Growing Up, Playing for your County and Kicking the Winner in an All-Ireland Final – Interview with Steven McDonnell

From playing football with his brothers in Killeavy, to kicking the winning point in Croke Park on All-Ireland final day, Steven McDonnell has experienced it all. His hours on the training ground and natural talent saw him burst on to the Armagh Senior team in 1999, and he was a key figure in the success enjoyed by Armagh throughout the 2000’s. As well as representing Armagh at the highest level for many years, Steven went on to play for Ireland in several International Rules series’, and he is now managing Tyrone club, Clonoe. I had the pleasure of chatting to Steven last week about his experiences in the game, from his earliest memories on the football field, to representing his county and country on the biggest stages. Steven McDonnell’s story is inspirational, and as well as being a gentleman, he is a true legend of the Gaelic Games.

What are your memories of growing up with GAA?

As a young fella, very young, 7/8-year-old following my brothers down to the club, I was the youngest of three brothers. We were lucky enough where we grew up, the local field, Killeavy pitch was only a couple of hundred yards away from us so we spent a lot of our time down there. My next brother from me was about a year and a half older than me so I was playing more so on the teams that he was playing on, so I was probably one of the youngest on the teams, good learning curve for me anyway. We had a fantastic coach in Killeavy, a man called Thomas Mallon who passed away 6 or 7 years ago. One of the things that always sticks out in my mind and it stood me throughout my career was the amount of hours of coaching that he did on both sides, working on left and right foot, and that was critical for me in my career because he encouraged us all to endless amounts of practice, obviously the more practice we done with it, the better and more confident I got as a player using both feet. As you can see, the majority of my points in my career was probably from my left foot. That’s early memories from my playing days was remembering early coaching practices from the likes of Thomas Mallon. It’s an important message for any young player learning to play, even now during this down time, even if you’re a senior footballer and you’re mainly one sided, there’s no reason why you can’t improve the weaker side, you can always learn no matter what age you are but definitely if you get in to the good habits from an early age it certainly becomes a lot easier.

Was it always your ambition to make the Armagh Senior Team?

I was lucky enough, the team I grew up playing in with Killeavy, we were very very successful. We won nearly every trophy at underage level, went to an All-Ireland Final at Féile level, won U16’s, a couple of minor titles and a couple of U21 titles, so we were lucky enough, I grew up playing in successful teams. Obviously to take your game to the next level, you have to have ambitions to play county football, and I was fortunate that I played two years at county minor and four years at county U21 level so the next step is to represent your county at Senior level. Being a huge Armagh fan, particularly around the time I was 13/14, I can remember going to watch them in Championship games, certainly had ambitions to go on and represent them at Senior level. But I wouldn’t say when I was 16 years old that it was the be all and end all for me, I was enjoying playing football at that time for my club because we were very successful, and you get to the stage then when you’re around 17/18 that you want to really test yourself and see how far you can go.

Your debut, how did it come about and how did you find out about it?

I came into the Armagh team probably at the luckiest time of when they started to taste success. January ’99 was the first time I came into the team and 6 or 7 months later we won the first Ulster in 17 or 18 years. I didn’t play much that particular year, I was a sub for most of that year. I went through the ’99 season training hard getting myself ready to get an opportunity to play, and back then there was 3 National League games pre-Christmas. We got beaten by Meath in the All-Ireland semi-final that particular year, but my ambition was to train extremely hard pre season and to make it very difficult for the two Brians at that time who were the managers, to leave me out of the team. The first National League game was in October ’99, and we played Donegal in the Athletic Grounds and I got a start corner forward and scored 3 points. I was told at the last training session before that game that I would have been starting so it was a good boost for me 

Obviously by 2002, you were familiar with the Ulster Championship, but in 2002, was there something different about it? Having won the Ulster Championship, were you confident of winning the All-Ireland?

Our goal was to win the All-Ireland. we had won 2 Ulsters in the lead up to 2002, we had won Ulster ’99 and 2000. In the 3 years leading up to 2002, the teams that knocked us out went on to win the All-Ireland so we knew ourselves that we weren’t too far away from actually going and winning the All-Ireland, but the biggest thing from our point of view was to gain an extra bit of confidence from somewhere, and the appointment of Joe Kernan, and how he went about his business instilled that confidence in us as a team, and we were very confident from early on in that campaign. We had a couple of tough tests, we were probably given the toughest draw in terms of drawing Tyrone in the first round of the Championship, they won the National League that particular year, so that was a great match to kickstart the campaign for us because our sole focus was totally on overcoming Tyrone, and they’d beat us the year before in the first round so we had a bit of revenge on our minds as well and it was a good platform for us to kick on but definitely the confidence and how Joe went about his business made us believe even more so that we could kick on and win the All-Ireland.

