Former Leitrim manager Hugh Donnelly pictured with the Ladies team after a match in 2021 Picture: Willie Donnellan
Never easy to step away, particularly when you’ve spent three years building and binding a team together that you think can go all the way to All-Ireland glory but Hugh Donnelly did just that, all with the firm belief that a fresh voice might just give Leitrim Ladies the extra push to go all the way for All-Ireland glory.
After three years leading Leitrim Ladies, the surprising news that the Tyrone native was stepping down from the post broke last Monday week, bringing an end to an era where Leitrim claimed two Connacht Intermediate titles and reached a Division 4 Final and the All-Ireland Quarter Final in 2021.
It was a tough decision as Hugh readily admits: “It was savage tough, I hadn’t made up my mind before this campaign, absolutely not. We’ve all have to make decisions during life and this was one of the tougher ones. We’ve been so, so close but I just feel the girls need a new approach and a fresh voice and hopefully, they will get across the line.”
The idea that the County Ladies side might need a fresh voice emanates from their former manager as he reveals the wrench it was to step down: “Between my head and my heart, I wanted to and I would have done a fourth year but I’ve been around enough management teams and enough teams to know that things can get stale and althought I would have loved to stay on, in terms of freshening things up, I just think that now is the right time for a fresh approach, a fresh voice and maybe a new direction.
“After the Offaly game, I sat down and I looked at a lot of things and knowing the Wexford game was going to be the last game of 2022, I had to ask the questions.”
It certainly wasn’t a knee jerk reaction to an early exit from the championship: “It wasn’t an impulsive decision. I don’t know what other managers and coaches do but I certainly question myself, I’m the first person I look at and what I could have done differently and you know what, over three years, mentally that tires you out.
“I spent the week looking at different things, I have two young children who see daddy going off to Leitrim three times a week and spends X amount of hours working for Leitrim. The bottom line is that we were so close but sometimes you just need a fresh voice and a fresh approach to get there - it is one of the tougher decisions I have had to make.”
Former Leitrim manager Hugh Donnelly pictured with his wife Kerrie and son James after the 2021 Lidl LGFA Division 4 Final in Clones Picture: Willie Donnellan
You sense the frustration Hugh feels when he says Leitrim were so close to making a big breakthrough, losing in the knockout stages of the League to Louth and Offaly teams who would go on to win the Division or that Leitrim came up against last year’s All-Ireland finalists this year and had the chances to win the game.
That is why he feels that the time to depart had come: “We had opportunities to win the game so we are very, very close. So when you analyse the games, a fresh voice may just give them that bit to get across the line. I’m a great believer in that it wasn’t meant to be - it is what it is and you learn from it. I hope the girls have learned from it and take the experience from it.”
Looking back on a three year term is natural and perfectionist that he is, the former manager sees the disappointments every bit as much as the achievements: “I was thinking about this in terms of highs and lows and it depends on what sort of a manager you are. I analyse any defeat and every defeat does hurt. I don’t think anybody goes out to lose games and I analyse games in terms of team selection, preparation before it, training so there is a lot that goes into it.
“In terms of disappointments, we were so close last year. To lose a National League final after conceding ten points in the first 12 minutes and we had opportunities that day - we hit the post and did everything bar score goals.
“This year, to go and beat Roscommon three times in the one year is pretty special but again there against Wexford, we battled hard against the breeze and a lot of other teams may have thrown in the towel but we battled hard and made a massive game of it.
“I have many, many great memories - I met some fantastic people and while there were disappointments, I had probably twice as many good moments and memories and friends that I’ve made for life.”
Hugh’s term coincided with the Covid-19 pandemic that brought the entire world to a shuddering halt, so much so that Hugh actually refers to 2021 as his first year in charge despite taking on the job in January 2020.
“I keep talking about year one because I don’t really count the first year because with Covid, it was the most disrupted year ever. You had Covid there for a number of years and in my opinion, a lot of people all around Ireland didn’t know anything outside of the GAA.
“They trained and they played but when Covid came along, they began to realise that there is more to life outside of football. They were spending more time with family, socialising and enjoying life. Unfortunately, people left this world so you say ‘maybe there is more to life than just football’ and Covid didn’t help on that front.”
Hugh Donnelly issues instructions to Carla Le Guen during a game in Ballinamore Picture: Willie Donnellan
Covid may have hit his plans but Leitrim weren’t exactly in a good place when he took on the job with the Ladies failing to field a team in the championship in 2018 while 2019 saw them avoid relegation to the Junior grade in a playoff. But Hugh credits the support he got from the Ladies County Board and the dedication of the players.
