Two memories flashed through my mind on learning of Alan McDonald’s tragic death on the 10th tee of Temple Golf Club — the zenith and the nadir of his distinguished professional career.
A numbness struck instantly. Northern Ireland football had lost one of its outstanding personalities — capped 52 times, a gentleman to deal with, a man of principle, dignity, intelligence, articulate, he has left a stream of reminiscences.
To have watched him in every one of those internationals, including World Cup Mexico 1986, was a privilege.
He had many historic moments, proudly wearing the green shirt. For me, the classic — the zenith — was the night of November 13, 1985 at Wembley, a scoreless draw with England, the point ensuring Northern Ireland were heading down Mexico way the following summer.
McDonald, a young centre-back from north Belfast, and — surprise, surprise — goalkeeper Pat Jennings were the superstars.
Northern Ireland had lived dangerously with narrow escapes, Jennings producing miraculous saves and McDonald dominating the central defensive position. Kerry Dixon, Gary Lineker and Glenn Hoddle all had opportunities to score, but inexplicably fluffed their lines.
Sammy McIlroy, by now an international veteran, commented: “We were bombarded from start to finish. It was like the Alamo.” But young Mack had a different view. He told a pitch-side interviewer: “There were 13 heroes out there tonight. Everyone was brilliant and anyone who says this was a fix, then they can come and see me. I’ll tell them this was no joke.”
Asked if it was his proudest moment in football, he replied: “No, that’s still to come playing for Northern Ireland to a home crowd at Windsor Park. When I do it will be the biggest day of my life.”
He had many of them at the soon-to-be-refurbished stadium in south Belfast.
The nadir was unquestionably at The Oval when Glentoran, whom he had steered to the Irish League title in 2009 as manager, were passing through an indifferent, embarrassing stage which climaxed in a 6-0 defeat by Coleraine. The verbal abuse he experienced from a section of the crowd was fierce, unfair and intolerable.
He trembled and was deeply emotional when he met the media, cutting the interview short. He was deeply hurt and lost his appetite for management, leaving Glentoran in 2010, but not his love of the game.
He was a credit to his country, his clubs, particularly Queen’s Park Rangers whom he served for 17 seasons. He leaves a legacy of a real professional who played a major role in Northern Ireland’s golden football era of the 1980s.
McDonald is survived by his wife Tonya, a son and two daughters.