Gary O'Donnell is still going strong for Galway
By Cian O'Connell
Gary O'Donnell knows the distance Galway have travelled, and though still far from the intended destination, the journey has been a bit smoother in recent years.
It isn't that long ago when Galway were enduring difficult campaigns in Division Two. Promise evident, but delivering on a sustained and consistent basis was proving to be an issue.
O'Donnell kept the faith, remaining a key figure in the Galway football story even when silverware and success were merely a dream, with hope the only real companion.
“Yeah and it was probably highlighted at the time that we needed to be in Division One, year after year it was being mentioned and any year we didn’t get up it was kind of thrown back at us which was probably fair enough," O'Donnell recalls about those demanding days when Galway were in distress.
"Our main focus would always have been on the summer, but at the same time we wanted to get promotion.
"The longer it went on, the more it was dragging us down, but I think since we’ve been promoted and won Division Two, we’ve ticked a lot of boxes along the way, we’ve had Croke Park wins, we bet Kerry last year, first time in a long time, reached an All-Ireland semi-final last year too.
"Definitely don’t want that to be the peak of our powers by any means. Things are heading in the right direction as well."
Following the tough times, why were those little missions in Connacht and Division Two of the Allianz Football League accomplished? “I think if you have the likes of Dublin who were dominant at the time and had won, what, four of the last six All-Irelands, they were very, very dominant," O'Donnell replies.
"Kerry were obviously very strong and then you had Mayo in Connacht, who were utterly dominant against us at the time as well so we’d a lot of hurdles to jump and it was never going to be the case where we were just going to go all the way or anything like that. It was one step at a time."
Kevin Walsh's appointment as Galway manager in 2015 assisted the process according to O'Donnell. "In Kevin’s first year we lost to Mayo, but it was a very positive performance," O'Donnell states.
"I think there was only three points in it in the end and I think the next three to four years then we won every game. It was baby steps at the time and getting to Division One and playing high quality games right up to the summer has definitely stood to us the last two years.
"We’ve been familiar with the likes of the teams that have been mentioned at the top level. When we do obviously get to play them later on in the summer it’s not a case of heading into the unknown, it’s a bit of familiarity and playing at a high intensity as well."
What stirs O'Donnell now, though, is the sense that more can be done. “Loads, plenty," O'Donnell replies instantly. "We’d be our harshest critics in our own dressing room. "We know the potential that we have and the players that we have and the motivation and the drive that a lot of our lads would have, it’s probably not as evident to people from the outside like.
"A lot of lads would have All-Ireland underage medals. Achieved with their college, their schools, their clubs, so a lot of lads are familiar with success, but they obviously want to bring that to senior level now as well. We haven’t fulfilled our potential, no point saying otherwise, no."
Walsh's willingness to integrate emerging talent into the Galway set-up is crucial according to O'Donnell "It is brilliant, I wouldn't say anything else," the Tuam Stars clubman states.
"Every team needs young blood, it keeps everyone on their toes, it keeps it fresh. There is a sense of enthusiasm off young players coming in, a lack of fear coming into a set up where they want to prove themselves, they are mad to play for Galway.
"They are coming into a set up, that I wouldn't say we are at the peak of our powers, but we are heading in the right direction compared to five or six years ago when we were well down the pack.
"That was maybe a more difficult panel to come into when you had to prove yourself. Now we are competing for provincial honours, playing Division One football and hopefully playing on for the rest of the summer.
"There is competition for places which is great, the younger players coming in have definitely made their mark."
O'Donnell, who first stepped into the Galway senior panel in 2008, has given significant service to the maroon and white cause.