Naomh Conaill are gunning for a seventh county title on Sunday. John Gildea was man of the match when they made the breakthrough in 2005. Michael McMullan caught up with him to look at what makes the Glenties men a tough nut to crack.
IT wasn’t always glory and silver in Naomh Conaill. Sunday is a seventh county final in succession. The youngsters know nothing different than blue bunting and trips to Ballybofey hoping Dr Maguire will lead the return leg through Fintown and into Glenties.
When Hughie Molloy handed a 16-year-old John Gildea his debut in 1988, success was different. Keeping the club afloat was an achievement in itself.
By the turn of the decade, an intermediate title arrived but they still were trudging along in mediocrity.
Four successful trips across the Division Two relegation tightrope were every bit as valuable as any appearance in a final.
By comparison to the level of ambition and hype in the parish this week, it was on a different planet.
Naomh Conaill were on the wrong end of a hammering in the 1997 quarter-final against Ballyshannon.
“We weren’t even the bridesmaids in the south west,” Gildea points out.
Killybegs, Naomh Columba, Kilcar and Four Masters were the teams jousting at the top, with Naomh Conaill only dreaming of being considered in such company.
When a Division One league title arrived in 2002 it was a breakthrough and helped plant shoots of hope. They were now competitive and able to dance with pacesetters St Eunan’s.
When Hughie Molloy returned in 2005, the slate was wiped clean again. Another batch of young guns were thrown in at the deep end. Sink or swim.
Among them, Anthony Thompson, Brendan McDyre and Eoin Wade are still swimming. There was also Leo McLoone as an 16-year-old panellist. It was Groundhog Day, just like it was when Gildea played as a young buck in 1990.
By 2005, he was in the twilight of his career and had packed in the inter-county scene at the end of the previous season.
The physical and mental toll of mixing club and county was gone, replaced with the freshness of just focussing on Naomh Conaill.
“It was an amazingly enjoyable year and there was no pressure, there was no expectation,” Gildea outlines.
They were nowhere close to being the fancied horse. Anyone suggesting Naomh Conaill win a first championship when they failed to even get out of Division Two would’ve been laughed out of town.
Molloy’s trust in youth was one thing. An injury to Jim McGuinness was another factor.
It was unfortunate for Jim and the footballing side of him they’d need to extract but there was a silver lining.
His grá for coaching was beginning to emerge and he came on board with Hughie on the management side of things.
“Jim elevated us to a level we had never seen before, from an organisational perspective and he produced a structure of play,” Gildea points out.
“Glenties teams, like football at that time, were very ad hoc. Tactics were something Armagh and Tyrone did but the rest of us…we figured it out as we went along.”
Armed with the zest of the young players Hughie brought in, their plan made Naomh Conaill difficult to break down.
McGuinness brought in training methods with the ball at its core. The hard yards were put in, but always with the size five in hand.
“We ran through hand drills time and time again…kicking drills,” Gildea recalls.
“That, married to the unbelievable youth and the legs that we had combined to fuel 2005 and that is ultimately the genesis of where we are today.”
McGuinness would make a cameo appearance in the latter stages of their final replay win over St Eunan’s. But it was his off the field operations that had a greater influence on a season that would leave a legacy Martin Regan takes to Ballybofey on Sunday.
Unlike the group stages of today, the 2005 Donegal Championship model began with a home and away format in the first round. If both teams won a game each, then a third game would decide who advanced to the quarter-finals.
Naomh Conaill won in Malin in the first leg before rocking in the latter stages of a ‘home’ second leg which was played in St Naul’s.
With six minutes to play, Malin were four points ahead and looking like forcing the tie to a third clash. Malin’s three goals had left Naomh Conaill chasing the game all day.
Brendan McDyre landed a point before an injury time goal from captain Paddy Campbell earned a draw and Naomh Conaill were through.
“We could’ve been out of the championship before it even started because they could’ve had us beaten at that stage,” Gildea said of a Malin team who went on to win the Division 1B league.
The Naomh Conaill momentum grew from there. The exuberance of younger players helped. They were used to success and devoid of any baggage the experienced heads had amassed from the constant taste of defeat.
Gildea questions the level ambition running through the camp in previous years. It was of hope more than of winning games or indeed a championship.
“I think, if anybody was realistic, I don’t think we even set it out as an objective to win the championship in 2005… we were so far off the radar,” he now admits.
They kept improving. Molloy and McGuinness fitted liked a glove. Their system was in place and a win over Naomh Columba set up a semi-final with a Four Masters, champions two years earlier.
Karl Lacey, Barry Dunnion, Shane Carr, Paul Durcan and Barry Monaghan were all key players. It was Monaghan’s goal that levelled the game with six minutes to go.
McDyre stepped up to kick another vital score with brothers Leon and Anthony Thompson also on target to put Glenties into a first final in 40 years.
“They had an abundance of talent,” Gildea said of Four Masters. “A really good team who consistently beat us time and time again.”
St Eunan’s were waiting in the final and there was the bite that still exists between the clubs.
“There were players who were average players every week but they went to a different level when they played St Eunan’s,” Gildea said of the Naomh Conaill mentality.
After the drawn game, many observers felt the Glenties men, as 5-1 underdogs, had missed the boat. The odds stretched further, to 9-1, for the replay, but they weren’t going to be denied.
“We played the system Jim put in place…people bought into it,” Gildea added of the replay. “We kicked some great scores, they got frustrated and didn’t know how to figure us out and that was a really good Eunan’s team.”
The Dr Maguire Cup was in Naomh Conaill hands and the celebrations began.
They came up short against Mayobridge in Ulster, but the ball had started rolling. Sunday will be their 13th county final appearance, the 11th since their 2009 defeat to St Eunan’s.
Naomh Conaill went one better in 2010 to take the title, stopping St Eunan’s sealing four-in-a-row, and continued on a run to the Ulster final where they came up short, 2-9 to 0-11, against giants Crossmaglen.
The cycles of the five-year gap continued when they annexed the Dr Maguire Cup again in 2015, but Naomh Conaill were now well and truly on the map. The days of dicing with relegation were firmly in the past.
Martin Regan was part of the 2005 winning squad, coming into the team and playing parts in some of their games along the way.
He had established himself at midfield in the Naomh Conaill team for the 2010 winning season before injury ended his career way too early.
Glenswilly, St Eunan’s and Naomh Conaill were all winning titles here and there without anyone totally dominating the Donegal scene.
The young players who started out with Naomh Conaill in 2005 were now coming of age and Regan was the missing piece of the puzzle when he stepped in as manager, after having experience as Donegal minor boss.
“Everything from an organisational and management structure went to another level,” Gildea said of the current manager’s stamp on the club.
The pair met on holiday recently. A chat would always turn to talk of football. Gildea speaks of Regan being “down to earth”. There is no place for flair or drama.
Everything is detailed and, while Regan has had a decade in charge, new faces are taken into the management structure around him. A fresh voice will always challenge the group.
“They are constantly trying to evolve,” Gildea said. “People are lazy and say they are a defensive team but they don’t see the subtle nuances year in and year out. It makes it even more difficult for teams to figure them out.”
A siege mentality is present, but it’s no different to any team looking to find an edge. There is a huge level of professionalism and understanding, structure and buy in from the players.
That’s the key.
The unknown players Hughie Molloy brought in at the start are now household names to anyone following club football. Men like Anthony Thompson, Eoin Wade, Tommy Donoghue, Leo McLoone and Brendan McDyre.
In more recent times, the underage system has churned out more. Jeaic Mac Ceallabhuí and the Dohertys – Ultan, Eunan and Odhrán – are some of those there to ensure an evolution, despite the perception of an aging team.
“The structure now is a completely different animal to what it was 20 years ago,” said Gildea.
“That’s down to the club putting a structure in place with volunteers putting in time and it is easier when your senior team is successful.”
With no other sports, football is everything and huge numbers at the various underage ranks will ensure a pool of players aiming to win championships.
There is also an ethos in the club where the senior players, on top of their own training nights and individual preparation, find time to lend at hand with underage coaching.
“For the young players in Naomh Conaill, they are the heroes, they are the boys they see every Sunday and are then down coaching,” Gildea points out.
In an area once known for writers and poets, football now defines everything in the Fintown and Glenties region.
It will be a case of last person out, turn off the light this weekend. It’s all about a trip to MacCumhaill Park in the pursuit of title number seven.
“That’s the way it has been for the last 20 years and a lot of those going on Sunday would know the 50 years before that when we didn’t win anything,” Gildea adds.
“We appreciate the fact that this is an exceptional team, Martin Regan is an exceptional manager and the amount of joy they bring to the entire parish is incredible.”
