Belfast Telegraph

Billy On The Box: Stephen McDonnell is making his point in the right way at Warrenpoint

Young gun: Stephen McDonnell may be a rookie boss but he knows his own mind
Young gun: Stephen McDonnell may be a rookie boss but he knows his own mind

Billy Weir

There was a wonderful moment on Saturday when it had started to turn a little on the Baltic side as evening drew in at Mourneview Park.

Little Warrenpoint Town (I believe this is the full name of the club) had just pocketed a point against Glenavon, seven days after being denied a famous win over Linfield at Windsor Park.

One of the more senior members of the journalistic family turned his attention to Town's game this weekend against Dungannon Swifts and dared to suggest that it was a 'bottom of the table' clash.

Town manager Stephen McDonnell, a man who probably has fewer years under his belt than some of the questioner's vests, stopped him dead in his tracks and gave him that sort of look you used to get when you had tried to open just one button too many.

"We're not bottom," he scowled. But then offered an olive branch to spell out life as it is as a rookie and the youngest manager in the Danske Bank Premiership.

"We're always going to be playing every game like it's our last one. Every game is important."

And with that in mind, it is hard not to be anything less than impressed with the newest kid on the block, especially when he knows words like 'holistic'.

I'll be honest, on first listening I thought he said 'ballistic', but he is a new breed.

"You can't be good at one thing and not good at the rest. You have to have that kind of holistic package; working on your transitions, to attack and to defend, so there are four components to the game and you have to try and tick the criteria in all of those."

Or, as he sensed our unease over someone using a word like 'holistic', he cut it down to layman's terms.

"Everyone chipped in, everyone worked their socks off. That's the basics. If you don't bring that to every game, regardless of how you set up or play, you don't go away with anything.

"It's no coincidence that we've worked hard and competed and had opportunities to win the last two games against the two best teams. Is it because we're playing the two best teams and we decided to step it up? Or is it because they're willing to work that little harder and trust in what we're trying to do? I hope it's the latter."

At just 26, McDonnell has already experienced more in his footballing life than most. The former Celtic and Republic of Ireland youngster was forced to quit playing the game he loves because of a heart condition.

You sense that, having tackled that rather sizable obstacle, the thoughts of reading the riot act to older men in the dressing room isn't something that is going to faze him unduly.

"I haven't had experience of doing it before. That's the thing about being young, you just go in and what's to fear? It's what I believe in and it's what I want people to be speaking about our team, our group of players, our backroom team, this is how we play.

"It's an identity that I want to have attached to my name. Once you have that bit between your teeth and block everything from the outside, you stick to it. You've got to stick to it. We've signed a group of players to play a brand of football."

And the players have signed up to that mantra. Simon Kelly, who at 34 and having played a lifetime here and in the League of Ireland, could be forgiven for raising a quizzical eyebrow when this young cub is growling out orders, but not a bit of it.

"I worked with Stephen before at youth level in Dundalk. I knew what to expect," he told me on Saturday.

"The lads have to like it too. We try to play good football, maybe not on Saturday given how much Glenavon had the ball, but if you don't want to play football the right way, what's the point?

"Stephen gives us the freedom to play and express yourself, and if you make a mistake he takes the rap for it because that's how he wants to play."

The job is far from done, obviously. Town have recovered from their horrendous start of six defeats on the bounce and now aren't, as we are all now aware, at the bottom of the table, but with McDonnell at the helm, it is hard to see anything other than exciting times ahead.

Belfast Telegraph


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