By Ronan Scott
Donegal county footballer Niall O’Donnell recently visited St Eunan’s College Letterkenny to give a talk to the pupils about what it is like to be a county footballer.
Standing in the wings was Colm McFadden, who listened intently to the story that Niall O’Donnell was telling. He knew it well. He could have told the story himself as he played for a Donegal footballer from 2002 through to 2016.
Unlike O’Donnell though, McFadden’s memories of those days are fading. “You nearly forget about playing. The young fella was at an underage presentation the other night and I was asked who my first game was against. I was like ‘jeez, that’s a question I would have been able to answer a couple of years ago’, but I couldn’t remember’.”
For the record, the first Donegal game in which he started was a game against Westmeath in Mullingar. It is odd for Colm McFadden that he would forget his early days of
playing. As a teenager he used to keep meticulous records of all the games he played in, recording the match scores and the points and goals he got in each game.
But while Niall O’Donnell was talking in St Eunan’s, the memories came flooding back and McFadden was whisked back to those glory days of when he was a county footballer.
It is a story that started in that very school. That was where his passion for football began to grow. “At school you would have been kicking the ball about and playing. The
boys at school knew all the soccer players, but I wouldn’t have had a clue who they were,” he said.
His family background was GAA, and so that’s where his focus was. “My Dad played, and my older brother would have played. “I suppose [my interest] came from watching them playing.
“I would have went to the county games with the ould fella. “I remember being at the Ulster final in 1993 at Clones. I don’t remember the game, but I remember standing up on the hill and it being all mucky and not seeing a thing. It was all terrace back then.
“My family would have been into football, and when you go to the games then you start getting interested.” Colm has one brother who was eight years older, and another who is
seven years younger, so there wasn’t the sibling rivalry that other families might have had.
He enjoyed playing, but the young McFadden was hungry for inspiration, and he sought it where he could get it in that age before the heavy GAA coverage we get today.
“In 1992 I was nine, I remember seeing the picture of the county team, and looking at the names under the team. But there were no county players around here (his club is St Michael’s in Creeslough/Dunfanaghy).
“I remember in 1993, when Derry won the All-Ireland, I remember going through their team and looking at their players, Tohill and all those bucks. You wouldn’t know half of them, you were just going by the name. They had won an All-Ireland so they must be good. “Back then, jerseys wouldn’t have been a big thing. Mum got me a jersey and I thought that this was great altogether, running about in
a Donegal jersey. You definitely thought you were a better footballer when you had a Donegal jersey on you. It was the little things.”
At primary school, he played on a nine-a-side team. Christy Toye was in the same class as him, and their school team was competitive. At club level, with Naomh Michael they played at B level initially, but would go on to win the club’s first A level competition at u-12.
“Our age group would have been competitive the whole way up“In our own age group, when Christy and I were at full age, we beat teams easy. We would get to the final and we would play Donegal Town and they would beat us. At minor level it all tightened up.
“We got to the minor final against Donegal Town and they beat us. “We got to the u-21s and we beat Donegal Town in the semi-final, and then beat Glenswilly in the final. We won the A final at u-12 and the u-21 final but were beat in all the other finals.”
Those competitive experiences of playing at club level provided foundations for McFadden to make his mark at the next stage, at county level.
It perhaps taught him that good things come to those who wait, and who put the work in. “It was good playing at that level and being competitive. A lot of good players go through their club and they don’t get that chance to
be competitive. We were lucky that we had a good panel of players who came through at that particular time.”
McFadden didn’t really think about where he was going, or whether he should be getting better. “I enjoyed playing football. I always had a football in my hand.
“I wasn’t setting out to be the best, I just enjoyed playing football. “I wasn’t doing it to get better though I probably should have been, I should have been working on my right foot. If I had did that when I was younger I would have been naturally stronger with both feet.”
McFadden would go out and play for the fun of it. He would go out on his own, or head over to Christy Toye’s where the pair would kick a football together.
Sometimes his father would take him to the pitch where he would practice his free kicks.
