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'I think I'd be working in some factory or on a building site if I was still back home'

Dubliner Niall McCabe always wanted to be a professional footballer. It took him a while but he got there in the end, just in a different way.

GROWING UP IN Dublin, Niall McCabe had a similar dream to most: become a professional footballer.

He’d fantasise about the usual things. Playing in front of big crowds. Wearing a shirt with his name on the back.

But the midfielder slipped through the cracks. Maybe he wasn’t good enough. Maybe he was a late developer. Maybe, after his family moved to Ratoath in Meath in his mid-teens, he was forgotten about. Whatever the reason, there were no phone calls. No scouts turning up at his games. No trials in the UK. No promises of big things on the horizon.

Still, football remained McCabe’s obsession. He wanted to keep playing. So, after finishing secondary school, he enrolled in the football course at Colaiste Íde in Finglas run by Jim Conroy and Danny Crowley. One of his friends had done likewise and ended up with a scholarship to a US university. McCabe was intrigued. There was the possibility of football giving him a livelihood and, much to the relief of his family, the possibility of getting a college degree under his belt too.

In 2010, after his 12-month stint on Dublin’s northside, he found himself as a freshman in Young Harris College, an institution renowned for arts and science and nestled deep in the Georgian mountains, close to the border with North Carolina. Embarking on a four-year course in Media Communications, McCabe was back in a classroom. But it felt different this time. Exciting.

“I don’t want to say I never got the chance but I guess I was overlooked, or something like that,” McCabe says.

“Whatever way you want to look at it, things didn’t pan out back home. At that age, I had a choice to make. I felt a degree was important. You have to remember that I came over here in 2010, when the economy back home wasn’t great. In Ireland, I had no interest in school – it was just all about football. But my parents were big into the school side of it and made sure I got a degree. I was in school three hours a day and getting my studies done. And it was just brilliant. It was such a great environment and I can’t speak highly enough about it. It was the perfect place for me to grow as a player.

We’re not talking about Atlanta, Georgia here. This was proper, rural Georgia. The north Georgia mountains. Middle of nowhere. Just a college in the mountains. Two towns either side of it that are about 10 minutes away – but they were really small towns. There wasn’t too much to do. Coming from Dublin and having everything around me, it was a bit of a shock being dropped in there. But the lads on the team were from similar backgrounds – Germany, England, Scotland – so you find ways of keeping busy.”

McCabe was exposed to superb facilities and resources and excelled on the pitch. Competing in Division II of the NCAA, there wasn’t much in the way of team success over his four years in Georgia but, individually, McCabe was a consistently impressive performer. He really found his stride in 2012 and 2013, making the Conference team of the season both times. He picked up Player of the Week accolades and scored and created countless times. To put his contribution to Young Harris into some context, he is joint-top of the college’s all-time charts when it comes to assists and second in terms of goals and overall points (the collegiate system that tallies goals and assists).

When US colleges take their summer break, it’s customary for the best footballers to temporarily join up with local, lower-league club sides. For players plying their trade for smaller, less well-known schools, it’s another way of getting spotted by professional teams.

In McCabe’s case, he went to Tennessee for a couple of years and turned out for Knoxville Force and Chattanooga FC. The latter is known for its hardcore fan-base and regularly pull in attendances of over 5,000. McCabe really enjoyed it there. Regarded as a crucial part of the side, he even played in the championship final in 2014 and got a taste for it. For both college and club, he was impressing. But after graduating from Young Harris later that year, things went quiet.

“Nothing was really coming about,” he says.

“The USL (United Soccer League, considered the joint-second tier of North American professional football) season was coming to a close. Rosters were already being set up for the following campaign. Richmond Kickers (a USL side) asked me to come for a trial. I thought I did well but for such-and-such a reason the coach didn’t fancy me. So I was stuck. I went back to Young Harris and did some coaching. Louisville had only just formed. But I have no idea how it all came about.”

The football landscape in the US and Canada is pretty unique. Major League Soccer is well-known but because there’s no promotion and relegation, clubs don’t get the chance to move up the ladder from the leagues below. The only way is to buy into the well-protected MLS and become one of the league’s franchises, a process that is incredibly expensive, time-consuming and which completely goes against the well-worn tales of small teams defying the odds and pushing their way to the big leagues. In MLS, you get to the big league if you have enough money, partner with some billionaires and your sales pitch stands up to scrutiny.

But, that doesn’t make the lower tiers any less interesting. In 2014, Orlando City were  preparing to become an MLS side. Formerly part of the USL, it meant their licence was vacant. So, a Kentucky club, Louisville FC – a team based in Muhammad Ali’s hometown – aligned themselves with Orlando, partnered with them, swooped in and quickly picked up USL status. James O’Connor, a former Orlando player, coach and an ex-Republic of Ireland under-21 international, was installed as Louisville’s new manager and quickly set about piecing together his first ever squad.

An attacking midfielder was a priority.

“James does his homework,” McCabe says.

“He watches tons and tons of players. He must have seen me and asked me to come down before the inaugural season so he could get a better look. So I came down in the November for a trial. He liked what he saw and offered me a contract and that was me on my way into professional football. I kind-of did it the hard way but I did it.”

During our conversation, it’s clear that McCabe is revelling in his current situation. He talks a lot about gratitude and being thankful for his lot.

“Honestly, I think I’d be working in some factory or on a building site if I was still back home,” he says.

“Something like that. Obviously, with no degree behind you, you’re limited in your work these days. I’d probably still be playing AUL or Leinster Senior League but stuck in a job I didn’t like, not having seen what I’ve seen. Just the experiences I’ve had over here alone have been worth it.

You’re traveling to these cities to play – Miami, New Orleans. You’re seeing parts of the world I only saw in a geography book in school. I remember Memphis being one them. I remember learning as a kid that Martin Luther King was assassinated there and I thought back to being in school and learning about it and here I was. All these places…Niagara Falls…I’ve just seen these places in books or on telly. And now I’m there. It’s just amazing. It’s really difficult to put into words. Just fortunate and glad that I’m able to do it and healthy enough to be able to do it.

As I got older I still wanted to play professionally. I always thought about it. When it happened, it felt great – I’m not going to lie. It felt great. It doesn’t happen very often but when I do get recognised or whatever, I still can’t believe it.”

He gets pangs, certainly. He thinks about Ireland a lot. He’s counting down the days until he heads back there in December.

I have a big family,” McCabe says.

Being away from them and missing births and stuff like that, my nieces and nephews growing up – that’s tough. But, thank God, we have FaceTime. And my family wanted me to come over here and keep playing. They get a buzz from wherever I go. Whether it was at Young Harris and me posting pictures…They came over when I graduated and they loved it. The most supportive people in my life. They always wanted me to play and keep following something I was passionate about. At the age of 18 or whatever, when you’re not getting looks, a lot of lads might knock it on the head. But I just love playing. Even now, I still get a buzz going into training every day. I’m just very fortunate.

I miss a lot of things about back home, if I’m honest. The simple things. Sitting in and watching the Cheltenham races, me Mam’s cooking, the family. People ask me a lot, ‘What do you miss most?’ Food is always the answer.”

McCabe has thought about going back, eventually. But he struggles to figure out just Ireland can offer him. In Louisville, he has exactly what he’s always dreamed of. And, five months ago, his first child – a son called Luca – arrived.

Momentarily, McCabe surrenders himself to proud-parent mode.

“That was incredible,” he says.

“I’ve been with my missus, Ashley, for five years now and we had the baby and it’s been great just watching him grow and develop. Every day he’s learning something new. I can’t wait to bring him home now. I’ll make sure he gets his Irish passport. If he’s any use at football, I know where I’ll be sending him.

My missus is from Italian descent so we decided to keep a little Italian in there, hence the name.”

Louisville is where McCabe has made a family and a home. But it still hasn’t quite stopped him from daydreaming.

“I’d like to return someday,” he admits.

“The missus really likes Ireland when she’s been there but that’s been on holiday and I keep telling her that living there is a bit different. Like, the standard of living over here… the weather is fantastic, the facilities are fantastic, brilliant training. We have the new-born here as well.

The little things you miss, really. I use those dodgy streams to keep up with the Dubs and the rugby – Lions or Six Nations. It’s not very big over here so you rely on getting them up on the laptop and keeping tabs that way. Even if there’s a UFC event somewhere in Europe, I’ll find a link for it somewhere.”

There’s another sizeable reason to stick around too. McCabe’s football is flourishing, as are his team and the league.

The USL now boasts 30 teams, split into two conferences. Like MLS, it has its own star power. Didier Drogba co-owns and plays for the Phoenix Rising. At Tampa Bay, there’s Joe Cole and ex-Wolfsburg player and Germany international Marcel Schafer. There’s other Irish interest too, with James Chambers captaining Bethlehem Steel and Shane McEleney at Ottawa Fury.

In Cincinnati, the local side – remarkably – plays in front of average home crowds of 21,000. In Sacramento, they get about 11,500. Louisville are the third-best supported side but, most importantly, are consistent on the field too.

