Wednesday 21 March 2018

Donnelly primed to lift Red Hands to the next level

From ballboy with Seán Cavanagh’s minor team to playing alongside the Tyrone legend, Trillick man has come a long way

Mattie Donnelly. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Mattie Donnelly. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

Every so often Mattie Donnelly will let his mind wander back and think back to where it all began for him.

It's the summer of 2001 and Donnelly is heading for his eleventh birthday, but his mind is already full of the things he wants for himself and Tyrone when the times comes.

His father Liam is the county minor manager and so he spends much of his time around that squad, filling water bottles and gathering up the balls. Seán Cavanagh was one of the stars of the team and they go all the way to win the minor title. He remembers the Garda escorts and all the celebrations. Even as a child, he knew it was lighting a fire in him.

"My father would have been involved with Tyrone minors around Seán Cavanagh's age and that and they won an All Ireland in 2001 and 2004," he recalls.

"That's what really made you want to go to matches, going to training and seeing the boys get out in Tyrone gear and it really ignited a keen interest. Then seeing them young boys winning, you were seeing them going to Croke Park and getting a Garda escort. And then on the back end of that you had Mickey (Harte) getting (people) interested from 2003-2008 and you were going to Croke Park and there was a great buzz around the county. Then you were in the minors and winning an All-Ireland as well. It all got your attention from a young age and it became your ambition as well."

Read more: Fitzsimons thankful for his second coming ahead of another Tyrone test

Donnelly has come a long way since then. Once he was fetching the ball the goal for Cavanagh's minors. Now, along with the Tyrone captain, he's one of the senior players on the team. "We've always joked about it," he reflects. "Peter Donnelly (current Tyrone strength and conditioning coach) was the captain that year in 2001 and we've joked about it often.

"I used to be the wee boy going around pestering (Cavanagh) and kicking the ball out. To be playing with him is unbelievable. It wouldn't have crossed your mind back then and it probably didn't cross his mind.

"We've laughed about that in the past and it's been a pleasure to see him from then until now and to get playing with him."

The family's love affair with football remains strong. Mattie's brother Richie recovered from injury to make the match-day squad against Armagh last time out. Their father Liam is still involved with management and is currently in charge of Derry outfit Ballinascreen. Everything will be parked this weekend as Tyrone look to return to an All-Ireland final by beating Dublin. If they pull it off, Donnelly is likely to be front and centre.

The Trillick clubman has been used in a variety of ways this year. In the league, they experimented with him in the full-forward line as Tyrone looked to give their attack an extra edge though he's better known for playing around the middle.

Versatility has long been part of his armoury. He can recall a MacRory Cup game where he was stuck in at full-back for St Michael's Enniskillen to keep tabs on Michael Murphy. "They put me into full-back to mark him. Then I ended up playing the rest of the season full-back. I've never really had a set position.

"I watched so much football growing up and I was quite impressionable. I watched a lot of different players and studied the way they played. I think that's helped, I found it easy enough going from position to position. There is big changes, especially now there's a massive difference playing in the middle eight and out-and-out inside forward.

"You can learn how to play it, but from a conditioning point of view, when you're inside you have to be so sharp and it's all about five or ten yards. You have to be so patient as well in your mindset. There's a big difference that way but I'd be happy enough I have an idea of how to play any position."

On Sunday, Donnelly and Tyrone face their biggest challenge. Dublin haven't lost in the championship in three years now but in that time Tyrone kept missing them, meaning there's only league form to go on.

Those games suggest Sunday will be tight. Since Jim Gavin took charge of Dublin for the 2013 season, the sides have met four times in the league. The sides have won one game each - both by a single point - while two more have ended in draws.

In their most recent encounter, Tyrone looked to have the Dubs on the back foot before Mark Bradley was sent off midway through the second half. Dublin kicked the last five points to grab a share of the spoils.


Donnelly sat in the stand on that wet night in Croke Park and since then he has been hoping for a shot at the champions.

"It was in the back of our heads, all that talk about Tyrone-Dublin. This year when the draw was made we had planned to get this far and obviously the route they were on we had a good idea that they were going to be there waiting for us. You don't want to expect anything at this level but we knew there was a good chance that our paths would cross."

But he warned they will be a very different proposition at this time of the year.

"We always seem to have competed well with Dublin. The only thing is we have never, not in my time, played them in the championship and that as we know and has been reflected in stages throughout this year. League and championship is an unbelievable difference. I saw that Jim Gavin was saying that his team and a lot of his players were coming to fruition at the right time of the year which is what good teams and good players do.

"They are going to be at the height of their powers. One of the main things that has got them so much success is the pace and intensity they have. I'd say it is going to be in stark contrast to the levels we have met Dublin in the league compared to what we are going to face."

He's come a long way from ballboy for the minor team. And he's not for stopping yet.

Mattie Donnelly is an ambassador for SKINS and their new compression range 'DNAmic TEAM'

Irish Independent

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