Thursday 22 February 2018

What became of the likely lads?

Ten years after leaving Shelbourne for Dundee United, Sean Dillon is one of the League of Ireland’s success stories. He tells Daniel McDonnell how he survived crossing choppy waters

Dillon: "Looking back now, it’s odd it all worked out because we jumped in blind. I see others bouncing around football that haven’t been as lucky. I’m grateful for what I have.” Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

THE move that changed the course of Sean Dillon’s life was instigated without his knowledge. He was one of the last to know.

In the first week of 2007, Dillon was an employee of Shelbourne, a club that was disintegrating after a league title win that was secured after a campaign of uncertainty.

He still had two years left on his contract and was trying to keep fit in the off-season, even though there were huge question marks over the Reds’ future

After a morning gym session with skipper Owen Heary, he emerged to a string of missed phone calls and took one from a journalist who congratulated him on a move to Dundee United.

It was news to Dillon, who soon figured out what had happened. Dundee United boss Craig Levein had been tracking him and placed an offer. With chaos the default setting, the Shels website got the wrong message and then jumped the gun by announcing a deal was done.

The following day, the 23-year-old flew over with his father to a city that he’d never laid eyes on before. He liked what he saw and heard and shook hands on the type of deal that gets rushed through in January.

But this was a shotgun union that would last. Dillon is telling the story in a cafe in Dundee over a decade later, a place that feels like home.

He moved over with his girlfriend Michelle and they are now married with two kids, living in a house in the village of Inchture on the outskirts of Dundee. Dillon is captain of a club that he has played for more than 300 times; winning a Scottish Cup final in front of 47,000 fans in 2010 stands out as the highlight for the defender.

A consortium of fans and businessmen have arranged a testimonial for later this month as a thank you for his service. Clearly, the hard-working teetotaller has made a mark.

He is a lesser heralded success story from the League of Ireland exodus that accelerated from 2007 onwards when overspending teams hit the rocks. The league’s stock was quite high after the instant success of Kevin Doyle and Shane Long.

The panel below details all the players since then in search of full-time security. Some,  like Seamus Coleman and James McClean, cracked the Premier League and now star for Ireland. Others lasted a short while and came home.

A respectable number managed to last the course by hopping from A to B. Dillon is a special case because he has stayed put in his first stop.

Oddly enough, the ex-Aston Villa trainee actually thought he had found his ideal world at Shels after moving there via a part-time stint at Longford, where he tried to mix work and football. He still describes 2006 as his most satisfying year in football.

"I was living at home with my parents and my sister and I was a full-time footballer," he explains. "I had all the comforts of home, and just had to worry about leaving for training on Monday. We won the league. It was a good time."

But the model was unsustainable, whereas Scotland was a safer bet. Within four weeks of relocating, another impulsive call resulted in a deposit being placed on a house. It was another Irishman, Jon Daly, who did it on his behalf.

The striker was being shown around a new build in Inchture and identified houses for himself, Dillon and Noel Hunt, writing a cheque of £1,500 to cover three deposits. Dillon paid him back when his wages came through and then sought mortgage approval. That July, he moved in and he hasn’t moved since.

Colleagues have come and gone and his sole Irish neighbour now is Willo Flood, who is in his third stint at Tannadice and now coaches the U-20 and U-17 teams with Dillon as a sideline with a view to the longer term. Their families are tight.

Despite the pain of relegation last season and a spell out of the side, Dillon is still happy with his lot. His future is unclear, with his contract up in the summer and there has been Shamrock Rovers speculation this week. In reality, he will have to keep all options open because pros in his pay-grade need to keep working.

Through a combination of pragmatism and modesty, he can see why he might end up staying put.

"I don’t have a profile in Dublin, it’s not there," he says, "Certain people would know of me but that’s it. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not like I walk around here (in Dundee) and everyone knows you. But you do get to know them. It doesn’t guarantee you a job either but we are happy and it’s a great place for our kids to grow up."

There is a sense of satisfaction that he has beaten the percentages, even if other exports are more likely to be held up as poster boys.

"People will always say ‘Do you ever look (with envy) at the lads you played with and see them playing for Ireland? And earning big money?'," he says.

"And of course, I would have loved to do that but I know so many guys who I played with that were far better than me but didn’t last in the game. I try and tell the young lads at our club how easy it is to fall out of the game.

"In football, it always seems like things could be better. But it’s not like someone came in and said 'Here’s £1m for Sean' and I said no. Maybe I’ve never been good enough to get a bigger move but I’ve always done enough to get a contract."

