Wednesday 26 July 2017

'It's only when you get older you realise how horrible it can be' - Conor Clifford on the reality of professional football

Dundalk move offers hope after a decade of ups and downs in England

Conor Clifford training with Dundalk, lifts the Youth Cup with Chelsea (inset left) and (right) in action for Ireland
Conor Clifford training with Dundalk, lifts the Youth Cup with Chelsea (inset left) and (right) in action for Ireland
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

There have been times when football has sapped the enthusiasm out of Conor Clifford. Days where the solitary nature of a ruthless profession left him disillusioned.

He's feeling different this week. "I've got a spring in my step again," he grins. The catalyst for the return of the buzz has been the decision to come home and start afresh, a move which he probably should have made a couple of years back.

Life is rarely that straightforward, though, as the 25-year-old explained yesterday as he sat down to discuss the transfer to Dundalk that has put him back in the spotlight. With a smile, he says that the interview requests remind him of his younger days.

The name should ring a bell because Clifford was heralded as the next big thing in his teenage years, the captain of a Chelsea FA Youth Cup winning side after picking the Blues over a host of suitors.

He was offered a lengthy contract and an attractive package and was tipped for greatness.

Eight years ago, the Irish Independent visited Clifford in affluent Cobham and met a chirpy youngster, thrilled by the buzz of a first invite to senior training next to John Terry, Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard. All any kid can see at that juncture is a rosy future.

Conor Clifford holds the Trophy aloft after winning the FA Youth Cup Final with Chelsea
Conor Clifford holds the Trophy aloft after winning the FA Youth Cup Final with Chelsea

The reality is often harsher.

After ten years in the UK he packed his bags last month. Reaction to his arrival in the League of Ireland has ranged from a genuine sense of anticipation to see how one of the most talented players of his Irish generation will fare to scepticism about the fact that his last place of employment was Boreham Wood in the fifth tier of English football. How did he end up there?

It's a long story. There are, he insists, no regrets about choosing Chelsea.

"The best time of my life, I loved it there," he says. "I had a good upbringing playing with some of the best players in the world. I liked the environment, the people I was around."

He certainly wasn't alone there, with so many other hopefuls sharing the same ambitions and, once he moved beyond underage football, things got complicated.

"At Chelsea, there's no room for you when you get past reserve stage," he explains. "There's just so many players, so the next step if you're not in or around the first team, is to go out on loan.

"There were forty-something players out. You go out, you get called back and then you get shipped out again."

He tried five different clubs on various rungs of the ladder and he remembers some more fondly than others. Plymouth was fantastic and Peter Reid loved his work; they got hit by a transfer embargo and couldn't extend his stay.

Notts County was fine until Paul Ince was sacked. At Crawley Town, he arrived to be shocked when management asked if he was right- or left-footed. He played one match there and went back to base.

Donyell Malen of Arsenal takes on Conor Clifford of Borehamwood during a pre season friendly
Donyell Malen of Arsenal takes on Conor Clifford of Borehamwood during a pre season friendly

In January 2013, Chelsea agreed to terminate his contract early so he could find a permanent club.

Leicester took him on board for a prolonged trial under Nigel Pearson. A Sliding Doors moment given the journey that club was about to embark on.

"I was loving it there and I thought I deserved a contract at the end of the season," says Clifford. "He (Pearson) said 'come on pre-season with us and we'll see how you get on'."

The player was unimpressed and his head was turned by a two-year contract offer from Phil Brown at Southend.

"I thought a bit of security was attractive," he says. "Looking back, maybe I should have gone on the pre-season."

Still, he played regularly for over a year until a humbling defeat at Luton led to a dressing-room meltdown from Brown.

Bottled

"He came in saying we'd bottled it and was going to change our style of play, that he was known as a long ball manager and was going to play that way," recalls Clifford.

The 5ft 6in ball-playing midfielder was surplus to requirements and didn't start another match for the club.

He dropped to the Conference for a loan stay at Barnet and won the league with them but they couldn't agree terms on a new deal and he decided to look for alternative employment. This was the summer of 2015. Limbo.

"Maybe I should have come home then," he reflects. But there were other factors. He had a girlfriend and his own property in Kent and was comfortable there. His agent said something would come up, yet the weeks ticked by and anxiety grew.

"There's a lot of things that go on which people don't know about, contracts and stuff," he says. "And it drains you. When you go over as a kid, you're in a bubble, it's only when you get older and start talking to managers about contracts that you realise how horrible it can be."

His friend Billy Clifford, another member of the scattered Chelsea alumni, rang up to say he was signing for a newly promoted Conference side called Boreham Wood. Clifford had no intention of playing at that level again and had never heard of them.

"The season was getting closer," he explains. "And I was thinking 'I want to get in somewhere.' I was sick of going to the gym on my own and running around.

"I knew didn't want to be playing in the Conference again, I felt I'd been there and done that with Barnet and belonged in the (Football) League."

But it was a convenient move in other ways and, against the wishes of his agent and his family, he signed on the dotted line. "It was a rushed decision," he admits.

Still, he knuckled down to fight in a successful relegation battle and adjusted to a range of styles. Some weeks were okay football-wise. Others were extremely scrappy, but the experience will stand to him.

He was tied into a deal that kept him there for a second season and it began to wear him down, much as he liked the people. The personal circumstances had changed. He had split with his girlfriend and wasn't enjoying the day-to-day grind on his own.

There was an option to go to Crawley and work with his old Chelsea gaffer Dermot Drummy.

However, the Irishman knew deep down where he wanted to go and picked up the phone to home.

"I'd fallen out of love with the game and I spoke to my dad and said 'I'm not happy here, I'm really depressed and not liking it at all.' I just didn't want to be there anymore," he reveals.

That set the wheels in motion and the Dundalk option cropped up. Clifford had watched their European exploits from afar and knew the big impact that Stephen Kenny had made on the careers of his old Crumlin colleagues Andy Boyle and Richie Towell. Their first meeting went well.

Pressing

"It's hard to explain, but the way he spoke just made me feel good," he continues. "I know their style of play will suit me, the high-tempo pressing game and attacking football. I want to be a part of that. Playing in Europe, going for the four leagues in a row.

"I just felt it was right to come home, be around my family, and start enjoying it again. Get my head down and give it one last real go. Hopefully something can come from it."

As a youngster, he used to travel from Palmerstown with Boyle to watch St Pat's so he knows the atmosphere, even if it might take a while to learn about the ins and outs of opponents.

There is a job to do to establish himself in a successful side; he speaks of tough gym sessions with Graham Byrne in DCU as a vital part of the process. He's enjoying being able to go home and chill afterwards.

It's the little things that matter, simple comforts like sitting down with the family on Tuesday night to watch a movie. During his decade away, he was seldom home for more than a weekend.

"And even then, I was looking at the clock and wondering about the flight back and was never relaxed."

He can settle now and concentrate on finding his way on the pitch. "I just can't wait for it all to get started," he enthuses. "To prove to myself and to other people that I can still do it."

His future starts here.

Irish Independent

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