BY CHRIS MCNULTY
WHEN Killybegs ambled away from Fintra on the evening of May 11, the alarm bells chimed in the head of the manager, Martin ‘Slua’ Boyle.
They’d just been beaten 0-16 to 0-5 by Malin. It had been a chastening experience for the locals. Their start had shown little signs of encouragement and while they’d not won a game up to then, this was the first time they’d been beaten out the gate.
The time had come for the manager to ask the serious question of his team.
Boyle gave his team a week off to cool down and do some inward searching.
The whispers around Killybegs, he says, grew louder by the day. A team that had lost six from six had been give time off. “The old veterans, the ones whose photos are all around here,” says Boyle, “were all going: ‘What the hell’s going on here?’
It was time for Killybegs to fish or cut bait.
He called training for six o’clock on the Saturday evening at Fintra beach. Just two players were there and ready to get to work at two minutes to six. The manager felt it was time to cut his losses.
“I was thinking of packing it in, thinking of ringing John ‘Razda’ (Cunningham), our chairman, and saying: ‘Listen, you can take this job and shove it’,” he says.
Within those next couple of moments, the squad, to a man, lined up on the sand.
Championship was coming just around the bend – and Killybegs needed to find the magic dust that had been absent. He had a word with the team trainer, Sean Connor. It was the moment of truth.
“It looked as if no-one was going to show, but by God they all showed,” Boyle says.
“I took the chains off Sean Connor that night and told him to run them into the ground. They all stood up and I felt that night that they showed they could go places.
“In that two-minute period, every single player arrived. They all came out and our big goal was Gaoth Dobhair. We played them two weeks later. We said that it would test us. Our aim was really to go down there and try to live with them.”
Live with them they did.
Killybegs and Gaoth Dobhair have had some rugged encounters in the past. For this one, Killybegs headed to Magheragallon with a real zeal in the camp.
That soaking wet evening on Fintra’s sand dunes engraved some meaning into their campaign. Their League season never took off, but in Magheragallon their Championship flew from the runway.
But for a brace of late frees by James Carroll, they’d have won the game. As it was, a draw wasn’t a bad beginning.
“The Gaoth Dobhair game was the lifter for us,” says Boyle.
“We got great belief down in Gaoth Dobhair.
“It started with Malin. Malin gave us a tanking in Fintra. It was our first real beating. We had been beaten by a point here and there, but that was the first tanking.
“After every game, the common phrase was: ‘We were beat again’.
“When you’re on a bad run like that everyone looks to the manager. It’s a case of why you’re player this guy here or that guy there.”
Killybegs hung on to claim a 0-9 to 0-8 win over Termon and their tails were up before their quarter-final berth was confirmed when they scored a five-point win over Dungloe.
It was in marked contrast to the narrative of their League form.
“I can’t put my finger on it, but as long as it keeps running for another game,” Boyle says.
“If we even conceded a free in a League match it was like: ‘Martin, get me off, I want to go home’.”
After the game in Gaoth Dobhair, Killybegs were boosted by the return of Hugh McFadden for the following two Championship games. He’d played at midfield in those but it was in the quarter-final win over MacCumhaills that his star rose. McFadden, who cut ties with Sligo Rovers, scored 2-4 against the Twin Towns side. The shine of Convoy’s floodlights illuminated a five-star performance from McFadden, subsequently given a call by Jim McGuinness.
“We always knew that Hugh was there,” Boyle says.
‘It didn’t work for him at Sligo. We had a good chat. I put no pressure on him and he wasn’t even involved in the Gaoth Dobhair game. The door was always open – 6’4″ men who can score points aren’t around every door that you open.”
Boyle was a late call-up to take the managerial reigns at Eamon Byrne Memorial Park. Promoted from Division 2 under Joe McBrearty’s watch, the tap kept dripping on Killybegs’ playing pool as several players answered emigration’s beckon.
Boyle says: “There was a bit of a lull at the AGM and there didn’t look to be any sign of a manager stepping forward. I had been there before and had been speaking to Sean Connor, who was free from his time in the League of Ireland, and Shea Murrin, so I decided to put my name forward.
“Joe done well to get them promoted, but they got promoted under a low ebb because we knew that we were losing players.
“It was really just to get stability in the club with the senior team. I knew it was going to be very hard and it has turned out that way in the League – but it has been an amazing run in the Championship.”
Since their League fate was all but sealed, Killybegs have been all out for Championship. They didn’t travel to Gaoth Dobhair last Sunday to ensure the deck is as full as can be for this weekend. Brendan Faherty and Conall Molloy will again be on board with both jetting back from America – Faherty from Chicago and Molloy from New York – for the game.
“We wouldn’t have beaten Malin, with all due respect, without taking home the two lads, Brendan Faherty and Conal Molloy,” Boyle says.
“It wasn’t easy on Malin in the semi-final. They had beaten us in Fintra and beaten us up there. After beating St Eunan’s, I’m sue it was very hard for their manager to rev them up to play Killybegs. It was the first time they were in that position. We had sort of been through it earlier this year with the Gaoth Dobhair game and the MacCumhaills game. Malin was just another game for us and maybe we went into it with more experience of just going to play the game.
“We have been unsuccessful here for a number of years at underage level. It’s very hard to ask young lads then to step into Division 1 football to try and pull us out of the fire, but the likes of young Eoghan ‘Ban’ have filled the voids well so far.”
Three years ago, Killybegs reached the county final, but there was a real feeling in their camp that they’d left something behind that day in Ballybofey.
Naomh Conaill were comfortable winners and Killybegs had been left to reflect on serious injuries the previous week that prevented Pauric Gallagher and Barry Cannon from togging out.
Boyle was a mentor to Peter McGinley that year. He says: “2010 was a disaster really. They got a massive result against Four Masters. They man-marked Dunnion and Lacey and everyone in the town got a big lift.
“Naomh Conaill were, and still are one of the top teams in the county. It was very disappointing for David Conwell, Daniel Breslin, Shane Molloy and these guys who have given great service and on the big day they didn’t do themselves justice.”
It was the first time in fourteen years that Killybegs had been in a county final. To not do justice left deep scars.
The players still talk of that day they watched Naomh Conaill click through the years and win Dr Maguire.
“They do because that was their day,” Boyle says.
“County finals, at one time when I was starting off, it seemed as if the club would get to one every year with that great team. That isn’t the way now and when you get to a final you have to take the chance. The lads felt as if the chance had slipped.”
Killybegs have become used to having their toes tagged with the underdogs badge, but it’s nothing new.
“If we play anyone we’ll be underdogs,” their manager says matter-of-factly.
Confidence was always a trait associated with Killybegs – and Boyle clearly believes that the team he has at his disposal can take the ultimate step this weekend.
He says: “Realistically they won’t have to play that good to beat us. We will have to play well to beat them, but if we play well, if our Jason Noctors, Christopher Murrins, Benny Boyles and Hugh McFaddens play well, we’ll win. They need to be playing well.
“We are really looking forward to it. It’s another game, although a massive one.”
The Glenties native has captured images from thousands of games for local and national publications, including the Donegal News,...