Sunday, August 22nd, 1976 was a glorious, hot summer’s day.
Hundreds of Derry and Donegal folk filled the beaches and seaside towns of Inishowen seeking to make the most of the weather and the weekend before work once again came calling on Monday morning.
“People who met him either through his footballing career or when he delivered milk to the masses in Derry, loved him – he had integrity beyond his years.”Shaunie’s sister, Jackie McLaughlin
Yet, it was a day that was to end in tragedy for no fewer than three Derry families.
Late that evening, a devastating six vehicle collision, barely two miles outside Buncrana along the main Derry road, claimed the lives of 78 years old Annie McMonagle from Creggan; 17-years old Damian Breslin from Lone Moor Road and 21-years Shaun ‘Shaunie’ McLaughlin from Circular Road.
Shaun’s younger sister, Jackie, remembers vividly the day she lost her big brother who was the eldest of seven siblings and already a League of Ireland title winner with Dundalk F.C.
“That day was spent on Buncrana beach; Shaun, my mother and father, my younger brother Gary and me,” remembers Jackie,
“Shaun played football with Gary on the beach and then swam in the sea with me. My mother was having a panic attack as she watched us swim out. After the usual fish and chips and ice-cream in The Four Lanterns, we were taken home. Shaun headed back down the road to The White Strand later to meet cousins and friends. It was on his way there that he was involved in the crash.”
Jackie admits a part of her parents, Letty and John, ‘died’ that day when news of the tragedy started to filter back to Derry but her memory of a brother brimming with “life and love, faith and ambition” is as clear today as it was 40 years ago.
“That day has defined the lives of our whole family; each one in their own way marked for evermore. After Shaun, our parents were broken people. They didn’t have the tools to deal with his loss, nor was bereavement counselling or the like the done thing back then. So they suffered.
“We, as a family, were plunged into horrendous grief and over the years and it took its toll on each of us. But in Shaun’s short life, he was dedicated, disciplined and committed to both our family and to his football. He was kind compassionate and just so decent to those he met along the way. This is his legacy. It has stayed the course and we grew strong again.”
And the gifted midfielder was not only dedicated to football; he was set for a great career in the game.
He joined Athletic F.C. in Creggan when he was seven along with almost every young lad in the area. Under the leadership of Jim O’Hea, Shaun made it ‘across the water’ with current Premier League champions, Leicester City, at just 15 years old. He stayed at Filbert Street for nearly two years before moving to Hibs in Scotland, where he spent another two years.
Homesickness got the better of him and he returned to Derry. At local level he played for Foyle Harps, Celtic Swifts, Crusaders and Derry Athletic but at 19 he signed for Finn Harps, making his League of Ireland debut at the beginning of 1974/75. It did not him long to make his mark.
After just half a dozen senior games he was lining out in the European Cup Winner’s Cup against Turkish opponents, Boruspor, and putting up a highly creditable performance against a full time professional outfit, losing 4-2 away and earning a scoreless draw at home. Oriel Park hosted the drawn League Cup final with Bohemians but ‘Shaunie’ had to be satisfied with a runner-up medal when an extra-time last-minute goal from Johnny Fullam stole the honours in the Tolka Park replay.
In the close season Jim McLaughlin and Dundalk came calling having already secured another Derry man, Seamus ‘Shakes’ McDowell from Sligo Rovers.
And what a memorable season it turned out to be. Harps flew out of the traps but by the end of November, Dundalk were in their slipstream and a closing 21-match unbeaten run secured McLaughlin’s first League Championship medal.
The McDowell-McLaughlin midfield partnership was a key ingredient. As well as their craft, guile and - if required - a bit of muscle, they were also the creators and suppliers of some of that campaign’s most memorable moments with spectacular and stunning goals at regular intervals.
Shaunie’s late-late equaliser a few days before Christmas at Flower Lodge against Cork Hibernians was a superb 25-yards shot while Oriel Park was the venue for his double-salvo against Cork Celtic in February that saw Dundalk join Harps at the top. Each strike was from 25 yards into the top corner.
“We were very proud of him. He worked as a trainee accountant for Du Pont in Derry for a while but inside work was not for him so he took a job running a milk round for Vinny Morrison. He absolutely loved it,” recalls Jackie, “The early morning starts, the meeting and greeting of people, young and old; the tests of how fast he could run from cart to door delivering the milk, putting up a challenge to other boys.
“Most people knew Shaun as the footballer, or the milkman, but to us he was our big brother, the one who laid down a good example and was there for each of us when we needed him. Daily life in our house when Shaun was alive was upbeat and full of good laughs. He’s the one my father would listen to and trust. He’s the one my mother leaned on for support, when my father was abroad working.
“He was like a father to me and Gary, us being the youngest two kids but he watched Paul (‘Oxo’ McLaughlin) and Pat play football too and encouraged them all the way. He was Paul’s idol yet he’d repeatedly say to everyone and to Paul that he had to train so hard for what Paul had naturally at his feet.
“My sister Maria was his best pal. Like most families in those days space was scarce so they shared a room. They fought when they were young but they had a special bond. They understood each other and confided in each other. Shaun’s death broke Maria’s heart and to this day she grieves.
“People who met him either through his footballing career or when he delivered milk to the masses in Derry, loved him – he had integrity beyond his years.”
Over the days that followed his death, Jackie watched as hundreds of mourners filed through the house to pay their respects, something the whole family took comfort from.
“The whole community seemed were in mourning with us when he died. The condolences we received and hand written letters filled up a whole wardrobe in our house. People spoke of him for years and years. Someone said to me recently that he remembered queues outside our house at 2am in the morning, waiting in line to pay their respects.
“I remember on the morning of his funeral when his body left our house for the last time, I stood on the step at the front door and could see only people, hundreds and hundreds of them. It was and is a great source of comfort to know how well regarded he was.”
“Even today Shaun, 40 years on, Shaun is still very much part of our lives. Our children who never met him, know you well, we make sure of that.”
Dundalk’s opening game of the 1976 season was a mouth-watering friendly against Italian League champions, Torino. Shaunie McLaughlin was an absentee, having been granted permission to miss the game.
The match was played on Sunday, August 22nd . . . .