Shane O’Donnell ready to return to the hurling firmament

Clare star glad to put celebrity madness and injuries behind him ahead of Cork rematch

'I haven't done one of these in a long time," smiles Shane O'Donnell, flopping into the seat opposite.

It’s Rag week in Cork and all his friends are in bed, their notion of dawn pitched a few hours away yet. For an intercounty hurler, Rag week is like a yahoo cousin – fun to be around but best admired from a distance all the same.

So instead he'll kill his morning chewing the cud with The Irish Times. It is, as he says, a while since he's chewed it in the company of any publication. The odd photocall, the occasional post-match snatch for radio – that's been more or less it since the three months at the end of 2013, when he was The Most Famous Teenager In Ireland.

“Thankfully,” he grins. “Like, I don’t mind interviews at all. But it’s great that nobody cares anymore.”


Phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust. Not before time, either. It got pretty real for a while there. Twenty minutes of hurling one Saturday night bounced him into a life that didn’t belong to him. Front of every paper. Back of every lorry. Top of every nightclub queue. Bottomed out, before long. He can smile about it now.

He played 70 minutes against Galway last weekend, his first game for Clare since last March. Nicked a point, scorched through the Galway line to set up John Conlon for another. No sight of goal but it's early yet. The main thing is he's back hurling.

Fame sits uneasily with most sportspeople, never worse than when they’re injured. The itch to get out and show what all the fuss was about in the first place is torture, especially when gametime seems within reach. O’Donnell’s hamstrings went twice last summer, removing him from the fray until four days after Clare lost to Wexford.

His first game back, he scored a goal against Tipperary in the Munster under-21 semi-final. Too, too late. “Things change in Clare, you know? You can win an under-21 All Ireland and still be disappointed with the year.” It was never going to be the same.

Self-described geek

These Clare players might be implausibly young – O’Donnell is still under-21 this year – but they’re not witless. Least of O’Donnell himself, a self-described geek whose idea of leisure time is a marathon online session playing Dota. (For the uninitiated, that’s Defense of the Ancients, a multi-user warcraft game.

“It’s a five v five team thing,” he says. “There’s a lot to it, it’s very in-depth, very nerdish. I get fierce abuse in the house for playing it but sure they’re all on PS3s. This is different. There was an international Dota tournament last year and the prize pool was $11 million. So that’s going to be my career later on – enter one of those and make a million in one go. That’s the dream!”

O’Donnell is easy company – open, articulate, endlessly self-deprecating. That golden day back in 2013 when we asked him about his hat-trick, he replied that it was only because he was no good at scoring points. We assumed he was being flippant. But he doubles down on it now when you bring it up.

“No, definitely, it’s a serious weakness of my game. I genuinely do think it is. I’m trying to get better. If people know I’m not going to shoot for points, then they can just stand five metres off me and goad me into running at them. You have to have more variety than that. I have actually gotten better.

“I was trying to do it a bit more last year as well but then the year went to s**t. And I am starting to get better at scoring them but it’s still not the first thing I think about when I get the ball. You always have only a very small opportunity to get a goal so if you take that one look down to see what your options are, the chance of a goal will probably be gone. I’m not really a natural scorer. It’s more a mindset that gets me goals.”

All-Ireland final

That mindset wrote his name across the sky. The All-Ireland final replay of 2013 was only his third championship start. By the time Davy Fitz brought him off four minutes from the end, he had 3-3 scored and the whole of Croke Park rose to him. He took off his helmet and shares in One Direction tanked immediately.

“I was very green at the time. I didn’t realise at all what was coming for me. Even from that very first night. Coppers that night was awful and it was a taste of what every night out for the next three months straight was going to be like. Very soon, I just did not want to go out any night.

“Ah, I don’t want to be complaining. I’d never not want it to happen. But just some of the parts, you had to take the bad with the good.”

The good was incredible at times. Beyond what he could have imagined. He walked around the All Stars agog, no more capable of seeing himself as a peer of some of the people he met than the kids whose jerseys he’d been singing for six weeks could of him.

Brendan Cummins, for instance, had just announced his retirement after a championship career that began three weeks before O’Donnell’s first birthday. “He came over to me at one stage and said, ‘Well Shane, how are things? Congrats on the year.‘ And I was just there thinking, ‘Jesus, I’ve been watching you for so long.’ That kind of thing, people like him knowing your name even, that was just very surreal. But outside of that, the day-to-day stuff was tedious at times.”

Nights out

At 19 years of age, day-to-day is more commonly night-to-night. He was just starting into second year of a four-year genetics degree in UCC at the time. Not the kind of course you can phone in, granted. But still, second year is second year. There will be nights out.

