AS HE ambled down to Davy Brennan Memorial Park on an early October Tuesday in 2005, John Gildea thought the goose was cooked.
Naomh Conaill – appearing in their first Donegal senior football championship final since a missed chance in the 1965 replay, 40 years previously – let Dr Maguire slip from their grasp.
Picture: John Gildea having a laugh, with his Naomh Conaill team mates before the 2005 county final. Picture by Michael O’Donnell.
Rank underdogs, Naomh Conaill allowed St Eunan’s, the raging favourites sneak a draw.
With a young team, including a 16-year-old Leo McLoone, Naomh Conaill were surprise finalists in the first place. Few gave them a hope on day one. Fewer still believed they could topple St Eunan’s in a replay.
“To be 100 per cent honest, on the Sunday and the Monday, I thought that we had missed the boat,” Gildea says now, 14 years on.
“You say the right things, you do the right things but, deep down, you think: ‘Aaahhhhh, we missed the boat’.
“The laws of averages are that the big guy gets you on the second day. That was just the way of it. I had been around for long enough. I had been there, done there and, really, knew the way the world worked.”
That Tuesday evening, Gildea flung the bag in the corner and took to the field again.
Soon, the plates would shift utterly.
A LITTLE under six months earlier, Jim McGuinness wrecked his knee playing in an All-County League game for Naomh Conaill against Killybegs. McGuinness was just 32 and would’ve hoped to play in the Ulster Championship for Donegal that summer.
As he laid on a goal for Leon Thompson, McGuinness’s knee gave way and his Donegal career was over.
Hughie Molloy, the Naomh Conaill manager, invited McGuinness to come on board and soon his work was paying off.
By the time McGuinness gathered the Naomh Conaill squad, including the veteran Gildea, at the field after the replay, he had a plan to roll out.
In his memoir ‘Until Victory Always’, McGuinness recalled: ‘I came up with this game plan for the replay which involved getting our boys behind the ball, closing down space and not allowing St Eunan’s to play the way they wanted.’
The blueprint was torn up that Tuesday evening.
“By the time I left training that night, I was 100 per cent sure that we were going to turn over St Eunan’s and do it comfortably,” Gildea says.
“Whatever about Jim and all the various strategies he had with football. What makes him unique is his ability to motivate.
“I can honestly say that when I left training on the Tuesday night, the younger members of the squad lifted me to the point where I was diving around after balls and was just totally tuned into the whole thing again.
“Jim got the session spot on. The attitude of the players too helped. Where I had knocks and experience where different things didn’t go according to play, which led to doubts, that youthful exuberance just said that we shouldn’t fear St Eunan’s.
“The whole thing took on a life of its own.”
The next day, Gildea bumped into Sean McFadden and Gavin Crawford in Letterkenny. With the odds stacked against Naomh Conaill, they wondered if a punt would be worth it.
Gildea was emphatic.
‘Absolutely, we’ll take them.’
THE doubts were understandable, though.
Naomh Conaill were in Division 2 and hadn’t even had a Championship on their radar.
The title was in their grasp in the first game and slipped away. It might even have gone completely but for the final whistle arriving just in the nick of time.
“John Haran was about to put the ball over the bar when the final whistle blew,” Gildea recalls.
“John had just come on for the last ten minutes. My legs were gone at the times. He was about to stick it over the bar and it was a case of: ‘Aw my God, we blew it’. But, the whistle went and we scraped the draw.
“There was a whole lot of mixed emotions going on.”
McGuinness had got to work with the group and what he was doing was rubbing off.
“The training under Jim for that two or three months was the most enjoyable that I ever done,” Gildea insists.
“The sessions were sharp, crisp and game orientated. They were different.
“I was at the back end of my career, but I had never played as well. That was down to the training, the attitude and the environment. The environment he created around us were second to none.”
McGuinness himself got extra motivation in that Tuesday session.
Hughie Molloy agreed that McGuinness – in spite of a knee that had nothing supporting it – could come on for the closing stages of the replay if Naomh Conaill were winning well.
‘I wasn’t just coaching the team to try to win the game. I was coaching them to try to win well,’ McGuinness said in his book.
Sure enough, they were five points up, 0-10 to 0-5, as the game entered its final moments.
Jim was beckoned, the blue and white hoards erupted and then…Conall Dunne blasted a goal and the nerves of an eternity jangled for the Glenties faithful.
“I had seen enough to know that it was still possible to lose,” Gildea says.
“What if they had got a lucky goal from the next play or something? When they got the goal, I went to the middle of the park and just said to myself: ‘I have to win this next ball’.
“I knew it was coming to me. It was my job to go and win it.
“I won the next ball. If they had won the next ball and maybe kicked a point we’d have been under pressure. It was about not crumbling. We were looking down the barrel of the gun. All went through my head was winning the next ball.”
McGuinness game plan redefined history – and the future. It was the first glimpse of what the country would see six years later, when McGuinness became the Donegal manager.
His utter conviction meant he hadn’t felt as if he was playing Russian roulette in changing tactics for the replay. His formula convinced even a cynic like Gildea.
He says: I was sore going to training on the Tuesday. We had put an awful lot into the drawn game.
“I came from a cynical place to 100 per cent believing that we’d win.”
WITH the last play of the game, Gildea won a free and popped the ball off to McGuinness.
As McGuinness caught possession, Jimmy White shrilled the final whistle.
Naomh Conaill had joined the roll of honour at long last.
“It’s hard to explain because you actually don’t know how to feel,” Gildea says.
“There was immense joy, relief, excitement, all sorts of emotions going on. You’re sort of caught in a whirlwind.
“Nothing is ever the same as the first, unless something in adversity happens to make it special.
“That final was so special for us as a club and it was such a big deal for the community. It meant everything for the people of Glenties.”
A squad this Sunday from Naomh Conaill goes to war again with Gaoth Dobhair, a week after they shared 16 points on Sunday.
Brendan McDyer, Eoin Waide, Anyhomny Thompson, Leo McLoone and Marty Boyle remain central figures.
Including the replays, Naomh Conaill will have played ten finals in 14 years by the time this Sunday’s game is over.
“That’s exceptional,” Gildea acknowledges.
“Those guys have won All-Ireland and Ulster titles on the back of that and the club has kept developing players.”
Gildea is not in the least bit surprised that a hardcore of players continue to backbone their challenge.
He says: “We had an exceptional group of players. People knew me, Jim and Paddy Campbell because we had played a bit of county football.
“The exposure levels weren’t what they are now so no-one at the time knew the likes of Anthony Thompson. The older guys got a lot of credit for ’05, but an exceptional group of talented young guys won it.”Tags: