BY CHRIS MCNULTY
AROUND a month into a well-choreographed training schedule, the Donegal Under 21 manager Maxi Curran beckoned Kevin McFadden aside one evening.
The teak-tough Cloughaneely man wasn’t sure what to expect. The cornerback listened intently.
“I have a job for you,” Curran told the defender. All sorts were running through his mind. What followed knocked him for six: “I want you to lead them team this year.”
With that, Kevin McFadden was appointed as the captain of the Donegal Under 21 team for 2013.
“It was something that I didn’t really take in at the time,” he says now as he prepares to captain the county into Wednesday’s Ulster final in Enniskillen.
“It was only when I got home that it sunk in. It’s a proud day to lead the county team out.”
When Jim McGuinness confirmed that the Dr McKenna Cup was no ground for his All-Ireland champions, it was decided that the competition would act as a pre-season of sorts for the county under 21s.
McFadden played every minute of Donegal’s McKenna Cup campaign, playing in the corner for the defeats against Fermanagh and Monaghan as well as the win over St Mary’s in the final game.
The defeats were heavy, but these were not chastening experiences for a team and players who were plodding through January with bigger days in mind.
“That was very good for us,” McFadden says.
“I played the three games in it and it was a great confidence boost going into Tyrone. We weren’t caught in the lights because most of us had some competitive games together by that stage.
“Competitive football is great, you couldn’t beat it. You can play away at challenge games, but they’re nowhere near as good as the competitive games.”
Their marches past Tyrone and Derry to bring them to within an hour of winning an Ulster title have taken the province by surprise. They caused a stir in Donegal, too, where few, if any outside of their own camp, would have given them a chance, especially in the opener against Tyrone.
McFadden says: “Whenever the draw came out people were saying: ‘ah the boys will never win this one’.
It was the same as last year. Coming in against Tyrone is never easy, especially when you’re playing in their backyard.
“They didn’t know much about us, I’d say. We did a good bit of work on them and came in under the radar. They didn’t expect it at all. It was a big night for us to get the confidence up.”
They followed up a deserved win over Tyrone by staving off a Derry fight back on Wednesday night, when goals in either half by Odhrán MacNiallais and Caolan Ward secured their spot in the decider.
Now, they’re on the cusp of something special. The captain says: “It’s something we didn’t think was going to happen back when we started training at the beginning of the year. It’s nice to get to the final; hopefully we can go into it now and do the business.
“We started training about three or four months ago. It was hard training, but it had to be done and we’re seeing the benefits of it now.”
Wednesday’s was a victory that was made harder than it should have been. Having been six up as they rounded the final bend, Donegal retreated and very nearly paid the ultimate price.
Ryan Bell was instrumental in spearheading the Derry charge – and the Ballinderry man was centimetres from levelling the tie when he crashed a last-gasp effort off Peter Boyle’s crossbar.
“We were under pressure late on,” McFadden agrees.
“One of their shots came off the crossbar – I thought it was flying into the net.
“There were a few high balls lumped in on top of us too. Indeed, if they’d gone for points some of those times we could have been beaten.
“We didn’t turn up for the first half. I don’t know what the reason for that was. None of our heads were in the game at all. We started off very slowly and they started picking off the points. We started closing them down and we were better for the start of the second half.
“We fell away at the end, but thankfully we got through it.”
Standing in their way now is Cavan. The Breffni boys are heading into their fourth Ulster U21 final in a row. This is a repeat of the 2010 final won by Donegal. Cavan these days are more there than thereabouts when it comes to success at this level.
For McFadden, the importance or prestige of getting the chance to captain Donegal into an Ulster final is not lost.
The Letterkenny Institute of Technology student says: “Any day you play for Donegal is a proud day, never mind leading them onto the pitch.”