Donawa promises to build on breakthrough year
When the news broke over the weekend that Justin Donawa had secured a new one-year deal at Darlington in the Vanarama National League North in England, the 23-year-old former Somerset Trojans forward was hours away from clearing quarantine at a government-approved facility.
It is typical of the nine months the youngster has had that the term “new normal” has been in his hip pocket since he made the step up from the United States to Britain to pursue his dream last August.
Covid-19 has got in the way of that somewhat, but not before Donawa, the son of former track star and Marathon Derby champion Jay Donawa and grandson of Somerset Cup Match legend Albert Donawa, has made his mark.
After a significant bedding-in period, his is one of the first names on the teamsheet of manager Alun Armstrong, who had publicly let it be known that the prospect of losing the Bermudian on the cheap in the transfer window was unthinkable.
“I'm really excited to have renewed my deal for the upcoming season, whenever that may start,” said Donawa, now reunited with his family in the West End after returning to the island on one of the air-bridge flights.
“We did really well this past year given the circumstances — basically a new team, new manager — so it was more like a project from the club's standpoint. They were looking at it as more of a rebuilding year, but we ended up at one point in January up in sixth place, which was a surprise to everyone.”
Darlington were eleventh in the 22-team league after a 4-2 home defeat by Farsley Celtic on March 14 when play was brought to a juddering halt by the novel coronavirus.
Their season was enlivened by an unexpected run in the FA Cup, and new boy Donawa more than played his part with goals in three successive cup-ties before Darlington went out to Walsall, of Sky Bet League Two, in the first round proper after a replay.
“Growing up in Bermuda, everyone watches English football and watches the FA Cup,” said Donawa, who finished the season with nine goals. “You watch probably the later rounds, the fifth and sixth rounds, with all the Premier League teams. But for me to have the opportunity to play the actual first round against a Football League team, that was a surreal moment.”
No sooner had Darlington held Walsall to a 2-2 draw in the first match, Donawa was jetting off for another massive experience in his young football life. “That [the FA Cup match] was one of the biggest football experiences I've had and not even a week later I was in Mexico with the national team playing against Mexico at Toluca Stadium.”
A late goal brought heartbreak that resulted in Bermuda being relegated from Concacaf Nations League A. But that has taken none of the sheen off what Donawa has achieved in 2019-20.
“This whole season has been a really good experience,” he said. “Me trying to adapt to the football over there after being in the States for a long time. It is a lot more physical in England, faster pace.
“It is non-League, but there are a lot of good players. In my league, there are a lot of former Premier League and Championship-calibre players playing in the National League North, South and in the National League Conference.”
With Donawa and a number of other regulars signing new deals, expectation at Darlington is high.
“We realise we have a lot of potential to do well and to make a push to get promoted next year,” Donawa said. “I'm really excited for that and I believe we can do something special with the group that we have.”
That group, whenever they reconvene, will no longer include Bermuda team-mate Osagi Bascome, who was released. Donawa is thankful for the time they had together.
“It was good to know that I had somebody out there that I could relate to,” he said of his relationship with the ball-playing midfielder said. “From the same country, share the same culture, and we were living together at that, so it was very nice to have somebody with me showing me and teaching me how things operate footballing-wise and what to expect.
“So I thank him for being there for me and helping me to transition. He had a very good season up until he was let go. I'm thankful to have played with him because he's a very good player; a big part in me settling in.”
Should he pick up from where he left off, the name of Justin Donawa may be on the tongues of Football League scouts come the January transfer window. Even though he is on only a one-year extension, Donawa feels a sense of loyalty to a club and fanbase that have taken him to their hearts.
“Right now I'm happy where I am at Darlington,” he said. “You never know what's going to happen. I'm just focusing on what I know I have in front of me; take everything in stride and not going to get myself wound up with things that might happen or could happen.”
He added: “The fans played a big part in the season, really pushing us on to do big things. We had the third highest average attendance [about 1,300], which speaks volumes for the support we get.
“They are almost like the twelfth man every game. I remember the first home game of the season — I was on the bench and remember just hearing as all the players walked on. It just gave us that feeling like they really care about the football.
“Even at our low points, the fans were completely backing us every single time. I see it on Twitter and other social media; the fans are always engaged. Hopefully, the club can get back to the Football League in the near future because they definitely have the support.”
That said, Donawa, who turns 24 on June 27 and realises time is of the essence in the short career of an elite athlete, retains ambitions of climbing the Football League pyramid — even if it means suiting up for someone other than Arsenal, the family club he was indoctrinated to support from birth.
“I have aspirations of playing to the highest level that I can,” he said. “I want to get there just like Nahki Wells and others guys like Jonté Smith and Reggie Lambe. My goal is to get into the Football League and get at a club where I can play games and get experiences. Game time is very important.
“When that comes, and if I take my opportunities, things can be put in place where I can make another move even higher.
“It would be nice to play for a club like [Arsenal]. I just want to play at the highest level possible.”
Staying in the present, the ambition is simply to play football at all, preferably in a stadium with fans. All of which is under threat from Covid-19, although Britain is making slow strides to resume top-level sport.
Donawa said: “As an athlete, you are using to playing in front of people. Playing in front of no fans would not be an ideal scenario. It is hard for me to envision it, especially in non-League where at lot of clubs depend on the gate sales and the tickets to generate revenue for the players' wages and the overall running of the club. It will be very hard to do that, and I don't know if they will agree to it because it wouldn't be sustainable.
“At the end of the day, we're there to play football. This new normal doesn't seem like it's going anywhere that soon, so it's something we have to be prepared for. I still have to go out there and play, whether it's zero people in the stands or 1,200.”