DONEGAL has had its fair share of exciting underage prospects in recent years, and in Niall O’Donnell, the county has another promising star.
The names of Michael Murphy and Patrick McBrearty were revered in Ulster long before they made their senior intercounty debuts.
They were both prodigious young talents, and word of their ability quickly spread through the province.
O’Donnell’s name has been making traction since his magnificent performances for St Eunan’s in the St Paul’s Ulster Minor Football Tournament in December.
The fifth year student at St Eunan’s College made huge contributions for his team as they reached the Ulster Final and he was voted Player of the Tournament.
O’Donnell is a deadly forward, who plays with poise and guile, and is equally comfortable off either foot.
A player like him is expected to struggle with heavy, wet pitches at the end of the year, but in Belfast, O’Donnell was untouchable at times.
“December was a good month for me. I had a lot of games which is not something that normally happens at that time of the year,” said O’Donnell.
“I missed a lot of last year with an injured knee and I was probably a bit fresher than some players. We went on a great run with the minors and reached the Ulster Final.”
Unfortunately the team’s excellent run came to an end in the provincial decider, when Crossmaglen Rangers proved too strong.
It was a tough defeat to stomach, but with the benefit of hindsight, O’Donnell can look back on his team’s season with fondness.
“We were probably third favourites to win the Donegal Minor Championship last year, and we did very well to come out on top.
“That took us into Ulster and it wasn’t really a competition we had thought much about.
“We didn’t know much about Slaughtneil, but we really bonded after we won Donegal, and we managed to make the semi-final.”
Derry clubs have a very good record at the St Paul’s Tournament, and Slaughtneil were fancied to do well.
However, St Eunan’s prevailed with O’Donnell notching eight points in a virtuoso performance, and that set up a last-four clash with Enniskillen Gaels on December 27.
That meant the players had to park their festive plans, which O’Donnell says they were all prepared to do, as they attempted to reach the final.
“There wasn’t much turkey or ham. All the boys were focused and no-one was heading out or anything like that.
“We wanted to get through to the Ulster Final, so the boys were all happy to sit in and have the craic at home.”
Their sacrifice was worthwhile as ‘Eunan’s made light work of the Fermanagh champions, with O’Donnell excelling once again and helping himself to 2-4.
That sent the Letterkenny men through to the final on New Year’s Day, but the word was out about the danger O’Donnell posed, and Crossmaglen were determined to curb his influence.
The 17-year-old did set up a goal with a stunning pass, but ‘Eunan’s were second best, and the Armagh kingpins claimed the silverware.
“The final was a tight match, and there wasn’t much space. The Crossmaglen defenders were very tight marking and we were missing Rory Carr too, so they probably just concentrated on marking a few of our players.
“It was disappointing, but it was still a good achievement to make the Ulster Final. We were counting it up after the match and seven or eight of the boys that started that game are underage again next year, so we will hope to win Donegal again and try to go one better.”
O’Donnell’s woes were eased when he was voted Player of the tournament but there was more disappointment on the way one week later when he was part of the St Eunan’s under 21 team that lost the county final to Kilcar.
O’Donnell also tasted defeat in the Donegal SFC Final in 2015, when he came on for his senior debut with two minutes of the decider remaining.
He couldn’t stop ‘Eunan’s from losing that game, and after tasting defeat in two county finals and an Ulster decider last season, O’Donnell is hoping the new campaign will be more fortuitous.
His immediate priority is helping his school on their quest to win the MacLarnon Cup, while he has unfinished business with the county minors.
O’Donnell played last June when Declan Bonner’s team suffered a heart-breaking semi-final defeat to Derry in Clones, and he is targeting a longer campaign this season.
“We went out of the minor Championship at the semi-finals last year and that was disappointing. We’ll be hoping to do much better this year.
“We did manage to win the league, but we wanted be playing games in the summer, not sitting at home.
“We won the MacLarnon Cup two years ago and it is a great tournament. We would love to win it again this year. Hopefully, it will be a good 2016.”