“Like, down here, I got treated so well. People were so nice in Cork to me. I got free in to nightclubs, free drink when I got in, all this kind of stuff. And if there was anyone with me, they got free in as well and we all skipped the queue and all that. So everyone would come in with me – sure why wouldn’t they?

“But most of the time, I didn’t want to go to a nightclub at all because I’d have the arms torn off me anywhere I went. I’d be standing in for pictures the whole time, so many pictures every night. And that’s all I’d do. That would be my night. And I didn’t want to do it at all.

“So a lot of the time, I’d be waiting until 12.30 or 1am before I’d even leave for town. People hated me for it but sure they weren’t going to go in and pay if they could wait and get in free along with me.”

Little things changed. Silly things. His signature, for a start. “I was Sod for a good while. The night of the Goal game on the Wednesday, I had a flashback to when I was in primary school. My best friend was a lad called Cian Cooke. We had to write out our names 50 times one time and I remembered thinking, ‘Jeez, I hate that my name is so long.’ Cian was beside me and he was done about 10 minutes before me with my big stupid long name.

“And for whatever reason, that popped into my head that night. You have these huge crowds coming for you and I just went, ‘Nah, I’m not writing Shane O’Donnell anymore. I’m Sod from now on.’ I did that for about three months. If someone came up to me on their own, I’d feel bad and write out Shane O’Donnell.”

Bigger things too. If he has a regret, it’s that those months made him a bit more wary for every bit less friendly he became. He considered changing his phone for a while, such was the traffic through it. But in the end, he just put it to one side and ignored it.

“That’s one of the bad things that has carried over. I’m desperate with the phone now. There’s very few people I answer the phone to and definitely if I don’t know the number, I never answer it. It’s terrible really. I’m not bad with a text. If someone texts me, I might get back to them alright. But I’d be casual about it. I wouldn’t be in a hurry to do it.

“I had to set myself some rules. I would not pick up to a random number. Because it always just led to responsibilities, things I had to do. And I hated saying no. I was really bad at it. I feel bad about it but I don’t think there was anything else I could have done. It was crazy.”

At the height of everything, Dónal Moloney made it through the makeshift firewall and managed to get a hold of him. Moloney brought him into the Clare minor set-up as a 16-year-old and has had him all the way through underage. He lived in Cork as well so he suggested they meet up.

“By this stage, I was shirking all responsibility. I did not want to leave the house. I didn’t want to see anybody. I wanted to avoid everyone and not do anything. Even with Dónal I was going, ‘Ah, I don’t know. I might leave it.’ And he was like, ‘Shane. We need to meet up. I’m not taking no for an answer.’”

They met in Hayfield Manor, a five-star hotel near UCC – on the basis, says O’Donnell, that “it would be the last place on earth that anybody would give two f***s about hurling”. They sought as quiet a corner as the place had to offer and huddled into it.

‘Oh, you’re the hurler’

“And I’d say about five minutes later this very good-looking lady in a full, long dress came over and asked could she get a picture. So I stood up and we took a picture and that was grand but sure then people could see us and a group of old ladies were straight over. And they were lovely like, all ‘Oh, you’re the hurler’. But it was another five or 10 minutes and pictures and autographs and whatever.

“I sat back down and Dónal was just there with his jaw open. ‘I didn’t realise it was this bad,’ he said. ‘Do we need to go somewhere else?’ But we were fine, that was just how things were at the time. He was extremely good and he had loads of good advice. He gave me a book on mental toughness. Davy was great as well. The two of them just kept saying, ‘Get back to hurling, get back to hurling. The rest of it will go away.’”

He did, eventually. And it has, eventually. But there were tolls and levies to be paid along the way. His hamstrings were always a small irritation but when they eventually gave way last spring, he knew right away that it was the extra load put on them in rehearsal for a Strictly Come Dancing event that did the damage. Occasional Clare sub Shane O'Donnell probably wouldn't have been top of the Strictly list a year previously. All-Ireland hero Shane O'Donnell had virtually no choice but to go along with it.

Two nights later, he tore his hamstring chasing into the corner for the last ball of Clare’s Tuesday session and killed his summer stone dead. But that was then. He’s back now, fit and firing.

Cork in Páirc Uí­ Rinn is a biggie. It will be his first time playing them since the day that changed his life for a while. Both teams need the points or relegation will stalk the rest of the spring.

In 19 games for Clare, he’s scored 12-12; two Cork games account for 4-3 of it. Get out. Get going. Grab a goal if it’s there, take the point if it isn’t. The bald grammar and syntax of the game of which he’s only too delighted to be a small moving part once again.

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin is a sports writer with The Irish Times