Tuesday 28 January 2020

'It was come to Dunedin or go on the dole again' - The former LOI stars making a life in New Zealand

Southern United’s Irish contingent – who have all relocated from Wexford FC – Andy Mulligan, Conor O’Keefe, Danny Furlong, Stephen Last and Danny Ledwith after the Lions defeat to the Highlanders in Dunedin on Tuesday. Photo: Sportsfile
Southern United’s Irish contingent – who have all relocated from Wexford FC – Andy Mulligan, Conor O’Keefe, Danny Furlong, Stephen Last and Danny Ledwith after the Lions defeat to the Highlanders in Dunedin on Tuesday. Photo: Sportsfile

Ruaidhri O’Connor

Situated on the south-eastern coast of New Zealand's South Island, Dunedin is the furthest city from Dublin in the world: 19,141km separate the places, and it takes more than 30 hours over three at least flights to get from one to the other. It is, it is fair to say, a long way from home.

As we saw on Tuesday when the locals came out in force to cheer the Highlanders to their win over the Lions, this is rugby country. Real rugby country.

Yet, there are six Irish footballers here spreading the gospel of the round-ball game, having taken the plunge last autumn to exchange the grind of League of Ireland football for something completely different.

Last season, Danny Ledwith, Stephen Last, Andy Mulligan, Conor O'Keefe and Eric Molloy caused a stir when they left Wexford Youths before the end of the season. Danny Furlong followed later.

All six had been on the BA course in Sport and Exercise (Soccer) in IT Carlow under Dubliner Paul O'Reilly. After moves to join the League didn't come to fruition, O'Reilly and his partner Sarah decided for something completely different and moved to New Zealand.

After a year working as a development officer, he was appointed head coach of Southern United last September and put in a call to a couple of his former charges to see if they were interested in a fresh start.

The ‘Irish five’ with former IT Carlow coach Paul O’Reilly (second left)
The ‘Irish five’ with former IT Carlow coach Paul O’Reilly (second left)

He couldn't offer big money through football, but he could promise them something that is thin on the ground back home: employment in the game they love through coaching roles with the local association.

"It was better than going on the dole, that's realistically the way it is (back home)," says Ledwith, who had stints with Shamrock Rovers and Sligo Rovers.

"You're going on the dole at the end of the season, whereas over here we've got full-time jobs. The six of us have an opportunity to get a career going. That was the biggest selling-point.

"We had a look at the football here and everything looked great.

"We have different stories, but it was a good time for all of us to try something different. We ended up living in a gaff together, which was interesting, but we were at different stages of our careers and decided to go for it."

It wasn't easy to make the move at first, but they were pitched in straight away.

"It was definitely a big decision, the hardest thing to do - that day leaving was one of the toughest things I've ever done," O'Keefe says of leaving family.

"It was full-on when we got here, just two weeks before the season started and with the job as well you were just learning as you went along and getting used to how things were being run.

Eric Molloy, scoring against Dundalk last year, has moved on from Southern. Photo: Paul Mohan/Sportsfile
Eric Molloy, scoring against Dundalk last year, has moved on from Southern. Photo: Paul Mohan/Sportsfile

"It was good, though, you didn't have time to get homesick."

Living together didn't last long, but five of them have signed on for another season, with Molloy set to leave for pastures new. O'Reilly is talking to more players back home and hopes to add two to his squad.

"It was a tough situation," the manager explains. "They were mid-season and got slaughtered for leaving early at Wexford.

"Realistically, they've moved to a much better situation. We don't pay a big salary for playing, but we've been able to get the guys in on visas working full-time, they're all coaches with coaching qualifications developing the region as well as playing,

"It took a lot of work to convince them at the start, but once we got the initial guys over they realised the potential."

On the field, the team found the going tough and finished bottom of the 10-team Premiership, winning just three games. The standard of play is not too far from what they were used to in Ireland, while gates range between 500 and 2,000, but the logistics remind them they're a long way from home.

"The hardest thing to adapt to is flying to every away game," Furlong says. "You're up at 4am, flying at 6am and you've to get two flights to get to the game.

"You're straight off the plane and you don't even have a chance to get food sometimes, you're straight on to the pitch. That's the biggest change."

The Dunedin-based side, who play some of their home games in the Forsyth Barr Stadium where the Lions played on Tuesday, are on the lower end of the scale when it comes to budgets.

"The top teams like Auckland City and Team Wellington win the equivalent of the Champions League every year and play in the Club World Cup," Ledwith says.

"They're excellent; Auckland especially is full of South American and Spanish players, it's hard to get near the ball.

"You don't get many nil-all draws. There was one earlier in the season and it was the first time in 10 years or something! It is a bit different from back home.

"Technically, the likes of Auckland City and Wellington would easily compete with the likes of Cork, Dundalk and Rovers, but other teams would struggle defensively. Paul has tried to put that in us a little bit.

"There was massive improvements made last year from what we hear, it was our first year but everyone around the city was full of praise for how well we'd done. But from our point of view it was a relatively poor season, not finishing higher."

Yet the five of them have opted to commit for another year. The club are installing an astro pitch to improve their facilities, and O'Reilly is hopeful of strengthening the squad.

"We have lots to improve, but the lads staying for a second year is massive. My big fear was that we'd bring them in and they'd move to other teams in the league," he says.

"They've had offers; the thing they probably haven't had offers on is the full package. We can't really pay them to play but we can give them job opportunities and help them settle in. It's probably partly that I know them, but the fact that they've committed means we can attract one or two more imports."

The season is a short one, beginning in October and ending in April and they are currently spending most of their time on their day jobs, coaching young players throughout the region and engaging in coach development. Spreading the gospel can be hard.

"Sometimes you go into a class and you ask the kids have they ever played football before and only one or two put their hands up," Mulligan says. "Most of them are rugby heads."

"Soccer is the biggest participation sport in New Zealand, but standard-wise rugby is way ahead," Last adds.

"You won't see a change straight away, but maybe over the next couple of years if the likes of us are still involved it might keep going."

Off the pitch, Dunedin is quiet but they like it just fine.

"The students leave in October and it'll be quiet, but from February on until October it's busy enough," Furlong says. "The night life is fairly different to back home, which might be a good thing. Places close early, there's no nightclub."

"Compared to Dublin it'd be sleepy," O'Keefe agrees. "They all go to bed pretty early and get up early but it's a good balance."

With the coaching role and the ability to put their UEFA 'B' licences to good use, it's something that they couldn't do back home.

"As long as the league is structured the way it is back home, you'll always get players in our situation," Ledwith concludes.

"Unless you're at one of the top clubs, you're not going to make a living. You're going to be struggling every Christmas. It's happening more and more that players are starting to do their badges as they get towards the end.

"I think this is the way it will end up being run. It's better to offer a player a job as well as a (football) career... That's what sold it to me.

"It's the best thing I've done, I'm disappointed I didn't do it sooner. Everything that comes with it, the lifestyle, the job... travelling is a bit of a nightmare but it still feels that professional standard.

"You're flying to a game, you're getting out of the airport and getting collected by a bus, going to a hotel and getting some grub... most of the games are live on Sky Sports over here as well, so we enjoy that part.

"Paul is one of the best coaches I've worked with. The professionalism he instils around the place is new for everyone. We want to stay put and help him progress it."

They couldn't be further from home, but they couldn't be happier at the same time.

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