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Donal O'Brien: I had plenty of clubs but I always came back to Derry City

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Former Derry City star Donal O'Brien

Former Derry City star Donal O'Brien

Former Derry City star Donal O'Brien

Former Derry City star Donal O'Brien

Former Derry City star Donal O'Brien

The broad north Dublin accent is still prominent even though Donal O'Brien's air miles have piled up over the years.

Born and brought up in Donaghmede, the much-travelled midfielder explodes the myth of never returning to a former club because he joined Derry City on no fewer than FIVE occasions - although only three of those were as a player.

Sandwiched between his early stints, Donal took up residency in Australia before going on to grace the Irish League with his considerable talents, becoming a member of the triumphant Crusaders team that boasted the famous 'God Squad' back in the mid-1990s.

Having played for Dublin club Belvedere, where he was coached by Noel O'Reilly, who became No.2 to Republic of Ireland boss Brian Kerr, Donal was lured to St Patrick's Athletic, but soon hot-footed it Down Under.

"I was given a contract with a team in Western Australia when I was only 19," he recalls.

"I was there for almost three years, which helped me gain my residency."

A telephone call from Derry City boss Jimmy McLaughlin convinced Donal to return home - a move that didn't exactly go to plan.

"Derry had achieved a trophy treble the previous year, winning the League, Cup and League Cup," he says. "Disappointingly, they failed to build on that achievement.

"They lost a few key players and the club went through an indifferent phase. Perhaps the pull of the clubs in Dublin handing out big contracts played a part.

"Even though I enjoyed my time there, I found myself on a flight back to Australia."

Six months later, however, Donal punched his return ticket to the Brandywell, having been lured on a two-year deal by Roy Coyle, McLaughlin's successor.

"Roy was rebuilding the team," he adds.

"We got into Europe in his first season and we also won the League Cup the following year.

"Things were going well. I was voted the FAI Player of the Year in 1993. I had an agent looking after my football affairs back then.

"During the summer, I went on trial at Sparta Rotterdam and also had a spell with Genk in Belgium.

"My agent told me he was 99% sure of sealing a contract. However, there was a problem with the transfer fee. Derry City had a fixed price on my head. Unfortunately, the deal fell through.

"I became a bit disillusioned. The Australian lifestyle was still pulling at my heart strings, so I packed up again and moved.

"However, I was unable to play because Derry were holding my registration and wanted a fee. I managed to strike a loan deal with Wollongong Wolves in the NSL. It was great. I was flying all over the place to play - Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide.

"I was there for six months and I enjoyed living on Wollongong."

It was hardly surprising that his next stop-off was the Brandywell.

"It was Tony O'Doherty who brought me back for a third time in 1994," laughs Donal. "But I had mixed emotions in my first season.

"We defeated Shelbourne to win the League Cup but lost out to Sligo Rovers in the Final of the FAI Cup in front of 15,000 spectators at Lansdowne Road, which was a great experience."

Donal's Irish League romance began the following season, when he was snapped up by Glentoran boss Tommy Cassidy on a three-year contract.

He adds: "I knew quite a lot about the Irish League because it received a lot more media and television coverage than the League of Ireland enjoyed.

"I remember my first visit to Glentoran and looking up at the imposing old grandstand. The boot room and tunnel were reminiscent of something you would see in one of the dated grounds in England, in the third or fourth division.

"To be honest, I thought the club had a professional feel about it and I reckoned it was the place to be.

"Unfortunately, I broke my cheekbone four months in, which ultimately led to a fall-out with the manager. I went up to head the ball and was caught by an opposing player.

"It was a difficult time because the club was going through a bit of transition under Cassidy and there were a few financial problems. The strange thing was I was handed the responsibility of captaincy.

"We did manage to win a trophy, but it was fair to say we underachieved in the League. We had boys coming in from England and Scotland and they were leaving within a few months.

"I was living in Derry and, in hindsight, it probably would have been better had I been based in Belfast. Travelling two and three times up and down the road, a one-hour-and-45-minute journey, takes its toll, even though I was joined by Declan Devine and Roddy McDowell.

"I ended up leaving after only one year, although I was reluctant to do so. I was even voted player of the year by one of the supporters' groups

"It was the only time I was ever asked to leave a club. Glentoran were a great club, but it probably would be fair to say it was the wrong place at the wrong time for me."

Donal, however, made the short trip across town to join a vibrant Crusaders, under the astute managerial expertise of Roy Walker.

"They had won the League title the previous season," recalls Donal.

"It was a fantastic time to be at the club. I think we finished runners-up in my first season, but we regained the Gibson Cup the following year.

"It was such a family club. We had old Bob McDonald working there. He was the father of Roy, and little Madge the tea lady looked after us.

"We had a posse of Dublin lads transported by Tony O'Connell. They were great guys - Robbie Lawlor, his brother Martin, Derek Carroll, Liam Dunne, Martin Murray, Aaron Callaghan and Mick Deegan. Big Roddy Collins left just before I arrived.

"Those boys complemented the likes of Glenn Dunlop, Kevin McKeown and big Kirk Hunter.

"Of course, we had the God Squad, which was well known in the Irish League.

"Half of the group were Christians and the other half rascals. I'm not quite sure which group was worse!

"I used to pick up Sid Burrows on my way to games. He was one of the God Squad. Then, we had Roy (Walker), Glenn (Dunlop), Glenn Hunter, Stephen Baxter and big Roy (McDonald). It was a great mix and a brilliant time to be at the club.

"After what had happened at Glentoran, the Crusaders move turned into a dream for me, which was climaxed by the title win in 1997."

After that, Donal embarked on a little bit of club hopping, switching to the League of Ireland with Finn Harps. But after two years he was back up north with Glenavon and Ards before bringing down the curtain on his football days at Ballybofey.

"I moved about a bit before I packed in the game," he says.

"I'd a couple of good years at Harps, reaching the Final of the FAI Cup in 1999 only to be beaten by Bray Wanderers after two replays. It was the club's first Final appearance for 25 years.

"My old boss Roy Walker then took me to Glenavon, but I was only there for one season before dropping into the Championship with Ards. We had to play at Solitude because the club was homeless.

"Trevor Anderson was the manager and we managed to win promotion.

"Although I was offered a new deal, I opted to rejoin Harps. We just missed out on promotion in my final year in 2003-04, beaten in the Final by Derry City at the Brandywell.

"I decided after that game that was me finished.

"It was the venue where my career started and it was the venue for my first goal in the League of Ireland, so it was the perfect place for me to finish."

If Donal was a gifted footballer, he is now putting his knowledge and skills to good use as he is employed by the Department of Justice, working for the Youth Justice Agency.

"It's an opportunity for me to put something back into the community and life in general," he concludes.

"I work with young people who have come to the attention of the police or the courts.

"My job is all about re-integration and rehabilitation, in terms of providing support to young people to help them resist the temptation to re-offend.

"It's a demanding job, but I enjoy it."

Donal O'Brien's key facts

÷ Donal became No.2 to Kenny Shiels at Derry in 2015 - his fourth stint at the club.

÷ He returned to the Brandywell last season and is now manager of the Under-17 team.

÷ Donal bossed Cockhill Celtic from junior football to the Ulster Senior League. Having been installed in 2008, he led the club to their first title success two years later and they won the Championship the next four seasons.

Belfast Telegraph