A walk into Glenties this week and you’ll find football the only topic of conversation. You could be in Crossmaglen, Corofin or Kilcoo. The colours are different, but the fanaticism is the same.
John Gildea admits Naomh Conaill are not “everybody’s cup of tea” and it’s easy to be a supporter when you are within.
To the neutral at one of their games, you’ll rarely jump out of their seat. That’s another Gildea admission, but it’s not any different to other team finding a system that works.
Naomh Conaill midfielder Ciaran Thompson was one of the neutrals in the Owenbeg stand as Glen saw off Sleacht Néill on Sunday night.
The Emmet’s, hurting from two county final hammerings at the hands of their rivals, built a maroon wall with everyone camped in their defence.
They had to try something different and with Glen not carrying the ball into the trap, a 1-5 to 0-6 arm wrestle ensued.
On the Naomh Conaill approach, Gildea outlines how the club makes football work the way they need it to. They cut their cloth like the rest.
“They play a very particular brand of football that is very effective,” he states. “It has brought them huge success and it is up to other teams to break them down.”
With the blueprint in place, the Naomh Conaill longevity is built on a number of factors.
A siege mentally keeps the mind sharp. Regan has almost built his third team in a decade with an additional faces coming on board, prepared to follow the plan.
In Ciaran Thompson, they have a player that has bridged the gap between the generations and continues to make the big plays, pluck the important catches and swing over vital scores.
“He is cut from the same cloth as Anthony but he is a bigger version,” Gildea said. “He is a genuine and honest and gives his heart for the blue.”
The other important factor is how they, as a group, never, ever leave anything in the tank. Belief comes from previous successes, panic doesn’t exist and so the cycle continues.
“If you get that level of honesty and integrity in a team, then you are left in this kind of a situation of being in finals and you can beat a lot of teams by a point or two,” he adds.
Gildea uses the Munster rugby team and Tyrone or Armagh teams Donegal lived in the shadow of as the example of what it takes to grind out results.
Naomh Conaill are the same. It brings a psychological advantage. If a team hasn’t shaken them off by the 40th minute, they are already looking over their shoulder and know they are in bother.
One of the greatest examples is the 2019 final trilogy with Ulster champions Gaoth Dobhair with Naomh Conaill left holding the cup after three pressure cooker afternoons.
“To come out on the right side of that gave the team huge belief and it just carried on from there,” Gildea said.
The “blow-out” final. That’s how John Gildea refers to St Eunan’s hammering, 1-11 to 0-4, of Naomh Conaill in the 2021 final.
The post-mortems began. All the talk was of how the carnival was over. The legs were gone. The Naomh Conaill ship had run its course.
“Up until that time, people were saying it was the best club team in Donegal history,” Gildea offers.
“There are some days you fall off a cliff and there is nothing you can do about it. There was a lot of soul-searching after the next six or nine months after that game. It really fuelled them.”
The whispers filtering around the county were of Martin Regan stepping away. After a period of limbo and the usual soul-searching defeats always demand, he was still in situ by the time 2022 got underway.
By the end of the season, the Dr Maguire Cup was back in Glenties. With the players and management stood on a lorry at their homecoming.
When it was Regan’s turn to take the microphone he thanked everyone who had their shoulder to the wheel, including Jim McGuinness.
“If you have somebody of the calibre of Jim available to you, it was a crazy person or a person with a huge ego that wouldn’t want him involved,” Gildea said.
“Thankfully Martin has neither and he had a chance to get Jim involved at a crucial stage in the season.
“Jim got involved and it lifted it a level, it lifted the intensity to a level nobody else does, as, fortunately or unfortunately, the current Donegal team are going to find out.”
A different voice and it was like 2005 all over again. With his experience and the aura that has surrounded him, it was extra boost of confidence to the squad.
The extra one or two per cent per man, across the squad, took Naomh Conaill to the top of the tree again.
After landing another league title and seeing off both Kilcar and St Eunan’s, Sunday brings another day in the firing line.
It’s a third meeting with Gaoth Dobhair in a final. Naomh Conaill were comfortably beaten in 2018 before turning the tables 12 months later.
Title number seven for Naomh Conaill? Maybe. Probably. Two things are certain – they’ll not panic and they’ve a lot to thank the men of 2005 for, the trailblazers who stepped out of the shadows to put the club on the map.