Scales has not taken the traditional route to the top level of football.
Liam Scales is not your typical Irish footballer. Hailing from Barndarrig, Co. Wicklow, 15km away from Arklow, the defender has had to go the long way round to get where he is today.
It has been a remarkable journey for Celtic’s newest recruit, and he is not content with leaving it there.
The 23-year-old’s story is unique but offers insight and a potential pathway for the next generation of Irish footballers as the Premier League dream starts to fade away.
Scales’ journey from GAA fields in Wicklow to university halls in UCD, all the way to Celtic Park and an Ireland squad, is one of will and triumph, even if it was a long time coming.
Liam Scales: The Journey.
The defender will be hoping his dream debut is coming closer to reality after he was named in Stephen Kenny’s Ireland squad for games against Azerbaijan and Qatar as a late call-up.
To outsiders, it may look like Scales has been an overnight success – just two years ago he was a student in UCD – but the Wicklow-native has had to wait for his chance.
And for a child who could only dream of that while growing up in Barndarrig, it has been quite the journey.
“I played for Arklow Town from about the age of five or six,” he reflects. “As a young kid, I was always kicking a ball around.
“My dad is in football and I have an uncle who was a coach at Arklow Town. It was him who got me involved there when I was probably younger than everyone else on the team.
“They just saw how much I loved it. I was at Arklow from six to 16. I played in their Leinster Senior League first-team before the move to UCD’s Under-19s came about.”
Liam Scales’ time with Wicklow GAA.
Scales was adept at playing Gaelic football during his youth and represented his local side, Barndarrig GAA. After impressing for his local club, the now-Celtic defender played inter-county Gaelic football for Wicklow at Under-16 level. At that age, he was forced into a decision that has ultimately led him to Celtic Park.
“I was quite handy at GAA,” he explained. “I played with the Wicklow Under-16 team in Gaelic football and for Barndarrig, my local team. My Mum’s side of the family all play. My Mum played up until last year for the Ladies team.
“My brothers and my cousins all went through Barndarrig playing Gaelic football. I really enjoyed playing football, [but] it came to the point where I was 16 and I was playing for the county team in GAA. The county team were kind of telling me to choose one or the other.
“At the time it was a tough decision because I really enjoyed playing Gaelic, and I wasn’t bad. It wasn’t an easy decision, but luckily enough I made the right one.”
Scales attended school at Gaelcholáiste na Mara in Arklow and excelled. A schoolmate of Daire O’Connor, now in Scotland with Ayr United, he impressed with his school’s team suitably to play for the Leinster School’s side.
That was, however, without garnering any sort of interest from clubs in the UK, like many often would have at his age with his talent.
“When I was 15 or 16 there was no interest [from the UK],” he reveals. “I was a bit of a late developer, but I wasn’t worried. As a young lad at 12,13 or 14, you see older lads going over and you want that to be me, but at that age I wasn’t that pushed.
“I was just playing to enjoy myself. I always put in a lot of effort, and football was really important to me then, as it still is now. That’s probably the main reason why I kept improving when other people my age got distracted.”
Scales earned himself a move to UCD on a Sports Scholarship, where he studied Geography and Irish, after impressing for the Leinster School’s, and then with Arklow Town. He took a similar route to O’Connor, his former teammate and schoolmate.
“[Going to UCD] was on my mind because of my relationship with Daire,” he said. “He was a year ahead of me in school I had seen him go down that exact same path, from school into a scholarship system with UCD.
“He joined their Under-19s and then he made a move to the UCD first team when he was young as well. I saw that pathway and I thought I might give that a go because when I was 16 or 17, there were a couple of clubs interested in me. But none of the other clubs could offer that third level route that UCD offer.
“I saw Daire do that and be successful. It made sense for me because I was always academic as a kid. My parents would have pushed me to go to college.
“If I didn’t want to go to college they wouldn’t have had a problem with that but I think we all knew it was my best option. It was a no-brainer.”
