat­ting to Shay Given, Pat! You don’t even know Given! And Pat would have the phone out to show some text they’d shared.

And I only re­alised in the last few months how much I re­lied on his pres­ence, par­tic­u­larly in the early days. I re­mem­ber with the U-21s we were driv­ing into the ground in En­niskillen for our very first cham­pi­onship match against Ar­magh. I sort of knew that if we lost this I’d never man­age any Done­gal team again. And the flood­lights were on, and it was very quiet and solemn.

Pat said: “What do you think?” So I told him what I was think­ing. We couldn’t have done more in terms of the work we put in. So if this wasn’t good enough, then I’m not and we’re not.

Said my piece

Be­fore the Ul­ster U-21 fi­nal I asked Pat if he wanted to say any­thing in the ho­tel on the evening of the game – U21 games are played on a Wed­nes­day night. So 10 min­utes be­fore we were leav­ing, af­ter I said my piece, I looked over at him and asked him if he would like to speak.

He stood up and looked down the room, and we were all ex­pect­ing some speech. Be­cause Pat could talk. But he just said: “Seize the day, lads. Seize the day.” That was it.

So we won the Ul­ster fi­nal, and headed down the road. I turned to him on the bus, and said: “What the **** did that mean? Seize the day?” And the craic started from there.

But the work Pat put in that year, and with Paul Dur­can at se­nior level, was phe­nom­e­nal. If you saw Paul and Pat stand­ing be­side each other it was an in­ter­est­ing dy­namic be­cause Pat was a small man and Paul is huge. But he pushed Papa very hard. And Michael Boyle too. Those two goal­keep­ers were al­ways ready.

His ca­pac­ity to care for other peo­ple and his will­ing­ness to learn was lim­it­less. He was hugely in­ter­ested in kick­out strate­gies, and he knew how to im­ple­ment them. It was all quick re­ac­tion stuff, and he could be a sergeant ma­jor when he needed to be. But he was al­ways pos­i­tive.

I am not sure if there was one per­son I ever met in my life who had a bad word to say about him. That is the kind of mix you want in a coach.

Di­ag­no­sis

I think the plan for De­clan Bon­ner was to bring him back into the fold for next sea­son. Pat had had his di­ag­no­sis when he went in with De­clan to coach the un­der-21s, but he kept it go­ing and he saw them win the Ul­ster cham­pi­onship. So he won the Ul­ster Un­der-21 twice and three se­niors and an All-Ire­land, and was also in­volved in two other All-Ire­land fi­nals in the space of six years.

He was oper­at­ing at the top end of the game, and saw so many big games and pres­sure si­t­u­a­tions. And he could read pres­sure mo­ments as well. He added so much in so many ways.

Pat’s di­ag­no­sis with cancer came shortly be­fore I moved to Beijing. I was in con­stant con­ver­sa­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion with him the whole way through it.

And then about three weeks ago I got a phone call from Char­lie, the team doc­tor, to say he wasn’t well at all. I jumped on a plane and headed up to Glen­ties. And I am so thank­ful we had those few days.

It’s funny, when Done­gal were go­ing well I would room with Pat the odd time in John­ston House. And I was think­ing about this when I went home to visit him. He was quite alert and en­er­getic then.

I had four or five days just call­ing up to the hospi­tal and chat­ting to him. At times I’d be half ly­ing in the bed be­side him and have the arm around him and we would talk through the whole thing. Just about the games and about times in Glen­ties and Lough Fad, his home par­ish.

And it was kind of sim­i­lar to how we killed time in those cham­pi­onship week­ends. He would lie in the bed in John­ston House and chat away about stuff from years and years ago. This would be af­ter you’d have turned out the lights. Same as kids, re­ally. And we would talk about my late brother Mark too.

We both knew we weren’t go­ing to be in­volved in th­ese big cham­pi­onship games for­ever, so I sup­pose we were pro­long­ing the mo­ment or the night when the game was still ahead of us. Then it would go quiet, and he would say: “What d’ya think?” And that was the sig­nal for all the fun to trans­fer into why we were here, and what we had to do in or­der to win the game.

We would talk through the match-ups and the foot­ball, and that con­ver­sa­tion would last 10 or 20 min­utes, and then it would come to a stop and it would be get­ting late. There’d be a si­lence in the room, but we’d both still be awake. Then he’d fi­nally say: “Good Night.” And that would be that.

Very funny mo­ment

In the hospi­tal I was step­ping around the room telling this story and we were both in stitches. And I knew I’d never see Pat again. Pat knew that too. But it was a very funny mo­ment. A nurse came in when I was go­ing through this rig­ma­role of a story. She wanted to know what all the com­mo­tion was about. Pat just looked up at her, and said: “He’s just telling a story.”

There was so much learn­ing in those cou­ple of days for me. The hu­mil­ity that he showed all the way un­til the end. The courage he showed in fac­ing this ill­ness down.

Him­self and Chrissy never got good news. He had good news on the first scan, but af­ter that every sin­gle re­sult was the op­po­site of what we were all hop­ing for. They never got that bit of light or hope.

But in the face of that he car­ried him­self in a cer­tain way. He never be­came bit­ter or lost. His only fo­cus was mak­ing sure that things would be okay for Chrissy and the boys Ethan and Tom. And the way he ap­proached the fi­nal days of his life will live long in my mem­ory.

On the day I was head­ing back to Beijing, there was no ac­knowl­edg­ment that we wouldn’t see each other again. The at­ti­tude was: we both keep go­ing. If there was a big good­bye it would have been a con­ces­sion that the ill­ness had won. So it was very hard walk­ing out of the room and down that cor­ri­dor that day and leav­ing him be­hind.

Passed away

We had an away game a week later in China. I got a text from Gavin, his brother, to say the nurse was in the house and that he had a few hours left. I was get­ting ready for the game. And I sent him a text. And that was it. Then I got a phone call in the mid­dle of the night. It was ac­tu­ally Shay Given to tell me that Pat had passed away.

He got a huge send-off. So many of the play­ers were there in their Done­gal shirts, and there was a mas­sive at­ten­dance at his funeral. The num­bers in the crowd re­flected the way he lived his life. Peo­ple un­der­stood that. If you live your life a cer­tain way and you are pos­i­tive and try to do things the right way and have fun and en­joy things, it leaves an im­pres­sion. And peo­ple don’t for­get.

He has left a great legacy. He achieved a lot in his life, and the chil­dren will grow up and know who ex­actly their dad was. And I think that is very im­por­tant. It is peo­ple like Pat who gal­vanise a group and make it be­come some­thing very spe­cial.

Pat knew ex­actly what he was do­ing in all those mo­ments when the boys were teas­ing him, and he was tak­ing it or when he set him­self up for a fall. I know I’ve of­ten spo­ken about this bond I felt that the group had. And he was the glue.

He was the per­son who, when he walked into a room, cre­ated the at­mos­phere. It was like a bright en­ergy. You could feel it.

He cre­ated the dy­nam­ics in our group where fun was okay. It meant the world to Pat to be in­volved with Done­gal, and he was so proud of the boys.

And I just hope he knew that they were proud of him too.

He has left a great legacy. He achieved a lot in his life and the chil­dren will grow up and know who, ex­actly, their Dad was. And I think that is very im­por­tant. It is peo­ple like Pat who gal­vanise a group and make it be­come some­thing very spe­cial

PHO­TO­GRAPH: JONATHAN PORTER/INPHO

Pat Shov­elin with Jim McGuin­ness dur­ing the Ul­ster SFC fi­nal against Down. He was the first per­son I went to when I was given the job of man­ag­ing the Done­gal Un­der-21 team.

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