AN exhibition has been held in Ireland to chart the remarkable career of a former Blackburn Rovers and Accrington Stanley footballer.
Jim Donnelly is not a name that will mean much to all but the most ardent football fans but he was one of the most in-demand coaches in Europe before the Second World War put a cruel stop on his international career.
Born in the West of Ireland, Donnelly made his debut for Blackburn Rovers in 1920 and played for them for two seasons before joining Accrington Stanley on a free transfer. He would later play for Southend and Brentford but it was when he coached non league Thames AFC that his career took off.
He was part of a wave of English coaches who were sent out into Europe by the Football Association and is believed to have worked in Belgium before being appointed coach of Gradjanski in Zagreb, the former Yugoslavian champions.
The English coaches were much in-demand for their innovative tactics and by 1935 he had moved to Turkey to manage Istanbul side Gunes SK. This in turn led to him being appointed coach of the Turkey side at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Donnelly stayed in Turkey for a couple of years - and is believed to have been behind Fenerbache’s championship-winning side.
He then moved to Italian giants Inter Milan. With Mussolini in power the notion of a non-Italian officially managing an Italian club was not allowed so officially the coach was the team’s former goalkeeper Armando Castelazzi who had recently retired from playing although Donnelly was very much the man in charge, guiding the team to the Italian championship.
Then came what would have been his big move - being asked to manage the Austrian national squad in 1938. But his contract arrived as Hitler annexed Austria and promptly disbanded the national side.
Certainly Donnelly was back living in Morecambe when war broke out and his dream of international management was over.
But his love of football continued. He was player manager for Bacup and, at the age of 59 made his debut for Clitheroe in the second division of the Lancashire Combination in 1953. He died in Morecambe in 1959, aged 66.
Derek O’Flaherty, a researcher at the North Mayo Heritage Centre in the west of Ireland, has spent 18 months tracing Donnelly’s career.
“It is a remarkable story,” he said. “When we started researching it didn’t seem too promising and we would lost track of him. But then a new fragment would emerge and take us further.
“It does seem that Jim Donnelly was one of the most respected coaches of his day who was cruelly robbed of major international success with the outbreak of the Second World War.”
Derek believes that Donnelly had a son Thomas who in turn had two daughters born in the 1960s.
“There is so much of his story that we still haven’t discovered,” said Derek. “There must be more stories out there.”
If anyone can shed further light on Jim Donnelly’s career or family life, email [email protected]