Tuesday 24 April 2018

One step away from turning fantasy football into real thing

GROWING up in Buncrana, Co Donegal, there was only ever one idol I had. As a young goalkeeper, Shay Given was the player I held highest and I tried to emulate him when I played.

The fact that he was local added to the fascination.

How did he do it? How did someone from only half an hour away from me make it to the dizzy heights of the Premier League?

Having spent two years at Derry City, I left the Brandywell thinking that I had never been given a fair crack of the whip.

A First Division winner's medal and numerous days on the bench, plus winning the 'A' Championship with the club's reserve side were as good as things went for me there and I left at the end of the 2011 season to further my studies in Liverpool.

Midway through my first year of journalism at John Moores University, I knew I had to sort out my football career once and for all.

I loved the experience of training full-time and being involved with a club like Derry, so I was delighted to join Finn Harps in April last year when Peter Hutton came calling.

However, having played a few games with Harps last summer, I knew that my imminent return to Liverpool would end my season prematurely.

Around this time, I came across the 'Samsung Win A Pro Contract' competition.

The competition involved League One sides Swindon Town and Leyton Orient and was offering two players one-year professional deals at either club.

Optimistically, I chose to enter the competition, never anticipating what would unfold in the coming months.

Being a final-year student, I put the thought of winning a contract to the back of my mind to concentrate on my studies. That was until I received an invitation to attend the first trial of the competition in Liverpool.

At first, I didn't know if I wanted to go along as it was to consist of small-sided games and a few training drills. Sceptically, I thought to myself, 'How can they judge a goalkeeper in an hour-long session, playing small-sided games?'

Eventually, I decided to go to the trial, where I trained with four other goalkeepers. We did a range of drills that basically gave the coaches – all from Football CV, Swindon Town and Leyton Orient – an opportunity to see our fundamental skills.


Thankfully, I came through the trial well and, if I'm honest, I wasn't too impressed with the standard of players on show.

A few weeks passed before I got an invitation to attend the next round of the competition – an 11-a-side match that would take place at Manchester City's reserve-team ground at Hyde FC.

I tried to keep my participation in the competition as quiet as possible. I figured that, if it didn't work out, then it would be no odds.

Regrettably, I took this round of the trial for granted. If I thought the quality was poor, I was mistaken as I went on to concede six goals as my team was hammered 6-1.

We were 4-0 behind at half-time and I felt like I just wanted the ground to swallow me up.

Without wishing to sound cocky, I think I played as well as any 'keeper could in a 6-1 defeat. However, this didn't stop me leaving the ground feeling deflated and dejected, believing that a single 90-minute match had ruined what was probably my final opportunity to chase my dream to become a full-time professional footballer.

I travelled back to Liverpool with the aim of putting the game behind me. I kept myself busy by training and putting extra work into my university assignments.

I started looking at flights home for Christmas. I was practically counting down the days until I would return home.

Then, on a Wednesday afternoon, I returned from the gym to find a missed call from the organisers of the event. I presumed it was the inevitable 'thanks, but no thanks' call, but when they rang back I was pleasantly surprised – I had reached the final 22 of the competition.

The semi-final was scheduled for December 16 at Swindon Town's County Ground. I travelled to Swindon the night before.

In what was one of the most roundabout journeys I have ever taken in my life, five trains and two taxis later, I had made it to Swindon.

The morning of the semi-final, I strolled from my hotel to the County Ground in lovely winter weather. We all arrived early to have mandatory testing before the match.

However much I wanted to, I could not keep my participation a secret any longer and messages of good luck filtered through on my phone all morning. By 1.0, I knew I was ready.

Outside the away dressing-room at the ground, there is a picture that immediately made me feel comfortable – a youthful Shay Given in Swindon colours. If I wasn't ready before that, I definitely was then.

We won the match 4-1 and I felt I did reasonably well. I was by no means busy, but I was happy that I had done whatever I had to do as well as I could under the watchful eye of the enigmatic Paolo di Canio and Orient boss Russell Slade.

For once, I left the trial feeling satisfied with my performance and, as I was walking out the door, Di Canio stopped me, shook my hand and said "well done". Needless to say, this made me hopeful of making it to the final.

I made the trip back to Liverpool and the next day caught my flight home for Christmas. Shortly after I arrived home, I got word that I had made the final.

I'll admit to feeling a bit nervy. This is something that I've been working towards for my whole life and, having been hit with rejections in the past, I'm determined not to let that happen again. I will give it my all when I play against a Leyton Orient XI today.

After the match, two players will be selected for contracts – one with Orient and the other with Swindon. Fingers crossed I'll be one of them.

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport