'There’s absolutely no logic to putting an Irish 16-year-old in a foreign set-up without the support structure of his family around him'
Part three of our special series about players to have experienced the whirlwind of football, the highs and lows, and where their career eventually took them, inside or outside of the game. This week, we talk to Laois gaelic footballer and former Celtic soccer player Paul Cahillane.
What he considered as a 16-year-old was the ideal route into professional football now seems illogical to Paul Cahillane a decade on.
At that point, Celtic and the vast expanse of its Parkhead stands were sufficient allure for the Portlaoise teen making a splash whilst playing for one of the country’s most famous nurseries, Belvedere, in the Dublin District Schoolboys League.
He had even caught the eye of scouts from the SPL giants before his Belvo clubmate Cillian Sheridan, another talent from the regions prepared to make a couple of three-hour round trips per week to the capital for a higher stage on which to showcase his prowess.
Three years in Glasgow ended in disappointment for Cahillane when he was released but this tale is bookended by a happy outcome.
Back in Ireland and at a loose end, the 19-year-old re-entered the education system to complete his leaving cert, a precursor for studying another four years to qualify as a teacher. These days, he spends his days at the blackboard of his former CBS secondary school in Portlaoise teaching geography and business studies.
Cahillane’s sporting ascent has been equally rapid. After affording himself a season in League of Ireland trying to restart his career, he veered towards a different field sport he’d excelled in prior to his move to Dublin and then Glasgow.
Soon, the all-rounder was spearheading Portlaoise’s county GAA title success, their march to the semi-final of the All-Ireland championship and not just attaining inter-county honours but claiming the Laois Player of the Year accolade.
Football hasn’t been entirely abandoned either. Cahillane’s contributed a sizeable part to Portlaoise AFC’s rise through the Leinster Senior League’s ranks; three promotions in four years taking them to within one tier of the top intermediate division.
The 26-year-old’s circuitous path to contentment was underpinned by a steely drive seldom prevalent in teens forced to detour their life following rejection at club level.
Reflecting on his personal journey, aware that scores of Irish youngsters still take the same route cross-channel, Cahillane wonders aloud about the system’s suitability.
“There’s absolutely no logic to putting an Irish 16-year-old in a foreign set-up without the support structure of his family around him,” he reasons.
“Professional football tests youngsters from an early age. It’s a ruthless business and you’re fighting against players from other countries to make the next step.
“Being away from home didn’t affect me as much as it did others. Some players weren’t anywhere near mentally ready to be placed in that situation.
“If they can, players should try stay in Ireland a few seasons longer, finish their leaving certificate, and travel over that bit more mature.”
Cahillane bears no negativity towards Celtic for how things didn’t work out. He looks to himself before laying the blame anywhere else.
He said: “I probably didn’t appreciate the things needed to be done outside of playing. I was working hard on my game but not working smart.
“Rest is a huge factor in professional sport and I didn’t give my body enough time to recover from playing and training.
“I was none the wiser at the time, thinking I was doing the right things. But the small things make the difference in sport.
“I realised that more as I got into a serious run with the Portlaoise GAA team.
“I had trained with the Celtic first-team for a while when I was there but this was a team that were beating Manchester United and Celtic in the UEFA Champions League at the time.
“Gordon Strachan had taken over from Martin O’Neill and it was considered one of the best Celtic teams for years.
“On one occasion, I was told to prepare for involvement with the first-team for a Cup game. In the end, it didn’t materialise because one of the experienced players recovered from injury sooner than expected. Circumstances can play a big part.”
Freed from Celtic, Cahillane opted for the path taken by most of his peers in returning to a League of Ireland scene then supposedly in a boom period.
He even passed up a full-time contract tabled by champions Bohemians for a deal on offer from UCD that facilitated his aim of undertaking his leaving cert.
“I’d missed most of fifth year in school because of all the trials at UK clubs, so I rolled fifth and sixth years together to do my exams after I came back to Ireland,” he explains.
“That was challenging but I was always well motivated, even after the way it finished up at Celtic.
“I still had it in my mind to become a footballer but that didn’t pan out, so I gave it up for a while and fell out of love with the game.”
Football’s loss translated into GAA’s gain as soon Cahillane was splitting the posts for club and county.
He’s not in the business of looking back in anger, only in bafflement at how the wind-tunnel prospective professional footballers travel through in the UK still exists in the absence of a viable alternative available domestically.