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‘I would have come from the flats… Brian Kerr gave me the confidence to go into any room and meet people’

St Patrick’s Athletic legend Johnny McDonnell reflects on his memorable career in football.

Johhny McDonnell and Brian Kerr pictured in 2008.
Johhny McDonnell and Brian Kerr pictured in 2008.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

JOHNNY MCDONNELL DOESN’T do anything halfheartedly, and that includes interviews.

“I’ve got goose pimples on the back of my neck thinking about it,” he says at one point during a 106-minute conversation with The42. “You have me wound up thinking about this,” he says later on.

It was that wholehearted approach which brought McDonnell success in football and ultimately enabled him to become a St Patrick’s Athletic legend, in addition to many other impressive feats.

1. Early days

Now 53, McDonnell recalls how his first experience of organised football came at Belvedere FC at the age of “eight or nine,” staying there all the way up until U18 level.

McDonnell excelled at this level, to the point where he was picked by Dublin representative teams. He remembers one game up in Milltown against Belfast Schoolboys, where soon-to-be Man United player Norman Whiteside was among his opponents. He also got called up by the international underage team, coming into the squad after future Ireland star John Sheridan withdrew due to injury.

I would have been a late developer,” he says. “After 15 or 16, you get a bit of presence about you.”

McDonnell’s League of Ireland career began at Shamrock Rovers, who he signed for in 1983.

Bohemians boss Billy Young also wanted to sign the youngster, but the Hoops, who were coached by Jim McLoughlin and Noel King at the time and were at the start of a memorable era where they won four league titles in a row, eventually won the battle for his services.

“I lived in Phibsborough, but I never supported Bohs. Rovers would have been the team I supported when I was a young fella,” he explains.

“I rang Billy and told him I was going to Rovers and I just heard [the line going dead]. I don’t think he spoke to me for a few years [after], but he was a lovely man. I had many encounters with him over the years.”

McDonnell’s time at Milltown turned out to be relatively brief, as he failed to establish himself in the first team, making just a handful of appearances at senior level. 

Soccer - Barclays First Division - Derby County v Manchester United Future Man United player Liam O'Brien played in the Shamrock Rovers reserves with McDonnell. Source: S&G and Barratts/EMPICS Sport

The quality of the squad was such that he can remember lining out for the reserves with a team that featured players of the calibre of Mick Neville, Liam O’Brien and Anto Whelan among others.

Despite the frustration of not playing, McDonnell still regards his experience at Rovers as invaluable.

“I remember I was sitting down in the dressing room. Dermot Keely had just signed for Rovers. I’d been there before Dermot came along. He said ‘here, you have to move there’. I said ‘no, I’m not moving’.

“We all stripped together [the reserves and the senior team] in the dressing room and then the teams were divided out then. I went ‘this is where I strip’. Dermot looked at me. I looked at him. And there was a bit of a standoff. I was only young at the time. And he said ‘well move over, will you?’

From that day on, I had a great relationship with Dermot. I learned so much from him about how to be a defender. He put the fear of God into the forwards first of all, but he also showed me how to read the game.”

2. Upheaval

Realising the move to Rovers wasn’t going to work out, McDonnell made the slightly left-field decision to move to the US to play football, in the process turning down an offer to join Joe Royle’s Oldham, who were then in the English second tier. An old Irish underage room-mate, Denis Irwin, was at the club that he now regrets not joining at the time.

America invoked feelings of homesickness and McDonnell was back in Ireland within a couple of months.

In 1984, the young Dubliner joined Home Farm and there he linked up with a man who would go on to have a substantial and recurring influence on his career — Brian Kerr.

Kerr was working as an assistant at the club and McDonnell had already met the future national team boss during their time together in the Irish underage set-up.

One notable occasion in those early days saw McDonnell and his team-mates line out against Derry City for the first-ever League of Ireland match at the Brandywell, with the Candystripes prevailing 3-1.

Source: Vinny Cunningham/YouTube

Adapting to regular senior football was “easy enough” for McDonnell,” having been well prepared from his time at Rovers, while his team-mates included Mick Moody, Terry Daly and Dave Henderson.

McDonnell impressed in these early matches and when manager Mick Lawlor left the club to manage Drogheda, he convinced the promising defender and Kerr to come with him.

