BY CHRIS MCNULTY
WHEN Jim McGuinness was engaged in a public tête-à-tête with the DCU manager, Niall Moyna, early in 2012, Martin McElhinney was the unfortunate party caught in the cross-fire.
While doing the warm-up before Donegal played Monaghan in a challenge at Clones, McElhinney picked up an ankle injury and was unable to line out for DCU, his college of the time, in that evening’s O’Byrne Cup semi-final against Meath.
Moyna hit out at McGuinness, calling it an ‘appalling’ scenario, but McGuinness’s response gave an insight into McElhinney’s standing with the Donegal boss.
“We believe he has the potential to be a very good Donegal player,” McGuinness said at the time.
“I’ve known him going back to his days as a student in Limavady. When I took over the Donegal job Martin was recovering from major groin surgery and his fitness levels dropped. Over the last 18 months I have got the best advice for Martin and have had a strength and conditioning coach working with him one-to-one once a week.”
McElhinney missed the inter-county campaigns of 2009 and 2010, the entire tenure of John Joe Doherty, and had required surgery on a Gilmore’s groin injury. On several occasions, Doherty was very frustrated at the St Michael’s man’s injury woes as he, too, felt he had something big to contribute.
When McGuinness arrived on the door, McElhinney’s Donegal career amounted to just five games, three in 2007 and another two in 2008. His debut came against UUJ on the same January evening, off the same Ballyshannon bench as Michael Murphy in 2007.
That July, McElhinney was a sub in the qualifier win over Leitrim in Carrick-on-Shannon that announced Murphy’s arrival. McElhinney played as a sub against Mayo and from the start against Kildare in the 2008 National League, but his next appearance for the Donegal team was on February 5th 2011, almost three years later, in McGuinness’s first League game at the helm, a draw with Sligo in Ballybofey.
Although he started the first three Championship games of 2011, he was a sub in the next three and since early in 2012 the preferred centrefield choice for Donegal has been Neil Gallagher and Rory Kavanagh.
But now, McElhinney, the powerful midfielder, from Rooskey, Creeslough, is back in the side and aiming to stay there for the long haul.
“This is probably the best run in the team that I’ve got in a while,” he said this week, after another impressive display in the engine room in Donegal’s 2-11 to 0-10 win over Monaghan in Letterkenny on Sunday.
“I’m two years now without injury and I’ve been building the fitness through it all. I just want to keep the performance and keep hold of the jersey now. I’m enjoying it. It’s really enjoyable when you’re putting in the hard work at training and you’re getting to play.
“Everyone wants to play, but you just put the head down and keep going. You’re always wanting to get out on the pitch. You have to keep concentrating. I have had good game time now so hopefully I can keep that up.”
It is to McElhinney’s credit that he never played the poor mouth.
Then again, Kavanagh waited from 2002 to 2006 to start a Championship game and in 2011 Gallagher was a fringe player before finally stamping his authority on things.
“Rory was telling me that he was on the panel for a few years before he got playing in the Championship, so you have to just stick at it,” McElhinney said.
“I was always coming in behind Neil and Rory. It’s good to get in with Neil being out for a while. I’m just happy to be playing. You can train all you want, but it’s great to get into the team. We have great competition for places on the team now. It really is competitive.
“It’s common sense that, if you’re training against Rory Kavanagh and Neil Gallagher, you can only improve. There aren’t many better midfielders around than those two men.”
The 25-year old, now a student at Queen’s University Belfast, has always been a player of some standing.
In the 2006 Ulster Minor final, he hit two goals in Croke Park when Donegal defeated Antrim. With his injury woes now firmly behind him he’s looking to nail down the spot.
Of the minors from 2006, Leo McLoone and Murphy have been the only regular starters in the senior team over the last couple of seasons. McElhinney, like Declan Walsh and Dermot Molloy, has had his shoulder to the door trying to force it open, while Ross Wherity made a good impression last year before emigrating to America in the winter.
McElhinney has put his hand up for inclusion at the same time as a club colleague, Christy Toye, has returned to give a real boost to the side. Toye is back with a bang after a facial virus saw him miss all of last year.
McElhinney said: “Christy brings so much experience. Even off the field, just sitting in the dressing room, Christy is a massive help. Everyone looks up to Christy – he has been about for so long.
“Every time you open a programme and it’s looking back at an old game, his name is stuck on it!
“The young lads have done really well. Odhrán (MacNiallais) has done really well. It hasn’t flinched him at all. He is so cool on the ball and nothing fazes him. It’s really positive.
“We’re working off a strong panel now.”
McElhinney was to the fore on Sunday when Donegal kept up their unbeaten Division 2 start with a six-point win over Monaghan. The spring has been good for McElhinney and Donegal.
He hit a long-range point in the first half and his surging, powerful runs caused Monaghan a lot of distress – so much so that Paul Finlay was called ashore at half-time.
McElhinney said: “We’d got off to a good start beating Laois and Galway, but you need to be winning the home games so we’re delighted to get a home win behind us. All we wanted was two points and that’s what we’ve done. We’ll move onto the next game and the aim is the same: Getting two points.
“It was strange to have two away games at the start. After winning those games there was probably a lot expected of us today. We got the performance and came out on top.
“In fairness they are the Ulster champions – the team to beat.
“When we were Ulster champions, teams wanted to beat us. With them coming to Letterkenny, of course we wanted to beat them – but it’s the same no matter who you play. We want the performance and hope that the performance gets us the wins.”
Donegal are riding high at the summit of Division 2, but haven’t yet distanced their gaze beyond the visit of Meath to Ballybofey this Sunday.
With an away trip to Down, the second-placed team in the Division, to come on Sunday-week, the various possibilities will soon become clear.
McElhinney said: “We’ve three victories, but it’s all about getting a win out of the Meath game now; no-one is looking beyond that game. All we want is to get two points off Meath.
“At the minute it isn’t about promotion or anything like that. We have four weeks on the spin now, including the Monaghan game. Teams are starting to sound each other out now and we’ll be over the half-way point after we play Meath so we might be able to have a proper look at where we stand after that.
“Everyone is working together, but it’s just a building block. The next one of those is Meath. We want to keep improving all the way.”