Thursday 18 January 2018

Ready to eclipse the brightest stars

Just 21, Botswana-born Dub Eoghan O'Donnell is already one of the best full-backs in the game

Eoghan O’Donnell: ‘When you sit down at the start of the year you put down winning the All-Ireland as your goal. We are not there to make up numbers. We want to walk up the steps of the Hogan. Winning an All-Ireland is on our minds’ Photo: Frank McGrath/Sportsfile
Eoghan O’Donnell: ‘When you sit down at the start of the year you put down winning the All-Ireland as your goal. We are not there to make up numbers. We want to walk up the steps of the Hogan. Winning an All-Ireland is on our minds’ Photo: Frank McGrath/Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

In the National Hurling League Eoghan O'Donnell cemented his reputation as the best young full-back in the game. Even if you were to include more experienced rivals, he is probably the leading hurling full-back on this year's form. We might still feel unsure.

We are still getting to know him, swirling him around in our glass, detecting hints of a young Noel Hickey when he first emerged as an under 21 on the Kilkenny senior team.

Anthony Daly was in his final season in charge of Dublin when O'Donnell made the senior panel as a Leaving Cert student. Daly noticed his readiness from the off. "We nearly had to force him to stop training," Daly says, referring to the 18-year-old's impending exam obligations and eagerness to continue hurling. "You could see he had it. He was out of minor and the reports were that he was playing savage stuff for Whitehall."

They were struck by how quickly he adjusted, the way he carried himself among the panel's elders, respectful without being deferential. "I hadn't seen him much before that," admits Daly. "I don't know who he was on but an established fella anyway and, jaysus, he more than held his own in a match in Parnell Park. And he trained with us all the winter."

Last year's under 21 manager Joe Fortune says it was Conal Keaney who O'Donnell put "on his arse" that evening. "He [Daly] couldn't get over the lack of inhibition he showed coming into a senior panel," says Fortune. That lust for a challenge has been O'Donnell's leitmotif even though at 21, his career is only in its infancy.

Last year a wider audience got to appreciate what O'Donnell has to offer when he won a Leinster under 21 title, with Dublin's games broadcast live by TG4. They had to go to Wexford Park for the quarter-final against a county who had been provincial champions at the grade over the previous three years. O'Donnell had Conor McDonald for company, Wexford's chief scoring threat and senior county hurler. If asked the likely man of the match from this duel, most would have forecast McDonald. O'Donnell took the accolade.

His telling interventions provided several highlights from a fine evening's work. He was aggressive, quick on his feet, disciplined in the tackle, astute in his reading of the play and an excellent distributor. At that stage he had made his senior debut as a corner-back when Dublin defeated Wexford in a Leinster quarter-final on May 21, a few weeks before.

Last year Ger Cunningham introduced him to the senior team in the league, playing him throughout the campaign. In the absence of Cian O'Callaghan, who was club-tied in the spring, and no return from former All Star full-back Peter Kelly, there was a hole to fill. O'Donnell, standing at almost 6ft 2in after a growth spurt in his late teens, filled it admirably. Dublin's campaign began with a thumping loss to Tipperary in Croke Park in February. But one redeeming feature was O'Donnell's eclipse of Seamus Callanan, star of last year's All-Ireland final and the most acclaimed full-forward in the game.

O'Donnell had little of the protection defenders rely on from out the field. He had to deal with a constant spray of ball headed Callanan's way. Undeterred, O'Donnell beat his man repeatedly to the ball, and if he wasn't first to it he starved him of clean possession or any kind of rhythm. He followed that a week later by closing down Alan Cadogan as Dublin bounced back to register a timely win over Cork.

Today will demand more of that brazen conviction as the Dubs face strong favourites Galway, the league champions, in Tullamore. O'Donnell's participation has been placed in doubt after he picked up an injury in a recent challenge match against Limerick. Without him Dublin will be down not just a good hurler and defender, capable of dominating his patch, but also one of their natural leaders.

This added responsibility, to lead at 21, seems unduly onerous for a player of his vintage but he looks born to it. The haemorrhage of so many experienced players has fast-tracked a leader, ahead of his time, sitting in behind Liam Rushe. A business student in DCU, O'Donnell doesn't attempt to talk down his ambition or the team's, undeterred by relegation from Division 1A after a play-off defeat to Clare.

"When you sit down at the start of the year you put down winning the All-Ireland as your goal," he says. "We are not there to make up numbers. We want to walk up the steps of the Hogan. So winning an All-Ireland is on our minds."

You think you can get there? "Yeah. Definitely. It is just a matter of getting consistency and when it clicks we will be up there with the rest of them. It will click eventually."

O'Donnell could have a long spell at full-back given his age and early impact but he is versatile enough to play in different positions and was a forward when younger. "I probably thought of him more as a half-back maybe when I saw him first," says Daly. "That's how it looked in training. But he has adapted - he was very good there for the under 21s last year, great pace as well you see."

