Around about halfway through their respective 11-year inter-county careers to date, Colm McFadden and Rory Kavanagh started spending evenings in the gym at Letterkenny Community Centre.
As they spotted for one another the pair talked about the wonderful life professional athletes must have. McFadden had studied for his postgraduate certificate in Education at Liverpool Hope University, taking a year out from football with Donegal to qualify as a maths teacher and was still intrigued by the professional approach.
Whilst on teaching practice at St Catherine’s in Edge Hill, McFadden and a fellow teacher filled their breaks with football talk. His colleague played semi-pro football for a Conference side, trained twice a week and took home a decent cheque to supplement his teaching wage.
“I always meant to remember his team’s name, just to keep an eye on them when I moved home, but to this day I can’t remember what they’re called,” McFadden says. “He asked me the odd time about ‘Irish football’ and I told him a bit about the GAA.
“He couldn’t believe it when I told him I had played in front of 82,000 people. Well, once or twice I had, not every week of course, but I said we were amateurs, picking up maybe a pair of boots and some petrol money for the summer. He was amazed.”
Closer to home, Donegal’s rivals in Ulster had taken the level of professionalism in Gaelic games to a new stratosphere. Occasionally Donegal would pop their heads above water and upset the upstarts. Only occasionally.
While Tyrone and particularly Armagh’s players looked like they were constructed with cement mix and rolled out on the production belt, Donegal’s were a little like a pick ‘n’ mix concoction from the local sweet shop, made up of all kinds of everything.
“Some of the northern teams were totally professional and they took things to a new level,” McFadden adds. “Over the last 10 years or so Armagh and Tyrone even brought Kerry and Cork onto a new level to compete with them. It improved the game as a whole and we tried to follow suit.
“Me and Kavanagh used to go to the gym ourselves and try and work out what we should be doing, making it up as we were going along.
“There was talk about doing programmes but no programmes were in place. We’d just try such and such for a couple of weeks and that mightn’t work so we’d try something else.”
Donegal’s approach, like the two footballers in the gym, was good intentioned, although uncoordinated. But having made his championship debut in 2002 as a teenager, McFadden lived life in the fast lane in his first few seasons on the Donegal rollercoaster.
In his first year they drew 0-14 to 2-8 on August Bank Holiday Monday’s All-Ireland quarter-final against Dublin, before, in the replay, they produced the often to be replicated capitulation. It was a quiet bus home with Mickey Moran after that drawn match, with most of the players choosing the Portobello over Pettigo, the first intended stop in the county on the return journey to Donegal town.
A year later, Donegal were relegated from Division 1 and had to coax Brian McEniff, who was then county chairman, in to manage the team for a fifth time. It was a job nobody wanted.
McEniff was the one constant in Donegal’s five Ulster titles and their All-Ireland success of 1992. And despite investing his life to Donegal football, he was prepared to offer one last overdraft.
A 0-10 to 0-6 loss in their championship opener against Fermanagh was so dire, some supporters left Enniskillen swearing on the Holy Bible they’d never spend a red cent watching the team again.
However, confidence shot back through their veins after a scoot in the qualifiers. Donegal ousted Galway, All-Ireland champions just two years beforehand, one hot evening at a cramped MacHale Park in Castlebar in a nail-biting All-Ireland quarter-final replay. Fans spilled onto the pitch in celebration and good-humoured queues of traffic made for a long trip home.
In the semi-final, 14-man Donegal, who had Raymond Sweeney harshly sent off for a second booking three minutes into the second half, led reigning champions Armagh until the dying embers, before losing 2-10 to 1-9. Oisín McConville’s last-minute penalty eventually buried brave Donegal.
McFadden’s third campaign, 2004, followed the erratic trend. He scored 1-7 against All-Ireland champions Tyrone in a 1-11 to 0-9 win at a drizzly Ulster semi-final in Clones.
Yet again, Donegal flummoxed, hammered by 13 points by Armagh in the first Croke Park Ulster final. Still reeling, they limped out of the qualifiers days later to Charlie Mulgrew’s Fermanagh.
