McLoone has gone from Boy Wonder to main man for Naomh Conaill
By John Harrington
It says a lot about Leo McLoone’s latent ability as a footballer that he made his senior club championship debut in a county final.
That was back in 2005 when his club Naomh Conaill won their first ever Donegal senior title.
“Came on as a sub just, aye”, recalls McLoone.
“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.”
Since winning his first county title in 2005, McLoone has won another three (2010, 2015, and 2019).
The one-time teenage debutant is now one of the most experienced and important cogs in the current Naomh Conaill machine.
“Aye well, I’m one of the elder statesmen anyway,” he says. “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 I think since that and it’s been great to actually win 4 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.”
You wouldn’t be surprised if the most recent one was the sweetest yet.
The county Final against Gaoth Dobhair went to two replays before Naomh Conaill eventually came out on top by a single point after another epic struggle.
"Between the finals, it was a nerve racking time, but it was also a great time from the club's behalf,” says McLoone.
"We played our second replay on a Sunday, and there was a bank holiday Monday then. We were in the water twice, we were in hydro pools, massages, meeting up like...
"It was kind of a special time really, the place was on a high. I suppose we kinda felt like we can win this too, at the same time.
"So we were nervous going into the finals, but there was also a lovely buzz looking back on it.
"It was an enjoyable time, as a team, being together. Life was on hold, really, for a few days.
"It was kinda crazy the way the games were being thrown on us. When you come out the other side of it, it leaves a nice taste."
Naomh Conaill had to play Castlerahan in the Ulster SFC quarter-final just three days after finally defeating Gaoth Dobhair in the second county final replay but still managed to come out on top by three points.
That achievement was a testament to the team’s character as much as its physical fitness.
“Well, to be honest, it's (the team’s character) grown over the past three years or even more,” says McLoone.
“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.
“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's 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.”
That quarter-final victory over Castlerahan was followed by another hard-fought win over Clontibret in the Ulster SFC semi-final.
Next up on Sunday are Down champions Kilcoo in the Ulster Final as Naomh Conaill bid to win the provincial title for the first time ever.
“We haven't crossed paths at senior level at all,” says McLoone of Kilcoo.
“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.”