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‘I want to do my best to become a professional footballer. If I have to come back, I know GAA is always there’

Waterford FC defender Rory Feely talks about his time involved in the Kildare setup and how he has chosen to pursue a career in the League of Ireland.

WATERFORD DEFENDER RORY Feely called a number of different places ‘home’ growing up, but sport was a constant presence in his life no matter where he went.

Born in Belgium along with his brother and sister, moving to Tramore and then later to Athy, the 21-year-old travelled around a lot during his youth, but always maintained a desire to achieve and excel with a ball at his feet. Or in his hands.

Rory Feely celebrates with Gavan Holohan  after he scored a goal Waterford FC defender Rory Feely celebrates alongside Gavan Holohan. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“My dad had a job over there in the 1990s so all three of us — me, my brother and my sister — were born in Belgium,” he says. “Our family lived there at the time but when I was three we moved back home to Ireland.

Growing up as a kid I would’ve seen Waterford United play and even done ball boy once or twice at the games as well. I played a handful of matches at the RSC too, so maybe it did make sense in the end to come back and play for Waterford.”

The DCU student combined soccer and gaelic all the way throughout his childhood and teenage years, before the decision finally came when one had to be chosen ahead of the other.

An immeasurably tough call to make, but one the young footballer is satisfied was the right decision as he sets his sights on getting his education, helping Waterford back into Europe and then thinking about forging a move abroad.

Feely played underage at St Patrick’s Athletic before being swifty moved into Liam Buckley’s senior side in 2016, where he enjoyed two seasons at centre back while at Richmond Park.

St Patrick's Athletic v Dundalk - SSE Airtricity League Premier Division Feely (right) tackles Dundalk's Chris Shields during his time at St Pat's. Source: David Maher

The end of last season saw the defender’s time in Inchicore come to an end, being signed by Alan Reynold’s impressive Waterford FC team which stormed to the SSE Airtricity League First Division, earned promotion, and are now the third best team in the country. On current form at least, with 12 wins from 22 games leaving them in command of a Europa League place.

We’re pretty delighted with how things have been going so far,” Feely says of the Blues’ emphatic start to life back in the top tier.

“Especially coming up from the First Division last year, the main aim of the club was not to get relegated and go back down. We were able to get a good start at the beginning of this season, began picking up points and found ourselves in the top four.

“From there we’ve been trying to maintain our spot, getting home wins and trying to pick up as many points on the road as we can so we can hold onto that third spot ahead of Derry and Pat’s.”

After spending a number of years lining out in the red of Athy Gaelic Football Club, he was called into the Kildare minor panel, spending two years there before moving into the Lilywhites’ U21 intercounty squad, combining his efforts with football at St Pat’s at the same time.

Rory Feely and Conor Berry Feely starred as Kildare defeated Longford in the 2015 Leinster Minor Football Championship final at Croke Park. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Feely then tasted Leinster and All-Ireland success in the space of a year: in both his sports. Lining out as a towering 6’3” midfielder he helped Kildare claim the Electric Ireland Leinster GAA Football Minor Championship, beating Longford in the decider at Croke Park in July 2015.

Three months prior he had helped St Pats’ to the SSE Airtricity League U19 title for the first time in the club’s history, scoring a vital equaliser in the final against Derry City at Maginn Park, as his side came from behind to lift the Dr Tony O’Neill Cup.

A supreme athlete capable of forging a successful path in either football or gaelic games, the defender admits that becoming a footballer has always been his dream, and that he had to go with his instinct to pursue it even if it meant sacrificing a promising career for his county.

Playing in midfield with Kildare taught me about using your height and the threat of good aerial ability, about running and covering long distances up and down the pitch. All of that helped me in both sports,” he says.

“It was difficult enough to leave Kildare, but I always knew that my dream was to be a professional footballer. I’ve known that from a very young age.”

What does he miss most about gaelic? Rising high to pluck a kick-out from out of the sky, he says.

“Yeah, not getting to use your hands would be one thing alright” he laughs. “Ah no, I really did enjoy playing midfield, the aerial battles and catching high ball. That was one of my favourite parts of gaelic, being a midfielder.

“Catching kick-outs and driving forward trying to boost the morale of the team, that’s what I loved, similar to winning a big header in a soccer match.”

Rory’s brother Kevin had taken a similar route before him, building a career in the League of Ireland after combining soccer with GAA.

He played for Bohemians for a number of years before earning a move to England in 2012, where he took in spells at Charlton, Carlisle, Wimbledon and finally Newport.

Kevin Feely Kevin Feely earned an All-Star nomination in 2017. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Now an integral member of Cian O’Neill’s Kildare senior panel, one which impressed en route to a Leinster final in 2017, Kevin Feely is excelling in gaelic having experienced the trials and tribulations of a career in English football.

The 25-year-old earned an All-Star nomination for his efforts last season and, having returned to GAA after coming home to Ireland three years ago, seems destined to claim one sooner rather than later.

His brother is always a source for advice having taken the journey from League of Ireland to England, says the defender.

“Absolutely. Even with the move to Waterford and coming towards the end of my time at Pat’s he was there to help guide me on where my next move was.

With the unique experience he’s had in soccer, both positive and negative, he’s lived through it and is there to make sure I don’t make the same mistakes or have the same things happen to me if I do end up getting a move across.

“He knows that my dream is to make it as a professional footballer. He wouldn’t be holding me back based on his experiences.

“He did enjoy his time over in England, it was just a case of it not working out. I still think he would be for a move to England from my point of view, especially if it were with a good club.”

With the Leinster and All-Ireland Championship in full flow, Feely says that while he does still go to all of Kildare’s games, there is not a lot of time spent longing to be out there on the pitch. He watches on in support of his brother, and pushes all his own energy into making strides for Waterford.

“At the moment my focus is 100% on football personally. Of course I’d be going to all the games Kevin is playing in, being from Kildare I’d be at them and I’d be cheering them on. Even watching the games, soccer is still where I want to be at the moment. It’s still where I see myself for the next few years.”

Cork City v Waterford - SSE Airtricity League Premier Division In action against Cork City's Kieran Sadlier at the start of June. Source: Eóin Noonan

He has previously gone on record as saying he would love to return to Kildare again some day in the future. Football is his priority, but there is no ruling out the sight of the young player lining out at St Conleth’s Park if life takes him in that direction.

“I’m really enjoying my soccer at the moment. Hopefully I can keep on enjoying it for a good few years more and try and make a career out of it across the water or in England.

I want to do my best to become a professional footballer. If I have to come back, I know GAA is always there, so hopefully I could fit back into it at club or even inter-county level.”

The player has always lived a hectic life combining multiple sports with everything else that goes on in a young person’s life.

But having seen teenagers earn their move to England too young and returned home to Ireland sometimes without even a Leaving Cert, earning a third level education is major priority, and one which he is happy to balance alongside football.

Feely has just completed his third year of Physical Education with Mathematics at DCU and will start his final year this coming September.

He earned the ‘Fresher of the Year’ award during his first year at the Glasnevin college, and has represented both the football and gaelic teams during his time at the university.

Like so many League of Ireland footballers in recent years, Feely has made consistent progress in his goal to become a professional footballer, while also combining that development with the pursuit of a degree.

Rory Feely keeps the ball in play Waterford have won 12 games from 22 so far this season. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Having seen his brother experience the ruthless nature of life in the English game for young Irish footballers, having a long-term plan is an absolute necessity in case things don’t turn out as desired, he says.

“I would’ve seen lads when I was 15 or 16 going across and they were coming back early enough, sometimes to almost nothing,” he says.

I realised from Kevin that getting my education at college before moving was so important.
“I knew that if I could get my degree while playing football at a good professional level in the League of Ireland, then I could see myself hopefully doing well afterwards.

“We’re doing well at Waterford this year, next season hopefully we’ll be competing for Europe. By the end of next year I’ll be finished my course in DCU and can look forward to seeing if I can get any offers from England.

“While Kevin was over there he deferred his course hoping that he didn’t have to come back and, in the end, he did come back and he went and finished his last two years in DCU and got his qualification.

I feel that it’s vitally important to have a college degree in your back pocket in case things don’t work out so that you could jump straight into making a career if things didn’t work out and you did end up coming home.”

The defender had spells in and out of the team at St Pat’s, but admits that like all footballers they are happiest when they are simply out there on the pitch on a consistent basis. There is nothing more frustrating than a player sitting on the bench, being restrained from what their instincts urge them to do, which is play, he says.

For a player as ambitious as Feely, playing the game regularly, week after week, in a new position of full-back at a Waterford side which plays an attractive, dynamic style of football while competing at the right end of the table, is a joy.

“When you’re actually playing week on week, you are enjoying your football a lot more”, he says.

Rory Feely The defender has enjoyed his time at right back at the RSC throughout 2018. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“To go from from Pat’s, where I was in and out of the team and we were down in seventh and eighth place in the league, to settle into a new role at right back at Waterford and to be winning games boosts your self-esteem.

“It also boosts your attitude and it boosts your mood towards training if you’re enjoying it and feeling good. In the end all of that is only going to be reflected in your performances on the pitch.

Even when there was that speculation that we could compete for the title at the top of the league, we just felt that we wanted to do what we had been doing, going out and enjoying our game, winning games and making sure we weren’t dropping points.

“As I said, our goal at the start of the season was to avoid relegation because it was a new team coming in. But now that we’ve found ourselves at the top end of the table, we’re looking at ourselves thinking we can finish in the top four.”

Leaving gaelic behind was a tough decision, he says, but at the end of the day he states firmly time and time again that it was the right one, as he continues to pursue his goal in life, come what may.

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Aaron Gallagher

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