There was a quiet restlessness among the fans exiting Celtic Park after a perfunctory if uninspiring 3-0 win against Gretna on a cold December day in late 2007. The team were stuttering along, winning games without looking too impressive but the main topic of conversation wasn’t the football it was events at Fir Park just a dozen miles from Paradise. Motherwell had been playing Dundee United in an exciting match which had ended in a 5-3 win for the home side. However all of that meant absolutely nothing as stunned supporters watched the club Physio and Doctor attend to Phil O’Donnell who had collapsed on the pitch. Supporters could see from the distraught reaction of the players from both sides that something serious was occurring. O’Donnell’s distressed team mate and nephew, David Clarkson had to be substituted as he was simply incapable of playing on in such circumstances. O’Donnell, affectionately known as ‘Uncle Phil’ around Fir Park had suffered left ventricular failure of the heart and left us at just 35 years of age. It was a dreadful afternoon for Motherwell but also for the whole of Scottish football which was left to mourn the passing of one of the good guys in life.
When news of his death spread it caused huge consternation and no little grief in the football world. Phil was a famously fit and clean living man who approached his profession with dedication. His former team mates at Celtic were as distraught as his Motherwell colleagues and the club asked the league to postpone the traditional New Year’s match with Rangers, which they did.
I only met Phil once and it was outside the Celtic Park in the mid 1990’s after some forgettable pre-season friendly. He stood patiently signing autographs and posing for photos with fans. He was courteous, quietly spoken and seemed to me to be one of those guys we used to call a ‘gentleman.’ I wished him well for the season ahead and told him how desperate the fans were to stop Rangers beating Celtic’s nine in a row record. He smiled and said, ‘We’ll do our best, it won’t be for lack of effort.’ That was one thing you got from Phil O’Donnell; 100% effort in every game.
His Celtic career began when Tommy Burns signed him for £1.7m in 1994 and in his first match at Firhill he scored twice against Partick Thistle to the delight of the big Celtic support. His time at Celtic swung between highs like the Cup final victory over Airdrie in 1995, the 5-1 crushing of Rangers in 1998 to the famous title win which stopped the ‘Ten’ on that sunny May day in 1998. His low points were undoubtedly the frustrating injuries which often saw him out of action just as he was imposing himself on the team. A boyhood Celtic fan, he would be proud to say he wore the Hoops although no one should doubt too the genuine affection he also had for Motherwell FC and how deeply they felt his loss.
Of course football mourned such decent man and dedicated professional but the effects on Phil’s friends and family can only be imagined. He left a wife and four children who would have to deal with a loving husband and father not being around anymore. For the fans he was the box to box midfielder with the sweet left foot. For his family he was everything, his daughter Megan, just 12 when she lost her father said recently…
I miss the car journeys to school every morning, belting out Queen’s greatest hits and singing songs from the Forrest Gump soundtrack. I miss playing football in the hallway, with him as the goalie in the door frame whilst my brother and I chase the ball in our pyjamas. Unlike my siblings, I was lucky to have my dad present for my first day of high school – my youngest brother, Luc, didn’t even have a father to see him on his first day of primary school. But I wasn’t able to share my excitement of getting into university with my dad, and I know that when I graduate I will miss him more than ever. The saying goes “it’s who you look for in a crowded room”, and I know that when I collect my degree next week, I’ll not only be looking for my mum and my grandma in the crowd, I’ll also be looking for a sign that he is with me.’
It is with some poignancy that the two clubs who meant most to Phil O’Donnell are meeting in the League Cup Final this Sunday. Supporters of both will I’m sure mark the upcoming anniversary of the passing of Phil with a suitable tribute. In an era when footballers can often act with an arrogance and aloofness which forgets the fans who put them where they are, it will be fitting to recall one of the good guys who had patience and time for the fans. One story about Phil which demonstrates his character was recalled in the press in the days following his death..
‘The old cliché which gets dusted off in times like these, namely that no-one had a bad word to say about him, may as well have been coined specifically for O'Donnell. He was unfailingly polite, gracious, and reserved. Those qualities were evident to team-mates, opponents and the media, and transmitted to supporters of his own and even other clubs. People knew that O'Donnell was one of the good guys. Years ago he once turned up to play in a youth cup final at Fir Park only to realise that he did not recognise the official at the door. Rather than say "don't you know who I am" he avoided any fuss by walking to a nearby turnstile and paying his way in. "My family taught me to keep my feet on the ground no matter what," he once said. "It's just the way I was brought up, I suppose."
I hope Sunday sees a good game of football with the best side winning. I also hope it sees a noisy, sporting crowd remembering one of Scottish football’s gentlemen in an appropriate and fitting manner. Of course I want my team to win but if the passing of Phil and his great friend and Manager Tommy Burns in that 2007-08 season taught us anything it is that football is only a game and its transient glories are but naught when we think of a family losing their father.
Thank you for all you did for Celtic Phil and I’m sure Motherwell fans will thank you just as much for your efforts in the claret and amber.
Rest in peace Uncle Phil.
Phil O’Donnell (1972-2007)
One of the good guys