3. The start of something special

Yet both Lawlor and McDonnell’s time at the Drogs was short-lived. The former Shamrock Rovers star resigned by November 1986 and the youngster left after just a year, reuniting with Kerr, who had undertaken his first job as a number one with St Patrick’s Athletic.

The Dubliner did not take long to build a top side. With McDonnell an integral player, Pat’s were soon challenging for the title.

In the 1987-88 campaign, they were pipped to the league by Dundalk, losing out on the final day by a single point.

The following season was not quite as encouraging, as the Saints came fourth, 10 points behind champions Derry.

But it was in the 1989-90 campaign that they finally triumphed in the league, gaining revenge on the Candystripes by finishing three points ahead of them.

McDonnell says Kerr deserves considerable credit, as Pat’s ended a 34-year wait to win the trophy.

The knowledge of the opposition, he’d have it down to a tee. His enthusiasm. His eye for a player. Fellas that wouldn’t have been getting a game anywhere else.

“You know who I compare Brian to sometimes? The Meath [GAA] manager Seán Boylan. Seán used to pick fellas from the second division in Meath to play in the great Meath teams. I always think of Brian like that. He could go and identify a fella.

“I remember he rings me one day and says: ‘Howya? I want you to come down with me and see a fella, a bit of a player.’ We went down to Mount Merrion and Paul Osam was playing. I said to Brian: ‘Seriously?’ He said: ‘I just wanted to be 100% about him. He looks a little bit lazy.’

“But you could see straight away Paul was going to be a great player. He could have been even better than what he was. He really could have been absolutely anything.

“But we signed Paul that week and he was playing in the Leinster Senior League at the time and not even in the top division. That’s how good [Brian] was.”

Paul Osam Paul Osam was a key player for St Pat's during their title-winning successes. Source: Tom Honan/INPHO

On Osam, McDonnell adds: “He could play anywhere — central midfield, right, left, up top, centre half, I always felt you were waiting for the phone call for Paul to go away. I’m not saying he wasn’t dedicated, but at the time, Paul was probably happy where he was. I felt there was more in him and I don’t mean that in a bad way. Somebody probably should have taken a chance on him.

“Brian also pulled Mark Ennis out of nowhere. He had him at Shels’ B team years ago. He was a skinny, scrawny fella. We’re looking at him going: ‘Brian, are you serious?’ He goes: ‘This fella’s alright.’

“He signed Joe Lawless from Bohs. I think he had to pay for Joe, but the partnership was brilliant. Joe did all the battering and the hard work, and Mark was a brilliant goalscorer.”

“Damien Byrne would have been a fair bit older than us. He was probably 30 odd when we won the league in 1990. Pat Fenlon came from Chelsea. Brian said to me: ‘John, there’s a young fella in Ballybrack, will you bring him to training?’ I lived in Ballybrack.

So he got Curtis Fleming to sign. Jaysus, he was brilliant. He signed at 18 from Belvedere. So we have the likes of Pat Fenlon and Curtis Fleming from that age group up to Damien Byrne, we had that mix of player, it was a great group. I’m still great friends with Pat Fenlon. Curtis would be godfather to one of my children. I’d be godfather to one of Pat Fenlon’s children. So we’re all still very close.

“[Curtis] was very unlucky also. He was to sign for Aberdeen. Ian Porterfield was the manager — he got sacked. He was to sign for Swindon — Lou Macari was the manager, and he got sacked. Every time he was about to put pen to paper, managers were getting sacked.

“Lennie Lawrence at Middlesbrough signed him and he went on [to have a successful career in England]. He probably would have done a lot better internationally, only Denis Irwin was playing at full-back.” 

4. Success at last

McDonnell can still remember vivid details in relation to that 1990 title triumph.

“It was a bank holiday weekend. It was the old season format. In around this time of year. We had UCD on the Sunday. We were playing in Harold’s Cross when Inchicore was being renovated. We beat UCD. Then we played the next day on the Monday as well against Drogheda.

“Derry would have been the team competing with us for the league at the time. Alex Krstic, Paul Doolin, a number of the Rovers fellas would have gone up with Jim McLoughlin to Derry.  

“We won the league in Drogheda with a game or two to go.”

John McDonnell  St. Patrick's Athletic  League of Ireland Champions 1996 Johnny McDonnell celebrates with the league trophy. Source: © INPHO/Tom Honan

Although McDonnell felt pressure amid this hectic run-in, there was a confidence within the group that superseded everything else.

