Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 December 2014

Cup final to be a fan-tastic family affair

Martin Donnelly shows off his ball skills in front of the family home in north Belfast, watching by some of his biggest fans — dad Gerry, sister Shauna and brother Gerry
Martin Donnelly shows off his ball skills in front of the family home in north Belfast, watching by some of his biggest fans — dad Gerry, sister Shauna and brother Gerry

There are two families in Martin Donnelly’s life and they both mean the world to him.

His real family told him he was too talented to walk away from the game while Crusaders gave him the platform to resurrect his career.

And what a career is blossoming.

Last summer very few people knew who Donnelly was.

Sheffield United and Rochdale lost faith in him and Irish League clubs weren’t so welcoming either.

Around six of them took one look at the player and concluded he was too small to make it in the local game.

Those people would perhaps have said the same thing about George Best, Lionel Messi or Paul Scholes.

Donnelly isn’t quite in that league but he is on course to feature in the Crusaders Hall of Fame.

A phone call from Martin’s father Gerry to Crues boss Stephen Baxter provoked a positive response and since then Donnelly’s career has been on an upward curve.

The 20-year-old would have featured in the Northern Ireland B team against a Scottish side this week if he wasn’t playing in the biggest north Belfast derby in history on Saturday.

Fans are eagerly awaiting the derby against Cliftonville in the Irish Cup decider at Windsor Park and although the Reds were one of the clubs that failed to take a chance with Donnelly, he isn’t interested in dwelling on past disappointments.

Now he feels a genuine sense of belonging in the Crusaders family, though not everyone in the Donnelly clan is 100 per cent behind him.

“I can’t wait for the final,” he said. “I am really buzzing and for this final to come in my first season here is unbelievable. I didn’t know what to expect but this would be a dream ending to it all. My family will be at the game though some of my cousins support Cliftonville and they were quick to text me after they beat Linfield saying they were going to stuff us in the final!

“They were saying ‘Come on the Reds’ but it’s just banter. I’m sure they want me to score the winner!”

Donnelly’s renewed hunger for the game must fill his father, a former player with Derry City, with pride.

“When I was in England I was homesick and not playing,” added

Donnelly. “I talked to six or seven clubs here but none of them were interested and that really hurt and annoyed me.

“They said I was too small and could not play in this league and that was the last thing I wanted to hear after being rejected in England.

“I was being turned away again but my dad never gave up on me and his conversation with Stephen (Baxter) changed everything. Stephen was happy to have a look at me even though his player budget had been spent. He saw something in me and I was offered a one-year contract.”

Baxter quickly realised that Donnelly was “one of the best crossers of a ball in the league” and he had a “left foot to die for.”

Linfield, Dundalk and other clubs kept knocking on the Seaview door but a measure of Donnelly’s happiness at the club became clear when he rejected all suitors by agreeing a new two year deal with the club.

“I have no regrets,” he said. “It’s the best decision I could have made and I have caught the notice of international selectors as well as getting to a cup final and into Europe.

“Crusaders, like my family, had faith in me. My father gives me a lift home from games and gives me a running commentary on it. I know what happened as I played in it! He has kept me going and when I have suffered setbacks he has told me I will come back stronger.”

The former St Patrick's Barnageeha pupil dearly loves his family but he still plans to upset a few of them tomorrow.

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