Gaoth Dobhair get a rare sight of glory amid the grief
The Donegal club’s rise this season has gone hand in hand with personal tragedies
Gweedore’s Peter McGee, Niall Friel and Christopher McFadden celebrate at the final whistle against Scotstown in the Ulster final. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
They thought about bringing the Dublin-based boys up on Friday night, just to stay in rhythm. But excluding the vagaries of city traffic, it’s a 280km drive to Gaoth Dobhair. Four hours is a long spin in a car no matter how good the tunes on the radio.
Mervyn O’Donnell figured the best thing for them to do would be to go straight to Carrick-on-Shannon, where they will meet to face the reigning All-Ireland club champions, Corofin, at 1.30pm. There’s no escaping the magnitude of this game for the Donegal men.
“The club was formed in 1931. This is the biggest game in our history,” Aodh Máirtín Ó Fearraigh says simply.
They haven’t quite come roaring out of obscurity but the scale and speed of Gaoth Dobhair’s reinvention over the past 12 months has caught everyone unawares. When the team won its first ever Ulster final in early December, their week-long party was chronicled on social media. It was delirium and undisguised delight: it made the country smile.
O’Donnell’s sporting life was on a high. He had taken on the position of manager in 2017. “He was the sole applicant,” says Ó Fearraigh, the club chairman. “He put his cards on the table and was very refreshing.” O’Donnell is a former Gaoth Dobhair player. He understood the mood and caprices within a club capable of producing a staggering number of county-grade players while chronically underachieving on the field of play.
“I had just come off coaching our minor team, with the likes of Odhran McFadden-Ferry and Shane Ferry and these guys. I couldn’t even get a backroom team, to be honest with you. I had to falsify a few names to get the job. That’s not a word of a lie.”
After he got the job, Eamonn McGee texted him to let him know he would help however he could. O’Donnell enlisted the help of Martin Coll, another former county player. Coll has four young children but said he’d do what he could. At the first squad meeting, O’Donnell got straight to the heart of the matter.
“I met the boys and I just asked: what is wrong? What is the big problem? I knew from the year before there was a communication issue between management and players. So we started off ... and we had a terrible league campaign. We had nine players involved in Donegal senior and under-21. I remember being in Donegal town for a game in the summer of 2017 and we had 14 players. We had to get some young fella out of a car to make up a team. And I was thinking, Jesus, this is not going too good for me.”
He persuaded Kevin Cassidy, Chris McFadden and Dan McBride to return from retirement and having gone six points up against Naomh Conall in the county semi-final, inexperience ended their year with a one-point defeat. But they had a taste of it. “You think you can start with a pile of young fellas and change the world. But you can’t. It was too late for the older guys that year; they hadn’t the training done. But once we sat down and reflected where we had gotten to, we were delighted, and I knew we were going to give it a big show the year after.”
Gaoth Dobhair were like a streak of gold through the autumn, playing sparkling football as they swept to their first county title since 2006 and were at times breathtaking against Crossmaglen in the Ulster semi-final. O’Donnell brought in Michael Boyle from Termon as coach. “And he gave us a massive lift. Things have gone so scientific, really, and last year, I just wasn’t good enough to train the team. And I have always said it.”
Through it all, though, O’Donnell was coping with family suffering: his mother Anne was dying from cancer. She was extremely ill in the days before the Ulster final against Scotstown and died five days afterwards.
“She had been ill from May. And I kind of had a good idea all the way through from the county final ... I never really let the players know what was going on behind the scenes. But the management and the players have been a massive help to me, to get me through it. It was very tough leading into that final and afterwards.
“She was at least able to watch it from her bed in the hospice, and the first thing I did when we came home from Omagh was to go in to her with the cup. We knew she was dying. She was only 68. So I suppose with everything that was happening at home, I wasn’t doing much reflecting on football.”
Month of extremes
It has been a month of extremes for the community in general. Two weeks ago the death of four young men in a car crash near Gortahork stilled the county. One of the victims, Michael Roarty, was a member of the senior squad and a close friend with several players on the panel. Training for the All-Ireland series was at full tilt and O’Donnell admits nobody was certain what was the right thing to do.
“Well, you know ... that decision of how we were going to approach it was hard. We called a meeting that Tuesday night. We didn’t train. A few of the lads involved with me in management are in the fire brigade. They were on the scene on the night and they were in a bad way. And then Michael’s mates in the club. So I wasn’t sure of what the best way to approach it was ... it was such a sensitive situation.
“And I called on Neil McGee and Kevin Cassidy and Odhran and Michael Boyle, our trainer. I didn’t want to put anything up on Whatsapp until we made a collective decision. And we decided to train on Thursday night. That was the night of the funerals. It wasn’t easy. And we kind of had a few words about it. I said what I had to say. A few of the lads said what they had to say. That was it ... We don’t want to bring emotion too much into the dressing room either. But at the same time we feel he will be there with us in the dressing room with us and hopefully if we can win it, we will be thinking of Michael and the other three families as well for that matter.”
This year has reawakened something in an area that has always tried to uphold a distinct identity within the county. Economically, it has been hit hard. Ó Fearraigh can recall a time when there were 12 hotels in the parish: now there is one, opening seasonally.
“We are now very reliant on cultural tourism. We’re a very proud breed of people, of our language and heritage. We are one of the few clubs that conducts its business through Irish.”
This championship surge has tapped into some of that substance. And they’d like to think this is the beginning of a new period of football dominance. But any kind of sustainability is difficult when you are on the edge of the country.
“I think time will tell,” says O’Donnell. “The way the team is now, Cass is in his twilight years. Eamonn and Neil . . . there are three or four and they are going to be very hard to replace on and off the field. You would love to think that you could go on and be like Corofin and come back next year. But that is the thing about football: nobody knows. And where we live on the west coast of Donegal, we have issues with emigration. So the worrying factor is that you can’t hold on to these players.”
But they have them now, for this season, this weekend. They are facing a behemoth in Corofin, no question.
“It is going to be tough,” Ó Fearraigh acknowledges.
“We’ll be quietly confident that we will put a good show on the day. But what is different about this Gaoth Dobhair team to teams in other years is: unity.”
The events of the past few months won’t have done anything to weaken that.