Alan McDonald: Stalwart of QPR and Northern Ireland

 

There was nothing fancy about the football of Alan McDonald, but for more than a decade he was a mightily effective centre-half for Queen's Park Rangers in the top domestic flight of the English game, and he earned half a century of caps for Northern Ireland along the way.

The rangy 6ft 2in Ulsterman was commanding, combative and, crucially for his longevity, admirably consistent. He was never the paciest of performers but he read the unfolding action intelligently and when the ball was at his feet he was not inclined to risk losing it, thus tending to opt for long-distance punt over delicate dispatch. His characteristic authority, confidence and loyalty gelled with courage, determination and a fierce pride in his work to render him a natural and inspirational captain of both club and country.

Having been spotted by a Rangers scout in Ireland, McDonald enlisted at Loftus Road as a 17-year-old apprentice in August 1981, bedding in gradually and learning from the first-team likes of Glenn Roeder, Terry Fenwick, Steve Wicks and Bob Hazell. The former schoolboy and youth international didn't break through in time to contribute to the Second Division title triumph in 1982-83, but the then manager Terry Venables wanted his promising rookie to gain senior experience and so loaned him to struggling Charlton Athletic, whom he helped to escape relegation to the third tier that spring.

Thus bolstered, McDonald made his Rangers entrance while still in his teens in the following September, playing solidly in a 4-0 drubbing of Wolves at Molineux. There followed a clutch of efficient displays before he was replaced for the remainder of the First Division campaign by the older Wicks.

In 1984-85 his appearances became more frequent as Rangers gradually consolidated their position at the higher level, but it was in 1985-86 that McDonald, who was also an able full-back, truly made his mark. That season he was ever-present in the league and featured prominently as the west Londoners reached the League Cup final, particularly in the quarter-final replay victory over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, in which he scored, and the semi-final defeat of Liverpool which denied Kenny Dalglish's team the chance to become the first to lift the domestic treble.

Rangers under-performed at Wembley, losing 3-0 to Oxford United, but that season, too, he arrived on the full international scene, excelling on debut in a tense 1-0 win over Romania in a World Cup qualifier in Bucharest. Proving that was no fluke, he shone again a month later at the heart of a hectic rearguard action in the goalless draw with England at Wembley which secured Billy Bingham's men their berth at the 1986 finals in Mexico. In that tournament he battled gamely against the high-quality likes of Spain's Emilio Butragueno and Zico of Brazil, playing in all three group matches, which produced only a single point against Algeria.

Thereafter McDonald continued to improve. Combining productively with the smaller, nippier Paul Parker, he was hugely influential as Rangers climbed to fifth place in the First Division under Jim Smith in 1987-88, a feat equalled by Gerry Francis's fine side of 1992-93, the first season of the Premier League.

The big stopper's poise and encouragement were of immense benefit to the development of Darren Peacock, his younger central-defensive partner in the early 1990s who was eventually sold to Newcastle United for £2.7 million, and McDonald remained a Loftus Road bulwark into his thirties.

He was devastated by the club's demotion in 1995-96, but stayed at Loftus Road for one more season before being freed – after playing nearly 500 games for the club – to join second-flight rivals Swindon Town in the summer of 1997. A year later he retired, going on to sample coaching with Northern Ireland under-21s before entering management with Glentoran in his home city of Belfast in June 2007. He took to the task with alacrity, swiftly bringing in new faces and leading the Cock'*'Hens to triumph over Crusaders in the final of the prestigious County Antrim Shield in his first full season.

McDonald tasted even sweeter success in 2008-09 as Glentoran became Irish Premier League champions, pipping their local rivals Linfield by a single point, but then sampled the other side of the coin, resigning in February 2010 after his side had slumped.

McDonald, a popular character renowned as a dressing-room practical joker, owned a trophy shop in Bangor, Northern Ireland, which had been run previously by his international team-mate Billy Hamilton. His death, shockingly premature at the age of 48, happened while he was playing golf on a course near Lisburn in County Down.

Alan McDonald, footballer and manager; born Belfast 12 October 1963; played for Queen's Park Rangers 1981-97, Charlton Athletic on loan 1983, Swindon Town 1997-98; capped 52 times by Northern Ireland 1986-96; managed Glentoran 2007-10; died County Down 23 June 2012.

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