How Mattie Donnelly found strength on meandering journey to the top

Mattie Donnelly knew what some were saying. And he knew why.

How Mattie Donnelly found strength on meandering journey to the top

By Brendan O'Brien

Mattie Donnelly knew what some were saying. And he knew why.

There can’t have been many 16-year-olds knocking around the remote village of Trillick who spent as much time in the gym as he did at that age. That being the case, it was only to be expected that some would click their tongues and declare that he was far too fond of his free weights.

“There is an extremely fine line to tipping the balance the wrong way there,” he explains. “Number one is playing football and being able to play football and the skills that are required. That’s the number one starting point, but you need to be physically fit to be able to do that.”

S&C has had its bad press in recent times, and there is no doubt but that there are too many spoofers out there feeding those negative vibes, but the work Donnelly has had to do to ensure he is physically able for the inter-county game is a reminder of its necessity.

Donnelly initially gravitated towards the gym on the back of a game he played 12 years ago when he came off second best against an opponent that was either bigger, stronger, or faster than him. He doesn’t say what exactly happened, or didn’t, but the lesson was absorbed.

His father Liam, a former Tyrone minor manager, sourced a solution by reaching out to Paddy Tally. Coach to Mickey Harte’s Tyrone team when they won their first All-Ireland in 2003, the Galbally man went on to spread his gospel in Down, Derry and St Mary’s Belfast.

A coach, a sports scientist, and a psychologist, Tally set out a programme for the youngster. Some of it seems almost archaic now but it worked as a primer for a player who would build on it through the county development squads and win an All-Ireland minor medal in 2008.

I definitely was (unusual) because you were kind of like the black sheep about the place then by going to the gym as much as I did on my own. It definitely wasn’t the popular thing to do back then, but I’m glad I had the foresight to do that.

It’s well he did because, for all the work he had banked in preparing himself physically, he still felt like a scrawny boy among the men who filled out Harte’s squad when he joined the senior panel as a 19-year-old late in 2009.

Established stars such as Stephen O’Neill and Kevin Hughes were built like granite and continued to sit on a pedestal above him, even as he shared the same dressing room, and there were other clues besides that maybe this wasn’t his time.

This was an era when teams were packing far more beef than the more athletically built elite sides of today. When a towering Cork team stood almost literally head and shoulders above most of its counterparts long before they claimed that season’s All-Ireland title.

Kieran McGeeney’s Kildare was another outfit pushing boundaries and stretching shirts at the time but Donnelly only had to look at pictures of himself to realise that he was a middleweight donning gloves in a division reserved for the heavies.

One snap, taken at an Ulster U21 semi-final against Down in Páirc Esler, captures a youthful Donnelly in possession, the ball held by arms still lacking much in the way of definition and with a waistline that a mammy would say was in dire need of a few spuds and the odd steak.

It was taken on April 1 but he wasn’t trying to fool himself any longer. Harte had been informed of his intention to step away from the inter-county scene and get himself physically ready for another crack by the time the McKenna Cup and January had been and gone.

A brave move. And far from an easy one. “You are always thinking that there might have been a chance that he would see that in a negative way and probably not give you your chance the next year. I’d be extremely grateful to Mickey for allowing me to join the panel in 2012 again.”

His meandering journey to the top of the game still wasn’t done. Donnelly has admitted in the years since that he maybe enjoyed the social side of life as a student at University of Jordanstown a tad too much. His return to the Tyrone scene served as his penance.

Still shy of what he believed was the minimum fighting weight required, he spent the 2012 season trying to keep his head above the deeper waters but there were times stretching through to the following year’s campaign when he was all but submerged.

Time and again he was called ashore in or around half-time by Harte. The tipping point was the round two qualifier defeat to Kerry in Killarney in 2012 when he was benched during the interval. That would be the trigger for another winter spent in the gym. All that effort did finally pay off.

Donnelly claimed All-Star awards in 2015 and 2016 and he will captain his county in Croke Park this afternoon. Versatile, athletic and a skilled ball player, the hours spent in the gym will be spoken for by the guns he slips through the sleeves of the county jersey today.

Touch wood now, I would consider myself quite robust,” he says. “I could count on one hand the amount of trainings I have missed. I don’t think I have missed any championship game yet for Tyrone with injury.

“I would see that as something I have always prided myself on, is that robustness, and hopefully that continues because you are obviously just a bad bit of luck away from that. And a lot of it is down to luck as well.”

Perseverance, too.

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