Home GAA Major Merit: Fergal O’Donnell Chuffed With Special Merit Award Win

Major Merit: Fergal O’Donnell Chuffed With Special Merit Award Win

In association with Electric Ireland

When discussions arise surrounding the great bastions of Roscommon football, Fergal O’Donnell is one name repeatedly mentioned.

His work with the county Minor set-up sets him apart from the rest despite both captaining and managing the seniors to provincial glory. O’Donnell was at the helm in 2006 when an underdog Rossies outfit went the whole way by claiming an All-Ireland title.

O’Donnell returned to the Minor side in 2013 and 2014 where he led the Rossies to an All-Ireland semi-final and quarter-final respectively.

As a result of his dedication to Minor Football, O’Donnell has been named as this year’s Special Merit Award Winner by Electric Ireland.

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O’Donnell joins a prestigious alumnus that includes Kerry’s Jack O’Connor and Galway’s Mattie Murphy.

Speaking to Pundit Arena earlier this week, O’Donnell expressed that he was “chuffed” at having received the award but feels slightly embarrassed receiving an award that he knows he couldn’t have won without the help of others.

“I was very surprised actually. Electric Ireland rang me two week’s ago and I wasn’t expecting the call to be honest,” O’Donnell told Pundit Arena.

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“I was actually at the Electric Ireland All-Ireland Minor Final. The interesting thing is my dad was a Cork man and my mother, Lord have mercy on her, was a Galway woman.

“I watched the game with interest and I enjoyed it, obviously, it brought back memories of 2006.
“When they mentioned I was getting the award I was chuffed but also embarrassed. It was great to win but I always said about 2006 as well as 2013 and 2014, it was a great team effort from management, the county board and players. It was a great group effort.”

O’Donnell reflects on that memorable 2006 season when Roscommon came from nowhere to defeat all comers on their way to All-Ireland glory.

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“I suppose, what kind of caught the imagination about the team was that every game they went out they were underdogs. The only game they were probably given a chance in was Tipperary in the All-Ireland Quarter-Final.

“It’s gone into legend now but we played Armagh earlier that year and they would have beaten us out the gate, we were hammered.

“I remember it was the longest day of my life. It’s a long trip up from Roscommon to Armagh and to get hockeyed and then wondering what we had to do to get to the level. We were beaten in nearly every challenge game but that’s what kind of made the journey, there was no expectation on us. 

“We beat Galway who were hotly tipped and had a very good team including Paul Conroy. We rode our luck to beat them but we had great momentum going into the Connacht Final but Mayo had been in the All-Ireland Minor Final in 2005 and they’d a very strong team.

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“Their star player was Pierce Hanley who is obviously out in Australia playing in the AFL now as well as Tom Parsons and Donal Vaughan, so they had a fine team and a great set of players. There was a lot of good players on the teams we were playing against.

“We beat Tipperary in the quarter-final in Tullamore and then went on to play Meath in the All-Ireland semi-final and I suppose, to be honest at that stage, we really were in bonus territory. We hadn’t won a Connacht title since ’92, so there was a huge gap there and there was no expectation.

“We went in to play Meath and Shane O’Rourke was their star player and Graham Reilly was playing also. Every team we played had a star player on it, whether it was through college football or having played Minor the year before.”

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Roscommon had a few stars of their own with names like Donie Shine, Fintan Cregg and Conor Devaney jumping out of the page but when O’Donnell thinks of that great team his mind always strays back to captain and centre half-back David Flynn.

According to O’Donnell, the Roscommon captain epitomised the spirit of that great underdog side.

“To me, one of the key players that year would have been David Flynn, the captain. He played at centre-back but he marked the opposition’s key players. Paul Conroy, Pierce Hanley, Shane O’Rourke, he marked all the key players along the way.

“Even in the final, Kerry were beating us 0-7 to 0-2 and we were really getting beaten out the gate and then he won a ball he had no right to win and we got a handy free from it. It brought us back into the game.

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“He epitomised the team because David hadn’t made the minor team the year before. He wouldn’t have been considered the best player on the team not that your captain has to be but at the start of the year when people would have been looking at the top five on that team. Davy might not be mentioned but to me he epitomised what was good about the team with his honesty and hard work.”

The Roscommon legend returned to lead the Minors for two more seasons earlier this decade. They may not have reached the heights of ’06 but they put their best foot forward and were only beaten by the best sides.

“I was back in 2013 and 2014. We were quite unlucky in ’13 we lost to Tyrone in an All-Ireland semi-final, the man who beat us was Cathal McShane, he came off the bench and was great. Tyrone were a very good team, they had Conor McKenna who’s now playing in the AFL and a lot of guys who went onto the senior team.

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“We were very close, lost by three points, it’s a game we could have won. I’m not sure if we would have beaten Mayo in the final but I would have loved another rattle at them.

“In ’14 we lost to that star-studded Donegal team in an All-Ireland quarter-final and that would have nearly been as good an achievement as 2006 if we had of beaten that team, they were a great side.”

While he may have won trophies at Minor level, O’Donnell is keen to express that winning titles isn’t what he deems as a success at the grade.

Rather it is about helping young players develop and helping them achieve their dreams of playing senior inter-county football.

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However, speaking from experience, he knows that Minor success isn’t always replicated at senior level for a variety of reasons.

“The great thing about being involved in the Minors, the one thing I like is that you, obviously, have talented players but players have ambition and you feel at that stage you can try and make a difference. It’s all about the pathway and you’re hoping that you can help fellas then go on and play for the county senior team.

