Friday 22 March 2019

'Soccer never changes, it doesn't matter where you go' - New Sligo Rovers duo on coming through adversity in a cut-throat game

 

Sligo Rovers players Dante Leverock and Romeo Parkes at the Showgrounds Photo: James Connolly
Sligo Rovers players Dante Leverock and Romeo Parkes at the Showgrounds Photo: James Connolly
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

The distance between Bermuda and Jamaica is more than 2,000km, but there are striking similarities in the childhood stories of Romeo Parkes and Dante Leverock.

Britain's colonisation of sun kissed islands in the Caribbean and North Atlantic Ocean left a long-lasting sporting legacy.

Romeo Parkes in action. Photo: Sportsfile
Romeo Parkes in action. Photo: Sportsfile

In their youth, the sporting endeavours of Parkes (a 28-year-old Jamaican) and Leverock (a 26-year-old Bermudian) were based around three different codes; football, cricket and track & field.

They would both grow up to realise that their skills in football opened up the potential to explore the world.

What they also share in common is the experience of shuddering personal setbacks that prompted them to re-evaluate their future in the game.

Neither gave up, with sliding-doors moments sending them to places they never envisaged seeing.

Sligo Rovers is the latest stop. A new destination on an island with a very different personality to the places they call home.

Their current club has always embraced footballing nomads, individuals with an open mind when it comes to searching for another contract in the world's most global sport.

The arrival of Leverock and Parkes added intrigue to Liam Buckley's pre-season recruitment. Nigerian attacker Brendan Ogbu was announced as another new recruit, but never made it here in the end due to a variety of complications.

There's a gamble involved in bringing an outsider into a league known for its idiosyncrasies. Then again, every roaming pro has their own story to tell. Sligo's eye-catching recruits prove that point. How did they end up here?

Parkes is the quieter of the two, but he steadily opens up on his journey from Port Maria, the capital of the Jamaican parish of St Mary, to the West of Ireland. As a child, he played sports for fun. He recalls a primary school clash between a soccer final and a cricket final. The latter involved a longer journey and that was the deciding factor.

"And then I make a duck," he sighs. "Zero. I only faced two balls and I was got out. I cried. My mum came on the field and took me off and from that day I never played cricket again.

"I went to high school and they are asking me 'Please play cricket' and I was like 'no, soccer all the way.'

He had hopes of going to university, yet real life took him in another direction. There were issues at home for his parents that forced the 16-year-old out to work early in the paid ranks of the local football league.

"I left high school and went pro so I could get paid to take care of them and then go to college," he explains, "But from that day until now, that's how it is. I'm still doing it (football). I can't have any regrets."

He married young, to an American, but they split after five years. Due to her citizenship, he was able to get the papers to live in the US. But his first pro contract outside of Jamaica was in Spanish speaking El Salvador.

"At the start, I didn't understand a word in the team meetings," he shrugs. "It was awkward for the first year there but in my second year it was ok. Playing wise it was fine. The one thing I know is that soccer never changes, it doesn't matter where you go. The lifestyle changes, most things are different from country to country, but soccer is the same."

Parkes began to thrive and forced himself into the Jamaican national team, winning a spot in the squad for the 2015 Copa America. He was then picked up by Pittsburgh Riverhounds in the United Soccer League, where he started with five goals in six matches. Doors were beginning to open. And then he slammed them shut in a moment of madness.

Type his name into Google and the browser will point to a six-second clip from a match between his Pittsburgh side and New York Red Bulls' second team in May 2016. In the final minutes of the game, Parkes and Red Bulls player Karl Ouimette were both sent off.

As they walk off the pitch, Parkes lags behind his opponent and then launches into the air to deliver a ferocious kick into Ouimette's lower back. The clip went viral and Parkes' reputation was destroyed. He was lucky that the hospitalised Ouimette avoided serious injury, but his employers were furious.

"It's one thing to punch someone in the mouth, it's another thing to kick someone in the back. It's cowardly. He won't play for Pittsburgh again," said Riverhounds owner Tuffy Shallenberger, announcing a contract termination.

The USL banned Parkes for the season and FIFA got involved to make the ban global. At 25, Parkes feared he was finished. Given that he was still trying to provide for loved ones back home, the feelings of guilt multiplied. He was in tears by the time he reached the dressing room.

"If I could take back anything in my life, it would be those two seconds," he says. "Until this day, I still don't know what happened to me.

"The coaches and everyone was shocked, they know the type of person I am. It was a scary time. I didn't get any income for over six months. It showed me the people around me who were real, and the people who were fake."

Parkes has brothers living in the States and wound up in New York, accepting offers to play unsanctioned matches with Spanish teams in order to, as he puts it, "make a dollar here, and a dollar there." Light at the end of the tunnel appeared when Isidro Metapán, his old club in El Salvador, called to say they would take him back once his ban expired. He went there to train and play, and then Pittsburgh made further headlines by performing a massive U-turn and re-signing him. "I fully believe he is more than deserving of a second chance," said Shallenberger.

When his time at Pittsburgh came to a natural end over the winter, a contact mentioned that Ireland was an option. The prospect of European football was sold to Parkes. He packed his bags.

Leverock's relationship with football stayed recreational for longer. He describes an idyllic upbringing in the Spanish Point area of Pembroke in Hamilton, his nation's capital. "Everywhere is right by the water. It's a beautiful place," he smiles. "Riding bikes. Fishing off the rocks. Going to the beach. Swimming with your friends. Playing football. That's what I grew up doing."

He knew he would have to leave, however. A lack of interest in hospitality and business & finance, the two main industries in Bermuda, meant that his life plan was to go overseas and study.

His working-class parents had always asserted the value of education and he left for London to study sports science in Twickenham and play some part-time football on the non-league circuit to pay his way.

Trips to Europe and America in his youth with Bermuda underage teams meant he had a pedigree. His defining memory is watching Zlatan Ibrahimovic star for Ajax and deciding that his dream was to play professionally. In England, he was converted from a striker to a centre-back.

With his degree completed, he ventured Stateside where he played for Harrisburg City Islanders in the USL and also broke into his national team. He made friends for life, but found himself in limbo when his contract ended and a half season back in the UK - working under his compatriot Shaun Goater at Ilkeston - failed to improve his career outlook.

As fate would have it, he ended up back home in Bermuda for the worst day of his life.

"I was about to go on a date with my now girlfriend and I got call saying my dad Collie had been in an accident," he says, his tone lowering. "He worked in construction so I just thought, 'Oh he's broken his leg or something.' But when I got to the hospital, it was weird..."

Collins Smith (52) had not survived his motorcycle accident. For a large and tight-knit family, it was devastating. Leverock took strength from grief by deciding that he was going to really commit himself to football.

"I cut a lot of things out of my life," he says. "I was a fit guy but I went to the gym even more, just 100pc pushing. If my friends called and said they were going out, I would stay at home."

The support of his mother Tanya helped to finance a trip to Florida where a company called Pro Soccer Consulting was running a three-day combine as a showcase for players.

The family went away to New York for the difficult first Christmas without Collins. Leverock was there when he received a call saying he needed to get to Estonia as quickly as possible for a one-week trial.

He flew out between Christmas Day and New Year's Eve, which left him with some explaining to do to his girlfriend Sierra. But she got what his mission was about.

"He (Collins) always wanted me to be happy," he says, "From that point I just said 'I'm going for it'."

His destination was Narva, a town which sits on the border with Russia, where locals speak Russian rather than Estonian.

Leverock arrived into cold winter temperatures along with an American who opted against staying. But he stuck it out with Narva Trans, and played Europa League football.

"My girlfriend was over for the majority of the time and we used to relax and go to the coffee shops. I'm a simple guy. I play football and go to the gym," he says.

His aim was to do a year and move back closer to the UK. Sligo Rovers came up as an option and he was able to speak with ex-Harrisburg and Bit'O'Red player Ciaran Nugent about the idea.

Another US contact, Jake Keegan, had played under Buckley with St Pat's last year.

All the vibes were good. "I'm a traveller," says Leverock. "I can say that now. And I thought, 'Why not?'"

The pair have settled in their own way.

Parkes lives alone in Sligo, content to go home after training, listen to music, watch TV, play some video games and chat with his girlfriend Trudi-Ann in Toronto, the city where he now spends his off-seasons. They grew up in the same area but only connected in recent years. "I chill," he shrugs, "I'm happy with that. I like my own company."

Leverock shares with Mitchell Beeney and Lewis Banks, an English duo trying to find their way in the business. He's learning another side of the game by coaching the club's U-19s side, while he's also studying for a Masters in Education through the Open University. He's aware this job has a shelflife.

On the pitch, Sligo started slowly with Buckley pulling together his squad at the last minute. Leverock gifted Dundalk an early penalty on the opening night, and admitted he was 'rattled' by that experience. "I've washed that game off," he insists. "The level is higher (than Estonia) here, a more physical league, and I've got to get used to that."

Last Friday, he starred in a 2-1 win at Finn Harps. Parkes opened the scoring, with his attempted acrobatics in his celebration making him a YouTube hit for happier reasons.

Social media has made the world smaller and kept their nearest and dearest up to date with their exploits. Leverock loves that his work allows his family to see new places; he is looking forward to their visits.

Sierra is back in Bermuda, where she works as a wedding planner, but he'll be seeing her soon when he's home for international duty. His status as Bermuda captain is a source of pride and they travel to the Dominican Republic later this month with a first ever qualification for the Gold Cup - the CONCACAF equivalent of the Euros - within touching distance.

His team-mates have already set off to Cuba for a training camp, but he will join up late as he continues to learn about the quirks of the Irish game.

The idea of settling here for a while appeals but, just like Parkes, he knows that nothing is certain. In this game, everybody is just passing through.

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