Belgium born with hurling roots and an ex-career in professional football, you won’t meet many Gaelic footballers like Kevin Feely.
The Kildare vice captain’s sporting career has been far from straight forward.
Born in Brussels to Irish parents, Feely spent the first seven years of his life in the Belgian capital before returning home and settling in Waterford.
It was in the Deise that Feely’s love affair with hurling began. He tried his hand at all sports but given the county’s own love affair with hurling, slinging ash took over the early part of his life.
He even represented Waterford at underage level alongside current county stars like Pauric Mahony.
“I tried my hand at all the sports really but it was mostly soccer or hurling, basketball, a bit of Gaelic here and there, but given the nature of Waterford and it’s lack of interest in Gaelic football, it was never a huge priority. They did have a football team there but it was nowhere near as big a deal as the hurling or the soccer,” Feely said at the Launch of the 4th annual ‘Get Breathless for COPD Cycle’.
“Pauric Mahony, we’d be the same age and a few of the younger lads like Jake Dillion and Gavin O’Brien and those. There have been loads over the last 8-10 years, loads of lads from my age developments squads would have been playing for Waterford. Pauric’s probably been the most consistent starter from that.”
Eventually, the Feely family would move on from Waterford, taking up residency in Athy, Co. Kildare. For Feely, it was tough leaving the hurling behind, but by this stage, soccer had taken a front seat in his sporting career.
“I loved it, that was probably what I missed most about moving to Athy. Hurling in south Kildare, there’s none of it really, they’d have to amalgamate a load of parishes to make one team in south Kildare. There wasn’t any of that going on and I was also taking the soccer a bit more seriously.
“When I moved to Kildare, I went straight to Belvedere.”
A young Feely would then sign with Bohemians and it didn’t take long for him to starting making waves in the League of Ireland under the tutelage of legendary Irish football figure, Pat Fenlon.
“I loved it, it was brilliant. I was really lucky, the senior first manager I had in soccer was Pat Fenlon, he was unreal. I think Bohs had just lost all their money so it was a much-reduced budget so a lot of us younger guys went straight up to the senior team from the U20’s.
“He was brilliant. It was himself and they had Liam O’Brien who is a brilliant coach as well so we were lucky at such a young age we were exposed to such great coaches. When he left the following year and Aaron O’Callaghan came in, we were all ready to step up into the first team and we did quite well that year.”
“Quite well” is underselling the impact made at the club by Feely. After two seasons a move to England presented itself in the form of Charlton Athletic.
It was a dream come true for Feely who had all but given up hope of a move across the water having not represented Ireland at underage level.
“All throughout growing up playing soccer, that was the aim, to be a professional soccer player and England was the main place you wanted to go. So that all came about from playing regularly with Bohs. I played the full season with Bohs in 2012 and there were loads of scouts at all the matches so I had trials with a few different clubs and Charlton ended up being the one to offer a contract so I went there.”
“It was unreal yeah, It was a dream come true kind of thing. I was never on Ireland teams underage teams or anything like that so you would have lost a bit of belief that it was ever going to happen.”
Life as a professional got off to a great start for Feely but such is the nature of professional soccer, a change in management before the end of his first season meant he was fighting an uphill battle to stay at the club. Following one or two loan moves he eventually found a home for himself at Newport County.
Feely enjoyed life at Newport but increasingly found himself drawn to home. He missed out on a Leinster U21 medal with Kildare and even though he was getting regular game time, the once hurler-turned-soccer player now found the allure of Gaelic football too much to resist.
“That summer it was trying to decide whether or not I wanted to go back because, I suppose in that year of bouncing around on loan at clubs and Kildare U21s winning the Leinster Championship, you start thinking about home more so I just had to decide that summer whether I should stay back in Kildare or give soccer another year and see how it goes for me.
“So I give it another year or two and the following year down in Newport was great, really really enjoyable. I was playing regular football and it was a great bunch of lads, I really enjoyed it but I just wanted to play Gaelic more at that stage than soccer.”
Fast forward four years and Kevin Feely is now one of the most influential midfielders in Gaelic football. Athletic, quick, strong in the air and accurate of both feet. As the 26-year-old enters into his prime years he will be a pivotal cog for the Lilywhites as they look to end Dublin’s dominance in Leinster.