Former Man U star starting all over again
Dubliner Kevin Grogan's looks forward to new coaching chapter after injury ruined playing career
Published 15/07/2013 | 04:00
Injury ended Kevin Grogan's promising Manchester United career before it began, but the Dubliner is forging a successful new life as a coach across the Atlantic – thanks to a little help from his old boss.
Alex Ferguson was asking for a young Irishman to be given a break. Applicants for an O-1 visa need to demonstrate they have extraordinary ability in their field, and the Scot always believed that Kevin Grogan possessed that attribute.
In 2009, he put those thoughts to paper, endorsing the Dubliner as a person, a player, and an honest hard worker. The sign-off was the admission that one of his biggest disappointments in management was the injury that ended a promising career before it had even started.
That bold statement flattered the subject, although the pride was mixed with regret, for it was another reminder of what could have been, thoughts he tries to bar from his head. The gifted playmaker from Sutton, a member of Brian Kerr's U-16 European Championship winning squad in 1998, was destined for big things until a recurring pelvic problem put a halt to his plans.
It shattered his Manchester United ambitions as he moved closer to a breakthrough, scuppered a new dawn at Millwall and then struck again years later after the last throw of the dice – three operations and eight months of rehab in Belgium – offered an unlikely lifeline. The experience left him short of cash, depressed and smothered in uncertainty.
On the darkest days, he asked himself a question. "If I'm not a footballer any more, then what am I?"
When it came to applying for the visa, he let others tell that story, managers from Kerr to Ferguson who would never forget the name. In their eyes, he was the one that got away. Their words had an impact. The Grogan O-1 application was accepted.
In Woodside, a diverse, attractive neighbourhood in the western part of the New York borough of Queens, they know who Kevin Grogan is now. There's a heavy Irish flavour to the Copper Kettle Bar and Restaurant on the corner of 51st Street and Skillman Avenue, and the proprietors stop to say hello to the familiar face in the corner.
Grogan is at ease here, a contrast from when he first arrived as a stranger carrying only a sheet of paper containing the address of a friend of a friend. He said he would give it six months, and he's still here.
On this sunny Saturday morning, he's wearing a red T-shirt bearing the name of his current employers, the Clarkstown SC Eagles, who are based a 45-minute drive away in Rockland County. They were formed earlier this year as a merger between Clarkstown Soccer Club, a youth club which has 2,400 kids up to U-18 level, and the Jersey City Eagles, a semi-professional entity funded by Albanian businessman Oliver Papraniku, who compete in the north-east division of the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), effectively the third tier of the game in the States.
Grogan was the driving force behind the amalgamation. He was the director of coaching at Clarkstown after quickly building his profile at youth level, and the first-team boss of the Eagles, who had recruited him from Lansdowne Colts, a team who operate at a level further down.
The prospect of merging a thriving underage section with a promising senior project in an untapped area screamed potential.
A constant stream of alerts from his phone indicates he is a busy man. This existence is not quite what he envisaged when he first landed, but then he wasn't entirely sure what he had in mind when he spent his initial networking holiday visa travelling the country, pressing the flesh and offering freelance coaching sessions.
The sport is big business in America now, with soccer camps popping up everywhere. That process didn't really appeal to Grogan, who thinks that quite a few of the 'academies' are merely meeting numerical targets on an annual basis rather than focusing on a long-term relationship with particular groups of kids with a view to identifying elite players.
"I did a lot of reading and thought I knew everything about American soccer but looking back now, I didn't have a clue," he says.
"I had offers from private coaching companies who would dangle the carrot of a visa and then just flog me. The fact I had a different background, with Manchester United, it offered promotional value. But I would be increasing their revenue on that and wouldn't be seeing the benefit of it."
His CV invariably attracts questions. Certain details jump off the page. He is well versed in telling the hard luck part of the story, the heartbreak which first entered his life in the summer of 1999. Until then, the only bump in the road had been the growth-related Osgood-Schlatters disease which halved his involvement in Kerr's U-16 triumph in Scotland.
After watching his employers collect the treble at the Nou Camp in the Champions League final, Grogan returned for pre-season, ready to hit the ground running. "I was saying to myself, 'This is it now' but I broke down in training and that started it."
The complicated problem, which consisted of severe bone erosion in the pelvic and hip area, tested the judgment of experts. Medics at United recommended a course of injections. Grogan was unsure.
He spoke to Kerr and Dr Pat O'Neill and they suggested that playing less football might help. The solution of a switch to UCD was devised, a stopgap plan which introduced him to the League of Ireland.
"I found it hard," he recalls. "I was
young, I was immature, and maybe they expected too much of me, as if this guy was going to come in and help them win the league."
His plan was always to get back to Manchester, and Ferguson was open to it. However, after the first round of operations, an opening at Millwall appeared and it felt right.
They offered a contract four days into a two-week trial and he was training with the first team, in a midfield that included Tim Cahill and Steven Reid, with a sense that immediate involvement was a given. "I was flying," he says. This particular window of hope lasted for two months. Then, the body gave in again.
