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The other side of the beautiful game; special report on footballers who weren't so lucky


Eddie Van Boxtel in action for Bray Wanderers in 2000.

Eddie Van Boxtel in action for Bray Wanderers in 2000.

Eddie Van Boxtel in action for Bray Wanderers in 2000.

Becoming an English Premier League footballer represents the dream job for most Irish teens yet history has shown the percentage of wannabes achieving their ambition remains miniscule.

Not since the emergence of Robbie Keane, Richard Dunne and Damien Duff during the late nineties have a clutch of Irish broke onto the top-flight scene cross-channel.

The onset of multi-billion television deals through the arrival of the Premier League resulted in clubs casting the scouting net further to sign teens from countries untapped during the previous era. Instead of enlisting the finished article, top clubs tried to steal a march on rivals by enticing raw material such as Cesc Fàbregas (Arsenal) and Gerard Piqué (Manchester United).

Kevin Long of Burnley is the only player produced from the Irish system to have earned a Premier League debut this season from any of the 20 clubs.

Despite the remote success rate, English and Scottish Premier League clubs continue to recruit over 25 teens per season from these shores for their Academy teams, proving Ireland’s reputation as a rich harvest for talent is intact.

That has been the case since the early eighties, meaning thousands of youngsters were exported to the UK system, only for the vast majority to find their aspirations come unstuck within a highly competitive market.

Where the jilted stray to after the top table are destinations far and wide. Instinctively, the default setting centres on trying to stay in the game by finding a new club, preferably in the UK.

“If my son falls from the tree, he’s bound to hit a branch on the way down,” reasoned one optimistic parent of player embarking on a career at 16.

Examples of Irish players managing to make a living from the game in the afterlife of their Premier League release are multiple.

Most topically, one of Bradford City’s goalscorers at Chelsea on Saturday, 30-year-old Mark Yeates, soon recovered from departing Tottenham Hotspur in 2007 after just one League outing alongside Robbie Keane to map out a career in the lower divisions.

Not all survive as Yeates has. The contrasting outcomes for two aspiring Dublin-born goalkeepers, both nurtured at Home Farm before moving to Leeds United, illustrates just how differently players can fare after they’re told to look elsewhere for a living.

Nicky Byrne, a Youth team-mate of Harry Kewell’s during his apprenticeship at Elland Road, ventured into showbusiness upon his return home and carved out a career with Westlife that sets him up financially for life.

Less fortunate was his predecessor, Eddie Van Boxtel, who despite saving a penalty from Eric Cantona in 1994 while playing for Dundalk, was four later caught with €3.5m of cannabis and belatedly sentenced to a 10-year prison term last week. 

In a series of interviews over the next six weeks, independent.ie will bring you stories from a number of players to have experienced the whirlwind of football, the highs and lows, and where their career eventually took them, inside or outside of the game.

See independent.ie tomorrow for Michael Keane's story on coping with football rejection...TWICE!

Online Editors