Words: Joe McKelvie
Phil O’Donnell was born in Bellshill on March 25th 1972 and after coming through the ranks at Motherwell, made his debut against St. Mirren on 24th November 1990, aged 18.
Playing in an unfamiliar left-back role, Phil helped the team to a 1-1 draw, but would have to wait until February for his next appearance, which against Rangers, where he played in the central midfield role that the Fir Park faithful would grow accustomed to seeing him in. The local teenager would make the role his own, as Motherwell finished in a comfortable sixth position in the league. However, it wouldn’t be league duty that Motherwell would remember during the 1990/91 season.
After seeing off the holders Aberdeen as well as Falkirk, Greenock Morton and Celtic, Motherwell booked their place at Hampden for a Scottish Cup final against Dundee United on May 18th, 1991. Aside from the encounter with Aberdeen, O’Donnell started the rest of the games on the road to Hampden. Motherwell took the lead through Iain Ferguson in the first half, but early in the second half Dave Bowman equalised for Dundee United. The Terrors would only remain level for a matter of minutes. Davie Cooper’s free kick into the box was only partially cleared by John Clark and O’Donnell fearlessly threw himself at the ball to put Motherwell back in front. Commentator Jock Brown described it as a goal of “skill, bravery and total commitment” whilst co-commentator Ally McCoist described O’Donnell as being “brave as a lion” – a line which would later become iconic. What a time to score your first professional goal. Ian Angus added to O’Donnell’s goal to make it 3-1 but a Dundee United fightback – sealed by a 90th minute equaliser by Darren Jackson – saw the game go to extra-time. Thankfully, as he had done in regularly in the cup campaign, super-sub Stevie Kirk came on to score, heading Motherwell to their first cup triumph in thirty-nine years.
Silverware in his first season was certainly a fantastic start and it wouldn’t be long before he was a regular in the Scotland under-21 side, where he won eight caps in total. To add to this, he got his first taste of European football as Motherwell faced Katowice of Poland in the Cup Winners’ Cup. Unfortunately, Motherwell exited on away goals despite drawing 3-3 on aggregate. The season wasn’t quite as memorable for Motherwell, finishing a mediocre tenth in the table and after seeing off Ayr United following a replay, losing the defence of their Scottish Cup title to Rangers. For O’Donnell however, the season continued to show his personal progress, as he was awarded with the prestigious accolade of PFA Young Player of the Year. His all action, energetic displays from midfield were catching the eye and after starting all but two games all season, where he netted five times, he was handed the gong. Motherwell’s league campaign wouldn’t fare any better the following season, despite finishing in an improved ninth position, it wasn’t until a 2-1 victory against Falkirk on the penultimate game of the season that the club’s Premier Division safety was assured. Manager Tommy McLean attributed Motherwell’s poor start to the season partially to injury problems, with the absence of O’Donnell felt particularly, as he missed several games through injury.
Motherwell arguably haven’t had a better season since 1993/94, which proved to have many highlights, both for Motherwell and O’Donnell personally. Only two defeats in the first ten games saw Motherwell challenging at the top of the table and in this period, O’Donnell received full international recognition, appearing as a substitute in a 1-1 draw with Switzerland in a World Cup qualifier. He came back from international duty in buoyant form, with a trademark run resulting in the first goal in a 2-0 win against Hearts, after which “The Steelmen” topped the table.
The side’s success was in no small part owed to the settled nature of the side and was this was epitomised by the midfield three of O’Donnell, fellow youth product Jamie Dolan and recent signing Paul Lambert. The trio complemented each other well, with the dynamism of Dolan and the guile of Lambert allowing O’Donnell to influence the game further up the pitch. O’Donnell got his first double for Motherwell in a 3-1 victory against Raith Rovers in December 1993, but he didn’t have to wait long for his second brace, coming in January 1994 against Celtic, where he scored both goals in a 2-1 victory. His first goal was at the end of another lung-busting run, whereas his second came from an exquisite volley from a Rab Shannon cross. It was yet another moment of bravery, as much like his goal in the 1991 final – he was clattered in the process.
Motherwell managed to challenge at the top end of the table for almost the entire season and whilst on paper it would have to go down as a tremendous season, it did have an agonising end to it. No wins from four games in late March and early April really put Motherwell’s title challenge back, but even with something of a resurgence with three consecutive wins over Kilmarnock, Rangers and Hibernian, the damage had already been done. Two wins from final two games could arithmetically saw the title go to Fir Park, but would have required a massive swing in goal difference. As it happened, Motherwell conceded a 90th minute equaliser against Raith in the penultimate match, ending any hopes of a final day showdown. Rangers stumbled their way to their sixth title in a row, despite not winning any of their last five games. To add insult to injury, Aberdeen snuck in front of Motherwell into second place.
Whilst some may always wonder what could have been, third place and another foray into Europe represented a tremendous season for Motherwell, with O’Donnell playing a massive part. This season saw a career best seven goals, full international record and for the second time, the PFA Young Player of the Year award. To date, only he, Eoin Jess, Craig Levein and Kieran Tierney have won the award twice. His performances persuaded Tommy Burns to pay £1.75 million to take him to Celtic, still a club record sale.
Despite scoring twice on his debut against Partick Thistle and winning the Scottish Cup in his first season, O’Donnell’s time at Celtic Park would be injury-ravaged, preventing him fulfilling his full potential at Celtic Park. He was though, part of the side that won the league in 1998, preventing arch rivals Rangers winning ten titles in a row. After just over 100 appearances, he failed to agree a new contract and moved to Sheffield Wednesday for a crack at the English Premiership in 1999. However, his time at Hillsborough proved to be more fraught with injuries, as he only played once in his first season, unable in anyway to influence The Owls’ relegation from the top flight. Upon his contract expiring in May 2003, O’Donnell had only managed twenty-five appearances in all competitions, scoring once.
Determined to put his injury hell behind him, there was no better place for O’Donnell to resurrect his career than the place it started. After a trial period where he had to prove his fitness to manager Terry Butcher, O’Donnell penned a deal at Motherwell, where he would now feature alongside his nephew, David Clarkson. It clearly didn’t take long for the family influence to take effect as on his second debut, Clarkson scored a perfect hat-trick (left foot, right foot and a header) against Dundee United.
The following summer saw Motherwell’s new signing Brian Kerr sustain an injury in pre-season which effectively ended his campaign, meaning the onus would be on O’Donnell and fellow veteran Scott Leitch in the engine room. O’Donnell’s injury history meant he had adapted his game from the all-action midfielder he was in his first spell, but he still managed get amongst the goals, with a quite spectacular volley in a 2-0 victory against Hearts the pick of the five he managed over the course of the season. Two of those came on the way to the 2005 League Cup Final, however that proved to be anti-climactic as Motherwell crashed to a 5-1 defeat and the game saw O’Donnell’s season end prematurely. The league campaign saw Motherwell achieve a consecutive top six finish after a difficult few years preceding it.
Leitch was carried off in the opening day of the 2005/06 season, which proved to be his final game for the club and this paved the way for O’Donnell to become the club captain. It was a league campaign plagued by inconsistency for Motherwell, where despite being significantly clear of any relegation trouble, the club fell short of a top-six spot and the season petered out with a disappointing eight-place finish. O’Donnell effectively managed his injury problems this season, appearing thirty-two times, where he netted in draws against Hibernian and Falkirk. Just when he thought his injury problems may be behind him, his 2006/07 season ended just three games in with an achilles injury. The team struggled in his absence, with Butcher now having left for Sydney and his assistant Maurice Malpas taking over the reins, only narrowly avoiding relegation.
It was no surprise to see Malpas resign in the summer and when his successor Mark McGhee came in and placed an emphasis on fitness, some may have questioned the contribution that O’Donnell, now thirty-five, having missed a season, would have. However, with a dynamical youthful team including the likes of Stephen Hughes and Ross McCormack, McGhee saw O’Donnell as the experienced cog in the heart of midfield to lead the team. The influence he continued to have on the team was epitomised by a fantastic header to equalise against Inverness on the second game of the season, which spurred the team on to a 90th winner.
A 3-0 victory over Inverness in November kicked of a tremendous run of five consecutive wins, during which O’Donnell netted a crucial winner in a 1-0 victory against Kilmarnock. This run of form clearly cemented Motherwell as one of the favourites to finish third behind Celtic and Rangers. Defeats against Rangers and Falkirk followed, but in what was ultimately one of the most tragic days in the club’s history, Motherwell produced a special performance. Motherwell turned on the style and with twelve minutes remaining, Motherwell led 5-2, including a double from Clarkson, one of which was an exquisite chip. At this point, O’Donnell was to be substituted, but in leaving the field, he tragically collapsed and was taken by ambulance to Wishaw General Hospital. The world of football was left stunned shortly afterwards when it was announced he had passed away of a cardiac arrest.
Phil left behind wife Eileen and four children Megan, Christopher, Olivia and Luc and thousands lined the streets for his funeral on January 4th, 2008 at St. Mary’s Church, Hamilton. A heartfelt speech by former team-mate Chris McCart truly described the gentleman that O’Donnell was. Having had matches against Hibernian and Celtic postponed, Motherwell returned to action in the Scottish Cup away to Hearts on January 12th, revealing a new kit including O’Donnell’s signature stitched in to the shirt. A packed-out Motherwell away end unfurled a massive shirt in tribute, with the famous “brave as a lion” line of commentary from the 1991 cup final. After going two down, a reinvigorated side came back to draw the game 2-2 courtesy of a Chris Porter double. The heroic comeback certainly did him justice.
The Motherwell side did his legacy proud, achieving their aim of finishing third and qualifying for Europe. Further to this, David Clarkson made “Uncle Phil” proud by ending the season with his first Scotland cap against Czech Republic, scoring against Petr Cech, arguably the best goalkeeper in the world at the time.
Tragic circumstances took a husband, father, uncle and team-mate from us far too soon, but no Motherwell fan will ever forget the “skill, bravery and total commitment” that O’Donnell showed the Fir Park faithful in both spells at the club. His legacy will live forever.