Under O’Connor’s guidance, they’ve been excellent. In their 2015 debut campaign, they reached the Eastern Conference final but suffered defeat to eventual champions Rochester.

In 2016, it was a similar story, losing the Conference decider in a shootout with New York Red Bulls II.

Later today, they face the same opposition at the same juncture of the season and revenge is firmly on their minds.

McCabe has netted three times and added four assists this term.

“The technical side of things surprised me when I first came over,” he says.

“I had heard a lot of shite talk, basically. ‘It’s only America’ or whatever. When I came over I was like, ‘These lads can play.’ The standard has been great and helped me develop massively. It’s very physical. Athleticism is a good word to use. Lads who can really run and cover the ground. Proper athletes. They’ve been doing it their entire lives.

But having James as a gaffer…I can’t say enough about him. Meticulous. He has all his bases covered. He works so hard and allows us to really express ourselves. And that’s a big part of how we play.

We average just over 8000. But the likes of Cincinnatti, they average 22,000. You wouldn’t even get that in the Championship, probably. It’s definitely growing. We don’t have any marquee signings and we probably go under the radar a bit because of it. But three Conference finals in a row, we must be doing something right.”

McCabe’s time in Louisville hasn’t been without its issues. During his first season, he started to experience searing pain in his hip and groin. The scans didn’t reveal much so he’d get through training and games by taking painkilling injections. His movement was massively restricted and it was only midway through his second season that a labral tear was diagnosed. It meant six months out and a decision was made for him to have the surgery, miss the play-offs but be fresh and ready for the 2017 campaign.

When he did get back on a pitch, he quickly found himself at the centre of a bizarre incident during a clash with rivals Cincinnati in April.

“There was a lot of hype around the game,” McCabe says.

“There were over 20,000 people there. It was 1-1, I think, and maybe around the 90th minute. One of their lads made a bad tackle on one of our players and obviously all of us reacted and went towards the incident. He got in my face and had a little…nibble.”

The culprit – striker Djiby Fall – was fined and handed a five-game suspension for the bite. McCabe, meanwhile, had to be given a tetanus shot.

“I wasn’t bleeding but you could see where the vessels were burst. It was just a weird, weird incident,” he says.

“The tetanus was just protocol. It’s just what they do when you get bitten, I suppose. It was just a jab. It was one of those things. It was almost like a local derby and it got a lot of attention, which I didn’t want. I just wanted to move on. I’m sure he regrets it and I don’t hold any grudges.”

Source: United Soccer League/YouTube

Later in the season, McCabe grabbed a goal as Louisville knocked five past the same opposition. A particularly gratifying moment.

“I’ve had a few ones that stand out,” he says.

“The debut, obviously, was one. The game with Cincinnati was a big one for us so that goal was special too. But for me it doesn’t have to be particular moments. I’m there to play football and every day I’m reminded of just what I’m doing. Every day I’m going into training thinking, ‘This is great’. I’m doing something I love. After three hours, I’m home with the family, to the little lad. I travel and see nice places. And I’m part of a successful team with great fans. It’s everything you want, really. They have us in great apartments, gym memberships, everything is looked after. I’m not sure what it’s like at other USL teams but we’re looked after here.

In the dressing-room I like to have a laugh and a joke. I think people still have a hard time understanding what I’m saying a lot of the time. But if you’re not having a laugh doing what I’m doing then there’s something wrong.

I’m playing for a great team, great manager, great fans. I don’t think I could get it back home. I don’t see it happening there for me. Maybe I fell off the radar when I came over here. I was part of the college system and didn’t come from League of Ireland, maybe. But I don’t mind it at all.”

Young Irish footballers are brought up on a diet of Premier League football and it’s inevitable they will have dreams and aspirations of playing there. That’s never going to change. McCabe was no different. His fantasy was playing for Liverpool at Anfield. But, early on, he tweaked things. Being a professional footballer anywhere would be enough. He just wanted to do what he loved for a living.

“Any experience you can draw from can help,” he says.

“I’ll always say to aim as high as you can. If a top club is looking at you, then keep doing what’s been working for you. But also look at the amount of players that end up coming back at 18 or whatever and struggle to adapt. It’s tough but there are different ways. Obviously, lads want to get to England and play in the Premier League. But, if it doesn’t work out I wouldn’t say give up. You might just have to go a different route. I have my degree behind me, which is massive for after I’m done playing. That was the goal when I first came out here. I was mad on football but I got the education too. Things have fallen into place for me but if you put the work in, it doesn’t matter what field of work you’re in, you’ll get the rewards.”

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‘I wanted out of Ireland – it’s been night and day compared to back home’

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