Donegal soccer/GAA link
TWO weeks ago, there was a flurry of excitement during the half-time break of a Donegal Junior A Championship clash between Na Rossa and Naomh Padraig.
It wasn’t unusual for a group of kids to race on to the pitch for a kickabout.
But what set pulses racing was that they were trying to fire the ball past Shay Given in goal.
Given’s brother, Paul, plays for Naomh Padraig and he’d turned up to cheer on his local GAA club.
There is no county on the western seaboard so much in thrall to soccer as Donegal.
The connection with Glasgow has been a big influence on that love affair.
Seven Scots-born players have played international football for Ireland.
All seven — Charlie Gallagher, Bernie Slaven, Ray Houghton, Owen Coyle, Tommy Coyne, Aiden McGeady and James McCarthy — have Donegal roots.
Packie Bonner spent much of his life in Glasgow as Celtic’s goalkeeper.
Bonner played GAA at all levels for Donegal, lining out in midfield for the senior team.
Given — whose father, Seamus, played for Donegal — always dabbled with both sports as well.
“I played a fair bit with Naomh Padraig but went to Celtic when I was 15,’’ he said.
“If I’d stayed at home, maybe I’d have got a shot at the Donegal minor team.”
Donegal have never won an All-Ireland minor title and many think their best chance was in 2006.
That was a team that included future senior stars like Michael Murphy, Martin McElhinney and Leo McLoone.
But they lost in the semi-final to a Kerry team with David Moran, Tommy Walsh, Johnny Buckley and Shane Enright on board.
The feeling in Donegal was that, if Seamus Coleman had been there, they’d have gone all the way.
The Everton right-full spent much of his teens on Donegal GAA development squads, and was a star centre-half-back with Killybegs, before Sligo Rovers gave him a chance.
What is striking about the Donegal squad that will play in a fifth successive Ulster final today is their strong soccer backgrounds.
Several have played for Ireland under-age teams. Six went to cross-channel clubs on trial, and most of the rest play in local soccer leagues during the winter.
Declan Bonner, the current minor manager who was an All-Ireland winner in 1992, agreed a two-year deal with Celtic in the early 1980s but his plans were dashed when manager Billy MacNeill moved to Manchester City.
Bonner feels that playing soccer can greatly benefit Gaelic footballers.
“The GAA traditionalists would frown on you for saying it but it definitely does,’’ he said.
“It does help your game, more in terms of awareness than anything else.
“I played a lot of soccer up until 19, 20 and it definitely benefited me in Gaelic football.
“From playing in defence in soccer, it made me more aware of what needs to be done offensively in Gaelic.
“Zonal marking and defensive formations would have been in soccer for a long time. Now, they’re part of Gaelic football.
“Another part of it is the transition from defence to attack — quick counter-attacks, and that’s something Donegal have been very good at.
“Frank McGlynn would be a big part of that, with his pace and timing the run.
“And Frank would have been someone that played a lot of soccer.”
Those soccer skills were apparent early in the second half of Donegal’s Ulster quarter-final win over Armagh.
It was Martin O’Reilly who found the net, but he was put clear by a delicate, dinked pass on the ground from McGlynn.
McGlynn did the rounds of English clubs on trial — spending time at Wolves and Leeds United among others.
And, in the Milk Cup tournament in the north of Ireland, he actually partnered Wayne Rooney up front on an Everton youths’ side.
“All the talk was about this fella who was being tipped as the next best thing,’’ recalled McGlynn in an interview with BBC Radio Foyle’s Eric White.
“It was easy to see why as he was extra special and some of the things he could do with ball were incredible.
“He was a bit of a messer as well. I remember he had the shaved head and he was always up for a bit of fun, even trying to take the mickey out of the coaches.”
McGlynn scored in a 3–0 win over Newcastle United, but his heart always lay with the GAA.
“Just to line-up in the parade alongside the likes of Manchester United and teams from Brazil and Chile, it was a great experience,’’ he said.
“But, although I really enjoyed playing soccer, coming from a small community like Glenfin, Gaelic football has always been my first love.”
Go back to the early 1990s and Brian McEniff, the then Donegal manager, gave an interview where he was asked about Donegal’s short-passing, running style.
McEniff pointed out that it was the way club football was played in the county for a long time.
And he had two theories as to why this was the case.
Many club pitches are on the Atlantic coast and high winds can be a problem, so playing the ball short in a running game is a wise move.
And McEniff also thought the huge popularity of soccer — where short-passing is very common — had an influence.
Bonner feels that playing both sports is beneficial, but eventually you have to make a call.
“Just looking at the minors I had this year. Two of them played international youths soccer. One was Dara O Baoill and the other was Jason McGee,’’ he said.
“They commited to Gaelic football over the summer.
“That wouldn’t have happened in the past, but it’s the in thing in Donegal now to play Gaelic football.
“Because of the commitment needed now in GAA, you have to make a decision fairly early.
“But a lot of the Donegal guys have played soccer at a decent level.
“Patrick McBrearty would have been on all the Donegal development soccer teams with Carl McHugh, who’s now at Plymouth.
“Paddy was up front, and he’d have learned a lot about movement, positional awareness and clinical finishing.”
After Donegal’s win in the 2012 All-Ireland final, McBrearty met the then Celtic manager Neil Lennon at the awards banquet.
Lennon was able to tell McBrearty that he’d watched him when he was on trial at Parkhead.
“The first day we trained with the youth team and the day after we trained with the reserves,’’ recalled McBrearty.
“Two players I remember who were high profile at the time were Bobo Balde and Thomas Gravesen and we trained with them.
“They said they were going to bring us back at the mid-term but Tommy Burns unfortunately got sick with cancer and something happened with the youth system and everything got wiped off.
“I wasn’t that interested and was just glad to get over and have the trial and the whole experience. It is obviously a great thing to say you were on trial with Glasgow Celtic.”
Donegal have scored four goals in this year’s Ulster Championship — two have been soccer finishes, and another was set up with a soccer-style pass.
There’s a lot to be said for the garrison game.
PAUL DURCAN: Was on Ireland under-age squads as a goalkeeper.
EAMON McGEE: Nicknamed ‘Drogba’ for his performances up front for Gweedore Celtic.
FRANK McGLYNN: Had trials with Everton, Dundee United, Leeds, Wolves and Preston.
RYAN McHUGH: Went on trial to Reading during Brian McDermott’s tenure.
ODHRAN MacNIALLAIS: Plays for Gweedore Celtic. Cousin of Manchester United legend Paddy Crerand.
PATRICK McBREARTY: Had trial at Glasgow Celtic. While there, was ball-boy for Champions League tie v Spartak Moscow.
DAVID WALSH: Was on a YTS scheme at Luton Town.
HUGH McFADDEN: Played for Finn Harps and Sligo Rovers.
DARACH O’CONNOR: Trial at Preston and on Ireland schoolboys’ squad.
MARK ANTHONY McGINLEY: Number two goalkeeper played in League of Ireland for UCD.
RORY GALLAGHER: Donegal manager had trials at Manchester United, Blackburn and West Ham.
JAMES GALLAGHER: Goalkeeping coach started out at Celtic before moving to League of Ireland. Managed Finn Harps.