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Footballers' Lives with Stephen McDonnell: I had to retire at 22 or risk suffering a cardiac arrest but I'm still working in the game I love

 

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At the helm: Stephen McDonnell has defied expectations as Warrenpoint manager, leading them to safety and an Irish Cup semi-final spot

At the helm: Stephen McDonnell has defied expectations as Warrenpoint manager, leading them to safety and an Irish Cup semi-final spot

Stephen Hamilton

Family: (from left) Stephen with dad Patrick, mum Martina, sister-in-law Niamh, nephew Jay and brother Jamie

Family: (from left) Stephen with dad Patrick, mum Martina, sister-in-law Niamh, nephew Jay and brother Jamie

Power couple: Stephen and girlfriend Therese

Power couple: Stephen and girlfriend Therese

Stephen McDonnell

Stephen McDonnell

Stephen Hamilton

Stephen McDonnell will lead his Warrenpoint Town side into their first ever Irish Cup semi-final tomorrow.

Stephen McDonnell will lead his Warrenpoint Town side into their first ever Irish Cup semi-final tomorrow.

Stephen Hamilton

Stephen McDonnell has made a successful start to his management career with Warrenpoint Town.

Stephen McDonnell has made a successful start to his management career with Warrenpoint Town.

©INPHO

Battler: Stephen McDonnell (left) in action on the field for Warrenpoint

Battler: Stephen McDonnell (left) in action on the field for Warrenpoint

Brian Little

At the helm: Stephen McDonnell has defied expectations as Warrenpoint manager, leading them to safety and an Irish Cup semi-final spot

In the latest of our popular series, Warrenpoint boss Stephen McDonnell discusses his health scare, his time playing for Celtic and moving into coaching at an early age.

Q: How did your career start?

A: At the age of six I joined Quay Celtic Football Club and played there until I went to Scotland. A lot of clubs across the water showed an interest and I also made the Dundalk Schoolboys' League squad.

We competed in the Kennedy Cup and then Milk Cup. I was also selected for the Republic of Ireland Under-15 panel. I had a lot going for me as a young lad and got the opportunity and exposure to show my talent.

I went on numerous trials at both Manchester clubs, Celtic, Aston Villa and Reading. Wigan and Fulham came in late just as I agreed to join Celtic. Villa and Reading tabled deals but the lure of working under Tommy Burns was massive.

Q: Were you living the dream?

A: It was an exciting opportunity. I got a good grounding from my parents and it was the first step in what could have been a great career. I was there for two-and-a-half years and it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

We were well fed and trained. It was a luxurious life and I played up to Under-19 level. I pulled out a year short of my deal and decided to come home. I didn't feel I was developing at the rate I should have been.

The first 18 months were good and I enjoyed playing with guys like Robbie Brady, but then Tommy had passed away and new recruitment guys came in. It was my decision to come home and it was difficult. I was still developing with the full-time training but my game time was limited and that was a concern.

I felt a move to another club would help me and I had a trial at Bolton under Owen Coyle and then Wolves with Mick McCarthy. I didn't secure a deal so I came home to my local team, Dundalk, and played over 100 games for them.

I spent four seasons there and played in the Europa League and Setanta Cup final. We had many highs, almost got relegated, then competed for the title. I moved onto Shelbourne for six months before the final move of my career, to Warrenpoint.

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Battler: Stephen McDonnell (left) in action on the field for Warrenpoint

Battler: Stephen McDonnell (left) in action on the field for Warrenpoint

Brian Little

Battler: Stephen McDonnell (left) in action on the field for Warrenpoint
 

Q: Have you any regrets about your time across the water?

A: No. James Forrest was in my academy team and he went on to become a top, top player. It could never have been for me because I had to retire for health reasons. I could only be successful up to a certain point. I always gave 100%.

Q: Was it hard coming home?

A: Not from a mental aspect because I had one clear idea in my mind, that was to play first team football. It was a culture shock because of the standard.

I'll look at players that go and come back and you can call the academy players straight away because they haven't been introduced to the rigours of senior men's football.

The transition was quite comfortable for me and it was a successful period at Dundalk. I was a central midfielder but could also do a job in defence.

Q: Did you get to know Tommy Burns well?

A: I had been going back and forth to Celtic since I was 14 and I got to know him well. He is a legend and a big reason why myself and a lot of other lads signed or Celtic.

As an Irish boy, it would be difficult to say no when Tommy wants you to sign.

Q: Have you a highlight from your playing days?

A: Receiving the Under-17 International Player of the Year was important because I was doing well and captaining the side.

I'll cherish that for the rest of my days. Unfortunately I didn't taste success as a player but I'm hoping for better joy in the management front.

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Stephen McDonnell will lead his Warrenpoint Town side into their first ever Irish Cup semi-final tomorrow.

Stephen McDonnell will lead his Warrenpoint Town side into their first ever Irish Cup semi-final tomorrow.

Stephen Hamilton

Stephen McDonnell will lead his Warrenpoint Town side into their first ever Irish Cup semi-final tomorrow.
 

Q: Retiring at the age of 22 must have been a tough for you.

A: It was around August 2014. I had been undergoing frequent health screening and something flagged up during the medical at Celtic. I was only turning 16 when the doctors spotted an issue with my heart.

It wasn't until later in my career that we started to understand what is was. We thought it was athlete's heart which made perfect sense because we were training a few times a day.

I had never complained because I never fainted, had a dizzy spell or shortness of breath. When I came back to play for Dundalk we were screened again and it flagged up once more. I was performing at a high level so I was given the benefit of doubt.

