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'I was thinking about what I was going to do if I wasn't going to be a footballer'

Richie Towell chats to The42 about a difficult period after leaving Celtic and loving football again at Rotherham.

Richie Towell has impressed for Rotherham this season.
Richie Towell has impressed for Rotherham this season.
Image: Clint Hughes

RICHIE TOWELL HAS experienced enough bad moments in football to really appreciate the good times, and he is certainly currently enjoying one of the best periods of his career, as he undergoes his second coming in British football.

The former Ireland underage international has been a regular starter for the in-form side in League One right now. His team, Rotherham, are currently on a nine-match unbeaten run. Following some inconsistent form earlier this season, recent home wins over Portsmouth and Bradford have propelled them into the play-off spots.

The Millers, who were relegated from the Championship last season, are currently sixth, 12 points off Blackburn, who are in second and one point behind leaders Wigan.

Like his team in general, Towell has grown in confidence this season following a frustrating 18-month period.

He signed for Brighton from Dundalk on 30 November 2015 and made his debut the following January in the FA Cup, playing the full 90 minutes against Hull City in a 1-0 loss.

Having been the League of Ireland’s standout player for a sustained period, expectations were high this side of the water, and some expected Towell to kick on in the Championship having lit up the League of Ireland during his three seasons there, culminating in an incredible 2015 campaign when he managed 25 league goals in 32 appearances from midfield.

Yet the Segulls’ boss Chris Hughton was reluctant to rock the boat at the time. His side were in excellent form and pushing for promotion. After the FA Cup, Towell would play just once more in the 2015-16 season, coming off the bench in the first-leg of the club’s 2-0 Championship play-off semi-final loss against Sheffield Wednesday.

The Inchicore native hoped for a clean slate the following campaign, but he picked up a particularly badly timed injury at the start of the season. Once he recovered, the team were again in excellent form and pushing for promotion, which restricted him to two FA Cup appearances (scoring his first goal in a 3-1 loss to Lincoln), as well as a five-minute cameo off the bench against Rotherham, the club he would join just a few months later.

This season, however, for the first time since his move from Dundalk three years ago, Towell has enjoyed a sustained run of first-team action.

“It’s been great,” he tells The42. “Obviously, at Brighton, it was a bit frustrating not playing and being injured.

Since I’ve signed for Rotherham, I think I’ve played in every single game apart from one.

“Everything’s going well and I’m enjoying playing football again, which is the main thing.

“I think minimum we want to get into the playoffs… The next few games are really important for us. We just need to get the wins and kick on from there.”

Crawley Town v Brighton and Hove Albion - Pre-Season Friendly - Checkatrade.com Stadium Towell found first-team opportunities limited at Brighton. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Towell has had to alter his game to an extent since moving across the water. Having operated as the most advanced player in a three-man midfield with Dundalk and scored freely in the process, he has featured in a two at Rotherham, which partly explains why he has scored just three goals in 27 appearances and not emulated his prolific spell in the League of Ireland.

“It’s definitely a lot more defensive than it was,” he says. “I had the freedom at Dundalk to bomb into the box because we played the three in midfield.

“At the moment here, we’re playing with a two, very similar to Brighton.

It’s tactically a bit more disciplined, but I’ve enjoyed it as well, it means I’m getting a bit more of the ball, I’ve been able to start attacks also.

“Obviously, [it's] with another mind on the way Brighton play and for me fitting into the mould there when I go back at the end of the season.”

Towell is not the only player at Rotherham who will be familiar to seasoned Irish football fans. Former Liverpool youngster Darren Potter, who picked up five caps for the Boys in Green between 2007 and 2008, is one of the team’s experienced figures at 33, though he has not played since the start of December, having picked up an achilles injury.

On the other hand, 24-year-old Limerick-born winger Anthony Forde has seen plenty of game time of late.

“Fordey’s been great,” Towell says. “At the start of the season, he wasn’t playing that much, but he’s been in the team for the last couple of months now.

“He’s probably been one of our best players, every single week he’s been really good. His delivery from set pieces [is excellent] and he works really hard for the team as well.

“He’s been good for me, he’s helped me settle in really well, we were out having dinner [together] the other day with our partners, so it’s great to have a familiar face.

“My partner and my little girl live over here, so I can’t really just be hanging around [with the lads].”

