Donegal rivalry has new twist as Naomh Conaill take on St Eunan’s
Regan looks to make amends as Glenties rekindle contest with reigning champions
The grounded Leo McLoone of Naomh Conaill is crowded by St Eunan’s players during the 2012 Donegal football final in Ballybofey. Photograph: Andrew Paton/Inpho.
Football seasons can play tricks with time. When Naomh Conaill won their first Donegal senior title in 2005, Martin Regan had just returned from a summer working in New Jersey and came on as a substitute when the club beat St Eunan’s after a replay.
A decade later, he is manager as the same teams meet in the final again. Assessing Glenties’ fortunes throughout the intervening years is a question of perspective.
“We have played in four finals in the last seven years and have two titles to our name since 2005. A lot of clubs would give anything for that and we are appreciative of it. But a lot of people would feel that we have underachieved because we have had a few disappointing days. We have only won the one final since 2005 so we probably feel we don’t have all that much to show for it.
“The 2012 final against St Eunan’s was definitely one we felt we would have won. We controlled the game and it just got away at the end. But when we won in 2010, we should have probably lost to Kilcar up in Towney in the first round. So there is a wee bit of luck involved.”
Naomh Conaill and St Eunan’s has arguably been the key club rivalry during a rich and vivid time for Donegal football.
The key to the county’s success arguably started with that 2005 county championship run, during which Naomh Conaill were the original team shaped by the defensive system with which Jim McGuinness, a player/coach that season, would transform a broken Donegal team into All-Ireland champions.
The club in Glenties has been a constant force in Donegal football since that time even if the style of game played by the present team is different.
“We wouldn’t see ourselves as being as defensive. We played with two forwards back up front then so we are probably more expansive now. But the flip side is that we probably do leave ourselves more open at the back. So the systems of play wouldn’t be that similar but what is the same is that we have a lot of young players coming through.
“In 2005, we had senior players like Jim and Paddy Campbell and John Gildea and then Anthony (Thompson) and Leo (McCloone) coming through. Now, they are the senior players and we have young lads like Eoghan McGettigan, Ethan O’Donnell and Kevin McGettigan, who have freshened things up.”
Regan made a bold and unexpected decision to start Eoghan McGettigan, the key turn in Naomh Conaill’s journey to the minor final, for the senior semi-final against Kilcar. He scored a goal and set up a further three in a thrillingly composed debut. Regan acknowledges that it was a slight gamble to start such a young player but recalls that McLoone was just 15 and played the 2005 final.
“A few years later Leo wouldn’t have been allowed to play because the rules changed,” Regan says. “But Eoghan is a great young lad and a serious talent. Maybe starting him was a bit of a surprise. He has just turned 17 and he would say himself he didn’t start well.
“He dropped a lot of ball in the first 20 minutes but he is a dangerous forward because he is thinking goals all the time. He has pace and a confidence about him and he knows he still has a lot that he can improve on.”
Whether he opts to start McGettigan against St Eunan’s – winners of the Maguire Cup five times since 2007 and who will eclipse Gweedore on the honours list if they win on Sunday – is a different matter.
Like a lot of small clubs, Naomh Conaill is heavily reliant on certain houses. Four of the Thompson brothers started in the semi-final. Michael Gallagher, who won an All-Ireland with Donegal in 1992, has three sons involved. There are two from the Ellis household.
Regan believes that one of the keys to Glenties emergence as a force in Donegal football is that they have managed to keep their players involved as they progressed through the grades. The central involvement of Glenties men in the recent All-Ireland success, from McGuinness on the sideline to McLoone, Thompson and Dermot Molloy on the field of play, has made recruitment as easy thing.
“Yeah, the town was buzzing and you would see younger and younger children coming down looking to get involved. People say that the coaching in Glenties must be very good. We have put a lot of work in at the club but every year we have had good crop of players coming through continually. That won’t last forever and there is no other distraction in Glenties so we do hold on to players when we get them.”
Recent championship encounters between the clubs suggest that this one will go to the brink. The general consensus is that the best two teams in Donegal have made it through to the final.
“Look, Eunan’s could pick out two of three clubs they have rivalry with. They beat Glen Swilly in two finals as well. They are a big club and I suppose they are there to be toppled. I expect it would be fairly open. Both teams are very similar and I think it will be open enough.
“Eunan’s are very strong at midfield and they look to dominate that sector we would hope if we can get a foothold there, we will have every opportunity.”