Playing at Paradise (1/5/2019)


On the evening of Wednesday 1st May, Letterkenny’s own Jonathan Foley – who is a columnist with us here at the Leader – got to realise a lifelong dream when the Gortlee man lined out at the famous stadium in Parkhead to play on the hallowed surface of his beloved Glasgow Celtic. 

On a glorious summer’s evening in the western central belt of Scotland, the Fleet Alliance-sponsored game he played in raised a staggering £15,000 for charity. A chunk of which went right to Donegal Down Syndrome right here in Letterkenny.

How this all came about started back in March when Celtic captain Scott Brown visited the Silver Tassie Hotel for the ‘One Night in Donegal’ event that was jointly organised by the local supporters clubs and the famous Glasgow club themselves. A wonderful spectacle of an occasion that was focused on raising funds for the Celtic FC Foundation and the Ability Counts programme. 

On that night, over 600 fans attended as guests to a wonderful occasion that was full of music, dancing and of course a special Q&A session with Scott Brown. The already entertained crowd got their chance to get in on the act when the raffle and auctions took place. 

One of the items to auctioned off was the chance to play at the stadium and, as you can gather, Jonathan Foley was the highest bidder.

Amid a raptorious applause and cheers from his many fellow supporters and friends in the Tassie that night, Johnny had a dream confirmed as a reality. 

During the build-up prior to the game, he made sure that his charitable donation stayed close to home by requesting it go to helping the great work by the people who run Donegal Down Syndrome. 

This was approved of course and in return, Tony McNamee kindly presented Johnny with a t-shirt that bore their logo (as well as the crest of the Letterkenny No.1 Club Supporters Club) to wear underneath his jersey when playing in the match.

He was also invited by Gina Grant to their premises on the Letterkenny High Road to meet some of the kids along with their parents to see for himself what improvements they were planning to make with his donation.

“It was very humbling to see the great work that Gina and her team do. She showed me the new kitchen facility that was under construction and told me that they also have plans to improve the upstairs bedroom, so that travelling parents will now have a place to rest up before or after a long journey” Foley told.

“I can’t put into words the great work that they do for the kids and, of course, they were nothing short of a joy to meet as well. Some of them coming up for hugs, photographs and high-fives and I was glad to learn that my donation was going to be helping so many great people and so close to home as well” he told.

“Had it not been for the charitable incentive, I don’t think the Celtic Park experience would have been as special. I got my day out, of course, but knowing it was for a greater cause made it all the more enjoyable. Celtic’s foundation is based on charity after all, so it was great to feel that I could help, even if it was only a little bit compared to what the likes of Gina and Tony do on a regular day-to-day basis” he added. 

A few days prior to the match, it was confirmed that he would be playing on the same pitch as some of his heroes. Of which, these included Simon Donnelly and Kris Commons with former title-winning captains Stephen McManus and Tom Boyd pulling the strings on the sideline; the two sides would be adorning the current home and away Celtic strips. 

“As a fan, I’ve fond memories of all these guys. Donnelly and Boyd were both playing in the 1990s when I first got into Celtic. Even after all this time, I love that image of Boyd crying passionately with happiness on the field when the final whistle blew and Celtic won the league title, to mass celebration, in 1998. League success was very rare for the club back then, of course” he told.

“It’s been almost twenty years since Donnelly left Celtic, but I can tell you, he’s still as quick and as athletic as he ever was. In the dressing rooms, it was great to see the jersey with my name on it hanging next to his. I did think he’d be too old to be playing at this stage and I jokingly told him that. Mind you, he cooly reminded me that there was still plenty left in the legs yet” Johnny recalled.

The game itself was scheduled to take place six weeks after the original auction, so after a few visits to the gym and jogs around the pavements and park areas of the town, Foley was off to Glasgow with the boots and shin-guards readied for action.

He would be accompanied on the field by a guest of his choice who was Leitrim-native, Damien Holahan. 

A close friend of Johnny’s who he met during his time living in Edinburgh a few years ago. By his own admission, Damien is much more of a GAA man, but nobody would have guessed as he put in a superb performance at right-back on the night. 

“Damo and myself used to play for the Dunedin Connolly’s GAA team together and back in those days, he was usually a right corner-back and I was the right wing-back, so our roles at Celtic Park were kind of similar to what we used to do. More importantly, he’s been a great friend ever since I first met him and I was so chuffed to have him there to share the day with” Johnny told. 

Before any of this could happen, preparations had to be made of course.

“During the weeks that led to the game, I’d be out trying to keep the fitness up and on some occasions, I’d bump into my fellow Celtic fans around town.. The standout ones are Benny Sweeney and Denis McClafferty. Two Glaswegians living here, for God knows how long, and hits who’ve become great friends of mine throughout the years” Johnny told. 

“In his strong Clydebank twang, Benny would be hauling his DPD deliveries on the Main Street and shouting “You keep up that training, wee man!” and Denis would sometimes toot his car horn and go “Hail Hail, Young Foley!” Those were great moments in their own right and I suppose I felt a bit like I was in a training scene from Rocky II at that stage” he jokingly told.

Johnny would be playing in the away strip with none other than number seven on his back; a number that holds a special place in the hearts of Celtic fans considering it has previously been worn by none other than the likes of club legends such as Jimmy ‘Jinky’ Johnstone, Kenny Dalglish and Henrik Larsson. Good company to be in. 

And Johnny was able to recall the reaction from the stands about this news. 

“Michelle Coyle is a neighbour of mine. She’s originally from the Southside of Glasgow and has been spending more time at home in Scotland recently. She and her family kindly came along to the ground to cheer me on that night and I’m told since she comically remarked on social media that “Johnny is wearing the number seven … Nay pressure so, son!” he fondly told. 

When the game got underway, Johnny soon learned what he was up against. In a nutshell, it was lucky that he had done at least some of that training he talked about. On a big pitch where the ball quickly zips along the smoothest of surfaces, the former Ballyraine FC and Bonagee United man had to adjust to the pace quickly. 

“It was certainly no easy game with the standard of a lot of the guys on show. Commons and Donnelly were the ex-professionals of course, but I also learned that one guy was a former under-21 international for France paying and that some of the others still played semi-pro around parts of Scotland. Certainly no walk in the park but immensely enjoyable” he recalled. 

“I had maybe three chances during the game; one went that went over the bar, one hit the side netting and another one which sort of spun awkwardly and although I connected with it, it wasn’t the touch I would’ve liked and the ‘keeper was able to deal with it. No goals for me so, but that won’t trouble me in my memories. I was right-midfield after all, not one of the strikers” Johnny quipped.

No goals but there were some highlights to recall.

“I did enjoy a good battle with Kris Commons and it was great to get a high-five from him as he went off as a second-half substitute. He did try to nutmeg me once during the game, but he failed, so I made sure to give him some playful verbals about that. He took it all in good fun of course and that’s how it’s supposed to be” he recalled.

Now in his mid-thirties and having undergone a series of recurring knee and foot injuries, Johnny is the first to admit that his days as a nippy and troublesome winger may be long behind him. As the game wore on that night, his manager, and 2008 league-winning captain, Stephen McManus, offered him a reprieve to come off, but in Foley’s eyes, this was to be a once-in-a-lifetime thing. 

“My right leg muscles was giving me the same bother that it often does and McManus asked me if I would come off and rest it. I was in a bit of pain, nothing too serious, but reluctant to go. 

He told me there was only three minutes left but I asked if I could stilI stay on. I’d come a long way and just wanted to be on the pitch when the final whistle blew but I also didn’t want the guilt of the incoming substitute not getting back on. For a brief moment, I was very torn, physically and emotionally you might say” Johnny recounted.

“Thankfully Damien intervened and offered to go off instead. He was struggling with a back problem himself so he was happy to get the rest; it meant the other lad got a few extra minutes and I got to stay on.

Considering, I was limping a fair bit, I made sure to thank both Damien and Stephen for that after the game. I’d never usually overrule a coach but this was different. They understood and appreciated how long I’d waited for a day like this to happen.

The final whistle blew soon after and hugs were shared and photos taken. And of course I made sure to pop up to the stands where Michelle and her family were sitting – in the seats usually reserved for Billy Connolly and Rod Stewart no less – to thank them for coming. Overall, it’s definitely an experience that I’ll cherish forever” he concluded. 

The game itself was a tense affair for long periods that ended up with two late goals for the ‘away’ side to earn a hard-fought 4-2 win for Johnny’s team. With that, this lifelong supporter can now proudly say that he played in a winning side at Celtic Park. 

A famous line from one of the club’s songs states that they have ‘dreams and songs to sing’ and that’s just what Jonathan Foley had that evening. 

On this occasion, however, those dreams became a reality. We at the Leader would like to congratulate our colleague and, above all else our friend, for living his dream and for helping such a great cause in the process. 

Hail, Hail Johnny!

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