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Footballers' Lives with Mickey Donnelly: I got a death threat before the 1997 Irish Cup final. Looking back, it's amazing how we kept playing through the madness


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Thick of it: Mickey Donnelly

Thick of it: Mickey Donnelly

Thick of it: Mickey Donnelly

In the latest instalment of our popular series, Cliftonville legend Mickey Donnelly discusses receiving a bullet in the post, memories of league title success, burying the medal with his father, and why he loves nurturing Reds kids.

Q. Where did you start playing football?

A. In my junior days there was a wee team called Red Star and Anton Rogan, who went on to play for Celtic and Northern Ireland, was also in the team. I moved on to Oliver Plunkett and when Donegal Celtic opened their pitch for a summer tournament I was from the Lenadoon area and a team of boys from our area played in it. Billy Sinclair watched the games and asked me to go to Cliftonville. Billy brought me to Cliftonville and I've a lot to thank him for but if it wasn't for Frankie Parkes I may have left. It was a humble and tough beginning for me and looking back I can appreciate it. In the modern game, players have an easier life and some of them think they have played about 600 games when they've only played six. I wasn't wrapped in cotton wool and in my early days I was playing for the Olympic side in the morning and was then part of the first-team squad in the afternoon.

Q. So was it a tough introduction for you?

A. It wasn't easy. It was a wake-up call, I didn't know anyone at the club. I didn't support them as a boy. Sinky gave me a hard time but now I understand why he did it. He saw something in me and was always on my case. Frankie talked me through things and kept me at the club.

Q. How proud are you to be leading the way in club appearances?

A. When I look back it is flattering to think I made that contribution. I knew Geordie McMullan was coming close to me and it's hard to believe. If I hadn't been suspended so many times I might have hit 800! I was probably the first player to get an 11-game suspension. There was an incident when I went head-to-head with Vinny Arkins, it was put down as a headbutt and then my bookings added up to the big ban. You can't tackle anyone today so I wouldn't get along with referees as well in the modern game. The appearance total is up for debate. The website says 610 but I think it's 623 and another stats guy at the club says 618 but at least we can all agree it's over 600 and I've got a jersey to prove that! A few times I was close to leaving and my mates had their own issues growing up in Lenadoon. They weren't all into football. The game was my outlet. My brother Joe came to Cliftonville and played for the youth teams. In one proud moment for my dad Joe, there was a presentation when my brother got Olympic Player and Stroller Player of the Year while I was senior Player of the Year. Dad was a football man, he played for Albion Star but I couldn't bring him to games as he would have struggled with the banter.

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A look through his playing days

A look through his playing days

A look through his playing days

Q. Isn't it sad when you can't bring family to games?

A. Crazy things went on not everyone would know. When we played Glenavon in the Irish Cup final I was staying in the Wellington Park Hotel with the team the day before the game when my name was called over the intercom. I went down and opened an envelope. The next thing a bullet dropped out and the note said, 'If you play well tomorrow you will get one of these in your head'. I've been asked to leave a bar in the town, after I had retired. Myself and my wife Colette were asked to leave a bar. I didn't want any of this brought into football and when the bullet arrived I didn't want the attention. I have good Protestant friends through football and I didn't want to make an issue of it. You will get crazy people. Bizarrely, the Cup final was one of the worst games I ever played but it was nothing to do with that.

Q. Were you not rattled by the death threat?

A. No, I forgot about it. Of course I could have done without it but it didn't affect my game. The only trophy I didn't win with Cliftonville was the Irish Cup and of course the Portadown final didn't go ahead following the Simon Gribben eligibility case. Marty (Quinn) still kicks himself as he had Chris Scannell on the bench but he went with Simon and the rest is history. I'm fed up listening to that 1979 team, hopefully the boys can win it this season if it ever gets finished.