“When you win a league and you’re going through a season, no matter what happens, you kind of get this self-belief, and not in a cocky way, that no matter what happens today, we’re going to be okay. We only conceded 22 goals that season and 12 or 13 games were 1-0 or 2-1 wins.

“I remember we were doing meditation and visualisation with that team. Even back then, Brian was doing that type of stuff. Concentration, think about what you’re going to do, how you’re going to play the game. They call it ‘managing the game,’ he was doing that stuff back then. And what happens in the next minute is the most important thing, not the last minute. You’re like: ‘What’s he on about?’ But it always gave you confidence.

“I remember we went down to Cork and they battered us – Patsy Freyne, John Caulfield, Pat Morley and that group. Me and John used to have some terrible battles. We defended and defended. Long throw-in from Curtis, Joe Lawless turned it around, boom, Mark Ennis stuck it in the back of the net — that’s what won us the league that year. That was a huge win that led on to pushing us into the last three or four matches.

We hired a whole train that day going to Cork — the whole train was just for St Pat’s supporters. I remember coming back into Heuston Station and the place was packed. Heuston is nearly in the parish of Inchicore.

“We used to train behind the goal where the shed is in Inchicore. The slaughterhouse was there and there was grass used to graze the cattle. We used to train in there. We used to chase the sheep off the pitch or put them with their parents.

“We used to go across the road, into the flats in Inchicore, sweep the glass off the tarmacadam pitches.

“And there’s nothing wrong with my hips or ankles. One fella was saying to me this 4G pitch stuff is a bit hard on your ankles.

“The co-operative pitches were there with the steel goalposts and stuff. Sometimes the locals would be giving out.”

Pat Fenlon 1991 McDonnell and Pat Fenlon (above) were among those to leave Pat's after the league triumph. Source: ©INPHO

5. Moving on

Despite these fond memories, McDonnell left Pat’s not long after they won the league in favour of a return to Shamrock Rovers.

“Pat’s hadn’t a penny,” he explains. “Rovers offered me money. The team was kind of breaking up. A couple of lads went to Bohs. If we were getting offered a tenner at Pat’s, Rovers were offering 40 quid a week or something.

“Brian went fucking ballistic when I went. There was no money coming into the club. I don’t know the logistics of it or what happened, but they had no money to offer players.

“I remember Pat Fenlon went to Bohs. There’s a fella, Malachy Brophy, he’s an optician and Pat’s eyesight wasn’t great. He always had to wear glasses. Sometimes in training when it got dark, it would affect him.

“There wouldn’t have been a lot of people wearing contact lenses at that stage, that’s how far back it was. Pat went to Bohs — they offered deposits for fellas putting down houses. It was a substantial amount of money that other clubs were offering.

Pat told Malachy Brophy: ‘They offered me a tenner a week extra’ or something like that. But that’s probably all he had. He said: ‘Are you going to Bohs? Well I tell you what, you can pay for your own bleedin’ contact lenses.’

“If you ever see Pat and have a chat with him, say: ‘Did you ever hear of a fella called Malachy Brophy?’ He’ll laugh. He’ll totally get it.”

McDonnell continues: “Brian didn’t speak to me for fuckin’ [a long time] after leaving Pat’s. Brian just couldn’t hold it together because of the finances. He couldn’t get [why we left] and thought we should stay at the club. We were together and we were a group. But fellas had to pay bills.”

Life at the Hoops was not perfect either, however. Rovers were no longer quite the formidable force they had been in McDonnell’s first stint there, as they struggled to adapt to the fallout and financial issues that arose after the club waved goodbye to their much-loved Milltown home.

Ray Treacy 1996 Ex-Ireland international Ray Treacy was Shamrock Rovers manager when McDonnell joined for a second spell. Source: © Billy SticklandINPHO

6. Coming home

The club’s then-manager, the late former Ireland international Ray Treacy, asked McDonnell to slot in at right-back — a position he was less than comfortable filling.

“They went on to win the league at Rovers after I left and Rovers were obviously trying to build something themselves.

“But John McNamara was the chairman. I said ‘look John, it’s costing me money if I don’t play, I’m not getting appearance money. I’m playing right full, I’m not happy. I think Pat’s and Rovers agreed a fee.

“Brian got things going again, the club got back on their feet and he brought a few fellas back.”

