Tuesday 22 May 2018

'As soon as you get to the peak, you go down again'

Barry Maguire was once torn between Holland and Ireland but he’s now in Limerick fighting to make a living from the game again

Barry Maguire is hoping to get his career back on track with Limerick. Photo: Sportsfile
Barry Maguire is hoping to get his career back on track with Limerick. Photo: Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

It's approaching 10pm at Markets Field and the Tuesday evening crowd that had assembled to watch Limerick's League of Ireland defeat to Dundalk have long since departed.

The temperature is steadily falling outside the tunnel area as stragglers wait around for protagonists to emerge. "This is the night that dreams are made of," quips Dundalk skipper Stephen O'Donnell, already showered and on his way to the team bus.

Barry Maguire for FC Utrecht. Photo: Sportsfile
Barry Maguire for FC Utrecht. Photo: Sportsfile

Not every player's work is done. Out on the pitch, Limerick's strength and conditioning coach Joe Gamble is shouting instructions at three players doing half a lap of the pitch and then making a diagonal run to the corner flag.

"Come on Barry, come on Barry," he shouts at the player wearing 77 on his back, who evidently needed extra running on top of his seven minute cameo.

There are still a couple of beads of sweat running down Barry Maguire's face as he stops to chat before making his way to the dressing room.

The 28-year-old is working his way back to full fitness. More than that, he's working his way back towards a semblance of a normal life as a professional footballer. He concedes that Limerick is an unlikely destination. "At the beginning, you never think that you're going to play at this age in Ireland," admits Maguire, with a strong Dutch accent apparent in every word.

The beginning is what adds intrigue to the story. Maguire's name will mean something to those Ireland fans who closely follow the path of dual nationality players. A decade ago, he was big news. Now, he's a man with an Irish name and an interesting Irish history that has found himself living here for the first time, struggling to decipher the accents, the jokes and the football culture. He's the outsider with a name on the passport that suggests he must be an insider.

Maguire was a teenage talent who played for Ireland, and then played for Holland against Ireland, all the time trying to figure out which country he would represent. It's been a chequered journey from there to the stage, just three years ago, where he was wondering if he would ever play the game again. Putting on a pair of socks was a struggle.

Back to the beginning. Maguire was born in 1989 in Tiel, a town in the centre of Holland. His father Martin was born in Dublin and set off on a trip across Europe as a 19-year-old, but he never made it past Holland and settled to start a family. By the time his son was 19, he was facing different life decisions.

He'd played first team football in the second tier with Den Bosch at 16, and moved up a level for Utrecht two years later. The FAI had already capped him at U15 level, but Holland were keen too and Maguire then leaned that way, making headlines when he ended up on the opposing side of an Irish U18 side in a game at Richmond Park.

It was a forerunner for a Jack Grealish style saga with a difference. He wasn't a loose part of an Irish community in a place with a history of emigration; in his locality he was a bit of a one-off.

"It's hard to explain," he says, "If I'm in Holland, I'm Dutch because I was born there and lived there all my life. My friends are Dutch. But then everybody sees my name and they are like 'Oh, he's Irish.'

"I come to Ireland, they see my name and they say I'm Irish. Then they hear me speak and notice I don't understand everything and they say 'he's not Irish.' I got the question a million times when I was younger. Are you going to play for Ireland? For Holland? I was like 'I don't mind, I'm both.' It was 50-50 there."

In August 2010, Irish interest escalated with a goal for Utrecht in a Europe League thrashing of Celtic.  "An unusual situation," he says, "They supposedly invited me to come and play with the U21 team in Dublin before that, but they had never actually invited me. I played U19 and U20 then with Holland. Then, I scored against Celtic and I got an invite from the Irish national team to come and speak with Trapattoni."

Maguire and his father were flown in by the FAI for a game with Russia in October 2010 and given the red carpet treatment, before he was introduced to Trapattoni. "It was a short conversation," he explains, "They had just played a game. We spoke about playing in the friendlies the March after."

That gave him clarity about his intentions, but it coincided with a deterioration in relations with Utrecht management. One day, he was playing a Europa League tie at Anfield. The next, he was out of favour and condemned to a lengthy absence that suspended Trapattoni's interest. "As soon as you get to the peak," he sighs, "And everything seems to get completed, you go back down again."

He is able to tell his story of what followed with a cheery disposition, even if the subject matter is unhappy. From Utrecht, he went to Eredivisie rivals VVV Venlo and then dropped back to Den Bosch before the 2015 realisation that a fresh start was required. America was calling. 

There was interest from the MLS, and there were offers to pick from for the start of the 2016 season. What he needed was a six month stopgap to bring him there and that's what brought him to Norway and to Sarpsborg and a training exercise that involved ten 400 metre uphill runs through a forest with a jog back down each time before going up again.

Afterwards, his back felt stiff. Then he tried to get into his car. "I was not able to get in," he says, crouching into a position to reenact the scene. "I was 25 minutes just like this."

The problem was a double prolapse, an issue that blocked a nerve and sent pain shooting right down to the back of his left calf. For three weeks, he continued unawares of the specifics. He was unable to physically perform the act of lifting his leg to put on socks. Instead, he would take a pair of runners and tie the laces before dropping them to the ground and maneuvering his feet in.

"As soon as you put your leg up, the nerve gets blocked," he says, grinning again. "I'm laughing about it all now but at the time, you start crying if you can't do anything."

His contract in Norway expired, and he was in no fit state to pursue the US. "I couldn't even stand on my toes or anything," he explains, "I had no power at all in my left leg."

He built up strength slowly and was pursuing an opening in Poland when the power went out of the calf in his third training session. Square one. In August 2016, he was operated on at the Bergmann Clinic, a well known Dutch sports surgery clinic. The procedure was not quite tailored towards elite athletes.

"Most of the time when you do this surgery, it's just to get walking again, to do normal stuff like walking up the stairs. Basic activity for normal people, not for sport at a high level. The chance that my career was already over was there. Maybe the damage was done, and I would not play again."

The operation went well and within five months, he was back on the pitch with his local club, Tiel, at semi-professional level. That move was simply about finding out if he was capable of playing the game again. "I could only do a couple of practices per week, and then four or five sessions with the physio for my back and calf. I did that. The back was perfect. There was no complaints after that."

Last summer, he went to South Africa to sign for Chippa United in Port Elizabeth, with a deal agreed in principle and a new apartment and phone number all sorted when the club's owner vetoed the contract offer.

That sent Maguire into the limbo which eventually resulted in a surprise relocation to his father's homeland in February. "A contact called and asked if I wanted to play for Limerick," he said, "I was without a club, so it was an interesting option for me; I had options in the second division in Holland but I had already played there before so I wanted something different.

"I was curious about the Irish league. That's another reason why it was easier for me to come here, I had the connection and knew a bit more about how it is over here. And of course my English is ok, it's pretty good."

Last week, he finally got sorted with his own apartment and out of the hotel where he was staying and that is helping the settling in process. He is still coming to terms with the dressing room chatter and local lingo. "The jokes are going around and they see me looking at them and they're thinking 'No, he's not understanding it," he laughs.

A twisted ankle on his debut was a pain, and that's why he's playing catch up fitness wise with a view to helping Tommy Barrett's side out. His sub appearances are giving him an insight into the Irish way, a slightly alien environment given his background, and he references 'long ball' tactics. The Markets Field surface is  a hindrance, but he is reluctant to cite that as an excuse. Dundalk did impress him.

"I'm a midfielder who wants to get the ball at my feet and start playing," he says, "Even on this pitch, you see the opponent today - they tried to play. And we can do it. If you get the ball and someone else is there to play it to, you have to keep going with that. Get the ball down and trust each other."

Trust is a word he returns to; he reckons it comes easier in Holland. He looks at Limerick's Will Fitzgerald, a teenager with real ability, and wonders why the 18-year-old is conditioned into thinking he has to serve his time in the shadows before taking a prominent role.

"In Holland, it doesn't matter how old you are," he shrugs. "I was 16. Here, young guys like Will are saying, 'I'm 18, I've got time, I'm young' and I'm saying, 'No, you're old enough already, it doesn't matter. If you're good enough you should start playing and act like it and be more confident. Here, the older guys get more respect. But if the player in your position is 27 or 28 and you're good enough to play, you should have the confidence to play."

The irony is that Maguire is now the 28-year-old senior pro, and not the bright eyed kid. He's experienced shuddering setbacks, but remains hopeful about the future even if the boundaries of his ambitions have been slightly redrawn. There was never any intention of quitting and embracing a hard luck story.

"I love the game still," he says, "Otherwise, I would never have come back after the surgery. It would have been easy for me to say 'I stopped playing because  it wouldn't have been possible for me to get back to the level I was before.' The more times you get setbacks, all you can do is keep going and be positive."

What he has learned is the perils of planning too far ahead. "You can make a lot of big plans but then something happens in the moment and it's gone," he stresses, "I want to get back playing here and see what comes from it. Of course, I want to go up a level if the possibility is there. I still have the ambitions and I still have the qualities but you have to get the chance."

Irish Independent

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