Two words popped into my head when Alex MacDonald signed; Andy Scott. Scott was a panic buy by Firoz Kassam in 2001. The new owner paid over the odds for Brentford’s top scorer in a desperate attempt to steady a rapidly sinking ship. It had no impact and just ended up looking like a vacuous gesture thrown into a cesspit of problems.
MacDonald’s arrival came at a time when the club was in a similarly perilous state. He arrived from promotion seeking Burton to a club whose problems were as boggy as its pitch. The manager couldn’t get a result or a decent player and the new owners couldn’t get any traction with the fans. It felt like MacDonald’s signing was an attempt at appeasement and little else.
We didn’t know at the time, but alongside Joe Skarz, Alex MacDonald’s arrival signalled the start of a remarkable revolution. MacDonald was a bundle of energy, both on the wing and more importantly, around the squad. Regardless of the state of the club, his enthusiasm helped everyone remember what bloody good fun it was to be a footballer. With the club facing so many challenges, it was essential to avoid being dragged into a suffocating and demoralising relegation fight.
But there was more to MacDonald than just being a good bloke to have around. When the club brought in George Baldock, MacDonald made him a better player. When Baldock was cynically called back to MK Dons, Michael Appleton replaced him with Jonjoe Kenny. It looked like a lightweight signing in comparison which could have threatened to derail the promotion push. MacDonald mentored the teenager, provided cover when he needed to and drove us into League 1.
MacDonald didn’t give the impression of being a natural leader; he didn’t have the physical presence of Jake Wright or Chey Dunkley and wingers are frequently self-absorbed in their own art form to worry about others. But MacDonald was a giver more than he was a taker, central to setting the mood and tone in the squad.
In the promotion squad of 1995/6, the squad’s success pivoted on Chris Allen, a homegrown talent with a bright future making way for Stuart Massey. In 2016, all eyes are on Callum O’Dowda but it was MacDonald who helped see the club home.
This season he’s been more marginalised, but when MacDonald was given the captain’s armband for the game against Merthsham he seemed as proud as he would have been leading the team out at Wembley. His goal, a mark of true quality, settled us down and delivered a comfortable result.
On Saturday MacDonald could be seen amongst the squad, a large woolly hat on, no socks, darting amongst the players, flicking any ball he came across and generally being an infectious bundle of energy. He probably knew that he was becoming more marginalised, but it didn’t show. If anyone set the vibes in the squad, it was MacDonald.
MacDonald was a player where it was difficult to know what, if anything, he ever did wrong. He would come off the pitch looking like he had put in a shift, his hair a mess, his shirt covered in mud, stumbling like his legs had no more energy left in them. Nobody could ever ask for him to give more.
The only thing I ever hope for a player at Oxford is that they will look back on their time with the club as the best of their career. Having played his part in reviving the club, winning promotion, two derbies and a trip to Wembley, he’ll struggle to have a better time for as long as he’s playing. He deserves every memory he leaves with.