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Dublin: 5°C Wednesday 3 March 2021
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Irish midfielder set for 'possibly the biggest game in the club's 73-year history'

Adam McDonnell could feature for Boreham Wood in the FA Cup today.

Adam McDonnell pictured playing for Ipswich in 2017.
Adam McDonnell pictured playing for Ipswich in 2017.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

IT DOESN’T get much bigger for Boreham Wood FC than a day like this afternoon.

The club, who are currently 11th in the National League, the fifth tier of English football, make their first-ever appearance in the FA Cup third round.

They are overwhelming underdogs against Championship club Millwall, with the match kicking off at 12pm live on BT Sport Extra.

Boreham Wood go into the game in good form with six wins from their last six matches, and one man hoping to feature is Adam McDonnell.

The 23-year-old Dubliner joined the club in 2019 and has made eight appearances so far this season.

“You’re trying to get on with it like it’s a normal game, but at the same time, your standards have to be higher, because of the calibre of players you’re playing against,” McDonnell tells The42.

Boreham Wood have twice reached the National League play-offs, losing to Tranmere in the final in 2018. After a slow start to the current campaign, their recent form suggests they still have a decent chance of achieving their goal and earning promotion come the end of the season.

Yet today’s match is just as important in their eyes. The team’s official website even goes so far as to describe it as “possibly the biggest game in the club’s 73-year history”.

And as is the case for all football clubs and particularly those at a lower level such as the National League, the pandemic has not been easy for Boreham Wood to deal with.

With fans unable to attend games, it was confirmed back in October that clubs in the division would receive £10 million funding as part of a partnership with The National Lottery.

The TV money that today’s tie will provide is another much-needed boost amid a surreal situation that entails Zoom calls in players’ cars for team meetings, with the changing rooms currently out of bounds.

“The club have been very good from the minute the pandemic started,” McDonnell explains. “The chairman spoke to all of us. ‘You’re getting paid 100%, we’ll look after your family.’ There have been no [Covid] cases and everything’s been good.

“We all know what the chairman has done for us since the middle of March. There hasn’t been anything changed payment-wise. Obviously, we know, he’s had to pay extra for the testing and the one-way systems. Then you’re losing the fans and pretty much all of the income. So we definitely know what [a win today] could do for the club.

“We look at the likes of [veteran player] Matt Rhead, who was at Lincoln. He speaks about how much [their FA Cup run to the quarter-finals in the 2016-17 season] did for Lincoln. So we know this one game could, not change the club’s history, but it would definitely help towards the end of the year when your goal is to be promoted. It nearly would be payback for how good the club have been during the pandemic.

“I know a few lads at different clubs and they have been in bad situations. They haven’t been getting paid, or getting paid two or three weeks late. These lads have mortgages. I’m one of the lucky ones.” 

john-mcdonnell He worked under Johnny McDonnell at Shelbourne. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

It hasn’t always been easy from an individual perspective for McDonnell either though. The youngster, who spent his early years in Ballymun before moving to Blanchardstown, started playing for Tolka Rovers around the age of four. He spent time with Home Farm, and signed for Shelbourne at 16.

He comes from a family with a sporting background — former Ireland international Mick Lawlor is his great-uncle.

McDonnell didn’t take long to rise up the ranks at Shelbourne. Originally signed as an U17 player, the club’s then-manager Johnny McDonnell (no relation) swiftly had him training with the first-team, for whom he played a handful of games in 2014.

Around this period, McDonnell was attracting attention from across the water. Manchester United, Leeds, Bolton and Sheffield United were among the clubs interested at one stage or another.

“I was at a lot of clubs and I couldn’t go to a lot of clubs, because I was in school and my dad didn’t want me missing too much,” he recalls. “The likes of United was two weeks straight [on trial]. Bolton was a week. Sheffield United was two weeks. Ipswich was back and forth. And there were clubs like Liverpool and other teams I could have gone to — I was missing school every week at that stage.”

Then-Ipswich boss Mick McCarthy was among McDonnell’s admirers, having watched him play for Shelbourne in a friendly against the Tractor Boys. And the former Ireland boss ultimately convinced him to join, with the move taking place amid hectic circumstances.

