GAA Football

"Come the end of the year it was just like f*** this" - Odhrán Mac Niallais on Donegal, travelling and future plans

From the rooftop of his apartment in New York, Odhran Mac Niallais has a great view of the world that he so craved to see. Cahair O'Kane talks to the Donegal man about life in the Big Apple and future plans...

Odhran Mac Niallais played in the win over Galway two years ago but is currently in New York after taking a year out of inter-county football. Picture by Seamus Loughran

YOU won’t have heard of Romeo Santos but the Latin pop singer’s new album gave Odhrán Mac Niallais another reason to love New York.

It’s 10pm there on an average Thursday night. Astoria, on the banks of the East River facing on to Manhattan, has been his home since he arrived in Queen’s on June 24.

Just home from training with the Donegal club, he takes to the rooftop of the apartment he shares with former Armagh forward Eugene McVerry to watch a spectacular light show on the Empire State Building, which was randomly to mark the release of Santos’ new album.

That’s New York for you. It throws life so fast that you don’t know why anything is the way it is.

Were it not for Newfoundland then there would be nothing only water in the 3,000 miles between the north-western tip of Ireland and the bustling east coast of America that he calls home this summer.

All Mac Niallais knows is that events like these are a world away from nights in Mickey’s pub or Sean Óg’s in Gaoth Dobhair.

The football is different, but the same. Even on the brand new surface unveiled in Gaelic Park last weekend, there are double sweepers.

The crowds are bigger than for club games at home. The hangovers are not quite so prevalent as legend would have you believe.

“You’re 100 per cent not going out the night before a game. You wouldn’t want to do that to yourself in that heat,” he laughs.

“I’d never put myself through that, it would be horrible. You’re only torturing yourself. It’s hard enough to get out of bed with that heat never mind playing a match with a hangover.”

Of all the bodies that Donegal manager Rory Gallagher expected to lose last winter, Mac Niallais was externally the surprise among them.

Internally, there was an acceptance from both ends. The 24-year-old was so disillusioned with his own form last year that he wanted to quit the panel at the end of the National League.

Gallagher talked him back and he would repay that with two goals in the quarter-final win over Fermanagh. But as the year lingered on, Mac Niallais almost couldn’t wait to get out.

“I just wasn’t really enjoying my football. I wasn’t playing well and that doesn’t help when you’re going to training and you’re not happy, and you’re not enjoying it, you’re not happy with how you’re playing.

“That was the reason why. I just wanted to get away from that feeling of not enjoying it. I knew if I took a year out and just went playing with the club, it would probably help me to enjoy it because there’s not as much commitment.

“The club is where you’ve played all your life and no matter what, you always enjoy that. Playing with Donegal, there’s a lot of pressure and commitment, and I just didn’t enjoy that last year. I just wanted to get away from it really.”

Wanting a break does not equate to a lack of affection though. The green and gold, for the last few years, has been his life. Maybe too much, he admits.

A bit of work at summer camps was about the height of it at home after packing in the books following a brief run at Letterkenny IT.

When his form dipped, the commitment began to weigh heavily.

“I didn’t have a job, and that was another reason to head away. I didn’t want to be sitting about home all summer doing nothing and when the opportunity’s there to come to New York and play football, get a bit of money, you can’t turn it down.

“My main focus was football for the last couple of years. It was all I really had. I didn’t have a steady job or college or anything.

“I was happy enough just focussing on football, going to the gym or training every day and just getting by at home.

“You’re always gonna have one or two good days a year, but I was having more bad days than good days.

“That pissed me off and come the end of the year it was just like f*** this, when it’s just not happening.

“I’d been on the panel for four years, so I just wanted to get a wee break and experience something different. That’s what I’m doing right now.”

*

AMERICA came calling fairly quickly. Chairman of the Donegal club Keelan McLaughlin, a native of Ardara, was on the ball last October and the wheels began to turn.

His first thought, though, was of playing a bit of unbroken ball with a talented young Gaoth Dobhair side.

There was a bit of soccer too with Gweedore Celtic, which could easily have turned to a run at the game semi-professionally.

