Mercurial MacNiallais throws his lot back in with Donegal

For Gaoth Dobhair’s Odhran MacNiallais, life changes quickly.

The rangy 28-year-old revealed this week that he has joined the Donegal county panel for the 2021 season, which should come as a surprise to most.

He is on record in 2020 twice, speaking to the Irish News and Irish Independent, explaining that the commitment levels expected of county footballer made it unlikely that he would return. However, he changed his mind this year when he realised that the season would be a lot shorter.

But he has always been a mercurial character. The 17-year-old Odhran MacNiallais wouldn’t understand the 28-year-old version’s attitude.

The MacNiallais of today is not obsessed by football, it’s not his sole concern, the sport that gripped him so much in his late teens and early 20s, that made him frustrated, angry and annoyed for days, is now merely a past time.

“My first seven or eight years of football, I was obsessed with it. My life revolved around it. If I lost a football game I would be in a bad mood for days. But I have got over that. My attitude has changed slightly from the 17-year-old starting out.

“The last couple of years I’ve changed my outlook on it. I have not obsessed about it. I enjoy it more. Before I wanted always to do well, and always wanted to win. I hated losing, even silly league games. I enjoy it more now. I still take it seriously, and I still want to win. But at the end of the day it is not everything.”

Perhaps his attitude to the 2019 Donegal Championship highlights that.

After the three-game marathon against Naomh Conaill in the final, and the result was in, he said:
“We lost the county final and I was just glad it was over. It was a real slog. I was disappointed that we lost but it wasn’t heart-breaking. Those three games were tough going.”

The conundrum is how can MacNiallais feel this way? He was a brilliantly talented player who was part of the Donegal team that won two Ulster titles, and then he helped bring Donegal and Ulster club titles to Gaoth Dobhair in 2018.

Yet the same player walked away from Donegal, and also travelled off to London at the start of 2020.
He says that he doesn’t understand why he’s changed, but he’s sure that he’s changed.

He stepped away from the county in 2017, the year after they won the Ulster title. He returned for a season in 2018, but that was enough to make him realise that he wasn’t willing to commit.

In 2019, the death of his friend, Micheál McRoarty, in a car accident put life into perspective.

“It is coming up on two years since my mate died. When that happens you realise there is more to life than football. When you see someone like that dying so young, he was only 24, you realise you have to enjoy your life.

“He was a very good friend of mine. That was a really tough period.”

During 2019, and in the aftermath of the death of his friend, MacNiallais took stock of his life. He considered a trip to Australia where he has some friends.

“I needed a change of scenery. I have a lot of friends in Australia, and I was going to go down there. I was in contact with them and was going to get that sorted.”

But the Australia plan didn’t happen because MacNiallais decided he didn’t want to travel too far from home.
“My brother has a wee boy. You have your first nephew, then you want to be close for that. If I was in Australia that would be too far away. If

I was in London I could come home any weekend, but if I was in Australia I could only come home at Christmas.”
MacNiallias would find a compromise. In January of 2020 he decided to head to London.

Michel Boyle had moved over to England and MacNiallais made contact with him. He was coaching a club and put MacNiallais put him in contact with Paddy Madigan the chairman of the North London Shamrocks club. They set him up with work, and he moved in with another Donegal lad Peter Witherow.

“Things were going well. I had got work, and a place to stay. Training had started with the club. But then Covid hit. I stayed over for six weeks but then I had had enough. I was cooped up in the house. The only time you got out of the house was if you were going for a run. You get sick of the chilling out. I decided to head home with the plan of going back, but I am still here.”

The trip to London reminded him of an important point he learned about GAA when he was in New York in 2017. He went over there in the summer to play football.

“I found that when you go to places like London or New York there are so many people who are involved in the GAA and they really want to help you. If you are playing football they are going to look after you for work and places to stay.

“Wherever you go the GAA is like a big family. If you went somewhere and you didn’t have it you would be lonely. You make friends for life. I have friends in New York. They are good-hearted people who want to help you. They want you to play football and experience life.”

Being home was better than being cooped up, but he only really started to enjoy himself when club football returned in May.
“We had a regional league down in Donegal before the championship and we had a game every week, and training during the week. That made it hard to leave. But there was a lack of supporters at the games.

