Tuesday 24 October 2017

Mickey Harte is finally giving the county's All-Ireland-winning underage stars their chance to shine

Cliona Foley

Cliona Foley

MARK Donnelly must be tickled pink by the amount of times he has been referred to this summer as proof that Mickey Harte is finally giving the county's All-Ireland-winning underage stars their chance to shine.

Yes, there was an "M Donnelly" at full-forward in Tyrone's 2008 All-Ireland winning minors, but that was Matthew Donnelly.

This summer's repeated case of mistaken identity is taking seven years off Mark Donnelly's birth cert, because he is a 27-year-old who has taken a much more scenic route to county senior status than 20-year-old tyros like Peter Harte and Kyle Coney.

Even with three games to go in this year's Allianz League, he still hadn't broken into the Tyrone team, so nailing down a championship spot all summer and surviving this week's reshuffle in attack demonstrates the sort of form he is in.

The primary school teacher from Carrickmore has long been recognised as one of the top scorers in Tyrone club football but, despite going to trials on several occasions, Mickey Harte only called him up to the county senior squad last year.

It wasn't the first time 'Sparky' had caught Harte's eye, as he brought him into the Tyrone U-21 squad late in their All-Ireland campaign in 2002, when he made just one appearance as a substitute.

He played on the same Omagh CBS team as the likes of Joe McMahon and Dermot Carlin and has Sigerson Cup experience under his belt, too, after studying at St Mary's teacher-training college.

But the Tyrone senior call still didn't come until last year and even when it did, he still struggled to make the breakthrough.

It was only when Colm Cavanagh got injured against Laois in the league that Donnelly got his first real chance, coming off the bench to score with his first touch.

The next day out, against Kildare, with Stephen O'Neill injured, he got a late call-up to start and has been ever-present since. He blossomed in the qualifiers, scoring a total of 2-6 from play in Tyrone's last three games.

So why did he never make it before? Former Fermanagh boss Dominic Corrigan managed him for two seasons in a Carrickmore team that won the county SFC title in 2004 and lost the final, after a replay, to Errigal Ciaran a year later. "I first saw Mark playing for Omagh in a MacRory Cup final against St Michael's Enniskillen," Corrigan explained.

"Then I worked with him in Carrickmore, he was still only around 20 and a great talent, had terrific pace and fantastic ball-winning ability.

"The one aspect of his game that was missing, but has clearly improved since, is his ability to bring other players into the game.

"Like a lot of talented forwards with blistering pace, he had a tendency when he was younger to go it alone.

"But his form this summer shows that he's a real team player now, as well as being in such brilliant individual form. Tyrone club football is extremely parochial, the rivalry between clubs is massive, but I'd say there's universal delight to see Mark finally get a run and make his mark because off the pitch he's very pleasant and easy-going, a real gentleman," he added.

Ironically, in an interview with Ulster weekly 'Gaelic Life' this summer, Donnelly admitted that he was so overawed by his new team-mates initially that trying so hard to be a 'team player' backfired on him.

"Last year, I was new in. You're playing alongside (Sean) Cavanagh, (Brian) Dooher, (Stephen) O'Neill, all the big names you've watched in the biggest of matches, and you're maybe more in awe of them than anything," he said. "In matches, you slip the ball off to them no matter what position you're in.

"I suppose I've realised that I'm there for a reason.

"You're not just there to pass the ball to other players, you're brought in because of what they believe you can do. I know the boys better now, and I think I'm bringing my own game to things."

He can win primary ball, offload intelligently or shoot on sight and is particularly dangerous when dropping deep and running at teams, but reproducing that in the cauldron that is Croker, against the Dubs, represents his biggest test yet.

Irish Independent

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