Monday 24 July 2017

With the Irish football industry struggling and fewer opportunities in the UK, the chance to live it like Beckham while getting a top education is increasingly attractive, writes Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

FROM Kildare County to Santa Monica Boulevard. An unlikely life path, but Bryan Byrne has lived it. Seven years have passed since Dermot Keely, then manager of the infant League of Ireland side, approached the raw 19-year-old from Castledermot with some news that was of interest.

Keely's son, Alan, had decided to come home from a football scholarship in the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) and the coaches there had asked if there was anyone else at the club who might fancy taking his place.

The midfielder, then studying computer engineering in Carlow, had been given a positive recommendation. "Go and take it," said Keely. "If you don't like it, there'll be a place for you back here."

Byrne never took Keely up on the latter offer. As the grim news from home grows ever more frequent, he wonders what he would be doing now if the discussion had never happened, or if he hadn't performed when UCSB came to Station Road to watch him.

This morning, he will say goodbye to his American wife Alissa -- another athlete he met at UCSB -- at his home in Santa Monica, and head for work at the internet company that employs him, from which he has developed the offshoot that is an emerging website reviewing football boots (www.soccercleats101.com).

In the evening, he will capitalise on the sweltering temperatures, and find some activity to do around Los Angeles. Work out somewhere, maybe head for the beach. Shoot the breeze. Not a bad life; it's safe to assume that plenty of ex-Kildare County players would settle for it. "It's a different lifestyle," he says, "You can always rely on the weather."

Last weekend, in front of 3,500 spectators at Buena High, Byrne's football season ended in glorious fashion as his Ventura County Fusion side secured the Premier Developmental League title -- the fourth tier in the US game -- with victory over Buena Fire. Byrne, deployed on the wing, was a key figure.

Misfortune has prevented him from plying his trade at a higher level. After graduating from UCSB in 2006 on the back of co-captaining the side to NCAA (National College Athletic Association) success, he was in demand during the following year's MLS Super Draft.

Los Angeles Galaxy were interested but decided to pursue another right-sided midfielder. An English fella by the name of Beckham. So Byrne went to New England Revolution in Boston, where Visa issues meant he joined the team when the season had already started and places had been copperfastened.

After a year of being so near, but yet so far, he was released to make way for new blood. California called again, so he linked up with Ventura County Fusion -- an entity which is seeking to climb the ladder.

While Bray's finest, Ronnie O'Brien, has been the Irish success story on Stateside, Byrne's tale is less told, and more pertinent for the emerging football generation at the crossroads.

All across the US, there are a network of Irish players and coaches operating at youth, collegiate and other levels of the game who were attracted across the Atlantic Ocean by a scholarship and stayed on to take their chances.

Considering the dire state of affairs back in Ireland, both for the lot of the domestic footballer and the economy generally, Byrne can appreciate why an increasing number of youngsters from his homeland are being tempted by Uncle Sam.

"It was hard for me to settle in here. I was homesick and nearly quit at Christmas but I got over it," he recalls.

"They love Irish players over here. I still talk to the coaches from UCSB and I know from my experience that if there's a decent Irish player that is loud and can hit and work hard, then they will make it over here. The opportunities are huge. I'd urge anyone who gets the chance to take it."

Back in 1987, unemployment and emigration were an increasing fact of life in Ireland. The lure of America was strong; it crossed the mind of most teenagers approaching the end of their school days.

Pearse Tormey's life changed one afternoon in Fairview, when a selection of coaches from American colleges came to watch him play for Belvedere youths. A number of that team were recommended to US universities and, that September, he was on his way out of the family home in Drogheda to begin a new life in Clemson University in South Carolina -- the state which has been his home ever since.

"There was two of us that came to Clemson; myself and Derek McArdle from Dublin," he recalls. "He lasted six months, and went home -- I think he's a fireman (now). I lasted a bit longer and I'm still here."

Persevering was worth it. Today, Tormey is co-executive director of the Carolina Elite Soccer Academy, a huge operation which has 3,000 kids under their wing, in both genders, from the age of four to 18. With a $1.8m budget, 11 full-time employees, 20 part-time coaches, 500 volunteer coaches, and sponsorship from a variety of large companies, he's come a long way from the raw teenager who arrived in a strange place 22 years ago.

"Back then, when we thought of America, we thought of New York," he says. "But I came across to Clemson and it was a college in a small town, there was only around 4,000 people living there. But I got fortunate because I enjoyed it. It's not for everybody."

He spent six years in Clemson, fortunate that his period there coincided with the growth of the game in America which went in tandem with the 1994 World Cup. By the terms of his scholarship, he could only play for the university for the first four years -- after that he played semi-pro for a few clubs in the area while he finished a degree in business management.

"A lot of people went for other degrees," he recalls. "I went for that (degree) so I could stay in this part of the business. At the time, it was a shortcut, the easiest thing you could graduate with; but I took my time.

"Towards the end, youth soccer started to become professional so they started to hire professional people. I started coaching when I was still at Clemson; I had never coached a day in my life before that.

"A place called St Giles offered me a job as executive director of coaching and administration. Part of the deal was that I had a college degree. So I got that, and moved around 45 minutes from Clemson to Greenville where I live now."

From there, things have spiralled. A few years back, an amalgamation of local clubs resulted in the setting up of the academy along with Andrew Hyslop, a Scot. The pooling of resources has moved the business onto another plain.

