FEBRUARY was a month to remember for the CLG Gaoth Dobhair, as they became the first club from Donegal to taste Ulster Under 21 glory.
The Magheragallon men did it the hard way as they came through four matches in tough conditions in Creggan, Antrim to get their hands on the Paddy McLarnon Cup.
Central to their success was Eamonn Collum, who contributed 1-2 in their Preliminary Round match with Rossa, before scoring two vital points in their last-eight win over Donaghmoyne.
He raised the green flag twice in their semi-final triumph over Carryduff, while he notched the early goal which sent them on their way to victory in the final against Lavey.
It was a star-studded Gaoth Dobhair team, and they all had their moments over the four games.
However, it was the silky-skilled Collum, and his penchant for providing scores off either foot, which caught the eye throughout the tournament.
What makes his performances all the more impressive was that the student teacher faced a race against time to be fit for the early-year competition.
A knee cartilage operation saw him miss the Donegal Under 21 Championship, but hard work and commitment to his rehabilitation saw the attacker hit the ground running on his return to the famous green and white colours.
“I was told that I would be out for three to six months, and I was lucky enough to make it back in three and a half,” said Collum, who collected the Donegal News Sports Personality of the Month award for February, in conjunction with Brian McCormick Sports & Leisure last week.
“I missed the county semi-final and final, and I also missed our senior championship semi with Glenties, although I did play in the quarter-final against ‘Eunan’s.
“I was out for a long time, and I had no game time going into the Ulster matches.
“I had done my rehab in the gym, and we were flat out training, so it didn’t take me long to get up to speed.
“Thankfully everything went well, and we won Ulster.”
Gaoth Dobhair eased past Rossa in the Preliminary Round, and that set up a tantalising tussle with Donaghmoyne in the quarter-finals.
Collum was very familiar with some of his opponents, and didn’t take any great pleasure from seeing them defeated.
“The closest battle we had was probably against Donaghmoyne.
“I knew a good bit about them, as I actually live with three of their players – David Garland, Stephen Finnegan, and Jamie Watters.
“It was good craic in the house in the lead-up, but it was a bit awkward afterwards.”
Collum stepped up to the mark again in the semi-final in early February, and his two goals were crucial as they got the better of the Down champions, Carryduff.
“The boy I was marking in that game, Pierce Laverty got sent off early on.
“He was a very good footballer and he was a big loss to them.
“We got a couple of goals and managed to pull away from them.”
Gaoth Dobhair faced a club of rich tradition in Lavey in the provincial decider, but they never looked in trouble from the moment Collum drilled into the top corner in the fourth minute.
Cian Mulligan would go on to score a hat-trick as Gaoth Dobhair claimed the silverware.
There were big celebrations once they returned home to the parish, and few could argue that they weren’t deserving champions.
Collum said: “Lavey were a very good team and we knew plenty about them as well.
“We got off to a good start and I was in the right place at the right time, and it settled us.
“Cian then scored a hat-trick, just like he had done in the county final.”
Gaoth Dobhair averaged three goals a game during their Donegal and Ulster triumphs, and they were unstoppable when they got into their stride.
The goals they scored against Lavey were all super sweeping moves, and Collum says it didn’t matter who finished the ball to the net, just as long as it got there.
“My goal and Cian’s goals were all team efforts.
“If you look back at them, they started way back the field, and we just worked it up the pitch.
“We drop boys back into defence, and then when we win the ball, everyone just bombs up the field together.
“Nobody is selfish. We just give the ball to the man in the right position.”
It’s certainly a golden generation of Gaoth Dobhair footballers, and Collum believes team manager Tom ‘Beag’ Gillespie has played a huge role in their rise to prominence.
“Tom doesn’t get the credit that he deserves.
“He and his backroom team have been with us since we were Under 12, and there was a game that ‘Eunan’s beat us by thirty or forty points.
“But we stuck at it, and eventually we clicked and managed to push on.
“It was nice to win Ulster, because we won the Donegal Minor title with this team but weren’t able to compete in Ulster as the final was played too late.”
Collum is a second year student at St Pat’s Drumcondra, and is getting ready for a work placement in Dublin in the coming week.
He is still available to the Under 21 side again this season, and while he would love to retain the Donegal and Ulster titles, he says they won’t be taking Glenfin for granted in their first game.
“I’ll still be eligible again next year. Most of the lads are, I think there are only five or six lads that started the final who are overage.
“Fingers crossed we can have another good season, but we won’t look past out first game with Glenfin.”
However, before that kicks into gear, there is the small matter of the Donegal Senior Football Championship.
Mervyn O’Donnell’s Gaoth Dobhair reached the semi-finals last year, and are hoping to kick on in 2018.
Their Under 21 players are getting bigger and stronger, and while Collum has missed the first three rounds of the league with a hamstring injury, he has seen his teammates make a promising start to the season.
They have the talent, but the question is can they deliver a 15th Senior Championship title to Magheragallon this season?
Collum said: “That’s the question everyone is asking. There’s a lot of pressure on, but it would be lovely if we could kick on.
“The club hasn’t won it since ’06, but we all know that there is a big difference between Under 21 and senior.
“This is my third season playing senior, and it is a big step up.
“We have a tough group this year, but as our manager Mervyn says we’ll just take it game by game.”