Gaoth Dobhair - where tradition infuses with endeavour and opportunity

Alan Foley


Alan Foley

Gaoth Dobhair - where tradition infuses with endeavour and opportunity
Romanticists might tell you some things are written in the stars, while those who prefer the more pragmatic approach tend to want to make things happen.

Romanticists might tell you some things are written in the stars, while those who prefer the more pragmatic approach tend to want to make things happen.

On Sunday at the citadel of Croke Park, nine Gaoth Dohair footballers will be sprinkled among the Donegal senior and minor panels, both of whom face Leinster champions Dublin in their respective All-Ireland semi-finals.

Brothers Eamon, since 2004, and Neil McGee – who debuted two years later who will play in a record 44th successive championship outing on Sunday - have been lynchpins of the Donegal set-up for the best part of a decade.

This year, their clubmate, 22-year-old Odhrán MacNiallais, has enjoyed an excellent breakthrough season under the management of Jim McGuinness, which cumulated in a goal in front of Hill 16 against Armagh in the All-Ireland quarter-final earlier this month.

The Donegal minors, managed by former Gaoth Dobhair manager and 1992 All-Ireland winner Declan Bonner, possess Ciaran Gillespie, Cian Mulligan, Michael Carroll, Niall Friel, Gavin McBride and Gary McFadden.

No Donegal side has ever reached the All-Ireland minor final.

In 2005 at CLG Ghaoth Dobhair the decision was made to restructure the club at underage level.

For too long the club from underneath the shadow of Mount Errigal at Machaire Gathlán had seen promising players slip through the net. All too often achievement failed to match potential.

“We sat down, Brendán Ó Baoill, Donnchadh MacNiallais and myself,” says Tom Beag Gillespie, the current Gaoth Dobhair minor team manager, of that first meeting nine years ago.

“Brendan is the Bord na nÓg chairman and Donnchadh brought a great background as a PE teacher. We wanted to help lay the foundations at the club.

“It started basically at under-8 and we trained up coaches and got them involved in the schools. A lot of coaches put in a lot of hard work and every one of them brought something unique and worthwhile.

“They bought into what we were trying to do. So too did the children and their parents, who we couldn’t have done without.”

Almost in keeping with the personality of those from the scattered area – one of the least densely populated places in Europe – the meticulous approach was to be kept low-key almost to the point of being publicly understated.

The strategy – perhaps more of a philosophy – was to marry tradition with endeavour and opportunity.

Gaoth Dobahir, with a record 14 Donegal SFC successes - although only two since 1961 - remain the county’s most successful club and no team in the country can match their nine national Comortás Peile na Gaeltachta titles.

From the heady days of the 1940s and 1950s, an era when Gaoth Dobhair won nine county championships, players like Danny ‘Neddie’ Gillespie, Jackie ‘Phaidí Óig’ Gallagher, Hudie Beag Gallagher and Hughie ‘Tim’ Boyle had long since been written into local folklore.

Boyle is an uncle of Manchester United’s 1968 European Cup winner Paddy Crerand and grand-uncle of Cian Mulligan and Odhrán MacNiallais.

Jackie Coyle played a significant part in the 1961 county title win, while Antoin Carroll was part of Donegal’s first ever victorious Ulster championship panel in 1972. Antoin’s nephew, 16-year-old Michael Carroll, will start at wing-forward for the Donegal minors on Sunday.

Since then, Kevin Cassidy was the club’s first All-Star in 2002 and together with the McGees and selector Piarás Coyle, helped Donegal to the 2007 National Football League Division One title under Brian McIver.

Then, of course, there was the 2012 All-Ireland championship where Peter McGee was a panellist with his brothers Eamon and Neil.

Tradition in sporting terms was and is unquestionably important; so too is recognition of the heritage involved with the club being from the heartland of the Gaeltacht.

Importance was placed on teaching Gaoth Dobhair’s fledgling footballers the value of where they are from, both geographically and culturally.

Creation of young, elite performers was an aim, including development both of the player and of the person. By referencing innovative guidelines from the Ulster Council’s ‘Pathway to Elite Performance,’ the restructuring framework was put in place.

Dara Ó Cinnéide was considered the embodiment of what Gaoth Dobhair sought to represent - the player, the person and the heritage.

Kerry’s 2004 All-Ireland winning captain made half a dozen trips to the north-west over a three-year spell in his role as mentor, with the locals hanging on his every word.

While winning games was always considered welcome, the real emphasis was on the learning to play, with players of varying abilities allowed to develop at their own pace to reach their own potential.

“When we started, the aim was to compete with the likes of St Eunan’s,” Tom Beag Gillespie adds. “They set the standards and we wanted to get to their level.

“In the early days we got a few hammerings but slowly but surely we began to improve. Confidence soon began to rise and we took it from there.

“The plan was always to develop players the right way and not to pressurise them into winning.

“But by under-14 or so we were soon good enough to start winning championships. In turn, players got into county development squads, where there is great work being put in, which also helped to improve the standards.”

The young players involved, right up to minor level, are said to be motivated, eager to learn and willing to work hard, whilst also developing a respectful appreciation of what was being done for them in the structure in which they evolved.

Although the goings on remain firmly as a work-in-progress, Gaoth Dobhair’s policies are starting to bear fruit.

The achievement of Cassidy, the club’s current senior team manager, and the McGee brothers has developed something of a synergy where success can breed success. MacNiallais is the first to make the breakthrough and the six county minors are testament to the continuation of the conveyor belt.

But the real ambition remains to provide both the club, and then in turn the county if it so be, with senior footballers.

West Donegal might be a different world to Croke Park but Sunday will provide the latest indication of the tireless work being put in at Gaoth Dobhair.

“It’s great for the club to have nine players involved at Croke Park,” Gillespie continues. “Gaelic football is changing year on year and it’s important for us to try and move with the times.

“But we can’t stop now and we want to keep the thing going.”

Before the All-Ireland final in 2012, Jim McGuinness famously said: “You’re either moving forwards or backwards. Nothing is stationary.”

At Gaoth Dobhair, things are certainly moving in the right direction.