Enjoyment returned as Odhrán Mac Niallais looks to rekindle Gaoth Dobhair’s flame

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If there were any doubts in his mind, a scan around the Waterfront Hotel in Dungloe confirmed that Odhrán Mac Niallais had made the right call.

Last year, feeling that the ‘pressure’ was bursting from his skull, he took a year out from inter-county football. The summer months were spent in America and he came home to score four points as Gaoth Dobhair went down in agony against Naomh Conaill in a county semi-final.

Picture: Odhrán Mac Niallais in action for Gaoth Dobhair. Picture by Aodh Máirtín Ó Fearraigh. 

MacNiallais became disillusioned in 2016. Then Donegal manager Rory Gallagher had to coax him out of taking a break at that point, but by the time the calendar turned in to 2017, it was apparent that his mind had made up.

“There’s a lot of pressure in football,” Mac Niallais says. 

“If you’re not enjoying it and there’s pressure on you, it’s not a great place to be. It was nice to get away for a while. when you’re away, you miss it and you want to get back.”

America offered the solace he needed.

Under Declan Bonner, he returned to Donegal’s colours this year and has helped Gaoth Dobhair reach a first county final in 12 years.

These are the days he longed for.

“It’s nice to be back enjoying the football again,” he says, the waters below him rising the waves as the crowds gather for the county final press event.

“I’m enjoying football now again. 

“Growing up, playing as a young fella, the county final is always the end goal. You watch teams playing and it sickens you not being there. 

“Seeing teams form the club winning it when you’re young gives you the ambition. But we have come up well short and we haven’t even come near to a final. It’s exciting to finally get there.”

Odhrán Mac Niallais celebrates scoring a goal for Donegal

They know their history in Gaoth Dobhair and Mac Niallais is aware of it.

He is a grand-nephew of the late, great Hughie Tim.

For some, the surname isn’t even a requirement. Hughie Tim Boyle’s legend stands as tall as Errigal’s face in Gaoth Dobhair. Seven times, he played in a winning Gaoth Dobhair side in a county final. It would’ve been eight, only he was suspended for the 1953 instalment.

“It’s a lot to live up to,” Mac Niallais smiles. “He goes down as one of the best ever.

“We’re very proud of our history. We have 14 Championships and we have a chance to become the most successful team in Donegal. Nothing brings more pride to this parish than football. Everyone wants us to do well and gets behind us. We’ve got serious support. We just want to do them justice in the final.”

Cian Mulligan comes from the same mould. Mulligan’s grandmother, Teresa McGeady, is a twin sister of Margaret Mellett, Mac Niallais’ grandmother and Hughie Tim’s sister. Another sister, Sarah, was the mother of European Cup winner Paddy Crerand. 

The bloodlines are rich in sporting success.

But for a different mindset, soccer could have been Mac Niallais’ calling in 2017. He still moonlights occasionally for Gweedore Celtic in the Donegal League, but last January Ollie Horgan came knocking. Mac Niallais met the Finn Harps manager and was tempted. 

“It would have been nice to test if I was good enough to play at that level,” he says. “I’d have enjoyed the challenge.

“It’s a lot of commitment. People don’t realise the commitment the Finn Harps lads put in. They train as much as we do. That level of effort and pressure was something I was trying to get away from so I decided to head away to New York.” 

Mac Niallais roared on to the inter-county scene in 2014 when he starred as Donegal won Ulster and reached the All-Ireland final. 

Away from the national media’s glare, the actual preparation now isn’t much different, he feels, as Gaoth Dobhair seek a return to former glories. 

Odhrán MacNiallais in high-fielding action for Gaoth Dobhair. Picture by Chris Doherty

It has been a good year to date for Mac Niallais, with Ulster SFC and McKenna Cup medals bagged from the year with Donegal. Eamon McGee prophesied his rise some years back. Ear-marking Mac Niallais as ‘one to watch’, McGee described Mac Niallais as ‘one of the most naturally talented footballers there is’.

His older brother, Ronan, has won two Championships – the 2002 and 2006 titles.

“All I remember out of the two games is Stephen Cassidy’s goal in ’06,” Mac Niallais says. 

“I remember the celebrations from ’02 more. That was the first time in 40-odd years that Gaoth Dobhair won it. It was mental. The cavalcade, Jesus, it must have been three miles long and the bonfires were burning away going down to the clubhouse. It was a special time and you’d do anything to be involved in something like that.”

The mind drifts as contentment falls: “It’s good to be back.’

Sports writer from St Johnston, now based in Letterkenny, with ten years' experience covering sport in Donegal. Was a nominee for NUJ Sports Journalist of the Year in 2010. Honoured by the Donegal Boxing Board in 2016 for his coverage on the sport.

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