A mission to find the toughest Monaghan footballers of all time will invariably unearth the name of Tony Loughman. For a decade from the early 1960s he played for the county and also won nine senior championship medals with Castleblaney Faughs. “He’d bate you up and down the field,” says his son Declan, drily, without seeking forgiveness or approval.
Tony is dead 11 years now, cancer taking him at 64. In their many spins to the hospital in Drogheda for treatment, Declan would talk to his father about little else but football. The eldest child, he was a leading player in the Monaghan teams of the 1980s, figuring on their side 30 years ago, the last time the county featured in an All-Ireland semi-final. He won 12 senior championships with the Faughs, three more than his father. But the father lit the fuse and planted the seed.
The son, now in his 50s, speaks of “reverse psychology” where his father would motivate him by forecasting that he would not achieve various targets. Including some of those set by the father. He surpassed them all. On those journeys to the hospital, with his father terminally ill, football was never as important to them both as a means of connection and comfort. Until one day on one of those drives, Tony Loughman turned to his son and said, causally, “We’ll not have to do this for much longer.”
In June, 2007, he died, around six months after being diagnosed and eight days before Monaghan beat Down for the first time in the Championship in 19 years. He had served Faughs with distinction as player, manager and chairman. For the county, he played from 1962 to 1972. Ten years later he was manager, taking over from Sean McCague. Football wasn’t the half of it. He compressed a lot into his life, becoming a showband manager and successful businessman, a self-made impresario who left behind a gruelling manual labour job with Roadstone.
His home town of Castleblaney came to be regarded as the Nashville of Ireland where country music was king. This was Loughman’s ticket to a more glamorous and interesting career. By the time the broadcaster Donncha Ó Dúlaing interviewed him in 1980 he had become an established name, with a number of leading Irish entertainers under his wing including Philomena Begley, Big Tom, Susan McCann and Paddy Cole. He told Ó Dúlaing of his earlier job stacking blocks, when he would work five days a week from 8am to 7pm, piling those blocks 56 at a time.
He began by holding music events in a marquee during local carnivals. “I got a few handy pound out of it. I’d say I got more in the one carnival than I got for 52 weeks with the blocks.” But, like sport itself, you needed a break. It wasn’t until an encounter with Tyrone singer Philomena Begley that his fortunes really took off. “For about five years I was getting it tight now,” he admitted to Ó Dúlaing. “If I had got my job back in the quarry I’d say I would have took it.”
Six years before, Begley was looking to quit her music career, having recently married. “I spoke to her at a charity concert,” explained Loughman. “I said ‘why not have a band of your own? Give it a fling like?’ She said she would. That was the turning point.”
At one stage they played 91 consecutive nights. They toured the UK and America.
He had a hand in almost 50 bands over a 40-year period. From modest beginnings he built an empire: his own management company, his own recording studio, his own printing business, a record company called Top Spin. He also bought several ballrooms.
“Declan would be a different type of player,” says Nudie Hughes, also a Faughs man. “But the one thing that both of them had was steel. Like the father, if you were playing it dirty you got it dirty. If you were playing football you got football.”
For the last few years of his career, Tony Loughman played for Cremartin, who were then a junior club outside Castleblayney. “He was finished like, he was 35 or 36,” says his son. “He was after getting a long suspension, one of the many, and he went out to Cremartin and won a junior double and intermediate double and went up senior and met the Faughs in the senior championship semi-final. He was centre half and Eamon Tavey was on the 40 for Blaney in Ballybay and we were there with our green and gold flags. And he met Tavey in the graveyard after Mass that morning. And Tavey was a ’79 man, wing-half in ’79. And he called him over and he said ‘if you don’t touch me I won’t touch you’. Because people were expecting to see a blood bath. So neither of them touched each other. Two tough men.”
Today Declan Loughman will travel to Croke Park with his mother, who is in her 70s, and who has always been an avid follower of the club and county. If music gave his father a career opportunity, football has done the same for his son. For 34 years he has run his own sports shop in Castleblaney. Business has rarely been as vibrant as in recent days, with demands for colours to mark the occasion where Monaghan hope to end an 88-year wait for an All-Ireland final appearance.
