Saturday 21 April 2018

'It was a massive change in your life. Things just weren't the same'

Shane O'Donnell's All-Ireland final replay hat-trick made him an overnight superstar, thrusting him into the public glare, but the support of friends and family offered refuge

Shane O'Donnell raises the Liam MacCarthy Cup
Shane O'Donnell raises the Liam MacCarthy Cup
Shane O’Donnell is mobbed by autograph hunters after the GOAL challenge in Sixmilebridge.
Shane O'Donnell steals in for Clare's third goal against Cork
Shane O'Donnell (right) celebrates with Clare team-mate Brendan Bugler after their replay success
Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

FAME is fickle but also needs context. That's why the pedestrians thronging Dublin's Grafton Street gave the handsome young man walking down the thoroughfare either no glance at all or a look of puzzled curiosity.

"Loike, duuude, when would you see a goy with two, what do they call them, loike – actual huuurley sticks on GRAFTON STREET?" they might have said, either to themselves or companions.

Some, possibly, might have thought they had seen 'yer man' somewhere before. He may well have looked familiar, but from where?

And, no doubt, there were at least one or two who recognised a teenager who on one glorious weekend last September became a huge national news story, a guy from the County Clare who was lionised in the sports pages, news pages, TV and radio.

Yes, 'twas Shane O'Donnell, and there he was lugging a heavy kit bag, carrying two hurleys and in a hurry to – of all things – a media gig in the Science Gallery located in downtown Pearse Street.

Nobody stopped him for an autograph or a 'selfie'. Nobody called out 'Yo Shane, U Da Man' or roared 'Up The Banner!'

But on Saturday, September 28, 82,756 people at Croke Park watching the Clare v Cork All-Ireland hurling final replay knew exactly who he was, as did a peak RTE television audience numbering around one million – and that figure doesn't include the scattered diaspora around the world.

Yes, a whole lotta people in a whole lotta places at home and abroad know Shane O'Donnell, the hat-trick hero of Clare, and as long as hurling records are kept, his feat of scoring three goals in 19 minutes will be remembered.

And yet, he can go virtually unnoticed around Dublin's posh end of town.

That's fine by Shane. Fame was thrust upon him by virtue of doing something he loves for fun, and not something he sought for its own sake.

Frenzy

The post-match media frenzy, the rapturous homecoming celebrations, the civic events, and the visits to schools and parishes bringing the Liam MacCarthy Cup to inspire the next generation of Clare hurlers made for a hectic schedule, particularly for O'Donnell.

"It was a great big shock. Anything I did was put in the papers. Anything I wrote on Twitter, people were writing articles on it," he says.

"It was a massive change in every aspect of your life. Things just weren't the same at all. How I dealt with it was I just stayed around the people I knew before, like my family, my closest friends, the team, Davy the manager, and the players, all the people I get on so well with.

"They didn't treat me any differently so I could retreat into that bubble of people I actually know very well any time things got a bit overwhelming. That was the easiest way to deal with it."

It would have taken a brave fortune-teller to suggest O'Donnell would flash to national prominence in such dramatic fashion as occurred last year.

For a start, his natural position in the game from the time he began playing was corner-back. A stopper, not a creator, and certainly not a goalscorer.

By chance, Alan Dunne, his PE teacher in St Flannan's, Ennis, found himself with a plethora of defenders, so in training, he moved the young O'Donnell into the forwards.

It took time for O'Donnell to get a chance to play in the Flannan's Dean Ryan Cup team as a forward but once he got going up front, goals began to flow.

Not points, but goals, and who doesn't love to have an arch-poacher in his team?

"I had just turned from playing corner-back, so I couldn't score points at all. I'd just run at the defenders, and the goals started to go in, so I just stayed corner-forward for a while and I used to score two or three goals a game," he says.

"I don't think I scored a point for three years from when I moved out from the backs. I just couldn't put it over the bar, I'd miss every time, so I went for goals and they went in.

