"I was just sucked into thei Donegal squad" - Shaun Patton

"I was just sucked into thei Donegal squad" - Shaun Patton

Three years in the Donegal panel and he is going for his third Ulster championship medal in-a-row. It has been a whirlwind journey for Donegal's latest netminder, Shaun Patton.

The transformation from soccer goalkeeper with Sligo Rovers to the Donegal senior team has been nothing short of miraculous and he is not just one of the mainstays of Donegal's recent success, but is now regarded as among the top two or three 'keepers in the country.

And for someone who stopped playing Gaelic football at U-12 level, it goes to show that goalkeepers are a rare breed.

His soccer career took him to many trials in England at underage level, but now he has found his calling and Donegal supporters are very happy with the decision.

"To be honest with you when Declan (Bonner) offered me an opportunity, it was nearly a given that I would go in. I went in and seen what it meant to the group at the time. To be honest I got sucked in and I loved every moment of it since I joined," said Patton, who said he was shocked to get the call at the time.

Patton was with Sligo Rovers at the time and he said he discussed the offer with his family and girlfriend and looked at all aspects of it before making up his mind.

When games are analysed nowadays, the importance of the role played by the goalkeeper seems to increase year on year with possession from kick-outs almost outweighing their ability to stop goalbound shots.

And in the kick-out stats, Patton now rivals Stephen Cluxton of Dublin, but the St Eunan's man says it all depends on players presenting themselves.

"You try to get the ball away to whatever players are available. Try finding the free man is the aim of the game, really," said Patton, who said it was a little more difficult in winter conditions.

"It can be a lot harder for the players outfield if it is lumped out long.

"It is not something you are born with. But listen, I grew up with a football beside me. You train and you train and you train and at the end of the day all you want to do is improve," said Patton, who said he worked on that all through his life."

Patton agrees there was satisfaction in getting a good one away, like the goal against Tyrone.

"But the thing you have to look at is Peadar Mogan, he made himself available for me."

As for mistakes, Patton says they are part and parcel of the game. "These things happen. Obviously it is not nice and it's not easy to get over. But that's life," said Patton, who said it was one of the enjoyable things about the role. "There is so much pressure and emphasis on it. You just have to embrace it," said Patton, who added that the boys are extremely supportive when things don't work out.

Asked about one lucky escape in the Tyrone game, he laughs: "It was extremely hairy. It was absolutely outrageous, I don't know how it stayed out," he said. "It is one of them things about winter football," adding that you can't really prepare for things like that.

Growing up the Donegal netminder had his dreams and they were inspired by one of his own. "Going back years, you are always fantasising about playing Premier League football. And seeing a local man like Shay Given, who is only from over the road in Lifford, was a massive inspiration. Seeing him come from a small town, to be able to go over there and play, he gave me a real inspiration to be a goalkeeper."

And playing sport and being in lockdown in the spring has made him really enjoy the games now.

"I love going out and playing football. And this year you realise how much a part of your life it is. Whenever it was taken away I was standing there thinking what am I going to do now?

"Once you realise how fickle it can be taken away, whenever you get the chance to go out there again, you take the chance by the scruff of the neck and enjoy it."

He is not too worried about the conditions that are now normal with the goalmouth areas in the Athletic Grounds well cut up on Sunday last.

"I was watching it myself. Obviously it was muddy. But if you speak to a lot of goalkeepers, they spend a lot of time diving through the mud in the training sessions and they enjoy it. It is not really a worry, you embrace it and take it as it comes."

As regards the adjustment from being a soccer 'keeper to playing in goal for Donegal, he says: "To be honest, the difference I don't really know. I put in a lot of work into being a goalkeeper when I was young. Working hard with the coaches is the main thing, with people like Papa (Paul Durcan), bouncing ideas off him. When you're training with a fella like Papa, who's been there and done it, it's always great to get a few pointers from him."

He said that he wouldn't have been taking notes on what the Gaelic 'keepers were doing. "You would watch what they did. Papa had this unbelievable disguised kick-out. It was just outrageous," said Patton. "You would see how talented the 'keepers were," he said, mentioning the likes of Stephen Cluxton and David Clarke.

Donegal are second favourites in some places for the All-Ireland but Patton says that any mention of Dublin are not even on the radar.

"To be honest at the minute they are not anywhere in sight. We have a massive game against Cavan next weekend. Obviously with the two comebacks Cavan had in the Ulster campaign so far, they have an absolutely unbelievable resilience about them. For us now in the panel we won't be looking past the Ulster final. It's a massive day. Cavan, obviously take great pride in their football, no different to ourselves. All our focus is on the game now on Sunday."

He does agree, however, that the carrot of three in-a-row in Ulster is something to look forward to. "It would be brilliant, to win three in-a-row. But at the end of the day it's only another final that the boys have got into. We did it in 2013 and the boys didn't get over the line. Our only focus is to go in with a good mentality; to hit the training pitch hard and get our focus right for Sunday."

Patton says getting games played has been a Godsend for many people. "It's brilliant. Even just for my own family, to have something to talk about and something to look forward to. Even just chatting to friends or going into the station at Navan, they're chatting about the football at the weekend, they're chatting about the sport coming up at the weekend. Over that long period of lockdown, the only thing you were hearing is Covid-19. The only news you were getting was how many cases every day; how many deaths. It was really, really a dark time for everybody.

"To be able have sport of any kind and even for the people of Donegal to be looking forward to an Ulster final this week is massive."

Would Shaun Patton be available if Donegal wanted him to take the long range frees ala Stephen Cluxton? "It is something the local ones would know, frees haven't been my strongest point. I tried a few for the club, was it in 2019 I kicked one wide to level it up against Naomh Conaill. But whenever you have a footballer like Michael Murphy, Ciaran Thompson, Michael Langan, boys like that who can kick frees off the ground, it is something I'm happy to leave that to them.

"If I was ever asked to kick one, I would definitely oblige; I would be happy to try my best," said Patton, who added that it was something that needed a lot of practice to get right.

As for trying to get more length into his kick-outs by beefing up like golfer Bryson de Chambeau, he laughs: "I've tried putting on a few pounds. Bryson de Chambeau, I was watching him and it didn't work out for him over the weekend (in the Masters). He talked as if he was going to walk over the course and the length didn't work out for him.

"I'm happy with where I am at the minute. I'm working awfully hard to keep myself in good shape and try to perform to the best I can every week. That's my main focus," says Patton, who has no worries about complacency.

"To be honest, we can't afford to get complacent. We focus on ourselves. When you look at what's at stake and the work put in, but you can guarantee Cavan have put in the exact same amount of work.

"Nobody deserves to win and especially in an Ulster final. All we have to do is focus on getting ourselves right and putting in a performance."

He is happy that he has Neil McGee back defending the square in front of him: "Neil is brilliant. He is a fantastic professional. He is playing for so many years and there's a reason for that, he conducts himself in the right way. He looks to get out and perform every single day."

Donegal are lucky to have such a well-rounded No 1. His day job is guarding the people of Navan but on Sunday next all Donegal wish him well as he tries to do something special - three Ulster championship finals and three wins.

If you have a story or want to send a photo or video to us please contact the Donegal Live editorial team any time. To contact Donegal Democrat and Donegal People's Press, email editorial@donegaldemocrat.ie To contact Donegal Post, email editor@donegalpost.com To contact Inish Times, email editor@inishtimes.com.

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