Stephen forced to hang up the boots at just 22

Stephen McDonnell in action for Dundalk against Drogheda United at Hunky Dorys Park in 2011
It is the scenario that every footballer has nightmares about: the day you are told that your playing career is over.

It is the scenario that every footballer has nightmares about: the day you are told that your playing career is over.

For many, it comes in the twilight of their career but for some it can come earlier, out of the blue, with no warning signs.

Former Dundalk midfielder Stephen McDonnell falls into that category.

The Irish underage international, who turned 22 in March, got the dreaded news last Wednesday after a scan revealed that one of the muscles on the wall of his heart had become enlarged and that further participation in sport could lead to severe health problems.

McDonnell spoke to The Dundalk Democrat on Monday afternoon and said he was still coming to terms with the fact that his playing days were over at such an early stage.

“I’m trying my best to get my head around it,” he said. “It hasn’t really hit me yet, to be honest. It will only be when I’m at a game or watching a game that it will hit home to me.”

The condition - cardiomyopathy - was first spotted when McDonnell moved to Celtic as a teenager and he has been screened regularly ever since.

A scan four months ago showed that the muscle had gone from the regular size of 1.5mm to 1.7mm. When he returned last week, it had increased to 1.8mm. Suddenly the alarm bells were ringing.

“I went up with my father and we were in the waiting room for a bit longer than usual after the scan,” he said. “You start thinking ‘is there something wrong’ but you never really expect to get news like that.

“They advised me there and then to stop playing football. The worst thing is, I’m flying fit. I’m playing with Warrenpoint Town and I was doing cross fit training. I had absolutely no symptoms.”

The former Quay Celtic player will return for another scan in December and he is hoping that the decision to hang up the boots will result in the heart muscle settling down to normal levels.

He may only have received the news last week but McDonnell is already looking to the future. He is currently studying at Drogheda Institute of Further Education and has started on his coaching badges with a view to staying involved in the game.

The 22-year-old leaves the game with happy memories, three in particular which stick out from his time at Oriel Park.

“The goal in the relegation play-off is one,” he said. “That goal turned out to be massive in the end and I’m proud of that.

“The other proud moments are playing in the Europa League back in 2011 when I was just 19. That was a great honour, as was the run I had in the first-team before the Setanta Cup final. I’ll never forget those.”