Niall O’Donnell (pictured with his son, Dean) had been looking forward to a summer of watching Clan na Gael from the bank, as opposed to the sideline, before Covid-19 struck. (Pic: Arthur Kinahan)
Niall O’Donnell had been looking forward to a summer of watching Clan na Gael from the bank, as opposed to the sideline, before Covid-19 struck. Now his daily routine lacks its vital ingredient, Gaelic football and the club he has won it all with. Once a Clan et al.
He remains on Garda duty in Navan, but in many ways the purpose has gone out of life. A selector with Clans from 2016-’19, with Mark McCann as manager, he stood down to allow a fresh regime have a go at returning the Ecco Road outfit to their top-flight standing of yesteryear.
A winner of four senior championship medals, his first as a 17-year-old in 1987 when Clans overcame Newtown Blues, the Castletown club was last among the elite in 2006 when O’Donnell acted as team trainer. The culling of five sides from the upper rank that year accounted for the eight-time Joe Ward winners and undisputed team of the 1990s.
“That Clans team, we had nine players playing against Fermanagh in the National League at one stage: the three O’Hanlons, myself, Fitzer, Barry O’Connor, David Staunton, Gerry Curran and Stefan White,” O’Donnell says, reflecting on the club’s glory years. “You look at those type of players, we had a serious panel.
“They were all six-footers and anyone who was under six-foot, they were well able to look after themselves. It was a serious team full of massive men.”
Each and every Clan was a proven winner. They had the taste of success from their underage days and O’Donnell’s crew were no different, surprising Ardee St. Mary’s to win the 1988 minor final. The Dundalk side’s seniors, of which O’Donnell was now an established member, were beaten by Blues in the championship showpiece that same year, a defeat which took some gloss off an otherwise incredible campaign for the goalkeeper.
Not only did he line-out for the Louth minors in his 18th year, but also the U21s and seniors, and for much of the next decade he was the county’s No1 between the sticks. Thus, it was practically inevitable that club success would follow, even if it would be 1992 before Joe Ward returned to the Redeemer Parish.
“In the Cumann Péil na nÓg through the late ’70s and into the ’80s, Bridge End and Redeemer, talk about rivalry, it was unbelievable,” O’Donnell adds. “They were probably the top two teams in the town, along with Glenmuir Hill Street, and both feeding into the Clans.
“A couple of years later we were together at U14 in the Clans with 30 or 35 players to choose from. From that end, our underage, leading up to ’88 with Paddy Dixon and Maurice Harrison Snr leading the team, we were strong.
“In the mid-’80s, when you’d the passion of Jim O’Hanlon over the team, you had talent and the bite that was needed to get across the line also.
“We had a crew like the O’Hanlons, Stauntons, Ronan Greene, myself, Andy O’Carroll and Barry O’Connor coming along from underage set-ups. The older crew, Fitzer, Benny McKeever and Gerry Curran as well; massive men and we knew there was something special with all those players.
“It was 1959 since the Clans had last won the championship, before ’85. Now we’re looking back at the last time Clans won it which was ’98, 22 years ago. It’s much of the same. There’s a full circle and Clans have been in the middle of that circle for the last number of years.”
It was O’Hanlon, father of Seamus, Kevin and Cathal, who developed O’Donnell into an outstanding ’keeper, selecting him in the role for a trial match with Louth U14s in 1983, a year out of his age. He retained the berth for a campaign which produced a Leinster final appearance at Croke Park against a Kildare team including Martin Lynch.
His Wee County career was in full flow by 1990, when Clans reached their third senior final in four years. Defending champions Cooley Kickhams proved too strong in the decider, winning the last of their nine crowns and 12 months later Mickey Heeney’s men fell short once again, Stabannon Parnells prevailing rather controversially.
Three showpiece shortcomings in four seasons had them primed for a crack at 1992 honours. O’Donnell had sat out Louth duty in ’91 having only recently qualified as a Garda and so was absolutely adamant that the upcoming year would be a success.
“We knew there were more wins and championships in us,” he says. “We had a competitive panel of 30 players, every one of whom could have played at a particular time, and we’d won the senior league in 1990 and the ACC Cup in ’91, so it wasn’t all doom and gloom, we were winning.
“All of those years, bar ’94 and ’95, we picked up a medal, either ACC, league or championship, over a 12- or 13-year period.”
Though the ’92 final, against town rivals Gaels, looked to be on a similar course to the other miserable occasions, the Ramparts side having played most of the football, only for Seamus O’Hanlon’s outside of the boot point to rescue Clans a replay, which they won comfortably.
It’s only upon reflection that O’Donnell rues their failure to go the crucial step further in Leinster, their semi-final defeat by Laois’ Ballyroan in Navan signalling the end of Heeney’s involvement in the club. Landing what Louth had to offer was the making of their year, ultimately, and when the triumph was complemented by ACC and Cardinal O’Donnell Cup honours, Clans could hardly have been found complaining.
So fond were they of the treble that they decided to repeat the feat the following year in what must go down as one of domestic football’s most remarkable feats. Not that they could have expected anything less with Stefan White now on board, having transferred back to Louth from Castleblayney Faughs.
“Once you’d Stefan White on the team you’d a seven- or eight-point start straightaway; Stefan was absolutely fantastic.
“Without knowing the total politics of it, he tried to get to the Clans at a younger age and didn’t, and unfortunately Louth lost Stefan county-wise for a number of years. But when he did come, he was an absolute giant in the dressing room and on the field. And what a nice guy.
“People had an impression of Stefan, but they didn’t know him. He’s one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet and one of my best friends in football.”
