As darkness fell on their brightest day, last Sunday night the first Glenswilly panel ever to win a senior county championship made their way home in separate cars amid a hum of beeps as bonfires met the cavalcade at Foxhall.
There had been a conscientious decision made to travel to MacCumhaill Park for the county final against St Michael’s like it was any other match. Four years ago, in only their second year in the senior bracket, Glenswilly were whisked up in the commotion of their first county final and whilst enjoying the occasion, were soundly beaten by a St Eunan’s team who had developed a steep learning curve of experience. Back then the track-suited panel attended morning mass in Glenswilly church together before boarding the bus for Ballybofey.
The Tuesday night after the semi-final win over Kilcar last month, joint-managers Gary McDaid and John McGinley called the panel into a circle after training under the glare of the floodlights at Pairc Naomh Columba and suggested not to let the fact their next hurdle was a final deter their focus in any way.
On Sunday morning the players ate their breakfasts at home with their families and their itinerary for county final day collectively began with a brief meeting at their clubhouse. Whilst there, McDaid and McGinley spoke about the day ahead, the players themselves had done the running, the strength and conditioning with Adam Speer and the tactical approach had been long since drilled in to them by the managment team that also included Brendan Walsh, Mick Murphy and Johnny McGinley. They watched a motivational DVD of their own games this year, which they had prepared thanks to recordings from Jerome Quinn and Humphrey Murphy. Maxi Curran had previously helped with the video analysis.
The players’ cars pulled out together and just over an hour later the panel were in the shadow of the MacCumhaill Park stand undertaking their warm-up as McDaid and Johnny McGinley, one of four sons of joint-manager John involved, called the shots. There was a familiarity about the routine. For the fourth time in six weeks Glenswilly were involved in a championship game at headquarters and for the third time in succession they sat in the exact same dressingroom. Familiarity bred no contempt.
Michael Murphy: “It was brilliant to get there in 2007 and Francie Martin deserves great credit for that. At the time we really enjoyed the occasion but it got to us a little and our performance, both collectively and individually, wasn’t what it might have been. This year, we got into a little rhythm and routine in the championship.
“The knock-out stages ran off over a month or so, so it wasn’t as strung out as it might’ve been before. Everyone was comfortable with what they had to do. That definitely helped. We just jumped into the cars and drove up the road. It’s strange chatting about it now even, but everyone was really relaxed.”
Barry Pat McDaid: “As club secretary it’s always busy, as it is for anyone on the club executive. For me the lead-up to the final was taking some of the PRO responsibilities, as Neil Gallagher usually does that job but he had enough to concentrate on. But after 2007, when there was a lot of hype, we tried to play things down. Back then, the players all went to mass with Fr Hughie Sweeney, who was only in the parish a couple of weeks, and it was a good way to link the club and parish. There was so much build up, which we enjoyed at the time and the fact it was against our near neighbours St Eunan’s made it an intriguing one but this year Gary and John were happy just to keep doing what we were doing.”
Joe Gibbons: “In 2007 I must’ve bought every single local paper beforehand and scoured over them to see what they said about Glenswilly or said about me. This year I didn’t look at one.”
Neil Gallagher: “We had played St Eunan’s twice at MacCumhaill Park, then Kilcar and then St Michael’s. It was like a home from home. We decided not to change what had served us well.”
Gary McDaid: “It was just like another day at the office. It was our sixth time playing there in maybe 12 weeks – two challenge games with MacCumhaill’s and then three championship games - and it was second nature to us at that stage. People had become so used to things. Each day was the same, the lads even sat in the same seats in the dressingroom. There was no need to be scared of the occasion.”
For a novel pairing, there was excitement in the air as Jimmy White threw the ball into the air. St Michael’s, county final débutantes themselves, took longer to settle and it was initially apparent they were not as familiar with their surroundings as Glenswilly were.
After 19 minutes Glenswilly led by 0-4 to 0-1 with Michael Murphy already having scored three times, one of which was a peach from the most acute of angles, while James Pat McDaid also chipped in. However, Eddie Harkin’s team, who had blitzed Sean MacCumhaill’s, Gaoth Dobhair and Glenfin on their way to the final, soon established a foothold and went in level at the interval, 0-4 to 0-4.
Neil Gallagher: “We were 0-4 to 0-1 in front at a stage and then I was penalised for touching the ball on the ground in front of my own goal. I don’t think I did, but anyway. That free, which Colm McFadden scored, was the first of three in a row they got before half-time.”
Michael Murphy: “We were fortunate enough to get off to good starts in most of our games this year and that’s something we put emphasis on. With the type of forwards St Michael’s have, they were always going to have a purple patch in the game and they pegged us back and showed their class. We were glad to get in at half-time.”
Despite the concession of a three-point advantage in less than six minutes, Glenswilly knew they were still level, the same position in which they had started the day.
Ciaran Bonner, who required knee surgery only a month beforehand, had played the first part of his Peter Canavan instalment and would be replaced by Brian Farrelly and as Brendan Walsh penned the substitution, Gary McDaid, John McGinley, captain Gary McFadden and Michael Murphy all spoke. It was still all to play for.
Michael Murphy: “It’s an open group of players who are very close and anything that’s said was constructive and for the good of the team. Everyone knows that and there were no doors flying off hinges or anything like that.”
Gary McDaid: “The score was level so we just had to go out and do what we were doing. St Michael’s are a dangerous team and were perhaps a little nervous for the first 20 minutes or so. But they got back into the game, possibly happier to be on level terms than we were.
“We had to be wary of them but all year we have had a strong defence. We had got a lot of criticism after the semi-final win over Kilcar but we just couldn’t let them come out and play the football they wanted. We are a strong, physical team and use that to our advantage. We play to the line but do not cross that line. People who saw the game on Sunday will agree with that. We couldn’t leave this one behind us, but, having been in tight situations all year, we didn’t panic.”
Points were traded as the second half took shape but when Martin McElhinney pointed for St Michael’s, Glenswilly trailed for the first time, 0-6 to 0-5. It was at this juncture Stephen Black was replaced. The St Michael’s corner-back had barely left the field when Joe Gibbons picked up possession in the middle of the field and looked forward as Murphy jostled for position with Peter Witherow.
Joe Gibbons: “I got the ball from Leon Kelly and looked up and saw Michael. He actually pointed to the left and that’s what I was going to do. I took a solo, though, as I tend to do and that’s something I’ve heard plenty about at training, but when I looked the second time Michael pointed right so I just gave it into him.”
Michael Murphy: “We gave Joe a bit of a slagging afterwards as a couple of the boys said he was going for a point, but he went on a wee run and I thought he was going to play it. Thanks be to God he took a wee solo to steady himself and played a fantastic ball. His ball made my run and I managed to catch it and turn. I just hit it as hard as I could. Some days they go in and others they don’t. It was one of them you just hit it and let God guide it.”
Joe Gibbons: “I certainly wasn’t shooting for a point. I know my own capabilities!”
Gary McDaid: “We have used Michael in different roles this season but felt his strength would be best served at that particular stage at full-forward. It was a goal deserving to win any championship and it got our noses in front again. What more can you say about the man?”
Neil Gallagher: “It was a brilliant goal. A goal in a tight game like that is massive and we were delighted it was us that got it, but even after that St Michael’s came back. Christy Toye was having a great game.”
With the best efforts of Toye, things were in the balance as Glenswilly welcomed Ciaran Bonner back for the final 14 minutes.
With Murphy taking his personal total to 1-7 with another couple of excellent points from play and a precise 45, Glenswilly led by three points as three minutes stoppage time was signalled by Ryan Walsh. Stephen Coyle, the St Michael’s substitute, immediately pointed a free but when Colm McFadden saw a long ranger effort sail wide of the post, which meant the stout Glenswilly defence had once more conceded a number of points that failed to reach the double digits, the Dr Maguire was finally in Glenswilly’s grasp. they led 1-8 to 0-9.
Michael Murphy: “I saw the ball go over the sideline at a stage when we were just trying to run down the clock. Then the whistle went. I just slumped to my knees in relief. We finally had won one. After knocking on the door for a couple of years we had finally got over the line.”
Gary McDaid: “Neil Gallagher and Gerard McGrenra had said to me earlier in the year they were sick of being nearly men. Each championship is getting harder to win. For me, at the whistle, it was sheer relief. All the hard work, the blood, sweat and tears were worth it for that one moment.”
With more of the parish on the pitch than there were sitting at home, the celebrations began. The Glenswilly players made their way through their supporters and up to steps to join Gary McFadden, their captain, as he became the first man from the club to lift the Dr Maguire. Tears flowed down old men’s cheeks on the pitch.
Caolan Kelly: “I honestly don’t think there was anyone left out in Glenswilly. If you were a thief that would be the place to go.”
Back in the dressingroom afterwards, Barry Pat McDaid was only too happy to drop one of the two post-match plans that had been drawn out.
Barry Pat McDaid: “We had two plans in place. One if we lost and the other if we won. I ran the winning plan by the players and everyone was delighted to proceed with it. I immediately sent out a group text to club members and told them to spread the word. Highland Radio also kindly accommodated us as we told anyone who wished could join us at the clubhouse.
“A lot of the players came through Letterkenny and there were people coming out of every pub and shop the whole way down the street clapping them. That was a nice touch. At O’Donnell Park, there was another gang on the roundabout, who again waved and cheered. And just getting to the clubhouse was brilliant.”
Neil Gallagher: “We came in through Letterkenny and there were crowds on the street. I had the cup in my car with Copper (Gary McFadden), Savi (Kealan McFadden), Ciaran Bonner and Dermot McGinley. There was a crowd there to see us at the clubhouse.”
A huge crowd had gathered. Matters were moved indoors and after chairman Shea Farrell conducted the early MC duties, Gary McDaid introduced his backroom team one by one, before the team followed.
On each occasion the roar from the packed hall got louder and louder. Michael Murphy, man of the match, stood on the stage before Gary McFadden and the Dr Maguire’s arrival almost took the roof off the hall. Full-back Eamon Ward, the adopted son from Clontibret in Co Monaghan, sang a rendition of ‘The Hills of Glenswilly.’
Joe Gibbons: “Eamon has pulled that rendition out once or twice now and it went down well. I think he had it learned off as soon as he joined us. The place was wedged. Winning that championship was the sort of thing that dreams are made of.”
Barry Pat McDaid: “There were so many people there. There must’ve been around 500. There were people there who mightn’t have got the chance to play for Glenswilly as the club was only founded in 1982 but they were from the parish. It was great.”
James Pat McDaid: “It’s the best day of my life. Glenwilly have been working hard for this for some time and Gary McDaid and John and Johnny McGinley, Brendan Walsh, Mick Murphy, Seamie the water man, the Simmons boys and so many more have all been part of it.”
Gary McDaid: “We have a big hall and there were so many people in there some others had to listen from outside. Shea took the microphone and then passed it to me. I introduced the players one by one, making sure they got their moment. They deserve it. I’m still on a high.”
Neil Gallagher: “We’ve a rivalry going on with St Michael’s but we know a lot of them well. Fair play to them for coming down on the Monday night for a beer. For us, it was brilliant to win a championship.”
Michael Murphy: “The whole thing was just phenomenal, something that nobody can ever take from you.”
And so, a year short of their 30th birthday, Glenswilly celebrate their first ever senior championship. Sunday was a magical day for the club but it’s not over, this just might be the beginning.