Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 December 2014

Donnelly can be Tyrone's leading man

Power NI McKenna Cup Final, The Athletic Grounds, Armagh 26/1/2013

Tyrone vs Monaghan

Tyrones goalscorer Mark Donnelly celebrates

Mandatory Credit ?INPHO/Presseye/ Russell Pritchard
Power NI McKenna Cup Final, The Athletic Grounds, Armagh 26/1/2013 Tyrone vs Monaghan Tyrones goalscorer Mark Donnelly celebrates Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Presseye/ Russell Pritchard

Four goals so far in a brilliant league campaign for Tyrone's Mark Donnelly, but don't praise him unless you want to be met with bashful modesty.

His rocket to the net in the early stages of the second half of the league semi-final against Kildare last Sunday provided enough of a kick to drive on and reach only their second National League final under Mickey Harte, but the Carrickmore man plays down his return.

"I suppose I am getting myself in good enough positions and the boys are seeing me available and I am lucky enough to hit the back of the net," says the 29-year-old schoolteacher.

He continues, "The way I looked at it, at the start of the year there is a lot of good, new young blood and a lot of good forwards coming in. I had to bring something else apart from my workrate up and down the field. I had to bring that scoring threat because there are men on the bench looking your place and a scoring forward is what any manager wants."

Fitting into the criteria that Mickey Harte (pictured) expects has been a lifetimes' work for Donnelly. When Carrickmore were in the running for Championships around the middle of the last decade, he regularly topped the domestic scoring charts.

He had county trials in 2004, '05, '06 and '07, but failed to catch the eye. "I remember getting down so close to it that I got a call from Mickey saying that I just missed out, that I was still young and to keep at it," he recalls.

He went off travelling in 2007 and as he says himself, "I thought that basically my chance was gone."

His relaxed attitude may have been the difference in his 2009 breakthrough. Ahead of him in the queue however was an embarrassment of riches; Dooher, McGuigan, Mellon, McCullagh, O'Neill, Penrose ...

On top of that, there was a squad of All-Ireland-winning minors from 2008 featuring Peter Harte, Ronan McNabb, Niall McKenna, along with the enigmatic Raymond Mulgrew on the panel.

Donnelly laid down a year in 2010 watching from the bench as Tyrone hammered Monaghan in the Ulster final, but after a Stephen O'Neill injury let him against Kildare in the 2011 league, he has been ever-present. The only game he hasn't started since was this years' league match against Cork. Even then he came on in the 52nd minute.

In assessing the abilities of the players, Harte has been known to say that he wants footballers first, and positions come second. Thus, we have witnessed Donnelly's evolution over the past three seasons from full-forward, to centre-forward, to the present role he has now, lying deep in defence and sniping forward.

"Any jersey on the Tyrone team I will take and I have been doing a lot of work up and down the field and you have that license to get forward as well," are Donnelly's thoughts.

"As long as there are men covering you in the backline which is all down to communication."

He makes it sound scientific, and of course it is, but when you can marry that with the artistry of someone like O'Neill, then suddenly you become a serious force.

Earlier in the week, Donnelly watched the semi-final back. "Sometimes when you are playing the game it can be a bit of a blur, but there were some great scores from all over the pitch – not only from Stephen O'Neill; Mattie Donnelly kicked over a few great scores as well."

The league final against Dublin will be his first chance at a major final as an established player.

"I remember the 2010 (Ulster) final well but I suppose it wouldn't be the same. Personally it would be brilliant for myself to get a first National League medal and I think it would be a great boost for Tyrone in general moving on to the Donegal game."

Ah yes. Donegal. Tyrone will have played almost twice as many games of a competitive nature than the All-Ireland champions by the time they meet in Ballybofey, but Donnelly feels that to blend the eleven new players introduced at the start of the year, that exposure has been vital.

"Against the likes of Kildare, Dublin and Kerry, that's when you really see where boys are at in terms of playing against the best teams in the country. Against the likes of Gooch, Kieran Donaghy, Paul Galvin – they are going to learn from that experience and Mickey will see where players are at.

"Come Championship, can he look at his bench and say, 'right, I have men on the bench can come on and make a difference?' I think that's very important."

Indeed it is.

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