After a year away, McDonnell’s second spell at Pat’s proved just as rewarding as his first. In addition to some familiar faces, new players were recruited, including Eddie Gormley, Dave Campbell and Richie O’Flaherty.

“Again, a mixture of a team that would have been [not renowned as the league’s best players],” he says.

Success was far from instantaneous after McDonnell re-joined the Saints. In his first three seasons back, they finished seventh, ninth and fifth, gradually rebuilding the side, before a 1995-96 campaign to remember. By now team captain, he can still clearly remember the day when Pat’s emulated their 1990 predecessors by winning the league title.

“A couple of seasons before, Bohs had lost the league after their bus broke down [before a crucial game].

We stopped in Ashbourne on the way to Dundalk. That was where we had our pre-match meal. Brian had organised to have four or five cars travelling with us as well. Everything was alright, we were heading to Dundalk in plenty of time and the bus wouldn’t start. I told Brian. So we got all the players into the five cars and went up.

“It was pissing rain, I’ll never forget it. The pitch was in bits. And Paul Campbell scores a magnificent free kick. So both titles I won with Pat’s, we won them in County Louth. That was a good night. We stopped everywhere on the way back I can tell you. It went on for a few days back in Inchicore also.

“The groundsman, Harry Boland, was a gas character. He used to say to Brian, talking about managers: ‘I’ve seen them come and I’ve seen them go.’ He was there all his life as the groundsman. Brian would say ‘you’ll never see me go’. Harry said: ‘We’ll see about that.’ And Brian did leave to join the Irish youth team. And Harry was still there, so Harry got one up on him — not too many people do.”

Brian Kerr Brian Kerr pictured during his St Pat's days. Source: INPHO

7. Man manager

While Kerr left the Richmond Park outfit, his legacy remains. McDonnell admits to owing the esteemed coach a considerable debt of gratitude due to the influence he had on him both on and off the pitch.

“Brian needed to go to the next level and what he did with all the youth teams was fantastic, history. All the top players that would have come through himself and Noel [O’Reilly], I wasn’t surprised what he did and how quickly he did it.

“I remember being in an airport and Gerard Houllier comes up going ‘Brian, Brian, Brian’. He was the manager of Liverpool at the time. But people forget that Brian would have played against all their teams. He had the total respect of all the managers around Europe.

“He was brilliant for me, not only as a footballer, but as a person. He had that in him as well. You know the old schoolteacher look? Brian would sit down and say ‘I’m disappointed about that’ or whatever.

Personally, Brian taught me a lot about life and how to conduct myself. I would have come from the north-inner city and the flats, and was a bit rough around the edges, to be honest. He gave me the confidence to go into any room and meet people and sit down and have conversations and be confident about myself. I really admire him for that.

“I’m sure if you spoke to Richard Dunne or Damien Duff or Robbie Keane, they would probably say something like I’m saying to you now.

“There’s no doubt he has that about him and that’s why he’s successful. When you do things for him, you absolutely do it, and he gives you that self-belief and confidence.”

8. Northern exposure

Not long after Kerr departed Pat’s, McDonnell followed suit. With Pat Dolan installed as manager and the experienced player now in his 30s, he did not feel part of the club’s long-term plans and consequently chose to move on.

“It’s probably just my personality,” he adds. “Other people feel a bit threatened with me sometimes. I’d started doing my coaching badges, I knew I wanted to go into coaching, I got the opportunity to go up the north.

“Prior to that, Pat Fenlon had moved to Linfield and the manager was Trevor Anderson. Trevor went down to Newry with Joe Rice. They wanted to get a few players in to compete with the Glentorans and the Linfields. 

“So I went to meet with Joe and Trevor and it was a bit of a no-brainer. I went in looking for two and I got four. Pat’s were still offering two and a half.”

Mark Rutherford DIGITAL Mark Rutherford was among the players who played under McDonnell at Newry. Source: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

McDonnell helped his new team gain promotion to the top flight, before taking over as player-manager the following season.

“Trevor left — I don’t know what happened. So they said ‘you have to take over the team Johnny’. That was my first experience of managing and coaching. I loved it, it was absolutely brilliant.

“Everything fell into place, because all these lads [from elsewhere] used to just go up on the Saturday [to Newry]. I couldn’t do that. I was training Tuesday, Thursday and playing on Saturday. I remember doing three nights a week in pre-season and people started hearing about these fellas at Newry. So I put the hours in at Newry. We qualified to Europe through [finishing fourth to reach the 1999 Intertoto Cup].”

