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21/10/2021

Smiles away from home

Gavin Donaghy looks back on his footballing career

Smiles away from home

Celebration time as Claudy win the 2005 Derry intermediate championship

A three-month trip to Asia led to twelve years in Australia for Gavin Donaghy. For all the miles travelled and finals played in, winning a championship with Claudy sits at the top of his sporting career. Michael McMullan caught up with him.

It's Wednesday evening in Perth and two things immediately jump out of the crystal-clear video call beaming to the other side of the world. Competing with Gavin Donaghy's infectious smile on screen is the equally bright Claudy jersey he's wearing.

It's not hard to know why he's called 'Smiler'. Even a short chat across the internet radiates energy. His eyes are buzzing.

Of all the success he's tasted, playing for teams across three different continents, winning Claudy's first intermediate championship still tops it all.

By day he works as a Project Manager for a Perth-based fabrication company. Home from work, it's time for dinner before heading off to training with Western Shamrocks who are tipping away once a week, before revving up for a season that has been put back to mid-May.

It's a day after Gavin and his wife Rhea celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary, marking that magical day on the Thailand island of Koh Samui. Their two year-old daughter Cleo jumps in for a cameo wave at the camera.

“She is a real live-wire,” laughs her proud Daddy.

Rhea is a native of New Zealand, from Tokoroa. It's a small village, but can boast rugby stars Isaac Boss, Quade Cooper and Sean Maitland.

“She landed here (in Perth) the same time as me and we met at the Gaelic club, she was doing full-back for the ladies,” said Gavin.

“She is a few inches taller than me, that wouldn't be hard,” he jokes. “I think she was talking about coming back before I decided to coach the team...if I dropped her it wouldn't go down well.”

While still at St Columb's College, Gavin's class and composure on the ball put him on the radar of Derry senior boss Eamonn Coleman, with his MacLarnon coach Eamonn Burns sounded out about his credentials. His five-year Derry senior career would have to wait.

A year studying in New Jersey put it on ice until Mickey Moran called him up for the 2004 season. Gavin featured in Derry's run to the All-Ireland semi-final in 2004. He came on as a sub, to pick up Martin Penrose, as Paddy Crozier masterminded the downfall of All-Ireland champions Tyrone at Healy Park in 2006.

“I don't know how I didn't become a goalkeeper,” Gavin laughs. Brother Marty would always put him in goals during those early years kicking about in the garden at home.

Gavin was a 'football year' younger, but they were 'side by side' much of the way through Claudy's underage teams, as the trophies began to arrive. They'd play in the same forward line for Derry minors in 2000.

“I think people used to always think we were twins,” he jokes. It was their telepathy that flicked the switch on that roller-coaster season as Cavan led in the closing moments in the first round.


Gavin in action for Derry minors against Cork in Croke Park (Pic: Damien Eagers/Sportsfile)

“I would like to say it was a measured pass, it was a hit and hope,” Gavin remembers of his kick from close to the sideline in Breffni Park, as Cavan held a slender lead. Midfielder Damien Canning was in the box and it was the last throw of the dice.

“I still can't believe, of all the people who were in the square, it was Marty that managed to get his fist to it,” Gavin adds of the winning goal.

It was an 'unreal summer' which brought an Ulster title before coming to a disappointing end in the infamous one-point defeat to Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final when the Rebels' midfielder Kieran Murphy was booked twice, yet stayed on the pitch.

“It wasn't even the games,” Gavin explains. “It was the craic between and after them, there weren't too many dull moments.”

By the final whistle that day in Croker, Gavin was looking on from the sideline. After landing two early points and in flying form, Ann Boylan was soon treating him for an injury and he was replaced by Barry McGuigan after 10 minutes.

“I went to shoulder a lad and it was a complete accident,” he recalls. “He went to lift the ball over his shoulder and I ran straight into the point of his elbow.”

It was the end of a memorable season.

***

The one thing Gavin Donaghy's smile doesn't show is the amount of footballing hard luck stories that lingered in his shadow. Aside from that minor All-Ireland that got away, final defeats followed him around. It was his ability to dust himself down and get back on the horse that defined him.

In the earlier years at St Columb's Derry, St Louis Ballymena were their nemesis, beating them in first, third and fifth year finals. His six points wasn't enough to overcome St Louis when the third year final stretched to a replay, a 6-14 to 5-12 classic.

“He used to win games on his own for us,” remembers teammate Cathal Harkin. When Harkin conducted a poll to select the best St Columb's team from the last 20 years, Gavin topped the votes.

