GAA Football

Tyrone captain Mattie Donnelly builds up to All-Ireland Football Final stage

Tyrone captain Mattie Donnelly has worked hard to be tough enough for inter-county football. Pic Philip Walsh

MATTIE Donnelly hasn’t written a victory speech ahead of tomorrow's All-Ireland Senior Football Final against Dublin, nor is the Tyrone captain planning to.

No point wasting his time, some might say. Yet it’s not negativity that stops the Trillick man from pondering winning words, simply his relaxed attitude.

"No, I don't write speeches, I never write them, not even for dinner dances.”

Asked if he’s confident about talking off the top of his head if he gets to lift the Sam Maguire Cup with the Red Hands, he replies: “Worry about that when it arises."

When. Not if.

Of course, Donnelly isn’t saying Tyrone will dethrone Dublin, who are aiming for the first football four-in-a-row since 1981.

Yet nor has he headed south with a defeatist attitude.

Mattie Donnelly on becoming Tyrone captain

Trillick has a tradition of providing Tyrone captains, including the late Pat King and Sean Donnelly, with Mattie able to celebrate along with the latter shortly after manager Mickey Harte told him he was his choice to succeed Sean Cavanagh:

“I mind it was actually winter time he told me I was going to be captain. Just a few nights after, it was one of those nights around Christmas, we were down in a neighbours’ house and Sean Donnelly was down and the spirits were good then.

“It was good to be able to reflect on that. Sean Donnelly is obviously a big idol in Trillick for everyone. It’s good to be part of that tradition. Pat King was captain just previous, so Sean was the last.

“So, aye, you are following in good footsteps there and I am obviously very aware of that.

“In terms of how it differs in roles. The thing I have found is just being aware of all the different personalities in the team and how your approach to them might have to differ.

“That’s the thing I have tried to adjust the most. It’s something I have enjoyed and found easy enough, because you generally care for your teammates on this team and you just enjoy being around them, so it’s just been an easy transition.

"It is something I have found easy because I genuinely do care for them. I look out for the players.

“Getting to know them better, finding out the different approaches you have to take with them is something I have enjoyed. It's probably something the team in general are good at, looking out for each other.”

Of course, he may look out a little more for one particular player, his little – or at least younger – brother Richie.

The latter, who recently turned 26, has only established himself in the Tyrone number 14 jersey season, but Mattie gives reasons for that with fraternal feeling:

“The thing about Richie is he’s probably the most naturally talented out of the two of us. From school level he would have been the main man at his age group in school and throughout minor and Tyrone underage.

Mattie on brother Richie Donnelly

“The body seemed to break down on him at a few vital stages in his career and that curtailed his progression onto the senior panel…

“He was probably one of Tyrone’s best players in 2016 until injury cut that season short. From then it has been, stop-start.

“His talent was never in doubt. It was just building up the tolerance and capacity in the body to withstand inter-county football.

“He’s been doing that, he’s extremely diligent that way. There are a few players in the same boat as him that would have to work extremely hard to have themselves robust enough for senior inter-county football and they are extremely diligent.

“It’s good to see him getting that reward with a prolonged run in the team.”

Playing position:

Mattie himself had to show such due diligence. A renowned ‘gym bunny’, his aim has never been to look good or have ‘big guns’ but for one simple reason – to be fit to play and withstand the hurly-burly of the modern game. His approach could be summed up by saying ‘You’ve got to be in it to win it’.

He ‘pumped iron’ from his mid-teens, even if was an unfashionable training technique for someone that age: “You were kind of like the black sheep about the place then by going to the gym as much as I did on my own. It definitely wasn’t the popular thing to do back then, but I’m glad I had the foresight to do that.”

He certainly heard the jibe that he ‘spent too much time in the gym’: “You would have got that back then too. There is an extremely fine line to tipping the balance the wrong way there.”

The key has always to become bigger – and better, and fitter. “Number one, most important thing in football is availability, is being fit to play.

“You don't want to jeopardise that by doing something silly in the gym. That's always been the goal for me, to be able to play and be robust enough to stand the requirements for inter-county football.

“If you're fit and available for selection, that's always the most important thing. You want to be fit to express your skills on the pitch and you are coming against extremely conditioned players so that has to be at a high level. It can never be at the expense of being fit to play.

“Touch wood now, I would consider myself quite robust. I could count on one hand the amount of trainings I have missed.

“I don’t think I have missed any championship game yet for Tyrone with injury.

“I would see that as something I have always prided myself on, that robustness, and hopefully that continues because you are obviously just a bad bit of luck away from that - and a lot of it is down to luck as well.”

He was learning lessons first hand from the best young players in Tyrone, as his father Liam was in charge of the Red Hand minors for a number of years, leading them to All-Ireland Minor triumphs in 2001 and 2004 as joint-boss along with Martin Coyle.

"2001 and 2004. I would have gone to all the training. It was a good insight into it.

"This was always an aspiration, it's every footballers' pipe-dream to get to this stage and it definitely was one of mine."

He had even higher level guidance too, via the man who helped train Tyrone to their first All-Ireland:

“Back when I was 16 I mind being in bad form after a game one day about my physical development. It’s funny the way that it works. Dad would have reached out to Paddy Tally and he would have set down a programme for me to do…I followed that quite religiously for a while.

“Probably stuff you wouldn’t be doing now…A lot of weights in it, curls, which you wouldn't hear tell of now. Shoulder presses. Everything really.

“But back then it was a great thing and then you start getting exposed to the Tyrone Development squads and you have fellas giving you programmes and stuff there.”

Even with his dedication, though, the increasing physicality required in Gaelic football made him step away from the Tyrone senior set-up after early involvement.

“Aye, First stint was 2010, I was in the McKenna Cup, but something I’d always be aware of is the physicality of it.

“Looking around the dressing room you know yourself, competing with boys in training, the likes of Stevie O’Neill and ‘Hub’ Hughes and those boys were around the scene then.

“And you were even getting feedback from photographs and that and you knew you just weren’t at the same level physically as those boys.

“Looking at other county teams too - Cork and Kildare were prominent back then, they were massive men.

“You probably didn’t think physically you could compete with them boys. It was something I was wary of.

“I didn’t want to be in the county panel unless I could contribute heavily that season and it probably wasn’t the case then. I took two years out at that stage to build myself to the required level.”

His talent grew in his absence, he recalls with a smile: “Aye, well, it’s the same with anything. When you are not playing, you are probably the answer: ‘Get that fella in.’

“Probably the most difficult thing for me was saying, ‘no’ to Mickey, in that I will hold off until next year, because you are always thinking that there might have been a chance he would see that in a negative way and probably not give you your chance the next year. I’d be extremely grateful to Mickey for allowing me to join the panel again in 2012.”

All the effort has paid off, not just for Tyrone but for him and his brother, who are “very, very close. We've shared the same room since we were younger, we do most things together now. We'd be extremely close.”

Playing in an All-Ireland final is the realisation of childhood conversations, he acknowledges: “We obviously talked about what each of us wanted to achieve. Even above the beds at home we have the jerseys from the last All-Ireland minor final that we each played in - so hopefully we'd like to replace them.”

If Mattie Donnelly does lift ‘Sam’ he won’t lack the strength – nor the words.

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