Second chances don’t tend to whisk around that often and when Stephen O’Donnell was offered an opportunity to renew his career as a senior footballer he was determined not to let it pass him by.
Finn Harps director of football Felix Healy was a long-term admirer of the Manorcunningham native, recently going on the record so state he tried to bring him to Finn Park during his first tenure at the club six years ago. And when Healy watched on as O’Donnell scored in the colours of Ulster Senior League side Kildrum Tigers in May, Healy wasn’t going to miss the opportunity again. And neither was O’Donnell.
“When the opportunity to play for Harps again came up it didn’t take me too long to decide,” he said this week. “I’m 28 now and I didn’t want to be thinking ‘what if’ when I turn 35. Peter Hutton is 37 still and in the same position as me, looking forward to getting back involved, so it proves if you take care of yourself you can have a good career and I didn’t want that chance to pass me by.”
O’Donnell was at Harps’ Ulster Senior League side as a teenager before making his biggest impact on the League of Ireland in 2004. That, of course, is a season cherished in the north-west as Healy drove Harps to the First Division title but 55 miles down the road O’Donnell was impressing in the colours of Sligo Rovers.
O’Donnell has an eye for goal and managed to find the net on no fewer than 10 occasions in that campaign from midfield for Sligo. In 2005, he was in and out of the first team at the Showgrounds having missed the start of the season because of his tour of duty with the Irish Army in Bosnia. That said, he still played a significant part in the ‘Bit o’ Red’s First Division Championship win. However, as well as an occasionally stormy relationship with then Rovers manager Sean Connor, O’Donnell, who now lives in Convoy was committed to stints overseas in Liberia and because of that didn’t fit into Sligo’s ambitious plans to adopt a semi-full-time strategy in 2006.
O’Donnell joined Harps that January, having been signed by former manager, Anthony Gorman, and scored on his debut for the club away to Kildare County and then again on his home debut against Kilkenny City. In all, he made 26 appearances for Harps scoring seven goals. Since then, O’Donnell has spent his time either in the colours of Kildrum, or his hometown club Lagan Harps during the crossover of summer and winter season, as well as the Defence Forces. But when he heard the strum of the Harps, he made his mind up to return to Ballybofey.
“It’s been a bit frustrating having to wait for the last month or so for the July window to open but myself and JP Gallagher and Peter Hutton have had to be patient,” O’Donnell adds. “We’re ready to rock now and although I may be two or three games short of complete match fitness but am looking forward to Longford on Saturday.”
O’Donnell’s versatility means he can play up front or in midfield. An early indication of his prowess came on Tuesday night when he scored a hat-trick against Bonagee United in a friendly.
“You can see that Felix and Peter have been working hard to get things right at the back first and foremost,” O’Donnell said. “I was delighted to get the 85 minutes under my belt against Bonagee after having a bit of hamstring injury and it’s always nice to get on the scoresheet of course. There is a bit of an onus on Kevin McHugh to score the goals and he has the lion’s share this season.
“I will play wherever I am asked and I’ve spoken to Felix about that. The set-up is good at Harps and it’s professional. Felix and Peter could’ve just tried to batter on with the younger fellas but they are well connected and have decided to put their own stamp in things.
“I suppose the likes of JP, Peter and I will bring a bit of experience to the squad and pull the average age up. Harps have some very good young players but there’s no harm in that little bit of experience. This season might already be about building for next year but there’s still 14 games left to go and there’s plenty of football to be played.”