I’ve heard great things about Joe, such as the training camp he introduced, which put more pressure on you, you handled that very well though.

The preparation that we put in by going away to La Manga, having a 5-day training camp, doing 2 training sessions each day, doing video sessions each night, really analysing our opponents in fine detail. Joe brought in stats guy, the whole lot, and I suppose the whole backroom team that Joe assembled added to everything that we were trying to achieve and that was obviously winning the All-Ireland but the attention to detail that they put in, that was available for us back then was second to none, and it really gave us a good platform to kick on and be confident in our ability as footballers to win games. Yes, there was probably pressure on the group to go and get results but we didn’t really feel it. Joe was a great believer in allowing his team to play football, and allowing his team to express themselves, and that’s the way we did play football, we felt that we weren’t restricted in any way, we went out and played. 

All Ireland Senior Football Final 22/9/2002Armagh manager Joe Kernan celebrates the final whistleMandatory Credit©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

In the lead up to that final, what were those team talks like, was it instilling the same as he had been doing all along, or how did he get you riled up for a game?

Joe was a very emotional man and we were lucky that we had Kieran McGeeney as our captain who was one of the most inspirational captains you could have asked for. Between Joe and Kierans team talks in the dressing room before any of those matches, it made us believe in ourselves, a lot of the team talks got very emotional at times as well and that was inspiring from our point of view as players, and it really drove us on to great things. The emotion that we had running on to the pitch at every opportunity before games, really drove us on.

The biggest of all stages, the All-Ireland Final, what did it mean to you to run out on that day?

It was a special feeling, but from our point of view it was just get the job done, we’ve trained hard to get there, we didn’t want to be like the ’77 team that had gone to an All-Ireland final and had been defeated or the ’53 team who had done the exact same, we wanted to do something different. There was lots of things that went on in the background that made us believe that it was something different but there was lots of things that went on in the background that also made us believe that it was just another game, forget about the fact that it was a big final which we knew it was but it was just another game. I suppose we were very fortunate that we got to play Dublin in the semi-final, so that was a great experience for us because the emotions and the atmosphere on that given day gave us a great insight into what the All-Ireland final was going to be like. I would always say that the 2002 semi-final, atmosphere wise was the greatest game that I’ve ever played in, and when you’re used to playing in an environment like that, going and playing in an All-Ireland final was just second nature then.

Can you put into words what it felt like to kick the winning point, and the aftermath of the game, it must have been all kind of a blur?

It certainly was, there was things that happened during the game that you forget about, but there’s things that happen that stick out in your mind, and for me obviously, it was very important, and I totally believed that we needed to get the goal to get back into the game. We had opportunities when we were 4 or 5 points down in the first half, kick easy scores, and it wasn’t a case that Kerry were running away with the game, I think we were creating enough opportunities but we just weren’t taking them, and that chance came for Oisín [McConville] in the second half and he took it, and that gave us serious drive and momentum at that particular time. The next point, the equalising point which came from Clarkey [Ronan Clarke], to see a 19-year-old lad turn a full-back like Séamus Moynihan inside out was a great inspiring moment for us. The winning point, believe it or not, it was 10 minutes from the end of the game so it was just a case of get ourselves in front here and try to keep building on it, the fact that there were no more scores after that, it was a long 10 minutes I can assure you. When you think of kicking the winning point in the All-Ireland final, you always expect it to be in the final moments of a game, but 10 minutes before the final whistle went, it was a nerve wrecking 10 minutes but what did go our way in that 10 minutes was the desire and hunger for us to win and hunt for every breaking ball, and it just kept falling our way. I can remember some balls that Kieran McGeeney, Paul McGrane and John Toal in particular picked up, loose balls that were there for Kerry to win as much as anything, but it was the desire from our players to go and win that dirty ball that really drove us on and got us over the line.

Armaghs first ever All-Ireland title, and to be such a key part of that was obviously unbelievable.

The wave of orange and white that arrived on to the pitch afterwards is a picture that I’ll never ever forget. We knew that we had created history, we were the first Armagh team ever to win an All-Ireland, and with that you could just see the joy in many peoples faces. Afterwards you don’t know where to go or what to think when the final whistle goes, there were supporters all over the place, we were lifted up on peoples shoulders and everything, obviously you’re on the crest of a wave there and you’re taking everything in, but I’ll never forget, people that I grew up playing football with, my friends and my brother were some of the very first people that I actually remember seeing on the pitch that day and my wife as well. It’s amazing, at times like that, it’s the people that are closest to you actually seem to get to you before anything else and that’s the moment that sticks out in my mind.