Clans would “winter well” before getting back on track early the following spring, O’Donnell adds of their approach, but it would be five years until they managed to wrestle control of the senior title again. A wet day in Castlebellingham, in which there were just 12 scores, 0-8 to four, saw O’Donnell win his fourth and final SFC medal. It was the beginning of the end for an incredible team that seemed to get old all at once.
“We woke up on the Sunday morning to the lashes of rain, which brought things back to perspective. I won’t say the rain swung it for us - we were a brilliant team - but it certainly helped us more than it helped Dunleer, a fancied Dunleer team.
“There were serious miles on the clocks of so many lads who’d been playing from February to February for a long number of years, Gerry Curran, Seamus O’Hanlon, etc. The McKeevers were already gone.”
His Louth career, one which was deprived of Lady Luck’s blessing, was waning at that juncture too. He featured in four Leinster semi-finals during the decade and lost to either Dublin or Meath most years as a provincial decider appearance eluded the county and arguably its best team since the All-Ireland winners of 1957.
“A break was all we needed and we never got it,” he suggests, almost dejectedly. “You ask any of the Dublin lads from that time, their hardest games of the year up to a point were playing Louth because we could always give them a run for their money. But it was heartbreak after heartbreak that we didn’t - and couldn’t - get across the line.
“Clare won a championship (1992) and Leitrim won a championship (1994); had you put Louth into Connacht, we would have come out of Connacht at least once and been in an All-Ireland semi-final; God knows what could have happened.
“Unfortunately, we met Meath and Dublin. We never had any problems with the rest of the counties, but they were the two kingpins.”
No particular defeat is singled out, perhaps because there is little differentiating between the pain of one over another. But there is a significant mention given to the departure of Paul Kenny, in 1996, when the team were moving well under his stewardship.
“Paul Kenny was a central man in the set-up; an absolutely unbelievable man and man-manager. He was a businessman, so he could deal with the business end of things, and he could deal with the No30 in the panel.
“He was fantastic and got us to Division One of the National League, but, unfortunately, there was a restructure of the format and we didn’t get to play in it. Though that’s the calibre of team we had, with brilliant players and a great manager in Paul. He left a year or two too early in my opinion. He had something special.”
Nonetheless, O’Donnell’s reputation was widespread and he was selected for Leinster’s Railway Cup team in both 1996 and ’97 without appearing before Mattie Kerrigan gave him his chance in green the following year.
He continued with Louth until 1999, before Paddy Clarke opted for Colm Nally, O’Donnell’s understudy for a number of years, moving into the Millenium.
“It’s hard to let go. I think the Corrs have it in a song, ‘players only love you when they’re playing’. When I wasn’t picked I didn’t take it too well, but, looking back, that’s the way it was. Having played from ’87 to ’99, I’d an awful lot of miles on the clock football-wise.
“I got lots out of it.”
Lots? Memories, of course. One year himself and Seamus O’Hanlon were left behind by the team bus to wine and dine with the Laois team after a championship affair at O’Moore Park. A hitch home with Donal Brady followed as far as Drogheda, before a bus journey down the road. “We’d a bit of explaining to do to the better halves,” he mutters, laughing.
O’Donnell would serve as an U21 selector with Colin Kelly and Nally for a few seasons subsequently, hanging up his playing boots for the final time in 2003, before joining Val Andrews’ senior management ticket, which was replaced in late 2005.
Democrat: “Who was the best player you played with?”
Niall: “I’ll have to break it into two departments. Stefan was the best forward, but the best overall player was Seamus O’Hanlon. You talk now about Stephen Cluxton and how he’s changed the game. My role was simple: I’d kick it 70 yards out and Seamus or Gerry Curran would get up and catch it.”
Democrat: “Best player you played against?”
Niall: “Emmm, Leo Turley, Laois.”
Democrat: “Biggest influence on your career?”
Niall: “Well I’d great support from Mam and Dad at home. But Paddy Dixon had a huge influence on us all as teenagers in the Clans. He was the manager, the selector, the masseur; just an all-round good guy.”
Democrat: “Your love of greyhounds, did that come from your father, Niall Snr?”
Niall: “Absolutely, yeah. My father was from Clonmel; he moved to Dundalk to work with a gas company in April 1967, he was telling me the other day he’s 53 years here. He’d won a senior (1965) and minor (1960) football championship in Tipperary and a senior hurling (1962) medal too.
“But he brought the love of greyhounds with him. He got married in 1968 to my mother and the night before he got married, he had a runner at the dog track, Barney’s Rebel. A great man there, Jimmy Martin, he knew Dad was getting married and I’m not going to say he put him in to win, but, anyway, the dog won and he got a few quid for the honeymoon!
“A big influence on his life growing up would have been Dr Pat O’Callaghan, the Olympian. They’d have travelled everywhere with dogs and shared many a night of stories over a bottle of draught. Dad named a lot of dogs after the great doctor. A bitch he had recently, who was only a few lengths off the track record at Shelbourne Park, was called Two Gold Medals, after the medals Dr Pat had won at the Olympics.”
Democrat: “Dean (Niall’s son) has a lot to live up to when you factor in that there’s championship medals across two generations!”
Niall: “Ah, well, he’s followed in the footsteps by going into the guards anyway.”
Democrat: “Step one completed.”
Niall: “Yeah, but sure football is only a pastime now.”
A few hours later and the phone buzzes. It’s Niall.
“I just wanted to mention to you - it slipped my mind earlier - two very important people during the course of my football days, two unsung heroes of the GAA. I hope you can give them appropriate mention. Charlie McAlester and Tony Curran, both RIP. Both kitmen, Charlie with Louth and Tony with the Clans. Both togged us out to the best. Thanks.”