Ex-Wolves man Kevin McDonald still the life and soul of the party

Kevin McDonald is discussing the possibility of whether he will be able to play football again following his recent kidney transplant.

Kevin McDonald of Wolverhampton Wanderers celebrates (AMA)
Kevin McDonald of Wolverhampton Wanderers celebrates (AMA)

Clearly there is no rush, and he won’t take any risks, after what was ultimately a life-saving transplant received from older brother Fraser.

“Well if I did come back no one could say my legs had gone, because they’ve always been gone so that’s no different,” he exclaims.

“Although Fraser has always been fitter than me, so I might just come back with a bit of pace…”

And there in a nutshell, if it were needed, is evidence that Kevin McDonald is doing o-k.

His much-famed sense of humour is very much alive and kicking.

One of football’s true characters, one of life’s true characters more to the point, McDonald is never one to stay quiet or even slightly downbeat for too long.

Jack Price, his younger central midfield counterpart during his three years at Wolves, says that it was McDonald who took the pressure off his footballing emergence by telling him not to take himself too seriously.

And that is something McDonald himself can certainly never be accused of.

Even just a few weeks after the life-preserving surgery, which led to complications as his body initially rejected the new kidney, the usual McDonald is back.

Yet don’t for a minute think that he hasn’t taken recent events with the total respect and gravitas that they deserve.

Off the pitch, in the dressing room, in everyday life, there isn’t much that McDonald isn’t prepared to laugh about.

But once he crossed the white line, it was serious business, and so too the far graver situation of requiring a transplant after suffering for years from chronic kidney disease.

“Of course something like this put everything into perspective,” says the 32-year-old.

“When you are lying in hospital, and you are hearing bad news that your body is trying to reject the kidney, then I’m not going to lie, it’s a shock to the system.

“And the last thing you are thinking about at that point is football.

“There were a few setbacks and I ended up spending 18 days in hospital when it was only supposed to be four.

“But I have learned so much from it all.

“I always thought I was mentally strong but this has shown me that I am probably even stronger than I thought I was.

“It has been a testing time but eventually we got there, things are pointing in the right direction and hopefully it will stay that way.”

What is perhaps most remarkable about the chronic kidney complaint which ultimately necessitated the transplant is that McDonald has so far played pretty much an entire career – complete with 41 Premier League appearances and five senior Scotland caps - having to manage it.

So while the announcement that he needed a transplant after several months of inactivity was a shock to the wider footballing world, obviously McDonald and those closest to him were well aware of the extent of what would eventually be required.

Kevin McDonald admits he ‘will be forever in debt’ to his brother Fraser after he donated a kidney to his younger sibling

The kidney disease had been diagnosed when McDonald was 19, taking his first leap into English football by joining Burnley from Dundee.

The plan from an early age was to try and become a footballer – “otherwise I would have been in a whole lot of bother,” he laughs.

Having made his debut with Dundee at just 16, McDonald had actually drawn attention from Celtic but, rather than becoming what he felt would be ‘a number’ in such a big and quality-packed squad at Parkhead, he was attracted by the prospect of a fresh challenge south of the border.

Burnley boss Owen Coyle and assistant Sandy Stewart sold the club to the stylish young midfielder, and off he went on his travels to Turf Moor.

It was, you might say, eventful.

From scoring both goals in a 2-0 Carling Cup win against Arsenal and helping the team reach the Premier League in his first season, to later heading to the pub after being substituted at half time when 5-0 down to Manchester City, this is no ordinary footballer!

“I look back on Burnley with a fair few regrets, and that one in particular,” McDonald admits.

“At the same time it made me as a person.

“I’ve always been the same character and that is never going to change, and going from Scotland to Burnley was a big step.

“It was the first time moving away from family, I was a young boy living in a penthouse flat with a bit of money, and that is how it was!

“I did well at times but not as well as I should have done and didn’t play as much as I should have done and that was all down to me – I will never blame anyone else.

“The one main thing I would love to have changed was that Man City game.

“We were getting slapped 5-0 at half time and I had 16 of my mates and family down that day wearing kilts and all sorts and I got lured in by the occasion of that, not what had happened on the pitch!

“Do I regret it? Of course I do, 100 per cent.

“Is it one of my biggest regrets in life? After what has happened to me recently then no, I wouldn’t say that, it was a game of football at the end of the day.

“It pretty much ended my Burnley career there and then and that’s life, you can’t change the past now and just have to live with it.

“But I still met some unbelievable people at Burnley and had a great time there, I enjoyed the club, the staff and everyone was great with me.

“Whether I was classed as a failure or a success for my time there, that is where it all started for me in England and I will always be thankful for that.”

McDonald was despatched on loans to Scunthorpe and Notts County and, with the high profile of that Burnley episode, McDonald was perhaps damaged goods to the effect that he had to go through a trial to try and win a contract at Sheffield United.

As he explains in his own inimitable style, the early signs at Bramall Lane weren’t great.

“Danny Wilson was the boss, and there was myself and another Scottish guy I knew on trial called Ryan Flynn,” McDonald recalls.

