GAA Football

"I've no notion of retiring, sure I'm only a child" - Evergreen Donaghy still going strong for Armagh

Having just turned 33, Brendan Donaghy will be the oldest man on the pitch when Armagh take on Down next weekend - but says he has no notion of retiring in the near future. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

AS the crow flies, Brendan Donaghy was reared 500 yards from the Armagh-Tyrone border.

The club’s old field was right across the road by the banks of the River Blackwater, but when they moved to the new ground on the Donaghy family land in 2010, he was able to step out the back door, cross a bit of the farmyard and hop the fence to the bottom goals.

He and the two brothers have all played for Clonmore, though Stephen’s hip and Joe’s cruciate curtailed them.

Brendan, the youngest of five siblings, has set up home half-a-mile further down the road with wife Helen, who’s expecting their first child later this summer.

The four walls they built over the last few years are not something he sees all that much of. Work as a Quality Controller with construction fitout firm Mac Group takes him to Dublin all but once in the week, when he’s able to operate out of their Newry office.

That’s a 6am start. Football takes up most of his evenings, and beyond that there’s farming.

His father John was principal of St Jarlath’s PS, Blackwatertown, but always kept a herd of suckler cows on the land. Brendan was the one bitten by the bug. At the minute they have between 80 and 90 cattle.

“I’d rather be farming than working, but sure there’s no money in it. There’s that joke, the farmer wins the lottery and somebody asks him ‘what will you do with it?’ ‘I’ll keep farming until it’s all done’.”

His childhood was football and farming. Mother Mary, neé Collins, hailed from Ballinderry. Her sister Sheena married Oliver O’Kane in The Loup.

The Donaghys would spend weeks on end there during summer, where there was farming and football aplenty. Of all the cousins he has dotted through Derry, in Ballinderry, Ballinascreen and Bellaghy, it was the O’Kanes that were mad about their football.

“There were that many of them, big farm, bundle of hallions and we’re away up spending weeks on end over the summer. “They would have had what they called O’Cahan Park out on the front paddock, but it was a f***ing hill like this [holds his arm at 45 degrees] with two sets of posts, and we kicked lumps out of each other for the summer.”

He and cousin Joe O’Kane’s inter-county careers didn’t really overlap, but they did have a few Sigerson Cup meetings when Donaghy was in Jordanstown colours and O’Kane togged for Queen’s.

“We were playing against Queen’s one day and the sin-bin was just in. Joe was playing, one of his team-mates was going through on goal and I did an ankle tap on him.

“I got a yellow card but stopped a goal, I didn’t give a s***. Joe was going buck mad, “ya dirty f***er”. But I saw it up there manys a time, I didn’t pick it up off the ground,” he says with a smile.

In Armagh colours, his career is into its 13th year.

He stepped into Francie Bellew’s shoes when the Crossmaglen man was injured for a championship trip to Ballybofey in 2007 and turned in a man-of-the-match display on his debut, suffocating Donegal’s key attacking threat Michael Hegarty.

That was the result of his father and underage coach Mickey McCormack keeping on at him. A bright star in Clonmore, he found himself clogged up early on when he was playing across three age grades, as well as finding himself on the north Armagh U14 development squad.

At that early stage, despite being mad about the game, he considered calling it quits.

”You’d no free time. They were maybe training a Friday night or Saturday and you get that you don’t want to play any more.

“To be fair, Da would have pushed us to go and would have told you to get on with it, and I’m glad he did.”

A hamstring tear suffered in the McKenna Cup final against Tyrone ruled him out of the first five games of this year’s National League. That has been part of the tale of his career, in which he has struggled with tendonitis in his knee and an Achilles issue that would still flare up occasionally.

Having turned 33 last month, he will be the oldest player on the pitch in Páirc Esler next weekend. You’d never know it to look at his performances – he was the defensive star of their 2017 run to the last eight, and was outstanding in his first game back this year against Fermanagh.

Donaghy admits that it’s a case of careful management.

“I control what I’m going to do and what I’m not going to do. Pre-season would have been a lot of heavy, long-distance running and that just wouldn’t agree with me.