“When I was younger you just went with the flow, and just let whatever happen, happen.”
McFadden won the MacLarnon title with his school St Eunan’s, and that u-21 title with the club, and he also won a Sigerson title when he was at Galway.
The MacLarnon victory was notable because St Eunan’s were made up of u-17s playing against the northern schools who had upper sixths who were 18-year old.
He had plenty of opportunities to impress, and as he grew up he learned that he enjoyed impressing people.
“If you knew someone was watching you, a coach, or a relation, or a senior player, then you would definitely try to impress them. At school now (he is deputy principal at St Eunan’s) I encourage parents to come and support games. You always like someone to come and watch.
“I was lucky as my parents always came to watch. I always liked that. You can then say afterwards if they saw a score, or ask how you got on.
“Even when you are older it is nice to have people there to see how you got on.”
McFadden’s father was a coach in the club the whole way through his time there. He was an important figure in the forward’s development.
“He would have given me small tips and advice. One important thing he did was that he would have driven me anywhere. I was on the compromise rules team at u-17 during the time when I was doing the leaving cert. He would have taken me to do a run on the beach, or taken me to the pitch to do shooting practice.
“I remember I was at university at Galway, and we were training at Christmas for the Sigerson. He drove me all the way down to Galway for a training session and back up again. There was snow the whole way down. He wouldn’t think anything about jumping in the car and driving
It is that sort of support that set McFadden up for his future.
“I probably didn’t think much about it at the time but I am grateful for it now. Mum would have been the same. If you were going out to raining early there would be a breakfast on the table for you.”
McFadden, it should be remembered, was an early adapter. He was a minor as an u-16, and he and Christy Toye played in the Ted Webb u-16 tournament, and won it, for Donegal in the same year they were minors.
He liked having Christy on the same teams as him. “We always played well together. I loved having Christy on at the same time as myself as he seemed to have this ability to know where to kick it when he had the ball. We had a great understanding.
If you have a player like that who is with you the whole way up, that is going to improve you. “Any of those sports books will tell you, if you have good players in your locality then it is going to improve you.”
It also helped make it easier for the pair of them to settle into a county environment. “It always stands out to me, if you were going to a trial game, everyone would be sitting there quietly you would see players come in who were the only player from that club and that would be extra nerves, even though everyone is nervous.
“But footballers are all the same, when they are with each other for a few days they soon get on.”
Transitioning to seniors meant that he had to deal with the new demands on the physical nature of the game. But McFadden had always been able to adapt.
“When I was on the minor team as an u-16 I felt that if i pushed on I could make it to senior level. I played u-21s as a minor. One of my goals was to play at senior level. I was aware that a lot of boys don’t make the step up. But I did have the interest.”
His approach was to play as much football as he could, to get better and better, and to get noticed. While at Galway, he was noticed, by the then Donegal manager Mickey
“He called me and asked me to come up. Mickey was very good with young fellas, he always wanted to bring young fellas through. “I was in Galway and I was still minor, but he didn’t realise I was still minor. I went to play a game in Galway in Tuam. I sat on the bench for the game, didn’t get on.
Afterwards he came up to me and said ‘you are still minor?’. I said I was. He said: ‘You concentrate on that for this year, and we will chat to you next year’.”
As McFadden had been a minor for two years already, and was in his third year at that level, Moran assumed he was older.
That suggests the sort of talent that McFadden was displaying at such a young age, and while he had not got his start, it was clear to the young man, that he had a future with the county. He was called up the following year.
“I only had him for a year. Moran was one of the coaches that I would have loved to have been coached by when I was older and more mature to appreciate the training he was doing. The training that he was doing was very good. It was all game-based.”
McFadden admits that he was immature at the time. He got into Galway, got a scholarship and enjoyed his time as a student.
“College was college. It was good. Too good. “Boys now don’t have a college life these days. They are studying and training. Back then you were allowed to enjoy yourself and be a young person.”
