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Pushing Higher – Rory Donnelly

By Rory Cox Tue 28th Mar

Pushing Higher – Rory Donnelly
Pushing Higher – Rory Donnelly

The 2022-23 season once again saw a significant number of footballers from Tyrone represent their respective universities and colleges in Higher Education GAA. These competitions have long provided students from the O’Neill County with an opportunity to display their undoubted talent and vast array of footballing skills to a nationwide audience.

There have, of course, been many notable team successes and personal achievements for Red Hand players down through the years.  Higher Education football has also formed unlikely alliances, friendships and a social bond between players from every corner of Ireland.  While club and county rivalries are often set aside at this level of the Association, the competitiveness and intensity remains as high as ever among the various university/college teams. 

An Charraig Mhór and Tír Eoghain star Rory Donnelly has been a student at Queens University Belfast since 2020 and, despite there being no football played in his first year due to covid, is one of those now with first hand experience of playing on the higher education scene.  The 21-year-old defender, who made his debut for Tyrone senior footballers in the McKenna Cup against Cavan at the start of 2022 and would go on to captain Carrickmore to a County Senior Football final appearance later that year, gave an interesting insight into playing university and colleges football.

“When I joined Queens, I found myself playing alongside boys from five or six different counties.  It was a different type of experience.  There was a lot less pressure and the football itself was more free-flowing and carefree.  It was a big step-up for me to be playing in Sigerson competition against the likes of David Clifford (Kerry), Tommy Conroy (Mayo) and Galway pair Rob Finnerty and Sean Kelly. Yet, it was in no way daunting for me.  I looked on it as a great opportunity to show what I could do and I relished the challenge.  I really enjoy playing in these competitions.”

Rory says higher education football has benefitted him in a number of ways: “Coming up against some of the top county players has helped improve my game.  The standard is very high at this level and I am playing football all year round which also helps maintain my fitness and sharpness.”

The Carrickmore man, who was a member of the Tyrone Under 20 squad that won the Ulster title in 2020 before losing to Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final, says he often only gets to train once a week with his university due to county senior commitments etc but still enjoys the experience of playing with his fellow students.  “I get a great buzz playing for Queens and there is a big social aspect to the game as well”, adds Rory.  “The training sessions are very good and the pitches we play on are also of a very high standard.”

Rory’s involvement in this year’s Sigerson Cup came to an end with an agonising defeat to eventual champions University College Cork (UCC) in an epic battle that was only decided after extra-time and penalties.  The loss meant QUB just missed out on a quarter-final place, although the Carmen captain could still reflect on a roller-coaster campaign which saw him turn in a number of impressive displays at centre half back, defending superbly while also regularly roving upfield to grab crucial scores for his team.

One of the highpoints of the competition for Rory was QUB’s shock victory over arch rivals University of Ulster Jordanstown (UUJ) in the opening round.  There was also the rather unusual experience of having to face two of his Carrickmore clubmates, James Donaghy and Ruairi Slane, who were playing for UUJ in that match. “I was happy to win the bragging rights on that occasion”, quipped Rory!

Unfortunately, none of the Ulster sides made it beyond the quarter-finals of this year’s Sigerson Cup, with St Mary’s University College Belfast also losing out to eventual winners UCC after another dramatic penalty shoot-out in the last eight of the competition.  

However, the players from Tyrone who were involved certainly made their mark on the higher education scene and did themselves and their county proud. 

by Colin Mackle

By Rory Cox Tue 28th Mar

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