'You knew it wasn't a spoofing job with Jim'
Colm McFadden tells Chris McNulty how he suffered darkest hours with Donegal before McGuinness' new dawn
LIFE is good for Colm Anthony McFadden these days. Four weeks ago, his wife Levina gave birth to Matthew, their second child, just over a year after they welcomed daughter Maisie into the world.
The scorching sun beams down on nearby Sheephaven Bay as the 30-year-old Donegal forward looks to the Ulster final.
Tomorrow, when he lines out against Monaghan, it will be his fifth time to play in a provincial decider.
A runner-up in 2002 and 2006, he has now won back-to-back titles and he's feeling in the form of his life. He hit 4-32 as the championship's top marksman in 2012. Injury hampered his spring this year, but his returns in the summer have been remarkable.
He hit a combined 1-8 against Tyrone and Down having had just 13 attempts at goal.
Donegal, as a whole, have impressive stats to back up their confidence this year, scoring 2-22 from only 36 attempts and with just six wides over the course of their two Ulster outings.
"The confidence we've developed means we're more composed now and we're not forcing shots," McFadden says. "If the chance isn't on, we'll keep the ball and try and work it from there."
McFadden, like Donegal, has often threatened to light up a summer – such as when he blasted 1-7 to gun down All-Ireland champions Tyrone in 2004 – but never found the consistency. That has changed now, and it's all down to preparation.
"I'm getting good practice, rather than a lot of practice," he says. "It's not that we're putting more time in, but you're channelling it better, using the time better.
"Rather than going down, kicking 100 shots and concentrating for 20pc of them, I'll go down now, kick 20 shots and put full concentration on each one.
"I always spent a lot of time practising the shooting and practising the frees. I always did the gym work, but it's just making more of the time you're putting in now."
McFadden and Donegal are in search of what would only be the second successful three-in-a-row bid in Ulster in 50 years.
The Ulster medals are a treasured possession in Donegal. They came the hard road. "We were playing for 10 years and had nothing to show for it," McFadden says. "We'd been trying to achieve it for so long.
"You can never disregard the Ulster championship. It's very important to us. It's a great springboard for the All-Ireland campaign.
"It's the perfect platform. In the last two seasons, the teams who have won the provincial championships have all played in the All-Ireland semi-finals. It's important for us to defend the title."
McFadden ran Karl Lacey so close for the footballer of the year award last year, but he was named as the player of the Ulster championship last summer.
It could all have been so different, though. In 2006, when Donegal lost to Armagh in a third final in five years, McFadden was on a sabbatical from Donegal.
He was finishing his studies in Liverpool and became a supporter again for a summer. Paul McGrane's goal was all that was between Donegal and Armagh that afternoon and McFadden felt a familiar pang in his heart.
A couple of months later, the McFadden family was to celebrate the wedding of Colm's sister, Yvonne.
It was a wedding party that discussed football long into the night. Yvonne McFadden had wed the former Donegal footballer Jim McGuinness.
McFadden went back and won a league title in 2007. It proved another false dawn – and Donegal seemed to have crossed the rubicon when they crashed to Armagh on the occasion of McFadden's 100th game in 2010.
While he says he was "scunnered" with the downward spiral Donegal's graph had taken, the prospect of working under his brother-in-law McGuinness meant that quitting wasn't an option.
By the fireside in the quaint Creeslough townland of Ballyboes, the pair had often swapped football stories.
"I knew with Jim coming in that he'd do a good job," McFadden says. "I always found his ideas very interesting. You just knew with Jim that it wasn't a spoofing job or some guy spouting nonsense.
"He knew what he was on about and I knew I could go on. He took the whole thing to a professional level."
Brian McIver tried to haul Donegal into the 'professional' age, but it worked only to a degree.
McFadden recalls "making it up as we went along" with their gym programmes. "Sure we'd just try a few things and see how it went. If it didn't work, well, we'd just try something else."
He leaves Twitter and Facebook to his team-mates, but he's both an avid reader and a keen sports fan.
A maths teacher in St Eunan's College in Letterkenny, snooker, darts and golf are among his vices. Tennis is another big love and the young McFadden actually played a bit.
He watched recently as one of his sporting heroes, Roger Federer, fell to the little-known Sergiy Stakhovsky.
"He was good enough, but he just didn't play well – it just shows, you always have to be careful," says McFadden, with a little tip of the hat to Monaghan.
His Donegal career had opened with such promise, with two Ulster finals in 2002 and 2004 sandwiching an appearance in the 2003 All-Ireland semi-final.
"It was a case of just thinking, 'sure we'll get an Ulster medal one of these years'," he says. "As the years went on, we weren't even getting close; we couldn't get past the first round for three years. It was only natural to think that time was running out."
If a roller-coaster career has taught him anything, it is to beware of complacency. McFadden says: "On any given day, if you go out thinking you've it won, that's the day you'll be beaten."
If he's showing little Matthew and Maisie a third Ulster medal and recalling, in time, the moment he helped make history, the dark days will seem as if they were worth it, for the narrative of those bedtime stories could have been so different.