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Honestly, I never expected more from football than fun and travel. I’d never be good enough to play for Ireland or even Northern Ireland. I’d not been part of any top class club like Belvedere or Home Farm, scouts weren’t beating down my door and besides. I wanted a boxing career. Add a love of hurling and education, and just playing was enough. Then I was offered trials and entered into football’s meat market.
My week long trial with Notts County was under Neil Warnock’s watchful eye. They were the first club that offered me a trial. Neil pointed at Tommy Johnson, “just watch him son”.
After seeing Tommy in training I was embarrassed by my lack of skill. He then said, “now watch Don.” Don O’Riordan was also from Dublin and majestic on the ball, schooling Craig Short.
On day three I was told to shadow Phil Turner for a day. The training was intense and I loved it. The camp was a happy one and the boss made sure the older players supported the younger ones. I was given advice from Phil, Don and Tommy. All began with something along the lines of “you’re doing x good, you need to improve y, and keep doing z.”
Phil’s stuck in my head, “you tackle really well and clean, keep it up. You’re following the ball a bit too much, you need to relax and slow down, let it come to you. You’ve a lovely strike on the ball, start taking set pieces.” I broke my wrist at the start of the second week and was sent home. The last words I heard in Nottingham were Neil Warnock’s, who put me on the train with a few quid from his own pocket, “you showed enough to get here and stay for a week, remember that son!”
Waiting at home was a rejection letter from Meadowbank Thistle. Three weeks later, plaster free, I wrote a thank you note to Terry Christie, Thistle’s boss. A fortnight after that a letter replied inviting me to go over for my next school holidays to train with them.
I did and it was the Christmas before my Leaving Cert. I managed four days and didn’t feel out of place with part-timers. On my second day I was put up front in a mixed match and a lad my age, Peter Cormack, was marking me. I drifted away time and again, picking up passes and used the ball a little more. I played a full 90 minutes in a friendly with Edinburgh City. There were a couple of dozen people in the decrepit Meadowbank Stadium and at least once I heard, “yon wee man is good.” I took it they were talking about me. Terry told me after four days that all he could offer was a part-time wage, but that I should think of education first. To apply to a local college or university and he’d take me on. He hoped I’d go back and wished me well. It was a very different journey home.
I didn’t go back to Edinburgh, instead staying home and playing Leinster Senior League football, boxing, hurling and studying. I trained with St. James Gate, had to leave the UCD Freshers team in order to focus on boxing and was offered a run out with Chester City who were in the then 3rd Division. I’d been in Chester on a boxing trip, fought and spoke with a couple of Chester City officials who were ringside. They’d drink taken but they said, “come over for a run out.” I did a couple of months later during my Easter break, saw what Graham Barrow was building and liked it. They invited me back in the summer and I accepted. First I’d to go home to get through exams.
They won promotion, then Graham quit and I didn’t know what to do. My mentor and archaeology professor, John Bradley, told me over tea in the UCD canteen to “grasp the nettle.” The club official I’d first met called and told me to come over. Mike Pejic was pretty open for me to be part of pre-season training and friendlies. Very quickly I saw it wasn’t for me. The team was awful and apart from Stuart Rimmer up front, there was little to hang around for. Kevin Ratcliffe was playing and coaching, but didn’t offer much to younger players. Most were intimidated by the Everton and Wales legend. He was as tough in training as he was in matches. In a late-July friendly I started in midfield with a recent reject from Manchester City who fancied himself. I did as I was told, box-to-box and get the ball to Rimmer.
Up against a trialist-filled Wrexham side, it was no holds barred. The ex-City guy lasted 20 minutes and was replaced by an ex-Everton youth, who was gone at half-time. Next up was a local player who began in centre midfield with me before hiding on the wing. Ratcliffe gave him an unmerciful bollocking when Wrexham got through and scored. Pejic, pun intended, pulled him off.
My fourth and final partner was a player who’d played more than 50 games for three clubs from Premier to Division 3. He didn’t even shower after. I’d another friendly then sat with the manager for a chat. He offered me £200 per week and had a day to think it over. I sought advice and was told “This club is shit. Run.” Mike Pejic told me this, he was gone by January.
In 1995 I played part of the summer in a Canadian Regional League, returned in 1996, after graduation, played a season in the Provincial and Regional Leagues, played indoor semi-pro over the winter and planned to a) a Masters scholarship in a US University and use this as a path into the MLS or b) get playing with an A-League team. My 1996 season was pretty solid, I was player of the month once and voted onto the Regional All-Star XI. Played in the All-Star game and got myself an agent. She got me a trial with the Montreal Impact. Beforehand I had a weeks trial in Bristol with Rovers to open my lungs and stretch my legs.
Under Ian Holloway I felt that I could play. He told me “get yourself forward and move.” Ian was player-boss and led by example. He was tough, skillful and read the game better than anyone I’d played with. In a training 7-a-side I played with Lee Martin. Lee was very welcoming to a mere triallist. County had just sold Marcus Browning, so myself and one other player were on trial for one short term contract. I played 90 minutes for a Rovers Reserves against a Bristol City Reserves and at the end was offered a week-to-week contract, on £120 a week. It was full-time football but I could be done at any time. I returned to Canada match fit to a job, club contract and a trial with an A-League team.
The mess that was my time with Montreal Impact, where they gave me an extra day, week and another week, deserves an article of its own. I grew fond of Montreal city even before signing a contract of sorts with L’Impact, who immediately traded my rights to A-League rivals Hershey Wildcats. I took three buses to reach Hershey before sleeping rough for two nights, playing four pre-season games, a tournament and cup game. I wised up and returned to my provincial club in Canada. It was a lesson that even a signed contract meant nothing if the system is gamed against the players. I was poorer but wiser, with a distrust of agents.
After returning to Europe I focused more on my boxing, with football to stay fit. A season in the fifth tier of German football, with a few appearances in the fourth tier with VFB Marburg, were enough to keep me interested. I had fun in the Saudi second tier with FC Medina, though I remember that period less fondly due to the scars left from sand pitches we sometimes played on. In both Germany and Saudi I was given my place after a single training session or trial match. A long way from Notts County or even Montreal.
In 2003 I rocked up in Croatia and was invited to train with a local third division side Kastel Gomilica and in 2004-5 with another side at that level Zagora Unesic. Having less time to spend playing thanks to family and rugby, I dropped down to the fifth tier with NK Janjevo Kistanje. The team was largely made up of ethnic Croats who’d been “cleansed” from Kosovo and played each match as if it were their last. In 2007 I decided my time was up on the football field and concentrated on life.
My local club was NK Dinara Knin, where I played rugby, though the tiny village of Unesic was very dear to me. Our company financially supported them and in 2006-7 we pulled off a worldwide coup to get the club into the media. One of my colleagues and I, over coffee, decided to let it be known that a local “farmer” (my colleague), would donate a sheep for every goal scored by local postman Ivica Supe. Thanks to a friendly local journalist, it was picked up on by Reuters.
My last, last hurrah was with Zagora in 2008 when I joined their reserves for four games at the end of their season to stave off relegation. From 1998 I’d progressed past the meat market stage of desperate hours trying to impress a coach, director or group of senior pros. Now I was a senior “pro” myself and came in with a “take me or leave me” attitude. I had a parallel career, knew my limit and was enjoying playing, training and socialising. Then I jumped the fence.