Hurling by degrees: Shane O'Donnell's long road back to Croke Park
Injuries and his academic career have complicated the journey of one-time teenage superstar
Shane O’Donnell in action for Clare against Wexford’s Damien Reck. He scored four points from play in the Banner’s quarter-final victory at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Photograph: Oisin Keniry/Inpho
Shane O’Donnell’s world has reorientated in the past five years. A shooting star celebrity at 19, after being sprung into Clare’s team for the 2013 All-Ireland final replay against Cork and having helped himself to three goals in the first 19 minutes, he has had a lot to navigate in the meantime.
Google him now and it’s not the All-Ireland hat-trick that pops up. At this point, hurling is just a reference point for a PhD student in genetics who was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to Harvard during the coming academic year.
He hasn’t given up the game or anything and this Saturday evening he’s back on the Croke Park pitch for the first time since marking his All-Ireland debut with 3-3 from play.
O’Donnell is the perfect cipher for Clare’s lost years; the apparently boundless, youthful talent frustrated by circumstances and the simple moving on of the hurling world, leaving behind trails of unfulfilled promise.
Injury has played a role and this is only the second year of his senior career that O’Donnell has been fit to play every match in league and championship.
“Coming up as a young player, he would have been very highly rated,” says Clare’s two-time All-Ireland winner Brian Lohan. “At times he was even played centre back because he was seen as someone with massive potential and massive quality.”
He took his place in as gilded a generation as any county has produced. In the six years between 2009 and 2014, Clare won four U-21 All-Irelands, two of which O’Donnell helped to capture.
The post-All-Ireland furore was in many ways a tribute to O’Donnell whose teenage celebrity produced scenes unparalleled in Gaelic games since Jason Sherlock’s emergence, also at 19, in Dublin’s All-Ireland winning summer of 1995.
He recounted to Malachy Clerkin in these pages 18 months later how even the relief of being able to withdraw back into student life in UCC was tempered for a while after the All-Ireland. Whereas people were very nice and night clubs admitted him and his entourage for free, he wasn’t really an entourage sort of guy.
College did however provide sanctuary in the longer term as the buzz of celebrity quietened.
“Third level is a great release for players,” says UCC GAA Development Officer, John Grainger. “You could imagine the pressure cooker environment around Ennis and all the hype. He ends up coming to Cork which, although it’s not the size of Dublin, would allow an undergraduate to lose himself in a student enrolment of around 20,000.
“He’d tell that some nights he’d be out and a fella might come up and give him some rubbish about the three goals but in Cork it was mostly possible for him to blend in.”
On the field his profile eased off as well, as a hamstring injury wiped out the 2014 championship when Clare lost their All-Ireland title in a qualifier replay against Wexford.When injuries cleared, O’Donnell had another problem. In the 2013 replay, Clare manager Davy Fitzgerald had taken Cork by surprise by going tactically orthodox and temporarily shelving the sweeper but the team reverted in the aftermath.
“The big thing,” according to Lohan, “was that he was playing in a system where more often than not, he was marking two men because an extra man or two in the half-back line means you’ve seven or eight defenders and if that’s the case you’ve only four or five forwards. He suffered from that.
“He also had a tendency to do the same thing over and over. There was little variation. When he came in for that All-Ireland final, every time he got the ball he took on his man and got three goals and three points. Obviously from then on, everyone knew that he was going to take them on if he gets the chance to test you.”
If UCC provided a harbour, things didn’t always click on the field there. The college was experiencing a downswing and didn’t make it to the Fitzgibbon weekend during his time playing. Holder of a prestigious Quercus scholarship, he also found it hard to juggle studies and hurling.
“He was also injured,” says Grainger, “and then towards the end of his college career, his academic workload was severe and we respected the fact that this was taking him up to Fermoy and out of college while at the same time going back to Clare for training.
“It would have been physically impossible for the young fella to be down the Mardyke for training sessions. O’Donnell’s studies in genetics were fairly high-brow and demanding. The fact that he got a scholarship to Harvard shows the calibre of his academic work.”
His scoring suffered in the general downturn in Clare’s fortunes. In fact in none of the championships since 2013 has his summer aggregate exceeded the 3-3 scored that day. Yet there isn’t even a whisper of complaint about his attitude or work-rate.