By getting out of Ireland before wages were slashed and the recession forced old colleagues to return to part-time football, he displayed an ability to find the right place at the right time.

"I do feel blessed to be still in the game at 33,” he asserts. “And looking back now, it’s odd it all worked out because we jumped in blind. I see others bouncing around football that haven’t been as lucky. I’m grateful for what I have."

Irish and Northern Irish players who made a permanent move from League of Ireland clubs to England or top two Scottish divisions since January 1, 2007 (not including players who only had loan spells in LOI):



Joined: Cardiff from Derry

Where is he now? The 37-year-old is Portsmouth's keeper after making a success of his second crack at the UK and achieving his dream of playing for Ireland during a long stay at Millwall.


Joined: Sunderland from Cork City

Where is he now? In the Australian 'A' League with Central Coast Mariners after doing the rounds in England and also spending time in Brunei and Indonesia. Played Premier League with Sunderland.

Roy O'Donovan1.jpg
Chelsea's Michael Ballack (right) and Sunderland's Roy O'Donovan battle for the ball in 2008


Joined: Reading from Cork City

Where is he now? Made over 250 appearances in England with a variety of clubs - Brentford, Cheltenham and AFC Wimbledon were his main homes - and is preparing for a third season back in Cork at the age of 35.


Joined: Stockport from UCD

Where is he now? The 30-year-old is with Kilmarnock in the SPL. Has moved around but made over 100 appearances for Brighton.


Joined: Cardiff City from Shelbourne

Where is he now? Scored on his Championship debut but that was high point and returned home to pursue Brendan Bradley's all-time League of Ireland record. At 39, he's still trying to get there with Cabinteely.


Joined: Dundee Utd from Shels

Where is he now? In his testimonial season at Dundee United after a decade of excellent service that included a Scottish Cup winners medal and captaincy. Also coaching youth side.


Joined: Motherwell from St Pat's

Where is he now? Scottish sojourn was short-lived as career wound down. Retired from senior game and was player-manager of Ardee Celtic in North East Football League last season.


Joined: Motherwell from St Pat's

Where is he now? Experienced striker went to Scotland for family reasons and finished his playing days further down the Scottish ladder.


Joined: Ipswich from Cork, Tranmere from Cork (2008), Yeovil from Dundalk (2009)

Where is he now? Mercurial figure moved across the water and back on a couple of occasions before a spell playing and managing in Asia. Now works as an agent.


Joined: Dunfermline from Shelbourne

Where is he now? Time in Scotland ran in tandem with Stephen Kenny's so wound up back in the League of Ireland for his final years as a player.


David Meyler

Joined: Sunderland from Cork City

Where is he now? A few injury setbacks along the way, yet has forged a decent career and is involved with Hull in Premier League.

Chelsea's N'Golo Kante (right) and Hull City's David Meyler battle for the ball. Photo credit: Nick Potts/PA Wire

Paddy McCourt

Joined: Celtic from Derry City

Where is he now? A cult hero in five years at Celtic where he was capped by Northern Ireland. Travelled around a couple of English clubs before personal reasons brought him home last year. Now at Finn Harps.

Conor Sammon

Joined: Kilmarnock from Derry City

Where is he now? Back on loan at Kilmarnock from Hearts with stays at Wigan, Derby, Rotherham, Ipswich and Sheffield United on his CV, plus Irish caps under Giovanni Trapattoni

Dave Mooney

Joined: Reading from Cork

Where is he now? Has done well for himself, scoring goals for Norwich, Charlton, Colchester, Leyton Orient and now Southend but has been linked with a move home at 32.

Chris Turner

Joined: Partick from Bohemians & Dumbarton from Shamrock Rovers (2012)

Where is he now? Moved around Scottish leagues and recently issued a come and get me plea to League of Ireland clubs but Glenavon signed him up.

Leon McSweeney

Joined: Stockport from Cork

Where is he now? He's now retired and working as a lecturer and coach after spells with five different Football League clubs in his second UK stint

Graham Gartland

Joined: St Johnstone from Drogheda

Where is he now? He endured an interrupted four years in Scotland with injuries impacting the latter half of his career and he's now working in the community for Shamrock Rovers

Shane McFaul

Joined: Brighton from UCD

Where is he now? Only played once for Brighton so came back to the League of Ireland. Now lining out for Indian side DSK Shivajians - managed by ex-Shels player Dave Rogers.