Finn Harps were in need of a left winger and so Ollie Horgan made the call back in the autumn in an attempt to lure Mac Niallais to Finn Park.

“He came down to Gaoth Dobhair and we met in a café, we had a good chat and he just laid it all out on the table.

“With Finn Harps, people mightn’t realise they train just as much as Donegal do, they’re going three or four times a week. He said to me they were doing double sessions on a Saturday sometimes.

“That was kind of what pushed me away from it, the commitment. That’s one of the reasons I took a year out from the Donegal setup, to get away from the commitment for a while and experience new things.

“New York was on the horizon at that time too – it was either Finn Harps or New York. And if I played for Finn Harps, I wouldn’t be able to play for Gaoth Dobhair, so it just didn’t suit in the end up.”

The travel was an itch that had to be scratched. Initially he had planned to travel with his girlfriend Tara but her work and study commitments meant Mac Niallais was going it alone.

His brother Lorcan has been in New York a few years and along with a couple of cousins and familiar faces from home such as Ross Wherity, Peter Witherow and now Leo McLoone, who landed recently, there was always going to be enough familiarity to get by.

Woodlawn, right down by the Bronx River, is the spiritual home of Donegal natives in the Big Apple and between there and chilling around the city, the days go in alright. The nights, easier still.

“I’ve always wanted to experience it. From boys I was speaking to that have done it over the years, they all say it’s definitely worth it.

“I just thought now while I’m young and have the chance to do it, I couldn’t turn it down. I’ll be 25 next month. I thought now was the time to do it and I just went for it.”

The New York championship is three games in, with five round robin games left to play before potential semi-finals and final. Up against the Monaghan, Kerry, Cavan and St Barnabas clubs, there’s a realistic chance of glory.

“I don’t think people realise that until you come out and experience how competitive it is. I was coming out expecting it to be an easy-going affair, doddling up to training and matches and it not being taken very seriously, but it is taken very seriously.

“I found it a bit of a shock as to how high a standard it is. You’d nearly compare it to club football back home.”

*

WHEN it ends, he hopes to be back in time to slot back in with Gaoth Dobhair as they try to overcome defeat by Kilcar and qualify from a Championship group of death with Glenswilly and Ardara.

His involvement there could depend largely on how deep into the summer Rory Gallagher’s team go.

Soccer and club commitments meant Mac Niallais only got to one Donegal game all year, the Championship win over Antrim.

But as much as there could be a selfish motivation to want his county to win, his thoughts are of Gallagher and the players he hopes to call team-mates again in the future.

“I obviously want to see Donegal do well, especially for Rory Gallagher. He’s a great man. I know a lot of people have been giving him a hard time the last year or two and he doesn’t deserve that at all.

“That man puts his heart and soul and everything he has into that team, preparing them, training, everything - he’s a professional man and works his socks off to get that team to the highest level.

“People just don’t realise that and they’re too quick to criticise him and everyone else. I love to see the boys do well. I know first hand the work that goes in and I’d really love to see them do well.”

Part of him would love to be in Markievicz Park this evening, but he won’t even see much of the game as it is.

Of all teams, Donegal New York are welcoming Donegal Philadelphia for a challenge game at 2pm New York time, which clashes with the Galway game on TV.

There’ll be a rush to the bar to catch the tail end of it in the hope of watching his county reach the last eight for the seventh year-in-a-row.

2017 is taken care of for him, though. What about this time next year?

“Ideally, I see myself preparing for an All-Ireland quarter-final after winning an Ulster Championship with Donegal. That’s the ideal world. We’ll have to see what happens.

“That was always the plan, to take the year out and go back if they take me when this season’s over, go back in for pre-season and get back into a bit of shape, and take it from there.

“I definitely would like to see more of the world but I wouldn’t be mad keen to go away travelling for six or seven months of the year. Just go different places on holiday maybe, things like that.

“I can’t see myself going away for another summer next year. Maybe a few years down the line I will but not in the near future.”

By the time the call ends, the Empire State’s lightshow is over. Like watching the Fourth of July fireworks with his buddies from home, these things are worth seeing and worth doing.

Donegal will still be there when he gets home.

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