Taking Rocky road to the top
Jack Clancy made the most of the chance to pursue his football and college careers together
All Jack Clancy wanted to do was to play ball. So growing up across the street from soccer star Niamh Reid Burke, current senior Irish international goalkeeper, was more than a lucky strike.
As kids, they both honed their skills on the streets of their estate in Clonsilla. Niamh would stand between the pillars outside her house while Clancy, and other young boys in the neighbourhood, had a pop at goal. Even then, she dominated the game, says Clancy.
Little did they know she would go on to become the first-choice goalkeeper for her country, while Jack would make sporting history in the United States.
The Clancy family moved to Clonmellon, Co Westmeath when Jack was seven. His father Pat was one of county's top hurlers at the time, and the team captain.
Looking back, Clancy, now 21, says watching his father play compounded his desire to carve out a career in sport. During his teens he played Gaelic football, hurling and soccer. He quickly rose through the county GAA ranks, landing a spot on Westmeath's underage and minor squads. The skilful footballer also played soccer for Belvedere in Dublin and later for Dundalk FC.
But when he turned 18, Clancy was presented with a once in a lifetime opportunity, forcing him to choose between the games he loved. After being spotted by a sports scout, and having just completed his Leaving Cert, he was offered a scholarship to play soccer and continue his education in the US.
"A guy saw me play a few times in Dublin and asked if I'd be interested in furthering my career in America," says Clancy. "He told me to come to a trial and that a video of me playing would be sent to a bunch of colleges in the States, and that's how it happened. I didn't know that type of opportunity even existed; playing soccer in America wasn't something I had dreamt about, but it was perfect for me and I knew I really wanted it."
Clancy, along with a couple of other players, stood out at the trials and within a few weeks the offers rolled in.
After much discussion with his family, coaches and management, he decided on Rocky Mountain College in Montana.
"I knew I wouldn't be able to wholly focus on a career in soccer in Ireland. I didn't know what I wanted to study, all I wanted was to keep playing ball. The coaches at Rocky said it was going to be 'their best year yet' and I saw the potential," he says.
Although he knew leaving home would be hard, he was determined to try it out. His parents and younger sister Caoilainn supported his decision all the way. And so, in August 2012, Clancy arrived at the top sports college in Montana, where teams are nicknamed the 'Battlin Bears'.
"It was a big change, I'd never been to America before, so it was a little daunting but my mindset at the time was very focused. I knew that I wanted it so that kept me going," he says.
Under the terms of the scholarship, the tuition fees for his psychology degree and his accommodation would be covered by the college. As for football, the schedule was to train hard twice a day, pre-season and during the year, and play a match every weekend.
Although he initially found it difficult to adjust to the altitude - Montana is a couple of thousand feet above sea level - Clancy was immediately comforted by the large number of international players on the team.
"There were a lot of Europeans, a couple of English, two Swedish guys, one Irish guy from Waterford who had been there for a year already, a Scottish guy and the rest were American."
Clancy arrived in the US as a centre-back and right-back. But towards the end of his first season, he was moved into a more attacking midfield role behind the strikers. He excelled, started scoring goals and played an instrumental role in raising Rocky Mountain's profile in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics - the number two division in the United States.
But to reach the national tournament they had to win their conference, or league. There are about 50 different conferences in America and the winners of those qualify for the first round of a national tournament. If you win the first round you qualify for a week-long championship where the best 16 teams battle for gold. Rocky Mountain had never previously won their league.
Teams in their conference included Great Falls in Montana (their biggest rivals), Westminster from Salt Lake City in Utah, and Jamestown University from North Dakota. Despite finally winning the league during his Freshman year, the Battlin' Bears were beaten in the first round of the nationals for three consecutive years. Then, last season, with Clancy as captain, the college went to the national tournament in Florida for the first time in its history.
"It's been the most memorable moment of my career so far," he recalls. "We beat Marymount University from LA in a penalty shoot-out; the final penalty in that game was the best feeling in the world - we finally made the top 16. The crowd was unbelievable. When the last strike hit the back of the net everyone rushed onto the field - it was like winning an All-Ireland back home."
His family and friends were streaming the match live online.
Although Clancy says it was an "incredible honour" to captain the side, he feels the greatest thing about being part of the team was the level of camaraderie - a feeling that reminded him of home.
"Because I was actually living with my team-mates over there, they were pretty much my closest friends," he says. "It almost felt like playing hurling or Gaelic football, that sense of community was always present and it definitely helped me get on better and play better on the field. We were a unit."
Rocky Mountain went on to beat the number two team in the country at the Florida tournament but ultimately bowed out at the quarter-final stage. However, Clancy's performances garnered national headlines in the US and cemented his intentions to go professional. His four years with Rocky Mountain are now over - in the soccer sense; he still has to complete his academic commitments - but the next step is to remain Stateside and train with a semi-professional team.
"My dream is to play in the Major League Soccer somewhere in the top league. I wouldn't even care what team, but I'm aiming for the Colorado Rapids."
But as an up-and-coming Irish soccer star in the US, the ultimate goal is LA Galaxy - because of his hero, Robbie Keane.
"I've met him a couple of times, I went to an LA Galaxy game and met up with him afterwards. He knows I'm playing over there and has told me to just keep it up and eventually something might happen but it really helps to see an Irish player doing so well," he says.
Other future ambitions include playing in the Premier League and donning his national jersey.
"I've no regrets at all. I don't think I would have excelled as much if I'd stayed in Ireland. It was coming up on a tough choice for me - football or education - and now, hopefully all going well, I will graduate with a degree and a promising soccer career in May," he says. "I just want other young Irish athletes to know the opportunity exists. It's a great way to further your career if you're thinking about playing soccer professionally."
However, he says his love for the GAA, and his home county, will always endure.
"I was at the historic Meath game in Croke Park last summer, and I was looking at all the lads and I was thinking would I have been on that team if I had stayed? But either way I was happy for them and I was happy for myself."
Sunday Indo Sport