Phil O'Donnell: Energetic Motherwell captain

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The Independent Online

Philip O'Donnell, footballer: born Hamilton 25 March 1972; played for Motherwell 1990-94, 2004-07, Celtic 1994-99, Sheffield Wednesday 1999-2003; capped once by Scotland 1994; married (two sons, two daughters); died Wishaw, North Lanarkshire 29 December 2007.

The Motherwell captain Phil O'Donnell earned genuine respect within Scottish football for the way he was playing in the final years of his career. For the younger generation, it is hard to imagine that O'Donnell the veteran was once a precocious young player who excited managers around Britain. His former team-mate, Tom Boyd, likened O'Donnell's energy in midfield to that of Bryan Robson, the former Manchester United and England captain.

"Phil was a great box-to-box player just like Robson and today he would have been worth million of pounds," said Boyd, who played alongside O'Donnell for Motherwell in 1991 when the young midfielder scored in the club's Scottish Cup final success against Dundee United. Boyd also shared a dressing room with O'Donnell at Celtic and the pair played together in the club's Scottish Premier League title triumph in 1998.

Boyd was there at Fir Park when O'Donnell made his dbut 17 years ago, against St Mirren. The man who was then Motherwell's captain recognised the ability of the youngster, even if one of Fir Park's gatemen had not been quite as sharp-eyed: O'Donnell had come to the ground a few years earlier to play in a youth cup final and was turned away by an official. Rather than complain, the youngster simply paid his way into the ground at a turnstile. "My family taught me to keep my feet on the ground," he explained.

Even if his head had little chance of swelling, his reputation certain did. In 1991, he helped Motherwell defeat Celtic in the semi-finals of the Scottish Cup. The Lanarkshire town then watching its steel industry shut down needed something to feel good about and O'Donnell and his team-mates provided it as they delivered their club's first Scottish Cup success in 39 years by defeating Dundee United 4-3 in extra time.

"We were worried it might be us who were the fall guys, but by the time the final came around we were having a good spell of form," reflected O'Donnell, who at the age of 19 scored with a brave diving header. "We carried that through and it was a fantastic achievement to go on and win the cup, and great for the town. There were tens of thousands of people on the streets."

He was named Scotland's Young Footballer of the Year by his peers in the Scottish Professional Footballers Association in 1992 and 1994, before his move to Celtic in September 1994 for 1.75m. For O'Donnell, whose father, Bernard, had played professionally, and whose brother Jim had once been on Celtic's books, playing in the green and white hooped shirts of the celebrated Glasgow side was the fulfilment of a personal, and family, dream.

The whole family supported Celtic and they were there at Firhill Stadium to see O'Donnell score twice on his dbut, away to Partick Thistle. He helped a side managed by Tommy Burns to win the Scottish Cup in his first season, in May 1995, coming on as a substitute in the win over Airdrie. However, it was a difficult era for both both O'Donnell and Celtic the club was in the shadow of Rangers, while he was hit by a sequence of injuries.

His finest hour in a Celtic shirt came in May 1998, when he helped the club win its first Scottish Premier League title in 10 years and prevent Rangers from establishing a record 10th successive title. O'Donnell's surging runs from midfield were a potent weapon in the side coached by Wim Jansen and he scored eight goals that term.

By the summer of 1999, O'Donnell took advantage of the new Bosman ruling, and interest from England, to move at the end of his contract to Sheffield Wednesday. The Yorkshire club was then in the Premiership but his four seasons there saw him make only a handful of appearances because of injuries, as Wednesday fell from the Premiership to the third tier.

Terry Butcher brought O'Donnell back to Fir Park in January 2004 and two injury-free seasons saw the player contribute to the club's rejuvenation. He was named club captain last year and was performing with remarkable energy in the most telling position of all, in midfield.

"Each game is special to me," he said in a recent interview. "I have missed too many games in the middle of my career to stop playing at the age of 35. I will play as long as I know that I am not going to be doing any long-term damage. I can definitely play another two, three, or even four years."

O'Donnell was capped just once by Scotland, during that first glowing spell at Motherwell. He appeared against Switzerland in 1993 in a World Cup tie. "He would have had more caps if he had not been injured," states his former colleague, Boyd.

O'Donnell collapsed on Saturday, after suffering a suspected brain seizure, while playing for Motherwell against Dundee United at Fir Park. He was rushed to Wishaw Hospital but could not be saved.

Phil Gordon