It's two years today since the tragic passing of footballer Phil O'Donnell. The Motherwell player died on the pitch playing for the Fir Park club against Dundee United. His death, not unnaturally, stunned Scottish football. Motherwell played their first game following Phil's passing against Hearts at Tynecastle a couple of weeks later. Below is the tribute I wrote for the match programme at that time. It's not only Motherwell fans who still mourn a great man's passing.
Along with many other Hearts supporters, I had recently been bemoaning the fact that my team had been struggling of late, had not won a game for weeks and were now embroiled in a fight against relegation, a situation a club of the stature of Heart of Midlothian FC should never find itself in. After the last match of 2007 – another defeat at Falkirk – I was agonising over just what had gone wrong with the team I love and trying to come to terms with the fact we were in third bottom place of the SPL, just ten points ahead of fast-improving Gretna. My wife knew - as she always knows when Hearts lose a game – that I had the world’s woes on my shoulder and left me to muse. Then the news came in that Motherwell’s captain Phil O’Donnell had died after collapsing during the game against Dundee United…
The death of someone aged just 35 is shocking in any event. That it should happen to a fit sportsman whose name was known to every Scottish football fan intensified the shock and feelings of disbelief felt that Saturday night. My immediate thoughts were with his young family whose devastation could only be imagined. I have a friend who is a die-hard Motherwell fan and since the draw had been made for today’s Scottish Cup Fourth Round tie, he had been ribbing me mercilessly about what his exciting team were going to do to Hearts, particularly after their recent impressive win in the SPL at Tynecastle. But he found it difficult to put into words how he felt that Saturday night. Like many other Motherwell fans, he remembered O’Donnell as an outstanding young player during his first spell at Fir Park. O’Donnell was a youthful member of the Motherwell team that famously won the Scottish Cup in 1991 after defeating Dundee United in one of the most memorable cup finals in living memory. O’Donnell wrote himself into Motherwell folklore by scoring in that game. The midfield player moved to Celtic soon after and eventually headed to Sheffield Wednesday before returning to the club where he made his name.
Usually, fans ridicule opposing players although this is often seen as a grudging mark of respect. The reaction of fans throughout Scotland on the news of Phil O’Donnell’s passing was a clear indication that here was a player widely respected. Former Scotland manager Craig Brown called him the model professional while Motherwell owner John Boyle called him an inspiration. Hearts fans on internet messageboards such as Jambos Kickback, Jambos.net and The Talk O’ the Toun were quick to offer their condolences to his grieving family. His Celtic connections may have instigated the odd abusive comment when he played against Hearts but there was no doubt that he was an integral part of the Motherwell team that, under the tutelage of Mark McGhee, had taken Scottish football by storm this season. As captain, O’Donnell was McGhee’s commander on the field of play and the manager, like everyone associated with Motherwell Football Club, was clearly devastated by the events of the last Saturday of the year.
O’Donnell’s death brought to mind another player with Motherwell connections who died at such a tragically young age more than a decade ago. Davie Cooper was 39 when he collapsed on the training field and his death in 1995 was another that shocked Scottish football. Only a few weeks earlier, Cooper had been playing at Tynecastle for Clydebank against Hearts in a Scottish Cup tie and there were the usual wags in the stand offering comments regarding his Zimmer frame and walking stick and not forgetting to collect his old-age pension from the post office the following morning. Motherwell fans will mourn the fact that, tragically, two members of that relatively recent cup winning side are now no longer with us.
Such awful events underline that for all the problems we think we have – and Hearts fans have been in despair in recent weeks as the Jambos continue in freefall – football is only a game. The family of Phil O’Donnell will never get over the passing of a thoroughly decent and hugely respected man although they may learn to cope with his loss with the passing of time. Part of this family is Motherwell forward David Clarkson who was O’Donnell’s nephew. Football managers often talk of strength of character but young Clarkson will need to show this like never before and in circumstances that have nothing to do with how he performs on the field of play.
At the time of writing this piece, Hearts had still to face Dundee United and Kilmarnock in the SPL. Defeats in both those games will have intensified the already considerable pressure on Anatoly Korobochka, Stevie Frail and the Hearts players. But the events of two weeks ago must surely put this in perspective.
Some things – as the players and officials of Motherwell FC and the family of a man who was a Motherwell legend will testify – are infinitely more important.