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Professional Donnelly is an inspiration for all

By Declan Bogue

Published 05/12/2015

On the ball: Eoin Donnelly is the perfect role model, having come from the small Coa O’Dwyers club to captain Fermanagh and Ulster
On the ball: Eoin Donnelly is the perfect role model, having come from the small Coa O’Dwyers club to captain Fermanagh and Ulster

One of the oldest motivational tricks in a manager's handbook is to play down the size of their club in comparison to others. But in the case of Coa O'Dwyers, they have a case to be considered one of the smallest in Ireland.

For example, when they won the Fermanagh Junior Championship this year, they met Tullysaran of Armagh in the preliminary round. Normally, a club will have 30 players togged out for the big day.

Coa had 19. Not even enough to use their full complement of substitutes.

That's why it means so much to them to see Eoin Donnelly captain Ulster this weekend in the Inter-Provincial series. That's why there will be a bus load of children heading to Armagh to watch.

"The Under-eights and the Under-10s worship him," explained club PRO Paul McCarney.

McCarney, known as 'The Cat' from his 20-plus years between the sticks, bridged the generation divide of Coa players.

For almost a decade, it felt like nothing was coming through until the sons of the team grew up around the craggy landscape of Coa, nestled into an armpit of Kilskeery parish.

"We haven't a school of our own," said McCarney. "We share with Tempo, Mullanaskea and some of them go to Trillick (just across the county border into Tyrone). We are the smaller part of our parish with Trillick, and in between two heavy-hitters of Fermanagh football in Tempo Maguires and Enniskillen Gaels.

"So we are always going to be struggling. But with Eoin, he raises the profile and we all have a bit more pride in the club. We can be a bit more confident that this can happen. It's a big thing to bring it into your coaching at underage. We are moving forward, thankfully."

There were four weddings in Coa this year, the sort of statistic that delights the elders of the club, hungry for more and more potential players. Despite his commitments as Fermanagh captain, Donnelly made it to every one. He even got to Krakow on a stag do, but is his own man when it comes to taking a drink.

Perhaps the most admirable thing about Donnelly is how he has reached this point by his own force of will. Several years ago, when he was just out of Under-21 football, a coach asked him if he would captain a Fermanagh team in the Junior Championship, having entered the Connacht competition.

Donnelly recalled: "It wasn't really that well supported but he got it organised and we went down to Sligo. We hadn't trained and he asked me to be captain. I was reluctant and I said 'there are plenty of other boys'."

He mightn't have been confident enough to accept the captaincy at that stage, but as he reasoned: "That was a big step up from the Under-21s. I figured out myself how I was not developing and what I needed to do to get myself on that level."

The large crowd that attended Peter Canavan's first game as manager of Fermanagh in 2012, a McKenna Cup fixture against Antrim, might have been intrigued by the unfamiliar figure in midfield of Donnelly, making his county debut. Canavan saw enough in him to make him an ever-present.

Now, he offers advice to the young lads new to the county panel. He said: "I say if you are fit in December and January, you are going to get put in. More often than not, boys come back from the off-season and they are not at the level required. They need more time.

"If you can get yourself in early, you can hit the ground running. If a manager gets you and you are doing a job, they are not going to take you out unless you aren't doing the business."

In Donnelly's second season, Canavan made him captain for the visit of Monaghan on March 9, 2013. He suffered a broken leg that night, but was back in time for the Championship, putting in a high-fielding exhibition against Cavan.

And now, he is the captain of Ulster. When Pete McGrath (pictured) asked him, there was no hesitancy.

Donnelly recalled: "I wasn't expecting it. When it came, I thought 'right, I am not going to argue with him'.

"I can't really express what I felt at the time. I just set my mind to the task."

The competition may now go by the official title of Inter-Provincials, but players still maintain the historical link by referring to it as the Railway Cup.

Eoin's father Brendan used to go along to see his brother John - who played for Trillick at club level and Fermanagh at county - tog out for Ulster. Brendan is a first cousin of Liam Donnelly, father of Tyrone's Mattie, meaning that two second cousins could play tonight.

Trillick is a famous, big beast of Tyrone football, but Coa have had their own success this year too. Only for a slow start against Rockcorry in their second game in Ulster, they might have tasted provincial glory. But it's never too late for some.

This week, Donnelly made contact with McCarney, asking him what he could bring into the Ulster dressing rooms to get signed. Balls and jerseys will bear names such as Sean Cavanagh, Peter Harte, Tony Kernan and Kevin McKernan.

They will form part of the Coa club draw for their dinner dance in the New Year.

The club keeps going. Donnelly is the backbone of the club. And of Ulster.

Belfast Telegraph

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