In a relatively short playing career that spanned just over a decade with Omagh St Enda’s and Tyrone, Donal McSorley achieved more success than many could ever dream of.
The Eskra native recently turned 95 but his memories of a glittering football career are so sharp it’s as if they were just yesterday.
He secured four Tyrone Senior Championship titles with St Enda’s, including the club’s first in 1948, as well as an Ulster Minor Championship with Tyrone, showing an admirable adaptability by lining out in defence, midfield and attack during his playing days. His high-fielding was exceptional, as was his turn of pace, and trusty placekicking, attributes which underlined his worth to any team
Donal, who lives quietly with his wife Kathleen in Omagh after many years in London, still keeps a watching brief on Omagh and Tyrone.
“ The game has changed alright but I think I would still be suited to it,” he laughed as he sat at his kitchen table recalling days gone by, as well as outlining his thoughts on the modern game. I’ve great time for David Clifford , one of the best I’ve seen but I still think Iggy Jones was extra special. He was the best I played against.”
Donal recalls his own introduction to GAA as a child.
“My mother and father wanted me to have a good education and I was sent to the Christian Brothers in Omagh. I stayed out by Charleton’s Garage the first year but then went to Donnelly’s restaurant for a few years.
“They took boarders then and the house was full. We went to play football in the evenings as well as school with plenty of football talk in the house. I was asked to play with Omagh, and with the Donnellys you had no choice,” he laughed.
In 1946 Omagh minors were unbeaten and were to go on and claim the West Tyrone Championship and the delayed Tyrone title. In the same year Tyrone also won the Ulster minor title for the first time since 1931 with a victory over Monaghan in the final.
Donal played at right half back in the decider. His brother Gerard was among the reserves while other St Enda’s colleagues Joe Bonner, John McCrory, Mickey McGread, Jim Mulholland and a young Dan McCaffrey were also in the side.
“There would have been Minor matches in Omagh, games against a select in the evenings. It wasn’t organised training but they were trying to get the best players together. I was a sub in the second game against Derry and in the final I was on at right half. They weren’t happy with the boy who had played before maybe,” he joked as he recounts a memorable day.
“ It was a great day. Afterwards at Clones Cavan played against Antrim in the Senior Final. The great names of Cavan were on show but Antrim beat them.”
The young Omagh Minor fully enjoyed the occasion but nothing was to match the success of Omagh St Enda’s in 1948. The inclusion of Jack Lennon as trainer at the start of that year laid the foundations for their success, Donal stated.
“We were fit that’s for sure. There were no tactics it was about getting fit. Jack was a PT instructor from the Foresters and we used to run out to Killyclogher and back, then up in the Foresters hall where we did exercises. Some of the boys took it very seriously. “
During Donal’s playing days with St Enda’s they had many contenders to being the county’s top dogs, among them Dungannon, Carrickmore, Urney, Clogher, Gortin and Clonoe.
“ They were the big teams for sure and in ’48 Clogher and Gortin felt it was a real chance for them with Dungannon and Carmen knocked out.”
No doubt Omagh were in a good place for that first Championship success but it took a last minute point from Donal to seal a 1-4 to 0-6 first round win over Carrickmore,
“ We were doing well. I think we were in front at half time but Carrickmore are hard to beat and with five minutes to go it was all level. I was at centre field with Brendan Mullan. He was a big fella, I didn’t have his physique.
“A long ball in was pushed out to me. I went on the run but Michael Harte, the pharmacist just flattened me. We got the free and as the place kicker I put it over. Some boys said to me I couldn’t watch that kick, but sure it went over.”
Jim Gormley had told the Omagh players at the start of the season that with the Minors coming through he hoped to have a winning team in ’48. After they beat Ballygawley a narrow two point win followed against Donaghmore.
“ The pitch was heavy and we had been on top but we could not score. I missed a couple of easy frees and it was frustrating but we got a big score. Paddy McRory at full back kicked the ball out to me. I hit a big high ball into the square which Liam Magee caught, turned and let fly to the net. It was a massive relief as we went on to win.”
A semi-final with Gortin followed and as expected it was another tough game. “They were a tough physical team”, Donal remembered. “ The McGarveys were great, big men. The game was full of open football and we beat them.”