Interestingly for a forward who’s no longer putting up outsize totals, he is virtually never replaced in matches; he has started all of Clare’s league and championship matches this season and nine times he has played out the 70 minutes.
“His attitude on the field was good,” says Lohan. “Even if he wasn’t scoring he’d be a nightmare to mark – turning over possession, getting in hooks and blocks. Except for the Munster final this year when for some reason he didn’t seem right and wasn’t getting out in front. You associate him with always being out in front. He is good in the air and he can win that high ball and he’s physically powerful.”
For Grainger, O’Donnell’s performances in recent years have to take into account the evolution of the game.
“Hurling has changed since 2013 and part of that is that inside forwards get the ball and lay it off to runners like in Gaelic football.
“His hurling intelligence and vision are superb. He can see players and knows when to play the ball, when to pass and he’s always there in rucks just outside waiting for the ball to slip out so that he can grab it and his first-touch control means that he gets the ball into his hand fast.”
On Saturday he’ll be back where it all started in the magical twilight of September 2013. That return is at an opportune time. His customary diligence in the All-Ireland quarter-final against Wexford was decorated with 0-4 from play, the highest points’ total of his championship career. Just 24, he still has time on his side.
“He has,” says Grainger, “but the fact is that he got three goals in an All-Ireland final. Very few people manage it so that’s the way he’s remembered.
“He’s going to have bad days. Shefflin had bad days; DJ had bad days; everyone has bad days. He’s young enough. You can’t knock him. It’s only when he retires that people will turn around and say, ‘he was a class forward’.”
Shane O’Donnell - Feast and famine
Scores 6-5 in his rookie championship, including most famously 3-3 in the All-Ireland final replay against Cork, having been brought in as a late change to the team - and given two hours’ notice by manager Davy Fitzgerald. Recognised as Man of the Match by RTÉ’s Sunday Game and also picks up the Player of the Month award for September. At the end of the year he receives an All Star nomination. Two weeks before the replay O’Donnell had scored a goal in Clare’s All-Ireland under-21 victory against Antrim.
A hamstring injury picked up in a club match in the spring torpedoes his second season, affecting both Clare’s league campaign and doing enough damage to have him miss the entire senior championship – admittedly an abbreviated experience for the county, beaten by Cork in Munster and then, after a replay, Wexford in the qualifiers. Recovers in time to win a second All-Ireland under-21 medal, beating Wexford in the final.
What was shaping up as a year of promise after returning for his first match with the seniors in nearly a year, ends in disappointment. On successive weekends against Kilkenny in the league – divisional match and relegation play-off, both in Nowlan Park –he scores 3-3 although Clare did go down to Division 1B. A three-match championship, starting with an unexpected defeat by Limerick, is ended by Cork in early July. O’Donnell’s total is 1-3, having started all three matches.
An ankle injury keeps him out for virtually the whole league, returning for the final against Waterford, first as a replacement and then starting the replay, as they win the title. Although the championship starts with defeat, as Waterford avenge the league final for the first time since 2013, Clare reach the All-Ireland quarter-finals where they lose to Galway. O’Donnell’s return for the four matches is 1-6.
Again, misfortune intervenes, with a knee injury obliterating his league and making the return for championship a close-run thing. Nonetheless he is back in time for Clare’s first Munster championship win since 2013 and puts up his best score since the All-Ireland final, 2-2, in the defeat of Limerick. Clare’s season again ended in the All-Ireland quarter-finals, losing this time to Tipperary but O’Donnell plays well, scoring 0-2 and providing the assist for Aron Cunningham’s goal. Championship tally is 2-4 in three matches.
Announced as a Fulbright scholar in the spring. His study will keep him in Harvard for six months from September. On the field his performances are consistent and unhindered by injury – starting all 12 of Clare’s league and championship matches to date and finishing nine of them. Scoring returns are not stellar, just 1-6 in the first 11 matches and the Munster final performance is poor, but in the county’s first All-Ireland quarter-final win in five years, O’Donnell hits 0-4 from play - the highest points total of his senior championship career.