By Niall Gartland
EOIN Donnelly stepped away after a decade of service on the Fermanagh team in January. He captained the side for most of that time period and rarely underperformed, but a first-ever Ulster Championship medal proved elusive. He prefers to accentuate the positive, however – he believes he left the Fermanagh jersey in a better place and is content with his decision to retire. We spoke to the Coa man, now living in and playing for Carryduff, about a long and eventful career in the green and white jersey.
NIALL GARTLAND: Personally I found it a bit surprising when the news came through that you’d retired. Are you content with the decision?
EOIN DONNELLY: It was mainly for family reasons even though I was feeling the physical side of things as well, I turned 34 in May. We had our second child in January, Cian, and that was a big factor. I was travelling down from Carryduff to Fermanagh. I spoke to Kieran Donnelly [Fermanagh boss] back in December and he was aware that things were going to change when Cian arrived and I knew it wasn’t really going to work. It would’ve been unfair on my wife, Claire, because she’d given up a lot over the years to support me. It was difficult enough leaving for training when there was one child in the house, she already had her hands full, so that was a big factor in retiring and I’m happy with the decision.
NG: When you watched on as Fermanagh put it up to Tyrone in the first half of their championship game, you weren’t dying to get onto that pitch?
ED: Ach I was to be fair. Those were the big days. Even watching the league games or listening on the way, certainly you’d have liked to have been part of it and miss the buzz for those big days. You want to help and be involved, and you know what’s going on in the inside. I’d know when they’re building and planning and I missed that side of it. Unfortunately time moves on and they had a fairly decent year and I’m sure they want to progress further. I was glad to be at some of their matches. It’s just the nature of it, there’s always somebody else to take your place I think.
NG: I get the impression from reading interviews with other retired players down the years, that once you’re out of the group, you might still be friendly with some of the lads but there’s a barrier as well.
ED:You see the boys here and there but you’re never as involved as when you were playing, when you see players four or five times a week. You know exactly who’s going well and who’s injured, your finger’s on the pulse. Once you step away you meet people infrequently or have the odd message here or there, but you don’t want to pry. They’ve a lot going on as well. I’m a supporter now so I’m on the outside as such.
NG: I’ve read you quoted as saying that, at the start of your career, you never really considered playing for Fermanagh. You weren’t one of those fellas who was destined to play county football?
ED: From second year onwards, I never made any of the school teams at St Michael’s. There wasn’t a natural trajectory. I was a bit light and came from a small club (Coa) and wasn’t on the radar so to speak. To be fair, I got on the minor and U-21 teams which helped but even at that stage I was a bit light for senior county football. I’d a few trials as I’d been going well for the club but never got on the squads until Peter Canavan took over at the end of 2011. That put me in a place to get selected and I was probably 23 years old when I made the breakthrough.
NG: You didn’t play MacRory or anything then, looking back it doesn’t rankle with you?
ED: Not really, to be honest I wasn’t really at a high enough level to get selected at that stage. I wasn’t as physically developed as some of the other players. I probably thought at the time I was in with a chance of making the squad but I don’t think at that stage I’d have made a significant difference even if I was selected.
NG: You’ve spent most of your club career at junior level as far as I know?
ED: We’ve been up and down but won the Junior Championship a couple of times. It’s been up and down. This year I transferred to Carryduff so things have been a bit different. When I started off, Coa basically just fielded a reserve team, we weren’t even in the senior leagues in Fermanagh. Then we were in Division Two all the time and played a few Division Three finals.
NG: You’re from Kilskeery, it straddles the Tyrone-Fermanagh border?
ED: Coa is where we’re from. Kilskeery is between Coa and Trillick. It’s the parish, it takes in Trillick and Coa. Trillick is the bigger side of the parish and Coa is smaller and is on the Fermanagh border. My dad and uncles played a lot with Coa. My uncle John played for Fermanagh and he finished in 1981, just before they got to the Ulster final. He went on to manage as well, he managed Tyrone.
NG: Things started to go in the right direction under Peter Canavan. Was that basically of Canavan or were you developing as a footballer regardless?
ED: I didn’t play on university teams and I realised at that stage I needed to get physically stronger. I put a bit of time into that myself, and then when I got the opportunity to get onto the county squad under Canavan I got good exposure with strength and conditioning coaches. I was fit enough but needed to get stronger. I started to develop and things took off when I started getting game-time, things just kept steamrolling from then on I suppose.
NG: After reaching the Ulster final back in 2008 there was a bit of a transition period, but you still made some progress in the leagues in your early years with the county.
ED: We started from Division Four. That stage our aspiration was to move up the leagues. History tells us you need to be competing in the top divisions to be able to compete in the Ulster Championship. Our focus was on moving up the leagues and we slowly made our way up to Division Three and Two. Under Rory Gallagher we finished third in Division Two and that’s as close as we got to Division One football. It definitely helped us compete in the Ulster Championship, we got to the final in 2018 and were making progress in the All-Ireland championship as well.
NG: You broke your leg in 2013, how long were you out of action?
