GAA Football

Donegal's Eamonn Doherty glad he stuck it out with Tir Chonnail

Donegal defender Eamonn Doherty (right) says the new management team and infusion of young talent have provided a boost to the county set-up 
Seamus Maloney

BEFORE you leave you make sure the kitbag’s in the boot, because you know you’ll be needing it before you’re back home again.

The gym might get a visit before work, but after work it’s straight to training, maybe picking up a few along the way, maybe it’s one of the other fellas’ turns to lift you.

You run, you do the drills, you go home, you recover, you do it all again. The team gets called out and you’ll have a number higher than 15 on your back. Again. What keeps you going? It’s a fair question, one Eamonn Doherty wonders about, one he’s asked himself.

The Letterkenny man was first called into the Donegal panel in 2011 by then-manager Jim McGuinness, a year after playing a key role in the U21 team McGuinness had led to the All-Ireland final.

His stay was brief and he wasn’t part of the Sam Maguire-winning squad the following year. That was the panel he came into for the 2013 season.

“I’m going in the year after an All-Ireland final and I’m looking at fellas like the two McGees, Paddy McGrath, Karl Lacey, Anthony Thompson, Frank McGlynn,” he said.

“They were the starting defenders at the time. I was fairly realistic with myself, that this was an incredibly difficult defence to break into.

“At the time I was 22, 23. I was realistic and I said, ‘look I’ll give it a shot for few years here and see how I get on’.”

But as much as you tell yourself that, as realistic as you try to be, it’s not easy and as time goes by it doesn’t get any easier.

“The first few years I was involved I wouldn’t have had much game-time – and it’s tough,” said Doherty.

“You’re doing the same training as everyone else and you’re just not getting the break and you start thinking to yourself ‘am I good enough for this level?’

“I’d been there before for a season or two and am thinking ‘am I wasting my time?’ It’s a strange one. What drives fellas through that kind of stuff?”

Doherty never took his place on panels for granted – “I love Donegal and I was always very proud to be involved with county set-ups” – but just being happy to be there wasn’t enough. On the drive to training one night he told his St Eunan’s club-mate Rory Kavanagh he was thinking of packing it in.

“He would have been the fella who had always set the standard for me,” said Doherty. “He said that he was on the panel for five or six years before he got his first Championship game. You see how it turned out for him.

“You need fellas like that to bring you down to earth. Everybody wants to be playing all the time but when you get to such a competitive level you’re just not going to be playing every single match. For the majority of players it doesn’t happen like that, you need to do your time.

“You have fellas like Michael Murphy and Paddy McBrearty and Ryan McHugh and these fellas who when they’re 18 or 19 they’re at a level where they can go straight into a senior inter-county team.

“But the majority of fellas need to find their feet for a few years and that was just the same with me.”

He was part of the panel that reached the All-Ireland final in 2014 but barely featured. It wasn’t until the League the following year that his patience paid off with new manager Rory Gallagher starting him in the second game against Dublin and doing the same in almost every League match during his tenure.

However, he only started two Championship matches during that time.

He has been a regular again during the spring this year, this time under new boss Declan Bonner, and Doherty has been enjoying the fresh approach that has come with the new set-up and the healthy contingent of young talent that played in Bonner’s Ulster championship -winning minor and U21 teams.

“A lot of the fellas in his backroom team, maybe half of them, have been involved somewhat, either as players under different management,” he said.

“From that point of view it’s nice because, for older fellas on the panel like me, we know these fellas and we know they’re all solid guys and we know what we’re going to get out of them and that’s great.

“Then the fellas that he’s brought on, some of the younger fellas, would know him because Declan would have had a lot of them in his underage teams.

“So the younger boys were comfortable with those fellas. It was a good starting point.”

Among those brought on board by Bonner was one of the names that kept Doherty off so many of those team-sheets at the start of his county career – 2012 Footballer of the Year Karl Lacey.

“That’s been a big addition,” said Doherty.

“For me as a defender, that’s a fella who’s been top of the ladder with defences the last decade when he was playing. He’s a lot to offer and I’ve learned a lot off him already.”

The League just past was the story of missed opportunities and relegation after some good performances but little to show for them. Doherty, who is in his second year teaching maths and physics at his alma mater St Eunan’s College, a stone’s throw from the house he grew up in, says overall there was plenty positive in it, “a big learning curve” under a new management with so many young players. But it may prove money in the bank.

“We had an awful lot of fellas who played League games. I’d say all 30 players in the panel have got some game-time in the League. That’s very important; that will give experience to some fellas if we are lucky enough to get plenty of Championship games.

“It has a knock-on effect at training. You have numbers at training. You have fellas who want to be there, they’re not just going through the motions.

“They’re putting pressure on other fellas for positions and you get far more out of training having those younger fellas there.

“I’m 27 and I’m looking around in some of the League games and I’m maybe the second oldest playing for us. That tells you the age profile of the team, I’m one of the old boys now.

“I’m happy I stuck it out.”

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