'I eat about a packet of Penguins every day of the week: Trillick's Niall Donnelly, and the secret of longevity

Niall Donnelly (second from left) celebrates his third Tyrone title alongside team-mates Seanie O'Donnell, Daniel Donnelly and Darragh McQuaid after Trillick's Tyrone final victory over favourites Errigal Ciaran. Picture by INPHO
Niall Donnelly (second from left) celebrates his third Tyrone title alongside team-mates Seanie O'Donnell, Daniel Donnelly and Darragh McQuaid after Trillick's Tyrone final victory over favourites Errigal Ciaran. Picture by INPHO Niall Donnelly (second from left) celebrates his third Tyrone title alongside team-mates Seanie O'Donnell, Daniel Donnelly and Darragh McQuaid after Trillick's Tyrone final victory over favourites Errigal Ciaran. Picture by INPHO

THERE is an unholy communion that takes place in the Healy Park press box. Between furious battering of laptops and the excited squeals of radio commentators, this soundproof booth is often anything but on big days.

Paddy Tally, though, managed to find clarity of thought inside the Omagh chicken coop as he took his place alongside Paddy Hunter, the hardest working man in show business, to call the Tyrone county final between Trillick and Errigal Ciaran.

While all around eulogised the awesome athleticism of Rory Brennan, or gasped as Richie Donnelly rampaged up the field time and again, picking the perfect moments to land the perfect scores, a more understated influence on the Reds’ title triumph took the Kerry coach’s eye.

Niall Donnelly, once a jinky corner-forward turned workhorse wing-forward, then a raiding wing-back, is now the cute, crafty bounce-back wall at centre-forward, using his years in the game to connect all parts; off-loading, picking up breaks, always available to receive the ball.

At 38 – not quite 40 as listed in the programme – Donnelly was the oldest player on the field, yet his quiet, calming influence was central to Trillick claiming the crown after extra-time.

“Niall Donnelly has been brilliant,” purred Tally from his vantage point high above the terrace, “he’s the man tying the whole thing together.”

Coming up on two decades since making his senior club debut, Donnelly is now part of a panel on the crest of a wave heading into Sunday’s Ulster semi-final showdown with Monaghan champions Scotstown.

It sums up the slow-burning, below the radar nature of a brilliant career. At St Michael’s College, he didn’t make the MacRory Cup cut under Peter McGinnity, something he regularly reminds the Fermanagh great and current Trillick coach about.

“I think there was about five Roslea boys on the panel right enough…”

As for county aspirations, well, there weren’t any. Small in stature as the game’s face changed from baggy to bicep-enhancing jerseys, Donnelly would never come onto Mickey Harte’s radar, despite being one of the most consistent club players in the county.

“U12s maybe,” he smiles, “ah, I wouldn’t have been physically right, plus Tyrone were at their peak then.

“Niall Gormley was probably the best player I ever played with for us and sure he was never really getting a good run out with Tyrone either.

“I never would’ve felt I was good enough. Club-wise it never bothered me marking county men, I always felt I could hold my own and nobody really got the better of me, but at that level…”

Niall Donnelly keeps a close watch on the break ball during Trillick's county final clash with Errigal Ciaran
Niall Donnelly keeps a close watch on the break ball during Trillick's county final clash with Errigal Ciaran Niall Donnelly keeps a close watch on the break ball during Trillick's county final clash with Errigal Ciaran

It isn’t something Donnelly has lost any sleep over.

Watching the work and effort put in by the likes of Mattie and Richie Donnelly to sustain their county careers, he is honest enough to admit the lifestyle may not have aligned with his own.

The coffee culture among the GAA’s younger fraternity leaves him shaking his head, so too the minute attention to detail where diet and nutrition is concerned. It’s not that Donnelly doesn’t get it, he does.

But, blessed with a metabolism that allows him to enjoy a few pints, or a dirty fry when the notion takes, it remains a struggle to comprehend why anyone would choose another path.

“I eat about a packet of Penguins every day of the week - I’m literally after eating two sausages and three slices of bacon there for my breakfast.

“I’m lucky I don’t really put on weight, everybody’d be slagging me saying ‘one day, now’, but maybe it’s the genes.

“Years ago we would’ve had different people came in and gave us talks on what to do, what to eat, but this last few years Deccy Campbell [Trillick’s strength and conditioning coach] would have advice for boys, then he would sort of look at me and laugh.

“The likes of Richie and Mattie would be big into that side of things… there’d be enough men in the club writing in what they’re doing, fuelling up with stuff. For the young boys, all they know is all this healthy stuff.

“Like, you’d be looking to go for a fry on a Saturday or Sunday after a match and they’re wanting coffee and an acai bowl. I’d be ringing one of the older boys to say ‘come on and we’ll go for a proper fry’.

“Joe Brolly wrote a lock of months ago about boys looking him to meet up for a coffee, and he was like ‘naw, I wanna meet up for a pint’. I’m still that old school way too.

“Coffee wouldn’t do it for me at the minute.”

Straight talking comes that little bit easier when you’re closer to the end than the start too – and Donnelly has the cut of a man at home in his own skin.

