‘If I don’t get this sorted, I’ll not be playing football’: Donegal driving force Niall O’Donnell on finding new purpose in New York and battling back from the brink

This time last year, Niall O’Donnell had no idea what his footballing future would look like. But, from the brink of retirement, he was one of the stars of Donegal’s Ulster title triumph - with their focus now switching to the All-Ireland stage. Neil Loughran meets the Letterkenny man...

Niall O'Donnell played a crucial role in the Ulster Championship victories over Derry, Tyrone and then Armagh in the provincial decider. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
Niall O'Donnell played a crucial role in the Ulster Championship victories over Derry, Tyrone and then Armagh in the provincial decider. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

STAFF shuttle back and forth between reception and the bar beside, but there isn’t another sinner in the foyer of the Mount Errigal Hotel when morning gives way to afternoon.

The sun is splitting the bricks as the early onset, or possibly the full extent, of Irish summer takes hold in Letterkenny. It is five days since Paddy McBrearty hoisted aloft the Anglo-Celt Cup at St Tiernach’s Park – beautiful weather, beaming smiles, the people of Donegal walking on air again.

Niall O’Donnell sits alone in the corner, still catching up on messages received since the Tir Chonaill’s dramatic penalty shoot-out victory over Armagh.

The silence is a far cry from the frenzy that greeted the long whistle and the sing-songs in the changing room beneath the Gerry Arthurs stand, 99s and cans out on an empty field before the shortest journey home they will ever make.

It was 8.30pm before the bus pulled out of Clones, past midnight by the time Jim McGuinness led the new Ulster champions onto the stage in Donegal Town. Despite the hour, the Aldi car park was a sea of green and gold, thronged with young and old alike.

“Anybody that’s in primary school tomorrow, you can take the day off,” smiled McGuinness, his words greeted with high-pitched approval from the masses.

This was a second provincial triumph for O’Donnell. Wearing 18 on his back, he started the 2019 victory over Cavan, the 20-year-old looking up in wonder as one of his childhood heroes, Michael Murphy, climbed the steps.

Talk about the stuff of dreams.

But the shocking loss of Glenswilly rally driver Manus Kelly – a close friend of the Donegal captain – earlier that day brought a swift end to celebrations.

Declan Bonner delivered the news to a devastated changing room, the homecoming cancelled immediately as the county mourned one of its own.

This time around, though, it felt like a release - for a whole load of reasons; where Donegal had come from after a forgettable 2023 and, more importantly, where they were going since McGuinness’s return.

The party carried on in the Abbey Hotel – “we all went to bed at some hour anyway” – before everybody gathered again, in drips and drabs, inside the Reveller Bar for ‘the Monday club’.

“It’s probably the first time I’ve experienced the county being on such a high.

“You can tell in people’s eyes when you’ve done them proud; you could see that with everybody. Then being in the changing room, just with the group… they’re special moments. You see a different side to people.

“It’s the best way you want to see people after all the training, all the nights you’re looking around at each other saying ‘jeez, is there another run left? Another tackle grid?’

“But when you’re looking around then, knowing what’s ahead in next few hours and days, it’s a moment everyone cherishes.”

Niall O’Donnell played his part as much as any man.

Superb in the defeats of defending champions Derry then Tyrone, his two stunning scores helped drag Donegal back from the brink when it looked as though the Orchard might kick on for home.

There is a strong argument to be made that the St Eunan’s ace was the player of the Ulster Championship – yet, in other circumstances, he might not have been there at all.

He could just as easily have been one of the faces in the crowd running on to greet brother Shane. He could have been standing in the Aldi car park, staring up at the stage, wondering what might have been.

Because 18 months earlier, O’Donnell sat just across the foyer in the Mount Errigal Hotel, telling Paddy Carr and Aidan O’Rourke why a niggling problem with his left knee might keep him out of their plans for the foreseeable.

A few months after that he was at a crossroads – the career of one of the county’s most promising footballers hanging by a thread, dreams of days like these never so far away.

Donegal’s manager Jim McGuinness and captain Patrick McBrearty celebrate after the penalty shoot out win over Armagh in Sunday's Ulster final.
©INPHO/James Crombie
Jim McGuinness and Paddy McBrearty embrace after Donegal's Ulster final victory over Armagh. Picture by INPHO (©INPHO/James Crombie ©INPHO/James Crombie/©INPHO/James Crombie)


THE WhatsApp picture tells a story of a different time, and a different place. Hands on hips, orange hard hat and hi-viz jacket, a smile as wide as the Hudson river while the New York skyline stretches out in the distance.