It ended in a treatment room, sitting across from a doctor who had no answer for why the latest round of operations and injections had failed.
It was no way to celebrate a 21st birthday. Grogan sought out Richie Sadlier, who was beginning to fight his own inevitable battle, and beckoned him outside to say he had reached the point of no return. "So upset," he says, shaking his head.
The festive spirit of Christmas 2002 staved off the depression that eventually set in over the next three months.
"It's like a death really," he explains. "I went through the phases. I got angry. Then struggling to get out of bed. You feel like 'What's the point?' And you feel that nobody understands, so you get frustrated with people, and it's usually the people who are closest to you that get the brunt of it."
He dabbled in a variety of fields in search of a solution; a bit of radio work, a flirtation with writing, some coaching.
Pat Devlin took him under his wing, offering an insight into the world of advising players, working on transfers and mingling with scouts.
In 2005, he spent a day entertaining an agent from Holland who was over to have a look at a League of Ireland player. During the game, the visitor sensed that his host was conflicted.
"He turned to me and said 'Do you still want to be out there?' And I said, of course I did. He said he could have a solution, an expert in Belgium who was the best in the world and wouldn't charge a cent to have a look."
Gut instinct told him to fly to Antwerp and meet Geert De Clercq, a man with a car park which justified his reputation. Stars like Andrei Shevchenko and Emile Mpenza rocked by in their Ferraris and Lamborghinis. The unheralded Irish guest was borrowing to be there.
From his original diagnosis, De Clercq was cautiously optimistic, adding the proviso that at least if his work didn't result in a full-time return, it could have benefits for day-to-day life.
This required an operation, three procedures, and a prolonged period of rehab. Grogan went home to think about it, and reasoned that if he let the chance pass, he would regret it forever. So he became a temporary Belgian resident, but knows nothing of their world-renowned beers.
"Seven days of rehab for eight months straight," he sighs. "I didn't go out once."
St Patrick's Athletic welcomed him home in 2006 and the comeback attracted column inches.
Once he jogged back onto the training pitch, a horrible realisation set in. This injury wasn't cured. At best, it was dormant.
"I just knew I wasn't what I was. My movement was restricted. You pretend it's not there and say it's a few niggles and keep going but I just knew. I went up North, to Glentoran, because I wanted a few months playing but I was driving up there one day by myself, and I remember thinking 'This injury has been back since October – what am I doing here?'
"And that was that. I thought it would be easier second time around because I'd been through it before but it was harder because I'd got back into the zone, into great shape, my body fat down to 5pc. But I was gone."
His subsequent foray is a regret, a spell at his former schoolboy club, Belvedere, as director of coaching.
He cares for the club but his head wasn't in it. Ireland was getting him down, for coming home was indelibly associated with bad times. The only positive from the experience was that he eschewed predictable temptation.
Depths never drove him to drink; he only preferred a beer in happier times. "Never a crutch," he says. "I was lucky." Lonely hours were used to plot a fresh start. He started to read up on America.
After finishing brunch, he makes his apologies for leaving because there's work to do. Clarkstown SC have a game that evening and it's time to go home, put on a shirt and tie and prepare for business. He's the only manager at his level to dress the part, yet he believes it's right to send out that message.
While he speaks passionately about developing the game at youth level, he will later enter a dressing-room full of adults and give out instructions. There's a mix of nationalities, with Colombian, Brazilian, Irish and Albanian surnames in his ranks.
With a few experienced heads and a progression to full-time training, he thinks the group could go far. He takes pride from the common consensus that they are the best footballing side in a division primarily packed with younger players on a break or just leaving the college circuit.
It's obvious he is here for the long haul. The pace at which he speaks about different offers and projects illustrates that point. There's a girl too, which has added to the comfort factor. He's committing to the youth wing at Clarkstown for another three years, with other initiatives on the side as well, working towards running an academy in his name.
"I do think I have the potential to be a very good manager," he stresses.
"And if I want to pursue Ireland or England, realistically I'd need to go back in the next three or four years to start that ladder. I look at my life here, and I'm doing well, it's a good lifestyle, the work is snowballing.
"Most of my life, I've been all over the place, and for the first time I feel settled. I've never been driven by money, but from a business point of view I can do better here than anywhere in the world. So why leave? Why rock the boat?"
Last September, he was presented with the opportunity to thank the man who had a key contribution towards steadying the ship.
As he walked down First Avenue towards a breakfast meeting with Alex Ferguson, he wondered if the dynamic would be different now that he was a confident 31-year-old, and no longer a cowering teenager. "And then I walked in the door and froze," he laughs.
There were six at the table, and conversation was dominated by small talk about other sports. "We didn't really get into what I was doing now. But I heard afterwards that before I went in, he was talking to the others about my injuries."
The coverage of Ferguson's retirement did bring back some memories, the excitement of the early days at the Cliff where he was the apprentice to the golden generation of Giggs, Beckham, Scholes and the rest.
He has a reached a point, however, where there is nothing to gain from dwelling on disappointments. Cruel luck may have broken childhood dreams but a sharp mind can open the door to a whole new world of possibilities.