I joke of course. Ryan Donaldson has been a hugely influential and vitally important part of our astonishing early season form. It speaks far more to the strength and depth of our squad that we were able to cope with the blow of losing him for a first vs second match-up than it does his abilities. It’s all the more surprising then, given how brightly he has shone so far, that he came from relative obscurity.
You see, we here at the U-logy pride ourselves on our regrettable knowledge of Non-League. A boast borne out by our impressive 25 out of 30 on the ‘How many clubs has Jefferson Louis played for’ game (admittedly between 20 to 25 on that list was just naming places accessible via the first 10 exits of the London Orbital. And he’s almost certainly played for more than that by now, probably at least two this season already) but, this encyclopaedia of worthless knowledge notwithstanding, the signing of Ryan Donaldson took us by surprise.
A seemingly prolific schoolboy International, with an appearance roster not too dissimilar to Rossi Jarvis, he was a player who was already flirting with ignominy via a short-term deal at Gateshead signed in August 2012 – An oddly understated move for a player who had made first team appearances for Newcastle and had loan experience higher up the ladder. But he was certainly no footballing wallpaper to Richard Money, nor underestimated by the man who had coached him in the Magpies’ youth team and had been looking to lure him south since January.
Our introduction to Donaldson took place over our seemingly interminable series of matches against Gateshead last season. Those watching the dreary televised draw at the atmosphereless (and pointless come to think of it, Gateshead could play in someone’s back garden and still have enough provision for their support) International Arena, in Money’s third game in charge, likely would’ve been forgiven for not seeing the range of skills that prompted Money’s pursuit and capture on a two-year deal of a player with only one full season of senior football behind him.
In a squad whose versatility is becoming more apparent by the game, Donaldson’s ability to play an important role anywhere in the attacking half has been a huge part of the shape-shifting tactics employed by Money. So far in his short U’s career we’ve seen him on the left, on the right, in central midfield and playing in a deep-lying forward role – a sort of attacking Rory McAuley if you will. If the development of Dunk’s and Hughes’ games lay testimony to the effect of Money’s coaching on this squad, Donaldson stands as the icon of its attacking versatility and capacity for pulling opposition defences out of position by switching roles.
Football, though, is littered with players who are damned with the faint praise of ‘can do a job anywhere across attack/defence’ by countless lazy managers playing down their dreadful transfer dealings that’s left them short in a crisis. I’m sure I’m not the only one who still wakes up screaming at the thought of Dave Partridge ‘doing a job’ at left back. But Donaldson really does not fit this lazy thinking. He is a proper footballer.
One of the tell-tale signs that a player hasn’t come through Wilmthorpe Cables Welfare 4th XI’s youth team, having been picked up on a managerial punt, is their composure on the ball. In the Conference this is an all too rare quality and therefore it’s one that really stands out. Brian Saah had it, Luke Berry has it and Ryan Donaldson has it. It’s his almost Matrix-esque ability to seemingly make time stand still while he’s on the ball, and still be relied to produce a creative pass that sets him apart from most at this level. He has time because, first of all, he impresses the opposition, then he tricks them, then they become wary.
It’s no secret that we are unashamed admirers of the traditional pick up the ball, harum-scarum winger (see Dunk v1.0). But we also are huge fans of anyone who goes round the man, gets to the byline and puts in a good cross. Donaldson does all of this, not at break-neck speed, but with the classic winger’s shimmy: drop the shoulder, feint to cross, drop the shoulder again and cross. Of course, as you would expect a player of his pedigree to be capable of, if he can’t create the angle with his right he can always check back and swing it in with his left. Allied to his wide-play is his ability to shepherd the ball out of our half and play an incisive pass to launch a counter-attack – certainly the favoured style of a Money team and one the requires players with the passing range and consistency of Donaldson, Berry and Nathan Arnold to be workable – as well as his invaluable ability to pop up with a goal from the edge of the box.
Money’s influence on the team extends further than just canny recruitment and a change in tactics; it can also be measured in the players’ workrate and – to add the classic cliché of a winning team – their willingness to work for each other. Attacking players, like Donaldson, are regularly seen in defensive positions and can be relied upon to pick up loose balls when we’re defending. Looking at a squad with players as versatile as Donaldson, Arnold, Hughes and McAuley it makes you wonder: could this be a new era of Total Football…?
Well no, of course not, we’re still in the Conference. But team and individual performances of the like we’ve seen over the past few months at least make The Abbey once again feel like the Best Place in the World… between 3pm and 5pm on a Saturday. Donaldson has been a vital part of that.