Sunday 24 February 2019

‘I didn’t want to be Shane the footballer, I wanted to be known for something else’ - Daniel McDonnell sits down with Shane Supple

Shane Supple on his career-ending injury, staring Roy Keane in the eye, and the insecurity and paranoia of the English football culture which prevents young Irish players from developing their personality

Shane Supple enjoyed his time at Bohemians but knows that a hip injury means he could not continue at the level which was required. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Shane Supple enjoyed his time at Bohemians but knows that a hip injury means he could not continue at the level which was required. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Shane Supple was sitting across the table from a prospective employer recently when he noticed a change in facial expression as the stranger perused his CV.

He had reached the section which concentrated on sporting achievements, things that the applicant was proud of. It was clear that the reader was unaware of the candidate's background.

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"All of a sudden he was like, 'The Republic of Ireland squad? Last May? A Dublin senior footballer? Jesus, that's a great sporting career you've had'," says Supple, laughing.

"And then his tone changed a little bit."

He didn't expect to be recognised. Supple would prefer to be known for his skills away from the park, and has gained quite a few since walking away from English football a decade ago, disillusioned with the working environment.

What the exchange demonstrated to him is that there will always be an interest in the life he has left behind; and that curiosity might occasionally be useful rather than a hindrance.

Shane Supple lifts the cup after winning a Dublin SFC with St Brigid’s in 2011, an achievement which was among the highlights of his fine sporting career. Photo: Paul Mohan/Sportsfile
Shane Supple lifts the cup after winning a Dublin SFC with St Brigid’s in 2011, an achievement which was among the highlights of his fine sporting career. Photo: Paul Mohan/Sportsfile

The 31-year-old hadn't planned on spending his winter job-hunting. In an ideal world, he would be preparing for another season with Bohemians.

Last night, he was honoured for his 2018 performances when he was named Goalkeeper of the Year at the SWAI/Airtricity awards.

Instead, he is adjusting to his second retirement from the sport, and this time it will be for good.

It was on his own terms again, in the sense that he could have tried to persevere through a degenerative hip injury that has been troubling him for a couple of years.

But his body and his brain was telling him otherwise; and negative scan results provided clear evidence.

"Surgery would have got me through for another couple of years but it would accelerate getting a hip replacement before I'm 40," he explains.

"I was only training once a week in the last six weeks of the season. It was taking me a couple of hours to loosen it up the morning after every game."

The simplest explanation is that years of toil caught upon him. There was a lot of kicking on the GAA fields when he threw his energies into that dream post-Ipswich, ultimately falling just short of his Dublin ambitions because of Stephen Cluxton.

Shane Supple and Republic of Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane prior to last May's International Friendly against France at Stade de France. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Shane Supple and Republic of Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane prior to last May's International Friendly against France at Stade de France. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

On top of that, he entered into a business venture - a goalkeeping academy - that played a part in rekindling his love for the sport he made his name in. When his partner in that gig, Darren Kelly, went away on a tour of duty of the Lebanon, Supple's workload increased and that meant additional time on the pitch. All-weather surfaces played their part too. They were historic factors that crossed his mind as last term's demanding League of Ireland fixture list wore him down.

Discomfort

Only a handful of people sensed his discomfort. During one fixture, veteran Bohs defender Derek Pender noted that the netminder's kicks were barely reaching halfway. And he found a quiet time to have a word, "You're in bits, aren't you?" he said, accurately.

Former Bohs 'keeper and newly-appointed head of operations at Shelbourne Dave Henderson is close to Supple and twigged it too when he came to watch the Irn Bru Cup game with Sutton where the number one was hailed for saving two penalties and scoring another in a dramatic shootout.

Henderson's takeaway was different, recognising that the 'keeper wasn't kicking through the ball properly. The hero of the hour confessed that he was unable to do so because it was too sore. The mobility levels were dropping too.

Ahead of the final game of the season with Dundalk, Supple knew he was done. It was a well-kept secret. His girlfriend Hayley was aware and he told his father Brendan too, so he could get the opportunity to come along and watch his son play one last match.

Bohs manager Keith Long and everyone else at the club was in the dark and Supple cringed a little when he was announced as Player of the Year on the pitch afterwards.

