From Preston to Piercestown and now on to Croker
EIGHT years ago, if you'd asked Ciaran Lyng to imagine himself running out for Wexford in the Leinster SFC final in Croke Park tomorrow he would have asked you to get your head examined.
Not just because this is the county's first final in 52 years, but because he was a starry-eyed 17-year-old who had just signed for second-tier English soccer club Preston North End with a different future mapped out for himself.
That he has played such a central attacking role in Wexford's fairytale season, and now lines out in Croke Park just two weeks after his brother Diarmuid did the same for the county hurlers, is a remarkable personal and family milestone, particularly given the mill he's been through.
His is the age-old Irish soccer story: talented kid goes to England, managers change, he can't catch a break and talented kid is home with his tail tucked firmly under him before he's 20.
Lyng's naturally happy-go-lucky demeanour makes little of it, but his failure to make it at British football's uncompromising coalface had to hurt.
And his is a salutary story for any GAA player hoping the sport might one day turn 'professional'.
Mentored by Jack Stafford at Wexford Celtic, Lyng was 16 when he went to Preston.
A roaming left-back or winger, he was clearly talented, accumulating close to 30 Irish underage caps under quality managers like Brian Kerr.
But within a month of his arrival in Lancashire, David Moyes was gone to Everton, Craig Brown was installed and two years later Billy Davies took over.
"You do clean the boots for the first year, get your tip at Christmas and all that, but you don't mind, it's about building a relationship with the pros.
"But it is a different approach than here," Lyng said.
"If any of our minors came in here now we'd talk to them, but it's not like that there.
"Luckily there was four young Irish lads, and Brian Barry-Murphy (Jimmy's son) was a senior player and very good to us. We used to go to Mass together on Sundays."
Their youth team won their league with an unbeaten 15-game run, yet none ever made the big-time. Of his Irish mates, David Elebert and Alan McCormack are now with Hamilton Academicals and Southend.
"I started both games for the first team on a pre-season trip in Ibiza and did well, but when we came back Craig Brown was sacked after a couple of days and the new manager came in with new ideas," Lyng explained.
"I thought I'd play reserve for a year but it was more like two-and-a-half. I wasn't getting much of a look-in.
"Then I went to Shrewsbury on loan, stayed seven or eight months but never settled there at all. I played the first four games but then got injured and didn't play another first team game until the season broke up.
"I had a year left on my contract, but the club itself wasn't going anywhere fast, and if I wasn't playing then I was hardly going anywhere fast myself!"
He had trial offers elsewhere but was brave enough not just to come home but to go back to school as well.
Eighteen months later he sat his Leaving Cert in Waterford's Yeats College and today studies Arts in UCD.
"Coming home was a low point, without a doubt, but it's not something I regret. If I regret anything it's that I didn't stay in Preston when I had time on my contract, but I was young," he admitted.
Returning to live at home was "a massive culture shock," but, as ever with the Lyngs, family and GAA provided the anchor and cushion.
"Once I'd settled and started going down to the Martin's, getting back into the community again playing hurling and football, it was fine."
He'd brought the hurl to England with him and had the odd knockabout but the football came back more naturally.
"It was like being in goal in soccer, I could catch it again!"
New Wexford manager Paul Bealin was watching the day the Piercestown club won the intermediate title so it wasn't long before he got the call.
He got one too from county senior hurling manager John Meyler and trained alongside the brother for a few months last year but decided doing both, at intercounty level, would burn him out.
So, compared to the professional sports life he might have had, how does playing in a Leinster final compare?
"Well, financially, the rewards aren't the same," Lyng chuckled. "But the pride of playing for your county and stuff is far more.
"Like, I had no identity whatsoever with Preston other than the fact that I lived there. Obviously you wanted to win, and went out every day to compete, but you're not representing your parish or your town.
"Whereas this, especially this, with all the success we've had -- after the Meath game we tried to do a cool-down twice and couldn't get off the pitch. Everyone invaded it and went mad."
And playing for Wexford, who are already blessed with their own version of Ronaldo, gives him a lovely get-out clause.
"The rest of us forwards get the best of both worlds really," he said.
"Because, nationally we're getting praise for helping Matty Forde with the workload now. But if Wexford don't play well he still gets the blame!"