I was naturally saddened to learn of the death of Phil O’Donnell who collapsed whilst playing football for Motherwell last week. He wasn’t widely known outside of the tight Scottish football community – he was club captain and local lad from Hamilton but it seems that he was universally admired and respected as a loyal, committed player who was very much a regular guy. Known affectionately around the club as ‘Uncle Phil’ because, unusually, he had a nephew playing in the same side. I guess too it was a nickname reflecting that at 35 he was coming towards the end of his career. Nobody anticipated that his career would end so abruptly; his life arrested by heart failure during the match against Dundee Utd.
This isn’t the first instance of this happening; there were a couple of guys who collapsed through heart failure recently whilst playing in the Spanish league and most notably over here it happened to Marc-Vivien Foe whilst on international duty, to ex-Swansea star Robbie James, and of course to Terry Yorath’s 15 year old son whilst kicking around in his garden. I heard yesterday that the condition is called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) and it strikes down an average of 4 young people a week, usually whilst undertaking some sport. It makes you wonder whether enough is done by the clubs to screen their players for such a condition. It’s hard to imagine anything worse than seeing this thing happen on the pitch. And for Phil his young nephew was one of the witnesses. One of the Dundee Utd players tried to catch him as he collapsed.
That’s terribly sad and what annoyed me afterwards was the off-hand attitude of the SFA following the incident. They agreed with a request from Celtic to postpone their upcoming fixture against Rangers as a mark of respect towards Phil and because their players weren’t in the right frame of mind to take part. That’s fair enough. But Dundee Utd whose players were witnesses to Phil’s death, several of whom had tried valiantly and in vain to revive him, were denied permission to postpone this week’s match against Hearts. Surely there must have been a more distressing emotional impact for the Dundee Utd players than those of Celtic? But it’s one rule as always for the bigger clubs and DU played out a soulless match against Hearts on Wednesday which they won but by all accounts it was a tetchy, bad-tempered affair. I don’t know what possesses officialdom sometimes.
Yesterday was Phil O’Donnell’s funeral and all reports confirm that it was a fitting and tremendous send-off for such a decent, honest, genuine professional. Over 500 people attended the service in Hamilton’s main church with more than 1,000 lining the roads outside to pay their final respects. The Dundee Utd team were all there. If I was Sir Alex Ferguson, I might have been tempted to insist on his squad attending too to let them grasp the concept of personal respect. As with many young footballers today, few of them seem to understand it, still fewer command it. Unlike Phil O’Donnell.