NIALL McCloskey’s mantelpiece was pretty underwhelming before the start of last season.
The 21-year-old has been playing for Ballybofey United since he was ten, but didn’t have much to show for his endeavours.
There was a cup success when he was Under 16, but that was a rare moment of satisfaction in his young career.
However, that all changed this year, as he was part of the Ballybofey squad who completed a magnificent double.
They landed the CT Ball Division 2 title, and in May, claimed the Brian McCormick Cup, a feat that McCloskey and his teammates couldn’t have even dreamed about when they started pre-season last year.
“I’m not going to say I seen it coming, because I didn’t,” said McCloskey who had to find room for another prize this week, after securing the Donegal News Sports Personality of the Month award for May.
“For the last couple of years, we always had good teams, but we would fall away after Christmas.
“This year, Barney (Lafferty Senior) took over, and he managed to keep us going.
“A few men gave great commitment that maybe they didn’t give in other years, and that made a huge difference.
“It wasn’t easy, and we had to grind out a lot of results throughout the season.”
The league campaign ran seamlessly for Ballybofey and they were unbeaten in their 20 games. Damien Glackin’s goalscoring exploits grabbed much of the attention, but it was a big squad effort.
McCloskey was key for Lafferty’s team at the end of the season, but he found himself sidelined at the start of the year.
“I tore ligaments in my right knee when I was 17, and I’ve not been right since.
“Things were going ok coming up to the first game of the year, and then I tore cartilage in my left knee, and ended up missing half the season. I was sickened with that.
“It was brutal watching on from the sideline. I wouldn’t be one for sitting and watching football, I need to be up and at it, and running about.
“I was sitting in the dugout with my crutches, but I was glad the boys were going well.”
McCloskey returned to training in January and admits that his fitness was ‘shocking’ at first.
It was tough to get back into the side, but he worked hard at training and eventually grabbed his opportunity when it arose.
“We had big numbers all year, and it didn’t really feel right taking someone else’s position.
“But I suppose I was at every training session, even when I was injured. And when a chance came, I just took it.”
Ballybofey maintained their good form throughout the season, and finished eight points ahead of Lifford Celtic their nearest challengers.
They then turned their attention to the Brian McCormick Cup, and saw off Keadue Rovers in the semi-final.
Rathmullan Celtic were their opponents in the final, and the seasiders were playing two divisions above Ballybofey this season. However, there was little between the sides when the action got underway at Bonagee.
The game won’t go down as a classic, but that doesn’t bother McCloskey and his teammates.
The history books will say they won 1-0, and that’s all that matters to the young defender.
“I remember Rory Dunleavy saying before we went out that it didn’t matter how it looked, it was just all about winning.
“It was a tight game and there was a wild hail shower at one stage. We were pinned back for 15 minutes and I was starting to get worried because nobody wanted to get on the ball.
“But we managed to survive that period, and then we got the winner. People might say it was a pure fluke, but we don’t care.”
The final appeared to be heading for extra-time, as the sides were deadlocked after 86 minutes.
However, Ballybofey then won a free-kick in the opposition’s half. Nothing came of the initial delivery into the box, but Lafferty’s side retained possession, and then worked the ball to McCloskey.
The left-back took a touch and then drilled a shot towards goal. Whether or not the ball went straight into the net is still a contentious matter in the Twin Towns, but McCloskey is taking the credit.
“I was just glad the ball went in. I was definitely shooting at goal, but maybe you could question the direction.
“The boys were giving me a touch saying it was deflected, but I’ve watched the video of it a few times and you can’t really tell – it just loops into the net.
“Deflection or no deflection – it doesn’t matter to me. It took about a week for it to sink in properly that we had won. I had never experienced anything like that it before.”
Ballybofey enjoyed the celebrations, and they are now starting to think of next season.
Retaining the Brian McCormick Cup will be high on the agenda, but the main aim will be to make an impression in the Temple Domestic Appliances Division One, and potentially making a push for the top flight.
McCloskey said: “I think we have the ability to push on. We always had the players, but apart from a few lads, we weren’t giving the commitment.
“I think we will give it a good go again next year. The First Division is going to be hard and you have to go to tough places like Keadue.
“People will expect us to do well next year, and hopefully we can keep pushing forward.”