Sunday 19 November 2017

Paisley takes hard knocks in his stride

DAVID KELLY STEPHEN PAISLEY was expecting the call from home on Friday night.

After all, not many players can boast scoring in successive games at a FIFA World Cup. The family, naturally, were delighted.

Cheers and tears diluted the thousands of miles between them. And then brother Gareth came on the line.

Stephen Paisley was expecting this, too. Since being released by Manchester City last summer, Stephen has gone back to school to join his brother in the points race. Competition within the Paisley household is intense.

However, Stephen's books have remained virtually untouched in his hotel bedroom. But what are you gonna do? Scoring goals for your country at a World Cup beats cramming 'an tuiseal ginideach' any day. But Gareth doesn't care.

"Yeah, yeah," smiles the 18-year-old down the line as Stephen recaps his heroics. "I'll still get more points then you!"

The laughter breaches the fraternal rivalry. Gareth ain't a bad player himself either. He's shared the same pitch as Willo Flood and, as a right-footed defender, he and the brother could be defensive partners.

For the moment, their rivalry is in the classroom, a symptom of Paisley's traumatic year. "Football's a fragile sport," Paisley had said during the week, after scoring his first goal in this competition against Ivory Coast. A penny for your thoughts now Stephen, after goal number two against Mexico?

"This is just unbelievable," he says. A facile pronouncement in print, but profoundly convincing as sandstorms menacingly encircle the Irish team hotel in Al Ain. Bearing an eight-inch cut on his chest from an over-zealous Mexican, it is the mental scars which have framed his year until these last few defining days.

After spending four years at Maine Road, Kevin Keegan had seemed to indicate that he would remain with the Irish contingent, at least for another season punctuated by loan spells.

"That's what he said to me but then he decided not to renew my contract," he says quietly. Four years of his life terminated in a five-second conversation. When he walked out of Maine Road for the last time, part of his dream died with him.

Unprepared for life, relatively uneducated and recuperating after a cartilage operation, life had delivered one rangy right hook to his solar plexus.

"I thought I was gone, that was it, the dream was over," he admits. "Once you're at a club, you're part of it, they look after you and make you feel wanted. But when you're told you're not wanted anymore, that's it. It's over. In an instant, they don't want to know about you anymore.

"My family were a big help to me, they enabled me to stay well-grounded. But I still see some of the lads here who are at City and other clubs and think, 'that should be me, I should still be part of it'. But you have to pick yourself up and move on."

He decided to go back to school, having decided that the road less travelled only leads to a dead end. He's enjoying it though and these halcyon days at a World Cup provide plenty of opportunities to smell the roses.

But even this salvation was almost denied him. His appetite restored, he had signed for Longford Town during the summer but an injury in only his first start disrupted his progress. He was a spectator for their historic Cup run, his winner's medal the merest of baubles which he graciously passed on to a more deserving younger squad member.

Yet he had remained a consistent performer for Ireland until, ironically, his return to the Longford first-team almost ruined his chances of going to the UAE. Playing against St Pat's in Inchicore just days before the squad assembled for departure, he damaged the quad muscle in his thigh. Fate had mocked him once more, it seemed. Bad luck comes in threes? Tell him about it.

"I thought that was it, I was gone," he recalls. "You're kind of thinking, what else is going to happen to me. It had been a terrible few months for me."

Less strong-willed personalities would have cracked up but underneath Paisley's placid exterior lies a fiery determination. It was as if he exorcised his physical frailty by force of will, rather than rely on mere mundane medical salvation.

"It scanned okay, there was no significant damage done to the thigh. And although I didn't play in the friendly against Paraguay the day before we left Ireland, I knew I'd be okay.

"I suppose I would have had to deal with it if the worst had happened. It would have been the worst thing that ever happened to me, no question, and it had been a terrible year anyway. But missing a tournament as big as this would have topped the lot.

"But I suppose you have got to get on with life and take everything that it throws at you. That's probably the most valuable lesson that I've learned all year. And, you know, things have worked out in the end."

And, after missing out on selection in the first game here against Saudi Arabia, Paisley's remarkable impact since then gets you wondering.

Maybe sometimes the good guys do win in the end. After all he's been through this year, the Leaving Cert should be a doddle.

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport