Ballina, County Mayo born left back Jim Donnelly began his football career in Army football while serving with The Royal Artillery during the First World War and after his demobilisation he signed for First Division Blackburn Rovers in November 1919, making his Football League debut against Bolton Wanderers exactly a year later. He made 10 appearances for Rovers during 1920-21 but didn’t feature the following season, before leaving Ewood Park to join near neighbours Accrington Stanley in May 1922. After a single prior outing at the end of September, he came into Accrington’s first team just before the year end and made a further 17 appearances before the season had ended, followed by 40 appearances during 1923-24.
He moved to Southend United in May 1924 and was an ever present in The Shrimpers’ line up during a single season stay at The Kursaal, making 45 appearances, before a move to Brentford in August 1925. A regular over the next two seasons for The Bees, he switched from left back to right back in September 1925 and stayed in that position for the rest of his career. He scored his first career goal from the penalty spot in a 2-0 win over Charlton in March 1927. But after 85 appearances in his first two seasons with Brentford, he only played once more for them, in a 2-2 draw with former club Southend United in April 1928, before leaving to join newly formed club Thames Association. He played for them in the Southern League Eastern Division and a third place finish was enough for them to gain election to the Football League Third Division (South) in the summer of 1930, in place of Merthyr Town.
Thames’ spell in the Football League was a short and unhappy one. The club struggled to attract spectators. It established a supporters group, which at one point had over 1,000 members. However, this effort did not translate into a reliable supporter base that would regularly attend matches. Despite the West Ham Stadium’s capacity of 120,000 (making it the largest ground in England to regularly host League football), the club holds the record for the lowest known attendance for a Saturday Football League match; just 469 fans paid to watch Thames play Luton Town on 6th December 1930, in a match in which Donnelly played.
Unable to compete with established teams nearby, such as Charlton Athletic, Clapton Orient, Millwall and West Ham United, Thames struggled. By December 1931, the club was under severe financial pressure. To keep the club afloat, the players agreed to take a pay cut. They finished 20th out of 22 clubs in 1930-31, in a season in which Donnelly scored 3 times (none penalties), and that July Donnelly became their player-manager. However despite his efforts they finished 22nd (i.e., bottom of the League) the following season. This prompted the club directors’ decision not to seek re-election to the League for the following season and to wind up the club, despite an approach from Clapton Orient to merge the two clubs. They were replaced by Aldershot and Donnelly left the club in July 1932 on the wind up, having played 39 times for them during their League seasons.
In 1932 he played for (and coached?) Croatian club HSK Gradjanski Zagreb before his final spell as a player with Istanbul based Güneş SK in Turkey in 1933. Later that year he returned to HSK Gradjanski Zagreb as their manager, and continued as their manager until 1935. He then returned to Turkish football becoming the manager of Fenerbahçe for three years, during which time he also coached the Turkish National team between July 1936 and August 1937.