“I thought we’d be getting to All-Ireland quarter-finals or semi-finals every year,” McFadden recalls. “But there was a lull.
“Looking back, football was different, or certainly it was to us.
“When I see young lads like Mark McHugh and Paddy McGrath coming into the panel now, we were nowhere near as mature as they are. These young men are getting success and they’re still so well grounded. Maybe I’m that little bit older now but I can see that in them.”
McFadden is not yet 30 but having married long-time partner Levina in April, the couple celebrated the birth of a baby daughter, Maisie, whom father proudly nursed in the St Tiernach’s Park tunnel as Donegal retained Ulster for the first time in July.
Alongside his clubmate at St Michael’s, Christy Toye, and Kavanagh of St Eunan’s in Letterkenny, the trio are the mature elder statesmen of the current panel. From childhood, McFadden and Toye were stand-outs at an unfashionable club. Both are from Creeslough and the club is housed at nearby Dunfanaghy, more famed for its stretching and undisturbed beaches, influx of northern tourists and the recently acquired jazz festivals.
Now, though, St Michael’s have four more county panellists under the management of Jim McGuinness, who also lives in Creeslough and is married to Colm’s sister Yvonne. Younger brother Antoin, Daniel McLaughlin, Martin McElhinney and Peter Witherow are all part of the revolution. Their names are plastered all over the well-wishing gables and the green and gold posters all along the town.
On the pitch, things have changed too. St Michael’s reached a first senior county final last year, losing an interesting encounter 1-8 to 0-9 against a Glenswilly team inspired by Michael Murphy, who had one of those ramshackling days, scoring all but a point of his team’s total.
This season, even minus the county panellists most weekends, St Michael’s are second-top of the All-County League Division 1 behind St Eunan’s. On the bookmakers’ blackboards, they are currently second favourites for the club championship, with only Naomh Conaill of Glenties at shorter odds. But times weren’t always so rosy in Sheephaven and Dunfanaghy Bay.
“Only 15 years ago, we were a junior club,” McFadden recalls. “When I started playing at 15, we were in the Division 3. My first year was 1998 and we were on the verge of getting relegated to Division 4. In our last game of the season, we lost against St Mary’s in Convoy by a point on an awful day and were gone.
“We were all in the dressing room and the referee landed. He had just copped on he blew up early and hadn’t played the last 10 minutes. Out we went again and we scraped four points to win and keep ourselves up. The year afterwards we got promoted to Division 2. God knows what might’ve happened had we gone into Division 4.”
The McFadden and Toye families have revolutionised things at the Bridge, the windy home of St Michael’s. Colm and Christy’s fathers, Colm Snr and Noel, rubbed ideas off one another and decided to introduce a Parish League in the mid-90s, to stimulate youngsters’ interest in football.
The swapping of players between the sides, in an attempt to introduce a level and fair playing field, was a little like American Football, with young talents like McFadden and Toye often the makeweights.
“Noel Toye and my auld fella got all the names of the lads from the parish between the ages of 12 to 16,” McFadden says.
“Christy and I were already mad into football then, aged 12 or so. I started with Drimnaraw and then was transferred to Murroe. They finished bottom the first year and were getting hammered and Christy was sent there too from Creeslough. It was a bit like the NFL draft system!”
With the Parish League providing St Michael’s with a string of players peppered throughout the ranks, the club progressed with competitive underage teams.
As a student, McFadden used to gaze at the framed team photographs dotting the interior walls of St Eunan’s College in Letterkenny. It’s where he teaches now. Although perhaps traditionally more a soccer school, with All-Irelands continually coming through the towering gates of the school known as ‘the castle on the hill’, MacLarnon Cup-winning teams are also immortalised in dusting print.
When McFadden was a Leaving Cert student in 2000, no St Eunan’s team had won the competition, which is considered the undercard to the MacRory Cup in Ulster, since 1979.
“It was always a massive thing in the school and they hadn’t won it for years,” he recalls. “Rory Kavanagh was on that team and Neil Gallagher was a sub. Looking back, it was strange that it was even B football as the standard was very good.
