Tony McClenaghan of Moville played no Gaelic football until he was 14 but now says he wouldn’t play anything else.
“It was football (soccer) to start when we were all younger but Gaelic has taken hold now and a lot of our boys are taking Gaelic ahead of football and they are enjoying it a lot more, because it’s more physical,” says McClenaghan.
The change for the burly centre-half came when Armagh man Sean O’Hare came to teach in Moville.
“He probably changed my life. He was my secondary school teacher. He’s originally from Armagh. I used to hate Gaelic until I was U-14 but he changed that.
“He sowed the seed. All I would hear from him at every single training session in the wet was ‘hard as nails’ said Tony, who was nearly always paired against Big John Campbell of Buncrana at underage games.
“I was very small at the time so I had to get physical and he brought me along a lot,” said Tony.
From then it wasn’t long before he was noticed at county level. “I started at U-15 level. Some of the boys have been together for the last four years. We were speaking about that all year. It is one team now more or less.”
He is also happy that there seems to be more and more representation from the Inishowen peninsula.
“It is good to see boys coming through from Inishowen because years ago you would only see one or two players. Every year now there are more and more boys coming through and stepping up to county teams.”
McClenaghan would relish the step up to the senior ranks and is aware that a number of minors have been given a chance in recent years.
“There are a lot of boys pushing for that chance. Darach O’Connor has come on massively since he came into the team. He is a far, far better player now.
“He was a very good football (soccer) player but after getting on the Donegal team he hasn’t gone back to play football since.
“I’m the same!”
The Moville man is really happy to play in the No. 6 jersey. “I really enjoy playing centre half-back. I don’t do as much running as Caolan (McGonigle) and (Niall) Harley in the middle of the field. But there is a physical side to playing the position.
“Declan tells me to get forward as much as I can,” said Tony, who had been troubled by a calf injury for part of the summer, but that has cleared up now after a lot of work with the physios.
Getting to play in Croke Park is great reward for the work they have put in this year. “All year, we have been talking about winning the (Ulster) minor league and the Ulster final. It was only after that we talked about now going on to win the All-Ireland. I don’t think the big crowd will get to the boys.
“It’s incredible. There has been a lot of work put in over the last couple of years on the mental side of it,” said Tony, who has just completed his Leaving Cert, but wouldn’t mind taking a year out to concentrate on Gaelic football.
Asked about Dublin, he recalled playing against them in a challenge game earlier in the year. “I was playing that evening. Niall Harley wasn’t; he was injured. It was a very big pitch down in Cavan. We did really well. The only problem we had was we gave away two very sloppy goals and we drew the game then.
“I don’t feel we should worry about Dublin. I feel they will be worrying about us. It’s all about getting our own house in order and getting a performance on the day,” said Tony.
For his Inishowen teammate, Caolan McGonigle, the prospect of playing in Croke Park is really exciting.
“There will be a massive crowd and hopefully they support us as well as the seniors and cheer us on.”
McGonigle, who has also completed his Leaving Cert, hopes to go to DCU to study maths. He has put the win over Roscommon and the performance to the back of his mind.
“They sat back and were defensive. We had to wait and be patient and hope for gaps to appear.
“We all know that everyone is good enough to get a score from anywhere.”
Looking forward to Dublin, he said: “The boys have played them throughout the years at U-14, 15, 16. I just came into the squad last year. We played them earlier this year and it was a tight match. I don’t think we saw their full squad.
“All the boys are relishing the chance to play in Croke Park,” said Caolan.