He has followed his father into business, as he followed him into football. He opened the shop while still a teenager, the year after he made the Monaghan team in 1983. Like his father, there is a streak of innovation in him too. He established his own brand of sports wear which he decided to rebrand around six months ago, bringing in Conor McManus as the brand ambassador. They’ve renamed the line of gear M15, the initial taken from McManus’s nickname, Mansy, and the 15 a reference to the number he wears on his back.
McManus, as expected, has helped boost the profile of the brand. “Oh it has aye,” says Loughman appreciatively, “yeah sure he’s God up here like.”
They hope to expand the line and maybe the market. “We have requested a licence, every month maybe, from Croke Park, to see if we can get a GAA licence. Ah we’ll keep at them. Sometimes you don’t even get a reply. It would just give it a bit of recognition. Senior teams can’t take the field without that logo (GAA). Like, schools and juveniles are ok.”
On this day, the Monaghan goalkeeper Rory Beggan calls in looking, in vain, for a pair of size 13 runners. He is an oasis of calm, but around him the atmosphere is mounting to fever pitch.
“It is unreal, unbelievable,” says Loughman. “I just said to Rory there, you don’t understand, as a player, the effect that you have on people. Or the way you can affect people’s moods like. And you don’t understand that because you are too selfish, you are in a bubble. It’s all about playing football. I said to him, you don’t understand that 10,000 people left Galway last Saturday in the best form of their lives, like, and footballers can do that.
“And it’s only when you are finished playing and you get older and wiser, that you really understand that. And that goes right down to club teams. Like I would have said it to Emyvale (where he is now managing the junior team), when we chatted at training one evening, I would have said you have no idea the effect you have on the people of this village like. They have been through things, there was the loss of a lad who was pulled out of a slurry pit last year, he died, they went through a lot of bad times as a community. But I said this is one of the few things that can put a smile on people’s faces. And it’s in your hands. And it’s just on a bigger scale with county football.
“But the county has gone bananas for a semi-final, so to win it, which I think they will, and to go to an All-Ireland final, you will see grown men cry at Croke Park on Sunday if the result goes the right way.”
Tony Loughman never stood still. Having formed a successful management company he found that the volume of posters he needed to advertise events were more than the local printer could handle. Se he set up his own printing business. Then he set up a recording studio, a record company, and bought a string of show band venues. But the show band business went into decline and he was slow to adjust. ”His problem,” says his son, “was he couldn’t accept it had gone and kept peddling, and pushing and losing. There was a non-acceptance that 1,000 people wouldn’t go to a dance anymore. He’d be doing well if he had 100.”
Disco took over. “Now it has grown back,” says Declan Loughman. “If he were alive now he’d be back where he was. Sure Big Tom was bigger the time he died than he was 20 years ago. The Mike Denvers and Nathan Carters have given it a new life. I suppose the real turning point was Garth Brooks. He made country cool. It was cool to like country.”
Sometimes the two worlds intersected. When Tony was managing Monaghan in the early 1980s he took Declan with him on a tour with the county footballers to New York. During the visit they made a quick detour to Nashville where his father had some business. When managing Monaghan he brought Mick O’Dwyer to some of the sessions in the early 1980s for pep-talks. He would have known O’Dwyer through business as much as through football. A couple of years before Loughman died, at a tribute to Philomena Begley, O’Dwyer was the MC.
A broken leg in the National League ruled his son out of the 1985 Championship and the All-Ireland semi-final matches against Kerry when O’Dwyer was still managing. That meant the ’88 Ulster final win over Tyrone, a narrow victory with a controversial finish when Tyrone claimed they should have had a penalty when Noel McGinn was upended, had added meaning for Declan Loughman. He finished as one newspaper’s choice for man of the match, with Nudie Hughes RTE’s selection.
