Ex-Portsmouth, Swindon, Mansfield and Chesterfield man Dion Donohue: I avoided prison - then quit football to be with my terminally ill niece. Family always come first

Anticipating the outcome of prison, Dion Donohue requested his family did not attend court, determined to spare them of yet more heartbreak.

Thursday, 18th November 2021, 6:00 pm
Updated Thursday, 18th November 2021, 6:21 pm

The Swindon Town defender had urged a straight answer from his solicitor ahead of Nottingham Crown Court sentencing, this was no occasion to be spoon-fed sugary hope.

Donohue was advised to pack a bag – the likelihood was he would not be returning to his Anglesey home that November 2020 afternoon.

Emotional goodbyes had already taken place, yet the prospect of being parted from niece Ania was the most heart wrenching.

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The four-year-old had been diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour, devastating a close family unit in which Donohue existed as its rock.

Devotion to Ania would later see the former Pompey man walk away from the professional game at the age of 27.

Yet on that drive to Nottingham to learn his fate, it was potentially being absent from the youngster’s final days, rather than prison, which held the greatest fear.

‘I didn’t care at all what was going to happen to me,’ Donohue told The News in the first interview about his family’s tragedy.

Ex-Pompey player Dion Donohue quit football to be his tragic niece Ania, who has since died at the age of five

‘I was more afraid that Ania might pass away while I was inside. That I couldn't even say goodbye to her. That was the toughest part of thinking about prison.

‘Ania had a brain tumour, it was located at the top of her spine. There was nothing they could do for her, they couldn’t even operate.

‘I know I’m no angel, I got into an altercation on a night out. It was a serious offence and, two weeks later, I was sacked by Mansfield. I wish it never escalated to what happened, I wish it never happened at all. I totally regret it.

‘I pleaded guilty and was prepared for prison. I had said goodbye to my family – I was convinced I was being put away.

Dion Donohue made 48 appearances for Pompey, scoring once. Picture: Joe Pepler

‘Before the sentencing, I told my solicitor I wanted it straight, I needed to know whether I would be going down or not. He responded that I’d be doing well to come out of there and advised me to pack a bag just in case.

‘I put in a couple of T-shirts, shorts, boxers, socks. My partner’s gran actually asked if I’d remembered to put a phone charger in there, she didn’t quite grasp that I couldn’t take a phone with me where I was going.

‘I had accepted what would happen to me and, considering all my family were going through at that time, I didn't want to put any more strain on them. I told them to stay at home.

‘That day in court, I asked a friend and also my uncle to attend, but nobody else. It’s not nice for anyone’s mum or sister to watch a family member get sent down. I told them I’d rather they kept away, I would deal with it on my own.

Dion Donohue walked out on Swindon in November 2020 to spend more time with his terminally ill niece. Picture: Alex Burstow/Getty Images

‘My family had bigger things going on than me, so I just had to take it on the chin. I didn’t really have any emotion about the prospect of prison, you go into autopilot. I dealt with it.

‘When my sister Sian was told by doctors about Ania’s condition, she asked me to come home from Swindon. I wouldn’t say my family depends on me, but they see me as the strong one.

‘It was my duty to be there for them at that time. Being with my sister was the only place I wanted to be, she needed me.

‘Yet, in my mind, I was going to prison.’

A talented left-footed performer, Donohue was part of a Pompey side which, in 2018-19, finished fourth in League One to reach the play-offs, where they lost to Sunderland.

In the summer of 2019, Blues boss Kenny Jackett was keen to activate a club option to extend the former Everton apprentice’s contract by 12 months.

Pompey paid Chesterfield an undisclosed fee for Dion Donohue in August 2017 under Kenny Jackett. Picture: Joe Pepler

Donohue, however, negotiated his Fratton Park release in search of regular first-team football after 48 games and one goal.

Ambitious League Two outfit Mansfield was his destination, yet, seven weeks later, his two-year contract was terminated.

The then 25-year-old was involved in a late-night incident and pleaded guilty to affray, GBH and assault. Rather than prison, however, the outcome was a suspended sentence.

In November 2000, Donohue resumed his playing career with Swindon, yet, weeks later, walked out to return to Anglesey – and Ania.

He added: ‘To be honest, my niece was the only thing I was really bothered about. I had no interest in football whatsoever at that time.

‘I ripped up my Swindon contract and told them I didn’t want any money to leave. I just had to go and be with Ania.

‘I had just damaged my hamstring and, during my time out, asked if I could go home and spend Christmas with my niece and our family.

‘The manager (John Sheridan) turned around and told me he’d just had a bereavement in his family, but I didn’t see him asking for time off. I just thought: “Do you know what, I’m not playing for you any more”.

‘When I was at Swindon the previous season, my niece was diagnosed with terminal illness. Richie Wellens, who was manager at the time, told me to go home straight away and take as long as I wanted.

‘His message was: “You sort your family out and make sure everything’s all right. Then come back when you are ready”. He was unbelievable to me, I thank him for that.

‘To go from that to what his replacement said. Wow. I have never been the best at hiding the way I feel, so I told the chief executive it was for the best that I left.

‘When Swindon’s manager said that to me, I no longer had any interest in playing for that man.

‘After receiving treatment at Bolton on my hamstring and spending Christmas with my family, I returned to football at Barrow in late January 2021.

‘We trained every day on a 3G pitch, which absolutely ruined my Achilles. I wasn’t alone, some four or five of us needed injections to get us through. The playing surface was horrible, not even proper 3G, more like a hockey pitch.

‘When the manager, Michael Jolley, was sacked, Rob Kelly stepped up from assistant to take over on a caretaker basis and pretty much reverted to the old team, taking eight players off furlough and returning them to the squad.

‘For me, if I wasn’t playing I would prefer to spend my final couple of months at Barrow with my niece during her limited time left, rather than sitting on the bench.

‘Rob (Kelly) was great with me and we got to the stage where he told me to stay home and keep myself fit, just in case I was needed. There were a couple of games where I was required, but most of the time I was home.

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‘I would be at Barrow three days a week – the rest of it was spent with my family.’

Donohue started for League Two newcomers Barrow against Morecambe in February 2021 – it remains his last Football League appearance.

In a career which saw him feature for Chesterfield, Pompey, Mansfield, Swindon and, of course, Barrow, he walked away from the professional game at the age of 27.

Focused on being around his family in Anglesey, including young children Mason and Maya and partner Nadine, he has become a plasterer, while playing part-time for Caernarfon Town in the Welsh Premier League.

However, Ania tragically passed away in July while at home surrounded by her family, including Donohue. She was aged five.

‘Family is more important than football, absolutely. And it always will be,’ said Donohue.

‘My sister is older than me and we are very close. Our father wasn’t around when we were kids, so we’ve grown up with such a close bond. I walked her down the aisle on her wedding day.

‘Unlike many people, I actually had a life before football, coming into the game late. Even when I was playing it didn’t mean everything to me, like it does some.

‘For me, there have always been bigger things than football – and family is the most important thing in life.

‘Quitting the game professionally was a no brainer. I don't have any regrets over giving up football, none at all. I was just happy to be home and around my family considering what was happening.

‘I was able to spend Ania’s last Christmas with her, then her last birthday. She passed away at home – and I was there. I was one of the pall bearers at her funeral.

‘She was a fighter. Doctors initially gave her 3-6 months to live, but we got more time with her than expected. She was actually quite active up until her final month, then deteriorated quickly.

‘In the end, it was more painful watching her condition worsen like that than letting go of her.

‘Now she has passed, we have to move on with our lives, yet we still have good and bad days.

‘I went to see my sister yesterday and walked upstairs to the toilet. Ania’s bedroom door was open, her stuff has not been touched since she passed, and it just hit me. You get those little moments.

‘When it came out from Swindon’s end that I was leaving, but not the facts behind it, I saw the social media comments. I thought to myself: “These people don’t actually have a clue about real life”. It has been tough, so, so tough.

‘It has been a few months now since Ania passed, yet Christmas will be hard, the first one without her. We will deal with it, you have to.’

The desire to recalibrate following his family’s awful loss has resulted in Donohue drawn to the Football League once again.

The 28-year-old has made 14 appearances for Caernarfon this term, operating as central defender and skipper, yet unfulfillment continues to nag.

With January’s transfer window looming and potential suitors stirring, Donohue is contemplating resuming the professional football career he ditched for the sake of his loved ones.

He added: ‘Now Ania has passed, my interest in football is slowly returning. I’m thinking it’s time to get my life back.

‘Whether it’s the Football League, I’m not sure, there are also a couple of professional teams in Wales. It’s a challenge for me to try again and see how far I can go.

‘Caernarfon have been brilliant with me. They knew why I was home and that I’d never have been playing at this level this quickly but for what happened.

‘But sometimes, in the middle of a game, I think “What am I doing here?”.

‘I know a lot of people thought I was mad quitting professional football, but my family is the most important thing in my life. It was an easy decision.

‘I’m just grateful I was there to say goodbye to Ania. I was there for my family – and I am still here for my family.’

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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Dion Donohue made 65 appearances for Chesterfield before joining Pompey in August 2017. Picture: Pete Norton/Getty Images
Dion Donohue pictured with son Mason in May 2019 at Fratton Park. Picture: Joe Pepler