At UCD, Scales earned a degree, won the First Division title and reached an FAI Cup semi-final – all in the one season during 2018.
UCD had a number of future Ireland Under-21 internationals in their team – including Neil Farrugia and Conor Kearns. It was a golden period for the club and Scales was an intrinsic part of the team.
“It was probably my most enjoyable time [in football] because I went there at 18, and I was living on campus with footballers. We all lived in the same sort of block of apartments and we were all really close friends.
“Collie O’Neill was our manager and he gave us the freedom to express ourselves, and there wasn’t any real pressure on us. It was a young team where mistakes were always going to happen.
“I was in university studying for three years and then I had an extra six months at the end of that last year where I wasn’t in college but I was still playing for the first team.”
And it was there when Scales believed he could make the professional dream happen – especially during his league-winning 2018 campaign at the UCD Bowl.
“I think it was probably that season when we were in First Division, when I thought I could make it. We played a couple of Premier Division clubs in the FAI Cup and did well.
“We played Waterford and we beat them comfortably. Then, there was the Dundalk game in the cup semi-final where I played really well in Oriel Park.
“At the time, they were winning leagues and cups. That was the point where I was like, if that’s the kind of next level, I felt I was ready for it.”
2019: A tale of two halves.
Despite showing plenty of promise in the early months of the 2019 season, UCD, and Scales endured a torrid season. By September, relegation was all but confirmed as they conceded 73 league goals. Despite that, Scales’ reputation would continue to grow.
He started the year with an Ireland Under-21 call-up, before going on trial with Premier League giants Manchester City. That trial preceded a botched move to Bristol Rovers, however.
“The Under-21 call up was great,” he said. “I know I wasn’t a regular with them but I played a few games here and there, but I loved being involved in around the players with Stephen Kenny. He was a breath of fresh air.
Absolutely love this from Liam Scales 👏
Huge tackle 💥
Watch full highlights from the #IRLU21🇮🇪 draw 👇
— FAIreland ⚽️🇮🇪 (@FAIreland) October 11, 2019
“When things weren’t going so well at UCD I always had that every month or so. I had a little break of being able to go away and sort of just put myself up against the best players at my own age and it was a great experience.
“The Man City trial was an unbelievable experience to go to a club like that and see the facilities and standard of training and coaching and just the professionalism. It was a different level to what I had experienced.
Liam Scales to Bristol Rovers: The move that never was.
“The Bristol move… I’m glad it didn’t happen now. I probably wasn’t ready, and I think I needed that 18 months spell at Rovers to develop properly and experience full-time football before making the move.
“At the time, but if I went, I might have been swallowed up. The management who wanted me left shortly after it, so it was probably better that it didn’t happen.
“The worst thing about that whole thing was that I stopped playing for UCD and expected to move… When it fell through I had to almost get fit again. Mentally, I probably was a little bit upset. I wasn’t right and it was a tough moment after that.
“[But] I learned a lot from that Bristol experience. I let it affect me way more than than I should have. With the Celtic move this time, I put it in the background and got on with my football. That helped me a lot because I played really well during my last couple of games at Rovers, whereas at UCD I was all over the place.”
At the end of the 2019 season, Scales made the move to Dublin 24 to join Shamrock Rovers from UCD. While at Tallaght Stadium, he continued to excel, but this time, in full-time football with the best team in Ireland.
After a slow start, Scales won the Premier Division and played in the Europa and Champions League at Tallaght Stadium. He also earned a raft of further Ireland Under-21 call-ups under Jim Crawford.
That was after he learned valuable aspects of his game in Dublin 24 under his manager Stephen Bradley and teammate Joey O’Brien.
“When I came in, I just thought ‘wow this is way tougher than I expected’. I back myself for 90 minutes on a football pitch to play and not look out of place.
“But with the intensity of training and demands of gym, I was going home after straight to bed. Once I got up to speed with things, and after a few injuries, I got into the team.