"I get paid for an addictive hobby," says Tormey. "The operation is no different to Belvedere, or Home Farm, or St Kevin's or clubs like that. The difference is just sheer numbers."

Although he remains in touch with home, and brings two teams back every year for a tour, he can't see himself leaving the States. His wife, Noeline, who was his girlfriend as far back as his early days with Belvedere, failed to settle in the US at first and returned home for a time before giving it another chance and the rest is history.

And as for the rest of the Belvedere group who also made the journey in '87? Justin Carey, Jimmy Maher and Paddy Gibney were only a few hours away from Clemson.

Carey and Maher spent five years in the US, while Gibney stayed on albeit in a different field. Sport took him to the US, but he now owns a bar in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where he is known to display his musical talents from time to time.

"What I'd say to anyone coming out now is to do it with an open mind and don't decide in two weeks whether you like it or not," says Tormey.

"Give it a year and then decide. At the end of the day, it's like being a professional soccer player; the difference is that you don't get paid up front but in essence you are because you're getting paid with a free education.

"You'll be in the same classes with people who've paid $40,000 a year just to be there. It's up to you then to decide what to do with it."

Earlier this year, Ray Curran was managing a kitchen factory in Carlow, wondering what the future held for his son, Ryan, who had his heart set on a scholarship in the United States before suffering the misfortune of a broken leg.

The colleges which had been following Ryan's progress lost interest but, aware there were companies in the UK who promised a solution, the anxious father got on the case.

His investigations brought him into contact with a Newcastle-based company named pass4soccer. Within a couple of weeks, they had three scholarship offers on the table.

Ryan moved to Fordham University last Tuesday.

"I liked what they were doing," said Ray. "So I got talking with them. I went over to Newcastle and met them, and they asked if I would launch it in Ireland." Curran packed in his old job and became pass4soccer's representative on these shores. Subsequently, he has been touring schools and clubs doing presentations; pass4soccer claim to have links with 400 colleges in America so they argue that they offer prospective students a superior choice to the alternatives.

On July 18, Curran staged an assessment day in the AUL for 40 youngsters to display their wares. Football skills were important, but academic skills are as significant when it comes to the crunch.

Essentially, it is not just a programme for elite footballers; considering there are 1,500 colleges in the US which offer some form of soccer scholarship for males, and 2,000 for females, then varying levels can be accommodated.

"If there's a great footballer with great academics, then we can get them a full scholarship," explains Curran. "If there's a really good footballer with no great academics then we can sort them out, we can make allowances. While the other way around, if there's a guy with straight A's who may not be a great footballer compared to the others, we can get them a scholarship as well.

"The reason for that is that the coaches can offer academic money as well as sports money. The sports scholarship money is sought after, but if he's a decent footballer and can also qualify for academic money then they have a chance of getting in."

What's in it for the company? Once they identify a player who they believe is suitable, the individual in question pays them €900 and Curran taps into the network of colleges they are affiliated with around the US before coming back with a list of offers.

Naturally, there is a suspicion surrounding such schemes, but pass4soccer describe themselves as a non-profit organisation and are applying to attain charity status in the next year or two.

They are the only company accredited by the English FA, and Curran is expecting similar recognition from the FAI this month which would give the Irish wing a little more legitimacy.

For now, the roadshow around the country will continue with a view to a further assessment day in October ahead of a showcase visit to the AUL in December from approximately 50 US coaches who will watch an exhibition match and take their pick of the players on show -- provided the academic credentials are suitable.

The current climate, with fewer opportunities in the game here, is making the American option a lot more attractive than it has been in recent years. Curran is targeting to have 30 players fixed up by the end of this year.

"We're dealing with guys that are a little bit below the very elite," he says. "But the standard on the assessment day was very high.

"Not everyone wants to go for it though. There was one fella from the assessment day who we could have gotten a full scholarship for, but when it came down to it he just didn't want to do it. He wanted to stay at home. If a fella is not ready to go to America, you can't send him, but you can sense the interest is growing now."

Shane Howard did things his own way. As an elite young footballer, with Belvedere and the Ireland Schools team, he was never going to have to advertise his talents. Over the past year, the Carlow teenager has spent time in the UK on trial and had offers from League of Ireland clubs, but the American colleges who came to watch him for the Ireland Schools team succeeded in turning his head. Over half a dozen made a play.

The University of Virginia was the most persuasive. Last month, they flew Howard over to inspect their facilities, and he was blown away by the quality -- it was better than some of the clubs in England he had visited.

"Before I went over, I was a bit nervous about it," he says. "There were people that were a bit iffy about it, telling me that I should try and get to England again or play football here.

"But what if that didn't work out? I've been offered a free education. The college is ranked 18th in America so I'll be playing at a good standard. I can always come home when I'm 22 and play League of Ireland then, or see what happens."

The only potential stumbling block was inadequate Leaving Cert results. If he secured the required grades in English, Maths, Biology and History, then the scholarship was his.

Last Wednesday, he opened the dreaded envelope to find good news inside.

A hectic few days ensued. The going away party on Thursday, a debs on Friday, and then straight to the airport to begin an exciting new chapter in his life; a chance he feels fortunate to have when so many young footballers face uncertainty.

"There's not a whole lot going on in Ireland at the moment," he says. "I couldn't turn something like this down."

As a nation feels the pinch, it's hard to disagree with the logic.

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