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Dublin: 11 °C Friday 5 June, 2020

Ex-Dundalk and Shelbourne midfielder forced to retire at 22 making waves in management

Stephen McDonnell is aiming to guide Warrenpoint Town into the Irish Cup final tomorrow.

Warrenpoint Town manager Stephen McDonnell.
Warrenpoint Town manager Stephen McDonnell.
Image: Lorcan Doherty/INPHO

IT’S LESS THAN two years since Stephen McDonnell stood on the sideline of Oriel Park as Quay Celtic — his local club in Dundalk — claimed the Kilmessan Shield title.

The lesser of the three prizes the North East Football League offer to their top-flight outfits, it was McDonnell’s first success as a manager, with former team-mate and long-time friend Simon Kelly alongside him in the dugout.

McDonnell has since moved on and Kelly is now the captain of his Warrenpoint Town side whose aim is to reach a maiden Irish Cup final tomorrow afternoon when they take on Ballinamallard United in Dungannon.

For a club in existence only three years longer than their manager — who turned 27 yesterday — and in just their fifth campaign as an Irish Premiership club, it’s the latest upward twist in a plot which began in the lowly lurches of the Carnbane League.

Warrenpoint’s progression simultaneously reflects favourably on their boss — a former Celtic academy player who later lined out for Dundalk and Shelbourne in the League of Ireland. Aged just 22, he was forced to retire from playing on medical advice, however.

“It’s a massive step in the right direction and in a couple of years’ time, if we do get the right result tomorrow, hopefully this will be the go-to in terms of looking at the point of change,” McDonnell, Matthew Tipton’s assistant prior to succeeding the Welshman on a full-time basis last summer, tells The42.

Matthew Tipton celebrates his team equalising Former Warrenpoint Town boss Matthew Tipton. Source: Jonathan Porter/INPHO

“Being in the Premiership is quite a big thing, but getting to an Irish Cup final is even bigger,” he adds. “If we could achieve that, it is going to be massive considering the resources we have at our disposal.”

The Milltown men’s budget is, McDonnell claims, one of the smallest of the 12 top division clubs in the North, causing the average age of their panel to be in the lower-20s category. Although they do boast experience in the likes of Kelly, Francis McCaffrey and Lee Duffy — players with an extensive League of Ireland grounding.

A player who featured during the early days of Stephen Kenny’s stellar reign at Dundalk, McDonnell has also formed a link between the South Down club and his former employers, taking U19 players who aren’t going to make the grade at the Lilywhites and providing them with first-team football.

He alludes specifically to Anton Reilly, Emmet Hughes and Deane Watters, who have become firm members of McDonnell’s set-up, while Ciarán O’Connor has established himself as a key offensive component.

Indeed, everyone has played a part in the club’s most successful league campaign ever. With five games to go, they sit 15 points clear of the drop and only four shy of the Europa League play-off spot.

And, with the winners of the Cup guaranteed a European place, in essence, the ’Point have two shots at continental riches that, McDonnell admits, could revolutionise their outlook as a club.

Stephen McDonnell McDonnell playing for Dundalk in 2013. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“You’re trying to set new standards and the club’s time in the Premiership has been turbulent; they’ve always been fighting to stay away from the trapdoor and last year — when I took over with eight games to go — was the first year we stayed up without having a relegation play-off.

“We sat down when we got the job permanently and our first stance was: ‘how do we improve on this?’ When you ask questions like that the first thing you have to refer to is improving the quality of the playing staff.

All that comes down to a lot of different factors for me: the club you’re managing, how big is it? What’s the identity? Their ethos? Their views? For example, Vinny [Perth] taking the Dundalk job, he has to win a league this year because he’s got the budget and the facilities.

“Myself, we’re slightly different because we’re trying to sustain being a Premiership club year-on-year, but within that we’re looking for natural progression.

“A lot of it boils down to the big — or small — pot of money you have. We have to work within the zone we can work in and at the moment, they’re [young guys] the players we can attract.

“Our brand, principles and ideas are ideas of my own and the backroom team. They’re key to making it successful with the players. But if we to break into European competition, it’s €250,000 that the club has never had. Money changes things.

“We’ve never gone on record to say that we were going to be competing for Europe in year one, but to be doing it, and there is a position there to be got, it would be a hugely significant jump for the club.”

In terms of his own future, McDonnell is aiming to go into full-time management at some stage. It’s what he has always envisaged himself doing from the days of his own playing career when he’d go along and help out at Quay training.

Lee Duffy celebrates his goal Lee Duffy celebrates scoring for Warrenpoint Town against Crusaders at Milltown earlier this season. Source: Stephen Hamilton/INPHO

Warrenpoint, he says, is the ideal environment for his development as a coach, a place where he can put ideas and various practices into motion, a set-up where he can “make mistakes and not have a couple of thousand fans or the Board on my back questioning every decision”.

“They’re happy for me to create my own identity with the club and if we’re getting success along the way, that’s excellent for all parties.”

A May appearance against either Crusaders or holders Coleraine at Windsor Park would certainly constitute success — and provide McDonnell with the perfect, belated birthday gift.

Murray Kinsella and Bernard Jackman look ahead to a huge weekend for the provinces in Europe and Ryan Bailey catches up with Ian Keatley on the latest episode of The42 Rugby Weekly:

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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