Donaghmore’s magnificent seven

By Niall Gartland

IT would be quite the representation on any intercounty panel, let alone a star-studded Tyrone u-20 side a mere 60 minutes away from getting their hands on the All-Ireland title.

Donaghmore have seven lads on the Tyrone u-20 squad, namely Conor O’Neill, Joey Clarke, Ben Hughes, Ronan Cassidy, Noah Grimes, Ronan Donnelly and Conan McGarvey.

They have, it’s more than fair to say, done their bit – and sometimes in conjunction with each other.

Take Tyrone’s opening goal in their 3-18 to 3-8 semi-final victory over Roscommon at the weekend as a textbook example.

Teak-tough corner-back Joey Clarke picked up possession in his own half of the pitch and played a neat one-two before taking off at lightning speed with ball in hand. A blatant push in the back wasn’t enough to knock him off course, and he offloaded possession at the opportune moment to his clubmate Conor O’Neill, who expectedly picked his spot in an ice-cool finish to the net.

A slice of brilliance conceived on the training field, possibly, but you can’t discount the sense of telepathy and understanding fostered through years playing alongside each other.

There’s all the prior intercounty experience – the back-to-back Ulster Minor Championship winning teams of 2021 and 2022 had a bumper Donaghmore contingent.

There’s schools success, and plenty of it – St Joseph’s Donaghmore won last year’s MacLarnon Cup and subsequent All-Ireland title at ‘B’ level. They took the big step up to MacRory level this season and excelled, losing by a single point to St Patrick’s Dungannon in a neighborougly semi-final joust at Carrickmore.

And above all else, arguably, is their achievements with their club. Donaghmore have a tsunami in Tyrone underage football in recent years, winning titles by the barrelful.

We’ll not go through every single league and every single championship but to shoot off just one statistic, they became the first ever team from the county to win three successive Tyrone Minor Championship titles when they bettered Cookstown in the 2023 showdown, belatedly held back in February.

One of their coaches at the coalface of their recent dominance at underage level is Daniel Grimes, a former player at the club.

There’s no secret ingredient, he says, but they have plenty of volunteers willing to get stuck in and the facilities to match. Add in an exceptionally talented crop of players, and there was only ever going to be one outcome.

“It’s their talent and ability that has allowed the lads to prosper, but I suppose the club have put in a lot of work into the players from a young age to allow them to get the best of their talent. “We’ve had a three-year block really, starting with the likes of Conor Cush and Tom Grimes at the older end. Then you have the likes of Ben, Joey, Conor and Noah at the younger end.

“They were all in the same class at primary school, and you could see signs of their ability early on as they were competing at a high level at blitzes and winning everything.

“There’s a lot of different hands helping out in the club and we have the appropriate facilities as well. This current group is the first to have benefited from being able to use the indoor facilities over winter, it takes all of that.”

Grimes is prudent to recognise that it mightn’t always be this way, but at the same time they have the right structures in place and there’s plenty of strong underage teams following in behind the current crop.

“I mean it’s all relative, and the level of success that this group has had will be hard to replicate.

“Our teams are mainly in Grade One, and in the past we’d have been happy with having any team at all playing at that level.

“The aim is to maintain that level of consistency and we’ve development teams as well. I remember Joey Clarke being in a development team in 2019 when he was still a bit young and it was great for him. It’s all about getting everyone football and keeping them at it.”

Donaghmore forged quite the rivalry with Ardboe in recent years, shaping up against each other in a number of underage finals. But they all wear the same jersey at county level and ultimately they’ve helped push each other on to greater heights.

“Our lads know nothing else really, they tend to be in these big games. They’ve dominated right through and they’ve created some good rivalries along the way, with the Ardboe lads in particular. I think playing in all those big games has helped both teams in their development, you need that quality of competition.”

Donaghmore club people young and old will descend on Portlaoise this Sunday in the hope that Tyrone will claim a second All-Ireland u-20 title in three years.

They know they’ve helped nurture the next generation of Tyrone footballer, but they don’t crow about it either.

Grimes said: “We’re very proud of our lads but you don’t blow on about it. It’s just something you’re aware of, and you’re happy for the lads.

“It’s great for the kids in the club as well, I’m sure a lot of them will head down to the match.

The younger boys and girls look up to the lads, and once they see that it’s possible for their clubmates to achieve things at club and county, hopefully they can start to think about it for themselves.”


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