“Every coaching post there is a challenge, I suppose I had the luxury of having a county board behind me in Aidan Heron and PJ Ryan who did a colossal amount of work, I owe them a massive amount of debt - they trusted me to do the rebuild. Obviously I was an outsider and had no affiliations to any club or anybody in Leitrim.
“But I had the backing of the County Board and that was massive. As a coach and a manager, all I ever wanted to do was put a structure in place so that when players come in to become part of an inter county setup, they would be treated and looked after the same way any other inter county team would be and that was the first thing.
“The second big thing I wanted to do was make them competitive and the girls worked hard for three years and it is really coming to fruition now. Once you are competitive, you can start going somewhere. We were very close last year and obviously this year, in terms of winning the Connacht title, we ticked all the boxes.
“When you have a group of players who want to commit to something and want to develop themselves, it makes my job easy. They were willing to learn, willing to listen. We had great sponsors - we had MFC on as kit suppliers, Gotham Dry Wall and all the other sponsors who came on board - when you have all that pulling in one direction, the job becomes a hell of a lot easier and it all comes together.”
Keeping a squad of players together is not easy and there is no doubt that the loss of players like Muireann Devaney, Ailbhe Clancy and Eilish O’Dowd to name but three hurt: “Girls and fellas want opportunities to travel, want opportunities to see the world and when you commit to the county for X number of years, you can get that bit between your teeth to have a look at the world around you so some of the girls wanted to go out and live a bit.
“Obviously the likes of Muireann and a few other girls who have commitments to other sports. You need these players, not just by virtue of what they add but how they drive on the group. I was very lucky to have a group of players who still bought into it and understood what was needed and rowed in behind us and worked consistently hard.
“To lose players of that quality is a big blow but we’re not the only county who has lost players. Every team is probably going through something similar - that is just life - we’ve got to make the thing that bit more attractive in terms of getting players in, this is what you get when you’re representing your county and this is what it is about.”
Unlike men’s inter-county teams, there is often a greater spread of ages in Ladies inter-county teams with a veteran group in their late 20s, early 30s and a cohort in their last teens but Hugh never experienced any difficulty in blending the two groups: “To be honest, I didn’t find it a challenge - the common denominator for all these players was that they wanted to represent Leitrim and when you have that, that is massive.
“I’m a great believer in giving the younger girls game time but you can’t throw them under the bus, it takes a little bit of time and a little bit of patience with the younger girls as well. In terms of blending the two groups, the older girls are experienced players and what they’ve done is take the younger players under their wing and led by example. You have some fantastic players who are totally committed, work well and work hard.
“So when you have girls come in, they see this and there is a very real possibility of success, the younger girls realise that they are now prepared to do what they’ve been asked to do. It wasn’t too hard to bond with the groups, they are a great bunch of girls and they get on very well. It is just trying to steer them in the right direction of where we want to go.”
Hugh Donnelly pictured with Wicklow manager Leighton Glynn after this year's TG4 All-Ireland IFC clash Picture: Willie Donnellan
The big question for Leitrim is what do they need to do to make the extra step but Hugh believes the Green & Gold can get there: “It is a combination of a lot of things for Leitrim to take the next step but again, it is going to take a little bit of time and patience and commitment to get there.
“We are now marked as a team who are awkward enough to play against and we can hold our own. We have a target on our back but what we’ve done over the last two years has to be at least now matched and an extra amount of percent added on because if we only do what we’ve already done, we’ll only be as good as we are now.
“Whoever the next guy is has to work on adding that extra two or three percent and raise the bar again. We got away with doing what we did this year and we had reasonable success but to replicate that year on year, you’ve got to better yourself and the team has got to better themselves.”
As for his own future, Hugh believes he will be on a sideline again soon and reveals that he was already missing the journey from Tyrone to Leitrim: “It is hard; even this morning, I was feeling like ‘I should be at training tonight’ and it is strange that I’m not. You have that feeling that you should be preparing for something and you’re not.
“But I can’t do without football, I will be back involved with a local team, I have that to fall back on, keep me sane to a certain degree. Take a few weeks off, watch a bit of club football, I’ll go and watch a bit of club football and I’m sure there’ll be plenty to do around the house and spend a bit of time with the kids. I’ll not be sitting still too long, I’ll enjoy the break but knowing me, I’ll want to be stuck into something soon enough.”
Subscribe or register today to discover more from DonegalLive.ie
Buy the e-paper of the Donegal Democrat, Donegal People's Press, Donegal Post and Inish Times here for instant access to Donegal's premier news titles.
Keep up with the latest news from Donegal with our daily newsletter featuring the most important stories of the day delivered to your inbox every evening at 5pm.