A feature of his time in Phibsborough has been players scooping that award and then heading for the exit. He felt guilty about becoming the latest, and made eye contact with his contingent in the crowd after scooping the award.

Shane Supple with his Goalkeeper of the Year award at the SWAI/Airtricity awards. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Shane Supple with his Goalkeeper of the Year award at the SWAI/Airtricity awards. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

They knew what he was thinking "F***".

After that, it was just about picking the right moment to 'drop the bomb'. His affection for Bohs and respect for Long and assistant Trevor Croly is genuine.

In terms of career highlights, the Dublin club title win with St Brigid's in 2011 will always be up at the top. That meant a lot to him, and it said a lot about Bohs' growing importance in his life when he stepped away from St Brigid's early last year to concentrate fully on soccer again.

He likens the ethos and communality to that of a club GAA team and that's why he enjoyed it so much; it didn't remind him of the business he grew to dislike at Ipswich.

"We had a great dressing-room and that was purely down to people because we didn't have money," he enthuses.

Telling Long was tough, especially as several other squad members had confirmed they would be departing before he could break the news.

"You feel like you're letting them down," says Supple. "But you're not because it's the right thing to do. I'd love to play another two years. I'd love to play another 10 years. But it's not worth it. And that's not about money, it's just the physical side of things."

"I didn't want to take painkillers, I don't like putting stuff like that in my body," he asserts. "I don't agree with it. But last season there were times where I had to take something to get through a game. I knew I had to get out.

***

THE cruel irony is that he was forced to hang up his boots off the back of a campaign where he achieved a childhood ambition by receiving a call into an Ireland senior squad in May, travelling to the Stade de France as back-up for a friendly with the soon-to-be crowned world champions.

He used his experience to try and mask any pain he was feeling. It was a call that captured the imagination given the layers in Supple's journey.

The romance ended there. If anything, the experience confirmed his view that he'd made the right decision by pursuing a different route in life.

He articulated some of those sentiments last summer, and Martin O'Neill didn't take kindly to his observations about the culture and atmosphere around the camp. With a chuckle, he concedes that his timing was spectacular. Harry Arter and Roy Keane's infamous row clashed with his cameo stay.

Supple's old lodger Jon Walters had a scrap with Keane too, which brought back memories. "Jonny was saying to me, it's typical, you're back here after 10 years and all of this happens," he grins.

His overall impressions were not coloured by those episodes, though. What frustrated him was the psyche in the camp which he attributes to the corrosive influence of the English football environment.

He wasn't afraid to admit it afterwards and risk upsetting O'Neill because of his gut feeling that this would be a one-time-only experience; he suspected there was a desire to appease the League of Ireland fraternity while coping with an injury crisis.

"I would have been a d***head to turn it down," he shrugs.

As a kid at Home Farm, the ticket to the big time in England with a view to one day representing Ireland was the main source of motivation. On both counts, it wasn't all it was cracked up to be.

He has spoken of the little things that bugged him, such as the Irish players leaving kit on the hotel room corridor for the kitman to pick up. At his request, apparently.

"Thrown down inside out," he says, "Maybe they could have just turned it in the right way. People would say, 'How is that relevant to how a team performs on the pitch?' I've seen through the years how that stuff affects team. It's about setting standards. And having values and principles so you're not sloppy on and off the pitch."

Supple recognised the attitudes. He's long held the belief that players immersed in the football bubble across the water have basically lost the ability to think for themselves. In that context, it wasn't just the limited detail in pre-match preparations that baffled him; he also found himself wondering why players weren't kicking up a fuss over it.

"I don't know if any player would ever have questioned Martin and said, 'This isn't right. We're not happy and we need to do this," he says. "I think it should be player-driven. It's your team, it's your country. 'We need to do shape and set pieces and have a plan.'

"I think lads in England are so overcoached and told where to be and what to do that they don't think for themselves. They don't rock the boat because they might fall out of favour or not get a new contract."

Supple did strike common ground with skipper Seamus Coleman when they chatted about the mentality of modern dressing-rooms. He also enjoyed catching up with Walters to talk about his future plans, and Shane Long is an old Irish underage team-mate with a passion for GAA so they had plenty to chat about. He hit it off with David Meyler too as his father John's current brief at Cork provided a reference point.

"Those guys were good," he said. "I don't think some of the (other) players knew who I was. And to be honest I wouldn't have known who some of them were either.

"It's not that they would fob you off but it's just the way things are. I was sitting chatting with Shane Duffy on the way over to France, he's a bit different... a lovely, harmless fella who gets on with it."

"But you know yourself, a lot of footballers; they're not really approachable or you can't hold a conversation with them on a certain level. They're not interested in people and their stories. I would always be interested in, say, Harry Arter, where he was from, and his story. Players wouldn't be like that."

He doesn't envy their riches because of the loss of identity that appears to go hand in hand.

"The game hasn't changed," he asserts. "It's got worse. I've gained much more than material stuff by coming back and getting involved in the GAA and meeting the people that I've encountered in different areas.

"Football conditions lads. That's one of the reasons I left England. I didn't want to be Shane the footballer. I wanted to be known for something else and to make a difference doing something else other than playing football. It's not having a go or saying I'm better than these lads. That's just the way I am.

"Some fellas get into that bubble and when they get out of it, they don't know how to approach or speak to people. Like some of the (job) stuff I've been doing; putting yourself into situations where you're not comfortable."

Supple's theory is that managers contribute to these problems. One of the things he loved about Bohs was Long's openness to feedback even if it meant criticism of his performance.

"The managers I'd seen around my time in soccer in England and the UK, they're very paranoid. They're insecure people," Supple elaborates. "Not willing to hold their hand up and say 'I got this wrong lads' or ask players for their opinion. To them, that's a sign of weakness.

"That's football, you have to be a man. You can't make a mistake or show weakness because you'll be gobbled up. But players are weak, they're very weak because they don't deal with that stuff. They would assume something going out on the pitch before they would ask the question."

Conforming to the lifestyle and the excesses is tied in with that mindset. Supple admits to errors when he broke into the Ipswich side as a teen, although he did have noble intentions with his rash purchases.

"I bought a property and ended up losing my b******s on it," he says. "I came home at the height of the economic downturn, I couldn't afford to pay for it anymore and I lost it all. I would have made money if I'd sold it in the first year.

"But I wasn't interested in cars or that stuff. Lads do that to justify themselves as a pro. They've a one-year contract and a Range Rover on a three-year deal that they won't be able to afford if they are released.

"I think this is part of why lads don't end up being themselves or figuring what they are about. They're in a dressing-room with these bags and watches and think it's normal. I don't think they develop their personality; they end up with one that isn't theirs. It's sad.

"Whether they ever get it back, I don't know. Everyone knows the stories of lads after football and how they don't have the skills to handle it because they've always leaned on their football ability. Clubs don't allow them to develop that because the manager is just as bad as them because he's probably gone through exactly the same thing."

He has always stressed his gratitude to Keane for supporting his decision to quit Ipswich, yet a healthy portion of his negative dressing-room memories relate to the Corkman's fiery spell at Ipswich. Fear was a frequent emotion within the group; it hindered the development of characters. The summer rows didn't shock the squad newcomer.

"I remember a young 17-year-old lad who played in my last game against Shrewsbury. Jack Ainsley. He got destroyed at half-time (by Keane) and whipped off," recalled Supple. "I think he might be playing a bit of ball in the lower leagues (the Isthmian League) but that killed him. He was playing one of his first games and he was torn apart by the manager at half-time. I was torn apart at half-time too. Roy is a scary fella. He is. With those eyes. Lads were afraid. I always looked at him in the eye because I didn't want him to think I was weak. If he's going to have a pop at me, I'll take it."

Walters won the respect of the squad because he fought back; he maintained that stance as a senior player with Ireland when he reckoned Keane had crossed the line.

"He could look him in the eye," says Supple. "That's because Jonny is secure in himself; if he thinks something is wrong or unjust, he stands up for that whereas other lads would just accept it or roll over or let their team-mate be rolled over.

"I was frustrated in that (Ipswich) dressing-room because I hadn't the experience under my belt. I hadn't got the games to justify standing up and having a go back. It wasn't just with Roy. It was with Jim Magilton (Keane's predecessor) as well, and some players in that dressing-room who were d***heads.

"I remember Ivan Campo, who'd been at Real Madrid, he came on loan and didn't want to know. He was happy to just swan around and ping balls left and right. A lovely fella but he just didn't give a s***. I remember him having a pop at Jonny one of the days and Jonny didn't hold back. He told him what he thought of him and was spot on.

"I saw managers have a pop at players and question them. Question their lifestyle. Personally question them. Owen Garvan got that. Everyone did at the time. That was the way managers felt they needed to rule; it was with fear but they weren't getting the return then.

"Whether it was subconscious or whether it was intended, somewhere along the lines the players either downed tools or were too nervous to perform. In whatever job you are in, how can you perform to the best of your ability if you're going out thinking, 'I can't make a mistake, I'm going to get it at half-time.' And then you make a mistake and you think, I don't want to go into this dressing-room.

"Looking back now, you think it was crazy that went on and obviously that's still the case."

***

SUPPLE is passionate about the conditions for those taking baby steps into the business and that's why the PFAI committee member might still have a longer-term calling in the area of player welfare.

He dabbled in a bit of work as an agent during his twenties but the grubbier side of the gig was off-putting. Moving players from A to B as a favour to managers doesn't strike him as good practice.

What he is interested in is the idea of mentoring youths who are going away, an area where he is critical of the FAI.

"We're not looking after our players properly," he argues, veering into some points raised by Niall Quinn on these pages earlier this week.

"The clubs in England need to do more too because the education they provide is shabby at best. It's a box-ticking exercise. Maybe it should be like America where if you're not performing in class or keeping your grades up, you don't play at the weekend.

"The clubs have to follow through on what they say to parents. I did a BTech in Sport (at Ipswich), and I tried to show it to someone here when I came home and they said that wasn't going to get me anywhere.

"What we really need to look at here is how we integrate lads coming back from England. I didn't get a call when I came home to ask if I was all right or needed to talk to someone. It would have been nice to know there was someone there thinking about you or giving a s*** about you, especially within your own association. Afterwards, I had lads in the UK contacting me on social media because they felt similarly.

"I worry that our players aren't looked after to the point that it's almost negligent. What are we doing to help them when they are there? It's not about the odd phonecall or ticking a box and saying 'that's done'.It's about calling every month and saying, 'How are you getting on with things? How are you getting on with that course you said you were going to do?'

"There's none of that and it's a big gap that I think needs to be filled, whether it's with the FAI or a joint venture with the PFAI. I think families get a bit of information now before players go away but I don't think one session or presentation is enough. It needs to be constant."

He holds other reservations too, about the quality of clubs that players are emigrating to - many on extremely modest contracts with no professional guarantees.

A newer frustration is the obstacles placed in the way of players that are being released. He references clubs seeking sell-on clauses before allowing the demoralised free agent to pen a deal with a new employer back in Ireland.

"They don't put time into players to help them be the best they can be. But they look for these clauses to try and protect whatever investment they made," he says, shaking his head.

Justify

"What have they done to justify that? I think some of the English clubs are miles behind in terms of player welfare.

"You look at other sports and the services they provide. It's about helping players develop their own personalities and skills. That's where the insecurity comes from for our footballers, they don't have anything to fall back on and that insecurity comes out in aggression, or angst, or depression. You need to be mentally strong to cope with the situations the game throws at you."

Supple is confident that he will cope with his own change of circumstances, even if there will be a void next month. A quirk in his phone meant that when he downloaded the Bohs fixture list for the new campaign, the dates were lodged into his calendar. "Finn Harps at home first," he grins.

There will be scope to devote time to other projects. At Bohs, he threw himself into community work. That made an impact and, after our meeting, he is preparing to head out with a group of volunteers for a familiar late-night route helping the homeless sleeping rough in Dublin's inner city.

That opens the eyes to proper hardship. Retiring from sport is just a bump in the road, especially when the journey delivered such pleasure.

"I've some great memories from playing Gaelic and soccer, the nights out and the friends and the family that would have been part of the enjoyment... seeing you play in front of 30,000 on a Saturday in England, or in Croke Park or winning a county championship or winning an FAI Intermediate Cup (with Crumlin) or playing in Dalymount down the road from where you grew up.

"A lot of people never get to that point," he continues. "And I've no regrets. That's the best thing."

As it happens, that opening discussion with the stranger about the surprising depth to his CV ultimately led to a job offer from The People Group, a recruitment company, which he starts in two weeks.

He's no longer Shane the footballer. There was always much more to him than that.

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