Ask an honest question, get an honest answer, he couldn’t even persist with the white lie about his age someone else submitted for the programme. Take the origins of the nickname, ‘Jib’, as an example.

“Santa Ponsa, 2006,” he says, “I was prone to running about the hotel room with not a pile on, so Gary McKenna used to shout at me ‘stop running about with your jib out’.

“So ever since I’ve been called ‘Jib’.”

It’s the same on the field too. Where once doubts might have crept into his mind, Donnelly is now acutely aware of his strengths, and his limitations, allowing him to drag every last bit out of his game.

And the Indian summer to his career has brought more than he could ever have imagined.

Without any silverware by the time he turned 30, he now boasts three Tyrone championship medals and a league title. Not bad for a boy who, a few years before Santa Ponsa, was handed a baptism of fire in Trillick colours.

“It was 2004 I think, I mind coming on against Eglish with 10 minutes to go. That was a Friday night, I started on the Sunday against Carrickmore, shitein’ myself, and I was whipped off at half-time.

“I remember going to that game thinking ‘Jesus, there’s a chance I could be starting here’, being really nervous. I didn’t even tog out… I was thinking ‘don’t even tog out until they ask you to tog out’, then John Donnelly named the team, I hadn’t opened my shoelaces or nothing and everybody else was ready to go.

“I changed, next thing it was half-time, off you come. It was just the place to go to as well, away to Carrickmore. It was mighty - my ribs were black and blue coming off.

“No better place to make your first senior start.”

Despite that rocky beginning, though, Donnelly has only gone from strength to strength - adapting seamlessly to whatever job was asked of him, composure and confidence coming that would make him the perfect fit for a metronomic role at the heart of a well-oiled Trillick machine that accounted for the best Tyrone had to offer before Crossmaglen were dispatched a fortnight ago.

“There’s probably a lot more unseen stuff you’d be more doing now.

“I haven’t really got the legs and the pace to do what Rory Brennan can do. Whenever I was in defence I was always attack-minded, always running – my defence was attack, try and get my man up the field for he’ll not score there; just never standing still.

“Then when you move to centre-half, I’m never going to trouble the top scorers, I’m more of a link man, probably like a scrum-half more than anything, there to keep things flowing.

“In a game I just try to keep on the move all the time. I always had an interest in fitness, at school I was into cross-country and enjoyed that side of things.

“Even in the last lock of years, you can see on the GPS machine that the speed goes down, but kilometres per game have probably gone up this year. My distance running isn’t going down.

“Obviously you could run all day and do nothing, but you try and get involved with the ball.”

It has worked a treat.

The younger legs of Rory Brennan, Seanie O’Donnell, Daniel Donnelly and Ryan Gray are now charged with breaking the lines, a solid formula embraced by manager Jody Gormley that has reaped immediate rewards.

Yet, this year moreso than the title triumphs of 2015 and 2019, their journey has been accompanied by a sense of destiny; fate was carrying Trillick forward, no matter what was thrown at them.

Part of that was the momentum gathered during those do-or-die early rounds, but plenty came from a deeper place too following the loss of some club stalwarts – not least Gerry ‘Shep’ Donnelly, uncle of Mattie and Richie, mentor to so many others.

“In ’15 we lost Pat King, but a lot of the boys wouldn’t have known Pat because he was living in Lisnaskea at the time. In ’19 it was Ray Cassidy, and Ray was living in Omagh.

“But ‘Shep’ had trained all of us, he’d have been close to us… even when we were selling tickets around 2017, 2018, Gerry was our group leader.

“There only was five or six of us, every Thursday we were out travelling all over the place, selling  tickets, then back to Gerry’s house and his wife Regina would have pizza on and a few bottles of beer. We’d have sat there and chatted away, slagged people off… it was just mighty.

“I got to know Gerry even better during those later years because of things like that, then all of a sudden Covid came in, Gerry was ill, and you don’t get to see him hardly any more than once every few months… you felt he was away nearly this couple of years when he was only just down the road.

“We didn’t chat about it much before the final because we didn’t want to put any extra weight on our shoulders, but deep down you knew everybody was thinking about him - that everybody wanted to do it for him.”

And they did, in some style.

The O’Neill Cup was guest of honour once more as the lorry awaited the victorious players in Trillick, before Rory Brennan and Jody Gormley said a few words down at the pitch. A feed in the hall fuelled them up, then the party really started.

The following morning, however, tradition was dutifully observed. To a man they met at the top of Brougher mountain, hangovers and sleep deprivation no excuse for absence. There, far from the backdrop of clinking glasses and song, the magnitude of their achievement was savoured in glorious, windswept serenity.

As a group they made their way back down before taking the trophy out to Regina Donnelly, then a final stop at her husband’s grave; community and club as one, lines forever blurred.

Packie’s Bar got another turn afternoon into evening into morning, but already thoughts were turning to Crossmaglen and the ghosts of Ulster underachievement in years gone by. Men on a mission, they were not to be denied.

For Niall Donnelly, so grows an appreciation for every treasured memory, every taste of success that has come so late. For some, he knows, it never comes at all. Against Scotstown on Sunday, the story continues.

“Hopefully there’s even more to come,” he smiles, “maybe an Ulster - who knows?”