Tuesday 20 March 2018

Blackburn's Meath man grounded by reality ahead of clash with boyhood idols United

Darragh Lenihan may yet become the first man from Meath to represent Ireland at senior level
Darragh Lenihan may yet become the first man from Meath to represent Ireland at senior level
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Darragh Lenihan is the counterpoint to the belief that Irish teenagers who pursue their football dream in England are oblivious to the consequences if it doesn't work out.

The important people in his life made sure he went in with his eyes open.

In his formative days at Blackburn, the trainee had to take some grief from his team-mates for the backpack filled with school books that was his afternoon companion when they clocked off to chill out.

Despite the fact he was living in England, Lenihan was studying for his Leaving Cert from afar as a term and condition of his big move.

His parents Pat and Bernadette and his teachers in St Peter's, Dunboyne were anxious that the youngest of five kids kept up his studies.

"Two are accountants, one's a solicitor and the other is a psychologist," he says, by way of explaining that there was always an academic focus in the house.

The family and school support for his football ambitions came with the caveat that they weren't prepared to let him abandon his education.

English clubs can often talk the talk about providing that facility but the absence of a clear focus allows the cubs to let it slide. Lenihan's case was different.

"The scout Steve Nixon and the education and welfare officer came over and spoke to my school principal and he said that I had to be coming back to Ireland once a month to catch up on my notes," he says.


"Blackburn liaised with the school and sorted out private tuition for me over here. The hardest one to find was an Irish teacher and we eventually found one in Liverpool, a guy whose family were from Donegal."

They got there in the end, though, and that year turned out to be a significant one in the personal development of the Meath man. At 22, he's now well able to speak about it.

That's because of the immediate challenge he faced in the UK, a double stress fracture in his back that ruined his first season on the football pitch. He had a big going away party in June at the end of his fifth year in school but then ended up back there for eight weeks from the September because his injury prevented him from doing any work.

Much as he resented having to stick his head in the books when he went back across again, it kept him sane when his fitness woe could have broken his spirit.

"I had something to focus on instead of being in the physio room all day," he continues. "The other lads used to slag me with my backpack and I was fairly raging some days.

"When I got back fit around April time, I remember getting up at 7.0 in the morning, doing an hour and a half of study and then going to training. I'd study from 2.0 in the afternoon again.

"It was tough going, long days, but it was worth it and it helped me massively to grow and be a little bit more mature. If I wasn't doing that, I'd have been so bored when I was injured and thinking about it all the time. But once I left the club, I was able to go to the digs and put my mind on that."

How did he fare?

"I wanted an Arts degree in Maynooth which was 385 points and I got bang on 385," he grins. "I wanted to get a few checked, especially Geography, where I got a B1 and I wanted an A, but it wasn't like I needed it for some degree, so I left it at that.

"My mam and dad always said they'd never put me under pressure," he adds. "But my back injury could have been worse and I might not be playing football now so it was something to fall back on. Fingers crossed, I don't need it but you never know."

He is getting by just fine at the moment, but his perspective is refreshing. Blackburn always sensed they had a player that was worth waiting for and gave him an extra year on his contract to ease any worries. Lenihan is now repaying that faith.

Tomorrow afternoon should deliver appearance number 32 of the season and it's a special one with Manchester United, the club he supported as a youth, in town for an FA Cup fifth round tie. It might bring back childhood memories but he now speaks with the authority of an older player because Blackburn is a challenging environment right now.

He spoke to the Irish Independent at Ewood Park in the aftermath of a hard fought 1-0 win over QPR, a game where a last-minute winner for the hosts failed to silence fans calling for manager Owen Coyle's head.

Subsequent results have left Blackburn second from bottom and the natives remain unhappy with Indian company Venky's who have presided over six years of turmoil with debts rising and managers checking in and out.

Appointing Coyle, a former boss of arch rivals Burnley, was perceived as an example of how the absentee owners are out of touch or just indifferent to feelings. Protests around games are common. Other fans are just staying away.

In that backdrop, Lenihan has grown. He was a midfielder as he came through the ranks with Dublin schoolboy nursery Belvedere - and that is his preferred position - but he put his hand up when they were down a centre-half in training a couple of years back and has now played the bulk of his Championship football in that berth.

When Paul Lambert had a spell in charge last season, the centre of the park was his station and the Scot even threw out a Roy Keane comparison.


Lenihan liked working with him yet he is happy to be viewed as an important player by Coyle in defence, a position that he is learning more about with every game even though he clearly has the athleticism to be effective further up the park. The visit of a Premier League superpower will test movement.

He would be delighted if Keane was watching, although he's reluctant to get drawn too much into Irish discussion other than stressing that it's his lifetime's ambition.

Lenihan is aware that no Meath man has ever represented Ireland at senior level and that's a box he could tick if he continues to progress.

He is proud of his county roots and his brother Donal is part of the Meath football panel managed by Dunboyne native Andy McEntee. Seamus Lavin, who has broken through over the past year, is also from the locality and Lenihan follows their progress from afar.

But he has plenty on his own plate at the moment with fixtures coming thick and fast in the second tier.

The cup date is a treat and given his old allegiances - he remembers wearing Beckham and Veron jerseys along with his brothers - Lenihan did have to tell the other members of the clan to suspend talking about it when the draw was made because there were big league games to worry about first.

Now that the weekend has arrived, he has earned the chance to showcase his improvement. His calm head has allowed him to come through the precarious window where so many lads in his age bracket drop off the radar. Perhaps that's because he got his growing pains out of the way early.

As it happened, his Gaeilgeoir tutor was a contributor to the body that supplies material for Irish mock exams. A younger pal texted to say he was shocked when a picture of Lenihan popped up on his paper with an accompanying interview about his life at Blackburn.

It is fitting, though, because the next generation of young footballers would be well-served if they followed his example. The boy with the backpack has come a long way.

  • Blackburn v Man Utd, live, BT Sport 2, tomorrow, 4.15

Irish Independent

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