The doctors didn't know what it was. At the age of 20, the muscle in the heart grew bigger and it came to a stage where they diagnosed me with HCM which is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

As my career progressed, so did the size of my heart muscle, and I was getting more frequent checks. The muscle in the heart which affects the pump flow was getting bigger.

Q: And you always felt fine?

A: No problem at all. I could be playing other sports and no-one would know about it. The condition means the heart can go into spasm, which is what a cardiac arrest is.

With that being a risk it is important to remove all the elements that could lead to me having a cardiac arrest on the pitch. At the age of 22, the doctors said I couldn't play football any more.

Q: Obviously you were gutted. Was this a big shock to you?

A: At the age of 21 we had seen a change in the thickness of the heart muscle so, in fairness to the doctors at the Mater Hospital in Dublin, they had prepared me for a change.

They said 'Stephen, you may have to call time on your career at some stage', and a year later that time came. So they had planted the seed in my mind that it may happen. I still had no concerns because I felt fine and I was playing. It was a shock and a strange time in my life.

Football had been my life and main source of income. Since I went to Celtic as a teenager I gave everything to the game. Then that door closed on me so I had a huge decision to make. Stay in the dumps, go to the dark side and freak out? Close the door to football, go back to college and get a normal job? But I was coaching with Quay Celtic and got a real taste for it.

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Stephen McDonnell has made a successful start to his management career with Warrenpoint Town.

Stephen McDonnell has made a successful start to his management career with Warrenpoint Town.

©INPHO

Stephen McDonnell has made a successful start to his management career with Warrenpoint Town.
 

Q: How is your heart now?

A: Two-and-a-half years ago I had a small procedure and was fitted with an internal defibrillator. That is the biggest security net you can imagine. If anything happens it will act straight away. Thankfully it hasn't had to kick in.

I live a normal life, walking the dog every day and I go to the gym. I'm still fit and you'll still see me be an animated figure on the sidelines. It shows the value of medical checks.

The players at Warrenpoint have had one recently and they are obviously very important. I have zero problems at the moment and long may that continue.

Q: You are perfectly entitled to feel bitter or angry about your playing days ending early. Did you feel that way?

A: I felt that way for the first two years but I'm a firm believer in what's meant to be is meant to be. What happened was out of my hands. You feel sorry for yourself and ask 'why me?'

I was talking to a young lad at Manchester City who had to retire and move into scouting. If the medical experts tell you one thing, you're not going to risk your life.

I'm well over that period of my life now and the good thing is I got the coaching bug early. When one door closes, another can open. It was a tough time but I had good people to pick me up and put me back in the saddle.

Q: Were you destined to go into coaching?

A: I was always going to be a coach, I always planned for that. Only when I got into coaching did I realise how much I had to say and how much I wanted to be a manager.

I wanted to be the main man making the big decisions, from recruitment to style of play. I was 25 when I took the interim role at Warrenpoint and must be one of the youngest managers in the game.

Q: Being so young, some people who don't know you may be cynical. How did you respond to that?

A: I know the interim role was different, we were in a precarious position but we managed to stabilise things and that's what got me the job.

People did question could we compete in the league and with a young manager we were expected to be relegated. What would he know, how could he motivate the senior players?

I was a rookie and it's easy to be written off. I'm over a year in management and it's been a challenging year. You always want to prove to yourself you can achieve something.

I just want people to say we've done a good job, and with an Irish Cup semi-final place and where we are in the league I consider that a good job for the moment. Of course, we are always looking to improve.

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Power couple: Stephen and girlfriend Therese

Power couple: Stephen and girlfriend Therese

Power couple: Stephen and girlfriend Therese
 

Q: With Ballinamallard United waiting in tomorrow's semi-final, there's a big chance to make it to an Irish Cup final now. How exciting is that?

A: It's brilliant, we have probably the youngest squad in the league and the players never expected to be in this position. We are trying to build an environment and culture where if you do well and even win something you can push on in your career.

Once you've earned a good reputation you may move onto a big club. We believe in our ability and this is a great opportunity to make the final of the biggest knockout competition in Northern Ireland.

The players are delivering the goods and we are there to guide and educate them. There's pressure on us to stay in the league and anything after that is a bonus.

Q: You've been through a lot personally, how supportive has your family been?

A: Mum Martina, dad Patrick, brother Jamie and girlfriend Therese have been massive supporters from my playing days to retirement and now coaching. They always kept me upbeat, they know just how much football means to me and how driven I am.

They know how strong minded I am and they always stand by me. Where I am today is thanks to their help. Therese goes to all the games and is very educated on football. She's a great girl and I can't speak highly enough of her.

We first met when we were 13 and we are still on this journey together. She's a social care worker in Dublin and a clever girl. We both live in Dundalk.

We have a labrador and she keeps me active. I'm in the gym nearly every morning too. It gives me structure to my life and helps me focus.

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Family: (from left) Stephen with dad Patrick, mum Martina, sister-in-law Niamh, nephew Jay and brother Jamie

Family: (from left) Stephen with dad Patrick, mum Martina, sister-in-law Niamh, nephew Jay and brother Jamie

Family: (from left) Stephen with dad Patrick, mum Martina, sister-in-law Niamh, nephew Jay and brother Jamie
 

Q: What is your managerial vision for the future?

A: We aren't far away from that seventh place European play-off spot. That's a big target and perhaps we can become a mid-table side.

Hopefully I can keep building my reputation, and there's a lot of good things happening at the club.

The club has shown great faith in me and we won't leave any stone unturned as we aim to improve on and off the pitch.

Snapshot

Date of birth: March 28, 1992

Place of birth: Dundalk

Previous clubs: Celtic, Dundalk, Shelbourne, Warrenpoint Town

Current position: Warrenpoint Town Manager

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