The heart of Donegal’s hurling future

By Michael McMullan

DONEGAL’S minor hurlers have been tipping along nicely this season and they’ll be hoping to get back on the horse.

Defeat to Mayo in the Celtic Challenge on Saturday was a first blemish this season. A trip to Westmeath offers the opportunity to bite into the winning feast again.

It’s been a productive season thus far. Donegal won all five of their games and are perched at the top of the Ulster U-17 Development League. Their seven-point victory over Armagh represents their tightest corner before the visit of Mayo.

The man at the helm, manager Dáithí Roberts, has had his own journey before putting his shoulder to the Donegal hurling wheel.

A native of Belfast, he played with the Pearses club and moved to Gaoth Dobhair 17 years ago when his son Dáithí – current club goalkeeper and part of the county squad – was in his earliest years.

Roberts senior walked down the PE teaching path in St Mary’s, Belfast were he also too the early steps of a coaching journey.

Football was the main sport in Pearses club but there was always a love of hurling.

Settled in Gaoth Dobhair, the club sounded him out about getting the ‘wee ball’ game off the ground.

With numbers scarce, they’d lean on neighbouring Dungloe and vice-versa. Whatever club had the most players would get a helping hand from the other. Hurling was the winner.

When the feelers went out looking for help with the county hurling development squads, Roberts answered the call.

“The first year that I started, I was helping out with the u-14 development squads. Then, gradually, over the years I just worked up to managing the minors,” he said.

Having been looking after the u-15s last season, Roberts took over as minor manager from Offaly native Adrian Gaffey.

Some hurling purists turn their noses at the Celtic Challenge, an All-Ireland competition that allows players to compete at their own level.

Others have embraced it. In a sport where playing games is the best learning tool, it was a godsend for Donegal.

“You’re not taking any big hammerings or anything like that, it is very competitive,” Roberts said.

In those first days, they’d struggle to assemble a panel of 30 players from across the county. Times have moved on.

Before Christmas, over 60 hopefuls attended trials for the 2024 team. Now, a panel of 35 players has been used across their Ulster League and Celtic Challenge campaigns.

Playing games is king and a rotation policy gave everybody a chance with some of the key players left off in certain games. It gave others an opportunity to shine.

“It’s all about games,” Roberts said. “This year we’ve had two warm-up games, so that was seven or eight games before we played the first game of the Celtic Challenge.”

Speaking before their defeat to Mayo, his thoughts will now circulate towards a return to winning ways in Westmeath.

The big picture, well, that’s like all counties. Senior hurling is where the real barometer is. Current senior boss Mickey McCann has helped get Donegal playing for national titles in Croke Park.

The story of Setanta winning their first Ulster Intermediate title is another sign of an upward trend.

Roberts can glance at McCann’s current roster and see the players who cut their teeth in the Celtic Challenge.

“The likes of Ruairi Campbell, he was a great player at underage. Oisin Marley, he’s come through that development squad era. Peter Kelly, the Currans from Burt, Conor Gartland who’s the captain this year, they’ve all come through Celtic Challenge,” he said.

“I would be expecting a few of the u-20 boys and u-17s this year will make that senior team in three or four years’ time.”

For now, their consistent run of games has been the progress needed to give the county hope of increased growth further up the ladder.

“They’re a good group of players,” Roberts said with the pride of a manager happy with his lot.

“They’re dedicated and they want to learn. They soak up everything. The big thing we’re saying is that they’re showing the ‘croí’, the Irish word for heart.

“That would be our mantra this year, croí – you put your heart into it. We ask the lads to put their heart into preparation and everything, playing the matches, training and the lifestyle.”

With twice as many players wanting to hurl at minor level for Donegal than when the development squads began, that’s progress.

They now have a bag of tools and can see the set of plans on the table. Now it’s about the skills, the touch and the games. And the heart. It ties everything together.

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