By Alan Rodgers
IT was September 2001 when a then teenage Mark Donnelly was introduced for the closing stages of a County Final which saw Carrickmore clinch their fourth O’Neill Cup title in just six years.
Now, 21 years later, there’s a fair chance that the 39 year-old will get a taste of the action once more on Tyrone’s showpiece GAA occasion at O’Neill’s Healy Park. Between those two dates, he established himself as one of the best forwards not only in Tyrone but right across the country.
But on Sunday it’s the match that matters. He is one of the older players on this 2022 Carrickmore team. His contribution, though, has been significant on and off the field. A word of advice or encouragement at training, or a probing run to create space and hold possession on the field remain important hallmarks.
He’ll be ready, too, if the call comes, just as it did in that 2001 decider against Errigal Ciaran. Victory and a first O’Neill Cup medal arrived then and, as more followed in 2004 and 2005, the hope and expectation was that the good days would continue. But as the years went by, there were disappointing final losses as the quest went on.
“I came into the panel in 2001 and got three county medals that year and in 2004 and 2005. I was 21 and thought it was great, and that I’d go on and win numerous medals,” he reflects.
“But then we went on and lost four finals in a row in 2006, 2010, 2013 and 2014.
“We obviously want to rectify that and are in a position to do that and our preparations have been geared towards that. We’ll give it a real rattle.”
Much has been said about Carrickmore’s emphasis on youth. One of the features of this County Final is likely to be the exciting young players on both teams who will be getting their first taste of playing in a senior decider.
For Mark Donnelly, and indeed Martin Penrose, Conor Gormley and the Colmcille’s management team, there’s a feeling that this appearance represents a significant milestone in the development of a new team after so many disappointments. It’s a responsibility which Mark Donnelly and his experienced teammates take seriously.
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t enjoy the football and being involved. I taught a lot of these players and they were in my class since they were seven years of age. I’ve coached them in the school, and it’s a great feeling now to be playing alongside them and maybe giving any wee bit of advice,” he adds.
“Whatever I can do to bring them on and whatever role I can play to help this panel and this team and for Carrickmore to get a championship medal I’ll do. I’ve been around a long time and it’s definitely enjoyable. It’s great craic and it keeps me young so I don’t feel I’m 38.
“They give you a new lease of life. Ryan and Noel and his management team came in four years ago and we were just kind of above the relegation zone in Division One. We were mid-table, not threatening in the Championship at all and we got a good run before Errigal pipped us in the semi-final.
“We have been building on that every year. Our goal at the start of this year was to get to the county final because it has been eight long years since we were last been there and 17 years since we last won the title.
“So, we’re now in the position to win the title, even though we’ll probably be going in as underdogs. But Carrickmore will give it a lash.”
A County Final is special, and it’s one that Mark Donnelly is relishing.
“Clonoe had beaten us in five previous championship campaigns going back to 2007 and 2008 and we’ve had some great battles with them over the years.
“Some of those games went to extra time, so we knew that the semi-final was going to be such an important match.
“It was close all the way through, they had a lot of very experienced and hardened players and they always had the threat of a big aerial ball into the square.
“Our goalie and full-back line did exceptionally well, so it was a hard-fought win and got us to the stage where we could look forward to the County Final.
“For the progression of this team, it’s important that these lads play in a county final, to experience that and hopefully get the medal because there’s only a couple of us still left who have won a county title with the club.
“It would be great for these lads to come through and win, but that’s a big if. We know the task ahead against Errigal. They were very impressive and we know that it’s going to take a massive performance. All we can do is give that performance and see where it takes us.
“In a County Final anything can happen.”
Time will tell what does unfold come Sunday. Win, lose or draw, though, Mark Donnelly’s contribution to Carmen is a lasting legacy
in keeping with the Carrickmore