Daly served his time at full-back for Clare before moving out to the wing. "The big thing with full-back," he says, "is not to play with the fear. He absolutely attacks the ball; there could be the odd mistake in that, you might be caught for a goal, but you have to keep thinking like that."

O'Donnell was wing-back on the county minor team defeated by Tipperary in a replayed All-Ireland final in 2012, aged 17, and missed the following season though injury when Dublin reached the final again, losing to Galway. Daly's replacement Cunningham has formed what appears to be a close bond with O'Donnell, although it took him a year to break into the team. In Cunningham's first year, O'Donnell had injuries and was taken off at half time in the Leinster under 21 championship against Kilkenny, when marking Liam Blanchfield. Fortune was manager at the time.

"We had him at half-back in that game and he kept Blanchfield to a point but he just wasn't going well," recalls Fortune. "Before that he had been training along with the senior panel and got a knock. One of the reasons he has developed as quickly as he has is because he has been more or less allowed to play at his own age group. He had two years at under 21 without any major involvement in the senior panel and that helped him develop. He has developed into a very natural full-back."

O'Donnell was born in Botswana. Soon afterwards, his parents, both teachers who were working for a volunteer agency, moved the family to Zimbabwe, where they stayed until he was six. They returned to Ireland and settled in Whitehall. His father is from Roscommon and played football for St Faithleachs but there is virtually no GAA on his Wexford mother's side.

"I took up hurling late enough," says O'Donnell. "I was six, maybe nearly seven. A leaflet came in through the door of our home in Whitehall and my dad was new to the area, he didn't know any of the clubs around and just saw the leaflet and brought us up to the local park. I didn't really take to it at the start. I can remember standing on the sideline beside my dad not really interested or involved. The weather was always cold.

"I had a good primary teacher, his name was Cathal Ruane, he used to get us out pucking on the wall every lunch. So he was a huge influence on my sporting career. I think that's when the love took off for it. Because you tip up to your club two or three times a week, but he had you out every day hurling."

He attended St Fiachra's school in Beaumont. "I am delighted he has reached this level," says Ruane, who is no longer teaching at the school. "I had him from around nine to 12. He always had the potential. He's a very solid fella, a deep thinker. And he is very brave; he does not shy away. You don't always get what you deserve but in this case he did."

On marking some of the game's deadliest marksmen, O'Donnell relishes every offering. "Well, I took it as a challenge," he explains. "You grow up seeing these players and you end up marking them so I just took it as a big challenge and there is no greater motivation than that and playing against the best. I think full-back is a very isolated position. A lot of what happens to me depends on what happens out the pitch. So I can't do my job if people are letting ball in too easily. So I was just lucky enough that I had good people around me. I had an alright league but you have to take that into the championship. You play every game as if you are starting off new."

Which leads us into today and Galway, the 16-point winners of the National League final.

"They were very impressive, beating Tipperary," says O'Donnell. "It just shows you that Galway are never going away really, they are always going to be there. It was a huge achievement for Galway. Full credit to them."

The league has been a useful school of learning for Dublin. "We are able to compete with all these teams in the league, we feel very much that the league results didn't reflect where we are," O'Donnell maintains. "The type of game we played, we put it up to every team in patches. It's just a matter of getting it to click, getting it done for 70 minutes. So we feel very much that we are knocking on the door and that we are up there."

They were competitive save for the opener against Tipp. A young team might have been demoralised by a defeat like that. O'Donnell claims they didn't dwell on it. "It wasn't too difficult," he insists. "We took it that that was a nightmare situation and we were never going to let that happen to us again. And we parked it. Forgot about it. You know, All-Ireland champions, in Croke Park, first game of the league with a lot of young lads . . . it's going to be a tough one no matter who you are. We knew going into it that it was going to be a tough one, except maybe we didn't expect it was going be as gruesome as it was. But we parked it and the next day we rallied and had one of our best performances, against Cork."

Did you feel confident going to Cork only a week later? "Yeah, it's strange but you feel confident going into every game," he says. "You have to, to compete with the best, and we do believe we're there. It's just a matter of getting 70 minutes out of us. I think if you look back over the five or six league games we had spells where you could clearly see, ten minutes, where we were on top of other teams. So it's just a matter of keeping that going for longer spells of time. And not letting the concentration or the mental side of your game slip.

"Going down to 1B, it is obviously not where you want to be but there are a couple of positives. We are a young team so it is a great chance for lads to nail down positions next year. It is still competitive. Galway will be there. Limerick will be there. Laois will be there. There are still a lot of competitive teams. So it is not the end of the world."

Two years ago Galway destroyed Dublin in a Leinster Championship replay in Tullamore when O'Donnell was observing from the sidelines. Fitness permitting, he should have a more active part today.

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