Colm McFadden: The buzz is back in Donegal

By Michael McMullan

DONEGAL selector Colm McFadden knows a thing or two about Ulster finals. The St Michael’s clubman kicked four points when they ended a famine to land the county’s fifth Ulster title in 2011.

His final act of that Clones showpiece was the final nail hammered into Derry. As the clock ticked towards the third minute of stoppage time, he popped a ball to Michael Murphy before taking the return to kick between the posts.

“I looked over at him (Murphy) and he looked back at me, we knew it was in the bag,” McFadden said in a Gaelic Life feature before the county’s 2022 extra-time defeat to Derry.

Six Ulster titles later and McFadden is on the other side of the line but he was still smiling. When his brother in law Jim McGuinness made a return as manager, he assembled a packed management and support team. McFadden got the call.

Sunday was another special day. Donegal are champions but inevitably McFadden dared to dream of what it would’ve been like to pull on the jersey again.

“It’s different but it’s very much the same too,” McFadden said of his 2024 winning feeling.

“I think when the final whistle goes, regardless if you’re a player, part of the backroom team or a supporter, we’re all sharing that same emotion.

“I’m just delighted to get that victory today. When we were driving in on the bus you’re thinking you’d love to be a player and going out.

“You just know the boys, they work hard for what they get. They’re having the time of their lives in there, playing intercounty football, and they’re lucky to be challenging for provincial medals and winning provincial medals.

“It’s a great, great moment in their life and it’s times they’ll never forget, these are times supporters and fans will never forget as well.”

If the feeling of victory is boxed the same, Donegal’s 2011 win was very different. After beating Tyrone in the semi-final, they were comfortable in the final.

Last Sunday was a world apart. A point down after a first-half shoot out, Donegal chased three different four-point deficits as Armagh looked in control.

After kicking the final four points of the game, Donegal were then two points adrift in extra-time. Sunday was a game of margins, of inches and about not blinking in the eye of their opponent.

“Ulster final day is always a massive day,” McFadden said of Sunday. “As Patrick (McBrearty) alluded in the speech there, I never saw the crowds like it coming in before the game on the bus. You know there’s massive following for Donegal and Armagh, and it made for a mouth-watering contest and I think that’s what it turned out as.”

Donegal fell four points behind as Stefan Campbell began to run the show after half time. It took a block to put a pin in Oisin Conaty’s shot that could’ve nosed Armagh out to five points.

Instead, it dropped into Shaun Patton’s waiting arms and seconds later Niall O’Donnell sliced over a beauty. It wasn’t a match winning score but it allowed Donegal to get a second breath.

“I suppose we needed a score,” McFadden recalls of those earlier key moments. “We went to four (points down) and the bigger that gap got the more dangerous it was going to be.

“Thankfully Niall O’Donnell stepped up with a big score and we clawed our way back. When we got back to two it gave us a bit more confidence to feel that we could bridge the gap and thankfully we were able to get back level.”

For all the coaching and planning, McFadden drew on another factor. Donegal’s character.

“To be four down in the second half of an Ulster final is a big gap and to pull it back,” he summed up.

“You knew probably the goal was very unlikely to come so you knew it was going to have to be points so it was a massive lead and it’s a testament to the boys, it showed great character to keep digging in and to claw that lead back.”

So, what were the thoughts in the Donegal dressing room before extra-time? A second chance had been offered up but, as McFadden pointed out, there wasn’t time to look back on how they got there.

It was about pushing on. Donegal felt they had the momentum and with it would come the legs to carry them over the finish line.

While they did get the first score, it was left to Shaun Patton to pick out Odhrán Doherty for the equaliser and the ‘keeper went on to make the decisive winning save from Shane McPartlan in sudden death.

“Aye, it was a match winning save and he’s a top keeper,” McFadden said of a man who won a MacLarnon Cup in 2014 with St Eunan’s College where McFadden teaches.

“A lot of ball landed about the square today and he’s just back from injury as well. He’s a big leader in that team and the way he conducts himself at training and off the pitch,” McFadden said.

“He’s a real professional so he doesn’t just turn up on the day and put on a show like that. He does all the work behind the scenes and works really hard so I’m delighted he was able to pull off the save at the end and get the boys over the line.”

Looking at the big picture, beyond their homecoming to Donegal with the cup and what their latest success will mean to the county, McFadden strips everything back.

Looking in from outside, identity is a key strand. Team videographer Bradas O’Donnell posted an emotive video on social media last week with images from around the county and narrated by Sean McGinley. It was entitled ‘This is us’.

“I think Donegal people are very proud,” McFadden said on Sunday. “When they see their team going out and working hard and trying their best every single day they put on the Donegal jersey, they’re happy.

“A lot of ones are saying about the victory over Derry and before the Tyrone game that they weren’t expecting to win Ulster or demanding to win Ulster.

“They were just demanding the team to go out and do their best every day and you could see the buzz starting to go back into the county because they were seeing that from the team.

“Hopefully now they can keep behind us because it’s brilliant for the kids. Like at Celtic Park, they’re all out in the field and for young supporters watching Donegal it’s great times, great days.”

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