Belfast Telegraph

Rory Donnelly is daring to dream in his bid to book ticket for France

By Graham Luney

Rory Donnelly is a man in form - goalscoring form - and a man on a mission - a mission to pull on a Northern Ireland jersey at the European Championships in France this summer.

The former Cliftonville hero is banging in the goals for League One title challengers Gillingham, finally showcasing his finishing prowess after a frustrating adventure across the water.

The road to success in sport is rarely smooth and sometimes you have to take the punches and keep on fighting.

Natural talent only gets you so far in football and Irish League players need drive, determination and courage to carve out a career in the professional game. It helps to be as tough as nails.

Donnelly may be playing with a smile on his face now but he's had to lift himself off the canvas a few times.

It was then Swansea City boss and fellow Ulsterman Brendan Rodgers who plucked the former Northern Ireland Under-21 striker from Cliftonville in January 2012, beating Everton to his signature.

The Welsh club had to cough up a six figure sum but they believed they were getting a diamond that just needed a little polish.

Then aged 19-years-old and fresh from signing a three-and-a-half year deal with the Swans, it appeared Donnelly's career was really going to take flight but life isn't always that simple.

Rodgers hailed the teenager as "one of Northern Ireland's biggest talents" but he made only two senior appearances for Swansea, including a Europa League game against Romanian side Petrolul Ploiesti.

In January 2014, Donnelly left to join Coventry City in a loan deal until the end of the season but it was a move that was short and not so sweet with the Belfast man returning to City within five days.

Once again, the hitman was left frustrated. He said: "It wasn't my decision to go to Coventry and I didn't want to be there."

A career that promised so much was stalling but a loan move to Tranmere Rovers in January last year turned the tide. Donnelly netted five goals in 20 appearances and was named the League Two Player of the Month for January.

His performances caught the eye of Gills boss Justin Edinburgh and a two-year contract was agreed after Donnelly's release by Swansea at the end of last season.

The 23-year-old is back doing what he does best and after finding the net 10 times this campaign, he's determined to leave behind the dark days and focus on a bright future - both at club and international level.

With the support and encouragement of his family including his brother, Cliftonville striker Jay, and friends including his agent, Gerry Carlile, Rory's career is now blossoming.

"Gillingham is a big club with a fantastic fan base and excellent stadium and facilities," said Donnelly.

"The manager has been superb with me and is very popular with the whole squad. He knows how he wants us to play and he is an excellent motivator.

"I have really enjoyed working with him and thank him for giving me the opportunity to play regular first team football at a high level. He is one of the main reasons I have had significant success so far this season.

"It's also important for me to attribute great thanks to Brendan Rodgers for taking a punt on a part-time Irish League player and giving me a chance to play with an established English Premier League club.

"I have mixed memories from my time at Swansea but on the whole it was very positive. I wanted to play first team football for Swansea and the few chances I did get I felt that I did well.

"My aim now is to get back to that level as quickly as possible and the way for me to do that is to continue scoring goals for Gillingham."

And Donnelly has no trouble locating his shooting boots. Cliftonville fans who watched him terrorise defences since bursting onto the Solitude scene in September 2010 will recall many golden moments.

"I've just reached double figures for the season," he added. "I have targets that I would like to hit by the end of the season but at this stage I just want to keep my head down and work as hard as I possibly can to contribute to the team and to ensure we put ourselves in contention for promotion to the Championship.

"I still follow Cliftonville fervently. My brother Jay is doing well and my friend Tomas Cosgrove is right back.

"I was very proud to play in the red shirt. Cliftonville and in particular Tommy Breslin and chairman Gerard Lawlor deserve great praise for developing me as a player and then facilitating my move to Swansea. I have great memories of playing for Cliftonville and I will always be a Red."

Reds fans fondly remember Donnelly's stunning strike in November 2011 against Linfield, a shot worth looking at again on YouTube, complete with an Argentinian remix!

"I've scored a few decent goals in my career," he added.

"The goal against Linfield was pretty special and afforded me a lot of recognition but I think my best goal so far came against Fleetwood this season. If you haven't seen it, get on YouTube and take a look. Hopefully my best goals are still to come."

Donnelly may now be shining at the Priestfield Stadium but he's another player from these shores who has needed to keep believing in his ability through testing times.

"My advice to Irish League players hoping to make the breakthrough in England or Scotland is to work hard," he added.

"Nothing will get handed to you and nobody owes you anything. If you want a career in full-time football then be prepared to sacrifice a lot.

"Plenty of players have left the league in recent years, some have returned home quite quickly as there is a big difference in standard, but many have went on to carve out exceptional careers like Gareth McAuley, Niall McGinn and Stuart Dallas.

"It's great to see Boycie (Liam Boyce) also doing well at Ross County. He is a talented player and I'm sure he will be in Michael O'Neill's thoughts when he sits down to pen his final squad for the Euros."

Donnelly is also still in O'Neill's thoughts despite the fact he frustrated the international boss in June 2013 when, while at Swansea, he declined an invitation to play for Stephen Robinson's Under-21 team in Cyprus.

That's water under the bridge now for a player who wants to prove he can cut it on the international stage.

"I would love to make the squad for the Euros," he admitted. "If I keep scoring and putting myself about then I will increase my chances of being on the plane.

"Finding a player who hits the back of the net regularly is not always easy so if I can continue to score and work hard then hopefully I will feature in the manager's plans.

"I also want to help my team get promoted to the Championship. We have a strong squad and we have the ability to take the step up.

"When I cross the white line I'll continue to give 100 per cent. If I continue to do that then I won't have any regrets."

With that attitude, Donnelly will keep hitting the back of the net and the headlines - possibly all the way to France. As Northern Ireland fans would say... dare to dream.

Belfast Telegraph