Kicking Out: Mattie Donnelly staying when he had reasons to go sums him up

Cahair O'Kane

Cahair O'Kane

Cahair is a sports reporter and columnist with the Irish News specialising in Gaelic Games.

Tyrone's Mattie Donnelly at the end of the Allianz Football League Division one game between Tyrone and Kerry on 03-05-2023 at Healy Park Omagh. Picture by Philip Walsh
Tyrone's Mattie Donnelly at the end of the Allianz Football League Division one game between Tyrone and Kerry on 03-05-2023 at Healy Park Omagh. Picture by Philip Walsh Tyrone's Mattie Donnelly at the end of the Allianz Football League Division one game between Tyrone and Kerry on 03-05-2023 at Healy Park Omagh. Picture by Philip Walsh

AS soon as Liam Donnelly would arrive home from Tyrone minor training in the half-dark of night, the two boys were tormenting him to go out for another hour.

They had their own pitch lined at the back of the house. 40 metres by 20, nets at either end. They called it The Haggard.

There were no holds barred. Mattie would have the ball for a minute and Richie would fight to get it off him. Then they’d switch.

They always wanted more. Every night, Liam would have to call time.

This was the early 2000s. Mattie and Richie were just in their late primary school years.

All they wanted to do was play for Tyrone.

When it’s been your lifelong dream, why would you give it up easily?

That’s probably the question Red Hand supporters have been seeking an answer to in the last 18 months.

Ever since they won the All-Ireland, barely a stanza has passed without someone else departing from the panel.

It’s not that their individual reasons aren’t legitimate, but whether any or all of them would still be there now if Tyrone hadn’t won their All-Ireland is the unsolvable part of the equation.

If anyone was entitled to walk away in that time it’s Mattie Donnelly.

Just shy of a year ago, he tore the hamstring off the bone in his left leg for a second time.

People were largely aware of it the first time it happened.

Mattie Donnelly is as committed to Trillick as he is to Tyrone. When county football is over for the year, he pushes to the same extreme for his club.

He had hurt the hamstring in the first half of a 2019 Ulster Club game against Derrygonnelly. It forced him off at half-time. With Trillick struggling in extra-time, the pain relief had kicked in. He insisted on going back on.

Days later, scans revealed he had suffered what for many is a career-ending injury.

The second time it happened, very few people knew.

He’d only been on the field five minutes in Killarney for the last round of the league last year when he collected a Darragh Canavan pass.

He beats Stephen O’Brien and Paul Murphy before squaring the ball for Conor Meyler to point off his right. In doing so, Donnelly tumbles over.

As he walked back out for the kickout, there appeared little wrong. But by the time O’Brien is darting through at the other end a minute later to win a Kerry penalty, Mattie Donnelly had quietly hobbled back to the Tyrone bench.

He pulls up slightly, the hand to the back of the leg a sure sign of the hamstring. Then the hands go to the head and he signals to the bench. No histrionics, no stretcher, no fuss.

When the scan results came back the following week, it was confirmed that he’d suffered an even worse hamstring avulsion. The first was graded as a 3c tear, and the second as 4c.

In 2019 he went for surgery in London. Knowing and fearing the impact that would have on him and his recovery last year, he resisted the medical advice to do the same again.

“When I got the phone call at that stage to tell me the scan results I was in a pretty bad place then in that I thought that was me cooked,” he said to The Irish News after their win over Kerry on Sunday.

“I just thought that if I went for surgery that was me done because it’s such a long way back and the body takes so long to get over surgery.”

Sunday showed he’s far from cooked yet.

Local guru Eunan Lindsay has him on 161 appearances. He’s won two Allstars having played everywhere and done everything from man-marking Michael Murphy to reshaping their attacking play when he moved to full-forward.

It’s13 years since he made his McKenna Cup debut. Even then his maturity levels were sufficient to see he wasn’t physically equipped. It took a lot to say no to Mickey Harte but he went away for two years and built himself up before joining the panel properly in 2012.

While others revolted, it was Mattie Donnelly who was there with Harte sitting in the car outside Garvaghey on the last night as county board officers voted to end the three-time All-Ireland winning manager’s reign.

Even if others might have disagreed with the path he took, they could only admire Donnelly’s principles in standing by Harte’s side.

That loyalty frames how he is viewed within the Tyrone changing room.

He is the spiritual leader within their four walls.

“He’s a phenomenal man. He’s given every ounce of himself to Tyrone GAA. He’s someone I hold in the highest regard away from sport and as one of Tyrone’s best ever,” said one team-mate yesterday.

Kevin Madden had been brought in to coach in Harte’s last year.

A few months in, Donnelly sent through a ream of clips of him and Cathal McShane playing together in the full-forward line. He wanted Madden’s advice on how to develop their game as an inside duo.

He took the feedback away, worked on the ideas, had constant discussions with McShane.

Mattie was 29-and-a-half by then, two Allstars in his pocket, but there was never any sense that he had it all figured out.

Until Sunday, it had been a tough spring. Cathal McShane’s return to fitness, Darragh Canavan’s development, Darren McCurry’s prolonged good form, it combined to keep him out of the team.

At 32, some would feel they’ve earned the right to mope and huff. When he was captain, he always thought he could empathise with those that weren’t starting. He’d tell them they’re putting their service down for Tyrone. But it’s hard to know the fit of any shoes until you’ve walked the mile in them.

Mostly the last few months have been a test of avoiding hypocrisy. He’s tried to practice what he’s preached.

There are shortage of reasons for him not to be there. He’s there because he wants to be, and as Sunday showed because he remains utterly capable, but the tougher things have gotten in the last 18 months, the greater too his sense became that he owed it to the others to stay about.

Mattie Donnelly turned 32 in December. He has put so much into playing for Tyrone. More than most will ever know.

When he suffered the first bad hamstring tear, he studied every piece of literature, sought every medical opinion, spoke to everyone he could that had suffered the same fate.

Cork forward Brian Hurley told him that alcohol would slow his recovery, so Donnelly gave up completely on the few beers he’d enjoy when football gave him the chance.

When he suffered the second tear last year, he “threw the kitchen sink at it”. There wasn’t a stone near him he didn’t turn up looking for an answer.

There have been better footballers to wear the red hand on their breast. Some, not many.

But few will be remembered as fondly by the very men they soldiered with.

That’s what really counts in the end.