What was the homecoming like, was there a parade around the city?

The homecoming lasted a week. We obviously had our banquet in the Citywest that night, and what a night it was, I think there was a couple of thousand people at it which was fantastic. The homecoming, we actually came down the road, our meeting point for the team was The Carrickdale Hotel, which is literally just across the border in Co. Louth but on the border between Armagh and Louth. On the way down the road, we would have had a lot of support from Louth at that particular time, and a lot of support from the Dundalk Area, so Joe made a point that the bus drove through Dundalk on the way down the road with Sam Maguire on the front of it. That was a moment that stuck out for me, and it was a special moment because I was working in Dundalk at that time, but also my mother is from Dundalk, so it was a good moment to get the Sam Maguire on view for people to line the streets in Dundalk, and that gave us an idea of what was soon to happen because when we arrived down to the Carrickdale, there was thousands upon thousands of people there for the first homecoming party. So we paraded the trophy out on to the roof of the Carrickdale in front of a sea of orange and white, many thousands of people, it was a great feeling. We went from there over to Crossmaglen where there was the same again, no matter where we went there was thousands of people there. From Crossmaglen, we went through different places in South Armagh, we went through Cullyhanna, Newtown and headed towards Armagh City where there was a homecoming parade for us in the Armagh City Hotel. As we were approaching the city itself, we got into an open top bus then and found our way into the Armagh City Hotel. To say that it was an electric carnival atmosphere would be an understatement, and it is something that will forever sit with me, it was brilliant.

It must have carried so much more importance being the first ever All-Ireland title coming up to Armagh.

Supporters of Armagh waited all their lives to see a moment like that, and they weren’t going to waste that opportunity to go out and witness the first ever Armagh team coming home with the Sam Maguire, and to this day, every time I drive past the Armagh City Hotel, I always have a memory in my head of the homecoming parade and what we actually achieved, and the parties that went on into the night, early hours of the night, it was just brilliant, but no matter where we were that following week, having beers throughout the county, there was people with raw emotion, crying and tears of joy and happiness. It was just a brilliant experience and brilliant to be part of it, and I suppose my only regret now is, I had one child at that particular time, I have four kids now, my regret is that none of those kids got to live in those special moments.

Who was the toughest footballer you ever encountered, be that in your own teams or in opposition?

I’ve come up against some of the best defenders in the country, Ryan McMenamin, Karl Lacey, Marc O’Sé, Michael McCarthy, players who caused me plenty of problems, but the one player that I always say made me the player that I was, was Enda McNulty. Enda marked me most nights in training, and the battles that we used to have, I certainly believe that I made Enda a better corner back, and he certainly made me a better corner forward, and I always went into a Championship game knowing that I was never going to get the same type of treatment than what Enda gave me so I was well prepared for any type of battles that I faced in Championship games because of how tight Enda marked me, he was a physically very strong player, he was very fast getting to the ball, and he just knew how to man mark and to curb the threat of his opponent, and he was our dedicated man marker as well so at that particular time, for me Enda McNulty was the best man marker in the country, and he was the one player that definitely brought my game to different levels.

The fact that the toughest player you met was in your own squad really shows the togetherness, and the strength of the team as a unit. Who would have been the most influential do you think?

Most influential, I can never really decide between three players, and its three players that I played with again, Kieran McGeeney, Paul McGrane and Oisín McConville. Those three players for me, when we needed something big to happen in games, they were always the three players that really stood out, whether it was McGeeney making a diving block or Paul McGrane catching a ball from the sky or Oisín getting a score at a crucial time. Time after time, those three players stood up in massive moments for us, and I would always say that they were inspirational players. I’ve played against Séamus Moynihan, I thought he was a fantastic player, and one that I would have loved to have played alongside, he was a great player, obviously Peter Canavan was a fantastic footballer as well, but for me the most inspirational players were players in that team as well, simply because of the years of hardship that we went through as well, but those boys came up at big moments time after time. To try to coach that into somebody takes a long time, but those boys just knew what to do in big moments of games.

You played with many of those great players in the International Rules games over the years, what was it like playing alongside those players that you would previously have been competing against?

