Driven Daly sets heart on mining FAI Cup gold
Ex-Manchester City starlet tells Daniel McDonnell about unlikely route to final via Australian outback
THIS time last year, Mick Daly was just another Irishman in rural Australia, laughing his way through days sitting behind the wheel of a vehicle that he wasn't licenced to drive.
His daily routine involved driving a $100,000 'ute' from a petrol station to the coal mines and back – a job he'd blagged his way into by claiming that he was a fully qualified driver. The employers, who paid him an excellent wage, belatedly learned the truth.
"They only found out when I was leaving," he laughs. "I told them when I was drunk I didn't have a licence!"
If it wasn't for the inevitability of an expired visa, the dreaded curfew placed on unskilled workers living it up in Australia, Daly would still be there now, possibly lost to football forever.
Circumstances took him back towards his first love and tomorrow, at the Aviva Stadium, he will be part of the Drogheda United team looking to shock Sligo Rovers in the FAI Cup final.
The reality of the local game means that each protagonist has a story that ties in with the impact of the recession.
Daly is a case in point, a young man who has packed a lot into 24 years. "I've gone through some huge experiences," he grins with a nod to his circuitous journey.
His Oz paradise was quite a departure from his teenage ambitions. After starring for Cherry Orchard, the Dubliner was recruited by Manchester City to join a group that included Daniel Sturridge, Michael Johnson (right) and Micah Richards. Their paths have diverged dramatically.
Johnson was the pick of the crop, a popular lad tipped as a future England captain who struggled to cope with the pressures of fame and the riches of a five-year contract.
"He was the most talented by a mile, he'd have been the best player in England if he'd stayed fit... an incredible player," reflects Daly.
"It's sad what happened him. It was a mental illness, it was depression. Now, people wonder how you can get depressed but you look at that poor hurler in Galway (Niall Donoghue).
"Johnno got his five-year deal on massive money. It went to his head and I really feel for him because he was a lovely fella.
"There's certain people in football who get to that level and they're not nice people, they're ignorant, big headed. He's not like that. He was a very nice bloke, down to earth. It's a pity how it turned."
Sturridge, by contrast, had no shortage of confidence. Daly vividly recalls the confident young striker, who had yet to break into the first team, announcing in the reserves dressing-room that he was going into the office of the manager, Sven Goran Eriksson, to ask for a £30,000-a-week contract.
"We're there looking at him thinking that we're on a couple of hundred quid a week so where's he getting £30,000 from?" roars Daly.
"But he had that self-belief and rightly so. Everyone knew he was unbelievable, that he was a class act. I knew when Liverpool signed him that if he got his head right and played every week, he'd do the business for them.
" I wouldn't have got on well personally with him – not like I did with the likes of Johnno. He was a totally different personality. But fair to play to him."
Daly fell short of City standard but the experience didn't break his spirit. He could have stayed in England, having spoken to Kenny Jackett at Millwall, but the pull of home eventually won out.
After a year with Dundalk and another with Drogheda, a different kind of wanderlust grabbed hold of his senses. With domestic clubs implementing austerity measures, his girlfriend's eagerness to go travelling was perfect timing.
"I wanted to travel as well," he explains. "I got in contact with a club in Sydney, Manly United, and sent over a DVD of me playing. They offered me a contract, and I'm delighted I said yes."
It opened his eyes to another world. The relationship didn't last, hitting the rocks in the middle of his first season.
"Australia does that to you," he grins, knowingly. A bunch of mates from home became his house-mates for the second year, moving into an apartment on the edge of the famous Manly Beach.
"Our rent was a thousand a week which was ridiculous but we lived it up, the Irish abroad, y'know?" he says, laughing again.
"There were four lads in our apartment and then the apartment above, there was four American girls. Say no more. On the beach. It was some lifestyle..."
The football was enjoyable too, a decent standard that he compares to the League of Ireland without the same intensity of support. He was the only Irish lad in the New South Wales league.
Occasionally, he'd travel down to Melbourne, where Simon Kelly, Vinny Faherty, Tadhg Purcell and a few other Irish lads were earning a crust.
But for Daly, it was only enough to get by. At the end of year two in Manly, he knew that the time was ticking on his visa and he needed to earn proper cash on the home straight.
"I'd said I'd try and work in the rural areas because that's where you get the big money," he explains, giddily reverting back into storytelling mode. "I met a fella who said he'd get me a job in the mines, which are really, really hard to get into because that's where you get the big money.
"I'd never have come home only for the visa running out and I'd probably have stayed in the mines because that's how good it was financially.
"I needed to get sponsorship to stay but there's a skills list – you have to be qualified. I was just a labourer, a driver," he says, chuckling. "But it was some craic, though. Brilliant."
He wouldn't hesitate to recommend the career diversion to anyone, and is envious of St Patrick's Athletic's Anto Flood, who is Sydney-bound after his league winning exploits.
That period of Daly's life is over, though, and on Monday another chapter begins when he opens his own gym, Anatomic Fitness, in Castleknock.
Daly always enjoyed gym work and signed up for a personal training course when he arrived back in Ireland with a hazy vision of the future. Quickly, he realised that he'd found a new passion, provided he could do things his way.
"I approached a fella and said I wanted to run my own place, not work in a gym," he explains.
"So I got in contact with my local club, Castleknock Celtic, and approached them about renting a hall. They gave me the go-ahead. We're aiming for the personal training market, for teams who use the pitches there."
Drogheda team-mate Declan 'Fabio' O'Brien was a huge help at first, providing Daly with work experience in his own venture, Zebra Fitness, in Glasnevin.
"Mick's great, he's full of enthusiasm," says O'Brien. "He's exactly the same in the gym as he is on the pitch. Full of enthusiasm, full of heart."
Indeed, it was O'Brien who helped alert manager Mick Cooke to Daly's football availability, and the versatile operator has impressed at right-back this season.
As with the majority of tomorrow's protagonists, he is out of contract, but his entrepreneurial streak will keep him occupied into the winter while he awaits offers. "I don't have to train for a couple of months so I can get the head down," he says.
After hearing mixed reports from afar, he was pleasantly surprised to find the League of Ireland in better health than he anticipated.
"All the cutbacks were coming in as I left," he says. "But it seems to be coming back again, there's a bit of life being kicked back into it. We don't get massive crowds at Drogheda, it's the same loyal people. Not much has changed, to be honest."
The weekly grind is unglamorous and he is honest enough to admit that he struggled to concentrate on the bread and butter since a controversial semi-final win over Dundalk.
"That sounds bad," he concedes, "But it's going to define our whole season. If we win, we'll be the second most successful team in the country this season after Pat's because it's the second biggest thing."
Like most Irish kids, he grew up with other trophies in mind. Daly packed his bags for England believing that, one day, he could tog out at Lansdowne Road on a regular basis.
For the League of Ireland artisan, a day out in the Aviva is a rare treat. Still, while old acquaintances such as Sturridge move in grander circles, this bubbly character is adamant there are no regrets.
"I'm really happy with what I've done," he stresses. "England doesn't really appeal to me at the minute, and if I'd stayed there, then I'd never have gone to Australia, met people who are now best friends, and seen a bit of the world. If I had a son in the morning, I'd tell him to do the same thing when he grows up."
A cup medal in his pocket would represent a career highlight, but the glint in his eye would suggest that he's already lived a dream.
Drogheda United v Sligo Rovers, Live, tomorrow, RTE2, 3.30