A model professional, a great club ambassador

The loss of one of Scottish football's most popular players has left the game north of the Border in a state of shock

THE TRAGIC death of Phil O'Donnell at the age of just 35 has robbed his family of a loving husband and father and Motherwell FC and Scottish football of a great servant.

In his second spell at the club, O'Donnell had become captain and joined the coaching staff and was integral to the work of inspirational manager Mark McGhee in reviving the fortunes of the Fir Park side. He had been working hard both on and off the pitch to get across the message that Motherwell were once again a force to be reckoned with in Scottish football, just as they had been when, at the age of 19, he scored Motherwell's second goal during the club's dramatic 4-3 victory over Dundee United in the Scottish Cup final of 1991.

In the veteran stage of his career, he had matured into the sort of player he had always appeared capable of becoming – skilful, combative, assured, commanding, and, above all, a man who was really savouring the sheer joy of playing football for a living.

As Motherwell Supporters Trust said last night, O'Donnell was "a model professional and a great ambassador for the club". To the club's players, he was all that and more – a mentor and friend, someone they called Uncle Phil, and not just because striker David Clarkson is his nephew.

That is what makes his demise at such a young age so utterly confounding. He looked to be capable of playing on and helping Motherwell to reach even greater heights, possibly developing a career in coaching and management, where the breadth of his knowledge of football and his many friendships in the sport would surely have made him successful.

The number and sincerity of the tributes that were paid to O'Donnell last night are an eloquent testimony to his popularity in the game. Even in this notoriously backbiting sport, it really would have been impossible to find anyone with a bad word to say about him.

He began as most Scottish professionals do, as a schoolboy footballer who was clearly a cut above the rest. Spotted by Motherwell's youth development officers, he went into their programme which produced many good professionals. With the priceless attribute of being a "leftie", O'Donnell was able to play in several positions and though he became an attacking midfielder, he began his pro life at left-back. He was just 17 when then Motherwell manager Tommy McLean gave him his debut as a full-back against St Mirren.

By the time Motherwell played Rangers shortly afterwards, O'Donnell was on the left side of midfield, a position where his seemingly boundless energy saw him thrive. In season 1990-91, while still a teenager, he helped Motherwell reach the Scottish Cup final, scoring for the Fir Park side in that 4-3 win over Dundee United. The reward was European football for Motherwell for the first time and O'Donnell thus became the club's youngest player in Europe in the ties against Polish side Katowice, agonisingly lost on the away goals rule after a 3-3 aggregate score.

After winning the Scottish Young Player of the Year Award in 1992, O'Donnell had been a target for Celtic, the 'other' club he supported as a lad – a not uncommon phenomenon in parts of Scotland – and was finally snapped up in 1994 after two more seasons in which he had been outstanding for Motherwell. Manager Tommy Burns signed him for a Motherwell record transfer fee of 1.75m which stands to this day, and O'Donnell scored both goals on his Celtic debut in a 2-1 victory over Partick Thistle.

Scotland's under-21 squad featured O'Donnell on numerous occasions, and having already been given a full international cap in the 1994 World Cup qualifier against Switzerland, it was expected that O'Donnell would become an important member of the Celtic and Scotland squads.

But successive injuries hampered his development at Celtic, who were also in the midst of their under-achieving years of the 1990s. However, in 1995, the Parkhead club reached the Scottish Cup final and O'Donnell came off the bench to achieve his second winner's medal as Celtic defeated Airdrie 1-0. He also earned a league winner's medal in 1998 when Celtic stopped Rangers' run after their nine-in-a-row successes.

In 1999, after a dispute over his terms with chairman Fergus McCann, O'Donnell moved south to Sheffield Wednesday along with fellow Celt Simon Donnelly, but again injuries prevented him establishing himself fully in the first team. He played just 20 times in four years, but the Yorkshire sojourn at least benefited him financially. When his contract expired in 2003, he asked Motherwell manager Terry Butcher for training facilities, and having rediscovered his zest for the game, O'Donnell re-joined his first club on an 18-month contract.

His first match back was a 3-1 win over Dundee United in which nephew David Clarkson scored three. By coincidence, having scored two against United yesterday, Clarkson was looking for a hat-trick when he was substituted so that he could be with O'Donnell as his plight worsened.

In his second spell at Motherwell there were no cup wins for O'Donnell, though he gained a CIS League Cup runners-up medal against Rangers in 2005. What he lacked in silverware, however, was more than made up for by the respect he was shown at Fir Park by players and fans alike.

It was no surprise when former manager Maurice Malpas made him captain for season 2006-07 when Scott Leitch departed, but his injury jinx ended his season after just three matches.

In April, O'Donnell signed on as a player-coach and Mark McGhee restored him to the captaincy which he considered a tremendous honour. O'Donnell had been playing consistently well this season, scoring two goals in 19 appearances and battling away as always. He seemed rejuvenated before the awful events of yesterday.

Given the sudden and overwhelming collapse he suffered, it is sadly ironic that O'Donnell only last month spoke of feeling "as fit as I have ever been". Indeed, he had surprised many pundits who, aware of his injury-bestrewn career, were amazed to see him still toiling in the harsh engine room of midfield as he approached his 36th birthday.

For O'Donnell to be taken in the midst of his prime is hard to bear, not just for his family and friends, but for his club and the wider community of Scottish football and beyond.

He is survived by his wife Eileen and his four children. It will be of little comfort to them at this moment, but perhaps in the longer term they will appreciate the importance of the fact that his memory as a good man and a fine player will never be forgotten, and not just at Fir Park.

PHIL O'DONNELL FACTFILE

1972: Born on March 25, in Hamilton.

1990: Makes his Motherwell debut as a 17-year-old.

1991: Scores for Motherwell in 4-3 victory over Dundee United in Scottish Cup final, only the second time the Fir Park club have won the trophy.

1993: Makes his debut – and only appearance – for Scotland as a substitute for Davie Bowman in the World Cup qualifier against Switzerland at Pittodrie. The match finishes 1-1.

1994: Signs for Celtic for 1.75m. The deal remains Motherwell's record sale.

1995: Wins a second Scottish Cup winner's medal when he plays as a substitute for Celtic in their 1-0 win over Airdrie at Hampden.

1998: Helps Celtic win the Premier Division title for the first time in ten years, bringing to an end Rangers' run of nine championships in a row. Although injury disrupts much of his season, O'Donnell comes into the team for the run-in and plays in the decisive final match against St Johnstone.

1999: Moves on to Sheffield Wednesday.

2003: Released by Wednesday after injuries prevent him making an impact at Hillsborough.

2004: After being handed the chance to train with Motherwell, O'Donnell is awarded an 18-month contract by manager Terry Butcher and makes his second debut against Dundee United in January 2004, a game in which his nephew David Clarkson scored a hat-trick in a 3-1 win.

2005: Plays for Motherwell in Scottish League Cup final, which Rangers win 5-1.

2006: Appointed captain of Motherwell after former skipper Scott Leitch joins Ross County. Injury ruins his season though, and after playing three games early on he is ruled out for the rest of the campaign.

April 2007: Signs a new one-year contract as player-coach.

December 29 2007: O'Donnell dies, aged 35, after collapsing during Motherwell's home match against Dundee United in the Scottish Premier League.

GAME OFF

MOTHERWELL'S match at Hibernian on Wednesday has been postponed following the death of Phil O'Donnell, the Scottish Premier League announced last night.

A spokesman for the SPL confirmed Wednesday's remaining five games will go ahead.

Bill Dickie, the Motherwell chairman, said he was not yet sure if the club's home clash with Celtic, due to take place next Sunday, would go ahead.