“I thought I was having a nightmare because all the way through I was getting called Ryan – I was like ‘Flynny – are you on this, what chance have I got’?

“I backed myself as a player though, I always did, and I just needed a kick up the backside at that time.

“I played a couple of games, did well, and ended up getting a contract.”

McDonald loved his two years as a Blade, despite the disappointment of missing out on promotion via the play-offs in the first when he was injured in the semi-final before an epic penalty shootout defeat to Huddersfield.

“A brilliant club, a proper and grounded club,” is how he describes Sheffield United, to the extent that even when a new and exciting challenge at Wolves came calling, it took a big decision to decide to move.

New boss David Weir was using McDonald as a number 10, effectively building the attacking side of the team around him, and he began the 2013/14 campaign with a goal and assist for Harry Maguire in a 2-1 win over Notts County.

But after some protracted negotiations, McDonald took the plunge to move to Molineux, and, even at just 25, instantly became one of the more experienced members of a Wolves squad trying to halt the dangerous momentum of successive relegations.

Over the following three years McDonald was every bit a midfield lynchpin, chalking up 126 appearances and scoring eight goals as Wolves stormed to a record-breaking League One title and narrowly missed out on the Championship play-offs before levelling out in the final season prior to the change in ownership.

Another midfield colleague Dave Edwards would talk about how McDonald would always be willing to accept the ball, even in tight situations, before executing one of his trademark pirouettes to escape the attentions of the opposition.

Benik Afobe would become well versed in making the perfectly-timed forward runs to meet the perfectly-timed McDonald passes, while the midfielder’s goals included efforts against Crewe and Rotherham during the memorable few days of securing League One promotion.

“I really enjoyed playing at all of the clubs I was at and Wolves was just unbelievable,” explains McDonald, who cleaned up at the Player of the Year awards at the end of his first season.

“Another massive club, such a great dressing room and the fans were absolutely top drawer all the way through.

“Once we clicked in that promotion season we really felt like we were going to turn teams over every week.

“No matter who we were playing, whether we were home or away, we had that confidence.

“Clinching promotion in the end with a record number of points was brilliant especially as some players can go through a whole career without enjoying that sort of experience.

“The Rotherham game in particular was crazy – imagine conceding four goals and still managing to win!

“The Championship the next year was a different proposition and we had some rough patches like all teams do but we found a rhythm again and got very close.

“I remember the home game with Ipswich where we drew which was a slip-up at a crucial time.

“Going from being promoted to finishing seventh and missing the play-offs on goal difference was no bad effort but I think we could have made it.

“And I say to everyone to this day, if we had got in the play-offs with the run we were on, we weren’t losing to anybody.

‘I reckon the other clubs in the play-offs that year were buzzing that we didn’t make it because we had got on a proper roll.

“We didn’t reach the Premier League, but with the stature of Wolves, to see where they are now, I always knew it would happen once it was all pointing in the right direction.

“It is nice to think that maybe those of us involved at that time helped give everything a little bit of a kick start.”

That group who gave Wolves that kick-start bring back fond memories for McDonald, who proceeds to reel off the squad of that time with the same sort of metronomic accuracy as threading a through ball in behind the back line.

“Kemes (Carl Ikeme), he came to my wedding, what a guy the big man is, we’ve got something else in common now with medical stuff…Eddo and Golbourne – the clever ones…Benik, Sako, Dicko…..”

And so he continues.

“It was a great squad and a great time and I loved every single minute of it.

“We worked hard and put it in on the pitch and we would also have a few drinks when the time was right as well which helped bring everyone closer.

“There were so many different characters in that team and it just gelled so well as you could see from the success that we enjoyed.”

“Barmy,” is the word Ikeme uses to describe his close pal, and McDonald was certainly at the forefront of so many of the entertaining episodes of that period.

Be it those end of season games when his family and friends pitched up en masse dressed in kilts and savouring – or usually generating - the party atmosphere.

Kevin McDonald.

Or the time he turned up around an hour after full time still in his club suit to have a drink with them, and Wolves fans, outside the Moon Under The Water on Lichfield Street.

Or when, inexplicably, and still to this day unexplained, he joined in the post-promotion sealing celebrations in the dressing room at Gresty Road by holding a particular vegetable aloft and chanting ‘Onion’. Yes, really.

Fun times, and the constant as Head Coach throughout McDonald’s time, the man who first brought him to the club to direct operations from midfield, was Kenny Jackett.

Jackett and McDonald are perhaps chalk and cheese in overall approach and personality, but there was absolutely no denying that the working relationship was perfect when it came to working together at Wolves.

“Kenny is a top guy,” says McDonald.

“He is one of those who is obviously really professional but he has some really dry banter as well, and I got on really well with him.

“Maybe it was one of those where opposite characters can match and get on really well, but he was an out-and-out manager who was great for Wolves.

“He was actually interested in signing me for Portsmouth last year before he realised what was happening with me at the time.

“Kenny was brilliant for me, and hopefully we all did well for him too, in helping Wolves be successful.

“Towards the end of my spell at Wolves it was clear I was going to be sold and I wasn’t really playing and that was just the sign that it was going to be time to move on once again.”

