JUST over fifty years ago, Scotsman Alex Donald arrived in Ballymena having joined the local football club from Derry City, writes Johnny Doak.
Little did he imagine back in 1971 that he would still be living in the town half a century later.
His football career constitutes just part of his sporting journey, and it takes a trip back just over seventy years to a small village in the east of Scotland to get the full story…
Alex Donald was born on June 5th 1948, in what was then the village of Kirkliston in West Lothian, although nowadays it lies on the outskirts of Edinburgh’s western suburbs just minutes from the Scottish capital’s airport.
His earliest football exploits were as a goalscoring centre forward in schoolboy football although he wasn’t the first young footballer from Kirkliston to find fame in the beautiful game.
“Bobby Moncur, who had a great career at Newcastle United in the Sixties and Seventies, went to the same school as me and he played for the Scottish schoolboy international team,” explained Alex. “In fact, the first time I was at Hampden Park was on a school trip to watch Bobby play.”
With his football career progressing as he moved through his teenage years, Alex played juvenile football for St.Bernard’s and then later in the East of Scotland League for Pumpherston Juniors. After doing a year a Technical College in Edinburgh, Donald took a job in a local factory making electrical transformers. It wasn’t just at football that he excelled though.
“Back then I was big into athletics. I ran competitively at local sports days and at Highland Games meetings and also competed professionally. A couple of gentlemen from junior football, Dan Crawford and Bob Ainslie, looked after me and several other sprinters. Pro races operated on a handicap system and there was decent prize money, a bit of gambling went on too. They used to get me out of work for training, I’d be running on railway lines to get my rhythm right and they were feeding me properly too.”
Alex’s professional sprinting career was brief as he became something of a victim of his own success.
“At my first Highland Games meeting I was given a generous handicap and won the race easily. Don and Bob were able to bet on me and won a fair bit of money, I was able to take a few pounds home to my mum so everyone was happy. After that my handicap was reduced so the guys who weren’t as quick were able to beat me.”
Although playing junior football at a decent level, it was through an unlikely route that Alex, then known as Sandy, began to make strides in the game.
“As well as playing for Pumpherston, I was playing in a midweek league for the local distillery with a bunch of older guys. My journeyman in work was a guy called Rab Lynn and after he saw me there and also playing lunchtime kickabouts he recommended me to a friend of his who managed Falkirk.”
The Falkirk boss was none other than former Ballymena United hero Alex McCrae, player-manager of the 1958 Irish Cup winning team.
“I was still just 16 when I went there but I suffered a leg break in a reserve game against Dundee and never kicked a ball for the first team.”
The setback was minor and caused only a temporary pause in the progression of Donald’s football career. Soon after he recovered, he was on his way to the Football League in England.
“Port Vale were doing a sweep around Scotland looking for players. A guy called Tommy Quigley had his eye on me so off I went. No trial, I was signed straight away.”
At that time, Vale were managed by the great Stanley Matthews, an icon of English football and the first-ever Ballon D’Or winner less than ten years earlier in 1956.
“I arrived at Crewe train station and was met by Stanley Matthews in his Rolls Royce. I was a 17-year-old boy and it was quite overwhelming to be honest.”
Matthews introduced the young Scotsman to first-team football almost instantly as he was chosen to play in a pre-season friendly in the summer of 1965 against Aston Villa.
“I’ll never forget it, we beat them that day. Matthews played himself at centre forward and I lined up at outside right. At outside left for Villa was Johnny McLeod. He had played for Hibs and was a Scottish international. Now that was overwhelming!”
With a view to utilising Donald’s blistering pace, manager Matthews moved the speedy Scot to play regularly on the wing. After a few months of reserve team football, Alex earned his place in the first team as part of the youngest forward line in football league history.
“I was the youngest at 17 while we also had an 18-year-old, two lads a 19 and one at 21.”
Alex’s rise through the ranks at Port Vale hadn’t gone unnoticed as he was selected for the Scottish youth international team.
“We didn’t actually play competitive games, they were just friendlies. But you know that when you’re playing in a Scotland v England game, it’s never going to be a friendly!”
Controversy arose in 1968 when Vale were investigated by the Football League after allegations of illegal payments to players. The initial threat of being thrown out of the league was avoided but the club were heavily fined and as a result suffered financial difficulties. A fighting fund was launched and one of the fundraising events saw a Port Vale select play against a Midlands celebrity team in a game Alex Donald fondly remembers.
