Gary O’Donnell: Highs and lows of inter-county football

By Paul Shaughnessy

Gary O’Donnell will go down as the most underrated footballers, Galway has ever produced. O’Donnell, was a consistent performer for the Tribesmen for 13 seasons, throughout his inter-county career. Number five was a jersey he wore in the maroon and white; he was rock solid from a defensive perspective and always had the ability to contribute on the scoreboard.

The Tuam Stars clubman grew up in Gort where hurling is the dominant GAA force. Both of his parents, come from Mayo and have always been passionate about Gaelic games, while 1998 and 2001 All-Ireland winner, Ja Fallon, is his uncle.  

Initially, he started playing his club football with St Colemans which saw Beagh, Kilbeacanty and Gort amalgamate . O’Donnell got called into the Galway panel in the winter of 2007. A year later St Colemans were unable to field and the club no longer existed due to his family connections he made the move to Tuam Stars and to this day he still lines out for the North Galway club.

“I was growing up in the late 90’s when Galway football was fairly competitive with those great teams and I was going to all the games. I grew up wanting to replicate their success and they were icons of mine. That’s probably what a lot of it was for me.

I remember coming back from the provincial final in 1998 and I just had it in my head that I’d love to be playing in a game like that.”

During his inter county career from 2008 until 2021, Galway experienced the highs, and lows of Gaelic football. A Connacht championship in 2008 and a narrow defeat at the hands of Kerry in the All-Ireland quarter-final, looked like progress was being made under Liam Sammon.

However, the next three years proved to be disappointing, resulting in a series of provincial championship defeats, and early championship exits.

O’Donnell, feels it took the players and management, awhile to adapt to the modern tactics of Gaelic football during his early days in the Galway jersey.

“Traditionally, we were often referred to as a traditional football county, and we were probably a bit stubborn and wanted to play our natural way. We were probably left behind in that way, and had a lot of ground to make up.

The turnover of managers probably didn’t help, and it wasn’t that any of them were doing anything wrong. Every coach that came in had a different philosophy.

At that period of time, the players weren’t lacking talent but the turnover of players was a big thing. A lot of players came in, some settled, and some didn’t and maybe ability wise we weren’t good enough.”

In 2015, Kevin Walsh came in as Galway senior football manager, which proved to be a big turning point.

“At the time, we were probably a mid-table Division two team, nowhere near winning a provincial title. He just wanted to put a bit more shape on us, and make us more difficult to beat, and he had to bridge the gap, which is something he did very well.”

Kevin Walsh’s tenure as manager ended in 2019, where he progressed Galway football significantly, winning two Connacht championship titles and reaching an All-Ireland semi-final.

Ex Galway footballer Padraic Joyce came in 2020, and he has built on Walsh’s success with Galway, reaching their first All-Ireland final since 2001, in 2022.

‘Since Padraic has taken over, Galway are now a more established team and we can compete with the best teams.’

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