Sport League of Ireland

Thursday 19 April 2018

Cleary: 'It's dog eat dog but I have no regrets'

Former Liverpool youth star Daniel Cleary should make his home debut for Dundalk tonight. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Former Liverpool youth star Daniel Cleary should make his home debut for Dundalk tonight. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

It is the kind of story that's guaranteed to command attention in an era when Irish players at elite English clubs are an endangered species.

The news that young Dubliner Daniel Cleary had been drafted into the Liverpool squad for a Europa League date with Bordeaux in September 2015 was headline news.

Cleary:
Cleary: "I went to Liverpool and came back as a different player." Photo by Nick Taylor/Liverpool FC via Getty Images

In these pages, it was pointed out that Richie Partridge was the last Irish-born player to pull on the red shirt. His League Cup appearances came in the 2004/'05 campaign.

That statistic still stands. Cleary was well regarded by Brendan Rodgers, but the Liverpool dream died without a single first team appearance. He then went to Birmingham where the departure of Gary Rowett ended any prospect of a breakthrough. At 21, he's following the path of talented youngsters coming home with a view to delivering on their potential.

Tonight, he should make his home debut for Dundalk against Limerick after a late move from Stephen Kenny swayed Cleary away from a proposed move to Shamrock Rovers.

Alumni

In Tallaght last Friday, he impressed against the Hoops with Kenny clearly buoyed by the centre-half's contribution. He has fared well with Crumlin United alumni before - Andy Boyle and Richie Towell have starred in his era in Louth - and he now hopes that Cleary can emulate their success.

On the park, he is confident. Off it, he retains some of the characteristics that come from a stay at a top club. His answers are short and he shies away from direct eye contact in interviews; it's safe to assume that media training was part of his education.

Yet it's clear that he has a story to tell too, as he gradually opens up while discussing the cut-throat nature of his industry once you move beyond the teenage years of promise.

"It's hard over there," he says. "It's not easy. It's dog eat dog out there, but overall it was a great experience. You do not know what's going to happen in football. Listen, going over at 15 years of age, you're only a kid and you're thrown in at the deep end.

"I was going to school there and you need to adapt very quickly. It made me grow up quickly and I am the person I am today from that experience.

"I don't regret any of it. You give it your best shot. I started down there, and I ended up there," he continues, raising his hand as if to act out the rise towards first team level. "And then I ended up back down there again. It's the ups and downs. You can't get too high with the highs or too low with the lows. You just need to stay humble through it all, and keep a steady head."

Holiday trips home in the summer opened his eyes to what was available if things didn't quite work out. In the summer of 2016, he watched Dundalk's early European exploits as an interested spectator and then continued to view from afar when he went back across the water.

That influenced his thinking when Kenny swooped as part of a courting process that took 'half a day' in the player's own words.

He thinks there is a meeting of minds on the style of defender Kenny wants. "I love getting on the ball as a centre-half," he says. "I love heading and kicking too... and playing football so it suits me down to the ground here. The gaffer likes ball-playing centre-halves.

"I went to Liverpool and came back as a different player. I was 19 when I was around the first team and it was a great experience. Brendan Rodgers was an unbelievable coach and took a lot of young lads under his wing. I learned a lot from the first team players and how they played and trained, the Liverpool way I think.

"When I went over, I wasn't as good on the ball but now I love the ball at my feet as a centre-half but you need to do the defending as well."

He didn't see himself ending up in Dundalk, of course. In a ruthless trade, the fall can be hard for players that have grown up in the biggest academies.

Strangely enough, he's not alone. Four other colleagues from his Liverpool days are here now and Cleary is the only Irish member of that quintet.

Followed

Craig Roddan came to Sligo first, and was followed over the winter by Scouse striker Adam Morgan. Hungarian Krisztian Adorjan is on-loan at Dundalk from Serie B side Novara. Last week, English-born Chilean keeper Lawrence Vigouroux signed for Waterford.

"It's crazy alright," says Cleary, "Krisztian was rated very, very highly at Liverpool. I've been talking to the others, yeah. I spoke to Lawrence when he said he was signing for Waterford.

"I'm buzzing to be playing, I loved every minute of the Rovers game. The standard is very high to be honest, especially up in Dundalk.

"I love the training facilities, the sports science and the whole lot. The manager, and there's some very good players around."

Naturally enough, he retains ambitions of succeeding across the water but he's signed a two-year deal at Dundalk and has bought into the idea of expecting trophies and European progress. If he can build on last Friday's impressive showing, he will return to notebooks as a name to remember.

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