‘John Who’? That was the predominant question among Donegal followers when Declan Bonner announced last Autumn that Tyrone native, John McElholm, was the new Donegal coach.
Nine or ten months on John McElholm is still not a name that readily trips off the lips of the vast majority of Donegal supporters and GAA folk.
Donegal’s new coach, who is from Loughmacrory in Tyrone, has gone about his business in a quiet and professional manner. And given the quality of football Donegal have played during the Spring and summer so far he is doing a damn good job.
This week he finds himself in a tricky situation as he prepares Donegal for a showdown with his native county.
The man himself is slow to accept the accolades and insists it is all down to the quality of the players and a very professional management team.
“It's not all down to me. Declan has a very good and professional management team and set up. I’m just one cog in that set up and of course it is also down to the quality of the players you are working with,” John McElholm told the Democrat this week.
He also told of how he was very surprised when out of the blue he got a call from the Declan Bonner last November.
“I had worked with club teams in Derry and Tyrone but I had no real intercounty experience but that did not put Declan off and being honest I jumped at the idea. I suppose in reality it was the next logical step in my coaching career.”
John’s club coaching career reads like a ‘who’s who’ of Derry and Tyrone football. He worked in Derry with Seamus Downey at Lavey and John Brennan at Slaughtneil. He trained, coached and managed St. Enda’s, Omagh and along with Dom Corrigan guided Killyclogher to a Tyrone senior championship.
He also worked with Noel McGinn at his home club, Loughmacrory, for whom he also did a stint as manager.
A second level teacher by profession, he teaches at St Mary’s Grammar School in Magherafelt, Derry, with whom he won an Ulster Colleges MacRory Cup.
He also played club football for Killyclogher and Loughmacrory and was, by all accounts, a handy enough midfielder.
NO DIVIDED LOYALTIES
A Tyrone man, McElholm, should have divided loyalties this week ahead of Sunday’s big clash in Ballybofey, but nothing could be further from being the situation. John McElholm’s loyalties are with Donegal this week and will be on Sunday.
“It is a bit strange but when you are involved in football your loyalties and commitment are to the team you are working with and my loyalties are to Donegal and we have been working hard to make sure we overcome Tyrone on Sunday.
“We played Tyrone already in the McKenna Cup and in the league and I had no difficulty with those games and Sunday’s game, though the stakes are a good bit higher, will be no different.”
John’s loyalties come a little easier because of the fact that he has strong ties and a great affinity with Donegal going back to his childhood days. There is even a touch of romance, like all good stories, in John McElholm’s fondness for Donegal, and the Rosses and Gweedore in particular.
“Mum and dad have a holiday home in Annagry so I would be down with them regularly. They bought it about ten years ago and before that they used to go on holidays to Bunbeg in Gweedore, so we used to spend a lot of our summers down in Bunbeg.
“My grandfather and my grandmother met in Dungloe. They were both working in the town at the time, my grandfather in Sweeney’s Hotel and my grandmother worked in the chemist shop next store.
“His name was also John McElholm and he was from Loughmacrory and my grandmother’s name was Margaret Marley and she was from Armagh.”
John’s connection with the Rosses capital and Donegal does not end with his grandparents falling for each other in Dungloe.
The tie is much stronger than that.
“My mum has cousins in Dungloe, the McCullaghs on the Quay Road. Fr Michael McCullagh (a great Donegal supporter), Phonsie, Noel, Ann Marie and Dolores, are all first cousins of mums. Mum’s name was Gertrude McCullagh.
As for Sunday’s showdown by the Finn, John McElholm is expecting a real tough battle with his native county.
“We know what Tyrone bring to the table, a packed and tight defence and breaking at pace out of defence. They have serious pace in their half-back line and in many ways they are not too dissimilar to ourselves.
“It is a matter of going out and matching them and at the same time playing our own game and hoping we get the breaks on the day and score enough to win. It will be tight game with little between the teams.”
And this week John McElholm is putting might and main into ensuring Donegal have that extra edge to see them cross the line ahead at the finish.