He enjoyed the weeks at university and then would return to Donegal training at the weekend. He didn’t have to travel up and down. He could be playing an u-21 match on Saturday and then a league game on Sunday, but the rest of the week was spent in Galway.
He joined the Donegal squad in early 2000s during a period of Ulster football when Armagh and Tyrone were dominant.
“It was the two of them and Kerry that were the big three sides.“We would have struggled more against Armagh than Tyrone.
“We had beat Tyrone a couple of times in the league and a couple of times in the championship. We ended up on the wrong end of a couple of hammerings.”
He doesn’t remember many of the players who marked him, though he did have a word on Conor Gormley.
“He always had a knack of pushing you just as you won the ball. So you would win the ball and fall over in a heap, the next thing he’d be over the top of you. And he always got away with it. I felt that it was very obvious, but when you were on the ground it was tricky to get out.”
His battles with Conor Gormley didn’t happen until later in his career. His early days as a county footballer saw him learn how to play the game at that level, adapting to the speed and the physical nature of the game. Brian McEniff gave him his first start in the championship.
“You couldn’t but get on with McEniff. He was very good at communicating and staying in touch and letting you know what was happening. His phone must have been on the go all the time because he never stopped ringing.
“It was nice for us to see him come in because he was the 1992 manager, and we were getting a chance to play under him.”
McFadden said that McEniff’s approach to management was very much of one of encouragement and advice.
The breakthrough game for McFadden, when he felt that the team made their mark, was when they beat Tyrone in the championship in 2004, the year after they had won their All-Ireland. McFadden scored 1-7 that day.
“It was one of those days when you were feeling good, your touch was good. When you are feeling that way you know things are going right. “We knew it was going to be a daunting task playing Tyrone. That Donegal team back then we knew there was big performances in us. We had struggled with putting those big performances back to back.”
They played Armagh in the final, and the Orchard gave them a trimming. In those days it was hard to beat one of those two teams, so beating both in the same season was a massive challenge. Despite the loss, McFadden remembers fondly how good the Donegal team was.
“I remember Adrian Sweeney was centre half forward. The balls he was kicking in to me inside were brilliant. Outside of the boot, and they would stay at chest level the whole way, he just pinged them in.
“He was brilliant. He used to play inside, but then moved out to centre half forward and I suppose because of that he got a feel of what boys inside want to get.
“He was a good player, but they were all good players. But Donegal always had good players when I was playing. There were always quality players all over the field.”
They had the talent, but they didn’t have the medals to show for it. During the 2000s the Ulster Championship was a carve up between Tyrone and Armagh.
In 2006 Donegal came close to winning the Ulster title, as they reached the final and lost to Armagh.
That was the year that McFadden went to Liverpool to do his teaching degree. He thought about coming back for the inter county season but his fitness wasn’t right.
He came back in 2007 and got to experience some success. Brian McIver was manager and he provided a freshness to the team. McFadden said that the introduction of Adrian McGuckin to the back room team was an important one, as his motivational speeches helped to harness the team’s talent.
They won six out of their seven games played in the league and progressed to the semi-final where they beat Kildare, and that set up a final against Mayo.
“That year we were going well in the league, but we were maybe going too well in the league.
We were flying in the league but we didn’t carry it on into the championship. Maybe we weren’t used to it we didn’t know how to handle it in the right way. We probably needed to up the ante and train harder.”
They beat Armagh in the first round of the championship – rather fortunately, McFadden concedes. They would get no such luck against Tyrone in the next round.
In 2009, Donegal would reach the All-Ireland quarter-finals. McFadden said that he doesn’t know how they got there. Perhaps part of the explanation is the emergence of Michael Murphy onto the scene.
“He came in when he was a minor, and it was obvious how good he was. “He was fit to hold his own. He was fit to compete even then at 17 or 18-years-old, and was further on in his development.
“I always got on with Michael. I enjoyed playing with him. It was nice to see a player like that come in.”
