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Dublin: 9 °C Tuesday 26 March, 2019

Hurling links and Mayo family roots but focus is on leading the Galway footballers

Gary O’Donnell will spearhead Galway’s challenge in Castlebar tonight.

Galway senior football captain Gary O'Donnell
Galway senior football captain Gary O'Donnell
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

HIS FAMILY ROOTS can be traced to Mayo.

He was born and bred in the heart of Galway hurling country.

Yet it is as a Galway footballer that Gary O’Donnell has carved his sporting niche.

Tonight in Castlebar, he will captain Galway and start at centre-back as the Tribesmen try to end Mayo’s spell of utter dominance in Connacht football.

“My mother is from just outside Claremorris and my father is Louisburgh,” outlines O’Donnell.

“The parents would have the (Mayo) flag out every time Galway get knocked out! I would have had a few uncles that would have played for Mayo years ago. My uncle Christy Dolan would have played minor or U21.

“My uncle-in-law Michael Connaughton would have been a prominent player, but retired early because of injury.”

Despite the prominence of Mayo in his family tree, O’Donnell has always been a staunch Galway supporter.

Given he hails from Gort in the hurling heartland of south Galway, the curiosity is that he did not go down the hurling road.

“I played underage hurling with Gort, a lot of the current crop of senior Gort hurlers that would have a couple of county medals – like Greg Lally and Aidan Harte (both Galway seniors) – in Galway, I would have played on the same teams as them.

Gort players celebrate with the Tom Callanan cup Gort players celebrating their 2014 Galway senior hurling final win. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“Greg unfortunately did his cruciate at the start of the year so he’s out for Galway. Aidan obviously is still going well all the time.

“They’d be the exact same age, a couple of months is all that’s in between us. I’d keep in touch with them as well.

“I played underage football with Gort but there was nothing there, the club disbanded. I’d the option to go to Tuam Stars, my cousins approached me, the Fallons actually approached me to play for them.

“It just went from there and I’ve been playing for them since 2009.”

There lies the source of inspiration for O’Donnell’s football career. To him Ja Fallon is his first cousin. To the wider world he is the brilliant and creative footballer who picked up All-Ireland medals and Allstar awards for Galway in style.

“He was a huge influence, there’s no point saying otherwise. We’d be in touch every now and again.

“At the time he was definitely someone I looked up to. When I grew up, I played every sport that I could. But it just coincided at the time, Galway were going really well. T

“They’d a great team at the time. We obviously attended all the games with the interest with Jarlath playing. It went from there really and it just drove a lot of people my age actually on to play for Galway.

“I remember a lot of my friends and colleagues that I played underage with Galway, it was the same incentive. A lot of them have gone on to better things since as well.”

Jarlath Fallon Jarlath Fallon celebrating Galway's 2001 All-Ireland final win Source: INPHO

O’Donnell seeks to replicate those glory days but Galway have drifted from that elite position.

“We haven’t given a whole lot for people to shout about really at the moment. Over the years we’ve been nearly there but like I said before, we’re probably a game or two away from really pushing on.

“Standards and expectations would be high to be fair. When things aren’t going well, people expect better and rightly so. Galway’s been a real traditional county over the years, huge success.

“It’s the common question that a lot of people are talking about at the moment, that Dublin are going to run away with it for years and years.

“But I think most counties when you look at it player for player could match them. It’s just maybe a couple of resources, facilities, structures, that is probably widening the gap all the time.

“Galway have to make up the gap there on that and on the football field then as well.”

Galway’s wait for a Connacht crown stretches back to 2008.

“I did not feature in the final, I was injured in the build-up to it,” recalls O’Donnell of a game that occurred in his first season as a Galway senior footballer.

“I think I have one( (medal) at home, but it has been so long at this stage and the panel has completely changed. Padraig Joyce captained us that time and there is very few from that panel left.

Padraig Joyce lifts the cup Padraig Joyce lifts the cup after Galway's 2008 Connacht final win Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“Roy Keane said at the time that he did not play in the Champions League final that he didn’t count it but his opinion has probably changed since he retired.

“At the end of the day, you would love to be winning more and it is a long time since Galway won a Connacht title. We are very aware of that and so are the people of Galway aware of it. It is not from the lack of trying.

“As I’ve said over the years, it’s up to other teams to close the gap. Mayo have obviously been successful in Connacht. But I think other teams are maybe closing the gap by trying to improve.

“Roscommon have been successful this year, ourselves are pushing on as well, we’re learning all the time.”

Tonight Galway will hope to take a significant step forward.

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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