Odhrán MacNiallais: We lost a match, you get over it. When you lose a mate it is something you don’t get over

He takes us back to a night in late January 2019. A car leaves the road a few miles outside Gortahork. Four young men are killed. The outpouring of grief hangs over the county for weeks. Months
Odhrán MacNiallais: We lost a match, you get over it. When you lose a mate it is something you don’t get over

Odhran Mac Niallais overlooking Dunlewey in Co Donegal. Picture: Brian McDaid.

When he paints the picture of what an Ulster final is for him, OdhránMac Niallais goes for the abstract.

It’s not really the journey into the ground with thousands on the streets, banging the sides of the bus and the flares going off.

It’s when the boots are on and you leave the dressing room, out through the blue gates of St Tiernach’s Park, up Church Hill and down towards the little warm-up pitch.

“You are in among the fans for those few seconds running down the road.

“And Clones, the buzz, the atmosphere on a real hot day, that’s what I miss — the buzz, there is nothing like it.”

It won’t be like that at all on Sunday.

No Clones, for a start. No sunshine. No team buses and no fans.

And no Mac Niallais, one of the most effortless and elegant players of his generation.

He takes us back to a night in late January 2019. A car leaves the road a few miles outside Gortahork. Four young men are killed. The outpouring of grief hangs over the county for weeks. Months. For some it will never lift.

One of them is Micheál ‘Roycee’ Roarty. One of his greatest friends. Gaoth Dobhair had just won an unlikely Ulster club title with a win over Scotstown. A semi-final against Corofin was a fortnight later. They gave it their all but the grief and the emotions burst out when they closed the dressing room door behind them in Carrick-on-Shannon after a four-point defeat.

“I had zero interest in football for a long time after that,” he begins.

“The Corofin game, losing that didn’t even bother me. Losing Micheál… I wouldn’t consider Corofin a loss. It’s just another match and we have all lost football games and you get over it, but when you lose a mate like that, it is something you don’t get over.

“I didn’t know what to do with myself for a long time after. It was a strange time for me. My whole life was just football. If I was ever pissed off or down about anything, then football would get me going again. It was always something to look to.

I found myself for a long time after that, in training or in matches, just not enjoying it. You would rather be anywhere else. It was a real struggle to get back into football.

After the Corofin defeat, Mac Niallais had been approached by Donegal manager Declan Bonner but couldn’t stomach a return to county football. Gaoth Dobhair took a couple of months off and went back at it, making it to the county final again, losing after a three-game marathon to Naomh Conaill.

“That was a nightmare. By the third game you were hoping for it to be over, win or lose. I was just glad it was over,” he says.

Undoubtedly, it didn’t mean as much.

Odhran Mac Niallais pictured at his club, Gaoth Dobhair's, pitch at Machaire Gathlain in Co Donegal. Picture: Brian McDaid.
Odhran Mac Niallais pictured at his club, Gaoth Dobhair's, pitch at Machaire Gathlain in Co Donegal. Picture: Brian McDaid.

Bonner came calling again though. He felt like he wanted to go back in for the 2020 season. But he had friends in Sydney that seemed to be enjoying themselves and for a time that was an option.

He found his interest waning and his body wasn’t in the right shape for it.

He was grieving. Still is.

“For months afterwards, even now, you wake up waiting for it to have been a bad dream.

For a few months after, you don’t realise it but you are grieving, trying to deal with it, and it is not one bit easy.

He’ll admit that he has had it with Gaoth Dobhair from time to time and has to get into some other scene.

In 2017 he dropped off the county panel to spend a summer in New York.

When Donegal beat Monaghan 2-13 to 1-8 in the ‘county final’ over there, he was man of the match.

“I dunno what it is. Or maybe I do, I just feel like I need to get away for a while. See somewhere else and do something different. But last year after the football I had just had enough. I wanted to get away from it.”

Former Donegal goalkeeper Michael Boyle had coached Mac Niallais at Gaoth Dobhair and the two ended up heading for London. They were set up in a house in quirky Crouch End, Boyle and Mac Niallais set to export their coach-player relationship to North London Shamrocks.

Paddy Madigan, chairman of the club, looked out for him. In Gaoth Dobhair, industry is slow and work is scarce.

Mac Niallais was given a traineeship as a CAD technician.

Boyle was easing the Shamrocks in with pre-season boxing and soccer on an astroturf pitch. At weekends, they would venture over to Camden Town, their eyes widening at the joy of the scene over there.

“I was doing that, loving it, it was going great and I was finding my feet, getting used to the work and then the lockdown landed then. It was a balls the way it turned out,” he rues.

As a snooker nut who used to play with his friend Eoin Ward in Letterkenny, he was looking forward to getting to see some action in the nearby Alexandra Palace. One man in particular, of course. Ronnie O’Sullivan.

All the adjectives that have attached themselves to O’Sullivan have been used about Mac Niallais. Mercurial. Enigmatic.

“I think lazy is one I hear often!” he adds.

“I probably am not suited to the game the way it is now, it’s all hard work, all action, up and down the field with big strong men, throwing yourself about. I suppose, traditional football that’s what I enjoy. Just kick-passing, scoring, attacking play.

“Defensive football now, even the majority of football is played in defence and the gameplans, systems are all based around defence.” He continues: “When I started playing with the club in 2009, you had your three half forwards and three full forwards and it was great.

I really, really loved football back then.

“I started as a forward and was moved back to midfield then and there was more defensive work to be done there.

“Playing with the club, as long as we are getting the results I will play anywhere. But I would be the first to admit it, I am a lazy footballer. I don’t have the legs to be a runner up and down the field. I try to conserve my energy as best I can, but that’s all I can do.

“I am not built like a Ryan McHugh or one of these boys.”

He stuck it out for six weeks in London. But with no work and nothing to do, he returned home. At least there was Gaoth Dobhair and football. This time, there was no call from Bonner. He was neither preparing or expecting it.

Back home, lockdown is biting. The repetitive nature of the days gets under his skin a little.

“I love Gaoth Dobhair, I love living here. People maybe don’t think too much about it, but it is a great wee place.

“Even now with lockdown, when things are good and normal, Gaoth Dobhair is a great wee town,” he says.

Like a lot of people, just being able to watch sport on television at weekends has sustained him. When there was action from Augusta at The Masters, he was glued to it. It will be the same for the Ulster final — he cannot wait to see how it all transpires in Armagh on Sunday, even though he could be a part of it.

That’s if he really wanted to.

“Don’t get me wrong, I would love to be playing for Donegal again. I enjoyed it. But the commitment levels are too much,” he states.

“I enjoy my time off and not having to base my whole life around football. I did it for five, six years, but I gradually didn’t have the drive to give that commitment anymore.”

He adds: “I would love to be going into an Ulster final. There is nothing like it. But no fans there, a bad day, a soft pitch, it wouldn’t be getting me wild excited.”

In time, he may reconsider. Club legend Kevin Cassidy has taken over as Gaoth Dobhair manager for his second spell and the renowned Maxi Curran is coming in as coach.

Lighting a fire under one of Donegal’s greatest players will be a high priority.

“I will go with the flow, see what happens,” he finishes.

If we were selfish, we’d say it was his loss. But he knows exactly what loss is.

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