After missing the majority of the last 16 months, Liam Donnelly is looking to make up for lost time.
On the opening day of last season, the Northern Ireland international suffered a knee injury and was expected to miss two months of action, however, the reality would prove to be much worse.
Donnelly would not feature for the remainder of the season, adding further misery to a campaign that will be remembered for the impact of the pandemic and supporters being absent from stadiums across the country.
When the time arrived for Liam to return, Motherwell were under the guidance of a new manager in Graham Alexander and the playing squad had undergone a huge overhaul. He would feature in three of the Steelmen’s four Premier Sports Cup fixtures and started their first two Scottish Premiership matches.
Unfortunately, since then things have not gone to plan for the midfielder. Niggling injuries have restricted his game time and, after a second-half substitute appearance against Ross County in late September, he would not feature again until he came on for Callum Slattery in the 1-0 defeat Celtic Park earlier this month – a further 78 days absence.
It has been a long road back for the 25-year-old. But he believes the busy festive schedule for the Steelmen represents a great opportunity to stake a claim for more game time.
“It was nice to be back out on the pitch against Celtic,” Donnelly said. “I’ve had a few little niggles that I could have done without given I was out for so long last season.
“I understand it’s part and parcel of what can come with being out for an extended period. Hopefully that’s the end of it now and that I can get some game time in.
“After I came back in the summer, there were two small injuries that lasted a couple of weeks at a time. It all adds up.
“It was difficult, especially having been out for so long, but in a way, it has also helped me knowing that I only had a couple of weeks to get through and I’d be back again. Of course, it’s not what you want, but I knew it would be a lot quicker than it was before.
“The lads have been doing well and I’d much rather come back into a team doing well than a team struggling at the wrong end of the table. I’ve been buzzing to see how well the team have been doing and the results they have picked up. Hopefully we can continue to build on that.”
Suffering a serious injury and having to carry out rehabilitation during the pandemic presented Donnelly with a difficult set of circumstances to overcome, though fortunately, he was able to carry out most of his recovery work at Fir Park.
Guided by the vastly skilled medical team at the club, Donnelly feels he owes a great deal of gratitude to the likes of physio Davie Henderson and Head of Sports Science Andy Boles for getting him to the point where he was ready to make his comeback. But despite overcoming the challenges faced during his battle for fitness, it was not a complete success story.
Many of his team-mates are avid gamers and when it comes to Call of Duty and FIFA, the competition is fierce.
With extra time on his hands during his injury and in the search for ways to pass the time during lockdown, the Dungannon-born star would try his hand at replicating the skills possessed by the likes of Tony Watt and Kevin van Veen – though it would be a short-lived hobby.
“I tried a bit of that during lockdown, it didn’t work though. The more I played the angrier I got,” he laughed. “My standard wasn’t good enough, so I quickly gave that up.
“I’ve got a little daughter at home, and she keeps me busy. When I’m at home I don’t have much time for computer games.
“Lockdown was a strange time and not ideal obviously, but I still got to come into the club every day and do my rehab, trying to rebuild my strength and get back fit again.
“In a certain sense, we were quite lucky to be able to get into the club daily and maintain some sort of normality. I know a lot of people couldn’t get out and had it been the case that I wasn’t able to get into the club, I’m sure it would have been a lot more difficult than it was.
“I enjoyed the family time. It’s not too often things like that happen and you have to spend a lot of time at home, so I tried to make the most of it. It was probably a lot easier for me than it was for many others during the lockdown.
“The medical team played a massive part in my recovery, Davie Henderson talked me through everything. At times, he had to make some decisions that he knew I was probably not going to be happy with and that would hold me back a little bit, but he is a top physio.
“He’s with the Scotland squad as well and has been a lot of big clubs, he knows what he is doing, and I had to put all my trust in him.
“As I was coming back to fitness, Andy Boles did a lot of work with me to get my levels back to where they were before my injury. I can’t underestimate or take anything away from the work the fitness and medical team have done for me here. I owe them a lot.”
Arriving at ‘Well in 2018, Donnelly made 42 appearances under Stephen Robinson, scoring 12 goals.
Having built up a good working relationship with his former gaffer, he admits it was difficult not being able to help the team during the disappointing run of form that saw Robinson depart the club.
With a new manager arriving at a time when he was ruled out of action, Liam knew he could not take anything for granted, though a conversation shortly after his new boss arrived would help put his mind at ease.
“The new manager arriving presented a new challenge,” he explained. “I had a good working relationship with Stephen Robinson, and I was disappointed at the time he left, especially because I couldn’t do anything to help the situation.
“When Graham came in, it represented someone new to impress, he brings different ideas and a different way of playing. As with any new manager, he could prefer different players. You have to start from scratch again really and try impress the new manager.
“The gaffer spoke to me as soon as he came and asked me how my recovery was going. I then spoke to him throughout the summer break, he told me that he wanted me to be part of the team and the squad, but obviously that’s never a given.
“You have to make sure you are working hard and doing the same, if not more than what the other lads are doing to make sure you are paying. No matter who the manager is, I don’t think that ever changes. You need to produce on the training pitch, and you’ll get minutes if you are.”
Livingston visit ML1 this afternoon for what will be the first of three games in a hectic eight-day spell over the festive period for Alexander’s side and, while many are enjoying the festivities, Motherwell will be looking to do their celebrating on the pitch.
The ‘Well gaffer has not had his troubles to seek in recent weeks when it comes to injuries and suspensions, testing the depth of his squad – something that Donnelly hopes will help provide him with the opportunity to impress.
The visit of Livi will bring back good memories for Donnelly. In May 2019, he netted his first goal for the club when he opened the scoring as a 3-2 victory over the Lions helped ‘Well end the season on a happy note.
“I think it’s probably a good time to be coming back, there has been a few knocks and niggles which is normal for this time of year,” he added. “With the volume of games, there is likely to be a couple of changes and it’s down to me to continue to work hard and try to push my way into the team.
“Christmas and New Year is always a busy time in football, which obviously means you can’t be going as wild as I’m sure a lot of people will be at this time. You still get to enjoy time with your family however, and although the staff will always make sure that we are working hard, they might let us go home a little earlier to spend some important time with our families.
“You have to make sure you are looking after yourself and doing everything properly to ensure you are ready and fit for the games. It’s not bad here because after a busy run, we get the break in January and will get a bit of time off to relax.
“The atmosphere around the place is good, the young players provided some Christmas entertainment by performing some karaoke for the first team. I’ll be honest, the standard wasn’t great, and I won’t say too much more than that.”
As fans visit Fir Park for the final time in 2021, Motherwell will aim to secure three points that will help continue their challenge in the top half of the Premiership table.
With fixtures against three sides all currently below the Steelmen in the league in the space of just over a week, Motherwell will view this run of matches as an excellent chance to go into the winter break on a high.
For Donnelly, the next week is an opportunity to begin his road back to becoming an integral part of the ‘Well starting XI, though insists there is no room for complacency, warning that any dip in standards will be punished.
“Our preference would be to have a run of good results and be pushing up the table, although I don’t think this is any different to any other period, to be honest,” said the former Hartlepool man.
“We don’t have the luxury of thinking we can just show up and beat teams easily, we must be on it every game and I think that’s why we’ve got some good results recently.
“There are no easy games in this league, different games against different opponents will pose different challenges. If we do get good results, we can’t take it easy – we need to be on it and maintain our levels in every game – no matter the opposition.
“Hopefully I’ve reached the end of picking up any niggly injuries, I’m working hard to ensure I stay fit, try to get back into the team and hopefully produce some good performances.”