“The biggest thing is about the pathway, it’s really not what you achieve at 17 years old. In one way I am being honoured for what happened with the lads as Minors which is nice but the bigger success is how many of them went on to play in 2010 and went on to represent Roscommon at senior level because that is ultimately what you are trying to develop.

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“The best player we came across in 2006 was a fella called Paddy Curran, the full-forward for Kerry, he was definitely the best player in the country. He done his two cruciates and ended up playing club football in Cork but he was a fantastic talent. You had David Moran, Tommy Walsh, Shane Enright and Johnny Buckley, they all played on that team but Curran was the best player. It shows that injury can dictate what happens.”

As a player, O’Donnell tasted success of his own at Minor level having won a Connacht title in 1989 in what was one of the most bizarre finals in GAA history.

Roscommon’s legendary goalkeeper, Shane Curran, caused controversy by running up from his own goalmouth to rattle the net with a penalty that he wasn’t meant to take. Roscommon won the game but it was decided that the final would have to be replayed.

“We won a Connacht Minor in 1989 and that would have been a famous final in its own way because, Shane Curran, there was a controversial penalty.

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“We won a penalty and Patrick Glennon was our nominated taker, so he was stepping up to put it over the bar to draw the game. But Curran had missed one earlier and he came running from behind Glennon and buried it in the back of the net.

“We received the cup thinking we had won. Galway got to the referee after and they were awarded the win so there was a replay. A huge crowd then showed up for a midweek replay in Castlebar, there was roughly 8,000 at it and we won it after extra-time. So Minor level has very happy memories for myself.”

O’Donnell’s success during his own playing career followed by a downturn in Roscommon’s fortunes was ultimately what led him to pick up the bainisteoir’s bib and lead his native county.

“One of the reasons I would have got involved in the interim years was because when I played underage we were competitive. Mayo and Galway would have beat us most of the time but we competed.

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“Then we went through a period where we were well beaten and my only hope was that Roscommon would be competitive again. But great memories. We would feel that a lot of the ’89 Minor team, not as many went on to have the careers they should have had I feel.”

Between his playing success in 1989 and managerial success in 2006, the GAA and indeed the wider world has faced a lot of changes.

Preparation has gone to another level now but as well as that O’Donnell regales an anecdote surrounding how societal factors have also changed.

“The biggest thing I can say is in 1989 we had a fella Stephen Drury playing wing-forward. Now, I haven’t seen Stephen since that time, I’m from Roscommon town but living in Boyle, Stephen I believe has a business up in Monaghan now but he was the only one that drove to training.

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“It was either parents or selectors that drove us to training. I remember in 1989 he was the only one with a car.

“Before we played Meath in the Minor semi-final in 2006, 17 of the players drove to training. Now, they didn’t all own the cars but it’s amazing how things have changed.

“In terms of preparation, things have changed as well. We would have gone away and done an overnight team-building thing in 2006 and we would have done a lot of video and analysis work. Not with the players but ourselves the management team and we would have gone to games or had someone watching other games.

“In ’89 we were going up to games and had no idea who we were playing. Unfortunately for myself, I had to mark Anthony Tohill one day. That was the first time I suppose I realised there were a lot better players out there than myself. But we didn’t know who these guys were. In 2006 the players themselves knew who each other were.”

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O’Donnell’s career outside of Gaelic football is a lot more stressful having been a member of An Garda Síochána since 1993.

However, it’s easy to see why coaching at Minor level means so much to him given that most of his professional life involves guiding young people.

“I work as a juvenile liaison officer now. I started out in Tallaght in ’93 and I worked there from 93-97 and then I came down to Boyle in ’97 were I’ve lived since then.

“I worked with the community police in Boyle and then in 2011 I moved back into Roscommon county and now I work with Roscommon county as a juvenile liaison officer.

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“I work with young people that get into trouble and I suppose that’s why I enjoy the underage football, people would say to me with sport and with work you’re working with young people but I get great enjoyment out of it because I think young people are great.

“The one thing I really value from growing up is I got a lot of opportunities through great coaches, a lot of my coaches were members of the Gardaí at the time or teachers so it’s nice to give a bit back. I’m chairman now of the minor board in Boyle and do a bit of work with the U16s so it’s nice to do a bit as well.”

O’Donnell’s commitment to the development of Minor football in Roscommon cannot be understated enough. It is fitting that the 2006 All-Ireland winning manager has been named as this year’s Special Merit Award Winner by Electric Ireland.

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The former Roscommon manager will be celebrated at the Electric Ireland GAA Minor Star Awards on Saturday September 28th at Croke Park along with the Football and Hurling Teams of the Year and the Footballer and Hurling Player of the Year.

The awards, now in its third year, emphasises the ongoing concept that there is ‘nothing minor about playing Minor’ and recognises the best individual performers from the entire season, including provincial and All Ireland stages, with the best player in each position selected on the 2019 Electric Ireland GAA Minor Star Top 15.

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Brought to you by Electric Ireland

Minor players are embarking on their adult lives. They have hopes, dreams, pressures, distractions and ambitions, but for this one moment in time, the Electric Ireland Minor Championships is the major thing in their lives.

Follow the conversation using #GAAThisIsMajor or visit https://www.electricireland.ie/gaa-minor-championships to catch up on this season’s action.

About Michael Corry

Sports Journalist based in Dublin. Hit me up if you have a unique story to tell. Email: michael@punditarena.com Twitter: @Corry_10 Instagram: @Corry_10