April 01, 1998
Brian O Donnell Galway
We had an excellent team in thr 80s and even though we didn't win an All-Ireland, I think we gave the people of Galway plenty to shout about," he recalls.
Though born in Clonmel, Brian has resided in Galway from an early age. A first cousin of present Louth goalkeeper Niall O'Donnell, Brian was something of a sports all-rounder in his younger years. He excelled in three codes - gaelic football, soccer and rugby.
His displays for local club, Mervue Utd earned him a place on the Irish Youths soccer team in 1978, a team which also featured Packie Bonner. Before confining his interests to gaelic football in 1981, he lined out for the Galwegians rugby team and was capped 12 times by Connacht.
Despite his interests in rugby and soccer, Brian always made himself available for his beloved Mervue. He represented the club in all grades before graduating to their intermediate team in the late 1970s. He refers to an Under 17 County Championship triumph as being the highlight of his Mervue playing days.
In 1978, Brian's inter-county career began in earnest when he featured on the Galway minor team that lost to eventual All-Ireland champions Mayo in the Connacht final. Thereafter, he won two Under 21 Connacht Championship medals. He made his Connacht senior championship debut in 1979 when Galway succumbed to the great Roscommon team of that period.
Two years later, he savoured National League glory with the Tribesmen and made the decision to give full commitment to Galway. "After winning the league, we set ourselves a target to win the All-Ireland. Mattie McDonagh (then Galway manager) asked me if I would be prepared to give the football total commitment and that I was prepared to do," Brian reflects.
Galway were narrowly defeated by Mayo in the championship campaign that followed but in 1982, the Connacht title was regained in impressive style at Mayo's expense. However, heartbreak was to follow in the All-Ireland semi-final when Galway were pipped by an Offaly team that would later shatter Kerry's five-in-a-row ambitions.
It could be said that the maroon and whites peaked in 1983. They breezed through Connacht and accounted for Donegal to book their place in the All-Ireland final against Dublin. Unfortunately for Brian - who lined out at left half forward - things didn't go according to plan on the big day as Galway slumped to a 1-10 to 1-8 defeat in what is remembered as one of the most tempestuous All-Ireland finals ever played.
"Losing that final is the biggest regret of my sporting career," Brian says without any hesitation. "It was the fourth All-Ireland final Galway had lost since the three-in-a-row winning team in the 1960s and certainly disheartened our supporters. To lose against 12 men (Galway finished with 14) made it a very difficult pill to swallow."
Brian's recollections of that infamous final are vivid. "It was very much a game of two halves. There was a gale force wind blowing and Dublin made better use of it in the first half - that was the basic difference.
"We tried everything to claw back the deficit in the second half but found it difficult to make headway. Dublin packed their defence and caught us a few times on the counterattack. In hindsight, we probably became desperate in the closing minutes and before we knew it, time had run out."
Despite the disappointment of losing, Brian says that playing in an All-Ireland final is an experience he will treasure forever. "The occasion was one I will never forget. Not too many players get the opportunity to play in an All-Ireland final so I can count myself very fortunate to have experienced it. It gave me a tremendous buzz."
Under new manager Tony Regan, Galway reached the National League final in 1984 but were defeated by Kerry. The Kingdom again proved their masters in the All-Ireland semi-final of that year, thus ending Galway's bid to compensate for the events of the previous season. Late in '84, Brian O'Donnell had the tremendous honour of representing Ireland in the Compromise Rules Series against Australia. He featured in all three of Ireland's test matches which were staged in Croke Park (twice) and Pairc Uí Chaoimh.
"For a gaelic footballer to play for Ireland is something unique. I was very privileged to get the call-up from our manager Peter McDermott and I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience. I felt at home playing under compromised rules because of my background in football and rugby."
He continues: "Also, it was a great way of meeting people. I made a lot of friendships with players from other counties whom I would otherwise not have met."
In 1985, Galway relinquished the Nestor Cup but it was still an eventful year for Brian nonetheless as he was selected to travel to the United States as an All-Star replacement.
Brian collected his fourth Connacht medal in 1986 but once again, Galway's aspirations were brought to an end in the All-Ireland semi-final by Tyrone. It was a similar story the following year when the Tribesmen succumbed to an emerging Cork team at the penultimate round stage after a replay.
The defeat to Cork had serious implications for Galway as Brian explains: "Our team started to break up after the Cork game. It's only in the past few years that Galway football has began to find its feet again. Hopefully, we will see a return to the glory days this year."
Brian brought the curtain down on his illustrious football career in 1989 owing to a recurring back injury sustained in a Corn na Cassa tie against Dublin. It was then that he resumed his rugby career with Galwegians and helped them to gain promotion to Division Two of the All-Ireland League.
As well as being part of a successful Galway team, Brian also donned the colours of UCG, with whom he enjoyed magnificent success in the early 1980s. "I was fortunate to be a member of a very talented UCG team which ended UCD's stranglehold on the Sigerson Cup.
"During my time at UCG, I won three Sigerson Cup medals and played alongside players of the calibre of Tommy Carr, Gay McManus, TJ Kilgallon and John Maughan. We were coached by Tony Regan who would later become manager of Galway."
Taken from Hogan Stand magazine
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