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Saturday 30 August 2014

FAI fight to keep hot prospect

Published 25/02/2013 | 04:00

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IF Sean McDermott does get to achieve his ambition of playing in goal for Ireland, he'll recall with a wry smile the first time the FAI got to lay eyes on him.

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Whereas most teenage talents are scouted playing for their clubs within the plush surrounds of English academy set-ups, this Norwegian-born wannabe had to make do with Donegal Town FC's home venue for his audition in 2007.

McDermott had travelled from his home in Kristiansand with his father for this X-Factor moment full of hope but with no guarantees.

Awaiting the pair that day at the barren and blustery venue was the FAI's national goalkeeping coach, Declan McIntyre. That McIntyre and Sean's father, Terrence, were school-friends from Abbey Vocational helped broker the trial.

"Sitting at home one night, I received a phone call from Terrence out of the blue," explains McIntyre. "It was over 20 years since I'd heard from him. He told me about living in Norway now with his family and having a son who was a decent goalkeeper and attracting plenty of interest.

"Norway had invited him into their U-15 squad but Terrence wanted him playing for Ireland. I'd no way of assessing him but did say we'd have a look when he was next back in Ireland."

It didn't require a family gathering to entice the McDermott clan to Donegal. Within a month of that initial contact, Sean was between the sticks batting away shots pelted at him from all angles by McIntyre, with his father the sole bystander in the ground.

Former Finn Harps 'keeper McIntyre quickly realised he was in the presence of a special talent.

"Sean didn't even have a pair of boots with him, let alone goalkeeper's gloves, but the raw material was there to know he was top quality," he said.

Soon he'd be making his Ireland debut at the Midlands tournament and a gateway to a professional career with Arsenal was open.

******

Terrence McDermott could hardly have imagined leaving Mountcharles in 1990 to take up residence in America that he'd return two decades later with his son tipped to continue the Donegal tradition of goalkeeping greats.

After meeting his wife Arna Stateside, they settled back to her native Norway, where Terrence maintained his involvement in the transport business. Their first son, Sean, showed promise from his early days. It was while watching Shay Given performing heroics against Germany in the 2002 World Cup that the then 10-year-old visualised his future in the green of Ireland.

Local club IK Våg provided the youngster with a platform, yet it was his international breakthrough which offered the springboard for bigger things.

"Norway wanted Sean to play for their underage squad at that point but his dream was to represent Ireland," outlined Terrence.

"Even living in Norway, I'd tried to bring an Irish influence to my kids' upbringing. When IK Start hosted Drogheda during the 2006 UEFA Cup, we went to the game and I wore my Ireland jersey. I got a few strange looks from the locals because I was supporting Drogheda!"

Inhabiting the Irish set-up brought Sean into the gaze of a wider circle. The FAI's technical director at the time, Irish legend Packie Bonner, liked what he saw and so too did Liam Brady, who arranged a trial for the 'keeper at Arsenal.

The list of admirers kept growing. Manchester United tabled an invitation, while Tottenham and Reading also took an interest.

Heading to United's training ground for his trial on the day after international duty wasn't ideal, with the player admitting he didn't do his talent justice during his stay.

Still, the determination of Arsenal to capture McDermott appealed to the family, and life as a full-time professional began in London two months after his 16th birthday.

Despite the purity of football at Arsene Wenger's Academy, the change of scene represented a culture shock for the new recruit.

"England compared to Norway is a totally different mentality," observed McDermott. "Things are nice in Norway but England is just crazy with their coaches."

A three-year crash-course ensued but, when Brady spoke of the increased difficulty facing a goalkeeper to make it at Arsenal while on a visit to Dublin, the signs were ominous.

Like so many Irish players on the Gunners' books before him, McDermott received the sermon from Wenger last spring that a career was possible, just not at Arsenal.

"I'm glad I went to Arsenal at 16, albeit I didn't get a new contract," he said. "I got to work under the likes of Steve Bould and learned a lot, not only the football – mentally I got stronger."

Certainly, the player that left the Emirates in the summer was more sculpted and prepared for the alternative route so commonly enforced upon the club's youngsters. So much so that when Leeds United presented McDermott with an outlet to remain in England, on a deal which didn't reflect his worth, there was no hesitation in looking elsewhere.

"Leeds made an offer which wasn't good and the idea of being third-choice goalkeeper at this stage of my career didn't interest me," admitted the 19-year-old.

*****

Reversing a career path from the promised land of England carries a stigma for so many imports, especially Irish prospects, only McDermott didn't deem his switch to the Norwegian league in August as a backward step.

The status of Sadnes Ulf in recent years, as the ultimate yo-yo team between the top-flight Tippeligaen and the second tier, wasn't a drawback to him joining – he saw the club as a way of getting regular football.

Within two months, the Irish international displaced the club's No 1, Aslak Falch, and was playing in front of 12,000 fans against Rosenborg. That was the first of his eight successive games up until the campaign ended in November.

"If you look at the Norwegian league, maybe it doesn't sound that good but it couldn't be better for a teenager like me," reasoned McDermott.

"I'm the youngest goalkeeper playing in the top division – I'm getting to boss 30-year-old defenders around. This is the happiest I've been for a long time."

McDermott's ascent in the domestic league has prompted questions from the public and media towards national team boss Egil Olsen. Both of the senior squad's goalkeepers are over 28, just one reason why the appetite exists for a new kid on the block to be enlisted.

For now, McDermott is fully committed to the Irish cause, progressing from last season's U-19s to the U-21 squad earlier this month for the win over Holland.

Even he admits, however, that the onset of the new season on St Patrick's Day will only heighten the clamour for Olsen to step up his pursuit.

"The coaches from the Norway team rang to know if I was interested in coming back, saying there was no pressure on making a decision," said McDermott.

"I told them I'm happy with Ireland but you never know in football. It's mostly the media pushing it, as I'm playing in the Premier Division against Molde and Rosenborg, and they're writing 'why isn't he playing in the Norwegian team?'"

All of the indicators point to an international allegiance dilemma looming for McDermott. With a parent apiece from Norway and Ireland back at the family home, could he be swayed by either of their persuasions?

"Absolutely not," emphasises Sean. "They know it's my decision but I speak to them and ask for advice."

Their early legwork put Ireland in the box seat on the chase; here's hoping they don't let this one slip.

Irish Independent

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