By Niall Gartland
A FEW years ago, former Donegal footballer (and former Gaelic Life columnist, more importantly)Brendan Devenney claimed that he had “never seen a better left foot in all my life” on the subject of Naomh Conaill captain Ciaran Thompson.
It was quite a claim – one wonders what Maurice Fitzgerald, Colm Cooper and Stephen O’Neill must have thought – but back in the here and now, the highlights reel from Naomh Conaill’s Ulster Championship semi-final victory over Clontibret did the rounds online for one primary reason, that being the magnificent long-range efforts from Monsieur Thompson.
It probably all comes instinctively at this stage of his career, but there was no harm in asking him to take us through his two pearlers anyway.
“I just swung the boot at them. Somebody said at half-time to get a few shots away because I hadn’t had any opportunities in the first-half. The first thankfully sailed over, the second one way out but I was confident after hitting the first one.
It’s been well-documented that Naomh Conaill have had a gruelling run to this year’s final.
It looked like they might hit the wall in the second-half of their Ulster Championship quarter-final against Castlerahan, but they came through unscathed, just four days after their Donegal SFC replay victory against Gaoth Dobhair. The batteries have been well and truly recharged, however, ahead of Sunday’s final against Kilcoo.
Thompson said: “That period was unbelievably harsh on the body, especially as Gaoth Dobhair are such a physical team. It was more about managing the body and after the replay it was damage limitation really.
“There were a few boys who were on the edge (in the second-half against Castlerahan) and maybe the adrenaline got us through it. You could definitely see we were a bit fresher for the Clontibret game and maybe that’s why it was our best performance yet.”
Naomh Conaill play an unyielding, defensive brand of football, and it’s no coincidence that it’s the club of Jim McGuinness.
They were 6/1 outsiders against St Eunan’s when he led the club to their first Donegal title in 40 years back in 2005, and Thompson says the club has been happy to stick with the template since.
“I haven’t had much experience with Jim myself – I wasn’t involved when he was there with Glenties but I do see him around the town. He is brilliant and when you chat to him you see how charismatic the man is. The lads who came through with him developed a serious mental resolve and got that experience of winning.
“Jim came with a structure, he came with a plan and it’s been rolled out in the club ever since. It’s down to the players as well, we’re a player-driven club as well and the lads want to die for the jersey.”
Thompson was only 15 when he watched from the stands in 2010 when they lost the Ulster final to Crossmaglen, and two of the three elder brothers who played that day – Anthony and Aaron – are still giving it their all for the cause.
“Everything just revolves around football in the house. Even seeing my brother lifting the Dr Maguire Cup in Donegal back in 2005 has really spurred me on. It’s like that for a lot of boys in the team, there’s a lot of brothers there.”
Experienced heads like Leo McLoone and Dermot ‘Brick’ Molloy should also set a good example in the lead-up to Sunday.
“There are a lot of strong characters in the team – older fellas who have been there this last 10 years and are really driving it on, but there’s young fellas too who have brought a freshness to the group.
“Mentally we’ve been brilliant and failure wasn’t really an option in the Donegal final (they lost the decider in 2016 and 2017).
“Now it’s bonus territory in a way and I think we’ve opened up a lot – Donegal football is cagey and the boys have been just brilliant physically and mentally.”
It’s all the more noteworthy then, that Thompson is already captain of this Naomh Conaill team. They’re hoping to make it two in-a-row for Donegal in Sunday’s final after Gaoth Dobhair showed the way last year, and that’s something which has given them confidence.
“I was pleasantly surprised when I was asked to be captain and took it as a great honour. The chance to lead out my club was unbelievable but the lads are handy led and don’t need a captain as such. I’m still delighted to have that title.
“Donegal teams have been doing well in Ulster and it was no surprise to me seeing Gaoth Dobhair doing it last year. Once you get through Donegal you’ve a real chance in Ulster. It’s a very competitive championship and it was great to see Gaoth Dobhair doing it and hopefully we can replicate it.”