ROY O’Donovan is the type of bloke you would rather have as a teammate than an opponent.
From my handful of dealings with the Newcastle Jets striker, I’ve always found him to be a gentleman, articulate and obliging in interviews, and a fine ambassador for the round-ball code.
His fellow Newcastle players, by all accounts, hold him in the highest regard, not just for his ability to score goals, but his leadership, work ethic and professionalism.
They all saw how willing he was to push through the pain barrier and return from a groin injury this season, weeks ahead of schedule.
They insist he plays hard but fair.
Yet next week O’Donovan will face the wrath of Football Federation Australia’s disciplinary-and-ethics committee and many fans – and rival players – will share the opinion that whatever suspension he incurs will not be not long enough.
The incident that earned the 32-year-old a red card late in Newcastle’s 1-0 grand final loss to Melbourne Victory at McDonald Jones Stadium was a shocker, leaving referee Jarred Gillett with no option.
Chasing through a Dimi Petratos free-kick in injury time, O’Donovan launched himself feet first and collected Victory goalkeeper Lawrence Thomas flush in the face.
It was a move more befitting a Bruce Lee movie or the UFC octagon than a football field, prompting long-serving former Sydney FC and Melbourne Heart goalkeeper Clint Bolton to observe on Twitter: “That’s enough! The quicker we get O’Donovan out of the @ALeague the better. The dirtiest player that’s ever disgraced this league.”
A harsh assessment, but many would share similar sentiments.
It’s not as if O’Donovan is a first offender. He had already served a two-game suspension this season for striking Sydney defender Jordy Buijs, and an eight-game ban two seasons ago when, playing for Central Coast, he head-butted Wellington’s Manny Muscat.
After returning from the Buijs incident, O’Donovan protested that he had earned a reputation “whether I deserve it or not” and was “seen as some sort of Irish hooligan … I’m the hooligan, I’m the thug, and that’s the end of the story.”
Unlike those who would argue that if the cap fits, wear it, I’m prepared to at least consider O’Donovan’s perspective.
The head-butting episode was condemned at the time by Ernie Merrick, then coaching Wellington and now O’Donovan’s boss at Newcastle as “going back to the dark ages” and “the most disgusting thing I've seen in a while”.
Yet replays indicate O’Donovan reacted – or perhaps more accurately over-reacted – after Muscat ran up and invaded his personal space to verbally abuse him at point-blank range.
He was provoked, and I have zero sympathy for Muscat, the instigator.
With regards to the Buijs incident, I’ve watched it repeatedly and still believe the contact was accidental. O’Donovan was clearly trying to get to the ball, and in an attempt to avoid a body check, his arm struck the diving Dutchman in the face.
I felt Donovan was hard done by to cop a red card, and even more unfortunate to receive two further games on the sidelines.
If anyone should have been sanctioned it was Buijs, whose disgraceful histrionics on the turf brought the game into disrepute.
Nonetheless, a lengthy suspension appears inevitable after O’Donovan’s grand final brain snap.
It was without doubt reckless and dangerous, but I would dispute that there was any intent to hurt Thomas, especially given that it later emerged the pair were friends from their days together at Coventry City in England.
Indeed, I would argue that there were mitigating circumstances and that the match officials were at least partially responsible.
Firstly, there was the well-documented failure by the Video Assistant Referee to disallow the only goal of the match, which FFA has since admitted should have been overruled for offside.
That led to a scrappy, frustrating game, and with just minutes left, desperation got the better of O’Donovan as he tried to conjure up an equaliser.
The other contributing factor that should not be forgotten was the elbow to the face O’Donovan copped from Melbourne’s Besart Berisha, which left him bloodied and with a fractured eye socket, yet went unpunished.
If it had been O’Donovan who injured an opponent with an elbow, would the officials have been as lenient?
All things considered, I suggest it’s fair to assume O’Donovan was not thinking clearly when he launched himself in the direction of the ball. He deserved to be sent off, and likewise he will deserve an enforced stint on the sidelines.
I don’t think he deserves to remembered as a dirty player. He’s better than that.
Like another Roy from County Cork – O’Donovan’s former manager at Sunderland, Roy Keane – he’s a fierce competitor with an insatiable will to win.
The challenge for O’Donovan now will be to stay disciplined in the heat of the battle. The final years of his career offer a chance to salvage his reputation.
Scoring the winning goal in a grand final would be a far fonder memory to leave Jets fans than his moment of madness last week.
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