Thursday 26 April 2018

It's easy to be convinced by the Donnellys' conviction that they can beat the champions

The Donnelly men (left to right) Richie, Liam and Mattie at the GAA club in Trillick. ‘Last Sunday they sat side by side in Croke Park as Mayo and Kerry played out a draw.’ Photo: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker
The Donnelly men (left to right) Richie, Liam and Mattie at the GAA club in Trillick. ‘Last Sunday they sat side by side in Croke Park as Mayo and Kerry played out a draw.’ Photo: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker
Marie Crowe

Marie Crowe

The three Donnelly men are on the sofa in their sitting room. Mattie, Richie and their father Liam. The pictures that decorate the walls around the house tell the story of the life they have led. It's one that has centred on football and pretty much football alone

Their interest in the game began as soon as they could walk but it really accelerated when Liam took over the Tyrone minors. His stint at the helm lasted from 1999 until 2005 and produced two All-Ireland titles and some great players to boot.

Mattie and Richie became unofficial ball boys at training, kicking balls back to the likes of Seán Cavanagh and Peter Donnelly. They were exposed to success at an early age and, crucially, what it takes to achieve it.

During those years their football education took off. They hardly ever missed a training session or match and even though they were only eight and nine they were rarely without a ball in their hands.

"That was my first memories of Gaelic football," says Richie. "Going to those minor games and seeing the jerseys being handed out and noticing that they got new socks for every game. I thought that was great."

Surrounded by this in their everyday lives, it was natural that the brothers would want to emulate them too.

"We'd come home from training in the van and the boys would jump out of the back with the cones in hand full of energy," says Liam. "I'd be tired because I'd have done the session and I had been at work that day too. But I'd have to replicate the session with them out on the lawn and everything had to be set up the same way as it had been in training or they would pull me up on it. They were always practising, kicking the ball non-stop about here.

"But they had two different personalities, Mattie at a younger age would blow a fuse in a flash, Richie was much more laid-back. They had two different builds as well when they were young. Mattie was skinny and lean, Richie was chubby . . ."

"You mean stocky," interjects Richie.

The Donnellys hail from the village of Trillick, just outside Omagh not far from the Fermanagh border. There is a golf course just down the road so they played a bit there, and they also did boxing for a while but there was never any divided loyalties because football always came first.

Mattie Donnelly in action for Tyrone. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Mattie Donnelly in action for Tyrone. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

The Donnellys are part of the new breed of Tyrone footballers. They are the lads who grew up watching Ulster teams dominate the All-Ireland football championship. They are still in their mid-twenties but they are big, strong men with imposing physiques who are the product of hard work and education.

Mattie always loved the gym. He spent a lot of time as a teenager there, admittedly just running on the treadmill and doing bicep curls. But when he was asked to be involved in the Tyrone under 17 set-up he got a reality check. As part of a fitness test he had to do pull-ups and he couldn't do even one. Obviously he has come a long way since then.

"I was called into the Tyrone team when I was 19," says Mattie, who is 18 months older than Richie. "I remember my first interaction with Mickey Harte - it was a phone-call asking me into the team. It was a nerve-wracking experience. He has that type of persona that makes you feel like you have everything to prove to him and even now that's still the same. You always feel like he is watching you and passing judgement on you but you are very keen to make sure it is positive.

My first impression of him was that I wanted to impress him and do the job he wanted me to do. When he shows faith in you it gives you great confidence. I took a two-year sabbatical from it then and went back in again at 21. The first time I went in I was looking around the dressing room first and foremost at players like Philip Jordan, Enda McGinley and Conor Gormley.

"I saw how physically imposing they were. You had to be at that level to make an impact at senior. I saw the Dublin and Cork teams coming along and they had taken it to another level. I just thought I was a bit far off it physically and I always had the plan in my mind I was only going to go in if I thought I could impact at championship level whether it was as a sub or as a starter. I thought if I got a chance to play a part I wanted to make a positive impact and at the time I wouldn't have been physically fit to do that."

