'If I'm going to get there, I'll have to go the hard way about it now'
At 18 Joe Coll had his dreams dashed at Old Trafford and came back home to play in Donegal League -- but a surprise trip to Norway gives fresh hope to the fisherman's son from Gaeltacht
IT was a story that had all the ingredients for a fairytale. The 16-year-old son of a fisherman from a tiny Gaeltacht community in Donegal lured to Manchester United with dreams of fame and fortune.
He was Joe Coll to the scouts, and Seosamh O'Colla to his nearest and dearest in the village of Falcarragh, a world removed from the environment he was about to enter. Whatever the language, the consistent tone of the publicity that accompanied his high-profile switch was that the young goalkeeper was a name to remember.
The cold reality, however, is that the professional football industry has a short memory. It's all too easy to be forgotten.
This week, Coll was remembered at the right time. The legendary United scout Joe Corcoran happened to be in Abbotstown when, by chance, he bumped into PFAI staff in the corridor and learned that the Irish team heading to the FIFPRO tournament in Norway was facing the embarrassment of travelling without a goalkeeper.
PFAI chief Stephen McGuinness and his staff had scoured through phonebooks and emails in a vain search for an unemployed netminder to participate in a concept that brings together out-of-work pros from four nations.
They were close to giving up when Corcoran mentioned the man that was once touted as a successor to Shay Given. Seosamh O'Colla had dropped off to the extent that Corcoran, even with his connections, struggled to initially find the 19-year-old's phone number. And when he did, there was no guarantees the response would be positive.
The surprised Coll answered the call and agreed without hesitation. Otherwise, this would be somebody else's opportunity.
"I won't be going back to school until next Monday," he smiled, as he prepared to board the flight to Oslo yesterday after an overnight bus journey and a short sleep at his uncle's house in Baldoyle.
The disparate group of individuals that have travelled to Scandinavia may have contrasting backgrounds but they share the hope that a break is around the corner.
It's what keeps them coming back after every setback. As free agents, they've all experienced rejection.
What happened to Coll? His upbringing sets him apart -- he vividly recalls being overwhelmed by the population density of Dublin on his first visit -- but his difficulties in England are a common tale. At United, there was no room to breathe. Too many 'keepers, too few games. He insists there was no homesickness, with the Irish community in Manchester taking him under their wing. Work satisfaction was the issue.
"Training-wise I couldn't have asked for anything better," he stresses. "But there were four 'keepers in the youth team. You get to the end of the week and there's no game -- you might play every three or four weeks at best.
"I was brought up enjoying football. There's having a dream but you've got to enjoy your football too. I was going stale."
Two years into a three-year contract, he decided enough was enough. Alex Ferguson did play a part in his recruitment process and always called the youths by their first name, but the Scot and the first-team stars were still on their summer holidays when Coll approached Dave Bushell, United's head of education, in June 2012 and announced that he wanted out.
"He was like a father figure," Coll recalls, "I spoke to him and I spoke to my family, and if I was going to sit there not playing for another year, then it wasn't worth my while."
From there, he embarked on the spirit-sapping trial circuit. Stints at Bury, Tranmere, Hearts and Motherwell followed without a contract emerging. There are familiar tales of hard luck, financial constraints and false promises. At Tranmere, he told them not to worry about money -- just sort out a place to live and he could handle the rest -- but another wanderer had arrived a week earlier and the early bird caught the worm.
Bereft of options, Coll packed his bags for home and duly accepted an offer from Derry City, but he was a ghost in the background when he severed that arrangement last summer and disappeared without fanfare.
It was time to pick up from where he left off. First, he enrolled in Pobalscoil Chloich Cheannfhaola Falcarragh again with a view to completing his Leaving Cert this June.
"My decision," he stresses. He committed to lining out with Glenea United in the Donegal League. His father Tom, a renowned striker at junior level in his day, is the manager so that was an easy decision. And, crucially, there was also the chance to pursue his ambitions in another code.
"I had a chance at the Gaelic too," he explains. "I know it's a different sport but physically it's brilliant."
Coll impressed between the sticks for the parish team, Cloughaneely, and is training with the Donegal U-21 panel led by Rory Gallagher and Maxi Curran. One of his first jobs in Norway was to ring management and explain why he'll miss training tonight.
He acknowledges that it's strange to have turned full circle. In a short space of time, a lot has changed around Falcarragh. At school, he's in with a younger generation. Many of his peers are at college or have already emigrated, with the recession biting hard.
It troubles him, particularly as an Irish speaker, as he wants his first language to survive; his revelation that English was his second instinct surprised the other kids at United.
"Everybody speaks it at home but it's hard to keep it going with everyone leaving," he says. "There's hardly anybody about."
Community means a lot to him. Many youngsters who fall off the United production line struggle to cope with the disappointment, but friends and family helped by putting it in perspective. His dad earned his money from the fishing trade until business dropped off, and there's plenty of similar stories in the locality.
In a tight-knit area, nobody revels in another's misfortune. Now and again, a comment about United will be innocently dropped into discussion.
"People ask you out of the best intentions," he says. "Where I am is a very rural place and people know everybody's business, in a good way -- they know what to ask and what not to ask."
He doesn't know what story he will be telling when he gets home from this adventure. Scouts from around the Scandinavian region will be present at tomorrow's games and the presence of United on his CV is bound to attract curiosity. An approach from overseas would be a bonus but it's entirely possible that the real benefit of this trip will be to remind people in Ireland that he still exists.
"If anything came up, I'd have to consider it," he muses. "This came unexpectedly but sometimes it's the unexpected things that can turn out to be the best."
The obvious temptation is to ask if pro football remains his dream. There is no pause before the response.
"I think it's everybody's dream, no matter what age you are or what standard you play at," he asserts. "Yes, you've got to be realistic too. If I'm going to get there, I'll have to go the hard way about it now.
"But I'm never going to give up on it because when you love something like that, you just don't give up."