Scott Hogan's rise from £30 a week to living out a dream
When Scott Hogan was queueing to board his flight from Manchester to Dublin yesterday, he was stunned to realise he had famous company.
He was starstruck. For a Manchester United-supporting son of Salford, Roy Keane meant everything. His father John Gerard idolises him.
Hogan, who was born a year before the Corkman put pen to paper at Old Trafford, caught the bug.
He knew he would be meeting the Ireland assistant manager on his first day's training with his new international colleagues but this was ahead of schedule. Keane sidled over in his direction to say hello to the fresh face in his own unique fashion.
"Where have you been for the last year?" he quipped. Welcome aboard.
There is a valid question behind it, though, and the engaging Hogan sought to provide the answer in the course of his post-training reflections at HQ in Abbotstown.
His Irish tale is just one element of a story that has taken him from playing non-league football and working in a warehouse to a whole new level of prominence.
In the space of just four years, the striker has managed to fit in two long-term injuries, a handful of transfers culminating in a £12m move to Aston Villa, and a saga surrounding his international intentions.
The 25-year-old insists that part was actually more routine than what was made out when his sparkling form at Brentford led to comparisons with his old Halifax team-mate Jamie Vardy.
With Premier League interest, there was a feeling that English-born Hogan was hedging his bets in delaying a response to an approach from O'Neill.
When he made his league breakthrough with Rochdale, an U-21 call from Noel King was refused due to club commitments and the orders of his manager.
This time was different, but Hogan says he was simply trying to get through a calendar year without another setback after knee trouble floored him for the guts of two years just after he'd joined Brentford in 2014.
"I always wanted to play for Ireland because I wanted to play," he asserted,
"People play for England and Scotland and Wales and they're happy to get in the squad and get the call-up but I want to play football for Ireland. My dad is Irish, there's a big family back in Carlow and it is part of my life so there was never any consideration of waiting for something else.
"It was just solely that I wanted to get back playing football. The manager (O'Neill) understood my situation and was totally compliant with it. In the summer, I made the contact and said I feel ready."
He will have to cope with sceptics who believe he should have accepted the summons immediately, but there are layers to his background that mark him out as different to the average pro.
- Read more: 'I've got all the elements of an Irish family' - Scott Hogan delighted to be involved with Martin O'Neill's men
Hogan never imagined he would have an international decision to make and there are moments where he checks himself and realises that what constitutes a problem now is nothing compared to his old dilemmas.
Life at Aston Villa could be going better. In truth, he has underwhelmed. But memories of earning £30 a week in his first spell at Rochdale as a teenager and then falling even further down the ladder while trying to scrape a few quid together put it all in perspective.
He dabbled in a sports studies course in that Rochdale stint but that was only because his friends were doing it and his attendance was moderate.
Disillusionment was his default setting after two unproductive years at Everton and failed trials at United.
"I used to give that £30 to my mum because she used to drop me off sometimes to the football," he says. But he soon packed it in and went his own way on the odd-jobbing circuit.
"I have not come from a great background," he shrugs. "We got by and stuff. I took that sports course after football and that was it really.
"I have always been one to do what I enjoy rather than what makes sense, which is maybe not the wisest thing to do.
"A lot of people I knew used to go around the non-league scene and playing for cash in hand. I also did a lot of work - warehouse jobs, shelf-stacking, cleaning, recycling vans. I did everything.
"But I knew that the only thing I was OK at was football, so I just kept playing and kept playing and I gave my job up one summer to go and train in the gym."
The fresh application combined with a knack for scoring goals fuelled a rapid rise and a proper invitation back to Rochdale. And he has reached a dizzy level of security by going from there to Brentford and then to Villa.
"Sometimes when I'm a bit down - and I'll be honest it has not gone great since I went to Villa - I go home and my girlfriend, family and friends say, 'Remember you're a £12m player. Someone has paid that much money for you.' That picks you up a little," he grins.
"I remember the first bids going in from West Ham, even before January, and it was like, 'Jesus, this is a lot of money here.' And obviously the bids kept being turned down and I was like, 'this cannot keep going up here, can it?'
"I had only been at low-budget clubs and I kept thinking I am just a lad who wants to play football, I am not worthy of that kind of money. A fee is a fee. If someone wants to pay it, they pay it but from where I am from, that's a lot of money."
- Read more: Harry Arter set to join up with Ireland squad despite missing Leicester clash with calf injury
Others have climbed that summit and frittered it all away just as quickly and he is mindful of that,
"I never had it (money) so you don't want to lose it," he replies. "The family live near where I am. I have my girlfriend. We are sensible, we are not stupid, I am more of a go home sit in front of the TV and watch football type of lad, rather than the go out and do whatever type.
"Being paid to be a footballer allows us to do nice things, allows us to live in a nice house near home, it allows us to do things we never could. I don't take it for granted and I never will."
But there are dreams that linger. Smiling again, he mentions the lifelong ambition to play for Manchester United but admits that's probably a non-runner at this stage. Besides that, there are Premier League ambitions and other boxes to tick. "You don't want the rise to stop," he asserts.
Neither do O'Neill's Ireland.
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