The Avondhu - By The Fireside
Back in the beginning, growing up in St Fanahan’s Place in Mitchelstown, there was no ‘training’ as such when John was young; it was just about getting out and playing whatever was going. Constant activity was the name of the game, and John says that it was his father, and his uncle Georgie, that kept them busy.
John would go on to play for a 1st Division (Premier League) soccer club in England, and represent Ireland in handball, soccer and International rules. He also had a fine GAA career - however, the elusive county title eluded him! To say he reached a pinnacle of sportsmanship, both on the pitch and on the sidelines as a coach, is to put it lightly. Growing up the middle child of three brothers, he says that back then “no one was identified as anything special!”
“If tennis was on, you played that. If it was rugby, you played that - if it was the Olympics, sure you played that too! Everyone we played with were all great players, and good people too.”
The Mitchelstown man is modest, so it’s hard to get out of him when he knew that he was pulling ahead of the pack, but he admits that “once you got on a team, then you knew you were kind of something.”
When John was in CBS, it was Willie Duggan who encouraged him.
“We were training so much. There was no particular moment of ‘knuckling down’, but we were always going, always at something. School was only in the way of getting outside!”
Playing in U12 and U14 GAA teams, he says they often won North Cork finals, but never county titles. His first, and only county final was as a player-coach with the Araglin football team later on in 2005, where they lost to Dripsey. He also won a few All-Ireland handball medals in U13 and U14 in both singles and doubles, and with Mitchelstown Handball Club where they won Féile na nGael All-Ireland medals two years in a row.
John travelled across the world in his sporting career, first travelling to America for the 1986 American World Handball Championships in the U15 singles category, where he was beaten in the quarter-final by the eventual winner from Spain. A recent episode of The Two Johnnies brought it all back, when he saw one of the boys wearing an old Irish jersey with the sleeves cut off: “I did the same to my international jersey, because it was in Atlanta and it was so hot,” he recalls.
In 1987 he was part of the Cork U17 International Rules team that toured Australia. They played five matches, and won all five. The highlight was playing in the Melbourne Cricket Ground, a 120,000 seater stadium. During the tour the team also met the-then Prime Minister Bob Hawke.
After that, he was in Moscow with Cork City FC where they lost 5-0 to Torpedo Moscow in the UEFA Cup Winners Cup. This was in 1989, in the midst of the fall of communism.
“It was an experience! Lots of KGB around. It was like Wembley; it was a very big deal at the time.”
Aged 16, he was playing with Park United FC in ‘Town where he played in goals, “and did surprisingly well!” It gave him the opportunity to play with Cobh Ramblers.
“I got on to the Cobh Ramblers team and stayed for a year or two before moving to Cork City in the reserve team. Then, dad saw an article about the FÁSsponsored League of Ireland School of Excellence. It was the very first time they ran it, and I was on the very first team along with Roy Keane.”
“We spent Monday to Friday training, and played with our club at the weekend. I stayed with Jeff Kenna’s family. The craic was great! The camp was our first taste of a real professional camp. It was a fantastic opportunity for an 18 year old.”
“I was a goalkeeper on the course; there was two in total, with the rest of the lads playing different outfield positions for their respective League of Ireland clubs. It was a fantastic initiative by the FAI, FÁS, and the League of Ireland clubs. We trained from Monday to Friday and stayed in digs up in Dublin, and played for our League of Ireland clubs at the weekend.
“This course would be especially remembered for a certain Roy Keane also being on the course,” John recalled. “Roy signed for Nottingham Forrest while on the course, and I was lucky enough to sign for Millwall around the same time.”
Before that though, Mr Donegan moved to Kilkenny City, where he faced old colleagues with Cork City and Cobh Ramblers. Afterwards, he moved to Millwall FC in England, who were in the 1st Division - better known today as the Premier League. His three-year contract got off to a hesitant start as a broken finger kept him out of action for eight months, a fact which still exasperates him: “I could have cut it off and played!”
With three more goalies on the squad, John says it “was very hard to get back in”.
Following his spell with Millwall, he went to Perth in Scotland to join St Johnston. It was here he met his wife Lisa, “so it was a great move!” Their first son Aidan was born in Scotland, and John moved to Forfar Athletic. Though they won the Scottish League in 1997, John missed the last five games owing to a knee injury. He was still busy on the day of the final though, as it was the day that he and Lisa got married. His Forfar teammates won the Scottish league, and followed their victory by joining the wedding party!
The family then returned to Ireland, where John rejoined Cobh Ramblers. At the same time, he took a job with Grandons in Glanmire. Living in Mallow, he clocked up many miles in the car, as at the same time he was with Mitchelstown GAA; all this at the age of just 30.
HIs playing career ended with Cobh as, with younger fellas coming, “when you’re not wanted, you’re not wanted”. He had done some coaching with underage teams and so, when the opportunity then came up to work with Fermoy GAA on the Schools’ Programme, he applied, and got the job.
“They needed me to go into schools and harness what skills the pupils had. I needed to get the ones that had natural talent and challenge them, but also to keep an eye out for the ones that needed to be brought along too. I put a lot into it, and I got a lot back”.
John speaks both nostalgically and very highly of his time with the local schools’ programme, which he was involved with for 10 years. Praising particularly the teachers, he points out that there are many parents who appreciate the work they do much more, after having had to do the job (of teaching) themselves at points during Covid lockdown.
“It was a great learning experience. It was great to see the four and five year olds get out; I thoroughly enjoyed it.”
John also coached the Fermoy GAA intermediate team, and the first year he trained them was also the year of their first championship win. In that time, they went from Junior to “holding their own” in the Senior division.
“I’d like to think that anywhere I was involved with was a better team than they were when I got them. Liam Lewis then asked me to get involved with Ballygiblin in 2005/06, and a lot of them boys that we worked with then togged out in Croke Park last February (AllIreland junior club final v Mooncoin).”
John is always cognisant of the fact that great teams are not born overnight and no team’s success is ever down to any one person - a lot of work and support is needed from the beginning to get a team to a high standard.
His eldest son Aidan moved to north-west Australia in June for work, while his other son Ryan just completed his Leaving Cert and is doing an electrical apprenticeship. Both boys play with Ballygiblin GAA. Their recent success has been ‘unbelievable’, and John pays due testament to those people that got the team to where they are today, both past and present.
“Some people who worked with them when they were younger, they’re looking down and helping them now. There’s a lot of people who have passed away who’d be so proud today; there’s a lot of people who worked together to make Ballygiblin the team they are.”