Belfast Telegraph

Junior footballer should get heart screening, says Irish League boss whose coronary condition forced him to quit playing at 22

By Steven Beacom

A football manager has spoken about living with a heart condition that forced him to stop playing and urged the sport's authorities on both sides of the border to invest money in screening youngsters at grassroots level.

Stephen McDonnell became interim boss of Danske Bank Premiership club Warrenpoint Town last week. He took over after Matthew Tipton left to take charge of Portadown.

It was a surprise appointment to many involved in Irish League football, not least because the Dundalk man is only 25 and now one of the youngest managers in Europe.

The rookie is determined to succeed and feels he has the character to do so having previously dealt with bigger issues - such as being told he could suffer a cardiac arrest on a pitch if he continued playing.

McDonnell's health problem first came to light when he was a teenager signed up by Celtic.

He was the last of Tommy Burns' Academy recruits before the Parkhead legend sadly passed away in 2008.

At his Celtic medical, the heart condition was spotted, but not deemed serious enough to cause concern.

After returning home to play for Dundalk, further screenings suggested the issue was not going away. Then, at the age of 22, McDonnell's life changed.

"From 19 to 22 I had been going to Dublin for screenings twice a year and then it became three times in nine months," recalled the Warrenpoint manager. "Then I was diagnosed with a condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

"That diagnosis meant I was putting myself at risk, asking my heart to go through the workload of a footballer on a daily basis. I was advised on medical grounds that it would be best to stop playing because I could have a cardiac arrest on the pitch.

"My family and I took the information onboard and I made the call that that was it. I wasn't going to put myself or my family though that situation. I put health ahead of everything.

"When you sit down and digest news like that it can make you fearful, but a lot of things can do that if you let them control your mind.

"I was 22. Football was my life and I wasn't going to close the door on it because I had received bad news about a heart condition, so I got into coaching and decided to give it a real go.

"I still go to the gym, I walk every day and I coach every night. It's just I'm not asking my heart to go through different types of football training and playing." Eighteen months ago, McDonnell had an operation to have an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD) fitted.

He pointed out though, that he considers himself fortunate and has asked sporting bodies to take responsibility for a problem that is ever growing with increased numbers of teenage footballers across Europe, including Ireland, dying through heart problems.

"I always feel very sad when that happens," added McDonnell, who said that his biggest football influences include Celtic icon Burns and former Derry City boss Stephen Kenny, now manager of Dundalk.

"I consider myself to be one of the lucky ones. There are many people out there who have never been screened and don't know there is anything wrong with them.

"Heart issues for sports stars are increasing. It is something governing bodies like the IFA or FAI need to look into more.

"Elite players at top level are getting screened, but what about kids playing junior football?

"I think it should be addressed, not just in football but in every sport. A lot of it is bypassed and I'd like to see the IFA and FAI pump money into grassroot levels where youngsters could be screened for any heart issues.

"I know at Warrenpoint we are looking at getting experts in to show everyone how to use defibrillators and how to do CPR."

On the subject of being a such a young manager, McDonnell, promoted from within the coaching ranks at Warrenpoint, said: "It has probably come ahead of time, but I'm delighted and ready for the challenge.

"I'm young, hungry and fresh and hope to bring something different to Warrenpoint. The club has put a lot of faith in me and I feel exciting times are ahead.

"I will work extremely hard to make the job a success."

Belfast Telegraph

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