Eoin Donnelly: Fermanagh captain on juggling family, football and fight against Covid

'It's difficult to see' - Fermanagh captain Donnelly at Covid's coalface

Eoin Donnelly will continue playing on for Fermanagh "until basically I'm not picked" despite mixing county football with the most onerous of work schedules and his recent fatherhood.

Donnelly's profession as a respiratory physiotherapist has him at the sharp end of the battle against Covid-19.

The Fermanagh football captain works at the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald.

"Our work as respiratory physios was probably something that never really got talked about too much," he says.

"But respiratory care is now at the forefront of everyone's thoughts in terms of Coronavirus and people going to hospital.

"Our team in the hospital and across all the hospitals have stepped up and that's been the case with doctors, nurses.

"We have got respiratory skills which involves helping people with breathing difficulties and airway clearance issues and obviously helping with rehab and getting people back on their feet as well. It's been ramped up."

Patients passing away 'difficult to see'

But while Donnelly and his colleagues have risen magnificently to the task, that's not to say that there haven't been lows for all of them over the past year.

The Erne County star says seeing people that staff have cared for, in many cases over years both as outpatients and inpatients, passing away as a result of the effects of the dreadful virus is something that he and his colleagues have had the task of dealing with on many occasions during this awful period.

"You've put a lot of treatment time in with them and you build up a relationship…..to see them pass away and a lot of the time they are passing away on their own, not having their family there and they are just relying on the staff to be there in their last moments, that's difficult to see.

"I've been working as a physio now for 10 years or so and you definitely build up a resilience but that's not to say that it doesn't affect you.

"You do think about it. You think about the patients but unfortunately now as soon as one person leaves the bed, there is another person in."

Donnelly is measured when asked about the increasingly vocalised sceptics out there who believe Covid-19 is fake news.

"It's natural being sceptical and people don't like being told what to do.

"(But) I know what I've seen and what's going on day-to-day in my ward and my hospital."

The Ulster Hospital in Dundonald
Eoin Donnelly works as a Respiratory Physiotherapist at the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald

'People in their 40s and 50s getting Covid'

Donnelly adds matter of factly that the rise in cases involving people in the 40s and 50s - and indeed sometimes younger - with scarcely no underlying health conditions has been the most noticeable aspect of the recent surge.

"There are people in their 40s and 50s who should be out and about fit and well but unfortunately they are in hospital dying or they are in ICU really, really struggling.

"Hearing their stories, a lot of them are very innocuous. They are saying things like 'I had a friend in on Christmas Day. They were in and out and the next thing two days later I tested positive and now I'm in hospital and I'm really unwell'.

"That's how simply it happens. It wasn't as if these patients were really putting themselves out there."

While 2020 was the most challenging year of Donnelly's working life amid Fermanagh's struggles on the football field, there was huge joy for him in July when wife Claire gave birth to their first child Emer.

"Thankfully everything went well. Emer was healthy, Claire was healthy and we then had plenty of time together at home with football being cancelled.

"It was brilliant from that point of view and I was lucky to be able to spend so much time with her in the early days."

In terms of when he is going to be making the trip over and back to to Fermanagh from Carryduff for county training, Donnelly is as in the dark as the rest of us.

Donnelly expects delay to the league

He certainly is not anticipating the Football League starting as scheduled on the final weekend of February.

"Pre-season needs to be four or six weeks. So I think that is going to inevitably push the league further into the Spring or into the summer."

When it does start, it will be Division Three football for the Ernemen after a series of narrow defeats both - before and after the initial lockdown - saw them suffer the drop after narrowly missing out on a Division One spot in 2019.

"The games were there to be won but we came out on the wrong side of the result which was really disappointing because we knew we were competitive in all but one of the games which was the Armagh match. That's Division Two. It's a tough division."

Cavan also suffered the drop into Division Three but incredibly little more than a month later won the Ulster Championship and Donnelly says their neighbours' achievement should give Fermanagh hope.

With a few experienced campaigners apparently having opted to end their Fermanagh careers, the Erne County does not appear to be exactly over-flowing with optimism about its football prospects for 2021 but Donnelly refuses to be downbeat.

Donnelly in action for Fermanagh against Kildare
Fermanagh suffered relegation to Division Three in 2020

'I have got a lot from playing for Fermanagh'

"With every season, there's new hope. The encouraging thing in Fermanagh has been the success of our under-age teams - in particular the schools teams.

"Now those lads are old enough to be involved with the Fermanagh senior team. At the end of last year, there was certainly a push to get some of those lads into the squad and that's now even more the case coming into this year.

"This lockdown period has given those lads time to get their bodies right for senior football. In a way, that might be a good thing for some of the younger lads."

Donnelly plans to be there to help the youngsters come through despite his additional workload and increased family responsibilities.

"Obviously having Emer around now makes time a wee bit harder to get away from home and you are more conscious of the hours you are away from the house.

"I'm realistic. I know I'm not going to be able to play for Fermanagh forever.

"But I know if I'm fit and able I'm going to make myself available for selection because I want to do well for Fermanagh.

"I have got a lot personally out of playing for Fermanagh. That motivates me as well. My family are very proud Fermanagh supporters so I will always want to do as much as I can for as long as I can."

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