Wild rover finding his feet after swoppping Sligo for the sun of Pacos de Ferreira
LIKE any home bird, Padraig Amond is giddy about returning to see his family for Christmas. This year's festive journey will be different to any of the others, however.
Twelve months ago, the Carlow lad was pondering the challenge of moving to Sligo after leaving Shamrock Rovers in search of regular first-team football.
Tomorrow evening, in his last official duty before departing for the homestead, he will be coming up against twice European champions FC Porto in a Portuguese Premier Division encounter.
"If you'd told me that a year ago, I'd have laughed at you," chuckles Amond, who managed to make his mother happy when he relocated to a part of the world where a winter break is an established part of the calendar. "She was, like, sign quickly, sign quickly," he recalls.
Amond is settling into his new life with Pacos de Ferreira, the club who made a surprise move for the League of Ireland's then top scorer in August.
A spectacular period of goalscoring with Sligo propelled the affable youngster onto the radar of clubs in the UK and across Europe. The sum total was the opportunity to ply his trade in one of the top leagues on the continent, a road that few Irishmen have travelled.
"I spoke to an Irish international who had the chance to go abroad and turned it down, and he still regrets it," reflects Amond, who pressed ahead with the switch to avoid the feeling of 'what if' even though it came at the price of missing EA Sports and FAI Cup glory with Sligo.
He watched those games from afar as he immersed himself in a whole new lifestyle, a completely different culture to anything he had experienced before.
It didn't help that the language school in the relatively small town of Pacos de Ferreira are only now available to provide tuition, but with an Australian team-mate and an understanding dressing-room with a reasonable command of English, that side of things has generally been okay.
Instead, the real eye-opener has been the style of play and an approach to the game that contrasts with what the 22-year-old experienced during his education in the League of Ireland.
"We have tactics meetings every second day," Amond told the Irish Independent. "A lot of these lads would have been at bigger clubs when they were younger and the coaching would have been of really high quality.
"I never really got that. Usually, training was a few ball drills and then games. In terms of tactics, you were never taught. I actually remember when Michael (O'Neill) came to Rovers, I learned a lot off him because he was a striker. Any manager I'd had before was a defender, and he gave me instruction about making runs and stuff.
"But everyone is into it here. You see the goalkeepers taking part in training games and they don't look out of place. They could probably fit anywhere into the team because they're so comfortable on the ball and rarely give it away. I've had to work on my ball retention as one small mistake here can cost a team."
From the outside, it would be easy to surmise that Amond has endured a frustrating spell. He has primarily been deployed as an impact sub, with his only start coming in the League Cup, an occasion he marked with his only goal to date from seven appearances.
However, a recent chat with coach Rui Vitoria put his mind at ease.
"They weren't expecting me to play as much as I had because there's such a massive difference here. It's a case of getting used to the way we play," he reasons.
"He told me that, at the moment, they're looking to the more experienced players, but I will get my chance later in the season. When I do, he expects me to take it and stay in the team."
For a lad who found it difficult living in Dublin when he was at Shamrock Rovers -- such was his desire to get back to Carlow whenever possible -- he is actually coping quite well being so far away.
"I probably was expecting to be a lot more homesick," he admits. "I am missing home, that's just natural. I'm a real family person. But things have been going well, sometimes we do double sessions and there's something to do every day. It's not that you are sitting around doing nothing."
Nevertheless, Amond is keen to keep in touch with events at home. He's recently joined the growing number of footballers on Twitter, offering a variety of opinions in addition to keeping up with developments on the 'old sod.'
The addictive computer game 'Football Manager' is another vice, although it has taken on a surreal twist as he locks horns on the pitch with those he knew only from virtual reality.
"When we played Benfica, it was a real 'Football Manager' moment," he laughs. "I came on for the last 10 to 15 minutes and I was playing against the likes of Pablo Aimar and Javier Saviola. They're probably players that everyone has signed in 'Football Manager.' It was a great moment, probably a bit scary in a way."
Aimar, the brilliant Argentinian playmaker, duly produced a goal that most could only dream about, waltzing past a plethora of Pacos opponents before dispatching with aplomb.
Tomorrow evening, Amond is hoping to encounter David Luiz, Porto's Brazilian-born defender who is a rumoured £20m target for Manchester City and Chelsea.
"You sort of pinch yourself, " he says. "Look, whatever happens, I'm just happy I have come out here and experienced this.
"Obviously you want to play at the highest level you can, and if this is the highest level I'll ever play at, then I've done my best.
"But if it's not, then you never know what could happen next."