Darren Randolph: 'I only played soccer because my mates did'
It was as a young Darren Randolph sat among his classmates at St Cronan’s school in Bray that he signed his first autograph.
For a budding sportsman with dreams of making it big as a basketball player in America’s NBA or on the soccer fields of England, these first few signatures were very much for his private collection.
“I had seven versions of my autograph at one point, just in case I ever needed it,” begins Republic of Ireland No.1 keeper Randolph. “I was the kid sat at the back of the classroom gazing out of the window looking at PE lessons and wishing I was out there playing with them.
“Education was never going to be my thing, even though my mam and dad encouraged me to concentrate on school.
“They knew I was sports mad, but they were probably worried that I couldn’t make a living out of sport. Thankfully football has worked out for me.”
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With his basketball-playing father Ed giving him the inspiration to follow in the footsteps of his hero Michael Jordan, a young Randolph viewed soccer as something of a secondary interest.
His route from the playing fields of Bray to Ireland’s first choice keeper for Euro 2016 is a journey that has taken Randolph down some unlikely paths, with his initial exposure to the game coming in a very different role.
“I played every sport when I was a kid and my plan was to try and get a scholarship to play in the NBA in America,” the West Ham keeper said.
“I only played soccer because all my friends were into it. We would play on our days off school, stop for lunch and start playing again. My mates were mad about the game.
"I was a centre-half in those days and Paul McGrath was my hero. I thought he was great. Being taller than the rest of the lads of my age, I was a natural pick to be a defender and I just headed the ball and hoofed it clear if it came near me.
“Then one day, our keeper got injured and I went in goal. I’d never really done it before, but it worked out okay and I’ve been there ever since. “My team was winning everything in the Wicklow leagues at the time and maybe I had an easy life as a keeper!
“I even scored a couple of goals during my early days as a keeper. I don’t think I ever scored as a defender!”
A benchwarmer for West Ham in the Premier League behind first choice keeper Adrian this season, Randolph’s sparkling performances in their FA Cup run have cemented his position as a first pick in Martin O’Neill’s side for the summer.
The confirmation from Hammers boss Slaven Bilic that assured Randolph of a starting place in a Wembley semi-final if his side overcome Manchester United in next month’s quarter-final replay at Upton Park is news that delights the Irishman.
“That’s good news for me, but we need to make sure we have more games after this one against United,” he added, clearly unaware of this assurance from his manager until we mentioned it to him.
“I have only been to Wembley once and that was with the Ireland team when we drew against England (in 2013), so it would be great to play there, but we have to get past Man Utd first.”
Shay Given, Rob Elliott, Kieren Westwood and David Forde are all in the mix for the Irish No.1 spot ahead into this Euro 2016 summer, but Randolph is the man in possession of jersey and has done more than enough to suggest he deserves to stay there.
Good job he practiced those autographs back in the day, as he may soon become a Euro 2016 hero for Ireland.