The final (played in November) was held at Gardrum Park Dromore and pitted Omagh against Clogher. Donal recalled that the build up to that decider was extra special.
“ There was great anticipation. Omagh had never won it and there was a real feeling that we could win this. We were on top for long periods but couldn’t score. We had great forwards, Dan McCaffrey was always good for a goal with Mickey McGread, Seamus O’Brien, Sean Donnelly, Liam Magee and Joe Skeffington, a Dungannon man who stayed in Donnellys.”
The opposition Clogher also boosted some top players.
“Gerry Rice was a powerfully built big player, John Francis Mullan, their best forward, and a couple of McKenna boys. They were a good team. It was low scoring but we won 1-3 to 0-2 at the end. We were all hugging each other. That wasn’t the done thing, but none of us had won medals before so it was great.”
With his reputation growing Donal took his place in the Tyrone senior team in 1952, playing several National League and McKenna cup games. However because eof his studies hemaonly concentrated on playing with St Enda’s and with Paddy Mossey taking training they progressed to another County final in ’52. Eddie Mulholland scored an all important goal against Urney in the first round and Dr Pat O’Neill made his Championship debut on route to the second title.
Omagh beat Carrickmore, Dungannon and Ardboe ahead of the final win against Clonoe. Eugene O’Brien, the Donnellys and Eddie Mulholland were among their standout performers
“Eddie was a special player, a great forward. He scored lots of big goals for us but in 1954 he scored a vital goal against Clonoe. It was probably the best move I was ever involved in.
“ We were winning by four at the break but they came back and got a penalty but sure didn’t Thady Turbett save it and push the ball out to Jackie Taggart. I was up over the halfway line to see what was happening as you did in those days when there was a penalty.
“ Jackie sent the ball to Donal Donnelly and he was about thirty yards from the goal. Me and him had a good understanding then and as soon as he got it I sprinted over away from the ball and it all opened up in front of me.
“ The ball came over my head. I kept it on the ground and after I think two touches was able to get it away soccer style to Eddie.
“He spun away and lashed the ball to the net. It was such a big goal, we got another goal and point and won well.”
That was en route to the O’Neill Cup three in a row triumph.
With studies taking precedence football was hard to fit in for Donal but in his penultimate season the inclusion of a young Jackie Martin and Paddy Corey ignited the Omagh challenge again. Donal played a key role through the year while a young Jackie Taggart also played a massive part.
“ We played Coalisland in the semi-final and we were six points down before Jackie scored a crucial goal. I think he might have taken a quick free, we came back and won it beating Dungannon in the final.”
A move to London for work reasons came in January 1956 and a young Donal played Sunday league soccer but just Gaelic football on one occasion.
“I did play once. PJ Campbell from Omagh was working in London and recommended me to this man who turned up at my door one night and confirmed PJ had pointed him in my direction telling him I was one of the best footballers in Tyrone. I told him that was a bit of an exaggeration. He had a very good looking daughter with him so I didn’t want to let him down.
“I did turn out for his team in North London, but it was too far away from the other side of the City where I lived so that was that. If it had have been closer it would have been great.”
In London Donal always kept up to date with Omagh and Tyrone with the Irish Press posted on a Monday by his mother and Ulster Herald on the Thursday of every week.
His brother Brian was playing with Clogher and so the local paper was a link to home long before mobiles and the internet.
Donal looks back with fondness of those playing days but has a lot of respect for the current crop.
He feels that Peter Canavan and Frank Mc Guigan were special Tyrone players of more recent vintage and now he says that Peter’s two sons also excite him- Darragh and Ruari.
Over the course of all the big occasions he has witnessed, Donal will always come back to that milestone match he was involved in.
“Oh that’s a simple one,” he smiles, “ that 1948 final and our first Tyrone championship. Beating Carrickmore was a big moment for us. They were the team, especially up there. I remember them beating us the next year at St Patrick’s Park and that hurt. It showed how much it meant to us the previous year. Winning against Gortin was big and then Clogher in the final. It was so important to our club to win that first title, an occasion that I will never forget.”