By Ronan Scott
IN football parlance, a player who is ‘on the loop’ is one who plays alongside a target man.
The tactic involves a long ball being played in to the forward who takes possession, but immediately offloads to the runner coming off the shoulder.
That runner is playing on the loop. It is the role that former Donegal forward and Naomh Conaill star Dermot Molloy enjoys playing the most.
“With the u-21s I played on the loop with (Michael) Murphy. The ball would come in to Michael and I knew where to be. It was the same with Naomh Conaill.
“Playing in that role means getting on the ball and trying to create scores. It’s something that I would have been known for in Donegal.”
Playing on the loop demands that a player knows where to be. The player must have pace and timing, and they must be aware of everything going on around them – the pass, the player receiving the ball and the markers.
Molloy has learned how to be on the loop after 15 years of playingclub and county football, starting back when he first was introduced to the game by his father, John ‘the Block’ Molloy.
Molloy’s dad was involved heavily with the Naomh Conaill club, and so he was hooked early on.
“Dad was managing Naomh Conaill when I was knee high. I always remember enjoying being at the club, watching it, kicking balls about. I always had a love for it.”
In 1998 Jim McGuinness and Dermot’s father took over the senior team. Dermot was seven or eight, but he saw Jim, the county captain, alongside his father, and he realised that being part of the Naomh Conaill was something very important. So young ‘Brick’ Molloy began putting his effort into football.
When asked why he would feel that way, Molloy pointed out that he had been indoctrinated at home.
“I was just football mad. Our house is a massive football house. Dad always said to me that he hoped that one day I would play for Donegal. That was the goal.
“From I was 12 to 16 he was always down kicking balls with me. It was great for me growing up.
“Jim was county captain, and he was in picking the team with dad, so that was nice to see. It made me realise that Dad knew what he was talking about.”
Dermot’s dad was an inspirational figure for him from an early age. He played full-back for Naomh Conaill. He took the senior team, and that was Dermot’s earliest memory. He also knows that his dad always supported him.
“At underage he was always at me. He might have seen that there was talent in me, and he tried to drive that out. When I got older he let me at it, but at underage he pushed me.”
Molloy had a driving ambition to succeed from an early age. When he was u-12, he wanted to play u-14, and when he was u-14 he wanted to be an u-16.
Just like when you are playing on the loop, being ready when the time came to perform was so important.
Molloy said: “The attitude I brought to it was that if you were u-14 and you get into the panel two years ahead of yourself then that was a massive thing. It showed that you were a good enough player.”
It didn’t always happen though. He didn’t always achieve those early goals, and that helped to increase his determination.
“I remember going for the u-16 county when I was 14 and I didn’t make it. I remember thinking to myself ‘this is a sickener.’
“I can remember that it was between me and Brian McLaughlin’s brother Raymie, who was a brilliant footballer. Raymie got picked ahead of me and I was gutted.
“I knew I was going to be on it the year after. But I said to myself that I would make sure that I was on the county minors for the year after that.”
So, since he was a teenager, Dermot Molloy has been doing everything that he can to be ready. He understood his goal, and anticipated what needed to be done.
“I managed to do that (get on the minors the year after). Then I got greedy and I wanted to be on the u-21s the year after that. The seniors followed through. That’s the way I went about it. I tried to get on these panels.”
He joined the Naomh Conaill senior panel when he was just 16 years old. Here was a young man eager to get ahead, to be better than the rest.
Molloy was getting onto teams with players who were two and three years older than he was, and he said that really stood to him. But it also showed managers that he had ambitions to be better.
It helped that he had had peers with similar ambitions, namely Leo McLoone.
“I mind myself and Leo McLoone down on the tar in Glenties as eight- or nine-year-olds talking about how one day we would play for Donegal and win Ulsters and All-Irelands.”
When Leo made it onto the county team it spurred Molloy on.
“I knew I really had to put the head down and make it. He would tell me to keep working, and my chance would come.”
Plenty of kids from Donegal probably say the same thing; the difference between those who don’t succeed and the likes of Molloy and McLoone is many things. One of them is attitude.
“I can count the amount of nights out I had between the age of 16 and 21. They were very few. Football was everything to me. That was the way I approached it and it turned out very good for me. I had plenty of success. I would miss weddings, family weddings, for a training session. That’s just the way I was.
“I remember my cousin getting married on the day we played in the u-16 Buncrana Cup final, and I played in the final. Even at that early age I was so committed.
“I know a lot of good footballers who stopped playing and chose going out and that sort of thing. I am glad that I chose the path that I did. I have my dad to thank for that.”
