By Niall Gartland
BEN McDonnell is on the other side of the world at the moment, but for a spell in the early hours of Monday morning, it’s fair to say his heart will be firmly back in Ireland.
Currently living in Sydney, the 2021 All-Ireland winner will sit down to watch Tyrone’s Ulster Championship opener with Monaghan. Scheduled for 4pm on Sunday afternoon and with a nine-hour time difference, it’ll be a late one.
And as fate would have it, he’ll be joined by someone hoping for an entirely different outcome – he’s living with Monaghan footballer Ryan McAnespie, also on sabbatical from the intercounty scene.
McDonnell, whose long-term girlfriend is Ryan’s sister Eimear, is enjoying life Down Under.
The Errigal Ciaran midfielder has temporarily traded his work as an accountant for the rather more hands-on world of construction. The weather is warm without being overwhelmingly so and there’s a Tyrone contingent on hand to keep him right.
McDonnell said: “I came over here just before Christmas after Errigal were put out by Glen in the Ulster Championship, so it’s been a good stint.
“I’m living in Sydney at the moment. At home I’m an accountant but I’m in construction out here. The hours suit and it’s nice to be outside in the good weather, I didn’t really want to be stuck in an office.
“I’m actually working with a pile of Tyrone boys, it’s funny, you go to the far side of the world and end up around Tyrone lads.”
Thanks to the wonders of technology, McDonnell was able to stream all but one of Tyrone’s National League fixtures. At times it didn’t make for comfortable viewing – the Red Hands lost three of their opening four matches – but they turned a corner and concluded their campaign with three successive victories.
“Thankfully with GAAGO I was able to watch nearly all of their matches. It was frustrating early on in the league, I obviously know the lads well and knew there was a lot more in them. I’ve experienced it myself, times when we weren’t playing well and it is frustrating because you know about the potential in the team, but they seem to have picked up a bit of steam at the minute so it makes for happier viewing.”
There were obviously very contrasting emotions when McDonnell watched Tyrone and Monaghan’s league encounter with his housemate Ryan McAnespie, a mainstay of the Monaghan side for the last number of years.
Ironically McAnespie has solid Tyrone credentials – he moved to his father Vincey’s native Aughnacloy when he was ten years old – but there’s no doubt where his intercounty allegiances reside.
McDonnell commented: “I lived together with Ryan at Uni for four or five years and now we’re back living together again. It definitely makes things a bit more interesting. Watching the Tyrone-Monaghan game in the league, I was obviously very content with how the game was going, and then they had two men sent off as well and Ryan was all quiet and disappointed.
“The games are early in the morning so we mightn’t be too fresh on a Monday morning heading to work. It’s not easy watching the games in a way, it makes you miss home a bit.”
Needless to say the friendship between McDonnell and McAnespie has certain boundaries with each other’s intercounty set-ups firmly out of bounds as a topic of discussion.
“In fairness there’s no point even trying to ask Ryan any questions about that, I wouldn’t get anything out of it.
“There’s good craic between the two of us but we don’t bother asking anything about that as we know rightly we won’t get any information about either camp. But it’s good craic generally and when we come across each other on the pitch we’ll have a laugh about it.”
McDonnell has also been heartened by the performances of Tyrone’s Errigal Ciaran contingent so far this season. The likes of Darragh Canavan and Peter Harte don’t need any introduction but relative newcomers Joe Oguz and Cormac Quinn have made their mark with a string of impressive performances.
“That was great to see. I know their potential from playing with the club week-in week-out and I know they’re capable of playing at this level. To be honest I think there’s even more in them and they’re going to grow into the Tyrone jersey in the next year or two. But they’ve come on well and have physically developed in the last couple of years. There’s a good bit of bite about them and they’ve brilliant lads who are willing to work hard and put in the effort.”
As for what’s next, McDonnell is going to head out to Boston for the summer before heading back home in time for Errigal’s defence of their Tyrone Senior Championship title.
“Myself and Ryan and the two girlfriends are going to go to Boston in June. We’re going to head to the Aidan McAnespie club, obviously there’s the connection there as he’s an uncle of Ryan’s. That’s something we’ve always wanted to do given the family connection.
“I’m looking forward to getting back with Errigal as well. Winning last year’s title was definitely a monkey off the back and we’re all keen to push on. Nobody has won the back-to-back in Tyrone since Carrickmore in 2004 and 2005 so we’re looking forward to having a go at that.
“I know we have the talent, Darragh and Ruairi Canavan are starting to really get going, Peter Harte’s still there and there’s good strength throughout the team.
“I’m having a great time at the moment but I’m also keen to get home. I’m in a privileged position at the moment and I don’t want to waste it.”