Murphy soon became a regular among the group of players who would stay late after training to practice free kicks, of which McFadden was a regular. And he took time to give Murphy advice.
There were players constantly chatting to him and helping him. That contact helped him.”
It should be noted though, that in 2009 Donegal had lost to Antrim who were Division Four at the time. Though Donegal had been relegated and Antrim earned promotion to Division Three that year.
“It maybe showed that we weren’t going that well together. But we got a bit of momentum going through the back door. We got a couple of good results. We beat Galway. At the same time, when we got to Cork (in the quarter-final) our fitness levels weren’t there. (Donegal lost 1-27 to 2-10).
“The only consolation was that on the following day Dublin were playing Kerry and they got beat by a bigger score.” In around that period the mood wasn’t good around the Donegal team.
The team were getting criticised. The manager John Joe Doherty came in for a lot of it. In 2010, when he was 28, there were some who even thought he should retire after his 100th match playing for Donegal. “There was a lot of negativity around that time. There was a lot stuff going on. But I knew that I was only 28. I knew that the best was still to come.
“There was a lot of negative stuff at the time but you had to learn from it.” Clearly at 28, McFadden still had the same ambitions as he had when he was a teenager desperate to impress.
“When I was younger I just went out and played football and enjoyed it. But when you get older you have to start looking at things and learning.
“At that time you had to ignore what was being said. You had to believe in yourself. Thankfully I did that and stuck at it and Jim came in the following year.”
Jim’s arrival in the Donegal camp almost appeared as if it was an answer to the Donegal team’s prayers.
“I remember training with Rory Kavanagh in the gym in 2010, when we were trying to make up a programme for ourselves.
We didn’t know what we were doing, if it was right or wrong. I remember saying to him, I would love someone to come in and tell us to train morning, noon, or night or whatever. Just tell us exactly what to do and we would do it. Jim came along the following year and that is exactly what he done.”
Colm knew Jim McGuinness as a player with Donegal as their periods of playing overlapped for a few years. He is also married to Colm’s sister. But in the year before the breakthrough 2011 season, McFadden had an idea what the Naomh Conaill man would bring to the table.
McGuinness had a successful run with the Donegal u-21s. “Murphy was on the team, and Leo McLoone, but it was a team that didn’t have much success the whole way up. It wasn’t considered a particularly strong age group. People thought he was mad taking them.
But he got them to the Ulster final and they playing brilliant football. They got to the All-Ireland final but then the team got hit by the flu. Three or four of them didn’t play. Most of them were out on their feet. Murphy hit the bar at the end from the penalty.
“We thought that if he could get that out of them, what could he do with us.”
According to McFadden the timing was right for both the manager and the senior team.
“We were hungry for that sort of training. We were lucky that Jim came along, and Jim was lucky that he inherited a group of players who were eager to prove themselves, and who were willing to listen to whatever advice he gave.
“If you look at the Tyrone and Armagh teams, they were two serious teams, but they were serious teams because they trained hard and worked hard. We were able to live with them in footballing ability, but the work that they were putting in was what made the difference.”
McGuinness’s approach was focused on structured work with trainers and that included a strength and conditioning coach.
But McFadden needed extra work. “I used to have to do extra running, maybe an extra 25 minutes, and a cool down, then a bit more. I would do this for a few weeks, not all
It did make a serious difference in the legs. “Different players have different make ups and I needed that bit of
While there was optimism for Jim’s start the first game proved to McFadden that things were going to be different.
In round one of Division two, they welcomed Sligo to Ballybofey.
“We got off to an awful start. I was thinking it was going to be the same oul craic again. We were six points down but we stuck at it.
There was a ball kicked in to Murphy, he won it, popped it off, then they put it over the bar and got the equaliser.
“Donegal teams of old would have lay down that day. But we fought back.” Donegal won four of their division two matches, and drew two, and that was enough to get them promoted.
“2011 was a very enjoyable year. We were training hard, and could see ourselves progressing. We won the division two league, but we didn’t rest on our laurels. We pushed on.
