GROWING UP In Ballycastle, all Seán McVeigh wanted to do was swing the hurl.
He’s based in Letterkenny and swings that hurl now as he had then. But since moving when he was just 10, the now 25-year-old is one of the few dual players in Donegal.
“When I was a child in Antrim, I don’t think I ever even saw a football match,” McVeigh says. “It was always about hurling up there.”
Whilst no player is in both the county senior football and senior hurling panels, McVeigh is perhaps as close to the summit as you can get.
Photo caption: Sean McVeigh, Donegal hurling captain Joe Boyle and Donegal Treasurer Ciaran Kelly at the recent launch of the new Donegal kit at the Abbey Hotel in Donegal town. Photo: Geraldine Diver.
A Lory Meagher Cup winner in 2011 with Donegal, McVeigh was back at Croke Park two years’ later as part of the victorious team that took the Nicky Rackard Cup back to the north-west.
And for a youngster who, by his own admission, hadn’t seen a football match until he hit the double-digits, McVeigh is a three-time RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta Donegal SFC winner with St Eunan’s.
He helped win the Dr Maguire Cup for the Letterkenny club in 2014, 2012 and 2008, although could’ve had another crown in 2009.
That was the year that McVeigh went back to his roots and re-joined Ballycastle; travelling up Glenshane with his father Conor to line up alongside current Antrim captain Neil McAuley and follow inter-county hurler Cormac Donnelly.
“I had played there at under-8, under-10 and under-12 and it’s my first club,” Seán McVeigh says. “I really wanted to go back at the time and enjoyed the experience.
“We got to the semi-finals of the Antrim SHC and club hurling is strong there. Loughgiel Shamrocks won the All-Ireland club championships in 2012 – my cousin Johnny Campbell was their captain – and Ruairí Óg Cushendall are in this year’s final.”
Ballycastle wear the black and amber – similar to St Eunan’s – and soon McVeigh had yearning to play back at O’Donnell Park.
“I liked it at Ballycastle and it improved me as a hurler but I missed St Eunan’s as I’d been there for so long, since underage playing both football and hurling,” McVeigh says. “I came home and enjoyed both codes.”
The life of a dual player can be a busy one. As well as lining out for St Eunan’s in both codes and the Donegal county hurlers, McVeigh also hurls for Letterkenny Institute of Technology, where he’s a fourth year student of Sports Coaching and Performance.
“At times it can be very hard to go and motivate yourself to go and train,” McVeigh adds. “You might have weeks where you have something everyday of the week. And you’re just wrecked and not able to put your best foot forward at each session.”
Sean McVeigh in the colours of St Eunan’s footballers against Naomh Muire
The dual player is a dying breed, certainly at inter-county level. In Donegal, there’s a few players in similar situations as McVeigh – Martin O’Reilly is part of Rory Gallager’s panel with the Donegal senior footballers and scored seven goals in a hurling championship game for MacCumhaill’s against Buncrana last season.
In 2011, O’Reilly played in the curtain-raiser at St Tiernach’s Park in Clones as Donegal overcame Tyrone in the Ulster Under-21 Shield final.
As the hurlers left with the cup, Michael Murphy had already taken Jim McGuinness’s footballers onto the park to play Tyrone as well. They would win 2-6 to 0-9 in an Ulster SFC semi-final and end Mickey Harte and Tyrone’s three in a row dream.
Fast-forward 12 months and O’Reilly was part of McGuinness’s plans – replacing David Walsh for the final 16 minutes – as Donegal repeated the trick to defeat Tyrone 0-12 to 0-10.
Colm Kelly and Jamie Brennan – from Ballyshannon and Bundoran respectively – both hurl for Aodh Ruadh having represented Donegal footballers all the way to the 2014 All-Ireland Minor final.
Buncrana are a side coming through the hurling ranks impressively and are expected to rankle the established powers in the coming years with dual players of the calibre of Jack O’Loughlin. Burt have always been comfortable fielding in both the large and small ball, with plenty of crossovers.
And at McVeigh’s St Eunan’s the O’Donnell brothers – Conor, Niall and Shane – are equally effective at either code, as are Colm Flood and Kevin Meehan.
“It’s probably something that should be looked at because there are some really good dual players in Donegal coming through,” McVeigh added. “Those players are probably not getting a chance to develop either code properly with the demands put on them.
“Like the O’Donnells at St Eunan’s are serious operators in each code. You’d hate for them to be lost to concentrate on one code. I’m not saying anyone is stopping players from playing both codes,but there are demands and less of them would help players play both if that’s what they enjoy.”
McVeigh admits the way the calendar falls on his own situation makes it manageable.
“I’m fortunate as with the county hurling season, it’s really only going to go to June,” he adds. “The football is only really kicking in then after that. I’m lucky too in the fact that my managers at St Eunan’s and Ardal McDermott – the Donegal hurling manager – are all very accommodating. I enjoy both but hurling is No 1 for me, especially at this time of year.”
Last year McVeigh – moonlighting from his work placement coaching with Debreceni VSC soccer club in Hungary – was in and out of the Donegal side in the Allianz NHL Division 2B with Ray Durack in charge.
In their new surroundings, Donegal lost all their regulation league games but were never embarrassed and had enough to maintain their status in the division with victory over Tyrone in the promotion-relegation play-off.
“We were competitive last year and showed we’re not out of our depth,” McVeigh added. “But we didn’t win enough. Hurling has changed a lot over the last few years but for us to take the next step we need to start beating the likes of Mayo and Armagh – the teams that are traditionally above us.”
Mayo, on Sunday at MacHale Park in Castlebar, are Donegal’s first opponents of the 2016 NHL with Armagh coming to Letterkenny the week afterwards.
“Ardal has come in and is very organised and everyone has bought into what he is trying to do. We played Derry (losing 6-21 to 2-19) and Down (drawing 3-17 to 3-17 having trailed 2-5 to 0-1 early on) in the Conor McGurk Cup in January and there were as close to competitive games as you’d have got at that time of year.
“Sometimes you’re physically fit when the league comes around but you can be caught cold due to lack of sharpness. It happened that day against Down but we performed well thereafter. Games bring you on. In Donegal, we didn’t always play in these types of competition. Maybe our geography worked against us.
“But this year we did and that can only help. We’re at a high standard of hurling and want to show we deserve to be there. The difference when you’re playing these Christy Ring teams is speed. Your stick work needs to be fast, as does your thought process so it’s both physical speed and mental speed.
“That’s the type of thing we’ve been working on and on Sunday, Mayo is a game we’ve looked at. It’ll show us exactly were we’re at.”