“We got a phone call saying ‘you’re coming over tomorrow’. I was like, to my agent: ‘What do you mean tomorrow? I haven’t said goodbye to my nanny, any of my family or my friends.’ He said: ‘You have to. It’s Deadline Day, so you have to do it quickly.’

“I was supposed to stay in Bolton until the Saturday, and because Ipswich offered me the deal, I went to the Bolton scout and said: ‘Mate, I’m sorry.’ And they were fuming. They didn’t want me to leave, so I had to go on my own [accord]. They were thinking I was being rude, but I just didn’t enjoy Bolton, I knew I wouldn’t have signed. Landing then, you’re moving over to England at 17 the next day. So it was tough, but it was all I’d trained for since I’ve been five or six.

“I had initially just started my Leaving Cert year on 26 August and I left then on the 30th. I couldn’t even tell the school that quickly. I didn’t go in the next day. My dad had to have a meeting with the principal. He just said, he’s not coming back.”

McCarthy helped the teenager settle in England, with McDonnell describing the manager as “like a father figure” to him during those early years.

norwich-city-v-ipswich-town-sky-bet-championship-carrow-road Mick McCarthy was 'like a father figure' to McDonnell at Ipswich. Source: PA

Nonetheless, circumstances beyond the player’s control made life difficult at the start.

“The first two years, I didn’t enjoy England one bit,” he admits. “The first year was very bad, because I couldn’t play. I signed a two-year pro. Because I signed at 17, I didn’t sign a scholarship, my international clearance didn’t come until the day of my 18th birthday. So I signed in August and couldn’t play a game until May. I couldn’t even play an U18s match at that stage, I couldn’t even play the youth cup.

“So that definitely was very tough, because I was training very hard, trying to impress. And Mick McCarthy was saying things like: ‘You would have made your debut this week. You’re flying.’ Every second day, I was knocking on his office: ‘Do you know what’s happening?’ He was like: ‘I’m trying to get hold of my contacts, but it doesn’t look good.’”

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Though the challenge ultimately made him stronger, killing the endless hours away from football in England was particularly taxing initially.

“It’s still lonely, but the first two years [were especially tough]. I used to finish school at four o’clock [in Ireland], go home, have dinner, go to training and your whole day is done. Over in England, you’re getting back to digs at 1-1.30pm some days, and that’s it. You see your mates every now and then, but there’s only so much you can do at a town like Ipswich. It’s literally on its own. So that was a part I needed to get used to.

“I had my dad and my grandad on my side, just saying it’s tough, but it’s going to be worth it. 

“At times you think: ‘Is it worth it, will I go home?’ But looking back, thank God I didn’t, because I’d just be thinking: ‘What if?’”

Even when available for selection though, McDonnell struggled to establish himself in the Ipswich first team. During the 2017-18 campaign, Aldershot — managed at the time by former Ireland international Gary Waddock — gave him the opportunity to play National League football in a loan deal.

Kundai Benyu, a former Ipswich team-mate had gone there on loan previously and got a move to Celtic off the back of it, and so he encouraged McDonnell to follow suit and take the plunge.

The Irish starlet impressed during a six-month spell with the non-league outfit. He was then called back to Ipswich due to an injury crisis at the club, but opportunities with the Tractor Boys remained limited, generally only getting as far as the bench for a couple of Championship games.

Eventually, Aldershot came back in with an offer for McDonnell to join the club permanently, which he accepted.

“Mick McCarthy said: ‘There’s a dilemma here for you. Your contract is up at the end of June. We have the option of a year extension and we’re more than likely going to trigger it. But Aldershot are offering you an 18-month contract. What do you want to do?’

“I was making the bench [at Ipswich], it sounded great, but it wouldn’t have done anything for my career, those six months. It was a tough choice and Mick just said: ‘You can stay.’ I was still only 19 at that stage. But I just took the risk and I signed the 18-month contract. Aldershot were second [in the table] at that stage. I thought we were going to get promoted to League Two, I really did. It didn’t happen. But that’s football. You take the risks with it.