Small in terms of height, yet he was massive in every other way. The ultimate midfield general.

He also played on the school soccer team, but that would take a back seat when the football began to get serious.

“Eamonn Burns is a legend of man and was taking our teams from when he came into the school,” Gavin adds. “Between him and Brian Trainor they'd have been looking after the squads.”

As a fourth year, Gavin was called into the MacLarnon squad and played at corner-back in their quarter-final defeat to Lurgan.

The following year, St Columb's kept a clean sheet all the way to the final against St Eunan's Letterkenny. Despite a horrific start and clawing their way back from seven points down, it was a sizzling hot Colm McFadden who bagged the winning goal.

Gavin was captain in his Lower Sixth year, but there was no fairytale ending either. The College went all the way to the final, a comprehensive defeat at the hands of Downpatrick.


Gavin with the MacLarnon Cup and the Man of the Match trophy after St Columb's 2002 success

It was third time lucky in 2002, but in their quarter-final at a windswept Lavey, against none other than St Louis Ballymena, they were four points down at the break. It was crunch time and with Eamonn Burns' inspirational words ringing in their ears, they upped the ante. A Donaghy goal and his two late points sealed a 1-8 to 0-9 victory.

Donaghy found the net in their semi-final final and it was back to Casement Park again, this time against La Salle, who had future St Gall's All-Ireland winners Andy McClean, Terry O'Neill and Karl Stewart on board.

The St Columb's team would supply Derry's All-Ireland minor winning team with Marty Dunne, Paul O'Hea, Mark Chambers and Cathal O'Kane. But 'Smiler' would outshine them all. Listed at full-forward, he covered every blade of grass, pulling the shape of the game as he glided across Casement Park.

Trailing by point, he won a penalty that Michael O'Kane converted and seven minutes later finished to the net for a second St Columb's goal. A La Salle goal had Burns' side hanging on for a 2-7 to 2-6 win and first title in 21 years.

Before moving to Queen's, Donaghy was one of two Northern Ireland recipients of a scholarship to study in New Jersey, to celebrate the Good Friday Agreement. As well as studying English, Calculus and US history, he spent the summer playing soccer on the running track. A sporting natural.

Once he arrived at Queen's, it wasn't long before James McCartan drafted him into the Sigerson squad. It would prove a carbon copy of his MacLarnon Cup career.

“Yeah, we lost three finals before we won it. I was making a habit of it at that point,” Gavin laughs, as he glances up at the 2007 winning photo on his wall in Perth. In it, he stands with fellow Derry men Joe O'Kane, Gerard O'Kane and Ryan Dillon.

“In first and second year, we lost in the final to IT Sligo, it was pretty much a team of Donegal and Mayo stars,” he recalls.

It was followed by a defeat to DCU in the 2006 final. Seanie Johnson and Conor Mortimer landed four points each for the Dubs, who were captained by Bryan Cullen, with Bernard Brogan and Stephen Cluxton also on board.

“In fourth year, we scraped past Jordanstown after extra time. It was a massive relief at the end, I couldn't have handled losing four finals in a row,” Donaghy said of finally getting over the line.

Mark Lynch's cross was flicked onto the crossbar by Colm Cavanagh in the final seconds.

“The crossbars at the Dub, they are the thinnest about, it hit the bar and came back out and the referee blew for full-time and we won by a point,” he added.

It was another reward for Donaghy's ability against the top players of his age, and his persistence to keep coming back time and time again. Giving up wasn't an option.

***

When Paul McIver and Killian Conlan took over the Claudy senior team at the start of 2005, they instilled belief. On any given day, if they performed to their potential, they'd win. The mindset was as simple as that.

“Gavin Donaghy was superb in those games that year. He was so brave and honest, yet so skilful to assist Marty (Donaghy) and the others,” Conlan said of his input.

Marty Burke, Darren McNally and Marty Donaghy were the survivors from the 1998 final defeat to Faughanvale. Below that, was a nucleus of players and the tools were there to give the championship a shake.

“What I remember was the mentality...in any championship game we just said they (opponents) aren't beating us,” Gavin stresses.

“It wasn't arrogance, Paul and Killian's man management got into boy's heads and put the belief into us that if we played anywhere near as well as we could, no team was going to get near us in that whole championship.

“We were letting ourselves down more than anything else,” Gavin points out of the seasons before 2005. “We would leave it behind us in the semi and quarter-final stages.”

Midfielder Willie Canning was 'on his last legs', but the lure of knowing the team had a championship in them prolonged his career.