“It was a boost for everyone. I think if we didn’t have football it would have made times harder for people.”
MacNiallais’s football career began as an underage player with Gaoth Dobhair. He followed his father and brothers into the club, but in the early days success did not arrive which frustrated the competitive player.

“We took some bad beatings in those early days. The big teams like St Eunan’s would give us good hammerings. We did have a few big days. We beat them in a minor game in Termon one day. And we beat them in the U-21 Championship. That was probably the best day. But we lost to MacCumahaill’s in the next round.

“It was not that we had bad teams. We had good players but we never kind of achieved anything. But I still enjoyed it.”

He says his underage days were the best because the games were enjoyable and the pressure and commitment was not as great as it was for him later in his career.

While at underage level there was no success, MacNiallais felt there was a chance for triumph.

“I always had big hopes. I was always mad to play, but we did have good players. We struggled to get out of groups at championship stages. We lost to teams that we shouldn’t have lost to. I was thinking would we win anything? After a few years I wasn’t sure what was going to happen.”

The competitive streak that was in him from an early age perhaps came from his family. He has three brothers and there were plenty of battles growing up, but he says he would be competitive with anyone.

“I’ve always been competitive, ever since I was a young fella. Ask any of my friends. Anything I play, golf or whatever, I would be competitive. Maybe it is having three brothers we always would be competitive.

“Dad played a lot of football. He was a fairly successful soccer player. I probably get it from that environment of growing up playing sports. I just have always been competitive.”

Sport was important from an early age. He grew up hearing the stories of his father playing soccer for Gaoth Dobhair Celtic.

“He would have coached a lot of my underage teams. He was a good coach. He would have helped a lot. He told me what I was doing right and what I was doing wrong. He was a real help. He was very good.”

In the early days he loved playing and loved training. But for him the early days were consumed by Gaoth Dobhair. Playing for his county was

not on his radar, which is an interesting attitude for someone so talented.
“I was never really interested of playing for Donegal. I was never driven to do that. The only underage game I played for Donegal was a minor game against Down in 2010.

They were asking me to go up that year but I had no interest. I remember the week before the game, Charlie Mulgrew was the manager and he took me up to training. I started on the bench and then I came on after only 20 minutes.”

That was the only experience of underage football he had in his early years, he would go on to play u-21, but up to minor level the county did not interest him. But that Down game changed his attitude.

“After being up for that week with the minor I got the hunger for that side of it. Before that I never did. The buzz was a big thing. You can’t beat the buzz of playing in a packed out Clones or MacCumhaill Park. The fact of playing at that level was so enjoyable.

“Maxi (Curran) was a massive help. He was along with Jim McGuinness with the u-21s the year after.”
In those years he started to train harder. He worked under McGuinness for two years on the u-21 panel and then Curran the following year.

He started to realise that more work was needed to play at county level.
There was also a confidence issue to deal with.

“I never felt that I was good enough. That was maybe a factor why I never wanted to play underage. Even when I was playing for Donegal I never believed that I was good enough to be playing at that level. I always felt privileged to be playing for Donegal. I was always wondering if I was good enough.”

He recalls being part of the u-21 team, and being surprised at the interest he was receiving.

“We were training one morning. Maxi was the u-21 manager but he was with Jim with the seniors. He sort of suggested to me that I was to come to a meeting or something with the seniors. I said to him ‘why would I be at a meeting with the seniors?’ Then he said to me, ‘sure you are part of the seniors?’

“I was shocked because I never really thought I was part of the senior team. I was just training with them. They never really told me that I was part of the senior team. I never looked back after that. I worked hard and trained hard.”

He agrees that he needed to be told that he was good enough.

“Perhaps most boys would have thought that ‘I am there, I am part of it’. That team had won an All-Ireland. I didn’t think I was part of that. It wasn’t until Maxi said to me that I was part of the senior team that I realised.”

But Curran and McGuinness had told him that he had to change his attitude.

“I would have been known as a lazy player. I knew that I had to work hard. I had to put the shoe down. I was never a hard worker. But that Donegal team was based on that. You had 15 men busting themselves up and down the field. I knew that I wasn’t fit for that.

“I knew that I had to do so much work for Jim to even think that I would be able to go in there, for him to be able to trust me.”

MacNiallais did say that he enjoys training, but the training that he likes is ball work, the training matches, and the opportunity to refine his skills. But Jim McGuinness’s training were built around fitness and endurance, in order to create a team that could run all day.

“There were two or three months of solid running. It was very tough going, but we got the rewards. But I was never one for working hard and putting a shift in.

“What Jim wanted was 35 boys putting in the same amount of effort. I saw that first hand. It is the same with Rory Gallagher and Declan Bonner. You need that buy in from every man. You can’t have any passengers of guys who aren’t putting in the effort. Jim set the standard of that.

Trust was a word he always used. He just wanted boys that he could trust. If he gave you a role he wanted to trust you to do that job.”
The rewards were two Ulster Championships. He played in 2013 to 2016, then went back again in 2018 for a season.

It is also worth pointing out that the style of football that McGuinness wanted to play did not suit MacNiallais.

“I am a more traditional style of footballer. I just want to be up in the forwards to get ball or shoot. But in that system with Jim I was a wing-forward and that is a tough role up and down the field. I played midfield but that was similar with a lot of work to be done. Just because it didn’t suit my style of play I wasn’t going to do it. Jim gave me that belief that I could do the job.”

The period of playing for the county from 2013 to 2016 saw MacNiallais tog out alongside some of Donegal’s stars, like Michael Murphy, Karl Lacey and Frank McGlynn. The two McGee’s were there as well, Neil and Eamon.

“They were a great help to me. They gave me a lot of advice. I always had a good relationship with them. They were great role models as they were playing for Donegal. They were leading the way for Gaoth Dobhair. I had good craic with them as well as having great respect.

“When I started playing Eamon was living in Letterkenny. It was just me and Neil travelling to training. He helped me a lot. It wasn’t just them though. There were a lot of those more experience players who would help. Rory Kavanagh, Murphy, Lacey, Frank the whole lot of them were great. They were very helpful.”

Perhaps some of the advice they gave MacNiallais was about scrutiny from the media. Gaoth Dobhair lads were perhaps more familiar with it after the debacle in 2011 when every media outlet wanted to hear the story of Kevin Cassidy and his departure from the panel.

MacNiallais said that his approach to the media changed during the years he played county football.

“At the start you pay more heed to it. It affects you a bit more. As the years go on you ignore the hype. You were excited when you were a young fella, you want to read the articles. But I soon grew out of it. I had no interest in it. If you let it affect you then it will go to your head and you can’t have that.”

He just made sure that he enjoyed himself, and he’s clear on the things he enjoyed the most.

“Playing in the big finals – that made all the sloggings worthwhile. I enjoyed the big days, and playing with the best players.
“The fans can be deafening, especially in Croke Park. The Donegal fans are very good. They always support the team, win lose or draw. They always bring great noise and support the team. You could be anywhere, down in Kerry and you will still get a massive roar when you are out on the pitch.”

One of his great memories of playing county football was from the game in Croke Park, when Donegal beat Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final. It was a game that highlighted how good the Donegal team were, and also how good Jim McGuinness’s management was.

Donegal were underdogs in a game against a Dublin team regarded as having a devastating attack, but McGuinness’s team won 3-14 to 0-17, outplaying the Dubs in the second half.

“It was unbelievable. The first 20 minutes Dublin were all over us. Every time they attacked they were scoring. We felt like we needed half time to come. We got a foothold and tacked on scores. Then Ryan (McHugh) got the goal and that stunned Dublin. I remember the second half. We got the goal, and then we got the third goal and then it hit us that we were going to win.

“I watched the game back and seeing things that Jim had told us were going to happen. It was unbelievable to think that he knew what was going to happen. The game plan was perfection. You saw little things that people wouldn’t notice, that he had planned for.

“Jim and them must have watched hours of Dublin games and came up with a game-plan. It was a great game plan but it needed to be executed. I get goosebumps watching it, and how he laid out the game-plan. It was pretty special. He was a special manager.”
MacNiallais’s favourite game was the Ulster final of that year, as it was his first as a senior county footballer.

“That was a great buzz. I don’t know what it is about Clones, but that is my favourite place to play. The atmosphere that day was unbelievable. I will never forget it. We had lost the previous year to Monaghan, so to beat them in the final was amazing.

