Railway Cup put Ulster sides on track for All-Ireland glory: McEniff
Domination of the inter-pro series gave our players confidence to go on and lift the Sam Maguire Cup
Brian McEniff reclines into memory as he visualises a pitch and a group of young men in their prime.
He's thinking of one of those late 80s forward lines that he used to line out for Ulster in the Railway Cup. "Peter McGinnity," he begins. "Joe Kernan, big Joe of course. Greg Blaney - imagine putting him on the wing! Then the inside line; Nudie, Frank McGuigan and Martin McHugh."
One of that number, Nudie Hughes uses that line-up as one of his staple yarns on the chat night circuit. He names all those great players, leaving his own name to last, before a pause and with comic timing, adds, "fair play to them, they kept the ball coming into me".
McEniff is reminiscing about his time in charge of Ulster in the Railway Cup. He first played for the province in 1968, but managed it along with his cousin, Tyrone's Art McRory, from 1983 to 2007.
Ulster were three behind Leinster on the leaderboard when McEniff took over. In his final year of 2007, they overtook the eastern province to win their 13th title in 24 years. Ulster are still top of the roll of honour now, with 31 titles.
The first year McEniff had the role, he gathered up a host of Ulster players for a challenge match against Dublin in Dunshaughlin on an All-Ireland final weekend.
"I knew the boys would all be down. I persuaded Eugene McKenna to come back and play that day and we went on to win the Railway Cup later in the year," he recalls.
In Kieran Donaghy's autobiography, 'What Do You Think Of That?', he spells out the difference of what representing your province means to Ulster men compared to others.
Recalling the 2005 edition playing for Munster up in Crossmaglen, he writes: "It was an intimidating environment up there: the barracks overlooking the pitch, the helicopters hovering around and a couple of thousand people urging Ulster to sow it into these boys... You had Tyrone and Armagh and Donegal fellas hugging each other at the final whistle when only a few months earlier they'd have been clawing at each other… We weren't able to bring it together like the Ulster lads could."
McEniff used to stage trials for his Railway Cup teams. The late Tony Loughman would manage an east Ulster selection, Art McRory managed the west, and McEniff would observe from the banks of pitches in Augher and Clogher. Players were mad to get on the team. Like Derry legend Tony Scullion.
"I remember Tony Scullion saying to me early in his football career that he wasn't up to that standard. I said, 'It's up to me to decide that'," laughs McEniff now.
His first year was 1987, he went on to win six-in-a-row from 1989, with the competition not held in 1990.
"I think Martin McQuillan from Armagh was the same and I played in every minute and every second of every game," says Scullion now.
"I am completely convinced that whenever Ulster began to do well in the early 90s, the three D's of Down, Donegal and Derry, the Railway Cup success we had in 1989, 91 and so on right through, gave us the belief that we were every bit as good as players around the country."
His manager back then backs that up. "I think it was the success of the Railway Cup that brought Ulster to the fore, back in the 90s," says McEniff.
The Donegal man will be there today in Carrick-on-Shannon, a familiar figure in his flat cap, giving his support to current manager Pete McGrath as Ulster face Connacht in the final, seeking revenge - if such a thing is appropriate - for the heavy final defeat in 2014.
Staged a week before Christmas Eve, there is barely a pulse left in the competition.
This year, Donegal and Monaghan have no representation.
That comes as an embarrassment to McEniff, who suggests playing it at Parnell Park on a Saturday night before the All-Ireland final to gain some profile and find a regular slot for it, instead of, "The way it was pushed from Billy to Jack".
Scullion is a selector of the current team and he has never been one to bury his emotions.
"I am not being hard on my own province, but I firmly believe it meant more to lads back when I was playing than it means now to some," he says.
"No point in telling lies, I am disappointed there are no Donegal players this year.
"Monaghan, there were a few reasons about them, but when you look at our panel, there is nobody from Donegal or Monaghan and I just can't understand why players could not commit," he says.
"Playing for your province is one of the greatest honours you can get. It meant everything to me, to be asked to go and play.
"I would feel sorry for why the competition isn't going as strong now."
Ultimately, it's a failure of marketing, or imagination. Perhaps both.
McEniff was famously present when Ulster won the European Rugby Cup in 1999, but he recalls a time when inter-provincial rugby was far from fashionable.
"You have all the reasons you want for why it (the Gaelic football inter-pros) is not succeeding, but I am old enough to remember when the inter-provincial series in rugby was a joke, there wouldn't have been any more than 150-200 people at it."
But still. There is a game in Pairc Sean MacDiarmada, and there are players who share that sense of honour.
And that attachment to a province that has always felt a connection deep down more than the rest.