“His attitude was rubbing off onto anybody that came near him,” Gavin adds. “Like any successful campaign, a lot of things came together that year. We were very lucky with injuries and we were able to keep a fairly consistent team.”

Against Ballerin and Drumsurn, in the earlier rounds, Claudy 'kept their noses in front' and set up a semi-final clash with Moneymore at Greenlough. As the game went into the melting pot, late on, Moneymore nosed themselves in front.

“Then, I got a free kick in the corner and put it over,” Gavin remembers of his equaliser. “We won the next kick-out and had a chance to win near the end, but Moneymore broke away and the referee blew for full-time.”

The replay was a different story. It was like 'chalk and cheese' as a more focused Claudy won by 'six or seven' points.

On the other side of the draw were an up and coming Coleraine team against Ballymaguigan, who Donaghy wanted to avoid in the final.

“Ballymaguigan always seemed to have one over on us around then. For whatever reason, we struggled to get past them,” he points out.

With their final spot booked, he was among the Claudy delegation in Ballinascreen running their eye over the other semi-final. Coleraine upset the odds and Ballymaguigan were gone, something Gavin saw as 'a good sign'. Conlan felt Claudy had every bit the talent of the Coleraine team that pushed on to lift two senior championships.

With regular goalkeeper Mark O'Neill away on holidays, converted outfield player Kienan McLaughlin was called in as backup for the final and didn't put a foot wrong. After going into an early lead, Claudy held on to win their first ever championship.

“I have been lucky enough to have been fairly successful on the teams I have played for, but winning that club championship was the highlight of them all to be honest,” Gavin says of their win.

Claudy was party central in the weeks after the game.

“We made up for the drinking bans and the effort we put in,” he jokes.

Marty Donaghy's torn hamstring limited his involvement in the Ulster championship to the last 10 minutes of a one-point first round defeat to Downpatrick. The partying also blunted their overall focus.

“Anything after winning the county final was a complete bonus,” Gavin admits. “We would've liked to have got further, but it wasn't a priority we set out that year.

“We probably let ourselves down for a couple of years after that. It wasn't really that we were getting beat by better teams, we were beating ourselves, but to have that in 2005...it was unreal.”

Now, Perth's Western Shamrocks is his home and he helped them to the 2010 championship. His new life 'down under' wasn't on the radar.

He was talked into travelling for three months around Asia with four mates at the heel of 2008. His Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering degree and a year's experience with consultancy firm Delap and Waller combined to secure a job back home. But during the trip, news filtered through of the company's demise during the global financial crisis.

“I decided to go to Australia for a year and one year has turned into this,” Gavin jokes. “Four of us landed in Sydney with intentions of doing one year. That one year turned into six or seven for most of us, but I am still here after 12 years.”

He had signed up for the Young Ireland's club in Sydney, but work took him west to Perth, which ended up a home from home.

“When I first landed, the amount of North Derry lads around Perth was ridiculous...45 or 50 lads easily,” Gavin points out.


A host of Derry exiles in Perth's Western Shamrocks' team - Gavin Donaghy (6), Kristian McElhinney (19), Sean McDermott (9), Gavin McCormick (8), Marty McKenna (20), Feargal O’Connor (21), Damian Brolly (7 - front, fourth from left), Cathaoir McCloskey (15) and Seamus O’Kane (2)

It peaked from 2011 to 2013, swelling the Shamrocks' squad to '60 or 65', the point they were almost fielding three teams at a stage.

“Now, we will be training this evening and we'll have 15 or 16 out. I am taking our ladies this year as well and we could have 17 or 18 there,” Gavin explains.

At work, of the 30-strong staff he manages in his department, half are Irish.

“There is a running joke with some of the clients, they think we are an Irish company,” he laughs.

With Cleo now attending daycare, it has helped him branch further into the Australia community. Despite living on the West Coast, he is a Sydney Swans fan and is hoping to get to watch Rob Kearney in action for Western Force rugby team. You don't need to be talking to Donaghy long to appreciate his knowledge of and love for all things sport.

Apart from cricket. He can take the shortened 2020 version, but the full on test cricket it is a definite no.

“A game that goes on for five days and still ends up a draw shouldn't have been played,” he says with a shake of the head.

His roots are in Australia now. He has been home for family and friends' weddings. One year saw three trips home. There are trips to Rhea's home in Tokoroa.

He has packed so much into his 37 years, but his smile, Irish accent and love for Claudy still remain.

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