By Niall Gartland
THE level of turnover within the Fermanagh ranks in recent years hasn’t been ideal, but their captain Eoin Donnelly says he personally has never been tempted to extricate himself from the demanding intercounty lifestyle.
Donnelly, who lives in Carryduff on the outskirts of Belfast, says he’s accustomed to the travelling at this stage, and the sheer privilege of leading his county keeps him coming back for more even though glamour days out have been sporadic at best.
Speaking ahead of this Saturday’s Ulster Championship opener against Monaghan, the talismanic Fermanagh midfielder explained what drives his decision to pull on the county jersey from year to year.
“I suppose I’ve always felt lucky to get playing for Fermanagh. There were a few years, before I got on the squad, where I wasn’t selected, so I thought maybe I wasn’t going to get the opportunity.
“I was 22 or 23 when I got called into the squad, which was a bit late, so I was always going to make the most of things when I was picked.
“I don’t have many years left at this stage, so the opportunity to take time out never really came into my thinking, and there isn’t much time left to do that anyway.”
There’s roughly an hour and a half’s driving time between Carryduff and Donnelly’s home club Coa, but he’s philosophical about the amount of time he spends on the road.
“I just got used to it to be honest. When we finished playing I was a student in Belfast so it was the norm to travel up and down.
“I’ve never had a year of playing in Fermanagh and living in Fermanagh. It’s just one of those things, I never really realised how much time I was giving up to travel until last year’s lockdown. I realised how much time I now had around the house, which some days was a really good thing and other days I missed the football.
“I don’t really know any different otherwise. It’s a challenge when expenses haven’t been paid or diesel prices have gone up, but usually it’s straightforward enough.”
A respiratory physio at the Ulster Hospital, his work has brought him to the coalface of the battle against Covid-19. He’s happy to report that it’s nowhere near as pervasive as it was when the pandemic threatened to overrun our hospitals.
“It’s still there in the background and everyone’s aware of it. The demographic has changed in the sense that Covid patients have gone right down. You could nearly count on one hand, the amount of Covid patients coming in at the minute.
“You’re almost back to the way it was before Covid, with busy A and E departments and busy wards, and the waiting lists are significant which has been publicised a lot. Hospitals are busy but at least they’re not Covid busy, which is a good thing.”
Donnelly is a modest sort, but he recognises that it was a major highlight in his career when he punched home a dramatic late goal against Monaghan in the 2018 Ulster Championship semi-final. Memories of that victory will instil Fermanagh with confidence as they prepare to renew acquaintances with Farney County.
Asked if it’s the highlight of his career to date, he said: “It’s probably up there yeah. Just representing Fermanagh was the main thing for me, then getting the experience of playing in Croke Park, but the euphoria of beating Fermanagh hasn’t been matched. It was immense after the game, and it was great to get to an Ulster final as well as that was another goal of mine.”
Fermanagh had a short stay in last year’s Ulster Championship, fading in the second-half of their quarter-final clash against Down. Donnelly says it’s a bit disappointing that they stuck to the old-school knock-out format for the second year running.
“It was definitely necessary last year, but this year there was the potential to give teams more games.
“It’s difficult because championship is the be-all and end-all, to a certain degree, and when you only get one crack at it, it makes it difficult. It’s not ideal for coaches either, as they’re trying to bring players through, and the championship can finish very quickly.
“That means there’s a long gap before we can get together as a squad again, so work can be forgotten about and the temptation is for teams to start earlier and earlier which is detrimental as well. It’s frustrating, there’s a lot of talk about different formats but having more games is only going to help teams, especially teams in Division Three and Division Four.”
But at least preparations are going better than last year as Fermanagh were hit by an outbreak of Covid a matter of weeks before the championship in that instance. This time around, they had a decent league campaign, even if they lost their promotion play-off encounter against Offaly, and they’ve done decent work on the training ground.
“Last year we faced a Down team who were at a similar level whereas Monaghan are in Division One, but in terms of our own team, we’ve had plenty of opportunities to get good training under our belts and in-house games. Thankfully injury-wise as well we’ve been fairly lucky this year, so that’s been massive for us, and Covid hasn’t hampered us either.”