“When the other guys were pounding the track, I was going doing bike sessions, they’re that bit easier on me. Everyone has great pleasure in telling me I haven’t done a pre-season the last 10 years.

“The Achilles at times would be flaring up, and it became a case of if it doesn’t agree with me, don’t do it. Generally we have Julie [Davis] or the physios keeping on top of you, and it’s about common sense.”

He describes Armagh’s recent training holiday to Vilamoura as “one of the few perks”, and has issue with the GAA clamping down on foreign breaks in future.

Having lost a home league game in 2019 over last year’s excursion, this year’s was sanctioned by Croke Park. When they got there, the Gods turned on them.

”We got wet, because the weather was f***ing horrible. There were a couple of days it was thunder and lightning.

“When it rains here you still train, just you’re a wee bit warmer in the rain out there.

“Andy Mallon, I remember years ago when we were going and everybody was dreading it, his outlook was that it’s fantastic, you get to be a professional athlete for a week. You never get this.

“I see the GAA has brought out a new ban that you can’t go foreign, which is bullshit. I don’t know what their objective is with it.

“It was stupid last year getting punished for going on a training camp, while other teams went on ‘historical events’. We said we’d put our hands up and say we did it.

“It’s the overbearing GAA of you can’t do this and that, it’s stupidity like a lot of what they’re at. What do you do?”

Helen, a native of Craigbane in Derry whose sister Mary is married to Aidan Carr, flew out to Vilamoura at the end of the training camp and they stayed on for a few days’ holiday.

Life is busy, and getting busier. But despite it all, the idea of retirement hasn’t entered his head.

”Hope so, all being well,” he replies when asked if he still plans to be part of things in 2020.

“A clean bill of health, hopefully I’ll still be there. I’ve no notion yet [of retiring]. Sure I’m only a child.”

* * * * * * * * * * *

WHEN you examine the depth of the Armagh attack, it places them towards the very top end of the province in terms of natural attacking talent. If you consider everyone is fit and then try picking their front eight for the tie against Down, it’s not an easy task.

At midfield you have Stephen Sheridan, Niall Grimley, Charlie Vernon, Jarlath Óg Burns and, if you think of him as a midfielder foremost, Oisin O’Neill.

Then in attack you have Jemar Hall, Rory Grugan, Rian O’Neill, Jamie Clarke, Stefan Campbell and Ethan Rafferty, and that’s discounting the currently injured Andy Murnin, who would be nailed on for the number 14 shirt.

Those are 12 extremely viable options for eight shirts. Add in the fact that Aidan Forker, a natural forward, is operating at wing-back and you have a level of attacking resource that almost any county in Ireland would be jealous of.

And when they’ve gone out of Ulster, that has been their biggest strength in terms of making their way through two fine qualifier runs.

They’re capable of dominating territorially because of their physicality at midfield. They have one of the game’s best readers in the form of sweeper Brendan Donaghy, though his return does leave a question mark over what role Gregory McCabe will fill having deputised so ably.

* * * * * * * * * * *

MASSED defensive patterns have been their Kryptonite under Kieran McGeeney. They’ve shown signs of progress during the League but the ultimate test will come against a fired-up, Paddy Tally-managed Down side in Newry.

The pitch is tight, the stand is on top of you and Down will be well aware – not least from their own personal experience two years ago – of Armagh’s struggles when they’re faced with big numbers in front of the opposition’s goal.

Their lack of structure and organisation in terms of trying to break that down in recent years has seen them lose every Ulster Championship game in Geezer’s regime, and that record itself must start to become a factor in terms of their mentality.

And as much as individually you’d have almost every one of them on your team, there comes a point where it’s too samey. The Orchard attack is laced with big, strong men who can shoot, but there’s perhaps a lack of flexibility in terms of both their running game and their effectiveness in setting up defensively that flows from that.

They’ve chopped and change at the full-back slot and while Aaron McKay has looked like the strongest option, the absence of Patrick Burns through the league has left them looking like a side lacking a bit of defensive continuity.

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