That journey, almost completing a southward trajectory from Scotland through England, took McDonald to Fulham, and once again, more success, and more enjoyment.

Two promotions either side of relegation and more Premier League experience and a time where McDonald feels he “peaked as a player”.

“Fulham are another brilliant family club, like Wolves, and it’s where I felt I performed at my best, week-in week-out, as one of the main players in the team at Championship level.

“Five years at one club was not something I envisaged during my career – it might have happened at Wolves in different circumstances – but generally I was keen to refresh and look for a new challenge.

“But what a time I had at Fulham and with everything that has gone on it has become like my second home - I really couldn’t have asked for any more.”

Wolverhampton Wanderers' Kevin McDonald (right)

It is just over a year since McDonald last played for Fulham, in a 2-0 win against Cardiff, by which time it had got to the stage where his kidney function had deteriorated to the extent that it was time to take a pause.

McDonald understandably decided that health had to come first and so, while not able to battle for a place in a Fulham side he had again helped to the Premier League, he also turned down several loan options.

Since that diagnosis when joining Burnley, McDonald has had to manage the problem with treatment and medication and remains hugely appreciative of the support of club medical professionals, in particular Doctor Matt Perry at Wolves and Doctors Nigel Sellars and Justin Yeoh at Fulham.

But having reached Stage Five kidney failure, with one kidney no longer functioning and the other only operating at ten pen cent, it was now the point where McDonald needed to either go on dialysis, or find a donor.

It was back in March he decided to go public with his prognosis, handled expertly by Fulham whose Academy staff helped him build up coaching experience with the Under-18s and Under-23s, and drawing messages of support from across the football world, including from Jose Mourinho.

There were even offers from fans of his former clubs to donate their kidneys, if needed.

“That was just incredible,” McDonald acknowledges.

“You don’t expect football fans or people you have never met to be offering their kidneys – I just hope they didn’t want anything in return!

“But seriously the support was brilliant, from all my former clubs, football in general, and I will be forever grateful.

“I have saved all the photos and video messages that I received, and while I can’t thank everyone individually I certainly want to make sure everyone knows how much I appreciate it.

“Wolves fans were great and Doc Perry in particular was so good with me in always making sure I was on it and doing the right things.

“When you know you are a good few years away from needing a transplant it might not seem so serious but at Wolves, and then the guys at Fulham, were fantastic in making sure I was taking the medication and keeping up with the appointments.

“Everyone has been top, top drawer and that has helped me get to this position where I have been able to have the transplant and can now hopefully look forward to what is to come.”

There were many among McDonald’s close circle of family and friends willing to step forward to donate a kidney, which he again finds humbling, and a match was found with older brother Fraser.

While McDonald remains this effervescent, happy-go-lucky character and without doubt one of the funniest men in football, he doesn’t hesitate in explaining just how much this gesture means.

“For Fraser to do this, to put himself through it and go through the surgery and everything, it must be the strength of siblings or whatever you call it,” explains McDonald.

“I owe everything to him and will be forever in debt to him.

“We’ve not made too much of a big deal of it because that’s what family are for, isn’t it? If he was in the same position I would have done exactly the same.

“Even so, it is difficult to describe how grateful I will always be and just to go through that whole experience with Fraser was unbelievable really.”

Following the transplant, for which McDonald is hugely grateful to the skills of Professor Nizam Mamode and all at Guy’s Hospital, he must isolate for three months although there may be one notable exception hovering just around the corner.

Because he and wife Lucy are expecting their first baby, any day now.

Most people view moving house and finding a new job at the same time as a challenge.

For McDonald? A kidney transplant and becoming a Dad for the first time. Not a problem!

The joy of impending fatherhood also adds to the lack of urgency about deciding on his next move.

Now effectively a free agent after an amicable exit from Fulham, if mentally, physically, he is up to playing football again, most probably at a lower level, he would love to.

If not, then continuing with his coaching qualifications is the likely next step.

Whatever the future holds, it will undoubtedly be with a fresh and new perspective.

“I have loved football, training every day, meeting so many people, the characters, the chance to bond with team-mates from all over the world,” McDonald concludes.

“I feel so fortunate to have been a footballer, and when the day does come that I retire, I will look back with only fond memories.

“With what I have been through recently I have also said this to so many people who might be getting stressed about the little things in life.

“There is that cliché about living every day like it’s your last, and while I wouldn’t necessarily be saying that, the sentiment is there.

“Love your life, enjoy it, and do what you want to do, because at the end of the day it is all about being happy.”

McDonald will forever remain almost a throwback to those players who were deadly serious about their craft when out on the pitch, but believed firmly in football being about fun and laughter, a sport to enjoy and a profession to savour.

It is now five years since he left Wolves with a raft of memories, including that fantastic image after his 97th minute goal against Rotherham in which he is pursued by numerous delirious fans, several losing their footing in the process.

The Pied Piper of Molineux.

With a live-for-the-moment approach to football, an ability to cut through the pressure, politics and expectation, the fortitude to have lived for so long with decreasing kidney function and then determination to tackle the transplant head-on, maybe McDonald is setting an example more than worthy of being followed.

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