'this title my best yet'
Dundalk hero O'Donnell's medal joy after recovering from life-threatening blood clot
ONCE the celebrations from Friday's league title win had died down slightly over the weekend, Stephen O'Donnell had to shift around some items in his house to make room for a league medal alongside the two he already possessed from previous clubs.
But while the Galway lad was honoured to have won titles with Dublin sides Bohemians (2008) and Shamrock Rovers (2011), there's no doubting that the medal he won in the Dundalk shirt on Friday night took pride of place.
"That's the one, no question, it means so much to me," O'Donnell told The Herald, the player still beaming from having played a part in the 2-0 win over Cork City which ended Dundalk's 19-year wait for a league title.
Because O'Donnell's presence on the field on a dramatic night in Oriel Park was nothing short of astonishing. Back in April, a knee injury which he sustained against his former club Rovers looked to have ended his career. Shortly after that came a medical complication which could potentially have been fatal.
So, for the player to come into the side, start his first game in six months, score the crucial opening goal and then lift the trophy in his role as club captain is one of the stories of the year. It was a case of recovery for the player on a personal level but also redemption for a club who were almost dead and buried in 2012, just before O'Donnell joined.
"I got a clot a couple of days after the knee injury. The clot was in the lung, it had worked its way up from the leg. I got to hospital that evening and I was very lucky as the next place for the clot to go after the lung was the heart," O'Donnell reveals.
"It possibly could have been fatal, all clots can be. I don't want to be over-dramatising it and start talking about a near-death experience or anything like that but it could have been a lot, lot more serious for my health, never mind my football career.
"It was a hard time, I was on water tablets for three months, I was just bashed away in the gym as I couldn't even do any running, I had to work in the gym to keep the body fat down and give myself a chance of being in shape if I did get back fit.
"To win it, in front of our own fans on the last day of the season, is something else. With the reaction, it felt different to winning the league before.
"The year we won it at Bohs it was a procession to the title, we won it by something like 17 points but the night we won it I think we just had a few pizzas, yet the celebrations when Dundalk won it were amazing," added O'Donnell, pleased that his gamble in starting the game worked out.
"I had a feeling all last week that I might be able to play a part. Even in the time I was out injured, it was in the back of my mind that, if the league went to the wire, I could get back and be involved, help the squad out and thankfully that happened. I was a bit worried as my knee swelled up a bit after the Rovers game two weeks ago, I came on for half an hour in the next game, away to Bray and I tweaked my calf that night. I had to pull out of training last Monday because of the calf injury.
"But I worked hard, I passed a fitness test and the manager put me into the team."
The success story of 2014 began ahead of the 2013 season. The year 2012 had been a dismal one for Dundalk, as the club narrowly avoided relegation and the side, who had a capacity crowd of 5,000 for the last game of the 2014 season, finished off the 2012 campaign in front of just 260 fans.
"In January of last year, 20 strangers turned up for pre-season with Dundalk but Stephen Kenny moulded us into a team. We came second in the league last season and reached the Cup semi-final, a phenomenal achievement," says O'Donnell.
And now, the Champions League beckons, Dundalk back in European football's top competition for the first time since 1991 (they did win the title in 1995 but due to rules in place at the time Irish clubs did not enter the Champions League and Dundalk were shunted into the old UEFA Cup). "We had a taste of that against Hajduk Split in the summer, we beat them in Croatia and we know we can compete at that level, so bring it on," says O'Donnell.