Monday 18 December 2017

The path to a career in British football is still a rocky road for Irish youngsters

John Devine: There’s a bigger onus on clubs to look after players now, but that doesn’t mean we should become complacent’
John Devine: There’s a bigger onus on clubs to look after players now, but that doesn’t mean we should become complacent’

John O'Brien

Nearly 40 years on, he still remembers it as the toughest thing he's ever done. As his plane sped along the runway at Dublin Airport, the first pangs of homesickness were already tying knots in his stomach. It was the winter of 1974 and John Devine was approaching his 16th birthday, bound for London and a new life as a trainee apprentice at Arsenal football club, full of profound regret for the blissful family life he was leaving behind.

Back then it wasn't a path rigorously travelled. The big English clubs had been courting Irish talent for decades, of course, but the idea of snapping them up as bright-eyed waifs was a relatively new phenomenon. "People at home didn't have a clue what it was really like," Devine says. "It was a haunting experience. Every day you had different kids coming in on trial, all competing for your place. You woke up every morning feeling under pressure. It was a hugely competitive environment."

It was Devine's blessing that he was going to a part of the city that had a distinct Irish feel and to a club where Liam Brady, Frank Stapleton and David O'Leary had fetched up a year before him and were there to show him the ropes. It helped too that they found him a host family, Bill and Peg O'Brien, he still loves and cherishes to this day. That didn't make it easy, of course. Just easier.

At the club he scrubbed toilets, cleaned dressing-rooms and painted grandstands, but that wasn't the worst of it. The nightmare, he says, was the grim, never-ending anxiety that no 16-year-old should ever have to experience. The respite finally came four years later when he walked out to make his first-team debut. He had made it. He had survived the jungle. One of the lucky few.

Daragh Sheridan wasn't one of the lucky ones. Aston Villa had first expressed interest when he was a 15-year-old playing schoolboy football in his home town of Galway. Before he chased the dream of becoming a professional footballer, however, his parents John and Bridie imposed one condition: he remain at home and complete his Leaving Certificate. When he finally made it to Birmingham and the dream quickly turned sour, he realised how enlightened that decision had been.

The guts of 20 years on now, he thinks back and jolts at the memory of the hardship they endured. A group of impressionable kids at the mercy of hardened, cynical coaches who ran the show like a military boot camp, engendering fear in the herd in the knowledge that their authority would never be challenged.

The atmosphere on the training ground was made worse by the fact that there was never any let-up in the tension. Even on relatively benign days the terror never subsided because you knew that all it took was the smallest thing, the merest spark, for their noses to be bent out of shape.

"That's the kind of environment it was," Sheridan recalls. "It was very Darwinian. That's the best word I can use to describe it. It was totally set up to weed out the weak."

As he spoke, Sheridan wasn't intimate with the details of the case that emerged regarding Stoke City last week. George Blackstock, a Stoke trainee in the late 1980s, is suing the club for a breach of duty, claiming he was physically and sexually abused during his time there. His claims are being contested, while seperately, a number of Blackstock's fellow trainees at the time are believed to be also contemplating legal action.

Although the Stoke story doesn't have an explicit Irish dimension, it is still one that should strike a chord here. Tacitly, the shame we should feel about the manner in which we export so much of our football talent to the UK and, mostly, leave it to fend for itself, has always been acknowledged, but not fully enough that we ever felt the compulsion to do something truly meaningful about it.

As Devine suggests, we don't really have a true sense of what it must be like to be a teenager living the football dream in the UK. It seems reasonable to assume that Sheridan's experience is as wide of the norm as Devine's happier time at Arsenal. The truth likely resides somewhere towards the centre of those extremes, dependent to a significant degree on the crucial outcome of either making the grade of falling into the waste heap.

Harbouring too many casual assumptions is risky, though. Because the alleged abuse at Stoke happened so long ago that the legal basis of the charges has yet to be established and there is a natural inclination to think everything was much worse in the distant past, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking English football academies have somehow become models of restraint and respect.

