Tuesday 07 May 2019, 10:03

Ability Counts for Alex at Celtic 

  • Alex O’Donnell has Down’s Syndrome

  • The passionate Celtic fan helps lead the club's stadium tours

  • He has benefited from Celtic FC Foundation’s Ability Counts project

While every football club is shaped by its history, few cling to their heritage as closely as Celtic. The anthem of the serial Scottish champions speaks of hearts soaring at “knowing your history”, and pride is taken in doing so.

Visit Celtic Park today, for example, and you’ll be greeted by a sea of scarves, flags and flowers. All have been left by supporters to honour 1967 European Cup-winning heroes Billy McNeill and Stevie Chalmers, both of whom recently passed away.

Walk inside the stadium, though, and you’ll meet a living tribute to a more distant, but equally cherished, chapter of the club’s history.

Alex O’Donnell has Down’s Syndrome. He is also a passionate Celtic supporter and, if anyone knows their history, it’s Alex. Take the stadium tour and you’ll hear him recount, instantly and flawlessly, dates, details and goalscorers from obscure cup finals that took place decades before he was born.

He does so as one of the club’s official tour guides, having thrived in Celtic FC Foundation’s award-winning ‘Ability Counts’ project.

Alex has been part of that project since its 2010 inception, and in the intervening period has become a well known and hugely popular figure around Celtic Park. Peter Lawwell, the club’s chief executive, describes the 20-year-old as “an exceptional young man”, adding: “It’s wonderful that supporters and visitors to the stadium get to see his natural warmth and good nature.”

Yet this position of tour guide – “Alex’s dream job”, says mother Lian – is simply the latest in a series of thrilling experiences he has enjoyed through Ability Counts. The project was introduced to engage with, support and develop children and young people with Down’s Syndrome, and does so through games, dance and, of course, football.

Alex’s involvement has entailed him acting as a mascot in his early years with the project, attending first-team training sessions and, more recently, taking on roles with the tours and coaching the project’s younger participants.

“I love being a coach. It’s brilliant,” Alex told FIFA.com. “And the tours are fantastic too. I don’t get nervous doing them - just excited.”

Alex O'Donnell and Marie Rowan lead the Celtic Park tour.

Marie Rowan, the esteemed Celtic historian with whom he guides visitors around the stadium, can vouch for that. She also sees first-hand that Alex’s enjoyment of the tours is matched by the paying customers’ appreciation of his contribution.

“Alex gets a great response. Lots of claps,” Rowan said. “And we have good fun together. He’s a lovely boy and I’m very fond of him.

“I’m a former special needs teacher, did that for decades, and taught a lot of Down’s Syndrome children in that time. Not all of them could do the likes of this, but Alex is exceptional in many ways. His parents have brought him up fantastically, and he has listened and learned here and become very professional.

“What the Foundation does for children with special needs really is wonderful. I love seeing it. And Alex sort of flies the flag for the rest of the kids involved.”

The 20-year-old is, as his fellow tour guide points out, just one of Ability Counts’ many beneficiaries. That project, in turn, represents merely a single strand of Celtic FC Foundation’s inspirational, wide-ranging work.

And if you know your history, as Alex and his family do, that work honours the founding ethos of a club established for charitable purposes.

Alex O'Donnell and Celtic Chief Executive Peter Lawwell. 

“It’s great to see that,” said Owen, Alex’s father. “You have this club, formed over 125 years ago to help those in need and give back to the local community, still staying true to its principles.

“Most football clubs seem to be going in that direction, with some kind of foundation or charitable trust, and it’s the way it should be when you think of the power and reach that football has. But Celtic, probably due to that charitable history, do seem to put special focus on it – and the work the Foundation do is fantastic.

“Alex has gained so much from it, and so have we from seeing him enjoy what he does and grow in the roles he’s been given. We’re very proud of him, and extremely grateful to Celtic for everything they’ve done.”