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Unspoken dangers await some young players who don't make the grade

With only a small minority of football players making it in the professional ranks, the consequen...



Unspoken dangers await some yo...
Soccer

Unspoken dangers await some young players who don't make the grade

With only a small minority of football players making it in the professional ranks, the consequences for those who do not can be devastating. Ciaran Brennan, Mark Brien and Conor McKenna spoke with two players who came within touching distance of their dreams. 

Over a year ago, Joe Dwyer, a 21-year-old capped five times as an underage Irish international, accepted he was not going to make it as a professional footballer. 

He was playing for Athlone Town in the Airtricity League First Division, but decided to leave the sport as he felt his love for the game had vanished.

It caused him to spiral into what he has called "utter depression."

"It drove me mad for a while that there needs to be a point that you need to realise, right this isn’t working," he explains, Dwyer working full-time now in Burger King. "And that was something that I couldn’t let go of for a while."

As for his career ambitions, he says he has “big plans down the road.”.  

"This is what you’re known for," the Tullamore native says. "It took me years to get over that.

"If you’re not a soccer player what are you? You’ve put your entire life into being a footballer. What are you even on this planet to do?"

Ireland

In an interview with OTB Sports, Dwyer said that as a youngster he was driven to succeed as a professional footballer by anxiety and mental health difficulties that were a result of difficult family circumstances.

"I had mad occurrences," said Dwyer, "that fueled me in a different way that I was able to get to that level."

The incident that impacted him occurred when as a young boy he witnessed his disabled mother being assaulted. 

"The whole reason I started to workout,” he explains, "to be able to feel like I could do something about it if it ever did happen again.”  

"It just so happened that all the work I was putting in helped with the football, then that just took a path of its own [I] couldn't stop, I was so into it.”  

“I just found after a while though, when you can’t keep that up and you’re not happy doing it you’re running yourself into the ground, you’re killing yourself mentally.”

He said these mental health struggles eventually caught up to him. Dwyer recalled how he was consumed by a drinking habit between the ages of 15 and 16

"No one forced me ‘cause I went mad on the session," he admits. "I did, I went mad into the party life."

Dwyer struggled with alcohol when he was playing for Athlone. “I was drinking Friday’s, Saturday’s and Sunday’s,” he recalls, the drinking something that is now behind him.

"That’s the whole reason I don’t drink, it just ate away at me."

Ireland

In the beginning, Joe Dwyer had had a promising career since he began playing for Tullamore at age 7. 

A central midfielder who captained both Tullamore and the Midlands regional team, his performances earned him a call up to the U15 and U17 Ireland squads. 

What set Dwyer apart was "not just his raw natural ability, but also his unnatural work ethic that turned him into not only a good player, but a great player," recalls Shane Martin, a 21 year old friend and former teammate of Dwyer’s at Tullamore and Athlone Town.  

“Joe’s a lovely person, he always looked out for his friends," insists Martin, "he’s just a good guy."

Yet, when he decided to leave competitive footballDwyer said he felt like he let down his family and friends.

"These people that have put in so much time and effort,” he says, adding that he couldn’t face his friends. “That was down to depression."

Needless to say, it took Dwyer some courage to open up about all this with OTB Sports. "Me coming to do this was a big step."

**********

In No Hunger in Paradise, a book about underage footballers seeking to become professionals in the U.K., Michael Calvin described how few promising players actually make careers in the game. He found that just 0.012% of all young footballers registered to play in England became Premier League pros.  

Calvin found almost 98% of boys given a scholarship at 16 are no longer in the top 5 tiers of the domestic game at 18. The book also highlighted how only 8 out of 400 players given a professional contract at 18 remained in the Premier League by the time of their 22nd birthday.  

A side of the game that is often ignored, Calvin wrote of how professional football "has seen grown men weep," but “rarely hears the primal screams of a boy told he is a failure.” 

Seanie Mahon, 19, who played for Ireland at U15, U16 and U17 levels, also spoke to OTB Sports about his failure to make it as a professional footballer. 

He played for St. Patrick’s Athletic in the underage League of Ireland, but ultimately lost his passion for the game and left the sport.  

A native of Mullingar, Mahon played Gaelic football for his school Colaiste Mhuire Mullingar and his club Mullingar Shamrocks, winning an u-14 Championship with the latter in 2014. 

He played football as a midfielder and represented Cherry Orchard before moving to St. Pat’s. 

"You always want to be a professional footballer," he admits, "you always do believe. If you love playing that sport, you just want to get somewhere."

But the realities of League of Ireland football led to Mahon’s time at St. Pat’s ending. "It cost too much money and all. I would have loved to have kept going,” he says, but “it didn’t work out.”  

Mahon said he stopped playing as he was coming to the end of school and was "falling out of love" with the sport. He decided he would have to get a job and couldn’t continue training with St. Pat’s.  

Seeing no difference in his ability and the ability of those who made it, Mahon insists that it was in his mindset to always try to be the best whoever I played for.

However, he believes it was a lack of motivation that ultimately led to his failure.  

"I obviously didn’t have the drive in me to go that one step further to get there," he reasons, Mahon believes this was the difference between him, and those who made it.  

He now works tarmacking the roads with MMB surfacing.

"I love my job to be honest with you," he says. "It keeps me sane. Keeps me going."

Despite how it all ended, Mahon relishes the memories of trips abroad to represent his country.

"You’ll never forget them," he insists. "They’re things that you cherish. We went to Turkey there a few years back, for two weeks with the International team. It was brilliant. Unreal."

**********

Remarkably few players capped at underage level for Ireland go on to make senior appearances.

Between 2009 and 2015, 302 players were named in Republic of Ireland U15 national team squads, according to an analysis of the FAI website.

Seven of these players, including Jack Grealish and Aaron Connolly, have been capped as senior internationals. The 302 players have 24 caps between them.  

Lee O’Connor, one of Dwyer’s teammates at underage level, is one of those players who went on to carve out a career in the game. In 2016, O'Connor was signed to Manchester United’s youth academy, and has since moved Celtic. He is currently on loan to EFL League Two club Tranmere Rovers and has earned one senior Irish cap. 

"I fucked it up, no one else fucked it up," admits Dwyer, careful not to pass the blame for his not being among the chosen few onto anyone else. "It’s the one game where I would say there are no excuses."

He spoke about his experiences because he is worried that there are other players who were in a similar position to him and who have experienced the devastating fall-out of not becoming professionals.

"I’ve gotten out of depression and that’s the reason I’m doing this [interview]," he explained, "because what about those other lads?"

The reality remains harsh for these players, who are reminded of their failure constantly long after they have considered their prospects as professionals finished.

"This is the brutality of the whole thing in the end,” he laments, "you’re expected to just deal with it." 

Written by Ciaran Brennan, Mark Brien, Conor McKenna.  

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Athlone Town Joe Dwyer League Of Ireland Republic Of Ireland Seanie Mahon