He stopped playing after defeat by Derry at Celtic Park, telling his manager Eamon McEneaney that he wanted to see out his career winning more championships with the club. By then he had broken his leg twice and ruptured his achilles. His final club year was 2003, when they last won the senior championship, the most successful club in Monaghan in decline since. Loughman has had two three-year terms as manager, reaching the semi-final twice.
He always had faith in Monaghan making it at least this far this year, even after they allowed Kerry snatch a stoppage time draw in Clones with David Clifford’s goal. “I said to (Ryan) McAnespie one night at (Emyvale) training that they’ll beat Kerry and Galway. I thought they’d beat the two. Should have beaten the two of them as it turned out. I know in the back of Galway minds they were already through. And when Monaghan took off like a bullet they couldn’t match it.
“Monaghan played exceptionally well against Kerry and Galway. Not your big names only, but McAnespie and (Dermot) Malone, clubman of ours, they were unbelievable in both games. You are nearly gaining two new men because they are playing like never before.”
Loughman sounds confident, in spite of Tyrone’s momentum and healthy record against Monaghan in Croke Park. “Oh aye I think we will beat Tyrone. People think that Tyrone have a bit of a thing over us, but we went to Omagh and beat them already this year which was a big feather. Then you have people saying ‘oh we never have much luck in Croke Park’, that is all oul nonsense. That doesn’t affect the team, like. We can all talk shite about that. But it doesn’t affect the team. Malachy O’Rourke has them on a different level and [in a]bubble than the rest of us eejits talking. So all that is just supporters’ talk. What goes on inside that dressing room is different. O’Rourke must be an unbelievable man to be fair to him.”
Tony Loughman was in Nashville when he was diagnosed with cancer, still chasing the dream. He came home, summoned the family to the house and broke the news. In January of the previous year he lost his daughter Edel, just 33, to cancer. “It killed me father,” says Declan, “without a doubt. She is buried in Crossmaglen. She was married and had three children. And every day I had to take him up to the graveyard to her grave. Ah it knocked the stuffing out of him, there is no doubt about that.”
The ballrooms died away and country faded and the venues he once owned went too. One in Clones is now a tractor yard, used for parking on big match days. They are relics of a bygone age. Having been told by his father of the cancer diagnosis, Declan Loughman got in touch with Gerry McEntee, seeking guidance. “I will never forget it, I was parked outside the Credit Union up there, so I rang Gerry McEntee and I said, ‘Gerry, my father was diagnosed with cancer, just wondering where’s the best place to go to get this particular thing treated?’ He says, ‘what is it?’ And these boys, blunt as they do be, like. I says, ‘it is in the abdominal cavities.’
“‘He’s gone’, he said, ‘he has six months to live’. He was right nearly to the day. He has six months he said, doesn’t matter what they do.”
Declan Loughman is asked what sums up a Monaghan footballer. “I would say first the realisation of the connection he has with the people. I would say that would be a big thing. I am sure it would be the same everywhere but I think the connection that the Monaghan team has with its own people (is special), there’s no gap, there’s no stand-off. (Conor) McManus could tell me yesterday here that he was on the field in Galway for one hour after the match. One hour. Because they invaded the pitch. He said there was a child first and all he could see was a stampede so he grabbed the child, the child was eight or nine, he had to pull the child in because they were coming. But that’s the connection that’s there.
“Like (Rory) Beggan would come in there and he’d talk to anybody. He didn’t ask me could he go out the back door.”
He also speaks of Monaghan football as “die-hard, tough, similar to the Meath tradition, you know, take no nonsense, physically strong. And by the time you’d have them bate, you’d know about it. Bit like Meath.”
The journey continues, today winding south to Croke Park in the company of his wife and mother, who due to recent health problems required a little coaxing. “She was in here yesterday and Nudie (Hughes) landed in and I says to him will you talk to my mother there, she says she won’t go to the match there on Sunday? We said we’d get her a car pass for the Davin car park and she won’t have far to go. She is coming anyway.
“I left her back to the house and she was on cloud nine.”
To Croke Park then they will head, with the thousands of others in this county renowned for punching above its weight. A county and its people on the one road. United, come what may.