With Brighton earning promotion to the Premier League last season, Towell knew his first-team chances would be limited further.

When I first came over, I came over to play. When you don’t play, it’s frustrating. I don’t think any footballer in the world that sits on the bench is happy. If they are, they’re in the wrong sport. They’re not proper winners.

“When I first came [to Brighton], the lads were flying. When I came back for pre-season [after the first campaign], the plan was to knuckle down and try to get into the team. Then I was out for about three months with my knee, so getting back into the team [was difficult] when they were pulling for promotion, all the lads were playing really well at that time, so it’s hard to go into the manager and say I should be playing when the team is winning every week. I just had to bide my time and try to be a professional and work as hard as I could.

“Since I’ve come out on loan, it’s been great, Brighton are doing well in the Premier League, so it’s worked out well for everybody.”

Rotherham United v Shrewsbury Town - Sky Bet League One - AESSEAL New York Stadium Rotherham United manager Paul Warne persuaded Towell to join the club on Deadline Day during the summer window despite interest from elsewhere. Source: EMPICS Sport

Deadline Day yesterday will have brought back memories of the summer for Towell, when he was one of the many players rushing to get a deal over the line amid a hectic 24-hour period.

“It was a last-minute thing, to be honest,” he says of the loan move to Rotherham. “I was in my car going to sign for another club and they came in with maybe an hour or two to go on Deadline Day.

“The gaffer [Paul Warne] was great the way he spoke to me and his plans and how he likes to play football, his way of thinking and the lifestyle and stuff like that. It was just something I wanted to be a part of and I’m really happy with the decision I’ve made, because he’s been great with me so far, he’s put a lot of trust in me, I think I’ve made the right decision.

“Me, my little girl and my partner moved up to Sheffield, which is only maybe 15 or 20 minutes from Rotherham, so there are a lot of nice, restaurants, cafes, my little one has started in a crèche as well.

Initially, it was hard. I was living in a hotel for a couple of weeks. It’s not ideal living in a hotel with my little girl and partner back in Dublin. But since I moved house, it’s been a really easy transitional period.

“My missus has been great with me, she has. She doesn’t mind moving, she helps me a lot, so it’s been good.”

And while he is enjoying life with Rotherham and reluctant to look too far ahead, Towell has not given up hope of breaking into the Brighton team eventually. A new contract he signed last May suggests the club are also hopeful he can eventually make the desired impact at the Amex.

“I’m still in contact with [the people at] Brighton, so that’s the plan for now — do as well as I can at Rotherham. I only spoke to the gaffer, Chris Hughton, a couple of weeks ago, he was saying how happy he is with how I’m playing and reminded me he’s sending people to watch me play all the time.”

Playing in League One, he says, is not drastically dissimilar to the League of Ireland. He believes that the top domestic sides such as Dundalk and Cork City could hold their own at that level, though bigger stadiums and better training-ground facilities make England’s third tier an attractive proposition.

At 26, Towell will hopefully have plenty more years to test himself in England. It is somewhat of a second chance, however, having endured a disappointing end to his first spell in Britain.

The Dubliner’s talent was apparent from early on, having been considered one of the best young players in the country in his age group, and playing for Ireland at various youth levels.

Towell first caught the eye during a 10-year stint with schoolboy outfit Crumlin United, having joined the club at the age of six. The Dublin side enjoyed considerable success, with “six or seven” of their players ultimately making the move to England. Notable names from that team who are still making a living in the game include Conor Clifford (Dundalk), Andy Boyle (Doncaster, on loan from Preston), Aaron Doran (Inverness Caledonian Thistle) and Gavin Gunning (Forest Green).

Ireland: Republic of Ireland vs Iceland - International Friendly Ireland international Andy Boyle (left) was a team-mate of Towell's at both Crumlin United and Dundalk. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

In 2007, when Towell made the move to Celtic as a teenager following a successful trial, it was like a “home from home” with “maybe 10 or 11″ Irish players on the books at the club.

“I played there for maybe six years,” he recalls. “We won the youth cup, won the league and I made my first-team debut, which was what I moved over for — that was an incredible thing for me to achieve at such a young age, playing for such an illustrious club.”

A 19-year-old Towell’s top-flight debut in Scotland came as a 57th-minute substitute during Celtic’s 2-2 draw with Inverness, with two other League of Ireland favourites — Paddy McCourt and Richie Foran — on the scoresheet that day.

