From Templeogue Utd to Reading F.C: how do young players cope when playing abroad?

As the Irish national team begin to perform well on the international stage once again, Gary Ibbotson looks at how our young hopefuls deal with living away from home.

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As the Irish national team begin to perform well on the international stage once again, Gary Ibbotson looks at how our young hopefuls deal with living away from home.

Irish football is in a good state at the moment. It’s hard to believe that after more than a decade of primitive football creativity, baffling squad selections, and a lack of Premier League regulars, we’re finally doing quite well.

So much so, that we now have exceeded the expectation of beating the Faroe Islands away from home and moved on to targeting the global juggernauts. We can beat the world champions, stand toe-to-toe with the best in Europe, and lead a World Cup qualifying group without playing our best football. We’re heading into Jack Charlton-era-like success, folks. And you better believe it.

With this return to form on the international stage, Ireland’s more accomplished players such as Seamus Coleman, Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick are attracting the attention of fans and the media. Brady and Hendrick have been the subject of big summer transfer moves to Premier League side Burnley, while Coleman has drawn plaudits from pundits and analysts for his consistently stellar play for Everton this season.

Coleman played for Sligo Rovers in the League of Ireland until he was 20 years of age. He joined Everton in 2009. Brady and Hendrick, however, left their local club, St Kevin’s Boys, at a young age, moving to England in the hope of crafting a footballing career for themselves in the limelight and glamour of the Premier League.

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Former Irish star, Damien Duff, left for Blackburn Rovers in 1996 when he was 16. Image by Nick via Flickr

If you look at the Irish squad, these contrasts are evident. Some players developed at home, others abroad.

Coleman, a Donegal native, even partially credits his success in England and with the national side to his time at Sligo, saying in a recent interview with the42 that playing in the League of Ireland helped his growth as a player and person.

“In my situation, I played 55 times for Sligo Rovers, was playing for points, learning how three points meant so much to everyone – the fans, the players, the manager. Players had bills to pay. They needed those points to help get another contract. The motivation was there,” he said.

“So you had to work so very hard and I brought that attitude with me when I came across. There was a huge benefit to playing so many games in front of fans, and there are benefits for players who came a different route, whether it is the lower leagues in England, or wherever.”

For those young players who do make the trip across the Irish sea, the task of breaking into the first team can be daunting. The chances are also extraordinarily slim.

“I went over at 15 years of age and it made you grow up quick, you know? You’re leaving your friends, your school, your normal routine. Your whole life changes in a blink of an eye.”

In fact, according to Pundit Arena, nearly one in four players who currently play in the League of Ireland, have been a member of an English or Scottish club’s academy at one stage.

Growing up

Colin O’Brien*, a director of football at a successful amateur South-Dublin football club told The City that moving abroad at a young age to pursue a career in the sport forced a personal development.

“I went over at 15 years of age and it made you grow up quick, you know? You’re leaving your friends, your school, your normal routine. Your whole life changes in a blink of an eye.”

“You miss your debs and your graduation, the little things that throw you off,” he adds. “You’re always thinking about going home, it really is a big transition.”

grassroots football
Portadown F.C’s home stadium, Shamrock Park. Image by Dean Molyneaux

Conor Davis (19), joined Reading FC’s academy as a prospect in 2014 when he was 16. The Dubliner says that the transition from local club Templeogue United to a the South-England club was surprisingly seamless for him.

“I’m the type of person who can settle anywhere and I was just so excited to begin my football career that I didn’t have time to miss home. It also helped that Reading are a real family club and everyone there is very friendly.”

O’Brien says that the spare time associated with training to be a professional footballer can bring its own problems. “The biggest challenge for me was that we used to finish at one o’clock everyday so there was a lot of spare time on your hands. You’re sitting lying at home doing nothing for the rest of the day basically.”

Davis, who has also represented his country at under-17 level, shares O’Brien’s sentiments.

“It is compulsory for apprentices to complete a Business and technology education qualification (BTEC) in sporting excellence during their two years.”

However, “as a pro you have a lot of spare time so I decided to work my way through the AAT diplomas in accounting this January. But having said that I’d say the majority of young pros don’t do any education after their compulsory BTEC,” he says.

Missing home

Although Davis says that he personally doesn’t feel homesick, he knows plenty of young players who do. “It’s not uncommon for players to feel homesick, there’s lads from Manchester and even as close as London who get homesick from living in digs during the week.”

From his time abroad and as a mentor to younger players in Dublin, O’Brien sees homesickness as a real concern. It was this issue that ultimately brought him home early.

FIFA_WC-qualification_2014_-_Austria_vs_Ireland_2013-09-10_-_Seamus_Coleman_02 (1)
Irish captain, Séamus Coleman, moved from Sligo Rovers to Everton for £60,000 in 2009. Image by Michael Kranewitter

“Basically I was struggling with homesickness over the three and a half years, I wanted to play for Shamrock Rovers at the time and with the lure of coming home – I kind of took the easy option at the time. I soon regretted it but it was kind of immaturity at that age,” he says.

“It’s a completely different culture, you’re out of your comfort zone, you don’t have your friends. You’re in another country at 15, 16 years of age and you have to learn how to do washing, learn how to cook a meal and things like that.”

“And with the Irish upbringing, kids are very close to their parents and that’s just natural, it’s our culture. It’s definitely a contributing factor.”

Both Davis and O’Brien say that the UK clubs offer enormous support to their younger players, particularly those from abroad.

“There’s a very good set up here for the lads living abroad. We have a very good welfare officer who definitely doesn’t get paid enough for the amount that he does for us. Any problems we have we go to him and he always manages to sort us out without any problems,” says Davis.

“The club were brilliant,” admits O’Brien. “I was the first ever player from outside the UK to sign for their academy so it was a learning curve for them at the time – bringing an Irish boy over. I have no complaints from being over there.”

Awareness

One aspect of the process that O’Brien says needs to be developed is contingency planning.

“I don’t think parents know what’s next and what is not. I think they need to be educated a little bit more,” he says.

“For players who do come home for whatever reason, a lot of them don’t end up playing football – they don’t make it across the water, they don’t play League of Ireland, they come home and don’t do anything.”

“The FAI were of no help to me when I came home, in any shape or form, there was no contact from the FAI, they didn’t help me get a club or stuff like that.”

“I was lucky enough that I fell back into third level education but not many do,” he adds. “I didn’t even know how it worked but it’s just by chance that I fell into it and I ended up going and doing it.”

The FAI did not reply to The City’s requests for a comment on the subject.

Davis, however, says that the FAI did offer him advice prior to leaving for Reading.

“Before I moved here, I remember having some lads from the FAI come to our house and give us brochures explaining that if I ever have any problems to contact them, they seemed very helpful and supportive.”

“Having said that, I’ve not had any contact from the FAI since I moved over here apart from when I’ve been called into international squads at different age groups,” he says.

But ultimately, O’Brien says, for a player to succeed over in England, they need two things: luck and attitude.

“I have seen some kids go over and they’ve worked so hard to get over there and then once they get over there they can’t go and kick-on again,” he says.

“Some kids just want to say “yeh yeh I played for Arsenal” or their boyhood club or whoever. And then you can see there are some kids who go over and they want to make difference in the club as quick as they can.”

“So yeah, having a good attitude and a bit of luck would be the two major factors.”

 

*Colin O’Brien’s real name has been altered at his request.

 

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Featured image by Michael Kranewitter via Wikimedia Commons

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