Sunday, February 13, 2022

Ballina native Jim Donnelly (seated, third from right) alongside his Brentford teammates during the 1926-27 season. Picture: North Mayo Heritage Centre

PAUL O’MALLEY traces the remarkable football career of Ballina man Jim Donnelly, who starred in England in the 1920s before becoming one of Europe’s most respected coaches

The first Irishman to coach a foreign national side hailed from the banks of the River Moy.
James Donnelly, better known as Jim, was born on Clare Street in Ballina during the 1890s. His playing career was based in England but unlike many Irishmen who came before him, his subsequent coaching career did not come to a halt at the Cliffs of Dover. He was a trailblazer whose career brought him on a whistle-stop tour of Europe at a tumultuous time when the far-right was rising in places like Italy and Germany with the continent tumbling towards World War II.
It was, in fact, the First World War that brought young Jim Donnelly into the world of professional football. Donnelly had emigrated to Sussex in the south of England as a child with his parents and joined the British Army as a teenager. While enlisted, he played football with the army team, serving with the Royal Artillery.
His playing style caught the eye of one of his fellow soldiers, Alex McGhie, who just happened to play with Blackburn Rovers. Donnelly was recruited after the war, and though his playing career was quite low-key compared to what he achieved as a coach, he must have had a significant ability to be picked up by a team who were Division 1 regulars and champions as recently as 1914.
Donnelly was a left-back who liked to attack and contribute offensively. That is part and parcel of the game for a full-back today but was discouraged in an era when substitutes were not allowed and the ball was made of hard leather.
In addition to Blackburn, Donnelly’s playing career brought him to Accrington Stanley, Southend and Brentford between 1919 and 1928 before he turned his attention to coaching.
This is where things got a bit more interesting for Jim Donnelly. He may have been young but he was also wise from his experiences of war and sport. He started to take part in some coaching programmes with the FA and was sent abroad, first to Belgium and then to Zagreb in Croatia. He took the reins at a local club, Gradanski Zagreb, succeeding former Hungary striker Gyorgy Molnar.
Donnelly was unable to bring silverware to the club but is widely acknowledged as having laid the groundwork for future success in the years that followed, during which Gradanski won three league titles under the management of Marton Bukovi.
Donnelly’s next move brought him even further away from his hometown. He went to Instanbul next, taking charge of the newly formed Gunes SK, who had broken away from Turkish giants Galatasaray. Despite the distance, he met at least one familiar face in the Turkish capital in former Brentford teammate Jimmy Elliot was in charge of Fenerbahce.
Once again Donnelly stepped away before his club’s finest hour (a national league title win) but the Ballina native was instrumental in laying the foundations for this success at a club that came together essentially overnight. It seems his work also came to the attention of figures in the upper echelons of the Turkish government and it has been suggested that Donnelly was personally asked to guide the national team at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin by none other than the Turkish President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
Team Ireland did not compete at the 1936 games so it is likely that Jim Donnelly was one of the few Irish men competing at the Munich Games. Unfortunately, it did not go well for Turkey who bowed out in the opening round to eventual bronze medalists Norway.
There are suggestions that Donnelly subsequently led Fenerbahce to a series of title wins but it is more likely that this was actually Jimmy Elliott as records show that Donnelly was on the move again – into the heart of Mussolini’s Italy where he joined up with the club now known as Inter Milan.
It was an interesting situation. A ban had been imposed on foreign players and the traditional name of the club Internazionale was seen as offensive, so a compromise was found to call the club AS Ambrosiana-Inter.
As for Donnelly, a foreign coach at the helm of one of the country’s biggest clubs would probably not be well received, given the political climate in Mussolini’s Italy, so he was listed as having a number of other roles from scout to consultant to technical advisor. In reality, Donnelly was one of many in a backroom team meant to help the manager and face of the club Armando Castelazzi, a recently retired winner of the 1934 World Cup.
That is not to say that Jim Donnelly worked entirely in the shadows. An interview with him featured in an Italian football publication named Il Calcio Illustrato and he outlined his coaching philosophy, which was centred around an attack-minded approach that relied on the movement and involvement of all 11 players. Indeed, his ideas would likely have some resonance with the Pep Guardiola’s and the Jurgen Klopp’s of the modern era.
Inter Milan went on to win the Scudetto that season with legendary striker Giuseppe Meazza leading the line, but for Donnelly, the job of a lifetime beckoned. Austria were looking for a coach for the 1938 World Cup.
Austria had entered the decade known as the Wunderteam. Led by Hugo Meisl and coached by English-Irishman Jimmy Hogan, they ended up in fourth place at the 1934 World Cup and silver medalists at the 1936 Olympics. Meisl died in 1937 and with Hogan returning to England, Donnelly was headhunted by the Austrian FA.
At the time, the Austrians’ star player was 35-year old Matthias Sindelar. Known as Der Papierene (the Paper Man) for his slight build, Sindelar was one of the finest footballers of his era and even in the later years of his career, was capable of the sublime.
It was not a gig Jim Donnelly could lightly pass up, given that things in Italy were far from ideal. He made an agreement with his Italian club to break his contract, but before he even landed in Vienna, the annexation of Austria (known as Anschluss) began and Hitler’s Nazi Germany took over the country. The Austrian League was abandoned, Jews were banned from playing the sport and Austria pulled out of the 1938 World Cup.
Der Papierene refused to play for the German national team following Anschluss. He was found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning in his apartment in January 1939 along with his Jewish girlfriend. With him went the great hopes of Austrian football in the 1930s. Jim Donnelly’s chance to manage the Wunderteam of Europe had come and gone.
However, not to be overly burdened by the imminent war, Donnelly embarked on a coaching stint at Amsterdamsche in Holland. He led the relegation candidates to an impressive season, finishing second in their league in 1938/1939 before the war forced him back to England, where he is said to have lived with his wife Jane in her mother’s boarding home in Morecambe.
War may have extinguished his ambitions but not Jim Donnelly’s love of football. When he died in 1959, he had been based in Morecambe for almost two decades and as recently as six years prior, was playing for Clitheroe FC, a non-league outfit, while in his fifties.
If the world had not been the way it was in 1939, it would be very likely that more people would know about Jim Donnelly and his remarkable career as a football manager. Instead, his journey through the top ranks of European football was bookended by two World Wars, the second of which denied him his finest house.
Jim Donnelly’s remarkable story remained unknown in his native Ballina for such a long time. But thanks to recent work done by Barry Landy in his book The Emerald Exiles, by Terry Reilly in Ballina & Area People and by the North Mayo Heritage Centre as part of a 2019 exhibition, much more is now known about the life of one Ballina’s first footballing sons and the first Irishman to coach a foreign national team.

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