Don Donovan was one of a succession of committed Irish players who served the club with loyalty and diligence through the dark days of the 1950s. Signed as an inside forward in May 1949, the Cork man made a transition down the left of the Everton team, evolving into an international-class full back, having also served as wing half and even centre half.
Donovan’s arrival as a 20-year-old at Goodison saw him placed among familiar company. Fellow Irishmen – including Jimmy O’Neil, Peter Farrell, Tommy Eglington and Tommy Clinton – formed the spine of the Everton team and the basis for huge popularity in the Emerald Isle. Alas, this team laboured through historic lows: relegation in 1951 and 16th place in Division Two in 1952/53.
Donovan did not make his full debut until August 1951 and made just seven appearances the following season – the year of Everton’s nadir. He admitted later: ‘It took me nearly a year to reach the playing fitness need for English soccer. During this long period I struggled for promotion and wondered whether I had made the right decision [in leaving Ireland].’
The breakthrough came in a reserve match at Huddersfield in late 1950 when he was deployed as an emergency wing half. Ted Sagar gave rave notices of his performance to Cliff Britton and the transformation from attacker to destroyer was born. Early in the 1951/52 season he was given a run at wing half, although he later lost his place to Cyril Lello, who had returned from long-term injury.
A hiatus from first-team affairs followed and Donovan scarcely appeared through the dire 1952/53 season. His return the following campaign was triumphant: the Irishman was ever-present as Everton won promotion back to the top flight. By now the majority of his appearances came as full back and he appeared on either flank of defence. He was also, on more than one occasion, selected as centre half. Marking the great John Charles in a match against Leeds at Goodison in November 1953, he put in a fine performance as Everton ran out 2-1 winners. Donovan was in no doubt which position he preferred. ‘After a few minutes at full back I settled down delightedly,’ he told Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly in 1956. ‘There seemed to be much more space in which to use the ball and I thoroughly enjoyed our positional movements.’
International honours arrived in November 1954 when he faced Norway at Dalymount Park. But in total he would win just five caps. Donovan was a regular in the team that sought to re-establish Everton as a top-flight force. Perhaps surprisingly he found himself transferred away from Goodison following a dressing room reshuffle in 1958. He joined Grimsby and put in a fine stint that extended his career until his mid-thirties and took his career total beyond 400 first-class appearances.
But it is Everton with whom his name remains synonymous.
Everton expect hard work from anyone they sign,’ he said in 1956. ‘But if one puts one’s back into the job, then they supply everything which can lead to a wonderful career.