It helped that he enjoyed the training. When Jim McGuinness took over the Naomh Conaill team in 2009 he introduced a weights regime. Molloy loved that development, and the work that had to be done to make himself stronger.
“It was enjoyable. I was just trying to get better, and improve, and doing more than the other lads.”
Molloy remembers the club winning its first Donegal Senior League in 2002 with his dad as manager. He says things snowballed after that, with underage titles flooding in.
Dermot was just 14 years old in 2005 when Naomh Conaill won their first ever senior championship. That must have spurred him on.
“I wanted to be the next one to achieve success. That’s the way we were back then.
“I could feel it myself that we weren’t happy just to go out and make up the numbers. We wanted to win things.”
As he was breaking onto the Donegal u-16 team the expectation was that he was ready to play for the Naomh Conaill senior team.
He made his debut for the seniors against Gaoth Dobhair. He was full of pride and confidence during that first start.
“Neil McGee was starting to get his name as one of the best players about at the time. Neil comes in to pick you up as a 16-year-old. I mind thinking that I was in good enough shape at the time. I was looking fairly fit.
“I remember going for the first ball with Neil, I got it, but whatever way I turned my elbow hit his right eye, and I marked him. He turned to me and he says ‘If you ever do that again Molloy I will claw your eyes out.’ So that really was a warm welcome.
“My game finished not long after that. I went off 20 minutes later. I froze up.
“But you learn from that and a year later I was fit to bark back at him.”
He didn’t only learn that the senior game could be passionate. He also learned that he needed to work on his fitness as well.
“But up against Neil, he was so much bigger and so much stronger, it hit me that I needed to be doing so much again. I needed to get bigger and stronger.”
He regards that as a stepping-stone. In his second year on the senior team, the club reached the county final but lost to St Eunan’s.
“Your dream is to win a county title. That’s what you had talked about at home. Then when you lose a final to St Eunan’s your world falls in.”
Molloy said that Anthony Thompson was captain that year, and they had wanted to win it so that he could raise the Dr Maguire Cup for the club.
But that didn’t happen, and Thompson was sent off in that decider.
“When you walk into the dressing room after, Tony was inconsolable. He was out on his feet. There were a lot of tears in that Naomh Conaill dressing room. We made a pact that we were going to get Anthony Thompson up the steps the following year.”
At the start of 2010 Molloy’s focus turned to the county u-21s. Jim McGuinness was the manager and he had the team working on a strict regime of training that had the squad sweating buckets in the gym, but they were at their peak fitness on the field of play.
“Jim had us doing runs that were near impossible to do. He had us in such good condition.”
Molloy’s years of preparation throughout underage level meant that he was well prepared to push himself to the limits. His dad had guided him along the right path, and Molloy wanted to please his club mate McGuinness. Deep down, he knew that if he didn’t do the work, he wouldn’t be ready when the big moments came. So he put the work in.
McGuinness was an important influence on Molloy from an early age.
“Jim always tells the story, at dinner dances and that sort of thing. He said that they (Jim and Dermot’s father) would be in picking the team, and I would be out kicking the ball against the gable wall. Dad would be giving out about the thump, and Jim would say that he could be doing worse things.”
Jim perhaps recognised a young boy’s passion for football. Years later that passion had not waned, as Molloy was still eager to sweat in the gym.
Molloy knew that the same man who gave him his chance at club senior level would also be his ticket to get fast-tracked onto the Donegal team.
“I knew the call was going to come. We had a lot of success with Naomh Conaill and had been in eight county finals. We had a lot of boys around the county panel. We were excited about how the other players would take to him.”
Donegal played Armagh in the first round.
“They were actually favourites. Jamie Clarke was coming into his own. No one gave us a chance. Thankfully we got over the line. I mind Michael was just pinging balls to me. It was a great night to play with him.”
And it was then that Molloy got a glimpse of his immediate future, and how developing a relationship with the star that is Michael Murphy would bring him untold riches. He was learning how to play on the loop.
Murphy also indicated how those outside Naomh Conaill had taken to McGuinness.
“I mind Michael saying that ‘we really give everything this year’. So he was sucked in to what Jim was doing. To see a player like Michael saying that got you focused.”
Donegal would beat Derry in the semi-final before going on to play Cavan in the Ulster u-21 Championship decider.
“Everything clicked into place that night. It was nice going into the last five minutes knowing that we had it won.”
They met Dublin in the All-Ireland final after beating Tipperary in Parnell Park, but they lost.
“The final was a disappointment. It was one that you have to live with.
“We had a massive problem with the flu’ virus the week before the game. Antoin McFadden was brilliant that year. He could barely move. He was zapped by it. It would have been interesting to see, if we had been at the full fitness, how that game would have went.
“But it gave us the platform to go on to bigger things.”
Molloy would go into the senior set up a few months after, under John Joe Doherty.
But Doherty would depart at the end of that season. McGuinness’s success with the u-21s saw him take over Donegal in 2011.
“I don’t think if anyone else had got the job they would have been able to do what Jim did.
“Everything was such a focus. It was all new to us. He had different tactics, and players were buying into it. He brought the belief. Jim changed that. He was talking about winning Ulster that year. I think if you had anyone else in there they wouldn’t have had that belief.”
The u-21 team certainly was a foundation for the senior team’s success in the following years.
Molloy had to make the step up to playing senior county football at 19 years of age. He started learning from the older players, but that came naturally to him.
“I didn’t think too much about it, it was just happening.”
The 2010 season allowed him an opportunity to see what inter-county football was like. But his abiding memory of that season was the club championship when Naomh Conaill won their second title.
Changes had to happen on the team and Cathal Corey was added to the management team.
Molloy said that Corey put plans in place for better meals after games, training gear, lots of things that would help their attitude.
In the 2010 club championships, Molloy learnt that staying focused throughout a game could mean the winning or losing of a match.
That year, Naomh Conaill won through to the county final, where they played Killybegs.
Molloy said: “Jason Noctor (Killybegs) had been called up to the county panel. He was probably one of the best defenders in the county. He had marked everyone out of it, he annoyed everyone out of it.
“He was one of the best defenders in the county. The talk was that he was going to go on Leon Thompson. But I had it in my mind that he was going to come on me.”
Handling Noctor became a priority of Naomh Conaill’s game-plan. They knew they needed to be wary of how Noctor might try to put them off their game. Noctor’s talent was being able to rattle the best players so that they were unable to score.
That year, in the semi-final, Killybegs beat Four Masters who had loads of star players, like Karl Lacey, Barry Dunnion, Barry Monaghan, Paul Durcan and Michael Doherty. The latter was having a great season, and his scoring had knocked St Eunan’s out of the championship. He was having a fine season until he came up against Noctor who marked him out of that game.
Molloy explained that Naomh Conaill had to think of how to handle the Noctor situation.
“The tactic we had was whoever Noctor picked up had to say nothing. The rest of the lads would be on him (Noctor). The case was if I got a score, the corner-forward would go over and give him a dunt. When I was younger I would have mouthed back, but I didn’t that day.”
And so it came to pass. Noctor marked Molloy and not Thompson, and Naomh Conaill’s plan was put to the test.
“I remember Leo getting a score and then going over and absolutely cleaning Noctor. Noctor is thinking to himself ‘I have to mark Brick, but this other lad is nailing me.’ It probably did effect him.”
The tactic actually came in from Corey, the Tyrone man who was drafted in by Jim McGuinness.
“For me it was about having complete focus until the end of that game. I never said a word to Jason. Things just clicked into place, everything went the right way. There are not too many games that go like that.”
Molloy scored 1-4 at the tender age of 18, and they won that title for Anthony Thompson.
“That’s a game that I would love to play again.”
That led on to an Ulster Club campaign which Naomh Conaill embraced and brought a huge crowd with them all the way to the Ulster final against Armagh champions Crossmaglen.
“We were to play Crossmaglen two weeks before the original date. Looking back, we probably should have prepared a little better. We should have stayed in Cavan the night before the game. We left Glenties for the game and it was minus eight. We were eating our pre-match meal an hour outside Cavan.
“We landed at Breffni Park, Crossmaglen were on the field and we hadn’t even togged out. It was just a really shitty day. We think if we had played them the first day we would have won. We still took them close, but we felt that it ended on a sour note.”
Molloy learnt yet again that preparation was important. But he also discovered that he loved the big days in front of big crowds, testing himself against the best.
“You knew you were at a higher standard when you were in Ulster Club football. Definitely as high as county football, the standard was that good.”
He would get some even bigger days in 2011 when Jim McGuinness took over as county manager.
The work that McGuinness had done with the u-21s carried on. And he infected the senior team with the confidence that the u-21s had had.
“I can remember the first meeting in the Downings, it must have went on for seven or eight hours and by the end of it Jim had us convinced that we were going to win an Ulster title. It was amazing what he could do. Jim said if you don’t believe it, it won’t happen.”
Molloy remembers Jim bringing in an Irish News article that had ranked the counties in Ulster and Donegal were twenty-something in the county.
