Kevin McDonald opens up on coming home eight months after a kidney transplant - but signing for Dundee United and not Dundee

A long scar runs across his lower abdomen and a football pitch stretches out behind him.

Former Manchester United striker Andy Cole (left) had a kidney transplant after he finished playing. He has been in contact with McDonald
Former Manchester United striker Andy Cole (left) had a kidney transplant after he finished playing. He has been in contact with McDonald

Having already accepted in his own head that he was retiring, Kevin McDonald is edging closer to playing competitive football again. He could even make his Scottish top-flight debut as soon as this afternoon.

It’s the wholesome, uplifting story Scottish football could do with right now. Better still, McDonald has joined a club based just miles from where he grew up in Carnoustie and has returned with a wife, Lucy, and Layla, their six-month old baby daughter. He has extra reason to believe in the powerful bonds of family.

McDonald has signed for Dundee United but it’s another transfer – that involving one of his brother Fraser’s kidneys – which has made this once unlikely scenario become a reality.

Kevin McDonald (left) in action in 2008 for first club Dundee against Queen of the South

Advertisement

Hide Ad

Speaking at Tannadice, the 33-year-old explains that he had already discounted the possibility of playing on as it became clear his kidney condition, first detected while playing across the road with Dundee, was worsening. “I had fully planned to retire from football,” says McDonald, who is preparing to play for the first time since July 2020 against St Johnstone in Perth today.

He recalls entering his final year at Fulham, where he had dropped out of the picture, and weighing up whether to go on loan to Nottingham Forest or accept an offer from a Chinese club. “But then I had a couple of bad blood results….”

He had to switch his mind from playing football to thinking about what happens if that wasn’t possible any longer. “I knew the transplant was coming up in the near future,” he says.

Andy Cole got in touch. The former Manchester United striker’s kidney transplant took place after his retirement. Ivan Klasnic, once of Bolton Wanderers, has had three to date, the first two of which failed. McDonald also spoke with him.

Advertisement

Hide Ad
Former Scotland midfielder Kevin McDonald signed for Dundee United earlier this week eight months after a kidney transplant (Photo by Mark Scates / SNS Group)

Neither Cole nor Klasnic has found post-transplant life plain sailing. They are stark reminders that this is not your run-of-the-mill football injury.

“It was one of those where I had to decide in my head: ‘do I play 30 games at Nottingham Forest or do I take care of myself and look towards the future in case I couldn't get back playing?’” continues McDonald. He opted for the latter course of action. He started climbing the first rungs of the coaching ladder with the Fulham Under-18 and 23 sides.

“That season with the 23s confirmed that I want to be a coach,” he says. “I want to be a manager when I finish playing. That was always a comfort for me. I knew if I couldn't get back playing then I had the coaching side of it.”

Advertisement

Hide Ad

But he was knew that none if this might be possible if a compatible donor wasn't found – and quickly. Originally his best friend, Danny Millar, was lined up. “Something fell through with Danny’s – not through his choice, on the medical side,” explains McDonald, who asked the surgeon: what about my brother? A postal mix up had resulted in Fraser’s blood sample being sent to the wrong place. “I don’t know how the Royal Mail have come into the story of my kidney transplant!” he says.

It transpired his brother was also a good match. Good news until McDonald’s body started to reject the new organ. “It was a bad rejection,” he says. “At the time I was 32-years-old and my brother was 35 and really fit. The surgeons said they were baffled when you’ve got someone next to me who is 85-years-old and in and out in three days from a random donor.”

He was prescribed anti-thymocyte globulin (ATG) for the treatment of steroid resistant acute rejection. Ten days later he was given the green light to go home, where he isolated for three months with his then pregnant wife. His brother, meanwhile, had been in and out and was already home in Carnoustie minus a kidney.

“His wife’s a Dundee United fan and loves the football!” says McDonald. It was fate that his first assignment as a fully-fledged United player should come at Dens Park, where he sat on the bench on Tuesday for the goalless Dundee derby hours after agreeing a contract.

Advertisement

Hide Ad

The stadium is where he first caught the eye as an elegant midfielder when he broke through under Alex Rae. He spent time training with Dundee as well as today’s opponents St Johnstone when he first returned north. As well as them looking at him, he wanted to check out significant considerations such as style of play and facilities, a major factor for an athlete striving to return to peak physical condition.

“The kidney’s not really the issue now,” he says. “I’m 33 and for 18 months I haven’t played. It’s how I take to a game. I’m grateful to Dundee United. They know the risks involved. I could break down just like that.”

Other clubs got in contact, including Plymouth Argyle and Portsmouth, nearer where he lived in Surrey. “There were other options but going to a Plymouth or something didn’t have that pull for me as much as coming back to this area,” he says.

Dundee were the first Scottish team he turned to in recognition of their shared history. “We picked up the phone to say to Dundee that I was available but if nobody picks up the phone you move on, that’s the way it is," he shrugs.

Advertisement

Hide Ad

As for what someone who last played for Scotland in 2018 can now hope to achieve, he says it’s simple. He wants to show he’s still the same Kevin McDonald as before, just with an added, very special spare part.

“The last thing I want to do is go out there, play and look rubbish” he says. “I don’t think that’s what will happen because I feel good and the enthusiasm for it is still there.”

A message from the Editor:Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by Coronavirus impacts our advertisers.If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription https://www.scotsman.com/subscriptions

 0 comments

Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.