“I was playing at outside right, Stanley Matthews played in the middle and the great Preston and England winger Tom Finney was on the left. I was gassing the left back but I couldn’t get a decent cross in. Next thing Tom Finney came across and gave me a bit of advice to help with my crossing.”
For Alex though, his time at Vale Park had come to an end and it was time to move on.
“Ken Furphy at Watford was interested in signing me, as was Matt Gillies at Leicester but one of my old team-mates at Port Vale, Jimmy Hill, had come across to Derry City who were then in the Irish League. He was player-manager at The Brandywell and as soon as he knew I was available, he got in contact. The wages and signing-on fee were very good and the offer of full-time football was hard to turn down.”
Turbulent times weren’t far away in Northern Ireland’s second city as civil unrest erupted in the late Sixties province-wide and parts of Donald’s new home resembled a war-zone.
“If you wanted to get involved in trouble you’d certainly have no problem but if you didn’t give anyone any trouble then you would have been left alone. To be honest, although there were no-go areas and such like, I never had a problem getting around Derry at that time. I stayed in Bishop Street and the Brandywell was just down the hill from me.”
Alex became part of a strong Derry City side which finished runners-up to Linfield in his first season at the club but as The Troubles intensified attendances plummeted and the club began to struggle financially. In January 1971, Donald was on the move and had a couple of options.
“Drogheda United in the League of Ireland were interested and so were Ballymena United. Alex McCrae was manager at the Showgrounds so that swung it for me as well as the offer of full-time football.”
Alex moved to Ballymena straight away and he soon settled in Mid-Antrim staying in digs with a fellow countryman.
“I moved into Mrs.Balmer’s house in Mount Street where Sammy Frickleton stayed. Living with Sammy was a powerful experience! We trained in the morning at The Showgrounds. Sammy, myself and Arthur Stewart were the three full-timers. Any shift workers would have joined us or lads who didn’t have a full-time job.”
Full-time football lasted only a few more months at The Showgrounds and early the following season Alex McCrae resigned to be replaced in the manager’s seat by Arthur Stewart. For Donald, that meant finding alternative employment outside of football.
“I got a job in the Michelin factory on the Broughshane Road. The job involved shift work which broke my heart as far as football was concerned. I was maybe finishing training at half nine and into Michelin for a night shift at half ten. I missed training and matches due to work many times. When we won the Gold Cup in 1975 and the County Antrim Shield in 1976 I missed them both due to work.”
The new manager set about putting his own imprint on the side and Donald now found himself playing on the right of a three-man midfield.
“Although Arthur was still quite young to be a manager, he held the respect of the players. He was a fantastic player too, never wasted a pass. He moved me from the wing to midfield and I always felt that was where I played my best football. Quentin McFall played in the middle, he was a really elegant midfield player and Sammy (Frickleton) played on the left though Sammy could have played anywhere.”
In 1974, Alex played his part as United reached the Irish Cup Final.
“I scored the winner in the 89th minute at Windsor Park in a 2-1 win against Linfield in the first round before we put seven past Crusaders in the quarter final. The Showgrounds was a mudbath that day.”
A marathon semi-final against Larne saw Ballymena win on penalty kicks after a second replay failed to separate the two sides. Qualification for the final aroused interest back in West Lothian.
“The local paper back home ran a feature because three Kirkliston lads were playing in cup finals at the end of the season. I was playing for Ballymena against Ards, my brother Kenny was playing for Linlithgow Rose in the Scottish Junior Cup Final, and Bobby Moncur was playing for Newcastle United against Liverpool in the FA Cup Final. Unfortunately, all three of us ended up with losers’ medals. For Ballymena, Paul Kirk was suspended for the game against Ards and we missed him big style.”
Three days after the Cup final, Donald enjoyed a landmark moment in a Ballymena shirt which he still gets some mileage from to this day.
“We played Glenavon in a Blaxnit Cup game and I scored a hat-trick. I train these days in Lifestyle Fitness gym and Leroy Millar also trains there. We have an ongoing bet over whether or not he’ll manage to score a hat-trick for Ballymena!”
Arthur Stewart left the club in March 1976 and was replaced by club legend Eddie Russell. The Larne man had no luck on or off the pitch as the fire which ravaged the Showgrounds later that year had a massive effect on the team’s playing fortunes too. Billy Johnston came to the club a year later and was responsible for another positional change for United’s flying Scotsman.
“Billy Johnston and Alex McKee made me into a full-back and I played there for the rest of my time at Ballymena. When you’re playing in that position it’s a big help if your team-mates are always looking for the ball. I was fortunate to have had guys like John Sloan, Tom Sloan, Gerry Mullan and Sammy McQuiston who all wanted to be on the ball.”
The arrival of Alan Campbell coincided with a decision by Donald to end his playing career but his involvement at the club continued.
“I retired in the summer of 1979. To be honest I’d thought about it for a couple of years as it was getting tougher to combine my job with playing football. I remained a signed player though and still turned out when Alan needed me to play.”
Alex enjoyed a successful testimonial and was rewarded with the proceeds of a friendly game against Southampton in August that year. Although he had wound down his playing commitments, Donald gradually got more involved in the coaching side of the game. A fitness fanatic, he began taking training sessions at the club and was particularly involved when Alan Campbell was absent from the club following a road traffic accident in August 1980.
“My duties got busier after Alan’s accident. Any nights I was available to be at training, I took the session. Anything that needed done, I did it.”
After Campbell’s departure, Alex remained on the coaching staff. His successor Ivan Murray left the club in early 1983 and Donald was appointed caretaker manager. By this stage, he was also in charge of the youth team at The Showgrounds. Wins over Bangor and Glenavon took Alex’s United team to third place in the table before a run of defeats saw them plummet down the table.
“It was really hard being manager, I had to do everything. I had never any ambition to be a manager mostly due to the constraints of work.”
Alex served as assistant under subsequent bosses Ian Russell and Jim Platt and played a significant part as Ballymena lifted the Irish Cup under the former international goalkeeper in 1984.
“Jim was away with Northern Ireland just before that game against Carrick so I had to do a lot of prep with the team for that final.”
Earlier that season, Donald’s youth team had reached the IFA Youth Cup Final just after Christmas.
“That was a massive thing, but my biggest problem was the reserve team had played a couple of days before in the Steel Cup final at Seaview. Six of our team were involved and they were shattered by the time our game came round a couple of days later. On the day we lost 2-1 at Solitude to Glentoran.”
Alex left the club after Platt’s departure that summer and diverted his energies into long distance running.
“Michelin changed the shift pattern around that time and I wasn’t involved anymore with Ballymena. No-one told me not to come back, it just happened that way. I got really into distance running and was doing sub-three-hour marathons.”
The lure of football was never far away and Donald returned to the game as an assistant to Gary Erwin at Larne in the early Nineties. His prowess as a physical trainer was recognised by former team-mates who had got into management.
“Paul Malone had brought me to Larne when he was manager to take some fitness sessions there. In later years Alan Campbell brought me to Ballyclare and Davy Neill would have had me take training at Chimney Corner too.”
Erwin became manager at Ballymena United in the autumn of 1994 and brought Alex Donald back to the club as his assistant. On the Scotsman’s return he found fitness levels to be less than desirable. Sessions on the test track at Michelin, at Portglenone Forest and on the second pitch at the Showgrounds followed as Alex made his mark on the squad.
“Gary came in and won his first game against Linfield but I was shocked at how poor the fitness levels were among the players. I have to mention Mark Carlisle and Dino Gilmore, they were two players who never missed a training session and gave everything they had.”
Erwin’s quest to earn United a place in the new Premier League failed and he was replaced before the season was out. Donald’s coaching skills weren’t wasted as he was recruited to the coaching staff at Ballymena Ladies Hockey Club. After spending six years with the hockey ladies, Alex returned to competitive running in his late fifties. Just turned 73, the Scotsman still runs in Masters races all over the British Isles.
“I run in 60m, 100m, 200m and 400m races. I’ve been successful in competitions in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. My most recent came in 2019 before Covid hit. I won gold medals running in v70 100m and 200m races.”
While Alex continues his Masters running career, things have gone full circle for the Donald family with his son Stewart now part of the coaching staff at Ballymena United.
“It’s been a great wee period for me getting back into competitive running. To be truthful, I’ve had a very satisfying life.”
As things edge back towards normality, Donald will be hoping to add to the sporting medal collection he started back in Kirkliston all those years ago.