To this day, McDonnell remains the only person ever to manage Newry in Europe. In the first round, they came up against Croatian side Hrvatski Dragovoljac, losing 1-0 away, before prevailing 2-0 at home to secure an aggregate victory. 

In the second round, they faced Bundesliga side Duisburg, again holding their own. They lost the first leg in Germany 2-0, before exiting the competition despite a commendable 1-0 win in the home encounter, thanks to former Shels and Bohemians star Mark Rutherford’s 27th-minute goal.

“My claim to fame in Newry is: when I went to Newry, they were a town and when I left, they were a city,” McDonnell laughs, referring to the decision to grant the area city status by Queen Elizabeth II to commemorate her Golden Jubilee in 2002.

9. Managing expectations

After resigning from Newry, McDonnell’s next destination was Dublin City, a newly formed League of Ireland club at the time who were previously known as Home Farm Fingal.

I kind of felt ‘I’m done with the travelling now. I need to be a bit closer to home,’” he explains. “I did okay there. Then I went off to Shels [as assistant manager] with ‘Nutsy’ [Pat Fenlon] in 2003, winning the league the second season.”

The move to Shels coincided with the official end of McDonnell’s playing career. In addition, while working as a number two at the Dublin club, along with Gerry Smith, he agreed to temporarily coach the Irish team at the 2003 Fifa World Youth Championship. His old friend Kerr had initially been expected to manage the side in the tournament hosted by the United Arab Emirates, but had to opt out, after agreeing to become the Ireland senior boss.

The competition was originally planned for earlier in the year, but got postponed because of the Iraq War, instead taking place in late November and early December.

The Irish squad included Glenn Whelan, Keith Fahey, Darren Potter, Stephen Paisley, Paddy McCarthy, Stephen Kelly, Wayne Henderson, Brian Murphy, Willo Flood, Stephen Elliot and Kevin Doyle. The Boys in Green emerged top of a group that also included Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Ivory Coast. In the round of 16, however, they suffered an agonising golden-goal 3-2 loss to Colombia after extra time.

Republic of Ireland v Wales - 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying - Group D - Aviva Stadium McDonnell worked with Glenn Whelan among others in the Ireland underage set-up. Source: Niall Carson

Of all the Irish players who featured on that trip, the individual who has had the most successful career out of all of them was arguably Whelan, who would go on to play regularly in the Premier League with Stoke, as well as winning 85 caps and counting for Ireland.

“You knew what you were going to get with Glenn, you were getting 7/10 every match. People think he always goes backwards and sideways — Glenn has a good range of passing. But when he plays that holding role, he does it well. He breaks things down and you can guarantee, he’ll be there for you week in and week out, and he would complement the likes of Keith Fahey.

“Keith would do the big cross-field diagonal balls, or he’d drive forward with the ball. Darren Potter was a great player. He was at Liverpool at the time, but spent most of his career at Wimbledon.

Glenn was a lovely fella as well. He would be the sort of fella who’d question ‘why we’re doing this?’ He wouldn’t be disruptive, but he wanted to know what was ‘the reason for doing this.’”

10. Once a Saint…

In 2004, not long before Shels famously gave Deportivo a scare in a memorable Champions League qualifier, McDonnell departed the club. The lure of a return to Pat’s, this time as manager, proved too strong to resist. He took over from Eamonn Collins, who subsequently agreed to take McDonnell’s old job at Tolka Park.

The Richmond Park outfit had fallen on hard times and were in danger of relegation in McDonnell’s first season, but he helped steer them to safety ultimately.

The following campaign saw an improved Pat’s side finish seventh in the table as well as reaching the FAI Cup final, which they lost after extra time, amid a thrilling 4-3 encounter to a Stephen Kenny-managed Derry City team.

“We probably should have won,” he recalls. “That would have been a huge achievement for me, because Pat’s hadn’t won it since 1961.”

Gradually though, McDonnell was putting together a fine squad, which included gifted players such as future Ireland international Keith Fahey and Mark Quigley.

They finished second in the league, seven points behind Paul Doolin’s Drogheda, with the runners-up spot paving the way for a memorable 2008-09 Uefa Cup run.

In Europe, Pat’s secured aggregate victories over Latvian club Olimps, as well as Elfsborg, whose side included experienced Swedish internationals such as Anders Svensson and Teddy Lučic.

“One of their midfielders had about 90 caps for Sweden, Keith Fahey played him off the pitch,” McDonnell remembers.

Source: retroloi/YouTube

They eventually bowed out in the next round, losing 2-0 to Hertha Berlin on aggregate, after a creditable 0-0 second-leg draw against the Bundesliga side, whose team featured Lukasz Piszczek (currently at Dortmund), Andriy Voronin (on loan from Liverpool) and Arne Friedrich (who would earn 82 Germany caps over the course of his career).

“We played them in the Olympic Stadium, a fantastic place, the 2006 World Cup final had been played there. The whole experience was brilliant. We went unbeaten that season at home in Europe.”

11. A star in the making

Undoubtedly the standout performer to emerge from this improbable run was Fahey, who would go on to sign for Birmingham in 2009, spending four years in England and making over 100 appearances for the club, with his participation in a 2011 League Cup triumph the clear highlight from his time across the water.

“Keith had come back from England [he played for Arsenal and Aston Villa at youth level]. He was at Bluebell and he did a bit at Pat’s. We sold Keith to Drogheda for a few quid. I said ‘we have to sell you’. We did need the money at the time. I said ‘you’ll be back’ and within six months, he was back playing for us. He just didn’t hit it off in Drogheda.

“He was always too good [for the League of Ireland]. There was no one else but himself holding Keith back. Once we got him a bit of belief in himself and he played so well on the European run, Birmingham bought him and he did brilliantly.

I would have looked on Keith a bit the way Brian would have looked at me as well. I’d have lots of time with him and lots of one-to-ones with Keith down through the years. I never saw a guy who could run quicker with the ball. He used to pick the ball up and just drive with it. It was stuck to his foot. And his range of passing, his free kicks and his deliveries [were similarly impressive].

“There would be times where Keith got to boiling point and would show a bit of frustration. I’d say to him: ‘I’ll see you on Tuesday, don’t come in on Monday.’ I knew if he came in on Monday, something could annoy him and there might be a bit of trouble at training. I don’t mean that in a bad way. He wanted everything to be 100% right.

“He used to come in on Mondays with Gary Dempsey and Mark Quigley, they set training alight. It would be flying — bang, bang, bang, 100 miles an hour.

“Keith took his chance with both hands, starting for Ireland under Giovanni Trapattoni in the qualifying campaigns.

“I went to see Keith play in his first match for Birmingham at Old Trafford. We hung around after the match. He was playing against Paul Scholes, Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick in midfield. The tighter the game got, the better he got. He never gave the ball away in the tighter areas, he was brilliant.

“After the game, he knew where I was sitting, so he came over. Keith said: ‘How did I do?’ I said: ‘Well, you were only playing against Scholes, Carrick and Fletcher, and you weren’t any worse than the three of them. Is that alright?’ He had a big smile and gave me a hug.

“I have good time for Keith. I don’t speak to him every week, but we meet up for coffee and stuff. He always reminds me — we played Spurs in a friendly match with Pat’s in Inchicore. One of the music festivals was on at the weekend and we played Spurs on the Monday. Sean O’Connor and ‘Fats’ never made training on the Sunday morning after the festival. I didn’t play either of them and he couldn’t believe it. He realised then that this was serious stuff. It was all prior to the European success as well. I said ‘no, you’re not playing against Spurs’. He said ‘but Robbie Keane…’ I said ‘I don’t care, you’re not playing against them, you didn’t turn up for training. End of story.’

“It was the night Gareth Bale made his first appearance for Spurs. They beat us 1-0. Robbie scored the winner.”

Keith Fahey St Pat's star Keith Fahey would later join Birmingham. Source: ©INPHO

Pat’s finished second again in the 2008 season, albeit a substantial 19 points behind champions Bohemians. It was then that McDonnell chose to end his third stint at the club.

“I thought I couldn’t get any further with this. I needed a break. I’d been there for years and years, and felt I’d taken the team as far as it could go.”

12. Islands in the sun

In September 2009, McDonnell briefly returned for a second spell in charge at Newry, but the club was no longer the force it had been in his previous stint. He resigned after only seven months at the helm, having taken nine points from a possible 60 in the league.

A month later, he was back working with Kerr. The former Ireland boss was in his second year in charge of the Faroe Islands and decided to appoint McDonnell as assistant manager.

