Two days after the 2005 Donegal SFC final, Jim McGuinness gathered Naomh Conaill’s panel together in the shadow of Davy Brennan Memorial Park’s stand in Glenties.
In front of a huge support in Ballybofey — the majority in the blue and white of the 6/1 outsiders — there had been a stormy finish to the 1-5 to 0-8 draw against St Eunan’s of Letterkenny.
Naomh Conaill, in their first final since 1965 having never won the Dr Maguire Cup, had surrendered a 1-3 to 0-1 half-time lead. Brendan McDyer’s point three minutes into injury time forced a replay.
St Eunan’s raged with referee Mick McGrath for blowing time as sub John Haran was about to attempt a pot at a winning score. It was, perceivably, St Eunan’s title to lose in the replay.
Former Donegal midfielder John Gildea, at 34, was the hub of Naomh Conaill’s side, providing experience in a panel that included a 16-year-old Leo McLoone. Twelve starters were U21s, three minors.
“Everyone thought we’d blown it, but Jim, who’d come in to coach us alongside Hughie Molloy, called us over,” Gildea said.
“He said ‘St Eunan’s, not us, were lucky to get the replay’. It was, I suppose, reverse psychology. Everything was turned into a positive. He gave the young lads incredible belief.”
Naomh Conaill’s flooded defence continually frustrated St Eunan’s and when the chance arose they broke with conviction. McGuinness’s approach wasn’t widely appreciated but Naomh Conaill’s 0-10 to 1-5 victory remains the biggest shock the Donegal SFC has ever seen.
Intriguingly, Naomh Conaill’s showed, for the first time locally, system could overcome spontaneity. Nicky Brennan, the GAA president, attended the first match and remarked there were “children playing for the blue team.” McGuinness had put his faith in kids.
With a certain group of the contemporaries over the 30-mark in the Donegal panel, there was a requirement to infuse.
Ten minutes before referee Joe McQuillan threw the ball in for Donegal’s Ulster opener against Derry, a hush fell on Celtic Park when two late changes were announced. Already without the suspended Rory Kavanagh, McGuinness opted to leave his other centre-field protagonists — Neil Gallagher and Martin McElhinney — on the bench.
Paddy McGrath and Leaving Cert student Darach O’Connor’s inclusion raised eyebrows. The slightly-framed corner-forward, nicknamed ‘Jigger’, blasted Donegal’s first point in a 1-11 to 0-11 win.
“I did laugh when I saw Paddy McGrath and Jigger in the middle of the park on The Sunday Game graphic — has to be the smallest midfield ever named!” McGuinness joked afterwards.
“Jigger’s first point?” McGee asked. “Pure pace. It was scary. I mark Colm McFadden and Michael Murphy in training but I don’t go near Jigger. There’s no point!”
Under McGuinness, Patrick McBrearty played minor and senior one afternoon against Antrim in 2011 and has featured in all 20 of McGuinness’s championship matches. He’s not yet 21.
Ryan McHugh is now so embedded it’s forgotten he’s just turned 20. McGuinness had little hesitation plumping for 21-year-old Odhrán MacNiallais at centre-field in Derry.
“You could see Odhrán was going to be special,” McGee said of his clubmate.
“Everybody in Gweedore knew. It was a case of marrying ability with the attitude required for an inter-county player. He’s done it and made the step up.”
When Donegal faced Antrim in the Ulster semi-final, there were another couple of late alterations: O’Connor and MacNiallis for Karl Lacey and Kavanagh. Donegal won 3-16 to 0-12 with O’Connor scoring 1-2, whilst MacNiallis scored 0-4 from play and won man of the match.
“They’re carefree,” McGuinness said. “They are pushing it, not only to be in the team, but to be team players. They’ve added a fresh dimension.”
O’Connor’s goal against Antrim proved his speed, fearlessness and confidence. He darted from midfield to plant a shot past Patrick Flood, dummying Kevin O’Boyle, the Antrim corner-back turned sweeper.
McGee recalls travelling to Donegal’s Ulster U21 semi-final against Derry last March at Healy Park with team-mates Neil Gallagher and Murphy. Donegal won a frantic contest 2-11 to 0-15.
“Michael earmarked Jigger and told us: ‘This is the player we need’,” McGee said.
Murphy added: “You’re always analysing where you’re at as a team, saying you could do with this type of player or that type of player. Darach was always one, so were Patrick and Ryan and you are thinking they will fit in. There’s more — Luke Keaney and Marty O’Reilly. Age may’ve been a factor in the past but younger players coming in now know the story.”
McGuinness, at 19, was part of something when he was the youngest member of Donegal’s 1992 Ulster and All-Ireland winning panel.
The new generation want to follow in those footprints.
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