BIG INTERVIEW: Ex-Preston North End defender Neil McDonald on how he’s helping his daughter, rising tennis star Ella

Craig Salmon talks to former Preston star Neil McDonald about his daughter Ella, who is a rising tennis star, and what it takes to become an elite-level sports person.

By Craig Salmon
Saturday, 20th June 2020, 12:30 pm

If young promising tennis ace Ella McDonald needs any advice on what is required to become an elite level exponent of her craft, then she only needs to tap the shoulder of her dad Neil.

While McDonald senior may not be able to tell her what it feels like to hit a serve in front of 15,000 spectators on Wimbledon’s Centre Court, he will be able to give her the benefit of his experience at picking out a pass on the hallowed turf of another iconic sports stadium – Wembley.

Neil McDonald, of course, is a former professional footballer who played at the highest level for Newcastle United, Everton and Oldham Athletic.

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Fourteen-year-old Ella McDonald is one of the best tennis players for her age in the UK

Arguably, the most memorable occasion of his career was featuring for the Toffees in the 1989 FA Cup final against Merseyside rivals Liverpool – albeit he would end up on the losing side with the Reds memorably running out 3-2 winners.

Neil also played for Bolton Wanderers and ended his career with Preston.

It was that final episode of his playing career which saw McDonald lay down roots in the Preston area with his wife Joanne and their three children – he also has a daughter Charlotte (20) and a son Lucas (11) .

Their youngest daughter Ella has displayed a real aptitude for the sport of tennis and she has been earmarked as one for the future.

Neil McDonald in action for PNE

Aged just 14 and boasting a world ranking as a junior, she has been selected by the Lawn Tennis Association to join the first intake at the ground-breaking Great Britain tennis academy in Stirling, Scotland.

It is one of two national academies which have been set up in the UK – the other being at Loughborough University.

Both programmes are aiming to support young players throughout the most formative part of their budding tennis careers and help them take the next steps on the long road to a possible future professional career in the sport. The scheme also aims to develop the youngsters as people. The players will receive world class coaching, trips to national and international competitions as well as a first-class education and a focus on personal development.

McDonald revealed that his daughter’s selection is a result of a driven and determined attitude which she has had from a very early age.

“Ella’s big sister Charlotte was the first to play tennis and she would go along and watch,” said McDonald. “After a bit she had some lessons and she’s progressed from there.

“At the moment she’s doing a lot of travelling and playing on the European Tour.

“The end goal over the next couple of years would be to play junior Wimbledon and also compete in the rest of the junior Grand Slams around the world. To do that she has got to be dedicated 100% to the sport.

“She has to use time management to get all her schoolwork done, as well as the work she is doing on her fitness and on the court in terms of tactics.

“It’s a lot for a young kid to do but it’s something that she wants to do and is determined to do. If you want to get to where you want to go, you have to make sacrifices.

“I’ve tried to pass on my experiences – I think that’s what you try to do as a dad.

“To be fair, it’s my wife Joanne who has ferried her about and took her all over the place for competitions.

“She has watched her from the very start to where she is now. So she has that help off her mum and also her dad, who has been through that process before in terms of what you have to do and the information that you have to take in.

“She seems like she is coping quite well with it all.”

McDonald spent 15 years as a professional footballer, graduating from the renowned Wallsend Boys’ Club to play for his boyhood club Newcastle United.

An utility player who mainly featured in midfield or at full-back, he went on to make more than 200 appearances for the Toon, scoring 24 goals.

“I always wanted to be a footballer and that’s what I was always going to be,” said McDonald, who also played for England Under-21s.

“We talk about the sacrifices that need to be made by Ella if she wants to be a top-level tennis players, it is a changing world in terms of what I did as a kid and what she has been able to do as a kid, but the philosophy is still the same.

“You try to do your best, try to improve yourself and that’s what I always tried to do. If you do that then there’s a chance of having a decent career.”

A Geordie, McDonald remembers the thrill of running out at St James’s Park and was able to help the club win promotion back to the top flight in 1984.

“It was great to play for my hometown club,” he said. “I played with fantastic players like Kevin Keegan, Peter Beardsley, Chris Waddle and Paul Gascoigne.

“There were a lot of exciting, experienced players who helped me along the way as a young professional and we had some success.

“Gazza was brilliant to play alongside. He is a year younger than me and came into the team after I did.

“He was a fantastic player and he went on to greater things during his career.

“Obviously he had his issues off the pitch, but you won’t meet a nicer fella.”

McDonald’s five-year stint at St James’s Park resulted in a few admiring glances from other clubs.

It was the Toffees who won the race for his signature in 1988 and he featured 90 times for the club in a three-year spell.

“When we got to the FA Cup final in 1989, that was the year of the Hillsborough disaster,” said McDonald .

“You don’t think it at the time, but looking back with everything which had happened, it was always going to be that Liverpool would end up winning it for the supporters who died at the semi-final.

“But it was a fantastic experience – you always dream as a young kid to play in an FA Cup final.

“Especially back then, the FA Cup final was a real special occasion.

“The build-up, the profiles of the teams and the players – it was just a special occasion, even if it was tinged with sadness due to the tragedy which had happened.”

After a short spell at Bolton, McDonald ended his career at North End where he enjoyed some of the happiest moments of his career.

Under manager Gary Peters, North End won the old Third Division title in 1996 before consolidating in the division above.

McDonald later went on to join the backroom coaching staff when David Moyes was manager.

He has since enjoyed a long and varied career in coaching, working predominantly alongside Sam Allardyce but also branching out into management himself.

He has been in charge of Carlisle, Swedish club Östersunds and PNE’s 
arch-rivals Blackpool.

“I had a fantastic time at North End,” he said.

“First of all promotion as champions of the Third Division and then being on the coaching staff when we got promoted to the Championship.

“Preston is where I started my coaching career so I have a lot of fond memories of the club.”