BY CHRIS MCNULTY
IT WAS a rivalry they didn’t know they had initially, but it’s now become one of the biggest in the Donegal SFC.
St Eunan’s versus Naomh Conaill: when their paths crossed in the final of 2005, there was a sense that the battle-hardened St Eunan’s could bully the youngsters from Glenties who’d taken the Championship by storm to reach the club’s first senior final since 1965.
The first game was drawn, on a day when Brendan McDyre earned youthful Naomh Conaill – and their vociferous support – another day out, and St Eunan’s left the field cursing the watch of referee Mick McGrath – which, they claimed, had denied them a shot at victory after John Haran was about to launch an attack.
In the replay, Naomh Conaill played bold, opting to face a stiff breeze in the first-half. History was made as Naomh Conaill won 0-10 to 1-5 on a day when one Jim McGuinness – who was the coach of the team – came in for a late cameo appearance.
A late sub in the first game caught the eye, too. It was in the depths of a county senior final that was on a knife edge and Hughie Molloy summonsed a raw 16-year old from his bench. That was the first, fleeting, glimpse most of Donegal would have had of Leo McLoone. Seven years on, he’s an All-Ireland winner, who holds a host of Donegal U21 Championship medals and two senior medals from the wins of 2005 and 2010.
Now, in this year of years, the two trend-setters of the last decade will play out the final big puzzle in Donegal’s senior football championship.
“Ourselves and St Eunan’s have been there or thereabouts most years lately,” said McLoone after his team did the business late on to see off Four Masters last Sunday.
“I think it was a pretty open Championship this year and a lot of teams had a lot of say in it. Nobody has been that impressive, but I think this Championship has been good for Donegal football.”
St Eunan’s and Naomh Conaill hardly knew one another when Eunan’s took a low-key 0-9 to 0-6 quarter-final win ten years ago. Three years later and the first blocks for their rivalry were laid. Then, in 2007, as Eunan’s started off on the journey that would see them bag the first of their three-in-a-row it was Naomh Conaill that started them off.
And McLoone was one of the lead characters then too. In an outrageous game in Davy Brennan Memorial Park, McLoone scored four goals and a point as Naomh Conaill stunned Eunan’s with a 5-6 to 1-8 win. Eunan’s overturned it in Letterkenny before winning the play-off: It was just the tie they needed to inject their Championship run.
Four years on from being caught on the hop in 2005, Eunan’s made no mistake in the 2009 final whey the three-in-a-row glory years were book-ended with a final win over Naomh Conaill, who shot to the top twelve months later by hammering Killybegs in the final.
“When you look back it’s been a great experience,” says McLoone, “but I have to play as now, focus on the next game and not be looking back over recent years or what has gone before.
“It’s great to be back. This will give the whole thing about home again after the disappointment of last year. Expectations are high in Glenties now so it’s far changed from when we were first in.
“It’ll be an enjoyable two weeks now.”
McLoone played a big part in Donegal’s run to Sam Maguire, but as the quest for Dr Maguire has intensified he hasn’t been able to ponder upon his achievements just yet.
He says: “It was straight back into it after the All-Ireland and the time hasn’t come yet to sit back and reflect on the year. That time will come, too, but it’s just great to be back in with the boys in the club again.”
McLoone and Naomh Conaill won’t need telling of the task that awaits them in the final in two weeks’ time. St Eunan’s are the raging favourites and McLoone knows well the size of the challenge.
Yet, between the lines, you get a sense that it’s just the tie that he’s relishing within.
Now the captain of his hometown club, McLoone has a glint in his eye when he speaks of the opposition.
He says: “They put out Kilcar and at the start of the year Kilcar had big hopes, but Eunan’s came through after three games.
“Anyone who knocks Kilcar out like that is definitely worth the watching – and they put up another big score against Dungloe. They still have all their big players in around the middle and it’ll be very tough for us.
“We haven’t played to our full potential, but we’ll hope to find that in the next two weeks for the county final.”
They now expect in Naomh Conaill having been spoiled with success through the age groups in recent times. It wasn’t always so in Glenties, but it’s a mark of their rise.
St Eunan’s, though, can expect annually. They sit joint second in the roll of honour with 12 wins – two off the 14 won by the aristocrats of Gaoth Dobhair.
Eunan’s haven’t been in a final since beating Naomh Conaill in ‘09 – and it’s a stat that cuts deep in Letterkenny.
“We have been in the wilderness for a couple of years, but we’ve put in a lot of hard work and we’re back where we want to be,” says the towering Ross Wherity, who has proven a real handful for defenders in the Championship so far.
The gung-ho race for Dr Maguire is something that has whetted the appetites of football lovers and players in Donegal. Thick and fast the games come – but you don’t hear Wherity moaning as another final appearance looms.
“I’m loving it,” he says having spent some time in Australia in recent years.
“It’s good to be back. It’s been a tough couple of weeks, but it probably suits us in a way with the big squad that we have. Games are coming very quickly, but we’re enjoying it. It’s funny getting Championship games week-on-week, but it’s good to get them.
“It’s tough to keep at that level, but the training we’ve been doing has been very intense and we’re trying to transfer that onto the pitch.”
St Eunan’s took to playing games against teams from outside of Donegal during a barren spell for League fixtures in the county. St Oliver Plunkett’s from Dublin and Ballaghaderreen from Mayo were among the opposition. Top clubs and those games could well be reflected as key to unlocking another piece of glory for St Eunan’s.
Wherity says: “With the lack of matches we had to look elsewhere and it was good to test ourselves against some of the best in other counties.
“They were good challenges to look forward to. Every man was making himself available to go whereever we had to go to get a match. The benefits of that are showing now.”
At just the right time, like all good teams, things are falling into place for these pair – and another glistening chapter in this St Eunan’s v Naomh Conaill tale is ready to be written on November 4th.