Sunday 21 July 2019

Dream chaser O'Kane still proving doubters wrong

Rejection has always made midfielder bounce back

'I want to be involved in everything I can and add to my four caps,' says Ireland midfielder Eunan O'Kane. Photo: Sportsfile
'I want to be involved in everything I can and add to my four caps,' says Ireland midfielder Eunan O'Kane. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Eunan O'Kane has spent much of his life being judged by others.

But his own identity remains firmly entrenched; he knows the people who judge him reveal more about themselves, rather than him. When the coaches at Everton who told him he was too small to make it as a pro, he simply got bigger.

When many mocked the former Northern Ireland underage international for switching his allegiance to the Republic, he stood taller. Even now, as Bournemouth unload him, he sticks out his chest.

"If people tell me I can't do something, I will try to prove them wrong," says the 26-year-old. "It is just someone's opinion. It doesn't mean I have to agree with it."

He knows who he is and what he can become. Where he comes from and who he belongs to. Although, occasionally, he can lapse.

He was in the air for last Sunday's Croke Park epic so, presumably, he watched the Sunday Game later?

"Eh, no. I was rooming with Callum O'Dowda and he kind of pulled rank on me. Match of the Day."

His tone is not apologetic. His love of the game has declined - "Donegal winning games with six points did it for me" - but never his love of place.

It may seem complicated to others but that's their judgement. For Eunan O'Kane, life has always been much simpler than it appears.

The Feeny townland is where the story begins and immediately tangles; to some, Feeny is in Co Derry, to others, it is Co Londonderry.

As a child, O'Kane was steeped in GAA; dad Charlie helped to coach the county's hurling minors to their last Ulster title success in 2001. Their club was Banagher; mum Lorraine coached the camogie team; sister Cora played for it.

Those intimate with the local scene reckon he would have easily breached the inter-county panel had he pursued his passion beyond his 16th birthday.

"I was okay," he demurs. "I knew where the posts were. It was a huge part of my life. Though I've drifted away, the club is always there."

He schooled at St Pats, Maghera yet, despite his big ball prowess, his only medal came pursuing the small ball in a team that also included a future Derry star in Chrissy McKaigue; he would turn pro too but sin scéal eile.

By this time, soccer's seduction was almost complete for the boy born, perhaps fatefully, two days after Italia 90.

"When I was 10, our primary school, St Canice's, were visited by Maiden City Academy. You paid a pound to play after school. Sure why not?"

Unwittingly, he followed the path of Darron Gibson, as he would end up at Goodison Park some years later.

Even at 12, O'Kane was being scouted; he remembers Manchester City were the first of many; "Before they had the money!" he smiles

"At that age, you have no fear. It was 'alright, when am I off?' I'd never left the country on my own.

"You don't have a concept of people judging you. It was just playing football, not wondering where it might lead to.

"It became real, I suppose, when I felt like I had to impress someone, when you're 15. I knew it was a chance, I needed to be good. It changed a bit.

"I had never thought of becoming a professional footballer. But my Mum said I needed to commit to one or the other when I was about 16. The guys at Maiden City knew I had a chance. It was a sporting chat, rather than plotting out a career path. I just wanted to play every day."

No longer could he chase two hares. And so he went to Everton at 17. And came home at 19. Over 98pc of academy drop-outs never make it back to the Premier League. O'Kane wouldn't be judged by people, never mind defined by numbers.

"I've always been level-headed but quietly determined. I simply took it in my stride. I was aware that it probably wouldn't happen, even before I got told I wasn't being kept on. My attitude was 'Where do I go next?' rather than 'oh no, this is all over.'

"My friends at home were finishing A levels and going to university to carve out a career. I already had one and wanted to keep it going. I never viewed it as the end, but a beginning.

"It was probably the best thing that happened to me because it meant I got other opportunities."

He returned to Coleraine for £60-a-week and got his chance back in England with Torquay; he would, as he had vowed, return to the Premier League

All the while, his renown had led to numerous appearances in green. But for Northern Ireland.

His decision to switch allegiance could, at the most, earn a charge of convenience and opportunity; it was never about religion although some will always claim it is.

"I just wanted to play for a team that wanted me," he says simply. The irony of missing a potential Euro 2016 berth with one Ireland when he could have gone with the other is not lost.

"Potentially I could have been there. I was more than pleased they were there, I know a few of the lads. But not for one second did I regret the decision I made.

"I wouldn't change anything now, even knowing all that has happened since. I kind of knew I was struggling to make Martin's (O'Neill) squad.

"I didn't expect much because I was a late arrival on the scene. It was nice to be so close to a team preparing for that tournament.

"It's a huge honour. As a kid, it's your dream and now it's a reality. It's another progression but I'm not happy with only a handful of caps. I want more and more. There's plenty of time later to be sentimental but now I want to get better and better."

That meant ending the four-year stint with Bournemouth; now he takes a step back, temporarily he believes, to Leeds.

"It became very frustrating for me. I don't feel I have had a fair crack at it. Now, it's another challenge for me, another stepping stone towards having the best career I can have.

"As long as I can look back and know I did everything I could to have the best career possible, I can't have any regrets. I have been a Premier League player - 16 times - and I will be again."

As they land in Belgrade this weekend. O'Kane, a tidy holding midfielder, promises to become increasingly prominent in a squad whose steely determination matches his own.

"There's just a calmness amongst the group. There's a quiet, inner belief. We don't need to shout about it. We know what we face but we know what we can deliver.

"They were very calm going into the Euros and performed well even though we were disappointed to leave early. I want to be involved in everything I can and add to my four caps. I'm aware there are people ahead of me but I can start playing regularly for my club, there's no reason why I can't get myself involved.

"It's a tough trip but there's no reason to be fearful. We can be optimistic after what happened in France. We've high energy, we're good on the ball.

"There's no reason why we can't be successful if we believe."

It is his life's learning.

Irish Independent

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