GAA Football

Carb counting and summit mounting: Eoin Donnelly on diabetes and chasing Fermanagh's Ulster dream

Fermanagh midfielder Eoin Donnelly was diagnosed as a type one diabetic in 2011. Picture by Colm O'Reilly.

JELLY Babies and Lucozade would not be part of the recommended diet for most inter-county footballers, but they’re a sometimes necessary feature of Eoin Donnelly’s.

He was 21, in his final year at college, when he was diagnosed with type one diabetes.

Naturally it came as a shock, although the fact that his elder sister Bronagh had been diagnosed with the same condition some eight years previous offered a starting point for finding solace and education.

“That was probably a help, seeing how well she was able to function and get on with her day-to-day life, and exercise and things like that. It became part of the family, it was one of those things – she was diabetic, she had to inject herself,” says the Fermanagh midfielder.

In a strange way, the largely misunderstood condition helps keep him on the straight and narrow in terms of the diet and lifestyle required to play at the top level.

The Jelly Babies and Lucozade are only at use medicinally when the blood sugars run low, and over time he’s gotten a good handle on how to manage the situation in and around football.

“It was a big change to your diet and your routine, having to plan and be a bit more careful about what you’re eating and drinking. It's the same with anything, after a while you get into a routine.

“I would have my routine and I wouldn’t vary from it too much. If you’re sticking fairly stable with what you’re doing and what you're eating, it shouldn’t affect you too much.

“It probably affected me moreso at the start, when it was maybe a bit more unknown - you didn’t know how the exercise would affect you, what was good to bring you up, what was a good value to be at before and during.”

He is able to eat pre-match with the rest of the squad, although Donnelly does have to count the carbohydrates in a bid to achieve the optimum blood sugar levels for the rest of the day.

It’s been a while since he had any real issue with it during a game, but a sugary snack still goes to the sideline just in case he would dip into hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar) and need to arrest things.

Counting carbohydrates - while knowing that different types have a different effect on blood sugars - and balancing out the intake of them with injections of insulin is the basic process of keeping all on an even keel.

As you’d expect in a contact sport, he still takes injections rather than wearing an insulin pump.

It’s just part of his life now, something he’s learned to manage.

“I wouldn’t fancy breaking the news to any manager that you had to come off for 15 minutes because your sugar levels weren’t sorted, I'd say it wouldn't go down too well,” he smiles.

Donnelly turned 30 the day before they overcame Armagh in that gruesome yet glorious quarter-final tie last month.

He will get married to fiancée Claire on August 10 this year and when asked if he’d considered the outside chance that Fermanagh might have an All-Ireland semi-final that it would clash with, he deadpans: “They don't tend to play them on Fridays.”

Life is now in Claire’s thriving GAA patch of Carryduff, where they’ve recently bought a house. It’s handy to Dundonald Hospital, out of which he is based for his job as a physio.

Not so handy to Fermanagh’s training base in Lissan, or his native club Coa, based on the Tyrone border, sharing Kilskeery parish with Trillick, from whence his second cousins of note – Mattie and Richie – hail.

His grandparents hailed from the Tyrone side of the border, though his father Brendan played for Coa. His uncle John did too, until he got the job in Trillick school and made the controversial switch.

“I think he maybe had a bit of a talk with some of the Coa players at the time – I maybe got the watered down version.”

Most evenings there’s at least one car load of Ernemen headed down the road from Belfast direction, with Ruairi and Ciaran Corrigan, Johnny Feeley, Conor McGee and Jack McCann sharing the sometimes four-hour return journey.

“Thankfully there aren’t too many journeys you have to do on your own, there’s usually a car load or two of boys going down, so we can take turns and there’s usually a bit of craic. The journeys usually pass quick enough as long as you’re not going on your own.

“A couple of fellas don’t like taking the car too often so they’re always pulling excuses why they can’t get the car. Ruairi wouldn’t be the best driver out of the lot of us. We usually get down in one piece,” laughs the Railway Cup winning captain.

He was given that honour by Pete McGrath, just as he was given his county’s captaincy. But last autumn, it became a poisoned chalice when he became the man that had to relay the news to McGrath that the players wanted a fresh voice.

Rory Gallagher has given them the fresh impetus they craved. Promotion back out of Division Three was backed up by that win over Armagh, unexpected in some quarters but not any great surprise to many.

“We can only take it on this year, it’s a different squad of players,” he says.

“We’ve had promotion, we’ve won our first championship game, but it’s still early days.

“We probably still have work to do. One win in the championship against an Armagh team that probably didn’t perform on the day isn’t too much to be shouting about really. I think we still have work to do.”

Tomorrow’s world is a different one. Monaghan carved Tyrone apart on the very patch of ground they’ll revisit here, hitting 1-18 against the most revered of defensive setups.

Mickey Harte’s side didn’t operate to the levels they can, particularly in trying to stem the flow of scores, and that is where Donnelly feels Fermanagh can make headway against one of their own sons, Malachy O’Rourke.

“To be honest you have to appreciate that Monaghan played as well, but to a certain degree Tyrone didn’t play to their potential.

“That’s one thing we’d take from the game. Monaghan are formidable, they have their own defensive setup, they have a lot of pace and they have dangerous forwards too.

“Ultimately I believe that we can do better than Tyrone did the last day and get a better result than they did. It’s not something that’s going to put fear into us.”

Managing the manageables is their game. His game. His life.

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