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O'Donnell: 'We all need to raise the bar to catch Mayo'

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Gary O'Donnell goes through his post-match stretching routine with a little help from his nieces Alana Moran and Mia O'Donnell after Galway's Connacht SFC semi-final victory over Sligo last month. Picture credit: Ray Ryan / SPORTSFILE

Gary O'Donnell goes through his post-match stretching routine with a little help from his nieces Alana Moran and Mia O'Donnell after Galway's Connacht SFC semi-final victory over Sligo last month. Picture credit: Ray Ryan / SPORTSFILE

Gary O'Donnell goes through his post-match stretching routine with a little help from his nieces Alana Moran and Mia O'Donnell after Galway's Connacht SFC semi-final victory over Sligo last month. Picture credit: Ray Ryan / SPORTSFILE

Gort, in south Galway, has a long tradition of producing county players, even All-Ireland winners and All Stars. All, though, have been hurlers, which makes Galway's centre-back for Sunday's Connacht final against Mayo a rare product of the town on the Clare border.

But Gary O'Donnell's football pedigree is not in doubt. Both of his parents are from football heartlands in Mayo and his first cousins, Ja and John Fallon, wore the maroon and white with distinction.

O'Donnell was a handy hurler, helping Gort win an All-Ireland title, but football is in the blood. Work is what took the O'Donnell family to the town which produced Sylvie Linnane and a string of other All-Ireland winners.

His dad, Pat, is from Louisburgh and his work as a garda took him to Gort, while mum, Mona, an aunt of the Fallons in Tuam, is from Claremorris and her job with AIB saw her move to Gort.

She will miss Sunday's final as she is at a wedding in Fiji, but there is no doubt who they have been shouting for in Connacht's biggest rivalry since son, Gary, emerged in the Galway squad six years ago.

It is a measure of how things have gone for Galway in recent times that this is O'Donnell's senior provincial final debut.

"Little did I know back in '08 when I was a member of the panel that it would take so long to reach another one. Unfortunately, I was unavailable in '09 due to suspension in the game before that. Little did I know at that time that it would six or seven years to get back to the Connacht final again," said the 26-year old.

He never got to play with Ja on the Galway team, but they did link up when he transferred to Tuam Stars.

"He was just gone the year before, he played against Sligo in '07 in the Hyde, so that was his last year and he couldn't hang on," said O'Donnell.

"We keep in touch. You might get a call, or I might pop into him now and again, but he's a huge influence, not only to myself, but a lot of the other players on the panel, even the more elderly players. He was a selector and a player at the same time, so he keeps in regular contact with the guys and he goes to the games."

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O'Donnell has served Galway in many positions, but he has become a real anchor for the team this season, nailing down the centre-back role and producing a string of quality performances

"I've played right across the half-back line and in midfield, so some might say it was time enough for me to settle in one. Fortunately enough, I was given the number six jersey earlier on this year after coming back from injury. It's easy enough when you have good players around you to settle into a position like that.

"I've played a lot in there at underage to be honest. I'm comfortable enough in that position, but, like any other position, you just need to get a familiarity with it through games and practice and training and I seem to have got that over the last few months.

"The team has evolved a lot. Against London and Sligo, it was really the younger crop of players who made their mark on the game, so that was encouraging. We seemed to have very good records in the underage in previous years with minor and U-21 in particular, so hopefully we can bring that to senior success."

He doesn't need the relations in Mayo to tell him how formidable the Green and Red have become, but he reckons they won't be far away on Sunday.

"They're going for four in a row in Connacht. They've really raised the bar over the last four or five years, I think it's just up to the rest of us to get up there with them.

"Roscommon showed they can compete in the semi-final, but any time Galway meet Mayo, they are usually tight games with the exception of last year. But we will be looking to go to the Connacht final to put in a big performance and that's the only thing we can focus on and I think if we can do that, we won't be far away."

The 17-point hammering they suffered to Mayo in their own backyard at Pearse Stadium is not something they dwelled on. Instead, they used that as a benchmark and decided they would try bridge it with a good run in the qualifiers.

They made hard work of seeing off Tipperary, Waterford and Armagh despite getting home advantage in each of them, but by the time they hit Croke Park, they were well able to go toe to toe with Cork before being edged out by 1-17 to 1-16.

O'Donnell reflected: "Well, the Mayo defeat certainly gave us a focus last year. I know we scrapped through a few of the earlier rounds in the qualifiers, but it definitely gave us the perspective of where we need to go.

"Mayo have contested the last two All-Ireland finals and have been unlucky in a few of them; they're not getting there by chance. The rest of us here in Connacht, we need to raise the bar to get there."

He said that last year's nightmare, though, has not featured much in the build-up to this final. "I think that if you get bogged down by a performance like that last year, it can take the focus on what's coming up against Mayo. We just focused on the Sligo game, then went back to our clubs for a week and turned our attention to Mayo.

"It would be a huge one to win. Any time Galway meet Mayo, there is an extra spice to it," said the schoolteacher, who has come a circuitous route to man the Galway defence in a Connacht final.


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