Carlow's Molloy on a high after booking ticket to World stage
In the early hours of Sunday morning, a 25-year-old from Carlow booked his ticket for December's Club World Cup in the United Arab Emirates.
Eric Molloy will join a select number of Irishmen that have participated in the annual FIFA competition for club champions from around the world. Roy Keane, Denis Irwin and John O'Shea had a crack at it wearing Manchester United colours.
Molloy, a native of Rathvilly who only seriously started playing the game when he was 14, is ready to follow in their footsteps. It gives him special reason to pay attention Saturday's European decider between Real Madrid and Liverpool. He can scarcely believe that it could be relevant to him.
The former Wexford Youths winger resides in New Zealand now, where he plays for Team Wellington, but he spent the weekend in Fiji where his club brought a 6-0 lead from the first leg of the Oceania Champions League final. A 4-3 triumph over Lautoka sealed the deal.
It has added another layer to his unexpected adventure. Just over 18 months ago, he was working in a factory in order to supplement his income while playing on amateur terms with Wexford Youths and studying sports and exercise in IT Carlow.
A door to a new life was opened by his old course manager and coach at IT Carlow, Paul O'Reilly, who had moved to New Zealand to work in football development. When he then picked up a job as manager of top-flight side Southern United, he realised he could attract players out to the amateur league by offering them employment in the form of coaching roles with the local association.
Molloy was one of the six Youths players that jumped at the opportunity, with the initial expectation that he might stay for three months. He stayed for longer and his impressive performances piqued the curiosity of the better teams in his division.
Team Wellington coach José Manuel Figueira called Molloy after his first season to enquire if he would fancy a switch to the capital and a team that expects to compete for honours. "Paul always said it to us, 'If you get a better offer, I'm not going to hold you back'," Molloy explains. "José was assistant coach for New Zealand and had managed their underage teams.
"It was hard leaving the lads as I didn't know anyone in Wellington, but they were the previous champions and, with his style and the culture here, I just knew it was the way to go."
Molloy remains an amateur player in an idiosyncratic football culture. The city does have a senior professional team, Wellington Phoenix, that plays in Australia's A League. While Team Wellington have a good relationship with Phoenix, they rely on local authority support to keep them functioning as a community club.
Grant payments allow them to support their players in return for them providing volunteer work which can range from coaching kids to maintenance of facilities. Molloy spends a good portion of his days as a supervisor in a private boarding school; that's a role that gives him free rent and food and ample free time to work on honing his football skills.
He trains with the same frequency as a professional footballer, but he has never been able to call himself one. The ambition is that his exploits with a successful side will make it happen; either through catching the attention of Phoenix or other clubs in the region and beyond.
The UAE hype may help although the caveat is that the Oceania side have to travel early and come through a qualifying round before they can encounter the big guns. Last year, their rivals Auckland City lost 1-0 to UAE outfit Al Jazira in a close-run affair. Al Jazira went on to lose narrowly to Real Madrid. It's a tantalising opportunity for the Irishman.
He came late to the game, and was better known in Carlow for his GAA exploits in his youth. As a teenager, he played senior with Rathvilly and was training with the county panel. "It got to the point when I had to pick between the two," he says, "I enjoyed the professionalism in football compared to GAA. A lot of the lads in Gaelic tend to go out partying and drinking after the games.
"I found the football more serious. I was always into eating well and going to the gym, even when people looked at me and said, 'You can't play football, you're no good.' But I felt it could take me to more places."
The theory has been proven. FC Carlow were in the old 'A' Championship and that gave him a route to League of Ireland football with Wexford. He was also part of an Irish university side that toured in South Korea - O'Reilly was the assistant manager. In his formative days in the south-east, he did come up against Seáni Maguire and wondered how far off he was. "Coming from a little village, I knew nobody," he says. "I was a good bit behind but I knew if I stuck at it, I could pass people out."
In a rugby-mad country, his profile in his new environment is limited. But the Champions League run has captured the imagination and his image adorned a billboard in Wellington that promoted the first game. Back at home, friends and family have been able to follow his exploits via the internet. The adjustment process to a new way of life was gradual.
"The dream is still to become a pro," he asserts. "That's always been the dream."
Wexford to Wellington. Carlow to the World Club Cup. A relocation that was ultimately about experiencing a different lifestyle might just end up changing his life.