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Dublin: 7 °C Wednesday 22 January, 2020

The striker from Dublin whose side gave Solskjaer a European scare

Steo Donnelly was part of the Glenavon side who recorded a shock victory over Molde in the Europa League.

STEO DONNELLY SHOULD have been on a flight to New York when the first leg took place.

The holiday could wait. An opportunity to play in the Europa League against a team managed by one of his boyhood idols was too good to turn down. If there were any doubts, the result justified his decision to stay at home.

Stephen Donnelly and Steven McCullough Steo Donnelly has a shot on goal for Glenavon during a game against Ballymena United. Source: Brian Little/INPHO

In July, legendary ex-Manchester United striker Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took his Molde side to Lurgan to take on 25/1 outsiders Glenavon in the first qualifying round of the Europa League.

It was expected to be a straightforward task for the Norwegian visitors, who had topped a group that included Ajax, Celtic and Fenerbahce in the same competition three years earlier.

A couple of weeks after signing for the club, Steo Donnelly was included in the Glenavon side for a baptism of fire. Despite falling behind, the semi-professional outfit from the Northern Irish top flight upset the odds by recording their first European win in 23 years.

Rhys Marshall produced a swift response to Eirik Hestad’s opener for Molde. Former Derry City attacker Joshua Daniels put Glenavon 2-1 up in the second half, before Fredrik Aursnes missed the target with a late penalty for the visitors.

For Donnelly, it was a dream start to life at his new club. In his last competitive game, the 25-year-old Dubliner had scored a hat-trick against Sheriff YC in Clontarf to help Usher Celtic win the league title. From the AUL to the Europa League in less than a month.

“It wasn’t a bad game to make your debut in. Only a few weeks earlier I was playing in the AUL. To go from that into the Europa League was fairly surreal,” says the striker, who works as a special needs assistant at Rutland Street Primary School in Dublin.

“I’ve been a United fan since I was a kid and I loved Ole. His goal in the Champions League final in 1999 is something I remember well. I watched it in the sitting room at home with my da and a few friends.

“Even just to see him in the flesh was a big deal. We had a chat afterwards and he was a gentleman, I have to say. I told him he was one of my favourite players and he just kind of laughed. He was very, very nice and had a few nice words to say. He spent ages having pictures taken with all the Glenavon fans, to be fair to him.”

57cd54f8-4053-4923-9e07-4712c518a2c2 Donnelly with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer after the first leg between Glenavon and Molde. Source: Steo Donnelly

Elimination from Europe at the hands of Glenavon would have been disastrous for Solskjaer and his side. After their first leg defeat, the Molde boss said: “If you turn up at 95% like we did, it’s not enough. We know we’ve got to turn up next week with a better attitude and a better fluidity and rhythm in our play.

“Our pride is hurt. Credit to Glenavon, but we have to bounce back. We created chances in the first leg and it’s only half-time. We have to take those chances next week.”

In the second leg in Norway, Glenavon’s slender lead was overturned before the break. The 5-1 final scoreline didn’t make for pleasant reading for the part-timers, but the home side had put some gloss on the outcome in the closing stages.

“We had nothing to lose going over there,” says Donnelly, who had a short spell at Bohemians last season. “They battered us in the first half but we got it back to 3-1 in the second half. At that stage one more goal would have put us through.

“It was like that until the 93rd minute. We were pushing everyone forward and then they scored two at the very end. The final score put a downer on it for us but we were still right in it going into injury time.

“To be fair, some of their players were different class. There was a guy who scored a hat-trick [Eirik Hestad] and he’s probably the best player I’ve ever played against. Going up against guys like that was a great experience.

“But the first leg was obviously something I’ll always remember. To be on a winning team against a side managed by someone who’s now in charge of Manchester United, it’s the kind of thing you could tell your kids. It’s definitely a highlight.”

4fd19004-5b84-4c3b-ab78-6001a1667e18 Solskjaer and Donnelly in conversation after the second leg in Norway. Source: Steo Donnelly

Earlier this week, Solskjaer left Molde on a temporary basis — for now at least — to succeed Jose Mourinho as manager at Old Trafford until the end of the season. As a Manchester United supporter, Donnelly hopes the appointment is a step in the right direction for the club.

He says: “Molde’s style was to play really attacking football. They passed the ball very well, bringing it out from the back. Hopefully Ole can bring that approach to United and make a success of it.”

As for Donnelly, he’s currently involved in a title race with Glenavon, who are bidding to be crowned champions of Northern Ireland for the first time since 1960. They’re in third place, three points adrift of Ballymena United and one behind Linfield, who are their opponents this weekend.

Having been sidelined with a hamstring injury in recent weeks, Donnelly is set to return for Saturday afternoon’s fixture at Windsor Park.

“It’s a huge game,” he says. “If we beat them we’ll go ahead of them into second, which would be huge. Hopefully I can get back into the team, score some goals and see if I can help the team to win the league, which would be a huge achievement.” 

Murray Kinsella, Gavan Casey and Andy Dunne preview another big weekend of rugby action and dissect the week’s main talking points.

Source: Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42/SoundCloud

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Paul Dollery

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