Hidden story of adoption led Jon Goodman to a proud Ireland career
If a player is determined to go out on a high, then winning your final international cap in a 5-0 home win in a World Cup qualifier should be enough to raise a smile as the curtain comes down.
Ending an Ireland career at the age of 26 was not part of the plan for Jon Goodman, but his club career, like his time on the international stage, was stolen away by injury, the striker effectively finished in professional football when he was only warming up. Four caps in four months in 1997 was all he saw as one of the boys in green at a time when the Jack Charlton-era players were leaving the stage with a new breed coming on stream.
“I went over a few times after my last cap,” says Goodman. “I was in Brussels for the playoff against Belgium, me and my missus went on the train with Kenny Cunningham’s missus, Kenny was playing in the game.
“I was in Dublin for a few games as I just loved the atmosphere at Lansdowne Road. But for me it was over with Ireland and I was done, you put the shirts in the loft, you get on with the rest of your life. Now you see clips on YouTube and get a bit nostalgic, you reminisce on what might have been.”
What might have been indeed. While his club career showed a healthy return on paper – 10 goals in 59 Premier League games (for Wimbledon) between 1994 and 1999, that too was painfully brief, though impressive. To put his efforts into a modern context, he scored six goals for the Dons in one Premier League season (1995/96), while in the last four seasons in that division, no Irish player scored more than four.
That early end to his playing career forced Goodman to examine his life, leading to his current position as Head of Academy with League One side MK Dons, with a lot of detours along the way, where Goodman used his brain as a tool, more so than the name he carried from his playing days, and educated himself, working in sports science, running businesses, coaching at adult and youth levels, working with managers such as Michael O’Neill (Northern Ireland), Brian McDermott (Leeds) and Mauricio Pochettino (Spurs).
“When I finished playing, I was restless. I was able to study,” says Goodman, who initially studied accountancy. “I am a compulsive person to be around and I like to learn new things.”
Having seen his own career cut short by injury, he spotted gaping holes in the system. “At first-team level I knew there was a lot of unhappiness among the players, a lot of emotional and mental issues that were not being addressed,” he says.
“So I met a sports psychologist and we started to work together. We didn’t want it to be a business, I didn’t feel that providing mental support to players should be a business, but there was no other way of doing it as the PFA, at that time, were not really interested in that area.” His company, Think Fitness, came from that, but Goodman’s restlessness led him to explore other areas and back into football, recently working as assistant head of player development with players from U-16 to U-23 level at Spurs (“a good role at the wrong time for me”) before he went back to his roots, MK Dons an offshoot of his second senior club, Wimbledon.
It’s hard for this generation to imagine it but in the 1990s, Wimbledon were a force in the English game: in the three full seasons Goodman had in the team there, they finished ninth, 14th and eighth in the Premier League. “It was an effective style, based on intimidation, an aggressive, attack-minded way of playing,” he says. “We used to play 4-2-4, I’d play out right wing, Efan Ekoku left wing, Dean Holdsworth and Mick Harford up top, so four strikers.
“When I arrived I thought, ‘these are not very good, not as good as the Millwall team I was used to’ but I realised over time that every player was outstanding at something.
“We were horrible to play against. But there were some very good players then as well, like Ireland under Jack Charlton who had a direct style of play, but he had some very good footballers as well. The style meant people didn’t realise how good they were. What that club achieved was unbelievable. Could someone do a Wimbledon today? Probably not.”
By February 1997, Goodman was an international, a backstory with roots similar to recent tales about the Mother and Baby Homes in this country.
“In those days it was difficult to be open about the story. I knew Kenny Cunningham well but we’d never discussed the idea of me playing for Ireland,” he says.
“My dad had been adopted as a baby. His Irish mother went into the adoption agency, with my dad in her arms, she was too young and her parents were not happy so she was looking to give the baby away. Coming out of the building was my dad’s adopted mother, Zoe, and her husband, they were upset as they’d been turned away for being too old to adopt. They met on the steps, my birth mum gives the baby to the Goodmans, with the birth cert.
“And that was it. That’s how my dad was passed over. The birth cert had his real name, that’s all he had.
“My dad knew from Zoe that he’d been adopted, out of respect for her he didn’t look into his heritage until she passed away, so he began to investigate.
“There wasn’t much on the birth cert, he just had a surname and that his mum’s family was from Galway, so he started to connect things. I recall going with him to a funeral in London, we snuck in the back and he saw his real mum from a distance. Over time he connected with her, and that connection allowed me to get an Irish passport.
“He met his larger family over time, he has sisters and brothers, and there was still a lot of sensitivity, his mother was still uncomfortable. That probably happened a lot and it was representative of a society in a bygone era, but also difficult to speak about.”
The link with Ireland was easily established as he was welcomed into the fold by Mick McCarthy, and it remains in place as his parents settled in Wexford some time ago. The family were in Cardiff to see Goodman make his debut in a dull, rain-sodden scoreless draw with Wales, notable for being Paul McGrath’s last outing in an Ireland shirt.
“When I first came into the Irish squad I was training with Ray Houghton and Niall Quinn and Paul McGrath, Roy Keane and Denis Irwin and I was in awe of them,” he says.
“There is always that bit of doubt over how good you are. I was so obsessive about being better that I never reflected or enjoyed where I was at that moment.
“Dad came to the Wales game, I’d played well even though I missed a few chances in a game we drew 0-0. Dads don’t always put these things into words but driving back from Cardiff that night, I knew he was proud. It was a hell of a leap from me and my dad working on a roof together as glazers.”
His competitive debut, a qualifier in Macedonia, was a harsh introduction. “Andy Townsend said before the game ‘don’t worry Jon, once we get the first goal, these teams just collapse’. And we scored early so I thought we’d wrap it up but it was a bad day,” he says of a 3-2 loss.
After two more caps, away to Romania and at home to Liechtenstein, in May 1997, his time with Ireland was over, due to a knee injury, as was his career as Goodman played just twice more over the next two years, appearing for the final time in September 1999.
Now the focus is on the next generation at MK Dons, where Goodman is an admirer of Dublin-born first-teamer Warren O’Hora. “Sometimes it takes you time to work out your sweet spot, for me that’s player development, I love that side of the game as you’re in the world of what young men can become. We have a great club here at MK Dons, a club with ambition, an owner who cares about the club.
“I’d like to be that underdog again, try to punch above our weight at academy level as we did with Wimbledon in the Premier League.”