BY CHRIS MCNULTY
WHEN Fr Seán Ó Gallchóir sat down shortly after the turn of the century to compile his fascinating history of the Donegal Senior Football Championship, there was a notable ommision from his records.
In the summary at the end of ‘The Story of the Donegal Senior Football Championship 1919-2001’ the Gaoth Dobhair born Gallagher, Donegal GAA’s foremost statistician, wrote: “The story of this Championship will always be incomplete until the Dr Maguire Cup rests in our fifth green field.”
He was writing in reference to the absence of Inishowen on the list of residences for the Dr Maguire Cup.
Inishowen had an amalgamation enter the Donegal SFC in 1991, ‘92 and ‘93. After replay defeats in the first round to Four Masters and Termon in the first two years, Cloughaneely were handed a walkover in 1993.
The first mention of Malin in the history books of the Donegal SFC dates back to 1965 and 1966. Then, they joined forces with Carndonagh, but were heavily beaten by Gaoth Dobhair and Sean MacCumhaills.
They always harboured the hope that one day they’d get a ticket to the big dance.
Last Sunday evening, Malin’s ticket was punched and they were admitted to the draw for the semi-finals for the first time. They’re able to go it alone now and it was they who smashed the door and blew the Championship race open on Saturday evening when they toppled no less a side than the defending Champions and 13-times winners St Eunan’s at The Scarvey.
“It was definitely one of the biggest results ever for Malin,” says Malin defender Charlie Byrne.
“We weren’t in a quarter-final since 2006 and we have never been in a semi-final before. It was a huge win. We had played Eunan’s in both the League and Championship. We knew we weren’t far away.”
First-half goals by Paul McLaughlin and Terence Doherty set Malin on their way with a 2-6 to 1-3 half-time lead.
When the excellent Stephen McLaughlin struck gold just sixteen seconds into the second half, Malin were in dreamland. Eunan’s were in dissaray with Damien McClafferty having been sent off, but they ran the gauntlet and Sean McVeigh netted a second goal for the Letterkenny side.
Six points was the closest they came in the second half. Malin, little patronised Malin, had done it.
Shockwaves rippled across Donegal – everywhere except around Connolly Park.
“It was the best game to get us motivated – the best game to make everyone realise what a massive task it was going to be and get them to knuckle down,” says Malin manager Terence Colhoun.
“With our League form, we knew all along that we were capable if the boys played to their potential.
“The way it panned out, we got away from them before half-time, but the sending off actually unsettled us a wee bit because we didn’t really know who was marking who for a little bit.
“We had been knocking on the door for a while and this year Division 1 has really helped us. It’s faster, it’s sharper and it has helped us against top-quality opposition. The boys are learning every day they go out. From our defeats we have learned so much, but we have been doing well and we haven’t been heavily beaten in any game so far.
Sometimes, when you’re far away you get forgotten, but Malin have been in the SFC every year since 2004.
Their first year was a chastening experience, losing heavily in both games (3-19 to 0-11 and 4-13 to 0-03) to Gaoth Dobhair. In 2006, they had Gaoth Dobhair to the pins of their collar in a quarter-final, but since then they haven’t leapt beyond the first hurdle – until now.
Drawn in a group that included St Eunan’s and Naomh Conaill, last year’s two finalists, it looked like another false dawn, even on the back of a promising League campaign.
Now, though, Malin have made Donegal take note.
“There was confidence – no fear,” says Byrne.
“The belief was there that we could do it if we performed like we can. We had good momentum after a series of good League results. The Naomh Conaill game was a big boost when we came from seven points down to get a draw. We just went for it against Cloughaneely and got what we needed – it was great to get through that group.”
2006, they insist, wasn’t on their minds, but there will surely have been a real satisfying feeling in finally getting over the line.
They haven’t been beyond emigration with the likes of Shaun Kelly, Darren Doherty and Kevin McColgan having said their farewells over recent years, but this is a team that is not without its star performers. Byrne, a former Donegal player, and All-Ireland winner Declan Walsh are the names that immediately are called to mind, but that is only to scratch a surface beneath which are players like Anthony Kelly, Damien Harkin, Michael Byrne, Matthew Byrne and Stephen McLaughlin, all players who will now surely be flashing upon the radar of Jim McGuinness.
With such a convincing win over the holders comes the inevitable question: Can Malin go the distance?
“That hasn’t even crossed our minds,” Colhoun cautions.
“We’re looking forward to Killybegs and we’ll take that as it comes.
“We’re just looking forward to the next stage. We have 27 players in our panel and all of them have played in Division 1. It’s all about getting experience at the top level for us.”
Malin have threatened before, but there were days when their bark was greater than their bite. Now, though Donegal’s most northerly club have emerged from the shadows and when they run out in Ballybofey for the semi-final against Killybegs it’ll surely eclipse all before it. Byrne insists that Malin have to follow up from the promise of last weekend.
“Winning games is what counts here now,” he says.
“You just need to win big games. In the past we’d have had the odd big scalp or the odd big result, but following it up was something we could never do.
“We have been an up and down team between Divisions 1 and 2 for too long. That has to change really – we need to keep up the good work. Our approach will be the same. We’ll keep the heads down and work towards Killybegs. We know what they’re about. They were in a final in 2010, so they’ve so much experience that will be new to us even in a semi.”