John O'Flynn

Joined: Barnet from Cork

Where is he now? Scored plenty of goals for Barnet and Exeter without ever looking like the force of pre-injury younger days. Now at Limerick after spell on fringes with Cork.


Seamus Coleman

Joined: Everton from Sligo Rovers

Where is he now? Captain of his country and one of the best right backs in Europe. A poster boy for late developers and untapped talent.

Seamus Coleman.jpg
Everton's Seamus Coleman

Keith Fahey

Joined: Birmingham from St Pat's

Where is he now? Made the most of his second try at England, graduating to play Premier League and line out for Ireland. Injury cut short his career.

Denis Behan

Joined: Hartlepool from Cork

Where is he now? Spent two years in England, now involved in Munster Senior League with Carrigaline

Jay O'Shea

Joined: Birmingham from Galway

Where is he now? Made English debut at Old Trafford but dropped down leagues and now stars in League One. Joined promotion chasers Sheffield United on loan from Chesterfield in January.

Eoin Doyle

Joined: Hibernian from Sligo Rovers

Where is he now? On-loan at Portsmouth from Preston looking to regain momentum in a career that took off when he moved south to England. Prolific spell with Chesterfield bumped his profile.

Colin Healy

Joined: Ipswich from Cork City

Where is he now? Left because of Cork's financial issues but soon came back to play out his career on Leeside.

Niall McGinn

Joined: Celtic from Derry City

Where is he now? A big player for Aberdeen after never quite becoming a regular for Celtic. Scored for Northern Ireland at Euros.

Niall McGinn is going from one European competition to another


Matt Doherty

Joined: Wolves from Bohemians

Where is he now? Part of the furniture at Molineux and scooped all their player of the season gongs last term after converting from right back to left back. Pushing for Ireland call.

Brian Murphy

Joined: Ipswich from Bohemians

Where is he now? Nearly accepted a move to Dundalk last year but decided to become a back-up keeper at Cardiff instead, a role he also filled at Ipswich and QPR. He did play a campaign for Portsmouth.

Aaron McCarey

Joined: Wolves from Monaghan

Where is he now? Keeper plies his trade with SPL side Ross County after a long spell in Wolves squad and a series of temporary assignments on various rungs of English ladder

Padraig Amond

Joined: Pacos de Ferreira from Sligo

Where is he now? Bending rules slightly to include Amond as he went from Portuguese top flight to England where he has scored consistently for variety of lower league clubs. Now with Hartlepool.

Joe Gamble

Joined: Hartlepool from Cork City

Where is he now? It didn't work out at Hartlepool but he went on to enjoy success in Brunei. Now retired and back at Limerick as S&C coach.

Gary Deegan

Joined: Coventry from Bohemians

Where is he now? Now at Shrewsbury in League One, the level where he has played most of his football. Also had spell at Hibs.

Jimmy Keohane

Joined: Bristol City from Wexford Y

Where is he now? Played a lot of football for Exeter but has just joined Cork City after year with Sligo Rovers.

Kevin Long

Joined: Burnley from Cork City

Where is he now? On fringes at Burnley. Suffered serious knee injury on Premier League bow in 2015. Has played on loan for five clubs.

JJ Melligan

Joined: Cheltenham from Dundalk

Where is he now? Came home to for a brief spell and returned to Football League before dropping down ladder.

Tadhg Purcell

Joined: Darlington from Shamrock Rovers

Where is he now? After moving to England for Steve Staunton's ill-fated Darlington stay, had a stint at Northampton and came back to Cork before relocating to play in Australian regional leagues.

Gary Dempsey

Joined: Darlington from St Pat's

Where is he now? Midfielder had a decent CV across the water before he joined Pat's but moved back again for a brief stay under Staunton before coming back home. Player-manager at Greystones.

Simon Madden

Joined: Darlington from Shamrock Rovers

Where is he now? After half a season with Staunton's doomed side, returned to Ireland and has made his way back to Rovers.

Dan Connor

Joined: Hereford from St Pat's Where is he now? Keeper's time at Hereford was marred by a hip injury that effectively ended his career. Now goalkeeping coach at Wigan.


James McClean

Joined: Sunderland from Derry City

Where is he now? After instant success, a rocky spell but now thriving with club and country and playing Premier League.

West Brom's James McClean joined the club from Wigan in 2015

Shaun Williams

Joined: MK Dons from S Fingal

Where is he now? Competing for League One promotion with Millwall who he joined in 2014 after three good years at MK Dons.

Paul Keegan

Joined: Doncaster from Bohemians

Where is he now? Still at Doncaster having played in every division below top flight. Peripheral this term.

