Growing up in Ireland, soccer was a part of my life from a very early age. I vividly remember being a mascot for my local club at the age of 6. My Dad was on the team, Castle Villa, and they were playing in one of Ireland’s most famous soccer stadiums - Dalymount Park, home of Bohemians FC. It was a reward for being a constant attendee at every game. From being in the locker room listening to the chatter before kick-off, to taking to the pitch for warm-ups in my boots and an oversized jersey, I wanted to be a part of the team.
The natural progression from there was to develop as a player – thus my story and where my journey was really nurtured. It wasn’t with any top coaches or big national teams. Instead, it was in my back garden through many summers, hours upon hours spent playing on a bumpy and narrow soccer pitch. My mentor was my older cousin, Anthony, and I owe a lot of my success to how he beat down on me daily. He was 3 years older than me and he was a lot stronger physically. Every morning, we would roll up the names of 124 professional team in English soccer and hold an “FA Cup draw”. From there, we would play a match to decide which team went through to the next round. Each game consisted of a 30 yard shot, a 20 yard shot, a PK and 2 one-vs-ones. Your team’s score (out of 5 total) depended on your performance. Needless to say, Anthony’s teams were the ones that usually succeeded in going through and I was always glad to see his name beside Man Utd. We did this for endless hours each day, with several rain delays in between.
In order to compete, I had to work hard and adjust to gain any success I could against my older cousin. There were no shortcuts and everything I developed was from repetition and a personal desire to be better. There were many other games he also created, like for example setting up a barrel on bricks in the middle of the goal, using accuracy to score. Wall ball, soccer tennis, crossbar. Days like these were the ones that defined my desire and commitment to the game, and for that I appreciate him. There was no structure, no coaching. It was a case of enjoying the game, playing hours each day, using repetition to improve. Honestly, it is the one aspect that I believe is currently missing in US youth soccer.
One of the more poignant quotes that defined my youth came from my Dad, it was simple yet it has always stuck with me. When he’d catch me inside watching TV he’d simply say: “As a kid, do you think George Best sat inside watching TV? There are no excuses; all you need is a ball and a wall!”