A FEW months ago Philip Donnelly said that his sporting life “was at a crossroads” and he needed to make sure that he took the right turn.
It was a Sunday night and he was looking back on the week just past. Between club commitments with Blackhill and his Irish League career with Warrenpoint Town, he had trained or played seven days on the trot.
“I set high standards for myself. I want to be as good as I can be and I just decided that I was trying to keep everyone happy and it maybe was stopping me from being as good as I could have been,” he said.
Something had to give and it was the soccer that lost out. So far his decision has paid off handsomely. The Emeralds are preparing for an Ulster Junior final against Buncrana on Saturday evening while he has also been invited into Seamus McEnaney’s Monaghan panel.
“I got drafted into the Monaghan county squad and that was a big factor in my decision to step away from the soccer,” Donnelly said.
“I had a good few years with the ‘Point but county is just something that’s in you down my way. You can’t get away from that, playing county and club with the boys you know.
“I wouldn’t look back on the soccer as a bad experience. Jesus they were some of the best times of my life, but it’s just different winning with your friends and family. You can’t buy that.”
This is Blackhill’s second Ulster final appearance in four years and Aidan McCabe’s side will be aiming to make up for the heartbreak of their extra-time loss to Rock in 2016.
Donnelly started that day so he experienced the pain of that one-point loss, but he also believes that they are in a much better position to claim provincial honours this time around.
“We’re looking forward but at the same time we’re not getting too excited because we probably let it slip by us the last time. We probably got into the moment too much,” he said.
“This time we’re going in with a bit more experience. We’re calmer. The last time we were maybe just happy to be there but this time we’re going in fully focused. We’re not going in just to be there.
“I said to someone the other day that I don’t think we were ready for that game in 2016.
“We were punching well above our weight. We had won the Monaghan Championship for the first time in so long and we were nearly happy just with the county title.
“This time around you always want to go that extra bit further. The game was there for the taking and I still feel we weren’t ready.
“We tend to not look back on days like that but when an Ulster final comes around again I suppose you have to, just to see what we did wrong that day and how we are going to do the right thing this time.”
The dramatic semi-final encounters demonstrated just how competitive this tournament has been in recent seasons.
The Monaghan side showed super spirit to force extra-time with Killinkere with Donnelly producing a scintillating performance. He grabbed a crucial extra-time score in the eventual 1-14 to 2-9 victory.
The other semi-final was equally as tense with Buncrana ending any hopes of a repeat of the 2016 decider as they defeated Rock on penalties.
“The first day out (v Maguirebridge) we were going in thinking we should get over the line but it was a different story against the Cavan champions,” Donnelly continued.
“It all depends on counties’ league and championship formats, they’re not all the same as Monaghan.
“Killinkere won the Cavan Intermediate League and played Junior Championship whereas in Monaghan it’s Junior League, Junior Championship.
“It was a real end-to-end to match and I think as a team we didn’t play overly well, we were sloppy and missed a lot of chances. We didn’t hit the heights we know we can.
“In the other semi-final there was a lot of talk about the Rock and I think everyone was just aiming for a Blackhill and Rock final, a 2016 repeat.
“It just shows that Buncrana have a lot about them. We’ll do a bit of homework on them but we’re fully concentrated on ourselves.
“Buncrana have a couple of county men, a couple of former county men, but you can only worry about yourself.”