In the championship, they beat Antrim in the preliminary, Cavan in the quarter-finals, and then met Tyrone in the semi-final, a crucial game in Jim McGuinness’s grand plan for Donegal.
“Jim always said that if you wanted to win Ulster then Tyrone was the team that you had to match.
“From the first day that he came in, Jim said that Tyrone was the level that we had to get to.
“Dooher was playing that day, they were older but the were still a serious outfit.
“In the first ten minutes (of the Tyrone semi-final) they were ripping us apart. I was thinking, here we go again. We hung in there and we were still in the game at half time. We got a goal, and were a point or two up, and then Brick (Molloy) got a goal at the end.
“That sealed the deal for us. That was a big win.” Donegal won 2-6 to 0-9. McFadden played very well that day, he scored 1-2, the goal coming in the second half.
But he said that their success that year came from everyone playing well. “We all had our own wee jobs that we had to do. We were all playing for the team. When the teams was playing well you were not going to have a poor game.
“Jim had us right before the game, he had match ups right, he had the psychological side right. Then during the game he was able to make changes and decisions. He could take a player off after 15 minutes or leave it for 15 minutes. When he did something it was done at the right time.
“It took us a while to believe in that, but when we saw it happen then we understood. “He did say to us in the winter, that come the summer we’d be in Clones with the Ulster Cup. He told us to visualise that happening. He wasn’t just saying that, he believed it.”
McFadden said that the goal was to beat Tyrone, so once they had achieved that, then their confidence was high. It made the challenge of beating Derry to win the Ulster Championship an easier one.
“It was a tough game, but I just remember toward the end Murphy won a ball and popped it off to me and I was 20-yards out and curled it over. I knew then that it was the icing on the cake. We knew then that we were going to win Ulster.
“I was playing nine or ten years, and to win an Ulster was special. It is so competitive. I’d been waiting so long, and that made it more special.
“It was a life time ambition. It was one of the most memorable matches.”
McFadden said that they had not thought about an All-Ireland run. But in the days afterwards the attention turned to the run for Sam.
That year will perhaps be remembered for Donegal’s clash with Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final, a famously low-scoring affair which Donegal perhaps should have won, but they lost 0-8 to 0-6.
“That was one of the more enjoyable games I have ever played in. “The sun was splitting the rocks when we went into the changing room.
“You could hear nothing from outside in the changing room. When we came out, there was a massive downpour and thunder storm. The crowd were going mad.
“The Dublin team were shooting from everywhere, and they were going a mile wide. “They didn’t know what to do. What was happening to them was totally new.
“They didn’t know how to deal with us. It wasn’t a good game for spectators to watch, but it was a memorable game to play in. “We knew if we went toe to toe with them they would rip us apart, so Jim’s plan was to keep them out.
“They were all over the place. We learnt so much from that game. I remember in the changing room we enjoyed being there, and we had the hunger to get back there. Losing
that semi-final gave us the feeling of unfinished business.”
In 2012 they cruised to the Ulster title, and beat Tyrone in the semi- final on the way. They beat Down in the final.
“To win back to back from the preliminary round, had never been done before.
“And we were in preliminary round for both years. That was another achievement.”
But Jim had big plans, and the training session on the Tuesday night after winning Ulster was the hardest training session that they had ever had according to McFadden.
“We knew then that Jim wasn’t happy for us to win an Ulster title back to back. That was the night that we made the step on to win the All- Ireland.”
Donegal beat Kerry 1-12 to 1-10, when McFadden got the early goal to make the difference.
They moved on to play Cork in the semi-final, and McFadden remembers the massed crowds of fans. He said that they had a strong 15 minutes after half time, to make the difference.
“The team was better going forward in Jim’s second year. We had serious pace on the counter attack. We were fitter and stronger. We believed in what Jim was doing.”
They were up against Mayo in the All-Ireland final. The Connacht men had beat Down in the quarter-final, 3-18 to to 2-9, and then Dublin by three in the semi-final.
