Donegal drive as 'strong as ever', insists Mac Niallais
The bloodlines always decreed that Odhrán Mac Niallais was destined for big things.
Mac Niallais burst onto the scene in 2014 in some fashion, but actually made his Donegal debut as far back as 2011 when Jim McGuinness gave him a run in the McKenna Cup.
The stylish Gaoth Dobhair man made a berth in the side his own from 2014, cracking home a goal in the All-Ireland quarter-final against Armagh that August. Eamon McGee, a team-mate now for club and county, marked him out as 'one to watch' back in 2012, describing Mac Niallais as "one of the most naturally talented footballers there is".
MacNiallais's emergence is no accident and he comes from strong Gaoth Dobhair football stock. His grandmother, Margaret Mellett, is a sister of the late, great Hughie Tim Boyle, one of Donegal's most famous names, a winner of seven Donegal SFC medals with Gaoth Dobhair, who played for Donegal between 1945 and 1955. Margaret Mellett's sister Sarah was the mother of European Cup winner and former Celtic, Manchester United and Scotland player Paddy Crerand, who retains a keen interest in the affairs of the Gaelic footballers of Gaoth Dobhair.
Mac Niallais has a predatory eye for goal and has scored three goals so far this summer, bagging two against Armagh and showing real poise to net against Monaghan in the drawn semi-final.
"I've been lucky enough to get on the end of a few goals," he says. "It's always nice. At the end of the day it's all about getting the result. Luckily enough, we did that against Fermanagh and Monaghan."
MacNiallais's father, Donnchadh, played for Gaoth Dobhair in their 1977 championship final defeat to Sean MacCumhaills while still a minor and was on the panel the following year when they were beaten by Naomh Columba.
Donnchadh's attentions turned to soccer with Gweedore Celtic. When Gaoth Dobhair were giving the kiss of life to the club's Bord na nOg, Donnchadh got involved alongside Tom 'Beag' Gillespie and Brendan Boyle.
This was the catalyst for a rebirth of sorts in the west Donegal Gaeltacht, leading to the emergence of players like Mac Niallais and Kieran Gillespie, who was handed his championship bow against Monaghan.
Mac Niallais will line out in the Donegal engine room in Sunday's Ulster final against Tyrone. It will be Donegal's sixth in a row and the success of this golden age for Tir Chonaill has aided Mac Niallais in fitting right in. He says: "The older lads from the club like Eamon and Neil McGee have been a good help. I was lucky enough to get an Ulster medal in 2014. But every night you get to training the drive and hunger is still there, strong as ever."
Time was when Donegal feared the very sight of the Red Hand, but the tables have turned now and Donegal have beaten Tyrone in their last four championship meetings. Yet, Mac Niallais bristles at the suggestion that the 'fear factor' has gone.
He says: "They're always a tough team to play against. They're always physical. It's more believing in ourselves and what we're capable of. It's not so much a fear factor. Like Rory (Gallagher) said, we believe we can beat anyone."