“St Columb’s from Derry hammered us in the group and should have had us out of sight when we met again in the final. They went ahead late on but we managed to hold on and won it with a late goal.”
While McFadden’s reflections are modest, it was arguably the match that catapulted him to people’s attention outside of Donegal. His team, as he said, were on the back foot that St Patrick’s Day at Casement Park late on after Martin Donaghy had stroked the Derry side in front with barely five minutes left. But McFadden’s goal two minutes from time salvaged a 1-11 to 1-9 win that spring afternoon in Belfast when he scored 1-8.
Later that year, he began his studies in Financial Maths and Economics at NUI Galway, winning the All-Ireland Freshers alongside players like Matthew Clancy from Galway, Clare’s Mikey O’Dwyer and Mark O’Connell, John Donoghue of Meath and David O’Shaughnessy, a native of Westmeath.
Two years later, at Páirc Uí Rinn in Cork, the College Road residents trailed UCD by 0-6 to 0-3 at half-time in the Sigerson Cup final. However, with the wind bellowing in their sails, Michael Meehan grabbed a goal from a speculative effort that was spilled over the line by UCD full-back Conor Earlie. NUI Galway ran out 1-8 to 0-9 winners.
“Winning the Sigerson in Cork wasn’t something that might’ve been expected of us at all,” McFadden says. “We had Lorcan and Brendan Colleran, Mattie Clancy again and Michael Meehan, who was unreal. Dessie Dolan pulled his hamstring in the quarter-final and missed out but we took in a lad from Mayo, Michéal Keane, who played as a sweeper and was brilliant. They were a good group. ”
Whatever size Donegal’s footballers were then, it wasn’t the right fit. Due to his year away from the panel whilst in Liverpool, McFadden lived the supporters’ summer in 2006. He stayed in Dublin the night before the Ulster final, sharing beers and craic on a night out before Armagh beat Donegal yet again.
Teams like Antrim, Derry and Monaghan were coming to Ballybofey and winning. Ulster football’s standards weren’t climbing so Donegal’s must’ve been dropping. Cork, Sunday’s opponents, broke a Croke Park football record in the 2009 All-Ireland quarter-final, scoring 1-27. McFadden and Donegal were on a downward spiral.
A year later Donegal were the first team evicted from the championship, battered and bruised by nine points by Armagh in a first round qualifier in Crossmaglen. TV cameras breezed by the Donegal bench and McFadden, who was replaced by Adrian Hanlon, was seen with a sarcastic grin on his face. As the obituary continued, McFadden’s behaviour was condemned.
However, it was later learned he had been asked by county board officials to stay around after the final whistle to receive a presentation to mark his 100th appearance for the county.
McFadden felt it was neither the time nor the place for such gestures and was making a joke at his own expense. As he left the field after being forced to stand in front of the cameras, barely able to muster a smile, the Armagh players snorted laughter during their warm-down and one even muttered: “It must be the man of the match award.”
It was an embarrassing and avoidable episode for McFadden and one not of his own making. He admits now that he considered his own future.
However, the worst kept secret in Donegal was that his brother-in-law McGuinness was about to take over from John Joe Doherty. McFadden and McGuinness, when he popped in with Yvonne, had often shared yarns in the family home in Creeslough about football and where it was going.
“I was only 27 and was getting written off by a lot of people who said Donegal would need to start from scratch with a new team,” McFadden says. “Two years ago when we lost to Armagh I did think about it once or twice but thankfully Jim came in then and changed everything.
“We used to chat football in the house and his ideas were always interesting. He wasn’t just a fella spoofing on about football. You knew he thought everything through and never said things for the sake of saying things.
“He came in and brought that level of professionalism and it’s a joy just to be part of it. We still have a bit to go and are not happy to be resting on our laurels just because we’re back in the All-Ireland semi-final. Cork are a huge proposition but we want to be in Croke Park in September. We’re working towards it and that’s what we want.”
Donegal now know what they want. For years they thought they were ready. Now, with essential contributions from Colm McFadden and Jim McGuinness, they know they are.
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