Mayo blood, Galway heart - and title wait 'too long' for O'Donnell
Published 18/06/2016 | 02:30
In some ways, Gary O'Donnell has long been swimming against the tide.
He hails from Galway's hurling heartland but has grown up to captain the county's footballers.
As a teacher, he works in a hurling nursery in Presentation Athenry. But there he helps out with the school's football teams.
And to top it all off, he has Mayo parents.
That's not to say O'Donnell's Galway's allegiance was ever in doubt. As a cousin of Ja Fallon, he had a front-row seat as a swashbuckling Galway slashed their way to a pair of All-Ireland titles either side of the millennium. And it had a profound effect.
"He was a huge influence," O'Donnell says of Fallon. "We'd be in touch every now and again. He was definitely someone I looked up to."
O'Donnell played underage with Gort but when interest in football fell away there he moved to the Fallons' club, Tuam Stars. It must have felt like he backed the wrong horse at times as former underage clubmates Greg Lally and Aidan Harte won provincial titles and contested All-Ireland finals.
Galway have been out in the cold in Connacht since 2008. Last year there were some signs that they were closing the gap on tonight's opponents Mayo but Kevin Walsh's overhaul continues.
They head to Castlebar with five debutants in their side. In fact, O'Donnell is the only Galway player to start every Championship game under Walsh, but tradition dictates that despite the change, there is a presumption that they will at least make life difficult for their neighbours.
"Standards and expectations would be high to be fair," O'Donnell says. "When things aren't going well, people expect better and rightly so. Galway's been a real traditional county over the years with huge success. We haven't won a Connacht championship since '08, it's far, far too long.
"We're well aware of that but I think we've plenty of good footballers to make an impact on the Championship in any year."
"It's up to other teams to close the gap. Mayo have obviously been successful in Connacht.
"But I think other teams are maybe closing the gap and trying to improve. Roscommon have been successful this year, ourselves are pushing on as well, we're learning all the time, and even Sligo and Leitrim as well are competing in the divisions as well.
"So when you compare it to other provincial championships, I don't think it gets the credit it deserves because trying to call a winner this year is nearly the most difficult of all the championships bar Ulster."
Galway will travel to Castlebar tonight without the likes of Johnny Duane, who skippered New York when they almost stunned Roscommon, and Micheal Lundy.
And O'Donnell has first-hand knowledge of just how well Stephen Rochford's teams are prepared.
"I'd talk to Gary (Sice) regularly enough about it," he says. "He speaks highly enough of him, but Corofin also have the players in Galway too.
"They're quite a strong outfit. Even with a couple of their players getting injured, they always have someone to come in. He (Rochford) did a very good job with them, he brought them to the final step to winning the All-Ireland last year. They played a great style of football, it was refreshing."
There is a trove of talent in Galway. The All-Ireland U-21 winners of 2011 and '13 are coming good. The experience of nights like tonight can only help.
"You're only ever a game away from exploding into the Championship as you've seen through teams from other years," says O'Donnell.
"A lot of lads have underage success, they're on the panel quite a while now and they're moving on.
"Since Kevin's come in, they've been exposed to different tactics and plans. It's a learning process all the time.
"Hopefully we can gel together for the Championship; in previous years, we've had different campaigns but you're always going to be judged on your summer matches."
Mayo blood but a Galway heart. His parents still put the Mayo flag out but these days they tend to wait until Galway's Championship run is over.
O'Donnell will hope that won't be for a while yet.