Former gentleman of the NRL player and retired Canterbury Bulldogs back-rower John McDonell talks life in Shoal Bay and Men of League

FAMILY: John and Janet McDonell enjoying retirement at their Harbourside Haven home in Shoal Bay.

FAMILY: John and Janet McDonell enjoying retirement at their Harbourside Haven home in Shoal Bay.

He never wore the green and gold, he never sought the limelight, and he never became a household name, despite a decade playing rugby league at the top level.

In fact, most footy fans who have never supported Manly, Norths or Canterbury would probably not heard, or taken much notice, of one of the game's true gentlemen, John McDonell.

But mention the name to the league purists and they would remember a tough as teak back-rower, a technically polished defender and an inspiring leader. In a nutshell, he was a no thrills footballer who earned the utmost respect of his teammates, his opponents, his coaches and his admirers.

"Back in the 1960s we worked to earn a living and played football for the love of the game," said McDonell, who with wife of 55 years Janet - they have two children and three grandchildren - now calls Port Stephens home.

"I felt privileged at the time to have come from the tiny town of Berry and be given a chance to play against the best in Sydney. I was a five-eighth when I joined Manly and in my very first game I came up against 'Poppa' Clay from St George. It was a real baptism of fire ... he was toughest opponent I ever faced."

McDonell would go on to play 27 first grade games for the Sea Eagles (1965-67) before making the move to neighbouring North Sydney, where he stay for five years (1968-72) playing 100 games, including many as captain, before ending his career with the Bulldogs (1973-74).

"I had the great honour of captaining Canterbury, coached by Mal Clift, in the 1974 grand final [won by the Roosters], and it was a shattering experience to go down. I did not want my career to end this way."

At 33, McDonell thought his football days were over until he was given a lifeline by the Dubbo CYMS as captain/coach. "in 1975 Dubbo was the strongest country club in the country and we went on to win the premiership which made up for the disappointment of 1974."

THE GOLFER: John McDonell still enjoys a round of golf at David Grahams at Anna Bay, using a cart.

THE GOLFER: John McDonell still enjoys a round of golf at David Grahams at Anna Bay, using a cart.

Today's footballers may be fitter and stronger than their contemporaries of the 1960s-70s, but there is no doubting the toughness and skill level of the footballers of that era. McDonell was testament to that - a no-nonsense forward who enjoyed the game, a laugh, a beer and the great camaraderie that team sport fosters.

Now aged 78 and happily retired living in a residential unit at Shoal Bay's Harbourside Haven, McDonell is very philosophical when discussing his childhood, his league career, life after football and the people that matter most to him.

He has retained friendships with people he played football with and against from both Berry and Sydney and despite some recent health setbacks [John suffered a stroke nearly four years ago], he has maintained a happy disposition and a willingness to help others less fortunate.

The McDonells are staunch supporters of the Men of League Foundation and when asked about the work of the volunteer organisation in Port Stephens, John was quick to add: "If I can help out in any way I'd be glad to do so. They are a wonderful organisation and we are always happy to support their fundraising days."

It may come as a surprise to some footy fans that rugby league was not John McDonell's first passion. "As a kid I would get up early and help out with the horses at a nearby trotting stable. After retiring from footy I had accumulated enough money to buy some property at Windsor and became a trotting trainer and driver."

But there is little doubt that rugby league played a huge part in the development of the loving family man and story teller. A Group 7 representative, the clever pivot was picked up by Manly's Ron Willey on his introduction to the world's hardest league premiership, but was soon pushed out to the wing after a certain Bob Fulton joined the club.

"I was happy in a way that I didn't have to come up against Poppa again, until I had to face Wests' Peter Diamond on the wing. At the end of 1967 Ken Arthurson called me to his office where I told him I wanted to play in the backrow.

"We went through the Manly forward pack one by one and it was obvious I was going to struggle to get a first grade spot. I asked for a cab fare to North Sydney instead." And so began a five-year stint with the struggling Bears club, initially under the unconventional coaching of Roy Francis.

"We had a young team and success was hard to come by. I had a strong attitude to training, which probably prevented me from suffering any serious injuries, and was given the captaincy."

At the end of 1973 former Bears teammate Merv Hicks had recommended McDonell to Canterbury's Peter Moore and with another handshake deal - McDonell insists he never signed a contract in his whole league career - he played out his final two years in the blue and white and while he went out a losing grand final skipper, he won a whole new legion of admirers.

After football McDonell never looked back. With a young family to support, he got work as a sales rep, as a truck driver delivering bricks, and a trotting trainer before eventually opening up a gym in Windsor.

GREATS: Former bulldogs players Paul Dun and Terry Lamb lift the premiership trophy in 1988.

GREATS: Former bulldogs players Paul Dun and Terry Lamb lift the premiership trophy in 1988.

It was the best business decision the McDonells ever done. Within a few years the couple's children, Justine and Jacinta, had introduced the Anytime Fitness franchise into Australia from the USA.

Now happily retired, John still enjoys a game of golf, getting around in his buggy swinging his clubs one handed at Anna Bay's David Graham's and enjoying the company of good friends.

He was a special guest at the last Port Stephens Men of League branch's annual hand-in-hand dinner held at Nelson Bay Golf Club in May, joining a couple of other former Bulldogs greats, Paul Dunn and Jim Hall.

The dinner was followed on Sunday by a golf day where more funds were raised to ensure the survival of the foundation's charity arm.

The fabulous work of the Port Stephens committee in raising much needed money for footballers and their families who have fallen on hard times continues, with the next Men of League event will be a bowls day to be held at Nelson Bay Bowling Club on September 26.

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