By Michael McMullan
NIALL O’Donnell looks at Sunday’s opponents Glen as the ‘Kings of Ulster’ as they made their way up through the underage ranks.
St Eunan’s host the Derry champions in O’Donnell Park and the St Eunan’s skipper admits that Ulster wasn’t on their radar.
“Our main target was to get back to a county final for the first time in 2015,” said the 23-year-old.
O’Donnell sees this weekend’s clash as a ‘tough task’ and while it will be ‘great’ to get playing in front of a home crowd, he feels it won’t be a huge advantage.
“I am sure they’ll have a huge crowd following them up so it won’t make much of a difference.”
O’Donnell came out on the wrong side of Glen trio Conor Glass, Jack Doherty and Tiarnan Flanagan at minor level with Derry in 2015, before spearheading Donegal’s win over the Oak Leafers in the final 12 months later.
“From when I was growing up, they’ve (Glen) always been the Kings of Ulster in my eyes,” he said, linking their club underage form with the connection to St Patrick’s Maghera’s MacRory Cup successes.
O’Donnell represents a new breed of player on the scene in Letterkenny.
It’s the near misses of the last few seasons that, in his opinion, spurred them to lift the Dr Maguire Cup, putting them level with Gaoth Dobhair at the top of the roll of honour with 15 titles – though Eunan’s still claim the ‘Leslie McGettigan Final’ of 1997 as their 16th triumph.
O’Donnell came on as a 57th minute substitute for current Chairman John Haran in the 2015 final defeat to Naomh Conaill and this year’s decider was their first time back in the final since then.
“We have been narrowly losing or drawing to the top four (teams) in the past in few years,” said O’Donnell.
“We have a new team there at the minute and I feel we have been close. We have a lot of boys between 20 and 23, they have got invaluable experience from previous years.
“Everybody brought that hurt, especially in the last two years and losing to Naomh Conaill in two semi-finals by a point. Everyone wanted to make sure that didn’t happen again.”
O’Donnell used to hurl with the club, something he enjoyed after a busy season on the football pitches across Ulster, but a need to keep the body fresh led to him hanging up his hurl for now.
He watched on as they overcame Setanta, saw the senior ladies win their championship and the minor ladies – with his younger sister Eimear on board – take their titles.
Along with brothers Conor and Shane he brought another set of county medals into the house.
“At the start of the year, you’d have taken half the trophies we have now…you couldn’t write it,” he jokes of the club’s successful season on all fronts.
“The hurlers were even bigger underdogs than we were against Naomh Conaill and to see them go out and beat Setanta with the scenes around the town and to see them celebrate, we were sitting in the crowd hoping it would be us.”
And it was.
“The scenes were unreal,” he said of the football homecoming. “Landing back to the town and it plastered with black and amber, with people waiting for us to come back. We got out and walked down the main street and it is something I will never forget.”
Another vital ingredient was new manager Rory Kavanagh, who retired after last season.
“He’s a great man to play under,” O’Donnell said. He knew the players and they knew him. Everyone knew what was expected.
“From the minute we got into training, it clicked straight away. He knew how to manage every player, so there was a smooth transition considering we all have that respect for Rory and have looked up to him.”