Paddy Madden

Joined: Carlisle from Bohemians

Where is he now? Scoring regularly in League One for Scunthorpe. Previously starred for Yeovil in their charge to the Championship; capped by Giovanni Trapattoni.

Conor Powell

Joined: Colchester from Bohemians

Where is he now? Without a club at the moment. Had no joy in the UK, and then had spells at Sligo Rovers, Shamrock Rovers, a one-year Norwegian adventure and Longford.

Mark McChrystal

Joined: Tranmere from Derry City

Where is he now? Northern Irishman has carved out a respectable career in English lower leagues and is club captain at Bristol Rovers.

Daniel Kearns

Joined: Peterborough from Dundalk

Where is he now? Modest appearance record in English lower leagues, now at Sligo Rovers.

James Chambers

Joined: Hamilton from Shamrock Rovers

Where is he now? Didn't stay too long in Scotland and came home; now in America with Bethlehem Steel.

David McAllister

Joined: Sheffield Utd from St Pat's

Where is he now? Played for Blades, Shrewsbury and Stevenage until fitness problems took hold and has come home to Shamrock Rovers.

Seamus Conneely

Joined: Sheff Utd from Galway & Accrington from Sligo Rovers (2015)

Where is he now? First stint in England didn't work out but got another chance thanks to ex-Sligo boss John Coleman and is captain of League Two side Accrington Stanley

Don Cowan

Joined: Stevenage from Longford

Where is he now? Move to England was a surprise and after a smattering of appearances for a handful of clubs, came back to Longford in 2014 and is still there.

Alan Mannus

Joined: St Johnstone from Shamrock Rovers

Where is he now? Northern Ireland regular left Rovers midway through their European run and has made 161 league appearances for SPL team St Johnstone.

Thomas Stewart

Joined: Partick Thistle from Shamrock Rovers

Where is he now? Completed move to Dundalk last month after spending time in Scotland and North America


Karl Sheppard

Joined: Reading from Shamrock Rovers

Where is he now? Earned move after Europa League run with Rovers but playing-wise it amounted to a loan at Accrington before he gravitated back to the LOI. Now with Cork.

1146593 (2).png
Karl Sheppard celebrates after scoring his side's first goal (SPORTSFILE)

Enda Stevens

Joined: Aston Villa from Shamrock Rovers

Where is he now? Also impressed in Europe and did line out at Premier League level for Villa. Now part of Paul Cook's Irish legion at League Two promotion chasers Portsmouth.

Daniel Lafferty

Joined: Burnley from Derry City

Where is he now? Completed a move to Sheffield United last month after early promise at Burnley was followed by a series of loan spells. Full international with Northern Ireland.

Paul Corry

Joined: Sheffield Weds from UCD

Where is he now? Started very well until bad luck with managers and injuries took him back to Ireland via Northampton; now part of new era of Shamrock Rovers.

Kevin Feely

Joined: Charlton from Bohemians

Where is he now? Didn't work out at Charlton but was playing league football with Newport when he followed his heart to pursue GAA ambitions, and he will be midfield for Kildare against Fermanagh tomorrow.

Kevin Feely of Kildare gets past Cillian O'Sullivan, left, and Graham Reilly of Meath during the Allianz Football League Division 2 Round 1 match between Meath and Kildare at Páirc Táilteann in Navan, Co. Meath. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Jordan Keegan

Joined: Scunthorpe from Monaghan

Where is he now? Surprise move to UK didn't really lead to much and made little impact back in League of Ireland either. Now at Bluebell.

Conor Pepper

Joined: Inverness from St Pat's

Where is he now? Versatile 22-year-old was bit-part player at Inverness and now earns a crust with Greenock Morton in the Scottish Championship.

Ben McLaughlin

Joined: Everton from Dundalk

Where is he now? Playing GAA in his native Louth. Teenage outings with Dundalk were followed by Everton move but he fell short of the grade.

Graham Cummins

Joined: Preston from Cork City

Where is he now? First-choice with SPL outfit St Johnstone after spells with Preston, Rochdale and Exeter.

Pierce Sweeney

Joined: Reading from Bray Wdrs

Where is he now? 22-year-old was on periphery at Reading. A move to League Two Exeter last year has given him a passage to first-team football.

Richie Ryan

Joined: Dundee Utd from Sligo Rovers & Ottawa Fury from Shamrock Rovers (2014)

Where is he now? Real breakthrough came from move to America, where he is one of the highest paid players in the NASL with Miami FC.


