It is only now, 13 years after baffling Chris Wilder with a series of unexplained absences during their first spell together at Halifax, that Clayton Donaldson feels comfortable revealing the real reason behind his frequent no-shows for training.
“I was driving over from Hull and it was an absolute ball-ache because of the traffic so, a few times, I turned back. I told him the jams were terrible and there was no way I could make it. He didn’t rumble me then but, after this, it’s all going to come out.”
Donaldson is sporting a grin wider than the Humber as he recalls those days playing cat and mouse with Wilder as they served their apprenticeships in non-league. Both have come a long way since and, after joining Sheffield United earlier this season, the centre-forward is once again working for a manager he believes is responsible for helping shape his career. Donaldson, who turned professional with the East Yorkshire club, has been a professional footballer for over a decade-and-a-half and boasts 10 international caps on an impressive CV. But, relaxing in the canteen at the Steelphalt Academy, he admits spells at Harrogate Town, Scarborough and most memorably The Shay taught him what is required to earn a living from the game.
“Anyone who drops down to that level and then has to climb back up, well, I think they become a different player. You get that grounding and become a better person if I’m honest. It definitely helped me. Joking aside, despite my excuses about the motorway, I was never slacking off because I always trained with my parent club. And, looking back, it all worked out right in the end.”
Donaldson arrived at Bramall Lane in August following a successful spell with Birmingham City. Having represented clubs including York City, Hibernian and Brentford before moving to St Andrews, his experience of Championship football was cited by Wilder as a major factor behind the decision to sign the centre-forward when his services were no longer required in the Midlands. Donaldson, now aged 33, admits it was a case of third time lucky for the United manager who, after leading his team to sixth in the table ahead of tomorrow’s game against Bolton Wanderers, is another advert for the benefits of a grassroots education.
“He’s tried to reach out to be a few times but it wasn’t the right team or the right place,” Donaldson, who despite being born in Bradford has played for Jamaica, confesses. “But when he spoke to me here, I was definitely up for it. This place has got the resources and the stature to be in the Premier League. It’s there waiting for us. He’s a really good man-manager. If you do well, he encourages people to enjoy themselves. But if you haven’t, then you’ve got to step back and improve. We’ve got really similar outlooks.”
United were forced to complete a period of introspection when, having climbed to the top of the table following last month’s win at Burton Albion, they failed to win any of their next six games. But, after following last weekend’s draw at Aston Villa with a 3-0 victory over Sunderland, Wilder’s side are preparing for their final match of 2017 in a positive frame of mind.
Donaldson, who scored both their goals at Villa Park, thinks there is a comparison to be drawn between the 50-year-old and former City chief Harry Redknapp.
“There’s definite similarities between how they are with players,” he says. “Good man-managers are right on and off the training ground. They ring you at home to make sure everything is okay. It’s little things like that. Some players don’t want that, they just want to do their work and go home. Others want an arm around them. The good ones, the best managers, identify who is who. Some people are shy and others are out there. We’re all different.”
“The gaffer’s inter-personal skills are right up there,” Donaldson continues. “I noticed that even at Halifax. That’s another reason why I’m here. He’s got that side of him but he’s also a football fan and he’ll talk to you about it until the sun goes down. When you’ve been in the game a long while, you want to feel as if you are learning something and that’s definitely the case here.”
Donaldson has also struck-up a good rapport with his team mates.
“There’s a couple of Bradford lads here who I know; Hans (James Hanson) and Wrighty (Jake Wright). I also know Leon (Clarke) through mutual friends and Simon (Moore), I was with at Brentford. Mark Duffy and me played together at Birmingham as well. It always helps when you see so many familiar faces.”
Donaldson, who also claimed a brace on his debut three months ago, is convinced United possess both the calibre, and more importantly the character, to challenge for back to back promotions after lifting the League One title last term. Beating Bolton, who finished 14 points behind them in second, would set a new club record for the most accumulated in a calendar year.
“This division is all about togetherness and fighting for each other,” Donaldson insists. “You see plenty of big name players in this division but that doesn’t always get you results. You need graft and to be one unit. That’s what we’ve got here. Everyone is humble, grounded and willing to work.”