Despite soldiering for Clare through the bad times, Patrick Donnellan insists he carries no baggage
Clare’s sweeper was marked out as a future star by Brian Cody as far back as 2008
Clare’s Patrick Donnellan will a vital part of their team plan on Sunday. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
They call him Paddy down home. When he walked into the lobby of the Clare press night a couple of weeks back, Patrick Donnellan was in full Patrick mode – smartly dressed as he’d just come from his job as a sales manager with aviation company Eirtech, all square-jawed poise in his role as Clare captain and spokesman.
But back in O’Callaghan’s Mill’s, it’s a long time since he was Patrick. The last man to call him that might have been the bishop at his confirmation. “He was Patrick as a young underage player,” says Joe Cooney, long-time club grandee. “But nobody would really call him that. Or Pat either.”
Lift Liam MacCarthy tomorrow and he won’t mind if they call him Tallulah. Everything is nothing outside of the game now. Donnellan swears he doesn’t even have a speech ready if the best comes to the best.
Concentrated on game
“No, I haven’t and I’m not just saying it now – as in I’m at home writing the speech and I’m lying to ye when I come in here! I would never think about those kinds of things. People would be asking you about the different things that come around with an All-Ireland final and it just doesn’t come into your head.
“I know it is all for nothing if we don’t win the next day. We know that we don’t want to be in that position and we’ll look after the things that will help us to play well. That’s all that matters for us. If I’m going up the steps I’m sure I’ll be able to think of a few words. Nobody will worry about what I’m saying anyway.”
In the jagged-peak stage map of Donnellan’s Clare career, Cork have always been a hors catégorie climb; played them three times, lost all three. He made his debut against them, coming off the bench late on in a Munster semi-final back in 2006. Davy Fitz was still the Clare goalkeeper and the defence still had both Lohans and Seánie Mac in situ.
Donnellan was a couple of weeks short of his 21st birthday and could only feel his way into the new world. Cork had six points to spare at the end, All-Ireland champions waggling the stick in search of an early-summer gear.
Two years later, he made his first championship start against Waterford and by then he was ready. Mike McNamara was over Clare at the time and from the day he gave him his first start, Donnellan was a fixture. Clare have played 20 championship games in six seasons since then and Donnellan is the only ever-present on the team sheet.
“We played Cork in an All-Ireland quarter-final that year and we were just beaten in the end,” says McNamara. “That was the last kick in that Cork team and we just didn’t put them away. But I remember Brian Cody coming up to me afterwards and saying that young Donnellan was the best player we had. He said he stood out a mile.”
It was only Donnellan’s fifth game for Clare. It was also the closest they came to hurling in August until this summer. For the next four seasons, Clare couldn’t buy a win of any substance. Donnellan was there for it all, watching on as players retired and managers got bogged down in acrimony. The one hope through the darkness was the wave of underage success that was threatening to break on to the shore.
“I don’t really have too much baggage,” says Donnellan now. “Different teams might have different kinds of baggage but this team has changed over the last four or five years. It’s not like we’ve been a team on the road for the last 10 or 12 years and we have a huge amount of defeats behind us.
“When the team changes and new players come in it’s essentially a new team. They don’t have any inhibitions or they don’t have fears of any teams. They grew up with winning, they are used to winning and that is a great mentality to have. If you had a young lad coming into a panel you would want him to come in with that mentality and experience.”
It tickles him that at just 28, he’s the oldest fogey in the side. The team that started against Limerick contained more players born in the 1990s than in the 1980s. But even though the gap between him and Tony Kelly is nine years, the fact that everybody is under 30 makes integration a doddle.
“We spend more time with each other than we do with anybody else outside of our close family,” says Donnellan. “It’s important we all get on and we all make an effort with everyone. It would be very easy just to come in, put your head down and go home without saying anything to anyone.
“We all make an effort when we come in that you ask someone how their day was or how they are getting on in college, or whatever. You are getting an insight into what goes on with them. We act like counsellors for each other; it’s like a bit of a psychology session every time we come into training.”
All that time on the couch has clearly paid off. Donnellan has been the tactical wheeze of Clare’s summer, playing withdrawn behind the half-back line and fetching and carrying for fun.
Though his sweeper role has taken on slightly different guises against Galway and Limerick, it is still the move that makes opposition sides play the game on Clare’s terms. Watching on, McNamara contends that only Donnellan could fulfil the role to the specs required.
“You have to have something on the top of your head, otherwise you can’t do it,” says the former Clare manager. “You can get lost very easily playing that role. It involves incredible ball-reading and anticipation. It’s a very difficult role because anticipation is always to some extent a guessing game and if you anticipate wrong, you end up with egg on your face.
“It doesn’t matter if mentally you’ve done everything right. If you’re not where you should be you’re no good to anybody. If the game starts to go against you and the points start to flow freely from out the field, you can be in no-man’s land and the game can be passing you by. He doesn’t panic and he doesn’t lose concentration. That’s why he’s so good at it.”
See it out one more time and Donnellan could well be climbing the Hogan Stand steps come tea-time tomorrow, writing a speech in his head as he goes.