“But it was definitely a decision Mick McCarthy gave to me. It wasn’t: ‘Adam, you’re released.’ ‘It was, there’s contract on the table, but we will let you go for free to help your career.’ He was good in that way for me, definitely.”

kilmarnock-v-celtic-scottish-premiership-rugby-park McDonnell followed in the footsteps of Kundai Benyu by joining Aldershot on loan. Source: PA

Having lost out in the play-offs in McDonnell’s first season, the subsequent campaign was a disaster for Aldershot by comparison. They finished 21st out of 23 teams and would have been relegated normally, but instead, financially irregularities meant 14th-place Gateshead were demoted from the league.

It had been a good season for McDonnell personally though, scoring six goals and being named the club’s Player of the Year. But with the team in disarray and a number of others leaving, he accepted an offer to join league rivals Boreham Wood.

*****

Especially with the coronavirus, life these days can be tough. McDonnell’s girlfriend lives back in Dublin, and so he has been on his own for the past couple of weeks. Trips home to Ireland, which he would normally undertake frequently, are not an option at the moment. He’s not feeling sorry for himself though.

“At the end of the day, I’m getting paid to play football,” he says. “There’s a lot worse out there, so no complaints from my side.”

And McDonnell, at 23, continues to dream big. In recent years, he has watched players like John Egan and Conor Hourihane establish themselves in England’s lower tiers, before gradually working their way up to the Premier League and getting capped by Ireland.

“When I got offered the deal [initially], I didn’t want to drop down to the National League. I was probably a little bit big time at that stage, and I didn’t know what level it was at. When I came on loan, straight away, I knew it was a good level. Going down to the National League, it was really a situation where I wanted to go down to come back up to prove what I could do. 

“I could have gone home after Ipswich. I could have gone back to play in League of Ireland at 20. And I could have been there the last three years. But the standard over here, I don’t think people realise how good it is. Pretty much, it’s an easier situation to get into League Two or League One or whatever. That’s why I’m staying over here. I know I can play higher and it’s just about proving it and getting the chance to do it.”

harrogate-town-v-boreham-wood-vanarama-national-league-play-off-semi-final-cng-stadium Luke Garrard's Boreham Wood are hoping to cause an upset against Millwall today. Source: Tim Goode

Moreover, big occasions like this afternoon make the daily grind that comes with being a footballer feel worthwhile. And McDonnell is well aware how fortunate he is to be doing something he loves, forever grateful he did not succumb to some of the temptations that halted the progress of some former peers.

“When I was 15-16, I could have went down a completely different road. My mates were out drinking and doing stuff they shouldn’t have done. If it was a Friday night and I had a game on the Saturday, it’s that little decision. It’s just about thinking: ‘It’s worth it.’ It’s training every day as hard as you can.

“When I went out training at 13-16, my dad used to strap a tennis ball to my left ankle, because I’m left footed. So I couldn’t kick with my left foot. I used to go outside for half an hour, right foot, bang it off the wall and if you kick it off your left foot, you’re going to look stupid, because there’s a tennis ball stuck to it.

“So little things like that were typical at that age. Just really going for it and thinking that no one can stop you. I had that mentality when I was younger. When I went into the first team at 16, I didn’t care. I knew I had to replace someone in the midfield position and I went in and did it. So it’s just about being ruthless and at the same time, enjoying it. 

“I know loads [of players who didn’t make it]. When I was 13-14, I wasn’t in a DDSL squad. I was always at a top team and still a very good player.

“But I’ve seen players fade away quickly. They were streets ahead of certain others who had a nearly dead career.

“My little cousin, he’s 12-13 now. He’s talking about trials. I’m just saying to him: ‘Relax, you’re way too young. If you’re not going on trial now, it doesn’t mean anything.’ I’ve seen people fall off the radar and they’ve been technically gifted, but that’s the sad side of football, you see people just choosing the opposite road and that’s why I’m happy to be over here six years later.

“You’re in your room for 7-8 hours a day, it’s about being disciplined with your diet — little jogs, little walks — because you can get forgotten about quickly in football.”

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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