"I became renowned for getting goals from early on because I wasn't able to do anything else.

"So it was a slow, gradual conversion then from club to county level. I had some mentors telling me I'd never be a forward, and to forget about it, that I was a club forward, and a county back.

"Eventually they saw that it probably wasn't the case, but it took a long time to convince some people that I was actually not a back."

O'Donnell played away with his school and club, and was brought into the Clare U-16 Development squad.

He progressed from there to minor and U-21s for the county, and in January last year, O'Donnell made his debut for the Banner seniors in the Waterford Crystal competition.

"I thought the Waterford Crystal was the be-all and end-all because I was playing in it," he recalls.

Injuries to Conor McGrath and Darach Honan opened the way for the teenager to get some league outings, and for Clare's opening championship match against Waterford, he was named in the starting 15.

The Eire Og player showed he could cut the mustard at senior level by marking his championship debut with a goal in a 2-20 to 1-15 victory.

Cork were the next opposition but between the Waterford and Cork games, O'Donnell got sick and lost his starting place.

"I couldn't train for a week and a half in between those matches, and lost my place to Podge (Collins)," says O'Donnell.

"Podge went on and had the year of his life, so there was no real way back in, although I was trying very hard to do so."

Opportunity knocked, however, when he was selected for the Phase 3 qualifier against Wexford. All eager to do well, O'Donnell felt he had blown it with a bad, and untypical, miss from close range

"It was all going well. I scored 1-1 in the first half and then in the second half, about halfway through, we started to let the game slip," he says.

"Podge gave me a ball and I hit it at the goalie, and he saved it, from maybe three metres out.

"I always look back on that as the moment where I lost my place for the rest of the campaign. I was very upset about it for a good while."

Back to the bench, then, for the All-Ireland quarter-final with Galway and the semi-final against Limerick.

O'Donnell did get on the field for both matches, replacing Honan and McGrath respectively, but there was no place for him in the All-Ireland final team against Jimmy Barry-Murphy's Rebels.

Rescued

He wasn't called into action off the bench, either, and that would have been the end of the 2013 story for Shane O'Donnell – until Domhnall O'Donovan rescued the Banner from extinction with a late, late saving point to force a replay.

The rest is worthy of a Hollywood film script. O'Donnell is told around 3.0 that he's playing full-forward in the replay. The match starts at 5.0. By 5.20 he has struck the sliotair to the Cork net not once, not twice, but three times.

Who needs to score points when you can wield a caman so dexterously and to such devastating effect when the goal is in your sights?

Rarely can a manager's intuitive sense of team selection for a particular match have paid off in such spectacular fashion as did Davy Fitzgerald's choice of O'Donnell in that replay.

Time marches on, of course. A new season brings new challenges, especially to defending champions, and All-Ireland heroes, be they teams or individuals, have to regroup and start all over again.

Fitzgerald & Co have done reasonably well so far, and reached the league semi-final in which they lost to Tipperary.

O'Donnell's form was mixed during the campaign, but he was the star man against Waterford, scoring two goals and making three others in a 5-18 to 0-20 drubbing of the Deise.

Unfortunately he was ruled out of the league semi-final due to a hamstring injury he suffered in training in early April.

He hopes to be back in action for his club soon, and to be available for selection for Clare's opening championship game on June 15 against the winners of Cork v Waterford.

That date, incidentally, is his 20th birthday. The gift Shane wants most is to be fully fit and ready for action and to get a starting position in the Clare team.

His attitude remains unchanged: hurling is a sport, it's the game he loves, and all he wants to do is get out on a pitch and play.

"It's just something I have always really enjoyed," he says.

"Things get kind of serious when you get into senior panels and training turns into a regime that you have to stick by, but still, every time you go out to play you absolutely love it, and the day you stop loving it is the day you stop playing."

Irish Independent Supplement

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