Belfast Telegraph

Monday 21 April 2014

Farewell Alan McDonald; a real football giant

Alan McDonald's inspirational displays as an international footballer made him one of the most popular players ever to pull on a Northern Ireland shirt

It was in the afternoon, we were in Mr Gamble's class at Enniskillen High School and the portable television was on in the corner of the room.

Northern Ireland were playing in Romania. Billy Bingham's boys needed a result to keep hopes alive of qualifying for a second successive World Cup finals.

This was October 1985 and a group of us were so enthralled by what we were watching that we missed our school buses home.

Jimmy Quinn had scored an early goal, the great Pat Jennings was performing heroics and Jimmy Nicholl was clearing shots off the line in what turned out to be a famous 1-0 victory.

Also playing that day was a young, lean, mean defender called Alan McDonald. Just turned 22, it was his international debut.

Was he bothered by playing in a cauldron like atmosphere and facing Gheorghe Hagi? Not a bit.

Shrewd operator Bingham knew that Alan had the ability and character to handle the high pressure occasion. And boy did the Rathcoole man deliver. He was outstanding.

McDonald's next match for Northern Ireland came at Wembley against England a month later. It was a 0-0 draw taking our boys to Mexico.

Again McDonald was magnificent, matching the quality of Jennings in goal.

It's not his performance that we remember most from that night, though, it's what he said after the final whistle countering pre-match suggestions that England would happily draw the fixture in order for Northern Ireland to qualify.

Defiantly, he roared in a TV interview: “If anyone thinks this is a fix, they can come and see me.”

And a national hero was born.

That national hero died suddenly on Saturday while out playing golf at the Temple course near Lisburn.

Alan was just 48. The news has shocked and saddened the sporting community here.

It's still hard to believe the man we knew as Big Mac has gone.

Alan was one of those larger than life characters who you felt would be around forever.

Always good company, he was never afraid to offer an opinion and, like the way he played, there was passion and commitment behind his thoughts.

In total he was capped 52 times for Northern Ireland, scoring three goals. He also captained the team with distinction. Wearing the green, he was consistent, reliable and inspirational.

If ever a guy played for the shirt, it was him. As patriotic as they come, Alan was the proudest of Ulstermen.

When he was a player I thought one day he would become manager of our wee country.

How he would have relished that role. It was not to be, though he did coach the under-21s who appreciated his guidance and experience.

Hard as nails when facing opposing forwards, he did have a softer side. He was a generous soul especially to this correspondent, starting out many years ago.

I recall as a young reporter doing an hour long interview with him. Never meet your heroes, they say. Alan McDonald shot that theory out of the water. He was brilliant.

I'm honoured to say I knew him. Many others from Northern Ireland will feel the same.

It wasn't just here that he was revered. Queen’s Park Rangers supporters will be hurting today because “Macca”, as he was known over there, was considered a superstar at Loftus Road.

He was a much respected defender for QPR in the 80s and 90s, playing almost 500 times over a 17 year period, entering the club's Hall of Fame as a result.

He played in iconic QPR wins such as a 6-0 success over Chelsea and 4-1 victory at Manchester United and was hugely influential when the Hoops finished fifth in the top flight in 1988 and 1993.

The QPR fans loved his fearless approach and devotion to the cause.

Never one to respect reputations, I remember Alan receiving one of Loftus Road's greatest ever ovations after being sent off following an altercation with Mark Hughes, who of course is now manager of the club.

Unlike some who have worn the captain's armband at QPR in recent seasons, he was worthy of it.

After his playing career ended following spells at Charlton and Swindon, he returned to be assistant boss at QPR.

Alan came home to Northern Ireland, becoming manager of Glentoran in 2007, leading them to the Irish League title in 2009.

He remains the only man to have broken Linfield's stranglehold on the crown since 2006.

I'm not sure he was appreciated as he should have been at the Oval and stepped down in 2010.

Two years later and Alan McDonald, fantastic footballer, fabulous servant to club and country and above all a fine man, is no longer with us.

Our deepest sympathies to his wife Tonia, his children and extended family.

RIP Big Mac — a true hero of Northern Ireland.

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