“Going into the game we were hopeful. “It was funny because we got the two goals early on. After that you
were nearly wishing the game away. “We knew we weren’t going to throw the game because we were defensively solid.
“By the time the whistle went, it was a strange one. We had had the lead from early on so that made it strange.
“To win it was great and coming back to Donegal was great. The celebrations in every town was great. It was nice going into all the towns. It was great time.”
But life didn’t change dramatically for McFadden. He won an All-Star of course, but normal life soon takes over after the crowds stop cheering.
His family was growing, and that was becoming more important than football.
“Life doesn’t change too much, and if it does change it is not going to be in the right way.”
In 2013, Donegal got back to the Ulster final but lost to Monaghan in the decider. Then they met Mayo in the All-Ireland quarter-finals, and the Westerners exacted revenge, winning 4-17 to 1-10.
Donegal returned home to plan their response for 2014.
“There was a big push on then to make up for 2013. But it is always hard for a team that wins an All-Ireland.
“In 2014 there was a big push to win our Ulster title back.”
They met Monaghan in the final, and were determined to beat them.
“That was a good Monaghan team. You did well to win your ball, but if you did they were good at doubling up. It was hard enough beating one man, but if you got him turned then they were doubling up.
“They deserved to beat us in 2013, but we were able to get the better of them in 2014.”
Donegal beat Armagh in the All-Ireland quarter-final by a point in a very difficult game for them. It took a point from McBrearty to get them over the line, and perhaps because of the close nature of that game they weren’t expected to beat Dublin in the semi-final.
“Dublin were hammering everyone in sight so we weren’t given a hope in hell of beating Dublin.
“After the Armagh game we knew it was going to be a massive ask, but as the days went on Jim went through things with us, and during the training sessions we started to believe that it was going to happen (that they were going to win).
“We were actually very confident going into the game, which was a strange thing.
“I remember Ryan McHugh was 80/1 for first goal scorer, we were thinking the way that he was playing, and the way we were attacking there was a good chance he would get it.
“Funny thing was that when he did get the goal, we were thinking if we had have had money on that we would have made money.“But I never bet on games I played in, I don’t need that distraction.
“Donegal were ten to one to win that game, and a lot of people in Donegal made a lot of money on us.”
They won the Dublin game, but weren’t able to win the final. McFadden said Kerry stifled them in the decider. “There was an expectation on Donegal, because they’d won in 2012, and beat Dublin that we would win in 14.
“Unfortunately Kerry had their home work done. They pulled McGee out, isolated Geaney on Paddy McGrath, and got the goal. It was cute.”
McFadden had two more years playing with Donegal, but he knew that after 2014 his time at inter county level was drawing to a close.
The hunger to do the work that had been there throughout his career slowly disappeared.
“I had a good year in 2016, but it was harder on the body. I was getting injuries at the start of the year. And players were training longer, and I maybe should have been doing extra training.
“It was hard to catch up when you missed with injuries. And you would get viruses when you were run down. It was too intense on the body.
“You look at it now, and you know you would love to be involved. “The first season I was retired I was glad to be retired. But the second season I was retired I was watching and I felt like I would love to be involved.
“I still have the link with the boys having taught boys at the school. And with Michael Langan in the club as well, he’s involved.”
That link still gives him a window back into the game he loved. “Big Neil (Gallagher) always says that he misses the craic. You do miss the craic.
“One thing I always loved was playing football and kicking points. Even the end of training hitting the frees with Murphy and McBrearty when they came on the scene.
“The main thing that I miss is running out on Championship day, knowing that you are fully fit and you are well prepared and you are going to be competitive. That feeling of being the best shape of your life and playing champoionship football on a warm sunny day that’s
hard to beat.”
He saw Niall O’Donnell come into the school and when McFadden listened to him he was whisked back to his own days in the not so distant past when he was at his physical peak, and running out onto the field ready to play the game he loved.
“For a moment you think you might still be fit for it, but then you realise, ‘not a hope’.” email@example.com