GAA Football

John McEntee: There's something mystical and magical about Donegal

John McEntee has fond memories of an encounter with Michael Murphy and his Donegal team-mates while on holiday last year

AFTER a slow start, the Ulster Championship has certainly delivered excitement and surprise, with its fair share of upsets along the way.

Donegal prematurely exited in a scene befitting of the natural world, where a young bear full of testosterone attempts to challenge the king bear to become lord of all Ulster, only to receive a few slaps across the head and be sent packing into the wilds with his tail between his legs.

Donegal can lick their wounds, regroup and challenge another day. They will learn from their defeat to Tyrone.

During last year's summer bank holiday, we travelled down the south east coast and over to Cork before driving to Downings in Donegal.

Ireland is such a wonderful place to tour. A puck around at Nowlan Park, picnics on the lawns of Kilkenny Castle, standing face to face with a Sumatran tiger in Fota Wildlife park with only four inches of glass for safety, and the freedom to play until midnight are memories my kids will cherish for many years.

Not surprisingly, however, their greatest memory is the 30 minutes they got to spend with Michael Murphy and co.

The evening before we were heading home we heard a rumour the Donegal senior team would be training on the Downings pitch. Word spread among our many relations who were also holidaying in the village.

Would the team be having one of their fabled 6am sessions? Would we have to climb trees to watch the session or would the village be surrounded by security guards to prevent anyone getting close to the players?

Watching kids aged from four to 16 years getting so excited was heart-warming. When you think about it, the only time kids get access to county stars is at open nights prior to their first Championship game or, if the team is successful, in the run-up to a final. Kids crave this type of access; it is good for the Association and is a much better recruitment exercise than any other performed by the GAA.

Our rented holiday home over-looked the clubhouse but not the upper training field.

We woke at 5.30am. There was no sign of anyone by 6am. My wife took it upon herself to walk the 1000 metres downhill to the training grounds to see if anyone had arrived via a covert route. They hadn't.

Some lads trotted across the pitch, kicking a ball, at 10am. The kids jumped out of their armchairs, phoned their cousins and friends to report the suspicious activity on the pitch and bolted down the hill. Twenty minutes later the forlorn figures returned, ball in hand, saying it was just some local lads having a kickaround.

We gave up the ghost, packed and headed for home. As we drove through Letterkenny we got the call: “They're here, they're on the pitch.” I'm one of those people who rarely turn back once I'm on the road, even if I've forgotten my wallet. This time was different, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Being honest, I think I was as thrilled as the kids.

The return journey seemed to last an hour; every local farmer was transporting silage on their rattly Ford 4000 tractor or chasing cattle along the road from one field to another.

As we arrived in Downings there they were, out on the pitch, in broad daylight, with no bodyguards. Of course the kids ran over to meet the stars, first Paddy McBrearty (below), then Michael Murphy, then the


We couldn't believe the access to the players and their willingness to talk with the kids and sign autographs. As for me, I couldn't get over their size and their relaxed attitude. They were enjoying training.

Then came the biggest surprise of all. Michael Murphy said the team were going up to the Rosapenna Hotel for food and extended an invitation to come up to meet all the players. Myself, four adults and about 15 kids duly obliged.

Being a former inter-county player I thought it best to first seek permission from Rory Gallagher and to break the ice with the players themselves before the whole gang flooded into the players' lounge.

We got some great group photos that day. Better still, those 30 minutes spent with those Donegal lads provided the type of inspiration for kids that is priceless.

We are planning this year's holiday and there are no prizes for guessing where the kids want to go. I have friends in Down and Derry, family from Monaghan and in-laws from Tyrone but, aside from my own county of Armagh, the one county jersey that takes pride of place in my home is that of Donegal.

Donegal may not have delivered the goods against Tyrone but they should not be forgotten.

Like Monaghan against Down, what we saw the last day was not a true reflection of their capabilities.

Donegal fielded a young, inexperienced team. As former Major League Baseball player Vernon Law once said, experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterwards. Rory has time to share the lesson with his young men.

In four or five weeks' time as we pack our luggage bags, one jersey that will still be required will be the green and gold of Donegal.

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