It was dusk on Friday last when the St Catherine’s squad was putting an end to their training session at the astroturf pitch adjacent to Emerald Park.
Brian Dorrian’s team had been blazing a trail since the moment the curtain began to rise on their season last August and were on the cusp of winning the Brian McCormick Sports Premier Division title.
With his players speckled here and there, the only night Dorrian gets the chance to conduct collective training is a Friday and last week, focus was put on Sunday’s Brian McCormick Sports Cup semi-final against Cranford United.
The league champagne was being kept on ice, it seemed for another week, with Milford United the next visitors to Killybegs in the Premier Division.
Second-placed Drumoghill needed at least a point at Station Road in St Johnston against Kildrum Tigers to keep running in the race.
“We were just finishing up and one of the boys wasn’t training - Christopher Murrin - and was keeping an eye on Soccer Donegal on Facebook,” says Dorrian, who last month gained his Uefa A coaching licence.
“He was following the updates and nothing had changed for ages and then he told us that Kildrum had won 3-2.
“We thought he was messing and it was 2-2 and couldn’t get anyone from Kildrum. I rang Glen Bouvaird and he was telling me they scored in the last couple of minutes.”
The celebrations, on the face of it, were low-key. A handful of the squad members spent an hour - not much more - at the Fleet Inn, the team sponsors.
“Some people were saying that it would’ve been better to win it on our own patch but I wouldn’t agree with that,” Dorrian adds. “We are where we are because of a good season. I was happy to get there. Listen, if that’s the way it is to be then that’s it.”
St Catherine’s consistency has been the stand-out factor this season. The Premier Division is a competitive minefield, so much so that between 2011 and 2013 the previous champions saw their title dispossessed on the final day of the season.
Last year, Rathmullan Celtic completed their four-year hat-trick of three divisions but nobody could live with the pace shown by St Catherine’s this year.
“Last year we finished in fifth place. We were up around there all year and dropped points where we shouldn’t have. We spoke briefly about it last summer ahead of the new season.
“We wanted to win the Area Shield in the Brian McCormick Cup and we managed to do that so it was then put to bed till last Sunday.”
The Brian McCormick Cup provided a perfect foundation to the season. Not even in Dorrian’s wildest dreams could he have envisaged the stunning start to the season made by his team.
They opened the campaign with a 6-0 win over the 2012/13 champions Lifford Celtic and then defeated their successors Rathmullan Celtic 6-1 at Flagpole Park.
“In the league we just wanted to get out of the blocks quick,” Dorrian adds. “We never planned on starting like we did. We’re hard beaten at home to be fair but never thought we’d get that amount of goals. We got a couple of early goals and it went from there.
“Rathmullan have always been a bit of a bogey team for us in recent years and we’ve always been beaten there narrowly. That was in the boys’ heads as we went there. We won 6-1 and that gave us a big push. We just kept going and scored a lot of goals.”
By the time the Christmas break rolled in, St Catherine’s form hadn’t shown any sign of wavering. They’d won seven from seven.
“After Christmas the goals were harder to come by so we had to drop off a little and become a little more cute. Teams aren’t so gung-ho then,” Dorrian says. “We set the goal of winning the league and winning the cup.”
It wasn’t until March 1 that St Catherine’s dropped their first points - a 1-1 home draw with Kildrum, which was followed with a 0-0 draw when Gweedore Celtic came to town.
“Drumoghill had won a run of games and got back up close to us,” Dorrian says. “We’d drawn a couple of games by then. Kildrum could’ve beaten us and then Gweedore Celtic were happy enough with the point.
“We had a good win over Drumoghill earlier in the season but knew they had to beat us so it was a matter of weathering their early storm and getting through it. They came at us hammer and tongs as the draw was no good to them. They’re a very good footballing side.”
St Catherine’s weathered the storm and their 3-1 win at the Moss last month was a significant result against their closest rivals. David Conwell, Jason Noctor and Barry Rose were the goalscorers that day.
It put them in a position where it was more a case of when rather than if. Friday night was merely the rubber-stamping and this Saturday, Milford visit Emerald Park as St Catherine’s can celebrate the Premier Division title for only the third time.
In 2006, Shane Molloy’s goal against neighbouring Dunkineely Celtic was enough to seal the championship. It was a first title since the Premier Division and IAWS Cup victory sealed the double in 1975/76.
Brendan McGuire, Conwell, Christopher Murrin, Noctor, Daniel Breslin, Stephen Gildea, Barry Cannon and Molloy are all survivors from the 2006 vintage, a team managed by Dorrian who also included a 17-year-old Seamus Coleman, the current Republic of Ireland and Everton right-back.
“The objective now is to try and finish the season unbeaten,” Dorrian says. “We’ve had a great run. That, as well as the cup final we’ve to look forward to next month against Castlefin Celtic, would make for a great season.”
With fishing quotas and emigration, few places have felt the pinch quite like Killybegs has. Sporting success can lift the area and indeed those who are now based further afield.
“It’s great for the whole community,” Dorrian adds.
“It makes it easier to sell a few lottos and fundraising at the club to keep things afloat. We’ve always put a focus on the underage structure and we’ve a completely locally based team, only Barry Rose who came in from Eany and a few Kilcar lads - although we’d be their local club.
“The reserve team are competing in the Saturday League for a second season now and that’s great for the club. It’s a learning process for the young lads.”
Unlike areas with competing sports, St Catherine’s and the Killybegs GAA club work well in tandem.
Mark ‘Herbie’ Boyle is the current manager at Fintra and as well as having played for Killybegs for 20 years, was another member of St Catherine’s 2006 squad.
“We’ve always got on well and some days there’s a clash and there’s not much you can do about that but we always try to work with one another,” Dorrian says. “We’ve six or seven that play both codes. They don’t see it as different clubs. They just see it as representing the town.”
Killybegs town will be well represented this weekend. They’ve the chance to celebrate the title and in a remarkable season there might even be more to come.