‘10 minutes before the game is about to start you see the stare in their eyes’

“Ah, there’s nothing hi. A few factories up there in the Industrial Estate. Apart from that, you have the few pubs and shops and that’s it. Things just seem to be closing down every few months. It’s getting worse instead of getting better.”

A familiar refrain, coming out of rural communities all over Ireland. This is the time of year that the problems in the marginalised villages towns and parishes are aired through the prism of joyous sporting occasions.

This time, it’s Odhrán MacNiallais and Gaoth Dobhair, but it could be so many other clubs up and down the country.

Work is on the wane. The crisp factory shut down a couple of years back and took the Seaview Hotel with it around the same time.

The three post offices over the sprawling parish became two only last month.

But still, the note of hope.

“The football is all everyone is talking about. We are all getting a great buzz out of it,” says MacNiallais.

“It’s great that we have something, especially over the winter, it gives people something to do at the weekend, something to look forward to.”

Gweedore’s Odhrán MacNiallais

Tomorrow the Donegal coastal club go back to the scene of their finest day in over four decades in beating Crossmaglen in the Ulster club semi-final, back to Healy Park.

After winning their first Donegal title in 12 years, they are planning an audacious smash and grab against the earnest men of Scotstown, who have been plugging away at this competition for years.

Given their electric performance, how they punished Crossmaglen for sticking to a traditional game and their sheer goal power in raising four green flags, it is easy to see why they are going in as strong favourites to lift the Seamus McFerran Cup.

It was only two summers ago the doubts were crippling Gaoth Dobhair players after a 12-point collapse in the county semi-final against Glenties.

“That was bottom-of-the-barrel stuff,” says MacNiallais.

“Coming off the pitch that day, and in the weeks after it, I was just thinking to myself I am never going to win anything with Gaoth Dobhair.

“It was a tough position to be in. You are thinking, ‘Jesus, is this is what it is going to be like for the rest of my days?’”

If he sounds fatalistic, you sense he was tapping into the emotion of the time. Gaoth Dobhair had an enormously promising group coming through a revolutionary youth system that deserves an investigation in its’ own right.

It yielded several players who all came through at once including Dáire and Noaise Ó Báoill, Ciaran Gillespie, Michael Carroll, and Cian Mulligan.

“These lads… Nothing phases them,” said their 37-year-old full-forward Kevin Cassidy who hung on to his physique and appetite for the game over the last few years, knowing these players were coming onstream.

After the Crossmaglen game, MacNiallais’ manager Mervyn O’Donnell put a bit more flesh on those bones.

“A lot of these lads are so calm. You see them all landing with their headphones on and their Beats and so on. Nothing seems to phase them but about 10 minutes before the game is about to start you see the stare in their eyes and they are zoned in and what they are going to do.”

MacNiallais has been a revelation. Any fan of Gaelic football will spend a considerable part of the summer drooling over what he can do with the ball, almost re-imagining the concept of balance and clean striking of a football.

He doesn’t get bogged down in the theory if he can help it. A talent like this deserves to freestyle within certain parameters.

“I just go out and play, I don’t really… I don’t listen to what anyone else has to say, or the media, I just train during the week and go out and play a match at the weekend. That is all I want to do. It does not matter to me what I do or what people think, I just enjoy it,” he says.

“When I was growing up playing Gaelic football, I just loved it. I played half-forward and would get the ball around the middle of the pitch and hit a kick pass. It was what I just loved doing, hitting a nice kick pass rather than scoring a goal or a point,” he says.

“It’s kind of hard now. That part of the game is nearly gone now, a nice kick pass into the full-forward line.”

Gaoth Dobhair have their own way of doing things. They say the rosary before every game in Irish led by their former county star James Gallagher, still on the panel at the age of 40.

When they hand over their team sheet, it is exclusively in Irish and has appeared so in the Ulster club matchday programmes. They are the only true Gaeltacht club in Ulster. They don’t have much, but they have that.

“Every man on that team has Irish,” he says.

“We all talk Irish on the field. That can be a help, a real benefit if the opposition don’t know what you are saying. The language is massive in Gaoth Dobhair, it’s the number one language and you go anywhere in the place and it’s Irish we talk. We take a great pride in it. Not a lot of parishes or football teams can say that. We are proud of that.”

And of their elder statesmen; Cassidy and the two McGee brothers Neil and Eamon who have contributed so much on this run.

“When I was growing up, Kevin was starting out with Donegal around 2002, he would have been a hero of a lot of us boys that are playing with him now,” MacNiallais says.

“It’s unreal to win a Championship with him and Eamon and Neil. If anyone deserves it, it is those boys as they have given so much commitment to the club and all they want is for the club to do well.”

They’ve never been doing better.


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