For the Euro 2012 qualifiers, they were paired in a group with Italy, Estonia (who would go on to face Ireland in the play-offs), Serbia, Slovenia and Northern Ireland.

“It’s like the west of Donegal. There’s 49,000 people [in the Faroe Islands]. Brian had turned the whole thing around for them. They got a couple of draws and I did one campaign with him. Brian would have been up there more than I would.

“If the match was on the 20th, Brian would be up there for three weeks. I’d go for 10 days prior to the matches and we’d be preparing the teams.

Our first match was away to Estonia in Talinn. We prepared well and had a couple of players playing outside of the Faroes. We hadn’t won an away match [in a long time]. They beat Austria many years ago in a famous away game previously. We were 1-0 up. The bench was going mad. [Former international] Jens Martin Knudsen, who used to wear a bobble hat [while playing], he was the goalkeeping coach, a brilliant fella. He was playing the last time they won away.

“We were winning 1-0 and just as the official was putting the board up for five minutes [added time], they scored. And they beat us 2-1 in injury time. That kind of knocked us back a bit.

“We beat Estonia at home. We drew with Northern Ireland at home — we were winning 1-0 and Kyle Lafferty scored a late equaliser for them. We were beaten 1-0 at home by Italy. They all played — De Rossi, Bonucci, Chiellini, Balotelli.

“We played Italy away. Cesare Prandelli was the manager. He had been the ex-Fiorentina manager. He played his first match in Florence. He had a fair idea they were going to win the match — he would have been sacked if they didn’t. The place was packed — he brought back Cassano, Montolivo, fellas who had been left out of the team.

“We went to look at the stadium the night before. There’s a big statue of Gabriel Batistuta. We didn’t let the lads train, because we used to find if we let them train the night before the matches, it was too much for them. We used to just let them have a look to see where they’d be on the pitch, visualise things.

“The ground was full before we even arrived, because it’s Prandelli and it’s Florence. The lads were in their tracksuits. Next thing we hear this big roar. The Azzurri had come in and they’re in their fucking Armani suits. It was unbelievable. The suits were worth a whole lot more than the tracksuits we had. 

“The game started and we were well organised. I said to Brian ‘there’s about 15 minutes gone and it’s 0-0′. I said ‘we’re doing alright, aren’t we?’ He said: ‘Yeah, but we haven’t touched the fucking ball yet.’

“They beat us 5-0. It was a June night. I’ll never forget it. De Rossi was playing in midfield with Pirlo and Montolivo just ahead of those two.

It’s an evening match, but it’s still so hot. De Rossi’s coming off with his beard and he’s like a wolf. He’s like a big middleweight boxer. It’s half-time, they’re winning 2-0 and the sweat is coming off him. It’s pumping out of him. They’re giving out and they’re really up for the match and Pirlo’s walking beside him, and there’s not a bead of sweat on this man. He’s after running the match for 45 minutes and he has De Rossi on a lead like his dog.

“I went: ‘This is what football’s about.’ I went down after the match, shook hands and the whole lot. Somehow, I got Pirlo’s jersey. The two buses were outside the ground together. We’re coming out and we’re scrapping away, bringing gear out.

“Cesare Prandelli’s standing there having a smoke. He goes ‘hello, well done’. He was being very polite. His English wasn’t great, but in my best North Dublin accent, I go ‘it was the bleeding fourth goal that killed us there’. We just laughed and shook hands.

“We’d go back to the Faroes and analyse how the matches went — a debriefing and all that stuff. We went back home to Dublin four days later. I had to go back to work. It was a taxi business. I kind of found it hard after playing against World Cup finalists, Italy. I just go back to work and the first guy goes: ‘Howya boss? Ballymun please.’ I’m just after playing with the Italians. So from one extreme to another, but great times.”

Source: TheMeintz/YouTube

On the Northern Ireland game, McDonnell adds: “They arrive and they’re staying at the same hotel [as us] in the Faroes. We used to have to fly Dublin to Copenhagen, Copenhagen to the Faroes.

“One of the lads who was part of the Northern Ireland travelling party, I said: ‘Any chance of giving myself and Brian a lift back to Belfast?’ So we drew 1-1 and they gave us a lift back. I told my brother we’d be in Belfast in about an hour and a half, so he came up and brought us home.

“So we not only took a point off Nigel Worthington’s team, but they gave us a lift back on the chartered flight.