✍️ | We are delighted to announce the signing of Ireland U21 International Liam Scales ☘️
— Shamrock Rovers FC ☘️ (@ShamrockRovers) November 27, 2019
“Joey is an unbelievable pro,” he adds. “It would be easier for him to come back after the career he’s had in the Premier League and Championship and settle for training and kind of going through the motions. But, he’s probably the hungriest out of the whole squad. They were all hungry players to win and be successful, but Joey was on a different level.
“He wouldn’t wouldn’t even have to pull me aside and tell me things, it was more just kind of watching how he did things. I learned from his actions. Then obviously, there was Lee [Grace] and Pico [Lopes] who are top centre halves in the league. They have been for the last few years so it was just like it was a great environment to go into.”
Working under Stephen Bradley, Scales was adept at playing left wing-back, with his eye for goal coming to the fore on several occasions.
Despite asserting himself as a cult hero in Tallaght, games in front of fans were few and far between given the COVID-19 situation at the time. He did, at least, get a send off in front of supporters at Tallaght Stadium before he left the club.
“Stephen [Bradley] is a really good people’s person,” he said.
“He knows when to put an arm around your shoulder, and he knows when to give you a kick up the arse, and with me it was it was the same. He would always pull me aside and tell me what I needed to work on.
“There were little things in my game that I needed to work on and he’d help me with that. I honestly couldn’t say a bad word about him. He was great to me.
“I have a lot of time for Rovers and their fan base. If I was to go back to Ireland, I’d love to go back to Rovers down the line. I’m not saying anytime soon, but I feel like I’d be welcome there again.”
Just a day after Shamrock Rovers were knocked out of the Europa Conference League by Flora Tallinn, Scales would make his move to Celtic Park official.
Since making his move across the Irish Sea, Scales has played once, and that was in a League Cup game against Raith Rovers, but he is not losing patience as he looks to impress Celtic manager Ange Postecoglou at his new club.
“I knew it was going to be a step up, and I’m still getting to grips with the system and the way [Ange] wants to play,” he adds. “It’s another step up in intensity with the kind of levels of fitness levels required.
“I just have to be patient. Once I get my opportunity, it’s important that I take it. That’s all I can really go off. I’m not really used to not playing games so it’s unusual, but I’m enjoying it. I just have to be patient and keep working hard.”
Scales for Ireland?
While his talents may not be entirely known of in Scotland, they will be known by Ireland boss Kenny who worked with Scales at Under-21 level.
In addition, former Shamrock Rovers hero Graham Gartland said he could see the Co. Wicklow man has the potential to make over 50 appearances for the Boys in Green.
Scales, however, is not one for reading much into what people say about him, good or bad.
“It’s flatttering to hear things like that being said. But at the same time, I don’t read too much into negative comments so it would be silly to read in the comments like that [from Graham], but it is a confidence boost and it’s flattering.
“I hope he’s right, that would be a dream for me. I’m way off that yet, and there are things that I need to do before that can be coming into the picture.”
The road less travelled.
Under current Brexit-related transfer regulations, Irish players under the age of 18 are no longer allowed join UK academies unless they hold a UK passport.
That means the reality is that Irish teenagers will end up abroad, or stay at home until they are at least 18. It seems the latter is the most likely scenario for now.
For Scales, he follows Jamie McGrath who went down the third-level route to the senior Irish set-up. And with more in the pipeline already, he feels more should look at the path he took.
“I think it’s really important to play senior games when you’re young rather than going to a Premier League or Championship academy and being in the 23s, kind of going through the motions,” he adds.
— Pundit Arena (@PunditArena) October 5, 2021
“College might not suit everyone and some will be suited to going away at a young age. That works for people. But I just think having that security behind you and having senior games is so important.
“I don’t think I could have got that experience anywhere else, and it’s another pathway. I’m sure there are younger kids looking at Jamie and looking at myself. Hopefully, it influences them to go and do it as well.”