London life lifting Odhrán MacNiallais out of a rut

Odhrán MacNiallais last played for Donegal in 2018, and the more time passes, the less likely it seems we'll see him back in the county colours again. Picture by Seamus Loughran
Odhrán MacNiallais last played for Donegal in 2018, and the more time passes, the less likely it seems we'll see him back in the county colours again. Picture by Seamus Loughran

LIVING in the shadow of Alexandra Palace fits as snugly with Odhrán MacNiallais’ persona as it does his complicated relationship with sport.

The pint-of-bass-gargling, football-chanting raucousness of the PDC Darts Championship at the turn of the year is replaced within a fortnight by the shushing sobriety of Masters Snooker.

MacNiallais only moved to Crouch End in the northern suburbs of Britannia’s maiden city six weeks ago. From the bit of a sun terrace at the back of the house he shares with two fellow Donegal men, they look straight on to the Ally Pally.

The darts never took him, but snooker?

“I love Ronnie O’Sullivan, he’s the man. Even outside the snooker, he’s a great character. You couldn’t but like the man.

“Me and one of my mates, Eoin Ward, went through a stage where we were in Letterkenny almost every evening playing snooker.

“He used to have a wee Peugeot, he’d drive down and we’d spend two or three hours in the snooker hall. We’d be very competitive against each other, we’d have money on it.”

He loves sport. Golfing and a bit of Sunday league soccer with Gweedore Celtic had been the recent terms of leisure around home.

Chipping around the picturesque Gaoth Dobhair golf club that sits on the sprawling acreage just across the road from the GAA club’s base in the townland of Magheragallon, MacNiallais’ handicap had come down from 20 to 14 before the bad weather set in.

There was no greater thrill than the big goals that became his custom for the county, or the championship wins that came back to Gaoth Dobhair after a generation’s absence.

Some days the pace of the Atlantic Way suited him. Others, it ate into him.

That’s reflected in his football career. He loves playing for Donegal. He’s as fond of the dry ball and summer sod as the next man. He’s just not mad enough about the training to keep chasing it, and he’s not convinced he ever will be again.

“Your life’s completely taken over by it. It’s gone to extreme levels where personally, I don’t know. I wasn’t built for that kinda stuff.

“I obviously used to love it but after a few years of doing it, I nearly had enough of it.

“I wouldn’t be a big fan of the travelling. If training was down in Magheragallon every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday, I’d be there every time, I’d play for Donegal no bother.”

For a while there was little else for him to do other than play football or golf. He’d tried call centres, he tried to get in with Randox at their Dungloe base, but had no joy and found himself jobless over the last while.

Every couple of weeks since September, he’d have met up with Declan Bonner. If it was about a manager, MacNiallais would be standing front and centre for selection.

“Declan’s a great man. He’ll always keep in contact with you and see how you’re doing, see how things are.

“I wouldn’t say he was persuading me to come back, he was trying to guide me to do the right thing for myself.”

By November, MacNiallais had made his mind up to go back in.

“At the same time it was still in the back of my mind to go away. I did say that to [Declan] and he was fine with it.”

After meeting up with strength and conditioning coach Paul Fisher and remembering what would be required of him, things quickly changed.

He’d been wrestling with the idea of Australia, to join up with friends in Sydney. But with 18-month-old godson Eanan on the scene now though, family would have just been too far away.

London was mooted to him and Michael Boyle, who’d coached Gaoth Dobhair for the last three years under Mervyn O’Donnell, including to their Ulster title, had just moved out in November.

He’s ended up in a house with two of the significant Donegal contingent that operate around North London Shamrocks, the club for whom he’ll tog out this year if there’s any football to be played.

The decision to go wasn’t about football. Life around home has been ragged for the last year. Not a day goes past when he doesn’t think of his close friend, Michéal Roarty. Together with Shaun Harkin, Daniel Scott and John Harley, they were killed when the car they were travelling in crashed last January.

Home never allowed MacNiallais’ mind away from it.

“You nearly get stuck in a rut, you’re stuck there the whole time and you find yourself thinking about Michéal more frequently, it gets you down.

“It’s been a tough year since that happened and nothing’s been easy since it. You think about it every day, many times a day. It’s still hard to believe really.

“Being stuck around home didn’t really help. Getting away from that and over here can only help.

“Maybe it worked out better for me that I didn’t have any luck with getting a job at home and I’ve ended up here. It’s a better opportunity,” says the trainee CAD technician for Capital Construction, with whom Shamrocks chairman Patrick Madigan is managing director.

It’s the city and it’s not. Crouch End is socially distanced from London itself. Close enough to hop on a train and speed in, but far enough out to not be overwhelmed by the difference between a city of nine million people and the lakes and fields of the Donegal Gaeltacht.

“There’s a bit of a buzz about my life at the minute, the city life, though there’s nothing really happening at the minute obviously. It’s a bit surreal.

“But nothing will beat home, the scenery of it.

“Nothing beats good old Gaoth Dobhair.”