BY CHRIS MCNULTY
THESE are the weekends the gaels of Gaoth Dobhair live for.
The Championship smell fills the nostrils again and they go to war. These have been lean times in Gaoth Dobhair, but they’ve lost none of their appetite for the summer’s big days.
They’ve won fourteen Donegal senior football championship titles, but in the last fifty years Dr Maguire has ventured Magheragllon way just twice. Ronan MacNiallais played on the finals of 2002 and 2006.
There was a time when he thought it would be a regular thing. Since that drab Sunday in 2006 when Stephen Cassidy’s goal sank St Eunan’s, Gaoth Dobhair haven’t managed to top the polls again.
MacNiallais is fiercly proud of the club’s ways and traditions. Before they head for battle, the Gaoth Dobhair dressing room hushes. Led by a player – these days it’s usually James Gallagher – they say a few prayers.
“That’s a tradition before every match,” MacNiallais says.
“We’d never go out without doing it. It’s just always been there. It’s nice to keep that going. The club here has a lot of tradition, history and heritage. It’s important to protect that. We’d feel uneasy about going out without it. You think of the great players of the past who would have done it and you think it’ll stand to you.”
The names of men like Huidi Beag, Danny Neddy and Hughie Tim are stories names out west.
The class of now are all steeped in their history. They know what’s at stake.
“We have a long history and pedigree in the Championship,” MacNiallais says.
“In the last few years we’ve come up short unfortunately. Before that we came up short on days that we shouldn’t have. We’re always expecting to get to a quarter-final or semi-final. Once you get to the knockout, anything can happen, but we just haven’t been able to get over them.
“The first year I was in the seniors, we won the All-Ireland Gaeltacht, we won the Championship the following year we won the League. We were the top team in Donegal for that year or two and I thought that’d be the way it’d be. We might have got Gaeltachts or League titles in the next couple of seasons but really the Championship is where it’s at.
“You ask anyone in Gaoth Dobhair about Championships we should have won or threw away and you’ll hear it all. The years don’t be long flicking by.”
League form has been patchy this term; as has that of this week’s opponents, Ardara.
Still, Gaoth Dobhair can see and sense the opportunity that could be brought by a victory on Sunday evening in O’Donnell Park.
MacNiallais says: “While we were happy to draw Ardara, they’ll be the same. None of us are going well in the League and we’re probably both around the same level. Ardara have serious pedigree come Championship and you never, ever get an easy game against Ardara.”
MacNiallais’ first county final was that controversial decider of 2002 that wasn’t played until the spring of 2003 and he was back again for ‘06, when he endured a painful afternoon at the office.
“I hadn’t done much because my knee had given way; I came in after 20 minutes, the knee went again and, honest to God, I don’t know how I got through it,” he says.
“I’d like to have played a bigger part, but it was nice to get in for the final.”
Gaoth Dobhair have bid farewell to two of their young players of late with Danny Curran and James Carroll heading off on their toes to take up teaching posts in the Middle East. Both players were members of the Donegal Under 21 panel of 2010 and their losses have cut the panel. Kevin Cassidy’s return from the States does add a renewed steel to the middle third.
MacNiallais is on the teaching trail these days too, studying for a Postgrad in Education at Marino. He’s no stranger to the big stage himself, having appeared on TG4’s Underdogs programme and then having presented Mo Ghra Gael alongside Muireann Ni Bheaglaoich. A proud fluent speaker of the Irish language, he’s thankful for the doors opened by TG4 and could return, ‘but there’ll be no dating!’
He has had fleeting spells with the Donegal senior football squad, having been called up by both Brian McIver and John Joe Doherty.
“I probably just didn’t have the head right,” he says.
“It just didn’t work out. I think confidence probably played a part. When you weren’t playing all the time, it was like the vicious circle. It was good to have been there and it’s always nice to say that you’ve played for the county.
“I’d love to say I’d like to get back, but the legs wouldn’t be there now.”
The shoots are budding in Gaoth Dobhair again with some promising minors and under 21s, including Ronan’s younger brother, Odhrán, who spent this season training with the Donegal squad. MacNiallais is hopeful for the future.
He says: “Tom Beag (Gillespie) has done a lot of work with the underage set up. We have high hopes for their development. Tom covers all aspects with them, between football, fitness, strength and conditioning. Even though we have lost some players, the future looks bright.
“I remember when a few us, myself, Neil and Eamon McGee, boys like that, came through, there were a few new faces that freshened it up and helped the club win a few things. If we can do the same with the likes of these young lads we could hopefully go down the same path again.”