So he stepped away at 19, showing a maturity perhaps beyond his years, he determined to get into the shape he knew he needed to be in. He developed naturally to a certain extent but most of it was down to hard work. He educated himself on the right training and nutrition needed to build strength and develop movement skills. He was in Jordanstown on the Sigerson team so he learned from those around him.

He worked on the mental side of his game too, and ironed out the issues he had with discipline on the field in order to be a better player. The short fuse his father referenced is under control but it needed work.

"I learned some harsh lessons. A few people sat down with me and told me things that were hard to hear. I've been lucky enough I've had some great managers and the right people around me. They said some things that hurt me but you realise over time and with maturity that they are right.

"I always want to be the best player I can be and if those tweaks helped then I was going to do them. I stuck to it and now it is second nature to me. Sometimes I find myself straying and I have different cues to bring myself back.

"I find I'm mainly very composed now. Mickey is basically a sports psychologist in Tyrone and in the club I worked with Ciarán Kearney and I learnt a lot from him."

As Mattie set about making the improvements he felt he needed to be a real Tyrone footballer, the younger Donnelly watched on. He saw at close quarters what his brother was doing and the benefits of hard work and discipline. He also, of course, had the benefit of being able to learn from Mattie's mistakes. Not that this made him immune from making one or two of his own.

"In college I got a bit distracted from what should have been my priority," says Richie. "That slowed me up for a few years but I saw the effect that not being fully focused had on Mattie's game when he was in college and also I saw the way the game was going in general. That's when I realised what I needed to do so I really bought into it. So it was 2014 when I went at it at the level I should have been for previous years. From then on I focused, my body reacted pretty quickly and I started to see the benefits."

It helps, of course, that there are two of them travelling the same road. They drive each other on. They have made a lifestyle choice, the dedication to training; the early nights and the healthy food in the fridge are testament to that. "There's no bread or biscuits in this house now," laments Liam.

A former Tyrone footballer himself, he always watched the boys from afar, never training them at underage. And when they went away to college and their focus perhaps shifted a little from football, he let them at it.

You can see it happening but you have to let them live, experience it and learn from it. I could always sense they were going to come back to the straight part of the road again. And now they have brilliant discipline. It's a tough road but the rewards are great and they are well looked after in Tyrone."

Being an inter-county player brings a certain pressure. But the lads look at it as a responsibility rather than a pressure. They are conscious that they must conduct themselves in a certain way because people watch them and they need to set an example. But that for them is a powerful thing and a privilege too. They are fascinated by performance and they want to be better all the time. Mattie likes MMA, every now and again he will train in a specialised gym and maybe one day he will step in the ring. Not now though - they have big ambitions that are reserved for the pitch.

While many footballers like to switch off and not watch too much of the game they spend their time playing, the Donnellys are not like that. They are constantly watching matches, Liam too. Last Sunday they sat side by side in Croke Park as Mayo and Kerry played out a draw.

Today, they are back in Croke Park, back where they want to be. It's an exciting time. Mattie is set to start against Dublin and Richie, who is just back from injury, is hoping to see some action too.

Tyrone have shipped their fair share of criticism over their style of play and tactics over the years. But the players have kept their heads down and built on their performances, improving where they could. One of the questions often raised is about their ability to get scores but Mattie doesn't buy that criticism and he feels their final results speak for themselves.

And he's right: 0-22 against Derry, 1-21 versus Donegal, 2-17 against Down and 3-17 against Armagh, an average of 24 points per game. Indeed their scoring has increased with every game in the championship. They are pretty good at defence too; the only goal they conceded was against Donegal in the Ulster semi-final.

Dublin will be their biggest test so far, but they are ready. They believe in doing the simple things right and working hard.

Throughout their inter-county careers the Donnellys have been constantly learning and improving. An air of confidence surrounds them. They are intent on beating Dublin and given how determined they are it's hard not to share their faith.

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