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A look through his playing days

A look through his playing days

A look through his playing days

Q. I'm sure as a Cliftonville player, you must have witnessed a few crazy scenes in more troubled times.

A. I think the worst time was when myself and my wife were asked to leave that bar in the town. When I went to the toilet they followed me in and checked who I was. I confirmed to them who I was and I was asked to leave the bar. I said I would as soon as I finished my drink and that didn't take long! It was scary because anything could have happened and I didn't tell Colette until we were well out of the place. Thankfully, we have all moved on and religion should not come into football. We were enemies on the pitch, friends off it. Portadown games were tense and one time our supporters couldn't get into Shamrock Park and Marty asked us did we want to go out for the second half to play the game. The vote was to play on and the supporters got in eventually but buses were attacked. Looking back, you wonder how did football carry on through the madness? It was great to see Linfield back at Solitude but you always get a few morons who want to disrupt things.

Q. Who were the big positive influences in your career?

A. I've a lot of respect for Frankie Parks and Marty, without a shadow of a doubt.

Q. What was it like playing for Marty Quinn?

A. Marty Quinn was the best motivator around. Players would want to beat the dressing room door down to fight for him. He knew what to say to different players to get the best out of them. He managed his players and managers still have to do that. You can talk about tactics and formations but you still have to know your players. Marty didn't need to tell me I had a good game, but he did need to say a few strong words when it was needed. Some players go into a shell when you have a go at them. Marty didn't set up a training drill but he was a great motivator. I stayed at Cliftonville because of Marty but when he left for Coleraine that was a big surprise. We played for the jersey, Marty and supporters. There were no big time Charlies. A few players did move on for money. When you play you bring your boots and don't really appreciate the people who work behind the scenes to keep the club in business. They don't get the recognition they deserve and you don't truly appreciate their contribution until you stop playing, stop thinking about yourself and see what others do.

Q. You've been appointed the club's head of elite player development. How are you enjoying it?

A. I'm looking after the Under-20s and Under-18s. I've brought a kid to the Irish League and he's good enough to play at a higher level. I met Calvin McCurry at Mallusk four years ago and he wasn't playing for anybody. St Oliver Plunkett trained at Twinbrook and since he joined us he has developed and developed. He's a joy to work with because he will come to you and seek advice on what he should work on. He's a smashing teenager and made his first-team debut after only joining the club in the summer. It's nice when people say they remember me playing, especially now I'm back involved with the club. I just enjoy working with the young lads because the senior lads are given everything, all they have to do is tie their boot laces.

Q. We have seen a lot of players leave the Irish League at various ages to go across the water. Is there any advice you would give to a young player?

A. I had a kid, Conor Farley, who went from Cliftonville to Celtic when he was 16 but he was homesick and he's back home and not playing. I think he fell into the habit of what teenagers do and it's a sin he's not playing football. He went to Ballymena, Warrenpoint and St Matthew's but broke his ankle and stopped. I think the league has moved on a lot since I played and it's a great learning ground for players. The game is a lot faster now and you can't compare teams from across the decades, it's different times and a different mentality. We never did as much work on the strength and conditioning side and we only trained two nights a week. Also, when we played, after a game the first thing we did was go into the Social Club for a beer.

Q. What sort of captain were you?

A. I was a talker and that's not really something you can coach. I was a bit like Marty, he instilled a never-say-die mentality in me. If I needed to have a go at a player I would and there has been fisticuffs on the training ground but for me the badge and the team comes first. I'm just a coach now and it's not about me anymore. I've got my medals and I'm proud of that, I don't need a party to celebrate that.

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A look through his playing days

A look through his playing days

A look through his playing days

Q. Was the title win your proudest achievement?

A. By far. No-one gave us a chance and I think we only used about 15 or 16 players all season. James McDonagh was on the bench and he was panicking, thinking he hadn't made enough appearances to get a medal. The memories are still fresh. My dad passed away and he was full of pride. My league winner's medal is now buried with him. I put my medal in his coffin at Milltown Cemetery and Joe put his Steel and Sons Cup medal he won with Donegal Celtic in as well. I auctioned my club jersey for around £1,700 to fight cancer in tribute to my wife's mum who passed away with breast cancer. We had a great team.

Q. Did your dad not get to see the title win?

A. He didn't go to any games but he saw it on the television and read about it. Looking back, I wish I could have let him go to more matches. I regret that but I didn't think he could handle the abuse. Now my son Mark plays for Cliftonville reserves and I feel proud watching him. My dad wouldn't tolerate anyone criticising his son. He probably would have been at 12 of my 600-plus games which is sad. My dad compiled a few scrapbooks and they are nice memories.

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Silver lining: Mickey Donnelly with his late dad Joe and brother Joe

Silver lining: Mickey Donnelly with his late dad Joe and brother Joe

Silver lining: Mickey Donnelly with his late dad Joe and brother Joe

Q. What happened to your dad?

A. He passed away in May, two years ago. He was a fit 81-year-old. He took a massive stroke, went into a nursing home and something happened, leaving him in intensive care. He had a strong heart but I'm left thinking today, 'Should I have let him go to more matches?'

Q. But it's perhaps easy saying that now, you had your reasons for doing what you did.

A. I know things can't be changed. The bigger picture is I'm proud of what I've done for Cliftonville and I wouldn't change any of it. I would love to have won the Irish Cup but you can't change the past. Losing the final to Glenavon 1-0 was a low point. I never thought of losing, I always believed I could win. In fact, thinking about the past more, the one thing I would have changed would be the Irish Cup final preparation. We stayed in the hotel whereas we should have been in our own beds. Then Marty said to me the night before the final, 'Mickey, I'm going to let the lads have a beer or two'. I said, 'Marty, you can't, one or two goes to three and four'. He might have thought it would help them sleep! But the game was a low point.

Q. What about your mum?

A. Marie would have gone to just one game. I've also a daughter, Rachel (14), who is into her hip hop dancing, she has more trophies than me. At the end of my career I played for Donegal Celtic with my brother and it was a nice memory for my dad to have. He was as proud as punch but I was getting older, looking at the younger kids on the bench. But my dad got what he wanted and of course in his eyes we were the two best players on the pitch. Now my son is carrying on the tradition and he has made plans to go to America in August on a four-year scholarship.

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With wife Colette, son Mark and daughter Rachel

With wife Colette, son Mark and daughter Rachel

With wife Colette, son Mark and daughter Rachel

Q. What's Mark like?

A. He would be calmer than me but he has a lot to learn and hopefully he enjoys it in America. He's getting good training and should develop in America. He goes to St Malachy's and he's a smart kid, he must get that from his mum.

Q. Was losing your father the toughest time of your life?

A. If I'm being honest, I haven't really come to terms with it. In football terms I maybe should have opened the door for him to be more involved. He was the one that got me into football. It wasn't easy growing up in Lenadoon but dad got me into football and had he not, I could have ended up getting involved in stupid things. Some of my mates did time. Football kept me out of it and my mum and dad brought us up right and kept us away from trouble. One time, my mum's windows were put in after one result.

Only one player from a rival team mentioned religion when he played against me and he told a friend of mine not long ago, 'Tell Mickey well done, that's the best Cliftonville Under-20 team I've seen'. Fair play to him for doing it but in those days players were caught up in some nonsense.

When Linfield came to Solitude a dog got on the pitch and this big, heavy Linfield guy said to me, 'Donnelly, do you bring your wife to all the matches?' I couldn't stop laughing but my wife doesn't like me telling that story!

When I was younger, it was street football back then and we didn't have social media. The kids today have to deal with that and they can be sensitive. I feel you have to have the hunger to succeed, if you don't you won't. You need hunger and patience and remember it's all about the club. It's never about you, it's never about me. It's always about the badge, always about the club.

Q. I'm sure Tommy Breslin's passing hit you hard?

A. I played in the same team as Bressy. We used to jog together during training. Tommy was a gentleman, liked by everyone. I wasn't sure he could be a manager because he was so nice. Myself and Marty would go head-to-head sometimes but I never saw Tommy lose it.

Q. Who was the best player you played with and toughest opponent?

A. Packie McAllister and Jody Tolan would be in a best eleven. Gary Sliney, from Dublin, came through with us and Marty Tabb. Keith Mulvenna was also quality. My toughest opponents were the referees! You have to say Glenn Ferguson, Vinny Arkins, Gary McCartney and Lee Doherty, players who left everything out on the pitch. There are fewer characters around now but the game is a better standard. I was a win at all costs guy and winning develops kids as well.

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A look through his playing days

A look through his playing days

A look through his playing days

Snapshot

Date of birth: May 9, 1966.

Place of birth: Belfast

Previous clubs: Cliftonville, Donegal Celtic, Banbridge, Shorts.

Cliftonville record: 610 appearances

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