Paddy McBrearty leads from the front as Donegal begin new era

Prolific and proven Kilcar man entrusted with the captaincy by new boss Paddy Carr following Michael Murphy’s retirement

It can be difficult to get through television coverage of US sports without commentators dropping the C word. Often, you can’t move for clutch moments and clutch scores.

And whether you were fully absorbed in the opening exchanges of the Allianz Football League or merely took a fleeting glance last weekend, chances are you picked up on Paddy McBrearty’s injury-time winner for Donegal against Kerry.

It was, ahem, the clutchiest of clutch scores.

However, what largely got lost amidst the images of McBrearty spinning away in celebration is how that 74th minute score was his first shot from open play in the entire game.


Indeed, it was only his second shot in total, having pulled a 51st minute free wide. McBrearty had been operating on the fringes all afternoon. He touched the ball just eight times in the first half and went from the 21st to the 45th minute without being directly involved.

Prior to the injury-time move that resulted in the winning point, McBrearty touched the ball only five times in the second half at MacCumhaill Park. He was in curly finger territory.

But during that late patient move, McBrearty was involved in the play five times – having possession as often in those 75 seconds as he had over the rest of the half.

“Where I see leadership and class come out is when a man who had been so quiet for such a length of time can turn around and do that,” says John McNulty, who managed McBrearty at senior, under-21 and minor level with Kilcar.

“That’s serious leadership. Only top-quality players can do that. And he has done it before.”

As McNulty knows. In the dying seconds of the 2010 Donegal minor final between Kilcar and Cloughaneely at MacCumhaill Park, and with the sides level, the Towney men won a long-distance free. McBrearty grabbed the ball.

“He was still only 16,” recalls McNulty.

The highlights can still be viewed online. The kick is quite something. McBrearty lets fly from the 45-metre line, out near the sideline, like an arc the ball climbs skyward at first before dropping over the crossbar as if attached to an invisible string.

“It felt like an eternity watching it go over,” recalls McNulty. “Last kick of the game to win a minor championship. Some kick.”

McBrearty is 29 now. And he is Donegal’s new captain. When the king stepped down, he was Michael Murphy’s heir apparent.

Before the Kerry game, McBrearty commented: “I have big boots to fill in Michael’s absence but it is something I am looking forward to.”

He captained Kilcar to the 2017 Donegal SFC, which was the club’s first since 1993.

McBrearty made his senior debut for Donegal in May 2011, coming off the bench against Antrim having played for the county minors in the curtain-raiser that same day.

Fr Seán Ó Gallchóir, author of The book of Donegal GAA Facts, has tallied up that Sunday’s match against Tyrone will be McBrearty’s 132nd senior appearance – having played 60 championship games, 60 league matches and 11 in the McKenna Cup.

He has amassed 14-385 and despite suffering a cruciate injury in the 2018 Ulster final, McBrearty was Donegal’s top scorer in 2016, 2018, 2021 and 2022.

“While the talent was always there, he also worked so hard to be as accurate as he is,” adds McNulty.

And so, back to last Sunday. Unlike the debate that forever raged over Murphy’s best position, it is generally accepted McBrearty plays up top.

Nothing last week suggested that is going to change under Paddy Carr. He was regularly Donegal’s furthest player forward, occasionally joined in a two-man full-forward line by Jamie Brennan.

Jason Foley was tasked with marking McBrearty and the Kerry full back had him well marshalled, though he was helped by Tadhg Morley covering space in front.

Most of McBrearty’s touches were short pop passes, but he also demonstrated his willingness to work by tracking two early second-half sojourns upfield by Foley.

And the defining moment of the game actually started with him in Donegal’s D. With the sides level, and Kerry attacking, McBrearty got in front of Donal O’Sullivan, who was primed to shoot. O’Sullivan had to readjust and delay his shot, which subsequently fell short.

Donegal immediately started a counterattack. Crucially at that point Foley was not marking McBrearty as the Kerry defender had dropped back to mind the house.

Free from Foley’s clutches, McBrearty knitted the play together and was involved five times in the move. Morley eventually drifted over to try cover McBrearty.

But when Caolan Ward gave McBrearty a short hand-pass out near the sideline, the Kilcar man saw space inside and immediately snapped on the afterburners, darted across Morley and played a neat one-two with Daire Ó Baoill, which took three Kerry players out of the equation. It allowed McBrearty time to get off a shot from a central position inside the 45-metre line.

Given it was his first shot from play all afternoon, coupled with a missed free, it was quite the display of self-confidence and leadership.

But we shouldn’t be surprised. As demonstrated as far back as that minor club final, he has built up a decent back catalogue of clutch moments by now. The point last Sunday had echoes of his injury-time winner against Derry in 2021.

“I think he has got the captaincy at just the right time in his career,” says McNulty. “He has a fearsome aggression, a real will to win and he wants everybody to get to that standard and to go to that level with him. I’ve no doubt the young players are going to respond to him.”

Having successfully raised anchor last weekend, Donegal leave harbour on Sunday for their first voyage of the post-Michael Murphy era. Omagh is the destination for the Good Ship Donegal, with a Carr at the helm and a new captain at the wheel.

Gordon Manning

Gordon Manning

Gordon Manning is a sports journalist, specialising in Gaelic games, with The Irish Times