The former Parnells underage GAA star shining bright for Ireland U21s
By Damian Dolan
For as far back as Shaun Donnellan can remember, it was soccer on Saturdays and GAA on Sundays.
The Republic of Ireland U21 international and Yeovil Town centre back, who was once on the books of West Brom, says his GAA upbringing helped “toughened” him up for a career as a professional footballer.
He enjoyed success with Parnells at underage, from U10s upwards, winning championships and cups. The late Gerry Somers was one of his coaches.
It was his “magnificent” display in the semi-finals which took Parnells through to the U16 championship final in 2012.
They went on to beat St Clarets in the final, minus Donnellan who was unavailable. His cousin James did line out that day, however.
He represented London at Féile on several occasions and among his age group was Killian Butler – now part of the London senior football set-up.
Donnellan’s last game for Parnells was an U18 championship semi-final against Tir Chonaill Gaels, in which he showed his soccer skills with a “magnificent” headed goal.
“I loved the Gaelic; I was a full forward back then, just give me the ball and I’d put it over the bar,” Donnellan told the Irish World.
“It toughens you up; I’m quite a feisty character. That’s part of my game.
“I remember we played Mayo and I scored the most goals and points, and it was all over papers. My granddad’s still got that.”
Donnellan was brought up within a strongly Irish community in Barnet, north London. The GAA was part of that. The family still has a house in Kerry, which he gets back to “quite often”.
“Everyone was always taking about Gaelic or hurling,” he recalls.
The son of former Chelsea, Fulham and Leyton Orient footballer Leo Donnellan, who also won caps for Ireland at U21 level, Donnellan comes from good ‘football’ stock.
His uncle, Gary, played for Reading and made more than one hundred appearances for Yeovil, while his brother, Leo Donnellan Jr, has also been capped by Ireland at underage level.
For Donnellan, coming from a football family has its pros and cons.
“There’s no fooling my old man, he comes to every game and you can’t kid him. He’s always believed in me and told me how it is,” said Donnellan.
“He just wanted me to enjoy my football playing Sunday league and at school, and if I was good enough then I could go and pursue it as a career.”
Donnellan is currently preparing for a crucial few days as Ireland look to qualify for the European Under-21 Championship finals for the first time.
Ireland go into their final two group games on level points with second-placed Norway, with hopes still alive of reaching the play-offs.
Noel King’s side travel to Akko in Israel on 11 October before heading to Heidenheim to face group-leaders, and reigning U17 champions, Germany on 16 October.
Only the best four runners up, from the nine groups, will progress to the play-offs however, meaning Ireland may need to win both games to have any chance of been amongst them.
A 1-1 draw in Kosovo and a 6-0 defeat at home to Germany last month dented Irish hopes, but Donnellan, who will miss the Israel game through suspension, is confident that they can still quality for next summer’s finals in Italy.
“If everyone’s fit and available we’ve got a really, really strong team. It will be a completely different game against Germany,” he said.
“Not to make excuses but there was an illness in the camp and we didn’t have our strongest team out. We didn’t perform very well, but a lot of things didn’t go our way.
“Hopefully everyone’s fit and we can win our next two games.”
Donnellan was only just coming back from injury and missed the draw with Kosovo. He was an early substitute against Germany.
Ireland were also without the suspended Ryan Sweeney, Danny Kane, who was ill, and Declan Rice – now involved in a tug-of-war between England and Ireland.
It’s already been a rollercoaster campaign. Not renowned as a goalscorer, it was Donnellan who popped up with a 96th minute winner against Azerbaijan back in March.
Donnellan got on the end of Ryan Manning’s inviting ball in at the far post, and although a teammate blasted the ball into the back of the net, FIFA ruled that Donnellan’s shot had already crossed the line.
The goal sparked mayhem at Dublin’s Tallaght Stadium, with Donnellan ripping off his shirt and waving about his head.
“No one ran after me! FIFA looked at it after the game and gave it to me. It was crazy – great scenes,” said Donnellan, who made his debut for the U21s in March 2017 having been capped at U19 level in 2014.
He played for his school, St James’ Catholic High School in Colindale, north London and Sunday league for Springfield FC. He was on Watford’s books before being spotted by West Brom.
He signed a professional contract with the Baggies in June 2013, while studying for his GCSEs.
He had loan spells at Worcester City, Stevenage, Dagenham & Redbridge and Walsall, but by his own admission, he “didn’t make the cut” at West Brom.
“Nearing the end of my contract I didn’t feel that I was going to get into the first-team. I wasn’t getting an opportunity. That happens in football,” says Donnellan philologically.
“I said I wanted to go to Yeovil because I knew the gaffer (Darren Way) wanted me down there. I had a few choices, but I wanted to go somewhere the gaffer believed in me and liked my style of football.”
A footballing centre back, comfortable with the ball at his feet and the ability to carry it out from the back, Donnellan is thriving in League Two with the Glovers since making the move in January.
“That’s my biggest attribute. Obviously, I’ve made mistakes, but the gaffer keeps believing in me because you’ve going to make mistakes as a ball playing centre half,” he said.
“I wanted to go to a team where they play football. I’m enjoying my football and I feel that my game has really improved.”