It’s easy to point to five Ulster titles and an All-Ireland medal when summing up how influential Leo McLoone has been to Donegal football.
However, McLoone’s influence has arguably been felt so much more in the town of Glenties as he leads his club Naomh Conaill into their second-ever Ulster club final appearance this weekend.
Known for many years as always the bridesmaid but never the bride. The club, situated in the remote area of south-west Donegal, has enjoyed a decade and a half of unprecedented success that McLoone has been pivotal too.
The versatile midfielder made his senior championship debut as a 16-year-old, coming on as a substitute in their maiden final win over St. Eunan’s Letterkenny.
“I came on as a sub just aye. It actually went to a replay too. I came on as a sub in the drawn game and it was just a bit of a crazy time looking back on as a 16-year-old being thrown in. It was a brilliant time at home.
“I think when you’re young you don’t realise or don’t understand I suppose how serious the thing is. You’re young, you’re naive, you just go out and play football like but I can remember it just being a serious atmosphere there. It was a time we’ll not forget and it was nice to make my senior championship debut on county final day.”
Five years later, McLoone led the club to a second county title with a man of the match performance in their win over Killybegs. An Ulster club final followed where they fell to the mighty Crossmalgen Rangers.
Fast forward another five years and McLoone, yet again, was awarded man of the match as he captained the club to a third county title in 2015. Despite the pattern predicting a county title every five years, McLoone and co. broke with tradition in 2019 by defeating Ulster Champions Gaoth Dobhair at the third time of asking to take home the club’s fourth Donegal championship in 14 years.
They’ve backed that up with wins over Castlerahan (Cavan) and Clontibret (Monaghan) and now face Down champions Kilcoo in Sunday’s Ulster Club final.
Looking back, McLoone admits it has been a whirlwind 14 years for him and the people of Glenties.
“It’s been a long spell alright. I remember my first game in 2005. It was a league game in Ardara, I remember Jim McGuinness introducing me to the panel and saying ‘Well done, it’s his first game for Naomh Conaill and he’ll be playing for the next 20 years’.
“And you’re thinking, ‘Holy God’. Laughing at him thinking that’s never going to happen but here we are now 14 years later.
“It’s been great to actually win four championships because there’s been a lot of great players that have come before me that hadn’t won a club championship. It’s been great to be on the winning side four times.”
Among those great players that McLoone alludes to is his own father Leo Sr. The well-known publican, whose bar is often the venue after big championship victories.
The elder McLoone captained the club to a county final in 1965. The defeat to St. Joseph’s came 40 years prior to their eventual breakthrough in 2005 and 50 before Leo Jr captained the club to their third county title in 2015.
“It was in 1965 the Naomh Conaill team played in the county final, my father was captain and they actually got beat that day.
“So obviously, in 2005 it was the first time we’d won it and it was great for those types of people. There’s a lot of hurt for them older fellas too that they never actually got the club championship but I think over the years you have seen what it meant to them and to the people of Glenties.
“Winning is everything and we know football is such a big part of everyone’s life.”
Just over a month on from that epic win over Gaoth Dobhair and they stand on the brink of emulating their county final opponents by claiming a first Ulster title.
However, McLoone admits that for Martin Regan’s side, this year was just about bringing home a Donegal title after losing back-to-back finals in 2017 and 2018.
Those defeats coupled with some negative media attention has motivated McLoone and his teammates not only to county final success but all the way to Sunday’s provincial final.
“Well, to be honest, it’s grown over the past three years or even more. We’ve got beat in two county championships previous to this. We would have come in for a lot of criticism from a lot of media and whatnot for the way we play and for different things.
“We got a lot of motivation for that. Things were said like, ‘We’re going to make it three-in-a-row of defeats in county titles’. All that stacks up in players’ heads. It was a case where we didn’t want to let it slip this time and we weren’t going to without a fight.”
As McLoone continues, he highlights the fresh lease of life afforded the elder statesmen of the team by some of the younger players. Not least club captain Ciaran Thompson, who could well walk away as the Ulster club footballer of the year following a fantastic 2019 campaign.
“Overall, what’s really important for us this year is that some of our younger players have stepped up. Ciaran Thompson has come out and led our team in nearly every game we’ve played. He’s captain and has led the team in almost every game throughout.
“He’s brought a cohort of younger players with him. I don’t want to name names because I’ll miss a few. Some fellas have come in this year and given everything. They put their lives on hold. There are boys up here [in Dublin] in college who’d be travelling home for games and whatnot, training sessions.
“A team is a team but overall, in the past couple of years, the younger players have really stepped up. They’ve helped us immensely.”
McLoone and co. are just one game away from creating history once again. However, they face a huge challenge in the shape of Kilcoo who will be highly motivated having lost three Ulster club finals this decade.
The Donegal star admits they aren’t focused too much on their opponents, however, as they can only affect their own performance on the day.
“We haven’t crossed paths at senior level at all.
“I know they’ve had a lot of success at senior level in their county and the Ulster Championship – they’ve been to a lot of Ulster finals.
“They’re well experienced and they have a lot of good players. Overall, we’re just focusing on ourselves and our own game, bringing what we can to the table, giving everything we have.
“We’re just hoping that will be enough on the day.”