Donning colours familiar to him as a prominent playing member of the Rosemount senior football squad, Israel Ilunga will wear a black and amber jersey in an alternative setting on Saturday night when he features on the Underdogs team to play reigning National League Division One champions Mayo, as the popular TG4 GAA series draws to a conclusion.
A native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Israel (23 ), who won a Westmeath intermediate football championship medal with Rosemount in 2016, will fulfil the pivotal full back position on a team which features dedicated and talented footballers, all of whom aspire to wear their respective county colours at senior championship level in the future.
Under the guidance of former Kerry manager, Mickey ‘Ned’ O’Sullivan, former Donegal footballer, Kevin Cassidy and former Cork ladies footballer, Valerie Mulcahy, the Underdogs squad have been meeting at weekly three day training camps over a six month duration as they strive to crate a cohesive team ethic and performance prior to the contest with Mayo on Saturday night (to be screened live on TG4 ).
Now playing his club football with Rosemount, following his transfer from Castletown/Finea/Coole/Whitehall four years ago, Israel is relishing the opportunity that awaits in Castlebar.
“The Underdogs journey has been truly memorable. For six months now we have been working together as a squad with the aim of winning this game on Saturday night. I could not turn down the opportunity to get involved in the programme and feel privileged to have had this experience,” Israel remarked.
The former Westmeath minor and Under 21 footballer speaks highly of his team mates all of whom have become friends over the duration of the Underdogs experience.
“I am playing with some talented footballers and if it were not for Underdogs I would never have had the opportunity to do so. Players such as Mikie Lyons (Caltra ) and Fergal Owens (Mayo Gaels ) are highly skillful players and are most worthy of their place in the squad,” Israels commented.
Having arrived in Ireland in 2007, Israel was initially fostered into a home in North Westmeath before relocating to Moate. He is now based in Blanchardstown where he lives with his sister. Family and Gaelic football are the two prominent aspects of Israel’s life.
“My family means the world to me and I would not be the person I am today without their love and support. My parents are now living in Wexford and when the Underdogs concludes on Saturday night and I am really looking forward to spending some time in their company,” Israel added.
With one player being culled from the Underdogs squad on a weekly basis, Israel was one of three players selected for possible removal during the fourth episode of the programme, but the overwhelming support received from Kevin Cassidy ensured he remained a permanent and prominent playing member.
“Being in the bottom three helped me refocus the mind and adopt a more positive mentality. If you continually worry then the chances are that particular situation will happen,” Israel noted.
Israel references the sense of welcome he received when he transferred to play his football with Rosemount, “where the community spirit is very strong”, and hopes to represent his club with pride on Saturday night.
“As a team, if we perform to our potential then we will provide Mayo with a stern test. I just want to play to my strengths and help the team in the best possible manner during the game. The Underdogs experience has been very rewarding to date and it would be great to finish the series with a win,” Israel emphasised.