“It was nice to get one over them. It was nice to get back up the steps. I really enjoyed that night and the next steps.”
MacNiallais played again in 2015 and 2016, but on both occasions they lost in the final. First to Monaghan and then to Donegal.

They lost to Mayo in the 2015 All-Ireland quarter-final. Then in 2016 Dublin beat them in the quarters. In 2017 he took a break from football and went to New York for the summer.

“My attitude for football was not the same. I felt that there was more to life than football. My life before that was just all football.”
The death of his friend Michéal Roarty in that car accident in early 2019 certainly had an effect.

“He was a very good friend of mine, I knew one of the other boys well. That was a very difficult time. Even playing football for Gaoth Dobhair didn’t really matter.

“You never really get over it. You realise that you have to enjoy life and do what you want.”
He returned to the panel in 2018 for a season, and helped Declan Bonner’s side win the Ulster title. But he left at the end of that year.

“People might have been confused, but they respected my decision. I didn’t get any negative reaction. It is tough going, it is a full time job when you are at it. It takes up a lot of your life. It is 10 or 11 months.

“The shorter season is more appealing to me. It won’t be much of a slog. In other years when you are playing till August with the county, then you are with the club then you are back with the county, I had enough of that. But the shorter season this year made it easier for me to commit.”

Some might have thought that MacNiallais might have been more interested in playing soccer. He tended to play the sport in the winter months. But he had other reasons for choosing soccer.

“It is so enjoyable. There is no game-plans or systems. It is just go out and play ball. The Gaelic football nearly always take preference. Come February, March time when the league starts up, you preference the Gaelic then.”

He did choose soccer over GAA on one occasion. One year Gaoth Dobhair Celtic were in a relegation battle. But the game was to be played during the GAA season.

“If you play soccer instead of the Gaelic you wouldn’t be the most popular person. In 2019, there was a league game against Glenswilly, it wasn’t very important. But I went to the soccer because I didn’t want to see the team relegated to Division Two.

“They had a good history and always been in Division one. So I went to the relegation game. I think because it was an important game the (Gaelic ones) weren’t too bad about it. The soccer team won so I was happy about that decision.”
MacNiallais has given steady service to his club, bar the summer in 2017 when he went to America.

“I will always say the best day that I have ever had was winning that county championship with Gaoth Dobhair. That was the best day. I will always play for Gaoth Dobhair until the legs give up on me.”

Gaoth Dobhair’s county final win in 2018 was a huge moment for the club. They hadn’t won a Donegal Senior Championship since 2006, and for a long time leading up to 2018 it didn’t look like they would come close, such was the competition in the county.

“We hadn’t come close in 12 years, the closest we had got was the year before, when we got to the semi-final against Naomh Conaill Glenties. We lost by a point after being up by six points.

“We won in 2018 and it gave the parish a massive lift. Then we went on a run and won in Ulster. People are mad to get back to that stage.”
Winning Donegal was huge but to win Ulster as well was incredible.

“We just had a great management team. We had a massive opportunity when we got out of Donegal. They installed that belief in us that we had the team to win Ulster. That was proven to be the case. That Ulster final was magical. I will never forget those two days, the county final and that Ulster final.”

The key for MacNiallais was attitude.

“We really just gave it everything. We had a good management team with Mervyn (O’Donnell) there. They gave us the game-plan to win games.

“With each game it gave us more belief. Losing that semi-final the year before, that was the starting point. I think that woke us up. We realised that in previous years we were struggling and underachieving. But in 2017 we got the kick up the ass we needed. We had a great team, and we felt it would be a shame to waste it.

“To win our championship was one thing, but to win Ulster was way beyond our expectations.”

Last year, Gaoth Dobhair were unsuccessful in Donegal and lost in the semi-finals. But they will be back in force when the club football is allowed to go ahead.

The immediate future for MacNiallais is that he is going to join Declan Bonner’s county panel for the time being and see where that takes him.

But he hasn’t ruled out travelling again. The opportunity to go back to London is still there.

“The chairman in London says the door is always open. So I could go back. I would like to go back and make a go of it but who knows what will happen.”

With MacNiallais anything could happen. Life changes quickly.

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