AT ONE time, The Long Lane felt like the gateway to Croke Park.
Saturday mornings of the early-mid 90s for some of us were the stuff of a routine that was almost a ritual.
Not long beforehand, Naomh Baithin had become the Naomh Colmcille we know today.
The club was on a recruitment drive and didn’t wait around in boosting the numbers. Rather than bringing the Mountain to Mohammad, they brought young Mohammads to the Mountain otherwise known as Pairc Colmcille.
William Toye was the Sherpa, ferrying a busload of us from St Johnston and Carrigans to Newtown, where we cut our Gaelic Football teeth, under a man who at times probably felt like he was pulling teeth.
The Diddler. It was always The Diddler.
Paul Dillon’s endeavours in that era should never be forgotten. In times of success, obtaining help is easy, but it is the crew on board a ship in choppy waters that deserves the plaudits.
For years, The Diddler was at the wheel.
Aided by Seamus Doherty and Martin McKinley, we’d head for the derby fixtures of east Donegal and try our luck against Lifford, Robert Emmets, Red Hughs and Convoy, most of the time without much success.
Senior football was light years away.
And yet. And yet, some of The Diddler’s Disciples stand an hour away from senior football: Gerard Curran is the team captain; Eddie Gillespie netted a goal in the semi-final; Ciaran Devine is the midfield piston that keeps on keeping on; Ricky Hegarty has had the summer of his life; and Paul Friel is pressing close for a starting berth this afternoon.
At one time, the parishes were one and those of us who grew up in the former Parish of the All Saints, Killea and Taughboyne had little to cheer. Although the club reached junior finals in 1997 and 1998, they were the exception rather than the rule.
“We had plenty of dog days,” as Joe Donaghy puts it. “The club struggled to put out a team manys the day.”
When Stephen Friel arrived in Newtown one winter’s night in 2009, the buds began to bloom and, where once it had been an effort to field one team, a reserve team came into being.
In 2010 Downings were beaten at Pairc Colmcille and, all of a sudden, there was belief. Remarkably, it was a first win in a Championship game for ten years.
That year, Richard Clarke raised the Donegal Junior Championship title after a replay win over Muff in the final.
Friel brought the organisation to the chaos. A team and a club began to grow.
Seeds were planted in 2007. A Minor team under Padraig Carberry and Kieran Friel won a Minor League Division 2 title; Paul Callaghan took the Under-16s to league success and Karol Friel’s Under-14s won the Shield.
In 2010 and 2011, Ryan McKinley – hero of the semi-final hours – and Mark ‘Ruction’ Callaghan guided glory in Under-15 and Under-16 Championships.
Tomorrow, Gary McDaid, Michael Friel, Daniel Clarke, John Fullerton, Oran Hilley, Michael Lynch and Conor Grant from that group could all feature. They’ve also an Under-21 B semi-final to look forward to.
Where once ‘Diddler’ was surrounded by a screaming batch of ‘Can-I-Get-Ons’, coaches now are plentiful and their work is reaping dividends.
The team that lined out against Gaeil Fhánada in the semi-final replay had an average age of just 23 – the future is in good hands.
Consider that Thomas McKinley, Matthew Crossan and Ryan McErlean were among the absentees – of those only McErlean could play in the final – and it’s how clear just how big an achievement reaching this final exactly is.
The past was in good hands, too, though.
By a Newtown graveside in June 2012, we did our duty for club stalwart Sean McDaid, whose sure to be looking down tomorrow afternoon.
He and his ilk kept the flame burning when sometimes there was barely the hint of a flicker.
The reaction on the face of men like Colm Clarke after the final whistle two weeks ago painted a picture these words cannot come close to explaining.
Others like Declan McFarland and Paddy Devenney burned midnight oil and there’s James McGrath, who’ll be on the sideline alongside Francie Martin and Dougie Corbett.
James Dowds was name checked by Curran after the win over Gaeil Fhánada. The Naomh Colmcille President has been in ill health of late and is another of that rare breed of men who gave everything to a club and wanted nothing in return.
“We’re doing this for James,” Curran mentioned.
And if he happens to have Cathal McLaughlin above his head tomorrow evening, there’ll be a corner of the press box in which neutrality will have long since departed.
Playing senior football was once a dream for Naomh Colmcille. Now, it can be their reward.
When you know what the bad times were like, it’s why days like this mean everything.
* Chris McNulty is a native of St Johnston and is co-owner and founder of Donegal Sport HubTags: