Saturday 17 November 2018

St Ledger: 'It makes me sick watching - I can still play'

Out-of-work St Ledger finding life tough going without football

Sean St Ledger hasn't given up hope of getting back into the Ireland squad. Picture credit: Pat Murphy / SPORTSFILE
Sean St Ledger hasn't given up hope of getting back into the Ireland squad. Picture credit: Pat Murphy / SPORTSFILE
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Sean St Ledger turns to face the familiar backdrop of the Aviva Stadium. "It's weird being back here," he says. "All my happiest memories are in this place, the best moments."

The sentence trails away to silence. We are speaking in a studio in the corner of the venue an hour before last Tuesday night's friendly with the United States, and the perfect view puts the 37-times capped defender in reflective mood. So close, so far away.

In the course of a 20 minute discussion, two words crop up repeatedly. 'Weird' is one. 'Strange' is the other. They are the abridged description of his current existence.

St Ledger is a footballer without a club and, by extension, a man without a purpose. He is struggling to get his head around the situation.

A friend has let him know it is a significant anniversary - five years to the day since Thierry Henry's handball in Paris. The memories are vivid.

At 24, he was the youngest Irish starter and recalls having a perfect view of the infamous incident because Florent Malouda's free-kick had sailed narrowly over his head.

"It crosses my mind sometimes, of course it does," he says. "And it still feels like we all missed out on something."

With a wry smile, he remembers his surprise upon his return to Newcastle - he was on loan at Middlesbrough at that juncture - in finding it was the dominant story in England as well as Ireland. "I'd actually gone to a Beyonce concert the night after to get over it," he adds. "And when I got back to the hotel and turned on the telly it was on ITV News... it was a big deal. I didn't realise that was five years ago..."

He lives with different problems today. In the aftermath of that setback, he sought a distraction from football. Now he has too much time on his hands.

St Ledger has been unemployed since his release from Leicester at the end of last season. The parting of ways was inevitable.


Nigel Pearson did select the centre-half for the first game of their Championship-winning campaign, but injury ensured it was also his final league appearance for the club.

Once he returned to fitness, a settled rearguard were storming to promotion and he could have no complaints about his position on the fringes.

The player was relaxed about the running down of his contract. Discussions with his agent were upbeat. With over 300 appearances at club level, the vast majority in the Championship, and extensive international experience, he didn't envisage difficulty. "I thought my CV was alright," he says.

The first concrete approaches were from League One operations. "I had a couple of offers but being honest, I didn't want to drop down to that level."

So he played the waiting game and initially warmed to the idea of an extended summer break. He's never enjoyed the beginning of pre-season.

That novelty wore off and the opportunity to train with Huddersfield was embraced. It fell through when manager Mark Robins was sacked and, despite indications an offer would materialise anyway, the prospective employers looked elsewhere. When the season kicked off, St Ledger was in limbo and, suddenly, his plight aroused suspicion.

This is typical for the footballer on the shelf. A stench grows the longer they reside there. He feels like he's had the same discussion a thousand times at this point.

"Why have you not got a club yet?"

"I don't know."

"Are you fit?"

"Yeah, I'm fit. I just can't get a club."

"Why can't you get a club?"

"I don't know."

At the very highest level, players can call the shots. But in this scenario, the clubs hold all the power.

The free agent admits he would have looked for reasonable money in the summer but inactivity has reduced his bargaining power. "One hundred per cent," he says. "I just want to get back playing now really, whereas in June or July it was different.

"I've been without a club for so long now it's almost like they are doing me a favour instead of the other way around, unless they've got loads and loads of injuries and even then the chief executive might be telling the manager to give the lads in the U-21s a bash instead of bringing someone in that will cost more money."

Trials can be a deflating experience. At Huddersfield, he was sent to train with the youths towards the end of the week as the senior pros worked on team shape.

In 11 v 11 training matches, he was pushed to right-back because he could do a job there and had no basis for complaint because of his standing.

"You're just a number sometimes," he says, shaking his head. "I'm supposed to be trying to earn a contract."

The hardest adjustment, though, has been socially. He spoke on RTE a few weeks back about the shuddering realisation that football friendships are transient.

When he moved from Birmingham to start his apprenticeship with Peterborough, he left his school pals behind and drifted apart as lives went in alternative directions.

Within the game, he speaks regularly to a few lads from Leicester, Anthony Pilkington and Stephen Ward in the Irish set-up and remains solid mates with his old Peterborough buddy Luke Steele, who is now based in Greece with Panathinaikos. That's about it.

"Out of all the clubs I've been to, and all the lads that have passed through my time, to be only speaking to three or four of them is weird," he says.

"All my friends are in football and during the week they're concentrating on building up to games on Saturday. They don't do anything apart from that."

St Ledger has stopped going to watch them play.

"It makes me sick waking up on a Saturday and watching it because I know I'm fit and still capable of playing at that level."

Boredom is the enemy, and it tests the discipline. Through the help of the PFA, he went to St George's Park for a few days to maintain his fitness.

With English badges everywhere and just a couple of women footballers and coaches in the building, he found it an odd experience.

Steele extended a holiday invite to Greece which was gratefully accepted, but the goalkeeper's intensive work and travel commitments meant that St Ledger found himself home alone a few days per week. He discovered the joys of Greek yoghurt and, bizarrely, Bikram yoga.

"I was just sick and tired of running, bored of it, so I thought I'd try something different and I enjoyed that," he says.

"Otherwise, I was just sunbathing and waiting for my mate to come back from training. It might sound great, and it was for a week or so, but by the end I wasn't enjoying it."

What now? He has mulled over asking Coventry, the closest club to his Stratford home, about going to train with them for the sake of his physical condition.

"It's 45-50 minutes away and then I'm spending petrol money to get there and back without really getting anything out of it," he says. "Is it right for me? Is it right for other people? Coventry might not want me to train with them."

America is on his mind. MLS options with Colorado and Vancouver were floated before their window closed and he is thinking about putting the feelers out in January to see if anything materialises.

If he signed with a British club, the offer would more than likely only be until the end of the season and then it's potentially back to square one.

A US option would give him security for the entirety of 2015 and a change of lifestyle appeals.

"Football is growing over there. It's going in the right direction and why not experience that?

"I wanted to experience somewhere in Europe and that hasn't happened. I've played in the Championship for so long that I want to try and do something different and improve myself somewhere else."

He knows that desire could come at a price. International recognition means the world to a Brummie who really bought into the Irish experience. Away from sport, he has made social trips to Dublin and made plenty of acquaintances.

"This is a great country," he says. "I'd recommend it to anyone. From the first minute you come over and get into a taxi, everyone is so friendly.

"I'd love to get to back in the squad here, I really would, but at the minute I'm a million miles away. And the first thing I have to think about is just getting a club."

Travelling out of sight will put him out of Martin O'Neill's mind and that could spell the end of a journey which peaked at Euro 2012. It's an emotional dilemma.

He pauses when asked if there are any major regrets, or mistakes he might have made along the way that brought him to this crossroads.

The sliding door that instantly springs to mind is a proposed switch to Celtic which fell through after his Boro stint ended abruptly and new Preston boss Darren Ferguson refused to sell.

St Ledger was desperate for it to go through. Then at Leicester, a move to Ipswich was agreed until an injury crisis and a competent stand-in display took him off the market.

The overriding impression you are left with, however, is of a person who really cannot fathom how it's come to this.

As we talk, his eyes continue to be drawn towards the pitch behind him where the hum of activity is increasing with kick-off drawing closer. He will be providing match analysis in Aviva's Fan Studio, fighting with the knowledge that it's too early to become a permanent spectator.

"I remember seeing people last year who were like this and, realistically, I never thought that would be me," he says. "I'm just hoping that by staying positive, something can happen soon. I want to be a footballer again."

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