ED: I broke my leg in 2013 against Monaghan in a league game. It was early March and I was just out of action for six weeks or so and made it back for the start of the championship. It was a fractured time, just on the outside of the league, but I got good rehab and was looked after well. I got the cast off in six weeks and I was back playing in about roughly eight weeks, I remember I was back for the training camp just before championship, then we played Cavan a week or two after that.
I’d all sorts of injuries and operations, hands, fingers, thumbs, knees and legs. There’s been something to deal with nearly every year.
NG: You’d plenty of good managers throughout your career, but with Canavan at the helm and Kieran Donnelly involved in the backroom, that was a good management team.
ED: We’ve been very lucky. All the managers I’ve played under have been All-Ireland winners pretty much. Canavan, then Pete McGrath and his experience with Down, Rory Gallagher with Donegal. ‘Ricey’ [Ryan McMenamin] as well obviously. We’ve been very lucky and I think it’s been a great help to Fermanagh, having those men involved. Kieran Donnelly’s come full circle from being in Canavan’s backroom experience and now being manager, with all his experience being playing for Fermanagh and coaching at county, club and schools level.
NG: When were you first named captain?
ED: With injuries and one thing or another, I was captain for a few games when Canavan was in charge, then it was more permanent when Pete McGrath came on board.
NG: It seems like something that fit you quite well. I always got the impression that you’re fairly soft-spoken, was it mostly a case of leading by example or am I making wild assumptions?
ED: In general I’m fairly soft spoken but you know yourself, when the blood gets up and you’re closer to game-time, I would be a bit louder when I have to be, in training or in dressing rooms. In the main it was more about trying to lead by example, that would’ve been what I concentrated on.
NG: There was a notable turnover of players for a few years, was that something that frustrated you given you were always there?
ED: It’s hard to know, maybe that was just the nature of it. We had some players who just had to step away because they were coming to the end of their career. There’s frustration when players go for reasons outside of that but I think county football now is just so full on you can’t really begrudge people taking time away from it.
You want what’s best for Fermanagh so you want the best players available and pushing the squad on if nothing else. But you have to be realistic, Covid has shown this as well, there is life outside of football and people have to look after themselves and it just doesn’t always fit with work, family and whatever else and you have to respect that. When you’re younger you think people should drop everything to play but there’s stuff other than football as well.
NG: I’m sure you had to make a lot of sacrifices even in terms of your social life for a long period.
ED: Yeah but I got good support from your family and friends and they understand why you’re making those sacrifices. At the end of the day you wouldn’t do it unless you enjoyed it and that was always my thinking. If I wasn’t enjoying it I wouldn’t make those sacrifices, I never felt I wasn’t missing out. I felt I was very lucky to represent Fermanagh and that it wasn’t going to go on forever. I was doing it for myself and my family and I felt I was getting plenty back from Fermanagh, the enjoyment and everything else that went with it, I put a lot into it but I got a lot of enjoyment in return.
NG: Honing in on a particular year, I imagine 2015 was a particular highlight. You finished top of the table in Division Three and went on a great run in the championship (they eventually lost to Dublin in an All-Ireland quarter-final).
ED: It was a great run and we were probably at the peak of our powers at that stage. A lot of our players were at a really good age and our management team had us in really good shape and we were competing well. We probably felt we were bouncing from game to the next as we’d gone on a good run of winning games.
We’d a fantastic result against Westmeath in the last 12 and had only a six-day turnaround to play Dublin. We’d picked up a few injuries as well and given we were competing against Dublin in Croke Park for the first time, we could’ve done with a bit more preparation and time but that was the nature of it. We were probably just undercooked for that one but nobody expected anything from us.
When we looked back on the year as a whole it was hugely satisfying. Individually you can always look at one game here and there and think we could’ve done a bit better but when you look at Dublin in 2015, they were starting out on their great run and you realise now they were maybe the best team ever so you can’t be too disappointed.
NG: What made Dublin so special? Playing against them was it obvious they were a cut above even the other top teams in the country?
ED: I just think they reacted so well to whatever was put up against them. They got caught out by Donegal in 2014 and in 2015 they just weren’t going to be found out again. The players were so good technically and tactically, no matter what teams tried they always seemed to have an answer and that wasn’t always coming from the sideline. It was able to be done on the pitch, physically as well they were so strong and fit.
Some of the players were some of the best players we’ve been lucky to see. Brian Fenton is a fantastic midfielder, Bernard Brogan was still going well and young players like Jack McCaffrey were playing. Then they obviously got a lot of support and brilliant coaching and that all fed into it. We did well, they didn’t usually concede so much, but in reality they were always in control of the game. We never really had them on the run or anything like that, they were a phenomenal team.
NG: Pete McGrath did a great job but left in acrimonious circumstances. From the outside looking in he did a good job though. What was your take on the man, was he a bit old school compared to the likes of your next manager Rory Gallagher?
ED: It was a completely different managerial style but I’ve crossed paths with Pete since then thankfully and I’ve huge respect for Pete and what he did for me and my career and Fermanagh as well. At that time, it was a change that the players and rightly or wrongly we moved on. Rory came in and it was a completely different style and we made a few more steps forward under him, making the Ulster final and competing well in the league. Pete had some fantastic years for us and I think all the players were grateful for the progress we made, but you always want to see how you can get better and how Fermanagh can progress.
