Alan Kirby’s clarity of vision, innovation and endeavour in his playing days is reflected in his erudite vision on what’s required when footballers end their careers and dip their spent toes back into reality.
Here, the former Aston Villa, Longford Town and St. Patrick’s Athletic player talks to Brian Strahan about education in football, self realisation and the game in the context of life’s needs.
Brian Strahan: You went to Aston Villa at a young age. What was the path that led to this?
Alan Kirby: After I played for Waterford in the Under-14 Kennedy Cup, I got trials for the Ireland Under-15 team. I didn’t get on it but scraped onto the Under-16’s the following year as first player on standby when someone had to pull out. We played in the European Championships that year and got a fabulous trip to Dublin out of it and a short stay in the Skylon Hotel near Tolka Park where we would play.
I came on as sub for Graham O’Hanlon in the first game and did well enough to keep my place for the remaining group games (Ireland didn’t get out of group). From there I was asked by Aston Villa scout Eddie Corcoran to go for trial and after a week’s training and some negotiations, I signed a three-year deal with them. They had to wait until I turned 17 before I could go so I completed my leaving cert and enjoyed the summer before heading over in September 1994. If I hadn’t been given the opportunity to do so I was all set to begin a degree in Waterford in recreational management.
BS: On the education point, was this something that you saw as important? You’re a senior tax consultant now; were you always conscious of your need to maintain an education and attain qualifications?
AK: I was always conscious of the need to have a plan B, but like most footballers I put it to the back of my mind constantly. Now that I have been through the transformation it is something that I feel quite strongly about.
BS: How so?
AK: Looking back I focused on being the best footballer I could be for too long, sacrificing too much along the way, telling myself I would be playing back in the UK at some stage. At this point I had finished at Aston Villa after four very happy years and after getting a taste of the good life, but at the same time being a million miles from it as I never got near the first team.
I knew it was all I wanted to do. I was back playing in League of Ireland where I would eventually stay and play for the next 15 seasons.
BS: Was there a turning point?
AK: I remember, after a number of seasons in, when I was sitting in the Longford Town changing room at training in Lucan. It was another crisis meeting with Alan Matthews at the helm, results were poor and we were trying to clear the air and turn a corner.
I had been giving everything to the game between moving from my home city in Waterford to live in Longford and travelling from there to Dublin for training two to three nights a week and again for matches at weekends. I was doing gym sessions on nights off and was in my mid-twenties, no girlfriend, wife or children and at that stage I was working on a development site in a portacabin for almost five years. FAI Cups aside, the rewards were few and far between.
I just remember looking around the room at that meeting at guys who were educated with degrees. One such guy, Daragh Sheridan, got let go from Aston Villa the same time as me and would eventually help open doors for me into DCU. Others with good careers, like bank managers Alan Murphy and Danny O’Connor – Mick Dempsey was also in investment banking and Stephen O’Brien had his own company, and I remember thinking how clever they were being.
They too were giving a hell of a lot to the game but they could walk away in the morning and unfortunately that’s the only sustainable approach in this country because if you are relying on making a living from League of Ireland wages and aren’t smart enough to have a plan B then you are most likely in for a rude awakening. While I wouldn’t knock anybody for being full-time in this country, I did it myself and loved it, I nearly would for not having something else in store for themselves.
BS: So what approach should players take?
AK: I’ve often said to young lads since that if they haven’t made it by their mid-twenties and aren’t at least setting the league alight, like Keith Fahey or Richie Towell would have been at that age, then they should begin a plan to ‘piss on the game before it pisses on them’.
What I mean by that is not from a bitter angle but that you will get out of the game what you put into it, but at the end of your career when the phone stops ringing, you need to be in the position to say “thanks very much I’m done” and be able to get up the following morning go to work and get paid at the end of the week. Don’t find yourself angry at how it all ended or thinking football or anyone in the game owes you anything, because they don’t.
I consider myself very lucky that I won things and was rewarded for my effort and have something to show for it. But mostly that I was able to turn it around just in time before walking away from football. But it’s been a long hard road for me, my wife and two kids as well. Although I managed to ‘piss on the game’, I didn’t begin my degree in DCU until I was 30 and only qualified as a chartered tax consultant last year at 38, so while not every player needs to go a bit mad at it like I did, I would say to find something that interests them, start early and if possible open your mind to careers outside of football.
BS: When you sat there in the changing room in Lucan, you had that moment of clarity. Why did it take you that long to realise this? Why was there no guidance in place – whether in the club, the league or the PFAI?
AK: I wouldn’t be one for saying this or that should have been done for me. The club had gotten me a job and treated me very well during my time as a player, the PFAI were making an effort, however big or small, and thanks to them I had met a career guidance person who had some helpful things to say.
The league could arguably help out some more, as I’m not sure they play a big enough part in helping players explore alternative ways to make a living but is that in their best interests?
BS: So what’s the bottom line?
AK: Well, for players it’s that nobody will do it for them, no more than a supporter can play a match for them. Players have to be proactive and organise their own lives, anyone expecting anything much less would be a good example of someone who has had things handed to them throughout their playing career.
It’s worth saying too, though, that courses aren’t for everyone, some people just aren’t academic or get a job that they stay in for life. Some may have real issues with dyslexia or even reading and writing issues, who knows?
These are the people that should be getting all the support they need but the average player who thinks they would like to gain a little more education and are serious about it should do it for themselves, even if that means moving from a full to part-time team. It is time well invested and you will reap the rewards after football.
Brian Strahan, Pundit Arena
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