It was down to the superstitious Tom Beag Gillespie that Niall Friel first became a Gaoth Dobhair captain.
Friel had shared the duties with Cian Mulligan until an Under-14 League final against St Eunan’s in Falcarragh. It had been the way that Mulligan had the captaincy for finals, but at Pairc Naomh Fionnan, Gillespie, the foreman of Gaoth Dobhair’s underage conveyor, changed things up.
Gaoth Dobhair won 3-5 to 0-5 and, from that day to this, Friel has led the way.
He’s only 22, but has captained Gaoth Dobhair teams to close-to 20 trophies since that U14 final.
St Eunan’s were missing Chris Flanagan and Seán Hume – two of the mainstays of that grade – that afternoon and exacted their revenge in the Championship.
“We were hurt by the hammering and, when we beat them in the Under-15 Championship, that U14 final was in the back of our minds,” Friel says.
“We didn’t get the credit we deserved for those wins.
“I was lucky to be made captain when we won. Tom is very superstitious and we just kept it like that.”
Later, Friel captained Gaoth Dobhair to Under-15 Championship success and spurred them Under-16 Shield, Northern Championship and Donegal Championship crowns. They won a Minor League and Championship double and scooped two Donegal U21 titles, adding an Ulster U21 win in early 2018.
It is quite the haul.
Friel’s speech in Falcarragh after that U14 final win was conducted entirely in English.
Eleven weeks ago, he stood on the podium at Healy Park and spoke exclusively in distinctive west-Donegal Gaelic.
“Tom Beag was a big man for the culture of the club and how proud a Gaeltacht area we are in,” he says. “That was encouraged from when I was a young fella in the club.
“I’m studying to be an Irish and geography teacher and it’s all through Irish, so that helps. Any man could have gone up the steps and done that.”
Friel sought out injured team-mate Kieran Gillespie before accepting the Seamus McFerran Cup. The two men hoisted it aloft. A precious moment, though one that happened by chance.
“I was annoyed after the game when one of the officials called me over to the steps and said they were short on time,” Friel explains.
“The players were in a huddle celebrating and I was on my own. I just spotted Gillespie and thought it would be a nice touch.
“It was just one of those moments that happened. He could have been at the other end of the pitch and it wouldn’t have happened, but it was nice and it showed how valued a member of the squad he is.”
Bronnadh an Corn ar chaptaen na foirne Niall Ó Frighíl ó @gaothdobhairclg
— Spórt TG4 (@SportTG4) December 2, 2018
When he first entered the Gaoth Dobhair senior dressing room, the importance of the club’s values and traditions were evident.
Before they burst through the door for battle, each one of them dropped down to a knee.
Experienced forward James Gallagher began to recite: “Ár nAthair, atá ar neamh…”
“I didn’t know what was going on,” Friel says now.
“But we do the Rosary every day before we go out. The first day I went into the senior dressing room, they all went down on a knee…I wasn’t sure what that was about.
“James ‘Neilly’ leads it every game. He leads the prayer and it’s just another tradition we have.
“We’re proud of our traditions.
“We are aware of the culture, heritage and history.”
Their history threatened to become a noose for a while. From 1961, Gaoth Dobhair weren’t kings of Donegal again until the 2002 Championship – the final of which was played and won in 2003.
After Stephen Cassidy’s goal sank St Eunan’s in 2006, the curtain fell again.
Friel is Glasgow-born and the son of a Cloughaneely mother but, having moved to Donegal when he was just three, has become immersed in the ways of Gaoth Dobhair.
“Tom Beag always told us about the Danny Neddys, the Hughie Tims, Antoin Rogers, Willie Mhicis…I didn’t know who these guys were,” he says.
“So many of the older generation later said to me how proud they’d be if the Championship came back – and you could see what it meant to them when we did it. This is such a proud area and the people are so proud.”
It was that sense of people and place that made winning the county final mean so much: “Dr Maguire was so important. Going up the steps in Ballybofey was so special.”
Gaoth Dobhair had some testing summers, but 2017 offered a glimpse into a crystal ball.
Six points up in a county semi-final against Naomh Conaill, Gaoth Dobhair were reeled in and spent the winter contemplating what might have been.
Mervyn O’Donnell and company realised just how close they were – and the seeds had been sewn.
“We weren’t ready for the final,” Friel says.
“We had a good team, but that game gave us belief. We sat down and watched it and we realised we weren’t far away.
“This is my sixth year as a senior. We’ve stuck together. It was never going to happen overnight.
“We always knew we had the U21s to finish out before we became senior men. It takes a few years to get used to the demands. I learned that the hard way, I was a 16-year-old thinking I could take on anybody.”
The Championship draw – St Eunan’s, Naomh Conaill and Dungloe – was a wake-up call of sorts, though Gaoth Dobhair’s wheels were already in motion.
In hindsight, it may seem easy to suggest that Gaoth Dobjair were a team on a mission from early in 2018. From within, Gaoth Dobhair’s players were almost unaware of the outside world.
“Looking back, we were in a bubble,” Friel says.
“I can see now the hype that was about us. We won the League and put the head down. The same after the group games. There was a different mindset. There was no hype or no celebrations after those games. Some lads can feed off that, too, but others like to shy away from it.
“You can feel it building now again. I’ve been away from it all. It’s been good not to be caught up in the hype. But you can sense it in the air when you come back and see the flags flying.
“We’ve started to get the buzz back again.
Not only have they taken Christopher McFadden, Dan McBride and Kevin Cassidy back into their fold again and the recruitment of Michael Boyle from Termon as coach was one of Mervyn O’Donnell’s biggest moves.
“We all came together and it has paid off,” Friel says.
“Michael Boyle is a freak of a perfectionist – he brought a level of professionalism we were missing. Michael came in and it was black and white: ‘This is the way it’s going to be, there’s the door if you don’t like it – and I don’t give a hoot who you are’.
“We all bought in and we went to another level altogether.
Friel was on the Donegal minor side that reached the 2014 All-Ireland MFC final, which they lost to Kerry at Croke Park.
The prize, as they go to Carrick-On-Shannon tomorrow to face Corofin – the defending champions – in an All-Ireland club semi-final, is a return to headquarters for a St Patrick’s Day final/
“We have one chance at this,” Friel says.
“During the celebrations from Ulster, you were looking at the man next to you going: ‘We’re 60 minutes from Croke Park’. It was only small talk, but it was true.
“You don’t know where you’ll be from one year to the next; men could emigrate, people could retire. Christmas comes every year. We just said we’d give it our best shot.
“I was lucky to be there with the county minors in 2014, but this would be extra special.
“We just want to give it our best shot. If that’s not good enough, we can put up our hands and say fair play to Corofin. We know how good we are.
“We just hope we can come out of there, hold our heads high and be proud.”
It’s the only way they know.
It’s who they are.
It’s what they are.Tags: