THE day Naomh Conaill faced St Eunan’s in the 2005 Ráidio na Gaeltachta SFC, the Donegal footballing fraternity got their first look at new inter-county manager Brian McIver.
The former Ballinderry manager had just been ratified to take over from Brian McEniff, whose fifth and final tenure in charge of the county’s footballers ended with a drab qualifier defeat at Breffni Park against Cavan.
By October’s first Sunday in 2005, supporters of both county finalists wished McIver luck as he made his way to the press-box.
It was all very cordial of course but while McIver would have certain success in what would elude to a three-year tenure the man who would provide the anecdote for Donegal’s footballing ailments was in the middle of the pitch, putting the Naomh Conaill side through their final preparations.
A year beforehand, Jim McGuinness went to play a ball one day against Killybegs and pain shuddered though his body. He had torn cruciate ligaments, broken a leg and smashed a kneecap. By his own admission lately, he spent the months that followed at home in Glenties sitting at home feeling sorry for himself.
One day Hughie Molloy, who was managing Naomh Conaill, asked McGuinness would he be interested in coaching the seniors. McGuinness jumped on board and helped take the club to their first county final in 40 years. They had never won the title before, with the biggest feather in their caps being the 1990 intermediate crown. Naomh Conaill were 6/1 outsiders that afternoon against a St Eunan’s team who had not won the Dr Maguire since their 2001 win over Four Masters.
However, Naomh Conaill, who featured 10 U-21 players, led 1-3 to 0-1 at half-time with John Gildea running the show from the middle of the park. Those in blue and white cramped up the St Eunan’s scoring zone, before breaking with precision. Sound familiar?
St Eunan’s, though, scraped their way back into the contest and went in front late on, only for Brendan McDyre to tie it up with a free. The match ended in controversy as Mick McGrath blew for time just as John Haran was breaking towards the Naomh Conaill goal. There was plenty to be said immediately afterwards, all under the watchful attention of GAA President elect Nicky Brennnan.
The theory was that St Eunan’s would evolve before the second match but they fell into the same trap as a week beforehand and Naomh Conaill won 0-10 to 1-5 for one of the greatest upsets in the recent history of the championship. Bonfires lit the night sky, from the Glen and Mass down to Gweebara Bridge.
Four years later, the two teams met again on final day. In-between, there had been a pivotal encounter in 2007 when St Eunan’s won a frantic first round third game on their way to a first of a string of successive county championships. After Leo McLoone scored 4-1 in Glenties, Brendan Kilcoyne’s team came out fighting and the play-off win sent their history on an upward trend.
By the time they rolled into their fifth final on the bounce, they were aiming for wins three-in-a-row, with a sprinkling of invincibility in their step. Victories over neighbours Glenswilly in 2007 and Termon a year afterwards had erased the lingering poor memories of defeats to Naomh Conaill and Gaoth Dobhair in the preceding years.
Naomh Conaill were back, four years more experienced than in 2005 and with 36-year-old centre-fielder McGuinness now joint-manager with Cathal Corey, and made an excellent start, leaving 0-4 to 0-1 after the first quarter.
However, by then St Eunan’s had eradicated themselves of panic and wound their way back into the contest. Four unanswered points, two of which came from the influential Conall Dunne, gave Eamon O’Boyle’s team a 0-5 to 0-4 interval lead.
In the second half, they continued to stride on. Anthony Thompson was sent off for a second yellow and the likes of Rory Kavanagh, Dunne and Brendan Devenney sealed the triumph. Eddie Brennan and Devenney took walked the trophy up the Port Road and then out to the club house.
That, though, was the end of the St Eunan’s domination. Twelve months later it was Naomh Conaill back on stage. Now, with one win apiece from their direct final meetings, for the latest rivalry to come to the fore in Donegal football, it’s all to play for again. Whoever comes out on top will be the ones with their club’s colours on the Dr Maguire come Sunday evening. It’s all to play for.