‘You were kind of like the black sheep by going to the gym as much as I did on my own’

ON THURSDAY AFTERNOON, Matthew Donnelly set his out-of-office email alert, turned off his computer and walked out of the Belfast offices of PwC where he works as an Associate Consultant.

As he switched off from the day job, he honed in on his other life, that of Tyrone captain facing into an All-Ireland final against Dublin.

Last year’s semi-final ended in ignominy, humiliated by a 12-point margin. Tyrone were left wondering if they could ever reach a final with this panel. And, they had lost an iconic figure in captain Sean Cavanagh.

Over Christmas, one of the calls manager Mickey Harte was made was to Donnelly. Fancy taking on the role?

A few nights later, members of his family were in a neighbour’s house in Trillick and former Tyrone captain and clubmate Sean Donnelly turned up.

“Sean Donnelly is obviously a big idol in Trillick for everyone. It’s good to be part of that tradition. Pat King was captain just previous, so Sean was the last,” beams Donnelly.

“You are following in good footsteps there and I am very aware of that.”

It was a better phonecall than the one he had with Harte back in 2010. He had won an All-Ireland minor title in 2008 and his team-mate Peter Harte was stepping up to the big leagues. When Mickey asked if Donnelly was interested in coming to senior training, he initially went. A few games in the McKenna Cup later and he told Harte he wanted out.

He explains, “Looking around the dressing room you know yourself, competing with boys in training, the likes of Stevie O’Neill and Hub Hughes and them boys were around the scene then,” he explains.

“You probably didn’t think physically you could compete with them boys. It was something I was wary of. I didn’t want to be in the county panel unless I could contribute heavily that season and it probably wasn’t the case then. I took two years out at that stage to build myself to the required level.”

It was a recurring fear. When he was 16 he played a club game and could get nothing out of his marker, pushed around the pitch.

His sounding board has always been his father, Liam. Donnelly senior put down several seasons with the county himself and Matthew and Richard had followed him around the pitches of Tyrone when he brought minor teams to All-Irelands in 2001 and 2004.

His mother is Clare, the club secretary of Trillick and a Glencull woman originally. Grew up as next-door neighbour of the Canavan family, would you believe?

Liam came back from a meeting with Paddy Tally with a programme. It seems outdated now but, he stuck to it religiously.

Such was his dedication, he came back in a different, stockier individual. It took a lot of resistance to peer pressure.

“You were kind of like the black sheep about the place then by going to the gym as much as I did on my own. It definitely wasn’t the popular thing to do back then, but I’m glad I had the foresight to do that,” he reasons.

It’s a big part of what made him, but he always put a premium on developing his skills. It might make a man look impressive in a tight-fit jersey, but it was a means to an end.

“Number one, the most important thing in football is availability, being fit to play,” he says.

“You don’t want to jeopardise that by doing something silly in the gym.

“That’s always been the goal for me: number one, be able to play and be robust enough to stand the requirements for inter-county football. If you’re fit and available for selection, that’s always the most important thing.”

This team is a band of brothers in more ways than one. There are six sets of brothers in the Tyrone panel, with the Burns, Sluddens, McGearys, McCanns, Brennans and he has his own brother Richard there too.

The pastoral side of the role comes naturally to him.

“It is something I have found easy because I genuinely do care for them. I look out for the players. Getting to know them better, finding out the different approaches you have to take with them is something I have enjoyed. It’s probably that the team in general are good at that, in looking out for each other,” Donnelly says.

So here they are, looking to avenge not only last year’s loss, but all the big games Tyrone have lost over the last number of years.

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Turning his thoughts to Dublin and last August immediately melds into other games.

“It hurt a lot, but as I say, it probably hurt no more than as far back as Mayo in 2013. They’re not great places to be in when you are so close to a final and getting beaten so the same as that stage 28-odd other teams had to pick themselves up and we were no different. It was just about getting back on the training ground as quick as we were summoned and working on that stuff.”

Tyrone go in as longest-priced challengers in a final in living memory. No big deal. His thoughts turn, as they often do, back to Trillick.

In 2014, they were up against Dungannon in the Tyrone Intermediate final. They lost that. The margin? As coincidence would have it, 12 points.

The following year, the St Macartan’s collected their seventh Tyrone Championship against all odds.

“We went on to be the best team in Tyrone the year after, so I have seen how quick you can turn it around in 12 months. That day in ’14 when we were beaten by Dungannon there were probably 18 teams, on paper, ahead of you. In 12 months we turned it around to be the best.”

Above their beds, in the shared bedroom of their Trillick home are the jerseys Matthew (2008) and Richard (2010) wore in their All-Ireland minor finals.

They have been waiting a long time to replace them with senior ones.

It’s here now.

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