Saturday 24 March 2018

Inspiring Donnelly ready to lead from front for club and province

Eoin Donnelly will captain Ulster this weekend in the interprovincial series
Eoin Donnelly will captain Ulster this weekend in the interprovincial series

Declan Bogue

One of the oldest motivational tricks in a manager's handbook is to play down the size of their club in comparison to others. But in the case of Coa O'Dwyers, they have a case to be considered one of the smallest in all of Ireland.

An example. When they won the Fermanagh Junior Championship this year, they met Tullysaran of Armagh in the preliminary round. Normally, a club will have 30 players togged out for the big day, but Coa had 19. Not even enough to use their full complement of subs.

That's why it means so much to them to see Eoin Donnelly captain Ulster this weekend in the interprovincial series. That's why there will be a bus load of children heading to Armagh to watch the game.

"The under-8s and the under-10s worship him," explains club PRO Paul McCarney.

McCarney, known as 'The Cat' from his 20-plus years between the sticks, bridged the generation divide of Coa players.

For almost a decade it felt like nothing was coming through, until the sons of the team grew up around the craggy landscape of Coa, nestled into an armpit of Kilskeery parish.

"Ah sure, we are sandwiched, like," says McCarney. "We haven't a school of our own. We are the smaller part of our parish with Trillick, and in between two heavy-hitters of Fermanagh football, in Tempo Maguires and Enniskillen Gaels.

"So we are always going to be struggling. But with Eoin, he raises the profile and we all have a bit more pride in the club."

There were four weddings in Coa this year, the sort of statistic that delights the elders of the club, hungry for more and more potential players. Despite his commitments as Fermanagh captain, Donnelly (right) made it to every one. He even got to Krakow on a stag do.

Perhaps the most admirable thing about Donnelly is how he has reached this point by his own force of will. Several years ago, while he was just out of U-21 football, a coach asked him if he would captain a Fermanagh team in the Junior Championship, having entered the Connacht competition.

"It wasn't really that well supported, or the county board were all that keen on it," recalls Donnelly. "But he got it organised and we went down to Sligo. We hadn't trained and he asked me to be captain for it. I was reluctant at that stage and I said 'there are plenty of other boys.'"

He wasn't confident enough to accept the captaincy at that stage.

"That was a big step up from under-21s," reasoned. "I figured out myself how I was not developing and what I needed to do to get myself on that level."

The large crowd that attended Peter Canavan's first game as manager of Fermanagh in 2012, a McKenna Cup fixture against Antrim, might have been intrigued by the unfamiliar figure in midfield of Donnelly, making his county debut. Canavan saw enough in him to make him an ever-present.

Now, he offers advice to the young lads just on the county panel. "If you are fit in December and January time, you are going to get put in," he tells them. "More often than not, boys come back from the off-season and they are not the level required.

"If you can get yourself in early, you can hit the ground running. If a manager gets you and you are doing a job, they are not going to take you out unless you aren't doing the business."

In his second season, Canavan made him captain for the visit of Monaghan on March 9 2013. He suffered a broken leg that night, but was back in time for the Championship, putting in a high-fielding exhibition against Cavan.

And now, he captains his province. When Pete McGrath asked him to take the captaincy, there was no hesitancy.

"I wasn't really expecting it," he recalls. "And then when it came, I was sort of, 'right, he is made his decision, I am not going to argue with him.'

"I can't really express what I felt at the time, it was one of those things. I just set my mind to the task. 'Right, let's get this thing done.'"

Eoin's father Brendan is a first cousin of Liam Donnelly, father of Tyrone's Mattie, meaning that two second cousins might spend some time playing midfield against Connacht tonight.

This week, Donnelly made contact with McCarney, asking him what he could bring into the Ulster dressing rooms to get signed. Balls and jerseys will bear names such as Sean Cavanagh, Peter Harte, Tony Kernan and Kevin McKernan.

The merchandise will then form part of the Coa club draw for their dinner dance in the new year.

The club keeps going. Donnelly is the backbone of the club. And of Ulster.

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport