Sunday 17 December 2017

McEleney thrives on pressure of centre stage

Return of European football can open doors for Dundalk playmaker

June Player of the Month Patrick McEleney will be hoping to earn more accolades tonight. Photo: Sportsfile
June Player of the Month Patrick McEleney will be hoping to earn more accolades tonight. Photo: Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

European success can elevate the profile of League of Ireland players to another level and Dundalk's incredible 2016 illustrated that point.

Midfielder Chris Shields smiles as he tells a story from a visit to his mother last Christmas.

Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny. Photo: Sportsfile
Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny. Photo: Sportsfile

"Your man who works in the Chinese, my local in Clondalkin, said, 'Well done on the European campaign' and I said to myself, 'Jaysus, if he knows who I am, we really have got some recognition.'"

There is a serious point behind the anecdote as Dundalk prepare to kick off another crack at the Champions League with the visit of Rosenborg to Oriel Park tonight. This is a shop window opportunity for Stephen Kenny's players.

One of the frustrations that Kenny has dealt with during his incredibly successful stay in Louth is the inevitability of losing star names when their performances put them in the spotlight.

Instead of building on their famous run, the defending champions have had to rebuild after the loss of Daryl Horgan, Andy Boyle and Ronan Finn with the first-named pair now in England with international caps on their CV.

Kenny's men have struggled to keep up with Cork this year, so taking down an accomplished Rosenborg side will be a challenge.

They believe it is possible, however, and one of the main reasons is the form of playmaker Patrick McEleney who was named SSE Airtricity/SWAI Player of the Month for June after a superb run since the mid-season break featuring moments of individual brilliance.

This campaign could well be McEleney's chance to shine, and that's why he wants the European run to last beyond a solitary tie against a seeded opponent.

Potential

At 24, the Derryman is ready to finally deliver on the potential that has been evident from his baby steps. He is prepared to take centre stage, a contrast from his mid teens where he just wanted to get away from the game that had dominated his life since a very young age.

Amazingly, he came on the radar of clubs across the water when he was just nine and lining out for a Foyle Harps side managed by his father Henry.

"I was going backwards and forwards to clubs since I was nine," he explained. "I was at Man City and United and at 10 Man City tried to move my family over. I was too young."

Football was all he knew - the attention was a distraction so school was never high on the priority list.

"After weighing up a myriad of options, he chose Sunderland at 16 because it seemed the right fit and lasted three months of a three-and-a-half-year deal before homesickness and general fatigue with the system took hold.

"I was just sick of it," said McEleney, who was in an academy that included Jordan Pickford, Conor Hourihane and John Egan.

"They did everything in their power to try and keep me as well and I haven't a bad word to say about the club. I was struggling, I was too young and I just didn't want to stay there.

"I missed family and friends and my focus wasn't on football at all, it was just getting myself back home."

The only regret was the sense he was letting his encouraging father down. Otherwise, the youngster was happy to kick the ball around with his mates and forget about the business until Stephen Kenny knocked on his door and asked him down to Derry City.

It kicked off a League of Ireland career that eventually brought him to Dundalk for a re-union with Kenny last year and that amazing European adventure.

For McEleney, it actually started on a low note when he was subbed at half-time away to BATE Borisov.

"That was the worst night of my life," he sighed. "I was sitting before the game saying right, 'This is how you measure yourself against the top lads'."

He was hastily withdrawn after a torrid experience on the right wing and benched for the return in Tallaght.

Fate intervened with an early injury to Finn bringing McEleney into the fray and he was a driving force in the famous 3-0 success.

"It was a big turning point for me," he explained. "Just for giving me the belief that you can handle the game at that level."

There were highs and lows along the rest of the way, including a near-miss from an inventive last-minute lob away to Zenit that would have secured a draw.

Instead, it crashed back off the woodwork. But it's his ability to try the unexpected that has built a fan club and ex-Sunderland striker Stephen Elliott has encouraged their new boss Simon Grayson to bring McEleney back to his old haunt.

He would be ready for the leap now. "I'm 24 now with a family to look after," he asserted. "And I'll do whatever I can to do that.

"I'm mature now. My target is to try and be the best player I can and reach for the top. I put pressure on myself, so it will be interesting to see how I do."

Another European run would accelerate the process of turning heads. A high-stakes evening lies ahead.

Dundalk v Rosenborg,

Live, RTé 2, 7.30

Irish Independent

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