“Jim asked why we were there. Players wrote down why they thought that. There were a lot of home truths spoke. Jim left the room saying that we would be number one in the next couple of years. Everyone believed that.”
The expectation to train harder than anyone else became crucially important.
Molloy also remembers how McGuinness made Tyrone the focus of their season.
“It became completely driven that we were going to play Tyrone in the Ulster semi-final. Everything he said from January through was to get over Tyrone.
“That day was the day it all turned in our favour.”
All the lessons that Molloy had learned led to that game against Tyrone. The determination to be fit enough to play, remaining focused in the match, and making sure that he was there at the right time to take the pass at that crucial moment, when he was playing on the loop.
It was Molloy’s goal that beat Tyrone, and turned Donegal’s fortunes for years to come.
“That last minute goal in the semi-final, till the day I am put in a coffin, that’s what I will be remembered for.
“Patrick (McBrearty) gave a horrible ball in to Michael. I think Dermot Carlin won the ball but whatever way Michael hit the defenders the ball coughed up to him. I was sneaking inside and managed to get it. I went in and went for the goal and lucky it skimmed Pascal’s (McConnell) stomach and went in.
“I still get asked about it on a night out which is nice. It was a massive moment for the team. We left Clones that evening knowing that we had Ulster, no harm to Derry.
“It was a brilliant feeling when that whistle went against Derry. Everything that Jim had said came true.”
What had changed was that Donegal had not given up. They had believed that they could win.
“I have always tried to be a dangerous player. I have always tried to be in the right place. Jim maybe always bred that into us, to not give up on a ball.”
The celebrations were huge. The county went on a party. The Naomh Conaill contingent ended up in Monaghan, and they were put up by Seamus McEnaney.
“He was taking us into nightclubs, that was a mad night.”
Molloy hurt his knee after that, annoying McGuinness no end. He thought he had wrecked his chance to play again, but he went to the hydro pool in Letterkenny in order to get fit.
Injury would again hamper Molloy as he missed the All-Ireland semi-final due to a groin injury.
Yet he also knew that he was not going to get on because the game plan wasn’t going to suit him. Donegal opted for a defensive plan against the Dubs, which frustrated Molloy.
“I remember Colm (McFadden) doing a fantastic job up on his own. It was difficult getting scores. It worked to an extent but their bit of class saw them through.”
There was a transformation in 2012, as McGuinness opted to play Murphy along with McFadden inside.
2012 was a massive year for Molloy but he said that perhaps his focus might not have been right. He was made captain of the club and county u-21s. He started throughout the National League for the Donegal seniors, but he didn’t get the starts he would have liked come championship time.
“Maybe my focus drifted from the seniors. I didn’t play as much as I wanted to. I maybe wanted to do well with the u-21s. It’s not something I regret.”
He got a sickener when Tyrone beat them in the u-21s, but he turned his attention to the county seniors, for what was a special year.
Donegal successfully defended their Ulster title, before going on to win the Sam Maguire against Mayo – the county’s second ever title. The win would make heroes out of that group.
The secret of that success, for Molloy, was simple.
“That was a wild close bunch of lads. You always saw a never-say-die attitude with that team.
“I mind myself, Leo (McLoone) Tony (Thompson) and Marty (Boyle) going up to lift Sam. That was very special. Going up together.”
The partying was wilder than it had been after the 2011 Ulster final.
“We came back from Dubai in February. We were just not at it in 2013.”
When they came back to earth in the following months it became hard for them to regain their form.
2013 for Molloy and Donegal was a frustrating year. They could not win a third Ulster title on the trot.
“We were bullied out of it in that final (against Monaghan).
“We just weren’t at the level. We were getting through games and we weren’t dominant. There was a hangover. The same buzz wasn’t there.
“The Ulster final against Monaghan was brutal. Everything let us down. It was a dark year that 2013 year.”
But they changed their attitude in 2014.
“By October (2013) the club championship was out of the way. It was hectic. It was Saturday and Sunday down in Dunfanaghy. Leaving Glenties at half six to be there for half seven. An hour and a half on the pitch then the runners on and running the sand dunes. It was like a day’s work.
“We were talking about winning an Ulster. We wanted redemption against Monaghan.”
The team went on a training camp to Portugal. While there they fell in with a professional rugby club. The experience made Molloy feel more like a true athlete.
They were treated the same as the rugby players and it confirmed their belief that they were in great shape. It also brought back the bond amongst the team that had been there in 2011 and 2012.
“We knew we were going to be a hard animal to beat,” Molloy said.
“The work was put in. No one missed anything. I remember coming home some nights after training and we were so sore that we couldn’t get out of the car. There was that focus to really drive at it.
