Last summer, Odhrán MacNiallais had a bird's eye view of the slow disintegration of Donegal's championship season. He trained with the squad and travelled in the team bus and was close enough to the action to smell it. But he was still a spectator. Yesterday, he was at the heart of Donegal's drive to a fourth consecutive Ulster final and finished his day in front of the television cameras accepting his first man-of-the-match award in the competition. It has been an assured rise.
“We were going for our third Ulster in a row last year and it was massively difficult to break into the team,” he said after the match as Clones emptied fast. “But Jim [McGuinness] gave me a chance in friendlies and that in the winter and then played every game in the league. So I am thankful to Jim for the chance he has given me. Hopefully now I will keep my place in the team and get a wee run out in the Ulster final.”
Both of MacNiallais's championship starts have had a touch of improvisation about them. Just as they did against Derry, the Donegal management was forced to make emergency reparations to its midfield after Rory Kavanagh was unable to recover full fitness and Neil Gallagher broke down after 17 minutes.
MacNiallais stepped into the void left by Kavanagh and had a storming game, getting on the ball, tracking back when needed to and generally looking at home. Four sweetly struck points from play – including an important point during the stilted first half – signalled his growing confidence.
Midfield has not been his natural position growing up but with his rangy athleticism, he has the same facility as Christy Toye for filling several roles.
“Over the last year or so I just started playing the odd game there with my club,” MacNiallais said of his centre-field duties.
“I have played more at midfield for Donegal than I have with the club, funny enough. I’ll play anywhere hey. I am happy enough just to get out on the field and play football. Corner back, corner forward! I enjoy midfield, now. It is tough work but it has to be done.”
The Gweedore man was just 18 when McGuinness first called him into the squad and ran the eye over him in McKenna Cup games against Tyrone and Fermanagh in the winter of 2011. Injuries upset his progression that season, curtailing his club career also and it wasn’t until last year that he resumed county training.
His eyes widened for a second when it was put to him that he has been in from the beginning for every Donegal game this year.
“Have I, aye? I think I actually have. I started every league game. And McKenna Cup as well. I hope that doesn’t change in four weeks time!”
There is a chance, of course, given that Donegal were without former Footballer of the Year Karl Lacey, former All-Star Neil Gallagher and his regular midfield partner Rory Gallagher, that MacNiallais will be held in reserve on Ulster final day.
At the very least, the emergence of MacNiallais and 18-year-old Darach O’Connor has given Donegal options and given the management significant choices to make. He is in the delightful position now of being a promising novice in a deeply experienced side: Donegal may be preparing for their fourth provincial showdown collectively, but MacNiallais is thinking about his first as a player.
“Aye, it is great. It is what you dream of coming up as a young fella: to play for Donegal in Clones in an Ulster final. Hopefully I will get that chance and it would be great to lift that Anglo Celt Cup in four weeks time. There is massive competition in training.
“The difference in the competitiveness in training games this year and last year is massive.
“The intensity in the training games is huge and the competition now for places . . . Brick [Dermot Molloy] coming in and Deccy Walsh . . . everyone is flying in training.”