Kevin Dawson

Joined: Yeovil from Shelbourne

Where is he now? Has bounced back from a long-term injury to be a Yeovil regular this season. Has played for them at Championship, League One and League Two level.

Stephen McLaughlin

Joined: Nottingham F from Derry

Where is he now? Winger didn't really get a look in with Forest but a switch to Southend worked out - now a regular at League One level.

Jake Carroll

Joined: Huddersfield from St Pat's

Where is he now? Joined League Two side Cambridge in January window following a couple of years with Hartlepool - his next permanent move after Huddersfield.

Sean Maguire

Joined: West Ham from Waterford

Where is he now? 22-year-old didn't crack the code at West Ham, did alright on loan at Accrington and was frustrated at Dundalk before a hugely successful switch to Cork. Committed to Leeside for 2017 but had Championship interest.

David McDaid

Joined: York City from Derry

Where is he now? Made a couple of appearance in England but came back to Derry and was at Cliftonville before signing for ambitious Waterford in February.


Alan Browne

Joined: Preston from Cork City

Where is he now? Midfielder didn't make a first team appearance for Cork but quickly made an impression at Preston and is a relatively established member of their squad.

Adam McDonnell

Joined: Ipswich from Shelbourne

Where is he now? 20-year-old has appeared in cup competitions for Ipswich; jury is still out on his prospects.

Brian Lenihan

Joined: Hull City from Cork City

Where is he now? Called into Ireland squad before kicking a ball for Hull on account of his reputation but fitness issues have stunted his progress.

Josh O'Hanlon

Joined: Bournemouth from Longford

Where is he now? Released by Newport County in January and is now rebuilding his career at St Patrick's Athletic

Rene Gilmartin

Joined: Watford from St Pat's

Where is he now? A curious case as Gilmartin came home to Ireland and couldn't get in the Pat's side but his old club Watford were happy to take him back as a third-choice keeper.


Chris Forrester

Joined: Peterborough from St Pat's

Where is he now? Club captain at Posh and strongly tipped for a big money-move to upper echelons. The best is certainly still to come.

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Chelsea's Ruben Loftus-Cheek is tackled by Peterborough's Chris Forrester during their FA Cup 3rd round match last weekend at Stamford Bridge

Ryan Manning

Joined: QPR from Galway

Where is he now? After a wait that raised questions over his future, Manning has broken through at QPR in 2017 and looks assured at Championship level. 20-year-old has a big future ahead of him.

Michael Duffy

Joined: Celtic from Derry City

Where is he now? Has just signed a two-year contract with Dundalk after his only first-team football in two seasons at Celtic came on loan with Alloa and Dundee.

Pat Hoban

Joined: Oxford from Dundalk

Where is he now? More was expected of Hoban and he's finally secured some regular football by moving to League Two side Mansfield last summer.

Gearoid Morrissey

Joined: Cambridge from Cork City

Where is he now? It didn't really click for Morrissey at Cambridge so he came back to Cork.

Rory Gaffney

Joined: Cambridge from Limerick

Where is he now? Had little joy at Cambridge but a loan to Bristol Rovers was a success and he then moved permanently to help them secure promotion to League One.

Dylan Connolly

Joined: Ipswich from Shelbourne

Where is he now? Didn't settle at Ipswich and is now attracting attention again at Bray. Speedy 21-year-old still has time on his side.


Richie Towell

Joined: Brighton from Dundalk

Where is he now? Knocking on the door at Brighton without getting much of an answer, with Chris Hughton only turning to him for cup matches.

Richie Towell: 'This is probably a bedding-in period for me.'

Ryan Delaney

Joined: Burton A from Wexford Yths

Where is he now? Still raw and Burton have sent him to Cork for six months.

Dylan Watts

Joined: Leicester City from UCD

Where is he now? Youngster has been involved with Leicester's U-23 side. Early days yet.


Daryl Horgan

Joined: Preston from Dundalk

Where is he now? Came straight into first-team contention after his Europa League heroics and has adapted well to the Championship challenge.

Fellow-Irishmen Daryl Horgan, Alan Browne and Greg Cunningham join in as Aiden McGeady celebrates after scoring for Preston.

Andy Boyle

Joined: Preston from Dundalk

Where is he now? Waiting to make his breakthrough under Simon Grayson but he is well regarded at his new abode.

Ryan Swan

Joined: Exeter City from UCD

Where is he now? The son of league legend Derek only completed his move to the League Two side last week

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