Former Northern Ireland captain Alan McDonald, who died suddenly at the weekend, has been described as a “man of honesty and integrity” by one of his international team-mates, Tommy Wright.
McDonald, who grew up on the Rathcoole estate, made 52 appearances for his country. At club level, ‘Big Mac’ - as he was affectionately known - spent the majority of his career with Queens Park Rangers.
The 48-year-old collapsed while playing golf on near Lisburn on Saturday.
Speaking to the Newtownabbey Times on Monday, ex-Newcastle United goalkeeper Wright said he was deeply saddened to learn of McDonald’s death.
The Ballyclare man lined up alongside the towering centre-back on the international stage many times but the pair’s footballing links go back even further. They first played together in the East Antrim District Primary Schools’ team in 1974.
“Even a couple of days after hearing the news, it’s still hard to take in,” Wright told the Times. “I am deeply shocked and saddened by what happened and my thoughts go out to all of his family.
“It was just something I didn’t expect to hear; for someone of Alan’s age to die so suddenly. He was still very much a young man.”
Wright said McDonald had “all the qualities” of a top defender. “He’s someone I’ve known for a long time and someone who, both on and off the pitch, was a man of honesty and integrity. He was probably a better footballer than people give him credit for.”
“At 48, Alan was the same age I am now and it’s far, far too young for someone who had so much more to give, to pass away.”
Wright said he would cherish memories of playing in the same team with McDonald as kids when they formed an integral part of the side which won the Northern Ireland District Cup.
“Throughout the time I’ve known him he never changed,” he added.
The football fraternity was rocked by the news of McDonald’s untimely death. Many have recalled his legendary post-match interview after Northern Ireland secured a 0-0 draw with England at Wembley to qualify for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.
“There were 13 heroes out there,” insisted McDonald. “Everyone was brilliant. And anyone who says that’s a fix, well, they can come and see me and I’ll tell them it wasn’t a fix because we bloody earned it and anyone who says different is a joke.”
He is widely regarded as a local hero in Rathcoole and, last year, his achievements in the game were recognised locally when he was inducted into Newtownabbey Borough Council’s Sporting Hall of Fame. He will also be remembered as a sporting great right across Northern Ireland and in England where he was revered on the terraces of Loftus Road.
McDonald came from a strong football family and attended Rathcoole Primary before going on to Rathcoole Secondary School.
He joined QPR in the early 1980s and spent 17 years with the London club. He later managed Irish League outfit Glentoran, steering them to the League title and County Antrim Shield success.
A statement issued on the Irish Football Association’s website hours after his death described him as ‘a true gentleman and Northern Ireland legend’.
Alan McDonald’s funeral is set to take place today (Thursday, June 28) at Ballygowan Presbyterian Church at 12pm.
Report by John Gillespie | Twitter: @Times_Sport