GAA Football

'That's a real loss, losing him. Today just doesn't even compare. It's just football'

Odhrán MacNiallais leaving the pitch after Gaoth Dobhair's defeat by Corofin on Saturday. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

THE loss that Gaoth Dobhair’s footballers suffered on Saturday was nothing really.

Nothing at all when you put it the context of what their community has been through over the past few weeks.

Micheál ‘Roycee’ Roarty was a friend, a team-mate, a source of joy in their lives. A full-page message in the match programme for their clash with Corofin remembered how he was “the jolliest man you could meet”, but that he loved his football too.

It recounted him lobbing water bottles at the fence in a fit of pique any time he was subbed by either Gaoth Dobhair or Dunlewey Celtic, with whom he played soccer.

“I’m so bloody happy” he told his team-mates as he flashed his dimpled smile at them on the bus home from the Ulster final win over Scotstown.

His death in a car crash with three friends barely three weeks ago is Gaoth Dobhair’s true loss, way beyond a game of football.

Odhrán MacNiallais had been a close friend of Roarty’s. The day after he, John Harley, Shaun Harkin and Daniel Scott had all been laid to rest, MacNiallais posted a series of photos of himself with a smiling Roarty on Instagram.

“Life will never be the same. Rest in peace my man,” read the caption.

You could see it in the eyes of the Donegal forward as he emerged from the changing room and stood in the windswept tunnel of Pairc Sean Mac Diarmada.

“It’s been heartbreaking really,” he said.

“It puts football in the back of your mind the last few weeks and really shows you what’s important in life. At the end of the day, it’s your family, your friends that are important.

“Football, yeah it gives everyone a lift and it’s enjoyable, but… Micheál was a very, very close friend of mine, and you never, ever expect something like that to happen to you.

“It’s heartbreaking. I don’t know how we’ll get over it. His family, everyone close to him, your heart goes out to them, it’s so difficult.”

Even in defeat, Saturday was a proud day for the rural Gaeltacht parish. Every man, woman and child seemed to be seated in Carrick-on-Shannon 90 minutes before throw-in. They owned the main stand and created a tremendous atmosphere.

Football has done what it’s supposed to do in recent weeks. It took the minds of a distraught village off what’s real and allowed it to focus on something else.

“Football means a lot to every man in that dressing room, it takes up the most of our lives, but at the end of the day it’s not everything,” said MacNiallais.

“You take things for granted. Micheál was a young lad, 24 years of age. He was a great footballer too, he probably would’ve been involved with this team only he was too fond of the partying,” he said as he remembered the good times and a faint smile broke across his face.

“That’s a real loss, losing him. Today just doesn’t even compare. It’s just football.”

None of that is to say that Gaoth Dobhair gave anything less than what they had. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that their performance on Saturday, even with its minor flaws, would probably have been good enough to beat any other team in Ireland. Just not Corofin.

The reigning All-Ireland champions are just a cut above. Their kick-passing craft, their movement, their decision-making, they’re all part of it. But it’s as much about the incessant workrate which offers their skills the platform.

MacNiallais was fulsome in his praise of the Connacht champions.

“The step up’s very big. They’ve been playing in that, and you see the level they’re at. They’re so organised. It’s so easy to tell playing against them that they’ve been there before. It’s a funny thing to say but you can actually tell.

“They know what to do at the right times. We came back at them well, we had it down to two points, but they managed it well.

“They felt the pressure coming on and they managed to kill the game here and there, and they knew the right times to penetrate and get the scores.

“They won a few frees, things like that, you could just tell that they’re very a well coached team. Fair play to them, they’re the benchmark in Ireland.

“Another thing we wouldn’t really be used to in Donegal or Ulster is teams pressing man-to-man. We’re used to teams dropping back into a defensive shape, whereas they’re more pressing you around the middle.

“Once you got the ball today there were two or three men around you, we’re not really used to that.”

MacNiallais has always had a level head for things. While others might be rushing back into Donegal duty, he says he’ll take a few weeks away from football before deciding what to do next.

“I’ll take a while out, a few weeks anyway and see what happens, I’ll get chatting to Declan and the boys and see what their plans are. I’ll be taking a few weeks out of football anyway.

“It’s been a year-and-a-half non-stop, I just need a break, especially after the last few weeks. It’s tough. You just need a time-out from everything, the pressure, you need a few weeks to relax.

“It’s been a long season, even the couple of months leading up to this game kind of dragged out, you’re waiting and waiting for it to come, and when it goes like that today it’s just so disappointing. You don’t know what to do with yourself.

“The appetite, I don’t think will be there for a few days after today. Football’s going to be the last thing on my mind for the next few weeks anyway.”

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