Living the dream
Gareth thriving with Glasgow giants
A LOT OF THINGS have changed for Gareth McDonagh since he innocently spotted a poster advertising auditions for an upcoming television programme called 'Football's Next Star', where youngsters compete to win a contract with Glasgow giants Celtic FC.
At first the 16-year-old transition year student was hesitant but, encouraged by his Dad; he decided to give it a shot. Now, he has left school, changed allegiances from his childhood club and is the Celtic academy's top scorer.
It really has been a whirlwind few months for the Greystones youngster who almost missed out altogether on the chance to compete in the television show, hosted by former Westlife crooner Nicky Byrne.
'I saw a poster on my club's (St. Joseph's) website. I only had two more days to enter it, the auditions were closing in two days so I kind of had to decide quickly so I just went to my Dad and he said "you might as well do it", so my dad kind of pushed me.'
Despite playing at one of the world's biggest clubs, McDonagh seems alarmingly modest and down-to-earth. He even admits he never envisaged himself actually winning the competition when he showed up to that first audition, where he was surrounded by familiar faces.
'Nah, I didn't think I had a chance of winning it. I didn't rule it out, but I didn't think that it'd happen. I was going into it just thinking I'd give it a go and see how far I'd get and I ended up winning it.
'There were a lot of other lads from the Dublin League that I knew from playing against them or even playing with them. One or two from my Joey's team actually went along as well but most of them; I'd played against them. At the start they went from whatever many hundred were there to the final 40 at a match and I knew one of the lads there, he's actually one of my mates that I hang around with, and he got to that stage but he didn't get any further.'
So with McDonagh now being the envy of all his mates having reached the final ten, were there thoughts of glory beginning to creep into the attacker's head?
'I had to try to not think about it because I could've been going home the first week or the second week or whatever so I tried not to think about it but it was always in the back of my mind from the minute I went into the house for the final ten you knew you were that step closer.'
But there was no stopping the former St. Anthony's sensation as he marched into the final. Celtic paid for his parents to jet over to Glasgow to be with their son for the final; where all three members of the McDonagh family present struggled to contain themselves.
'It was horrible. They kept us waiting for a good 40 minutes (for the announcement) in Celtic's away dressing room so we didn't know what to think. My Ma and Da were all over the place; they were more worried than me I think but I knew that I'd done as much as I could and whether I'd won it or not I was still happy with myself'.
The boy known as the 'Golden Child' by his family's wait was soon over though, and he'd proved to be golden child by name, golden child by nature.
'It was unbelievable. I couldn't believe it at first, it wasn't until the filming had finished and the coaches started talking to me about seeing me in June for training that it started to sink in. It was unbelievable that I was going to be leaving school to be playing for Celtic.
'I tried to keep it low key. At the moment I'm only on a year contract so maybe when I get a bigger contract I can celebrate a bit more.'
So does a 16 year old find the task of kissing goodbye to his family for the immediate future a daunting one? And how is he finding life on in the digs with two other members of the academy?
'I was dying to go really. There's not much to do at my age back home; after school I'd only be going to training anyway. It's just such a bonus moving over here and playing with such good players.
'I think it's grand. They're (parents) more scared than me that I'm living over here by myself but Celtic have a great set-up. They always have people talking to you and making sure you're okay and everyone's so nice around the club so it makes everything so much easier.'
Perhaps one of the reasons McDonagh is finding it so easy is that he's finally doing the thing that he loves permanently. He admits that prior to Football's Next Star he'd spend every waking minute playing football anyway. He also doesn't have much time for homesickness judging by his schedule.
'A normal day would probably be; in the morning we wake up at around half 7, go in and go to the gym and do an upper body section then go out onto the pitch and train for about two hours and then back into the gym and do your legs and that's you finished for the day.'
McDonagh isn't putting in all those hours and scoring all those goals for the hell of it though. His contract is expiring in the summer and he intends to prove that he deserves another one.
'I want to work as hard as I can and get my contact renewed. It's normally kept low-key until your last few months of the contract and then they'll start talking to your agent and stuff like that and they'll bring you into meetings and keep an eye on you but they never really give anything away. You won't know much until that final day and then they'll say it to you'.
Although it is now his dream to make it at Parkhead, the young man gave an unexpected answer when asked were the Bhoys his boyhood heroes.
'No', chuckled McDonagh. 'I supported (Manchester) United when I was younger but since I've come over here I can't support United, I have to support Celtic.
'I told myself I'd never be anything other than a United fan but it's so difficult when you come over here and everybody's a Celtic supporter and you play for Celtic; you have to support them!'
For once, McDonagh will be putting football to the back of his mind when he returns home to Greystones today (Saturday, December 22). He admits he 'can't wait' to enjoy the festive period with his friends and family. 2012 has been a sensational year for Gareth McDonagh; let's hope that 2013 eclipses it.