'At the start of the year, us getting to an Ulster final was as realistic as having a picnic on the moon'
Naomh Conaill boss Corey looks to extend amazing run
THE width of a post saved tomorrow's Ulster club finalists Naomh Conaill from an ignominious first round Donegal championship exit.
The 2009 beaten county finalists had a disastrous start to their year, losing their opening three league matches as they struggled to cope with the retirements of former Donegal players Jim McGuinness, John Gildea and John Campbell.
The championship offered little respite. In Donegal, 'home and away' legs determine first round winners and Division 2 side Kilcar handed them an 11-point hammering in their own back yard. The return leg in Towney, where Kilcar hadn't been beaten in championship football in 10 years, offered little hope.
But fate turned in their favour. They were ahead by a point with time almost up before Kilcar were awarded an eminently kickable 21-yard free. Naomh Conaill manager Cathal Corey takes over the story.
"It was all over as far as I was concerned, because a draw would have put us out and that would have been our season over, right there in June. I knew their free-taker had gone off, but (former Donegal centre-forward) Michael Hegarty had the ball and he's a very experienced player and he was shaping up to take it.
"But, at the last minute, he threw it to one of their young players, who was doing very well. He was about to take the free and (inter-county referee) Jimmy White blew the whistle and told him not to run past the line where the free should be taken from. Maybe that put him off a little bit, but he kicked it wide. There was literally only a width of a post in it. Sometimes that bit of luck is what you need."
That miss sent the tie to a third game, which Naomh Conaill won comfortably. Corey took his side off for a team-building weekend where they talked out their issues, had a few pints and in his own words they "came back to Glenties a different team than the one that left."
St Michael's of Dunfanaghy were beaten in the quarter-final and they pipped Glenswilly at the death in the semi-final, before an unfancied Killybegs side were comprehensively dismissed in the final. After that it was bonus territory.
"At the start of the year, us getting to an Ulster final was about as realistic as having a picnic on the moon," Corey admitted.
Jim McGuinness' appointment in Donegal explains some of their poor form in the early part of the year. Along with Corey, McGuinness managed (and played) with Glenties in 2009. Corey stepped down due to work commitments and only got back with the side a week before the first round of the league. In between, the club were hammered with players losing work. The spectre of emigration loomed large, but this championship run has kept them at home.
"We've been lucky in that all of the players we needed have stayed at home, but I'd say five or six of them would be gone if we had gone out. Football is keeping them going. As we speak now, there's a few of them in the gym or doing a little bit of running. Their parents are delighted they are still at home and I know what that means because I have a son myself in Australia. In the New Year or when we finish the football, who knows what they will do, but at the minute the town is alive because of this."
Corey concedes that, in Crossmaglen, they face the "greatest club team of all time."
Jamie Clarke returns for the Armagh men after suspension, although Naomh Conaill also have a clean bill of health, despite a scare regarding Dermot 'Brick' Molloy, who along with Leon Thompson and the McLoones have been the stars of this run.
"Who knows when we'll be here again. It's a long road back to this point. But, hopefully, this run will help all of Donegal. There are teams around us like Glenswilly, Ardara and St Eunan's that will look at us and see what can be done. We had a few lads on the Donegal Under-21 side (that reached the All-Ireland final). They hit the woodwork and if that had gone in they would have been All-Ireland champions. I think they learned that there's nothing to be scared of out there."