Tuesday 19 March 2019

'I went against the grain by not playing GAA ... but it wasn't what I wanted to do'

Single-minded McLoughlin has overcome local doubts in Kerry and personal tragedy to give himself a shot at FA Cup spotlight

Shane McLoughlin after signing for Wimbledon. Pic: @AFCWimbledon
Shane McLoughlin after signing for Wimbledon. Pic: @AFCWimbledon
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Shane McLoughlin grew up in a family that encouraged him to believe in his dream, an ambition that seemed far-fetched for a young lad in Kerry.

Well-intentioned folks around Castleisland told his parents, Eamon and Mary, that they were doing the wrong thing by entertaining their son's ambitions of becoming a professional footballer.

It was the only thing he wanted to do. And Eamon and Mary drove the youngest of their three children around the country to help him towards that mission. Ireland trials. Representative games. Whatever it took to push open the door.

Sceptics looked at the stats and the evidence. Kerry produced players who thrived with a different brand of round ball. But professional football? No chance.

"There would have been people going around saying to them, 'Don't go putting any ideas in his head that he's going to England'," says McLoughlin chuckling at the memory.

However, they told their son that they believed in his ability. He will be forever grateful for that encouragement.

McLoughlin is telling the story on Thursday, speaking over the phone from a bed and breakfast near AFC Wimbledon's training base that is functioning as a temporary home following a January move from Ipswich.

The 21-year-old knew he had to get out of Portman Road; a grand total of two senior appearances in five years just wasn't enough. Without games on his CV, he was a relatively unknown quantity and his main offers were from back home. He was determined to reject them all.

Shane with his late mother Mary
Shane with his late mother Mary

Stubborn

"I've always had a stubborn streak in me," he explains. "If I want to do something, I'll do everything in my power to make it happen. I had League of Ireland offers but I just wanted to try and stay in England or somewhere abroad.

"I don't know if it's a mental block, but there's so many good players going back to Ireland and if I didn't have the season I wanted to - then it was going to be doubly hard for me if I ever wanted to get back. I just felt I had a better platform here."

The gamble paid off. AFC Wimbledon are bottom of League One and had just recruited an old colleague from Ipswich - Dundalk winger Dylan Connolly - when McLoughlin was brought on board. He watched on as they shocked West Ham to set up this afternoon's FA Cup fifth round tie with Millwall.

His chances of figuring in that match were slim without an appearance under his belt. On Tuesday, the diminutive midfielder was given his chance at Walsall as manager Wally Downes shuffled his pack.

He shone in a victory that has given them hope, and the confident youngster believes he has really put himself in contention for a place today. Naturally, his family are proud.

Sadly, they aren't all around to share in the excitement.

Mary passed away last summer after a long battle with illness. It adds another layer to McLoughlin's last six months and his determination to stick it out when others might have lost their way.

The family unit stood strong. It's not an easy subject for a young man to chat with a stranger about, but he stresses his gratitude to his father and to his brother Eamon and sister Danielle for encouraging him to stick with the football and stay motivated after going through such an emotional time. That's what Mary would have wanted.

"If anything, it's made me put my mind more on football," he explains. "I suppose it just shows that anything can happen. Even when mum was ill, she would just say to me to do what I needed to do. Of course there were times where I needed to come home for a few days.

"My parents had encouraged me all the way up. When things weren't going well for me, she would be egging me on to stay in England and keep believing. It was the same with my dad. Being from Kerry, there were people who had doubts but they always said I could do it."

There is no doubt that he's a single-minded character. He wasn't afraid to stand out in Kerry, growing up in a GAA-obsessed heartland without really having too much interest in playing the game seriously. There was interest at county level in his youth, but it didn't float his boat. Basketball was his second sport and he did excel in that field.

"I was never really bothered about going (to GAA trials)," he says. "I was going against the grain really. I did play GAA up until I was 15 but I was ready to go places then. That wasn't what I wanted.

David Clifford, a well-regarded soccer player, was a childhood opponent. "He was better at the GAA, I think," he quips. "Sure he's doing well for himself now. Look, I feel like I made the right decision. I was 16 when I moved over to Ipswich and to be honest I got to grips with it pretty quickly. The first few weeks were tough but after that I wasn't homesick. I was happy to get out and get the chance. I didn't want to be hanging around Kerry.

"There weren't too many players that had made it to England from Kerry before so I just thought that I wanted to do it."

He did have mentors that helped him along. McLoughlin was born in New York, where the family lived in the Bronx, but moved to Kerry when he was five.

Recognition

He started kicking a ball with Castleisland AFC and went from there to Killorglin AFC and then onto St Brendan's Park with the movement of coach Tim Collins - who had non-league experience in the UK - influencing his switches. Captaining Kerry in the Kennedy Cup helped him along the way towards Irish U-15 recognition and overseas interest.

It was the Irish camps that convinced him that he was able to make the step up, regardless of the perception of where he came from. Irish coaches Ger Nash and Mark Kennedy were influences on the way up the ladder at Ipswich, but he's now at an age where he's got to fend for himself.

At Wimbledon, he's entered a dressing room where every result matters, a contrast from U-23 football.

"It all's very important," he says. "There's a different feel to things."

Every day has a meaning. In a way that he never could have imagined.

Irish Independent

The Left Wing: Why Irish fans shouldn't lose faith and how Joe Schmidt can turn things around for the World Cup

In association with Aldi

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport