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Every young player needs a mentor...even if they put the fear of God into them

Conan Byrne recalls his initiation into the League of Ireland and how it shaped his love for the domestic game.

Tony McDonnell celebrates scoring for UCD in 2006.
Tony McDonnell celebrates scoring for UCD in 2006.
Image: INPHO

Updated Aug 3rd 2020, 8:00 PM

FORGET ABOUT THE game and anything that happens on the pitch, the most daunting part of a young player’s introduction to first-team football is entering into the dressing room for the first time.

On any other day, it is a nondescript room bordered by wooden benches, steel hooks and old heating pipes. But when it’s occupied by a squad of players, it is a cauldron of testosterone, an inner sanctum that only permits those willing to die for the cause and somewhere that can often show the ugly side of the beautiful game.

It took quite a while before I plucked up the courage to enter into the UCD dressing room as a wide-eyed student. Having completed college lectures by 1pm, I paced around the campus for four hours, re-playing different scenarios over in my head about the best way to join the squad. Should I speak up straight away? No, don’t be silly. Find an unoccupied corner, sit there, put your gear on and follow the others. Yeah, that seemed the best way to approach it.

Once inside however I quickly learned that this environment was ruled by one alpha. A towering presence with a hulking frame so imposing that his shadow would make grown men quiver, this guy was clearly the lieutenant on this battleground. When on the pitch, a captain’s armband would hug his bicep, but to me that may as well have been a purple heart medallion because it was evident that this was the one person who would decide whether or not I would be accepted into the group.

I wasn’t the only pale-faced youngster hoping not to mess up on my first day, there were other rookies sweating just as much as I was. The skipper would assess them first. With each of us attempting to avoid eye contact, he marched over to Ronan Finn, muttered something and moved on. Fran Moran was next and a similar act followed. Then it was my turn. With my toes curling inside my boots and beads of sweat cascading down my spine, I hesitantly looked up as the giant figure in front of me stuck out this great big paw for me to shake.

He then spoke in a commanding yet welcoming tone: “Work hard and you will have fun”. Seven words was all he needed. No big speech. No list of rules. Just simple words. And, instantly, I knew that Tony McDonnell would be my mentor.

People like Tony don’t come around very often in your sporting life. A lot of players are very much in it for themselves and I wonder why they get involved in team sports. Tony was different. Everything was based around the team. He was a captain that led by example both on and off the pitch. He shouted at you when he felt you weren’t putting the work in, he encouraged you if you were trying but it just wasn’t working out and sometimes he would put the fear of God in you with a glaring stare. He was the complete role model.

If he spoke, you listened. If he gave you an instruction, you obeyed. I followed Tony, long after our careers went separate ways. Without Tony’s guidance, attitude and professionalism, I would not have become the player I am. I would not have achieved half as much as I have. Without him, I’m not sure my work ethic would be what it is now because he taught me to work harder than everyone around me. Even though I wasn’t the best technical player I overtook others in the pecking order at teams because of my determination, because of that work ethic honed by Tony.

On that first day in the dressing room, Tony had arrived wearing a suit and looking quite professional. I wondered why that was and after a few training sessions – when I became a bit more vocal and confident – I asked him what he did for a living. Banking was his response and he gave me a quick run down of his career up to that point. From then on, I had it ingrained in my mind that having a dual career whilst playing in the League was indeed a viable option. Tony had turned down career moves to Bolton Wanderers and Shelbourne (who were the country’s powerhouse team at that time) to stay with UCD. He had committed himself to a team, to a job and to a lifestyle. How can you not respect such discipline?

He had incredibly high standards but could also have a laugh and a joke. I never did find out if he was the instigator of a practical joke that saw me, foolishly, approach our manager Peter Mahon to enquire about the pay increase that each of the players was supposedly receiving. It was never about the money for me, but I also didn’t want to be the odd one out. So I plucked up the courage to ask Pete, and club chairman Dick Shakespeare, about this raise. Pete looked at me, looked at Dick before bursting out laughing and saying: “Conan, you have swallowed a brick”. Lesson learnt.

Tony gave me the tools I needed to love and respect this League. I promised myself to be like him, to have his qualities but essentially to try to be a role model to other players around me. We both left UCD in 2007 for different reasons. He retired having racked up over 300 League appearances for the club. I moved to Sporting Fingal to continue my football journey after completing my degree. Tony did climb his business ladder and achieve great things in his sector. I have since achieved my own goals off the pitch by becoming a qualified teacher and it’s Tony, amongst others of course, who aided my success.

There are many others who have been stomped into the dressing rooms of every club and acted as mentors to young players in this League, but none, in my eyes, are better than Tony McDonnell.

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