There had always been a pull to the Big Apple for O’Donnell. For a start, he was born there. Both his parents were still in their teens when they headed over - dad Brendan leaving Glenties to work on the city’s construction sites before meeting mum Eileen, a Roscommon native, when both wound up in Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge neighbourhood.

He was a baby when the family came home, eventually settling in Letterkenny. But, with plenty of family members Stateside, a return was always on the cards. And while brothers Conor and Shane both went out and played for Donegal Boston, Niall spent last summer with Donegal New York.

That, though, was the end point of a long, at times torturous journey that saw his relationship with the game strained like never before.

Covid was a nightmare. The mixed messaging, the endless Zoom calls, the uncertainty – by the time Declan Bonner’s men were leaving Armagh after their shock 2020 Ulster final defeat to Cavan at an empty Athletic Grounds, part of O’Donnell was just glad it was all over.

Then there was the injury.

What started with a bit of a pain in his knee during a challenge game against Mayo in March 2021 would come to dominate the next two years, the maddening frustration of patellar tendonopathy pushing him to the brink.

“It’s a nightmare injury, to be honest.

“The tendon flares up in the knee, just gets aggravated so you have to try and settle it, but there’s no way of settling it really. A lot of people were saying to me ‘try and manage it’, but you still need to train because if you’re not training, you’re not playing.

“With the knee, I probably wasn’t doing as well in the runs, or wasn’t training as hard as I probably should have or could have because it was holding me back and I found myself not in the team.

“It’s one of them things where physically you look fine, there’s no bruising or anything, but I knew myself, limping around on one leg… looking back, it was wild. It was an eight or nine out of 10 pain for me nearly every day just going out.

“It did settle in games with adrenaline, but it was always there. I know watching clips back, I can see myself dragging my leg a wee bit.

“I was looking at boys tearing their cruciates and they were nine months out but then they were back and flying, where I was still limping about.”

Still the games came thick and fast, continuing a vicious cycle of too much training and not enough self-care.

Painkillers got him through the Donegal championship as St Eunan’s claimed the county crown for the first time in seven years yet, even during the warm-up ahead of their Ulster club clash with Glen, the knee was “in bits”.

“After that, I was finding it hard to stomach going back to Donegal if it was still going to be at me, then I spoke to Declan and we tried to get it sorted.

“Eventually you just find yourself back in training in January…”

O’Donnell struggled through another campaign – and then came the 2022 county final as St Eunan’s defended their title against Naomh Conaill.

From that day the entire landscape shifted, and it all hinged on a controversial red card wrongly shown to Shane O’Donnell for a strike on Jeaic Mac Ceallabhuí, even though live TV coverage showed it was nothing more than a push.

St Eunan’s boss Rory Kavanagh saw footage of the incident at half-time, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. Naomh Conaill ended up winning by a point.

Following months of speculation, Kavanagh was due to be unveiled as Donegal’s new manager once the county championship was wrapped up. He subsequently withdrew from the process, allowing for the left-field appointment of Paddy Carr and Aidan O’Rourke.

Michael Murphy retired weeks later. Alongside Ryan McHugh, Niall and Shane O’Donnell would play no part under the new management, while injury severely curtailed the campaigns of forward duo Paddy McBrearty and Oisin Gallen.

Anything that could go wrong, did. Carr was gone by the end of March, Donegal were relegated from Division One, defeated by Down in Ulster and well beaten Tyrone in an All-Ireland preliminary quarter-final.

The butterfly effect of that October afternoon in MacCumhaill Park was wide-ranging, with the last tweet O’Donnell ever posted summing up his feelings towards the linesman who instructed referee Mark Dorrian to send his brother off.

“Ye give up so much & train all year round for a sideline official to go and ruin the biggest day of the year. Fair play Val Murray, some people just love the spotlight. Well now you have it.”

“Look, a lot of stuff came off it,” says the 25-year-old.

“We were going for two in-a-row, Naomh Conaill came to upset the odds and they did that - I don’t hold a grudge against them or anything like that at all. To be honest I’ve forgotten about it and let it go at this point.

“I remember thinking Shane must have struck out, so I accepted that the referee was right, and accepted that the linesman was right during the game. We had to move on, try to find a way to win this game without him.

“And then obviously, look, when it doesn’t happen, then you go into the changing room and I wanted to see for myself what actually happened… it probably was a wee bit mad, the tweet, but the main reason for doing it was I just didn’t want it to be brushed under the carpet as if nothing has happened because it was a massive moment for the group.”

