By Simon Wright
Christmas is a period where families come together and celebrate a special time. It is often the period for goodwill, giving and joy but not in all instances.
For the O’Donnell family, their world was feeling good as the end of 2007 dawned. Married with four children, Phil O’Donnell was skipper of Scottish Premier League side Motherwell and was enjoying one of the best spells of his injury-hit career. Sadly their hearts were about to be ripped out by a tragedy that is among one of the worst to have hit the game in Scotland.
Full of promise as a youngster, O’Donnell had won the Scottish Cup twice and experienced the big time as a Celtic player in the mid-1990s before injuries ruined his stint in England with Sheffield Wednesday.
When Terry Butcher decided to make the most of O’Donnell’s experience by signing him on a short-term deal in 2004, it was to see if he still had the fitness and physicality for the modern game. In four years at Hillsborough, Phil had been restricted to a miserable 20 appearances, scoring just once in a Worthington Cup quarter-final against Watford in December 2001.
Butcher quickly saw what the Scot could offer him and the short-term contract became a longer-term deal. A year later, he became club captain at Fir Park and was now seen as the experienced head for the youngsters to come to if they ran into problems.
The former Reading and Leicester City manager, Mark McGhee was in charge of the squad as they entered the 2007/08 campaign and it was an outfit that promised much. Youngsters such as Phil’s nephew David Clarkson and centre forward Ross McCormack beginning to blossom in a side that looked the best equipped to take on the Glasgow dominance in the SPL.
Phil O’Donnell had not been a stranger when it came to success north of the Border. Born in North Lanarkshire in 1972, just a few miles away from Fir Park, he was a local lad through and through. Breaking into the Motherwell team during the 1990/91 campaign, the big time arrived quicker than anticipated. Plenty of potential was already evident before possibly the greatest moment of his career when he scored a diving header to put Motherwell ahead during the 1991 Scottish Cup final. Described as ‘brave as a lion’ by Scottish goal king Ally McCoist, who was commentating on the final, O’Donnell energy and commitment helped Motherwell to a famous 4-3 victory against Dundee United. It meant he would become the club’s youngest player to feature in European competition at just 19.
Acclaim followed from his peers in the Scottish professional game. O’Donnell won the Scottish PFA Young Player of the Year award in 1992 and 1994 and that soon followed with international recognition from his country. He came on as a second half substitute during a World Cup qualifier with Switzerland in September 1993. Little did he know at the time, but it was to be his only cap for Scotland. Manager Craig Brown admitted later more call-ups would have followed but for a catalogue of injuries.
A year after his sole international appearance came the big move to Celtic. After 142 appearances in all competitions for his hometown club, Motherwell sold him to the Parkhead giants for £1.75m. It is the highest transfer fee Motherwell has ever received for a player. Things started well with the Bhoys. O’Donnell made a memorable debut appearance, scoring both goals in a 2-1 victory over Partick Thistle on 10 September 1994, just two days after his purchase by new boss Tommy Burns. A home debut goal followed against Hibernian and at the end of the season, he won a second Scottish Cup medal, appearing as a substitute in the club’s 1995 success against unfancied Airdrieonians.
However the Celtic dream soon turned into a nightmare. When form was found, injuries occurred. The fans were frustrated that O’Donnell was on the treatment table more often than on the field of play. This was during a period of complete Rangers dominance in Scotland, as they won eight championships in a row until Celtic beat them to the 1998 crown – O’Donnell’s only league title honour. By now though, he was only a rotation player at best and at the end of the 1998/99 campaign, decided to leave on a Bosman for a fresh challenge in England.
What Sheffield Wednesday got though was a player who sadly never was able to fulfil all that potential he showed in his Motherwell stint and early days with Celtic. Released in 2004, the return to his hometown club was much welcome. In an interview with The Times in the autumn of 2007, the now 35-year-old said: “I have missed too many games in the middle of my career to stop playing at the age of 35.” He had great appetite for football and had already scored twice that season in his midfield role, including the winner in an away fixture at Kilmarnock a month before the fateful day of 29 December 2007.
Ironically Motherwell played Dundee United at home, the team which O’Donnell had figured so prominently in one of the club’s finest moments 16 years earlier. It was to be one of the games of the season in the league for entertainment. The Steelmen were 3-0 up inside 20 minutes and two more goals from Clarkson in quick succession in the early exchanges of the second half had the hosts 5-2 ahead. O’Donnell was playing another key role, when McGhee decided to make some changes. With another critical game against Hibernian in midweek to come, he elected to take his skipper off to give him a well-deserved rest. But just as the board was about to go up to make the change with Marc Fitzpatrick, O’Donnell crashed to the ground almost inexplicably.
Concern immediately was raised by both sets of players as medics treated the stricken player on the field for five minutes. Although it wasn’t certain what had happened to O’Donnell it was later determined that he had suffered a cardiac arrest on the pitch. He was taken to a waiting ambulance and efforts continued to revive him. Sadly he never regained consciousness and at around 5.20pm on Saturday, 29 December 2007, the Fir Park club had to make the devastating announcement that their club captain had died.
Owner John Boyle said:
Everyone at Motherwell is shocked to the core and we are sure that everyone involved in Scottish football will feel the same. Phil was not only an inspirational player for Motherwell and club captain but was an inspirational person.
Scottish football was indeed shocked to the core. This was a player who might have been in the latter stages of his career but was still a highly prestigious and fully fit athlete experiencing a purple patch in form and confidence.
Flowers, scarves and football shirts were laid in their thousands outside the gates of the Motherwell ground. The club’s next two fixtures were postponed in Phil’s memory as well as a request by his former side Celtic to cancel the first Old Firm derby of 2008.
In England, the flags at Hillsborough flew at half-mast and a minute’s applause or silence was held at all Premier League grounds during the New Year programme. Former Motherwell player James McFadden dedicated his goal that day for Everton against Middlesbrough to O’Donnell by pointing to his black armband and then towards the sky.
His funeral was attended by 500 mourners. Tributes came in from around the world, including messages from Spanish club Sevilla, who had suffered similar heartache earlier in the season when Antonio Puerta collapsed and died during a La Liga match.
Phil left behind his wife Eileen and their four children. She said:
Although he achieved so much in football, the most important thing for him was his family. He would like to be remembered as a family man and we were all so proud of him.
Motherwell announced the main stand at their ground would be renamed The Phil O’Donnell Stand as a permanent tribute and a memorial was erected on the side of the stand bearing his name in November 2011. The embattled club continued their 2007/08 campaign and rallied to finish in a creditable third spot, qualifying for the UEFA Cup via the league. At the end of that season, a benefit match was held at Celtic Park in memory of O’Donnell. McFadden and Clarkson played in the match, as did Swedish superstar Henrik Larsson, who described the benefit tribute as a “sad occasion but at the same time it’s a kind of celebration for everything.”
An annual sponsored walk also began in Phil’s name on the first anniversary of his death, starting at Fir Park and ending at Celtic Park. This raises money for charities including the British Heart Foundation.
Never sent off in his career, Phil O’Donnell was one of football’s good guys. His undoubted talent was hidden far too often by injuries but he continued to smile throughout these experiences and gave it his all whenever he stepped onto the football field. His demise was a huge and sudden shock and an appalling way to end 2007.
Motherwell fans will never ever forget Phil O’Donnell and nor will Scottish football. He was a gentleman on the field and a loving and devoting husband and father.