NG: You captained Ulster to a Railway Cup title when Pete was in charge which is a nice feather in the cap to have.
ED: Absolutely and that’s another thing I have to be grateful to Pete for. He was Ulster manager and brought in a few Fermanagh lads and selected me as captain. It was the last year of the Railway Cup but I’d been well-schooled on the history of the competition as I’d family members who played on it and had great stories about some of the teams that played in the seventies and eighties. I know it wasn’t for everybody but it was a huge honour.
NG: How did you find it during the Rory Gallagher years, I remember Fermanagh getting quite a lot of stick for how defensive they were at the time.
ED: When you look at Donegal winning the All-Ireland, or even Derry winning Ulster this year, people on the outside might criticise it, they mightn’t see it as pleasing on the eye but when you’re involved winning is all that matters. When you put in all this effort, and a manager says playing a certain way will give you a better chance of winning, then you’re going to buy into it, especially when you’re coming from a tradition of not having much success.
Rory made an instant impact, we got promoted from Division Three and got to an Ulster final in 2018. There was an absolute change in intensity and a completely different outlook on how we’d play and defend. It was about making ourselves more difficult to beat but it probably took away from our scoring rate, which hadn’t really been up there anyway. For those three years we did well enough in the league to keep us going. We had a plan under Rory and I felt for those few years we were on an upwards curve anyway.
NG: Regarding your attacking problems, it seems like you never really managed to get Tomás Corrigan and the Quigley brothers available at the one time. Was that part of the problem?
ED: Well even if we had all three men, they mightn’t have all been able to fit into things at the one time. It is a squad game and you have to deal with the fact that one or two good players probably won’t be available at any given time.
NG: In 2018 you’d cracking wins over Armagh and Monaghan, two teams that would’ve been pinned as being higher up the ranks than Fermanagh. Was it Gallagher who instilled a winning mentality or was it there already given you’d done well under McGrath?
ED: Probably a bit of both. Whenever Pete was involved we played Armagh a lot because they were flitted between Division Two and Three a bit like ourselves. It’s only in the last couple of years that they’ve pushed on so we knew at that stage we weren’t far away. Rory would’ve known McGeeney and how he liked to play and how we could stop them playing.
We were growing more confident in how we were playing and how we could stop them. Armagh and Monaghan were at a higher level at that stage but the system we were playing worked and the players fully backed it. It was another thing to put performances back to back and we got two at that time. Unfortunately it didn’t go for us in the final but we had good league performances leading into that and the championship performances as well were good.
NG: Your most well-known moment in a Fermanagh jersey was your late winning goal against Monaghan in the Ulster Championship semi-final, what’s your memories of it?
ED: I’ve fond memories more so of the euphoria and the craic afterwards and seeing some of the supporters and how much enjoyment they got out of it. When I got the goal there was a minute or so left and I couldn’t enjoy it too much. McManus had a shot at the end and it could have gone to extra time or a replay. That’s the way it is, you don’t get time to savour things like that in the actual game, but we got a huge result and the goal was important. Rory had said about going into the square at that stage and you knew anything could happen if the goalie rushed out and you got contact with the ball.
NG: Donegal had your number in the final, it wasn’t really a characteristic Fermanagh performance of that era.
ED: They got away on us very early. They got two goals in the first half and we never going to get a huge score at the other end so that pretty much ended the game as a contest. It’s hard to pinpoint where it went wrong but we didn’t perform well collectively so that was a disappointment. Donegal were flying and had brilliant players, they knew our weakness and capitalised on it by running into a good lead in the first-half. Ryan McHugh’s goal was a killer blow for us.
NG: Is it a major regret that you didn’t get an Ulster medal, or is it just one of those things where you gave it your best shot and had some good days and not-so-good days?
ED: That’s it really, when you’re sent out to play in Kerry and Dublin you’re maybe thinking of how many medals you’re going to win but realistically that’s not something that really applies in Fermanagh. I regret we didn’t pick up a few more medals along the way as we got to league finals and an Ulster final, but it’s not a huge regret. Ultimately when you look back and think when you started off, when you think it’s gone on some sort of upward curve and you’ve enjoyed yourself you can rest a bit happier that way. I’ve fond memories, obviously there’s disappointment along the way and you have to take the rough with the smooth. Unfortunately there’s very few winners every year in the GAA so you can’t be too hard on yourself.
NG: Do you see yourself involved some time in the future in a managerial or coaching capacity with Fermanagh?
ED: I don’t know, I’m still interested in GAA and how teams set up tactically and how things could be done slightly better. I keep up to date with the different styles of play and that’s something that definitely interests me. But at the minute I’m spending a bit of time with family at home so that’s my priority at the moment.
NG: And just a random one to finish off with, who was the best midfielder you came up against?
ED: I’d a lot of tough battles with Gary Brennan, he played with Clare and we came up against them on a number of occasions. He’s a player I considered underrated, he was big and strong physically and could kick scores. He was a good leader on his team as well so he’s one who stands out for me.