An in-depth look at the career of new Blackpool boss Neil McDonald
SO YOU think Neil McDonald has been chucked in at the deep end with crisis club Blackpool? Well, at least he’s used to it. Back in September 1982, the new Seasiders boss was Kevin Keegan’s bootboy at Newcastle, a carefree teenager who still caught the bus to training from his home in Benwell.
“I’d just played a reserve game against Manchester United,” said McDonald. “And when I came in the next morning, the coaches said they wanted me to go out with the first team.
“I thought they were just asking me to shadow the players but then I was told I was playing at the weekend. I couldn’t believe it. I was only 16! I was playing for the reserves one day and the next I was making my first-team debut against Barnsley at St James’ Park.”
In fact, McDonald became Newcastle’s youngest ever player that day, a record that stood until Steve Watson eclipsed him by 72 days.
Yet if the man (or boy) himself was surprised, nobody else was. “Neil was incredibly gifted,” said Bobby Moncur, who signed McDonald for Carlisle United as a 14-year-old and sold him to Newcastle two years later. “For a lad of 15-16 he was a physical specimen and he had the maturity to match.”
Even Keegan – then 33 and a bona-fide, bubble-permed superstar – had caught wind of Newcastle’s rising star.
“I remember sitting at the training ground when Kevin burst into the dressing room,” recalled McDonald in 2006.“He said ‘Ah – so you’re the one they’re all talking about’.
McDonald eventually made over 200 appearances for Newcastle, but that early potential was stymied by a £525,000 switch to Everton in 1988.
Colin Harvey, the man who signed him, sums up the prevailing attitude to McDonald’s time at Goodison.
“Neil certainly had ability,” said Colin Harvey. “He was absolutely brilliant in training, accurate with his left foot or his right. But for some reason he just didn’t produce it as well as he should have done on the field.”
Yet Everton were a side in decline, a shadow of the mid-80s greats. Like many of his contemporaries, McDonald was tarnished by association and it is easily forgotten that he won the club’s player of the year award in 1991.
“He was six-foot plus and built like a destroyer when I played with him,” said Pat Nevin, another Harvey signing.
“But that was never the way he approached the game. Neil could hit a perfect 70-yard pass with the best of them and the only thing that held him back from an international career was a lack of pace. But, to me, it didn’t matter as he was always that step sharper in his mind.”
Top honours would always prove elusive; in 1994, McDonald was in the Oldham team denied an FA Cup final place by THAT Mark Hughes volley for Man United.
But a move to Preston in 1995 did bring successive promotions and, perhaps more importantly, a coaching position under David Moyes.
Tasked with guiding the youth side, it was a natural first step; McDonald had managed Sunday League side West Allotment Celtic since he was 17 and had already worked in the Deepdale centre of excellence.
“It just felt like the natural thing to do,” he said. “I always wanted to help players, and one of my strengths was cajoling people, so coaching is something I’ve always wanted to do.”
Over the next decade and a half, McDonald would become one of the most respected coaches in the country, largely thanks to a fruitful partnership with Sam Allardyce.
The pair had never even met when McDonald was interviewed for a coaching post at Bolton in 2000, and Allardyce has since joked that the Geordie was “rubbish, bottom of the pile”.
He was saved by an innovative coaching session that had Bolton’s players raving and subsequently spent 12 of the next 15 years as Allardyce’s right-hand man.
“He’s someone I trust completely,” said Allardyce, who worked with McDonald at Bolton, Blackburn and then West Ham. “He’s very, very good at what he does and I’ve always thought of him as my right-hand man.”
The other three years were action packed; a year in charge of Carlisle in which he finished eighth in League One and was mystifyingly sacked.
“I thought he had lost the dressing room,” said Carlisle chairman Fred Story. “I recognised later that I got that wrong.
“He was new to management and I should have supported him more. Sacking Neil was one of my biggest mistakes.”
There were five weeks at the helm of Swedish side Ostersunds, spells as No.2 to Gary McAllister at Leeds and Peter Jackson at Lincoln.
“Neil has a wealth of knowledge,” said MK Dons boss Karl Robinson, a 20-something coach at Blackburn when he worked alongside McDonald.
“And he was a crucial part of my development. His attention to detail, the freedom in the way the sessions run were excellent. For any young coach, he is great to have around.”
Now it is Blackpool’s turn to reap the benefit of those years at the coalface – and he comes endorsed by Nevin.
“He reminds me a bit of Kenny Dalglish,” said the former Scotland star. “He’s got that dry sense of humour and you have to work on him to get to know him.
“I’d sum him up by saying he’s strong-willed and extremely professional.”
EXPERIENCED: New Blackpool boss Neil McDonald