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Donnelly inspired by his heroes to make it to the top

 

By Declan Bogue

If you ever wonder what becomes of the young boys who congregate behind goals to get kicking a ball out while training goes on, you could take Matthew Donnelly as an example.

His first contact with Tyrone teams came when his father Liam was in charge of the county minors for a few years, winning All-Irelands in 2001 and 2004.

The undoubted star on that first team was Sean Cavanagh, while the captain was Tyrone's athletic development coach, Peter Donnelly.

"We used to be the wee boys going around pestering him and kicking the ball out," he says of Cavanagh.

"To be playing with him is unbelievable. It wouldn't have crossed your mind back then and it probably didn't cross his mind."

Now, Donnelly is one of Cavanagh's fellow superstars of Gaelic football. When he goes to other games he is swamped by autograph hunters and wears it well. At the age of 26, he has made 31 senior championship appearances, scoring 1-37 since his debut against Donegal in 2012.

"That's what really made you want to go to matches, going to training and seeing the boys get out in Tyrone gear and it really ignited a keen interest," he reflects now, just days from what is the biggest fixture of his career, a full house in attendance for Tyrone taking on Dublin in an All-Ireland semi-final.

"Then on the back end of that you had Mickey Harte winning it all from 2003 to 2008," the Trillick man continues.

"You were going to Croke Park and there was a great buzz around the county, and then you were in the minors and winning an All-Ireland as well (he won an All-Ireland minor title in 2008 along with Peter Harte).

"It all got your attention from a young age and it became your ambition as well."

His ambition was partly realised with his debut in 2012, when he appeared as a wing-forward.

Since then, Donnelly has been used in midfield, at centre-back and full-forward. While the stint at full-forward was a mixed bag, he has not lost anything from being tried in a variety of roles, winning two All-Stars at midfield in the last two years.

"I watched so much football growing up and I was quite impressionable that way. I watched a lot of different players and studied the way they played it," he reveals.

In the lead-in to matches, he has no problem switching off from the pressures of being a high-profile county player.

He states: "I wouldn't get too high before a game and I wouldn't get too low. Some players can be on edge the week of a game and they can be psyching themselves out of it. If the game is throwing in at 4 o'clock there is no point in being high before that."

He acknowledges that Trillick's proximity to the Fermanagh border may be something to do with that, along with his formative schooling at St. Michael's in Enniskillen.

"The part of the county where I come from is very laid back. We wouldn't get too excited until the ball is thrown in, and then other boys, they are always highly strung," he laughs.

"Different players are different but I don't get too excited."

And although he may come across as more relaxed, he intends to bring that Tyrone attitude when they get to Croke Park against any Dublin team.

While others are routinely beaten before they cross the white line, Tyrone have two recent league draws to remind themselves of how close they are to beating Dublin.

"The way Mickey Harte has us, we always believe in ourselves. If you go four or five points behind any team the belief is going to take a battering so it's just making sure that we don't get ourselves in that position," he says.

"We have a lot of players feeling good about themselves that have had a lot of success for Tyrone and feel they can compete with anyone."

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