“We then beat Estonia in the Faroes. Brian was out doing the interviews with the TV. Just the joy out of the lads that played for us, to get something out of the game, to get a win, it was one of the best nights I’ve had.”

13. The beginning of the end

Once Kerr and McDonnell finished up with the Faroes after that campaign, the latter went back to Shels, this time as manager. Nevertheless, the Dublin club were by now an under-the-radar First Division outfit, after suffering serious financial problems, in contrast with McDonnell’s stint as assistant a decade previously when they were the top side in Ireland.

“Longford had a good team that year. They won the league, we finished second and Galway were third. We finished about 10 points ahead of Galway. Our goalkeeper got injured three games prior to the end of the season. In the play-offs, we got Galway and they beat us.

Shels weren’t in a great position at the time. I just said to [the chairman] Joe Casey, if you want to go up, you’re going to have to invest to get three or four new players. It didn’t happen. I moved on.

“And then I did a season at Drogheda. I went up there and finished halfway through it. It just didn’t happen for me. The chairman was a lovely fella. That was kind of my last hurrah with the league clubs.”

These days, McDonnell is back at Belvedere, working with a number of talented youngsters who hope to someday emulate the success he has enjoyed in football. He also helps out Dublin City University’s Collingwood Cup team and as much as he enjoys this work, the St Pat’s legend says he would be open to a League of Ireland return in some capacity one day, having been away for the past four years. 

John McDonnell Johnny McDonnell pictured in 2014. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

For almost all of his career in football, McDonnell balanced life in the sport with a second job, and he intends to keep doing so for the foreseeable future.

“You always had to. I was full-time at Pat’s for the last two years, but other than that, you’re always doing something else. Keith Long was working [another job] up until last season. He’s only just gone full-time with Bohs. The industry’s not there.

“There are always two or three clubs [that are the exception], Dundalk or Rovers are full-time. But you always had something else going on. And it was always something that would allow you to do your football, which was great with the taxi business. I used to work for an insurance company, but was finding it hard to get time off work, so [other jobs] suited me. The football pushed me into something flexible.”

14. Epilogue

And given all he has achieved in football, McDonnell’s advice for youngsters is certainly worth listening to.

“You can’t be the best centre half in Ireland if you don’t work hard,” he says. “I would absolutely take constructive criticism.

“I wouldn’t have needed people to tell me I played well, and I don’t mean that in a cocky way.

I remember a story about a brilliant Romanian gymnast, Nadia Comăneci, at the Montreal Olympics. She was on the six-inch beam, before her two feet landed together. People were astonished how good she was. She said no one had ever seen her falling off in all the years she was practising. She didn’t need people to tell her she was going to get a perfect 10 — she knew she was going to get a perfect 10, because she had worked her arse off. She was so confident because she practised. What she was doing at the Olympics that day was just natural to her.

“I would have known playing a match, I played well, yet what could I do better? Or I would ask people that I trusted what I could do better.

“At Pat’s, I used to go and watch Jackie Jameson and Bohs playing, to see what way he turned, so if I was playing against him the following week, I knew a little bit about him.

“For the career I’ve had, I’ve been all over the world, I could walk away from football and [be happy].

“People say you played against Roy Keane and Eric Cantona at Manchester United, what was it like? I go: ‘It was just a match.’ It was just your next match and I was comfortable in what I was doing.

There’s so many days where you think ‘fuck, we lost’. And there are some days, there are not many of them, but that day in Dundalk [to win the title] where we were soaked. I remember that day just lying on the pitch and going: ‘Yes.’ I was emptied out mentally and physically that season, I just had two or three minutes on the pitch. I didn’t want fans jumping on my back, I just wanted to be left alone, because we’d achieved what we set out to do. I don’t know is that the feeling of the pressure being released, but I remember that night, I remember it so well.

“I couldn’t play friendlies or challenge matches. My concentration would go, because I need to be a 100% all in. I treated the game with respect no matter who I was playing against, whether it be Tony Cascarino, or Alan Shearer, or others I’ve played against. Once I got on the pitch, I wanted to win everything. I wanted to win the chase for the ball, to not concede any goals.

“I have youth and inter-league caps, I got beaten in two cup finals, I won a league up the north, I won two leagues down here, player of the month awards, this and that. All my stuff is in my ma’s house. Sometimes I just go out, and open the press, and remember.”

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Paul Fennessy

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