Not so long ago Joe Diver met two south-of-the-county men, Brian McEniff and Pauric McShea, on his travels. The trio are long-time compadres: Diver had been a selector on the Donegal teams that won Ulster titles in 1972 and 1974, on which McShea was fullback and McEniff was player, manager and general life force. The conversation turned to Gweedore. What's wrong up there, the pair wondered. All the talent is there.
“Up there” had long been a conundrum in Donegal football. Gweedore is football royalty in the county, romping to title after titles for decades.
But they had been trading on old money for a long time. Until this autumn the club had won just two county senior championships (in 2002 and 2006) since 1961.
Everyone knew that Gweedore was producing a serious reserve of talented young footballers. But when the summer came they never seemed to get it together. They were locked into a cycle of underachievement that, their young midfielder Dara Ó Baoill said this week, made them almost the laughing stock of football in Donegal.
Until, that is, over the past few weeks when the skies cleared and the big Gaeltacht club revealed the best of itself once more.
“I have no doubt in my mind that since I got involved in 1971 this is the best team we’ve had, at least in my memory,” says Diver.
It has been an overnight success that took almost 18 years in the making. At national level, Gweedore have been synonymous with the granite defensive qualities that the McGee brothers and Kevin Cassidy added to Donegal teams for the past 15 years.
But locally, the club made a strategic attempt to reverse its fortunes over the same period.
Breandán Ó Baoill was among a group that sat down to lay out five-year plans to coach players through to senior grade and to try and get better representations on county panels. Former Kerry star Dara Ó Cinnéide agreed to become involved in an ambassadorial role. The project revolved around the side coached by
Tom Beag Gillespie
which has gone unbeaten from U-14 grade through to February’s Ulster U-21 title win against Lavey.
“Tom brought this particular group all the way up,” says Diver. “A quiet man but a very effective man, and has a great way with young people.”
Donegal regular Cian Mulligan made his only U-21 club appearance of the season in that game and fired three goals. Dara Ó Baoill had played in the McKenna Cup final for the Donegal senior side the night before. The promise of that success has carried through to the senior championship.
“There has been a massive effort. Mervyn [O’Donnell, the manager] probably took this on probably when nobody else wanted it,” says Breandán Ó Baoill.
"People probably thought the boys were hard to coach. Two years ago Naomh Conaill had beaten us by 12 points. Kevin Cassidy had retired. Cristoir McFadden had retired. Mervyn convinced both to come back in. Last year they were probably unlucky to lose the semi-final by a point having been six up.
"But this year you see it on and off the pitch: they mix well and there is a different atmosphere about the place. The older lads seem to have taken a few of the younger lads under their wing. Michael Boyle from Termon is in as head coach and players are back coaching. Mervyn has a team of statisticians and someone looking after the gear: there has been a massive effort."
The short answer to why Gweedore’s domination ground to a halt in 1961 is emigration. Seasonal work brought players to Glasgow, and even after the foundation of Gweedore Industrial Enterprise (GIE) in 1966, the club found it hard to replicate success that had come easily in earlier decades. The closure of the GIE in 2003 was a huge economic blow from which the region has never fully recovered.
Like the Irish language, Gaelic football was a source of expression in the locality. The low ebb was when Gweedore slipped into Division Three for a few seasons and struggled to get any kind of traction at senior level. Diver also believes that the end of a huge local rivalry with Dungloe had an adverse effect on the strength of football in the region.
“Dungloe were moved into the south division and we stayed in the north. Any time you beat Dungloe, you seemed to be in a county final. When that ended it definitely damaged both clubs.”
But this year it has felt as if the jigsaw has fallen into place. Even the way the Donegal County Board ran the league and championship this year seemed to help their cause. The energy and promise of the U-21 success carried through. The squad was so deep that it continued to thrive even after Ciarán Gillespie, a dynamic young county defender, tore his cruciate ligament during the U-21 campaign.
“It was just a freak thing from the throw-in at the quarter-final stage,” says Ó Baoill. “He was just going up for the ball and whatever way he came down, he had done it. He lasted just 10 seconds.
“And it was very tough because Ciarán had been through a series of hip procedures and had been playing out of his skin. I think everyone in Donegal was excited to see him back playing to his best. But he came back from Santry after his operation and he showed up at training the next evening.
“He was there with the crutches on a night when it would have been easier to stay home.”
The 1-17 to 1-7 county final win over Naomh Conaill represented a complete turnaround for the club in two years. They were composed and in control from the beginning. A series of virtuoso performances from Odhrán Mac Niallis has been at the heart of their resurgence. Since appearing in an All-Ireland senior final in his breakthrough year in 2014,
has distinguished himself as a classy ball player with a brilliant left foot.
Those qualities have been on display for the club too, but his role as a playmaker has been revelatory.
“He is enjoying it,” says Ó Baoill. “Odhrán loves playing his golf and that, but once he steps onto the field he is a different character. Some of the games he played in league – the fetching and score-taking – were a joy to watch. Odhrán lives not far from the park and I remember him growing up.
“Every day you’d pass he’d be there, himself and a few mates kicking balls from every angle, all kinds of wind conditions, wet days, fine days.
“And what he can do with a ball is unreal. But every player on the team has played at county level at some grade, and I think he is enjoying working the younger lads with the pace they have.”
When Gweedore won the 2006 county title, the success felt like the end of something. It was no real surprise when they were picked apart by Crossmaglen Rangers in the preliminary round then.
This autumn Gweedore enjoyed a brilliant few nights and days after their county championship title but then returned to the training field with the same intensity. They were ready when they met the Armagh perennials this time. Dara Ó Baoill’s three first-half goals gave them an unassailable jump on Crossmaglen, and then Cassidy, operating as a stealthy full forward now, sealed it with a fourth.
They’ve looked confident, ambitious and most of all like a team completely absorbed in the joy of playing the game. It all leaves the Gweedore community in a curious place.
Yes, this year has been the revitalisation of their place as one of the giants of the Donegal game. But it’s still scarcely believable that they’ll be lighting out for Omagh on Sunday for an Ulster senior final.
Strangely, only one team from Donegal has ever won the Ulster club title and that club is no longer in existence.
McEniff and McShea were both on the St Joseph’s team – a short-lived experiment in harmony between the footballers of Bundoran and Ballyshannon – that took the provincial honours in 1975. Some 43 years on and the county awaits a second title.
“It is a big ask,” says Ó Baoill.
“A few teams from the county have been to the final in recent years – Glenswilly and Naomh Conaill. But Scotstown have been winners of the Monaghan championship this past three years and have been favourites outright for Ulster since the start of this.
“But we aren’t just going up there to take part. All we can ask is that we perform to our best.”