"Things have improved," says Devine. "There's a bigger onus on clubs to look after players now, but that doesn't mean we should become complacent. If you see the clubs our players are going to these days, they're not the Man Uniteds or the Arsenals where lots of them went in my day. They're going to smaller clubs, Championship and League One, where life is tougher and they're more likely to face problems."

Six years ago, the journalist Paul Rowan visited Plymouth Argyle, then a Championship club, and heard the stories of four Irish trainees. In ways, they were classic of the type. For £55 a week, including bed and board, they chased the dangled carrot of professional contracts, willing to tolerate a certain level of hardship and discrimination in order to keep their distant hopes alive. They still cleaned boots to augment their meagre wages.

"If they [other players] don't know your name, they just call you Paddy, don't they?" said one of the kids, Anthony Mason, a second-generation Irish player. "Yeah, all right, Paddy. Get the Paddy! Get the Paddy!" Damien McCrory, from Co Limerick, told of a game in which he mistimed a tackle and earned the cry of "you stupid Irish Paddy c***" for his troubles.

"I went in hard on him, got the ball and got him as well and he didn't like it. He just snapped, started calling me names. He called me that and the manager heard him saying it. The manager didn't like it. It wasn't anything serious, only messing, but the manager dealt with it."

It is a scenario Eoin Hand, in his time as FAI careers guidance officer, encountered time and time again: the blurry line between exuberant laddishness and blatant discrimination. "In one way, it's human nature," he says. "There'll always be banter, lads calling you Paddy. It's something you put up with. You slag them back. But when a line is crossed, you have a situation that needs to be dealt with. Some lads bottle it up. They cope with it in their own way."

Hand's experience in the area of player welfare doesn't suggest any less need for vigilance now than a generation or two ago. In the last five years, he says, he had to intervene in the case of several players in English academies, one in which a young Irish player was viciously assaulted. Another time, he took a case against a Scottish club to the Scottish FA. "In the end," he reflects. "the players just left."

The point was, though, they had somebody fighting their corner, a comforting voice at a troubled time. You wonder, though, if that voice has ever been strong or co-ordinated enough. If you were a young Irish apprentice in England in the 1980s or '90s, the chances are the first phone call you received, outside of friends or family, was from the late Bob Hennessy, a Dublin-born reporter who had once himself tried to make the grade at Southend.

For Hennessy, the payback was a few lines for a story for the Soccer Reporter magazine or these pages, to which he regularly sent pieces. But the bond went far deeper than newspaper type. Hennessy knew first-hand what the kids who left home at 15 and 16 were going through, he could empathise with the loneliness and sense of isolation many of them felt. He knew the value a comforting and friendly voice at the end of a phone line could bring.

Hand's was a more formalised role but it was borne of roughly the same instincts. He'd reached a point in the late 1990s where his coaching days had ended, he'd survived a serious illness that almost killed him, and he still wanted to contribute to Irish football. He'd thought of all the times people had called him looking for advice: players in tricky situations, worried parents of young players, clubs in financial difficulty. It gave him food for thought.

"I'd just come out of the Mater," he says now, "and I didn't feel like travelling anymore. So I went to see Bernard O'Byrne, who was FAI chief executive at the time, and suggested a kind of role offering people advice on various matters. So he said, 'ok, we'll give you a year and see how it goes'. I became manager of support services and it just evolved from there."

Hand was made redundant in April 2012, a decision that came a few months after Terry Conroy retired from his job as the FAI's welfare officer in the UK. While clearly still aggrieved at the manner of his departure, the reality is that the work hasn't dried up. "I still get phone calls from people," he says from his Co Kerry home. "One case is still ongoing and has to be sorted out. People ring up with problems and I can't not give advice."

Occasionally, Sheridan contemplates the course of the game he once played and shakes his head at the direction Irish football has taken. Some years back, he was involved with Hand in a project called REAP that helped kids like himself who had been spat out of English academies to readjust to life in Ireland and channel their experiences in football in a positive way. For various reasons, the project sunk and the sadness is that nothing was created to fill the vacuum left behind.

It is just one of a thousand sadnesses of the game here, of course. Irish football isn't short of men with vision who have the ideas and the energy to change things. One day, maybe, we will listen to them.

Irish Independent

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