Yet that memorable moment aside, first-team opportunities were hard to come by at Parkhead. He moved to Hibernian on loan, impressing enough in 16 appearances to earn a second temporary spell at the club the following season. However, Towell ultimately fell out of favour, after Irish boss Pat Fenlon took over as manager.

“I never regret anything in life,” he says, when asked about the Hibernian stint. “At the time, it was brilliant. When I first went on loan to Hibs, I was 19, and they’re a massive club. I don’t think people realise how big Hibs are — really big fanbase, nice training ground, nice pitch to play on.

I was playing every week for a club like that, which not many young footballers are doing that at that age anymore. They’re playing in academies, but I was playing first-team football against men.

“You’d have to ask Pat [why, but I didn't get the game time I wanted and when you don't get that, it's gutting and as a young player, you accept things differently [compared to when] you’ve been around the game for a few years.

“It just didn’t work out, but it probably worked out better in the end, so that I was more prepared for what happened [after].”

Having returned from Hibs, Towell found himself surplus to requirements at Celtic and consequently left the club. He admits his life was subsequently at a crossroads, with the situation leaving the player contemplating his future in the game.

Soccer - Pre Season Friendly - The Dublin Super Cup - Airtricity XI v Celtic - Aviva Stadium Then-Celtic manager Neil Lennon with Richard Towell (left) during the warm-up ahead of a 2011 Aviva Stadium friendly against an Airtricity XI. Source: EMPICS Sport

Of course, the vast majority of footballers in Towell’s position find life difficult thereafter. Invariably, Irish players who return home from Britain do not go back a second time, so it is a testament to the midfielder’s resilience and self-belief that he ultimately managed to do just that.

“When I came back [to Ireland], it wasn’t something that really bothered me,” he remembers. “I was playing for [Leinster Senior League side] Bluebell at the time. I didn’t know what I was going to be doing in football, I was thinking about outside of that and what I was going to do if I wasn’t going to be a footballer.

I was more concerned about what I was going to do for money and a job, but obviously then I signed for Dundalk, I said I’d see how it goes, just get myself as fit as I can, just give it a lash really, try the best that I could and see what I could achieve. Once I started eating properly, and going to the gym and really starting focusing properly on football, there was no stopping me then.

“Everybody knows what we achieved and what I did as a player, so that was just phenomenal and something I was really proud to be a part of.”

Towell still stays in contact with many of those from his Dundalk days. Only a few hours before this interview, he had been on the phone to Andy Boyle, while he still keeps in touch with Stephen Kenny and other members of the Lilywhites’ backroom staff. He even attended the team’s game against Finn Harps last summer.

inpho_00982801 Towell pictured scoring the winner against Cork in the 2015 FAI Cup final. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

It’s no surprise that Towell feels an attachment to the club that rejuvenated his career and which he, in turn, helped rejuvenate.

When the Dubliner signed for the Oriel Park outfit in December 2012, they had not won the league or FAI Cup since 1994 and 2002 respectively, while they had only stayed in the Premier Division the previous season after beating Waterford in a promotion-relegation play-off. But by the time Towell left three years later, he had helped them claim two League of Ireland titles, as well as the FAI Cup, the League Cup, the President’s Cup and the Leinster Senior Cup. He was also the PFAI Players’ Player of the Year in 2015 and the Young Player of the Year in 2013.

“There was no secret to it, it was just hard work,” he adds. “People can achieve anything they want in life if they just put their minds to it. It just means making some sacrifices and working that extra bit harder.

We didn’t have the best team by any stretch at the start. The lads nearly got relegated the year before I came and they only stayed up through the play-offs. So them same bunch of lads and add a few to it and a new manager — obviously Stephen was a big reason behind the success and there were a lot of people, [assistant boss] Vinny Perth, [fitness chief] Graham Byrne, people like that [contributed to the success]. All the players bought into it and worked as hard as they could and when they do that, the rest [takes care of itself].

“I try to keep in contact with them as much as I can, but obviously, they need to focus on what’s ahead of them now. You can’t keep thinking about the past, you need to think about the future as well.”

That last sentence, in particular, rings true, given the Irish player’s conspicuous ability to consistently recover from setbacks. The Celtic disappointment would have effectively spelled the end for plenty of players’ careers, but in many ways, it was the making of Richie Towell.

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

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