From obscurity to a nailed-on starter - Donacien's remarkable Town journey
- Credit: Steve Waller - stephenwaller.com
Defender Janoi Donacien has come from the Ipswich Town wilderness to establish himself as a nailed-on starter at right-back in Paul Cook's side. Mark Heath takes a look at his roller-coaster story....
"Ever since I heard about the move I’ve been so excited. I didn’t hear about the interest the normal way and when I did I just thought ‘wow'."
Janoi Donacien uttered these words upon signing for Paul Hurst's Ipswich Town, on loan, from Accrington Stanley, on July 31, 2018.
Fast forward more than three years, and he's Town's starting right-back, bringing a much-needed calmness, solidity and defensive-minded approach to a team bristling with attacking options and intent.
But his path to this point has been extraordinary. Little could he have known, back on that sunny July day, just what a roller-coaster ride he'd signed up for.
Brought in by Hurst to contend for the starting spot at right back - "he defends very well one v one and gets up and down the pitch" Town's then-boss said at the time - Donacien's deal was initially a loan while his 'permanent leave to remain’ residency permit was rubber-stamped by the Home Office.
Of course, Hurst didn't last long at the helm, and was replaced in short order by Paul Lambert, who'd worked with Donacien when he was an Aston Villa youngster - and clearly didn't fancy him.
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Lambert, a man who didn't often change his mind once his course was set, insisted that he was a centre-back, and considered very much a back-up at the heart of defence.
"He’s a centre-half,” Lambert said. “That’s me, I see him as a centre-half. I know he’s played right-back and left-back and he might go to right-back but left-back I’d say no.
"Right-back maybe if we needed someone to fill into that position but I still see him being strongest as a centre-half. He knows he’s got Chambers and Pennington ahead of him."
As a result he barely played, and it felt slightly surreal when Town finally confirmed the £750,000 deal which made Donacien a permanent Ipswich player in January 2019 - surely the smallest fanfare with which a club has ever spent three quarters of a million pounds on a signing.
Indeed, just two weeks after his move was made permanent, Donacien was out the Portman Road door - sent back to Stanley on loan until the end of the season.
Lambert said: “The lads have to play and that’s important. My job is to get this football club to be as strong as it can be, but those two lads (Danny Rowe and Donacien) definitely need games because they haven’t featured as much under myself."
Donacien duly made 20 starts for Stanley before returning to Suffolk in the summer of 2019 hoping to force his way back into Lambert's thinking following Town's relegation to League One.
"The club have signed me and I want to be playing there," he said at the time. "If the gaffer wants me to play centre-back then I'll do that. If he wants me at right-back then I'll be there."
He won the starting spot at right back, beginning the season as Town's first choice and playing all four of their opening league fixtures as the Blues went unbeaten in August upon their return to the third tier.
My esteemed colleague Andy Warren even coined the phrase 'Donaissance' to describe the defender's unlikely resurgence from obscurity.
But Kane Vincent-Young's arrival pushed him to the fringes again and, while he finished the Covid-shortened season having made 19 appearances, the fact that Gwion Edwards was often preferred to him in defence after Vincent-Young's injury was an indicator of where he stood in Town's pecking order.
Nothing changed as the 2020/21 campaign began, with the increasingly under-pressure Lambert pushing Donacien further into the frigid confines of first team irrelevance and under 23 football.
Having played just three times - all in the cups - Donacien was sent out on loan again, this time to Fleetwood Town, in January this year, just a month before Lambert got his marching orders.
A host of clubs, including Plymouth - who made a £50k offer - Wigan, Accrington Stanley, Rochdale, Shrewsbury and Colchester, all showed interest, but the Blues decided to loan him again instead.
On the move, Donacien said: "I’m a solid right-back, so defensively, we are going to try and keep a lot more clean sheets and I will do everything I can to try for the team
"With me coming in, I hope I can do well at this place, play as many games as I can. I feel like I’ve been in that mode for a while now, when I was at Accrington, I just wanted to play games and get myself out there just to show what I could do."
Once again, he earned a starting spot for his temporary team, playing 19 games, before returning to Suffolk to discover his fate under new boss Paul Cook.
Cook, of course, had promised to be 'Demolition Man' with his underperforming squad and that, combined with the fact that he'd never seen Donacien play, seemed to finally spell the end.
The St Lucian defender survived the summer of long knives though, heading into the current season as back up to that man Vincent-Young again.
Having been in and out of the side in the opening month, the current Donaissance period began in earnest when he replaced a tormented Vincent-Young in the first half of that 5-2 mauling by Bolton on September 11.
Since then, his reliable defensive qualities have proved a real salve to Town's ailing back line, with the Blues only losing once in the seven games he's started since.
He added attacking intent to his game in that 4-0 thumping of fellow League One big boys Portsmouth on Tuesday night, laying on two assists as well as playing his part in the clean sheet.
Asked about his Renaissance Man last month, Cook - in words which echoed Hurst's thoughts on the day he signed Donacien - said: "I think he’s probably our best one-v-one defender at the football club.
"How important is that in the modern day game? Huge. Absolutely huge.
“If everybody out the team was like Donacien, football would be such an easy and good place. He’s an absolutely smashing young man. Again, he’s one who wants the team to do well.
“His chance has come and he’s taken it really well."
It's taken more than three years, but Donacien is finally right where he was always meant to be.
Viva la Donaissance!