“When we did that it was great. It made those long winter nights worth it.
“The Derry win in 2011 was special, but 2014 was different because Monaghan had taken it away the year before. There was a lot of baggage and a lot of shit said. We wanted to be the ones to come away on the right side of the result. As a group we enjoyed that one.”
At that stage Molloy knew that he was an impact player, who was capable of coming off the bench and doing damage.
“I was trying to break into the team, but I ultimately knew Jim would use me as an impact sub.”
But his season was hit by injury, and he missed the All-Ireland quarter-final and semi-final.
Donegal surprised Dublin in that semi-final. McGuinness got his tactics perfect that day.
Molloy didn’t play, but the game did show him that with the right planning any team could be beaten.
“Dublin were going that well, the attitude was that they were going to shoot the lights out.
“I remember hearing Paul Flynn say that 2014 was the best football that they played. But they didn’t win.
“Jim had a plan. We had spent three hours of watching [Stephen] Cluxton’s kick-outs. Those tactical sessions were intense. You wanted to go to bed after them.
“Dublin were playing sweepers and most teams were playing shite ball in and that suited Johnny Cooper and whoever else was playing in there, as they marked 10 yards in front. They looked like superstars.
“The plan that Jim was taking was that we would by-pass their press. Then we could win the ball but rather than kicking the ball in, we would run the ball and they couldn’t do anything about it because they had to either go for you or go for the next man.
“Their attacking football let them down a bagful that day.”
The plan worked beautifully as Donegal cut Dublin open at the back.
The conclusion was disappointing though, as Donegal would go on to lose the final to Kerry.
“It is such a disappointment that we didn’t finish off what was a great result against Dublin.
“It is still a downer that we didn’t get the win against Kerry.”
Molloy came on and kicked a score in that final, but they would fall at the final hurdle.
Rory Gallagher took over in 2015. For Molloy his attitude towards county football changed.
McLoone was injured. Anthony Thompson moved to London, and Molloy was travelling to training on his own.
“I maybe felt that it was the time that I wanted to get more time playing championship football, I felt that with Rory that chance wasn’t going to be there.
“I said to myself that I would give myself a good year with the club.
“I turned down a lot of money to go and play football in America. I said that I was going to give Naomh Conaill my all.”
Molloy rang Rory Gallagher and said that he wasn’t going to commit to the county, and instead he was going to focus on the club.
He thought that if he played well with the club then he could win another county title but also prove himself as a starter with the county.
The outcome both worked and didn’t work. Naomh Conaill won their third county title, and Molloy won Player of the Year for the club too.
They beat St Eunan’s twice that year, in the group and the final, which is important as the two clubs have a strong history.
However, Molloy never played for Donegal again after that.
He hurt his knee while playing against Trillick in the 2015 Ulster Club Championship, and that meant that he couldn’t go back to play for the county in 2016 even if he wanted to.
Making the call to play for his club ahead of his county says a lot about Molloy.
“The Donegal Championship is so hard to win. I mind Kilcar being tipped to win in 2009 and 2010. They have won one since then, fair play to them, a lot of people would have expected them to win more. It just shows you how hard it is to win.”
For Naomh Conaill, since the first one in 2005, they have won four titles. They lost the 2009, 2011 and 2012 finals. They won in 2010 and 2015, and were beaten in 2017 and 2018 before beating Gaoth Dobhair in last year’s final.
They are a club hungry for championship success, and that success explains why someone like Molloy, who understands the work needed to succeed, would turn his attention to his club in 2015.
“We are very passionate in Naomh Conaill and sometimes we have put the club before the county. That’s just the way that it has been. We really want to give it everything. The county team did go on the back-burner when it was getting hot and heavy with the club.
“It’s been a real rollercoaster since Martin (Regan) took over in 2015. We have been on a real run, and won two Gaeltacht titles as well in 2015 and 2016. They were great moments for us.”
Having seen what it takes to win everything Molloy, who is turning 30 next year, knows his own mind now. He realises that playing for Donegal again is unlikely.
“It’s probably past at this age,” he said.
“In my own head I felt I was in a good position in 2015 to go back in 2016 but the knee ruled that out.
“The call never came. It’s something I don’t think about. I had great success, an Ulster U-21 title, three senior titles and an All-Ireland.”
He has other goals. And they are with Naomh Conaill.
“The club is everything and we are in a good place. It would be great to get an Ulster Championship.”
In order to do that, he knows he has to be well prepared, focused and ready for that moment to make an impact. Just as if he were playing on the loop.