It remained a sore point for some time, but his main reason for opting off the county panel and heading to New York? If only it were that straightforward.

“Naw, it definitely wasn’t the main reason.

“I met Paddy and Aidan O’Rourke in this hotel, just over there, and I told them ‘give me a few weeks until I see how this knee is’. They gave me until January, but the knee still wasn’t right so I just couldn’t commit.

“I felt bad for Paddy, he’s a passionate Donegal man. I wasn’t involved, I wasn’t there to see what the day-to-day stuff was like or anything like that, but I did feel like maybe I played a small part in not making myself available.

“I did text him afterwards, just to say I was sorry for not making myself available... I actually did want to be involved, I just physically couldn’t.

“That might be different to other people that might have stepped away because they didn’t want to be there; I really did want to be there and I wanted to be playing and playing well. I just knew if I was there I probably wouldn’t have been playing well.”

Breaking point came on March 25, 2003.

St Eunan’s played three shortened games in one afternoon at the Shannon Medals tournament in Ballina – by the time of the third, against Knockmore, O’Donnell could barely run. Enough was enough.

“That was me already not playing county football, and now I was struggling to even play club football… honestly, I was on the verge of retirement at that stage.

“I had a lot of good people looking after me but a lot of it falls down to yourself, and when you’re seeing no improvement, it’s hard to keep going.

“So I went down to Dr Brian Devitt in Santry, it was my fourth or fifth time there, and I remember saying to him ‘if I don’t get this sorted, I’ll not be playing football’…”

Despite initial reluctance, keyhole surgery was performed at the beginning of April. By mid-June O’Donnell was in New York, 10 weeks of intense rehab under his belt, dipping his toes back into football in a more forgiving environment than back home.

Pizzas and pints after games, kick passing and shooting drills instead of being slogged around the yard, good craic on sites across the Big Apple – I could get used to this, he thought.

Until, sitting in the Horse and Jockey Bar in Woodlawn, watching from afar as Donegal fell to the Red Hands, a miserable end to a miserable year, Niall O’Donnell knew there was another chapter yet to be written.

Donegal manager Paddy Carr. Pic Philip Walsh
Paddy Carr's tenure as Donegal manager lasted just five months. Picture by Philip Walsh


THE summer of 2012, you had to be there – and he was, every step of the way. That’s why so much of what is going on right now feels entirely surreal.

For O’Donnell, the imprints of that success were all around. Just new to St Eunan’s College, Colm McFadden would become his maths teacher for the next six years.

“We were just saying a few weeks ago, that’s the biggest job he had yet.”

McFadden is now part of his brother-in-law’s backroom team second time around. Michael Murphy, studying at DCU, did his teaching practice at the college. Rory Kavanagh was a club-mate.

At 13, every aspect of those magical few months sunk straight in.

“I was always obsessed with Gaelic but, until then, it never made that much of a difference to me if they were winning or losing. But then in 2012, if you were from Donegal it was like having a superhero costume on you… you felt unstoppable.

“It really crystallised everything in my mind of what I wanted to do. I wanted to be Colm McFadden coming into the college with the Donegal jacket on, or be the person that the people, the kids after, are running to.

“When you’re that age, you look at those people and think their life has peaked; that it couldn’t get any better than in those moments. I always remember thinking I would do anything to be in their boots.”

Now he is.

Paddy McBrearty, once the boy wonder, has assumed the role of wise old head as Donegal push for glory once more – their All-Ireland campaign getting under way against Tyrone on Saturday night.

McGuinness, having been on his travels in Glasgow, China and America, wasn’t as readily accessible during the years between, but the bond between player and manager was instant; with his mix of athleticism, ability and determination, few players fit the McGuinness mould more than O’Donnell.

“He’s been very good to me... I know I haven’t been an easy fix.

“I picked up an injury in the club championship last year, I tore a tendon in my hamstring, then I nipped it again in January and had to take 12 weeks out. He’s been very patient, he could’ve easily put me on the backburner.”

Except McGuinness knew what he had. O’Donnell came on as a sub in the League game against Kildare as Donegal pushed for promotion, but his first start of the year didn’t come until the Division Two final win over Armagh.

Since then, and in spite of all that has gone before, there hasn’t been a backward step. The knee feels better than at any point in the past four years, his batteries fully recharged. Football is fun again, and that is all he ever wanted.

What a difference a year makes.