It was a brilliant experience, a lot of people wouldn’t be huge fans of the International Rules but when you get the opportunity to play, and represent your country, pulling on that Irish jersey is a special moment, and I would say 99% of the players that have ever played and represented Ireland will say the exact same. Your own club man Graham Canty as well would say the exact same. To play alongside the likes of Graham Canty, Stephen Cluxton, Kieran Donaghy, people like that, Joe McMahon from Tyrone, people that you know when you’re playing against them in Championship games, they’re the players that you have to really look out for and try to hold and limit in games, but to get the opportunity to play alongside those boys is a great feeling, you really get to form a bond with them as well, you get an insight into their own training techniques, how they perform and it gives you probably more confidence coming from Armagh where you see the likes of Kerry and Dublin and Galway dominating All-Irelands and how they go about training. From an Armagh point of view, even though we haven’t been as successful at winning All-Irelands, I always felt that we were equally as good if not better than anybody from any other county so that gave a great opportunity and insight into how other players prepared.

The games against the Australians were very physical encounters, how did you find the physical side of the games, did you find it harder?

No, the one thing that I learnt very early, and I was fortunate enough to play for a very physical team in Armagh, you had to learn to win a dirty ball when you’re coming up against the likes of Diarmuid Marsden or John McEntee or McGeeney, or boys who really hit hard, you had to learn to hold on to the ball so that was a good training experience in the build up to the International Rules as well, and the one thing that I learnt about the Australians was that they will try to intimidate you, and if they see any chink in your armour at all they will walk all over you, but if you stand your ground and stand up to them, they probably respect that a bit more. I never took any shit from anyone on any football field, and I was never prepared to take any shit from an Australian guy, whether they’re professionals or not, I didn’t care who they were, I never shirked the physical aspect of playing football.

A lot of players would have suffered with the physical intensity of the games and were in for a shock when they came up against some of the Australian players.

An example of that, one memory, I was lucky enough to have played in a couple of series’ before this particular year but we played Australia in the first test in Galway in 2006, and Kieran Donaghy made his international debut that day, and he had come off the back of a fantastic season with Kerry, he won Footballer of the year, but he was obviously going to be targeted for special attention from them, and I remember I was corner forward and he was full forward, and sure enough the guy marking him at full-back started to try to rattle his cage from before a ball was thrown in, and I went straight over, Kieran didn’t know I suppose what way to take this, I went straight over and hit the boy a punch in the face, and that was it, I think Kieran respected the fact I was on his side and standing up for him and we weren’t prepared to take any hassle, and he went on to have a fantastic game. It was just another example of, that guy, if he had seen a weakness in Kieran, he would have tried to walk all over him, but I wasn’t prepared to let one of my teammates get walked over like that there, given the fact that I had played a couple of years previously to that, gave me that valuable experience to be able to do that too.

That physical nature of the game is bound to help players when they return to the Championship, but did you feel any different, or better prepared when going back to playing inter county football after the International Rules series’?

You don’t feel any different, first and foremost, your duties as a footballer is to go and represent your county or your club, as best you possibly can, and prepare yourself as best you possibly can, my experiences of playing against professional players, and performing at a good level, just instilled even more confidence in my ability as a footballer and that was it, and I brought that confidence back to the county scene, just simply by working hard, I was a big believer in how you train is how you will play, and I trained very hard, I went to every training session with a goal in mind and that was always to improve in some shape or form as a footballer, and as a team, I think everyone had that same type of mindset, and we were very much a team within Armagh, if anyone showed any type of weakness, you would have been found out so it was just about bringing my experiences of playing at higher levels, and using that as a confidence builder when I went back to the county.

Are you still involved in the GAA, in your home club or the county set up?

I’m actually the manager of a team in Tyrone believe it or not. I’m managing Clonoe, its my first year with them, obviously with the way things are, I haven’t been down for 9 weeks now. We got off to a great start in terms of pre-season, very very ambitious group of lads, that were very eager to learn, and you could see that they were picking up what I was coaching them, and explaining to them and how I was trying to implement a way of playing football. We played 4 challenge games, we won 4 challenge games, and we’re moving things on nicely, then we were obviously hit with the sucker punch of Covid-19, so we try to, like probably every other team in the country at the minute, we try to do zoom sessions once a week, and players are trying to keep themselves as fit as they possibly can until we’re allowed back playing. At the same time, I do try to coach underage teams in around Killeavy as much as I possibly can. I had been involved with coaching the U12 team for the last couple of years, the fact that I am travelling to Tyrone now will hinder that a bit, but I always try to help as much as I can around the local club too.

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