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'I felt like I wanted to give up... I rang my ma and told her I was done with football'

Eighteen months since he considered quitting, Sean Maguire’s being hailed as Cork City’s greatest ever player.

Sean Maguire Cork City striker Sean Maguire. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

BEHIND THE JOE Delaney Stand at the Curragh Road end of Turner’s Cross, young Cork City supporters form a corridor outside the dressing rooms after each game.

They wait patiently for every City player, from McNulty to Morrissey, Bolger to Beattie, their eyes fixed on the door from which they emerge. But they loiter in the hope of encountering one man in particular. When he appears, ready to tackle the gauntlet of selfie-hunters, the decibels rise.

“SEANIE! SEANIE! OVER HERE! SEANIE!”

The time it takes Sean Maguire to leave the ground is increasing with every game. The regulars at Turner’s Cross have witnessed some special players down through the years, and while the recency effect can often be deceiving, it’s difficult to recall a time when someone else was the subject of this level of adulation from City supporters.

“I love doing that sort of stuff, signing autographs for the kids and standing in for pictures,” Maguire says. “If I was one of those kids and my hero strutted past without even saying hello, it’d break my heart. I try and hang on for them all. When you think you’re done, there’s always one more. But it’s great.”

Given that the game coincided with some annual leave from work, I watched Cork City’s 5-0 win against Finn Harps in May from the stands instead of the press box. It also allowed me to fulfil a promise to my two nephews, aged six and seven, so they came along too.

As we entered the ground, they assured me that even though Cork City aren’t a bad side, Lionel Messi could easily score seven goals against them. They knew because they’d already seen it on the Xbox. A couple of hours later, however, their only concern was whether it’ll be Neymar or Luis Suarez dropped when Maguire is inevitably bought by Barcelona.

After the game, they joined the queue and managed to get a photo with — as they explained afterwards to anyone who’d listen — “the actual Sean Maguire”. In the car on the way home, in between repetitions of “Seanie’s on fire, your defence is terrified”, the younger of the two declared it the best day of his life — which came as a surprise to his grandfather, who had treated them to a trip to the Camp Nou only nine days earlier to see Barca putting seven goals past Osasuna.

18731736-333e-4d11-848c-0286e5c2f4d6_1024 One for the scrapbook: Adam (aged 6) and Luke Dollery (7) with "the actual Sean Maguire".

Being a hero in the eyes of Cork City’s younger supporters means he’s generally the last player to leave Turner’s Cross, but that’s something Sean Maguire has embraced. There was a time not too long ago when his stock wasn’t quite so high and autograph requests were scarce.

“Coming from the position I was in a year and a half ago, how could I not love it when the fans treat me like that? Cork City is their Barcelona and being a hero to so many of them is a great feeling,” says Maguire, the morning after he scored a hat-trick in Cork City’s Europa League victory over Levadia Tallinn at Turner’s Cross.

“Kieran [Sadlier, Cork City's new signing] was there for the first time last night and he said afterwards that he’d never seen anything like that in the League of Ireland. It was about quarter to 11 when I eventually got out of there. There’s hundreds of kids there after every game. It’s very unique in the League of Ireland. It reminds you too that you play for the biggest club in the country.”

Sean Maguire has left a mark on the League of Ireland in a manner that few players ever have. Since making his debut for Cork City in February of last year, the Kilkenny native has scored 53 times in all competitions. Before the month is out he’ll be part of the squad at Preston North End, a club with aspirations of being in the Premier League this time next year.

Maguire isn’t daunted by the challenges that await him in England’s competitive second tier. Right now, his confidence has never been so high. It’s in stark contrast to 18 months ago, when he admits to having been at his lowest ebb.

As an 18-year-old striker with Waterford, Maguire earned a two-and-half-year contract with West Ham United by finishing the 2012 season as top goalscorer in the League of Ireland First Division. However, the only first team-football he experienced as a West Ham player was during loan spells at Sligo Rovers and Accrington Stanley.

He showed occasional glimpses of his potential at both clubs, but neither move ultimately worked out. When West Ham cut Maguire loose in the summer of 2015, Stephen Kenny stepped in and brought him to Dundalk on a six-month contract.

Soccer - FA Cup - Third Round - Nottingham Forest v West Ham United - City Ground The closest Maguire got to making a first-team appearance for West Ham was the bench for a game against Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup. Source: EMPICS Sport

The Irish U21 international had high hopes for his move to Oriel Park, but with Dundalk en route to a successful defence of the Premier Division title for the first time in the club’s history, Kenny was reluctant to tinker with a winning formula. Maguire’s time at Dundalk amounted to nothing more than a handful of substitute appearances as a right-winger.

“We played Cork City in the FAI Cup final at the end of the season,” Maguire recalls. “I obviously knew I wouldn’t be starting but I was expecting to be one of the subs anyway.
Big occasion and all that, you want to be involved as much as you can.

“But then Stephen told me before the game that I wasn’t even going to be on the bench. I was heartbroken. Devastated. At that stage I felt like I wanted to give up. I rang my ma and told her I was done with football, that’s it for me. After being away at West Ham and the way things worked out there, I really wanted to make my mark at Dundalk. Not even making the bench, I just felt embarrassed really. Things hadn’t worked out in England and now it was the same back home.

“When you’re a youngfella going over to a big club in England, people who know you probably expect you to be in the first team in a year or two. I was only 18 and I had only been playing in the First Division in the League of Ireland. I didn’t have much experience. There were people thinking I was going to be playing up front with Andy Carroll for West Ham, but that was never going to be the case.

“I felt like I’d had enough. I was in a bad place, not just after Dundalk but while I was at Sligo as well. I was 19 when I was up there and people were on my back. Things weren’t going well. You don’t need that at that age. You can probably handle criticism when you’re in your late 20s or early 30s, but it’s different then. It drains your love for the game.

“I was thinking I’d probably just go back and live with my parents, maybe go to college. But my parents had the right advice. They were great. I wouldn’t be where I am now without them. I was only 21 so they knew I had to keep going. They calmed me down. Then I heard from John.”

While Maguire was in England visiting former Accrington team-mate John O’Sullivan in December 2015, he received a promising phone call. Other League of Ireland clubs had already expressed their interest, but none were as attractive as Cork City. John Caulfield has hardly made a more important call during his time as City manager.

Sean Maguire with Colm Horgan Maguire under pressure from Galway United's Colm Horgan during one of his few appearances for Dundalk. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“When I signed for Cork City, I could never have imagined that I’d be in this position a year and a half later,” Maguire says. “I remember telling John that I was heartbroken with how I was treated at Dundalk. He didn’t tell me he’d be putting me straight in the team or anything, but he said I’d have an opportunity to prove how good I am as long as I put in the work. That’s all I wanted to hear. My confidence was at rock bottom at that stage but I still felt that I could show what I could do. I just needed to be given a chance.”

He adds: “Things are going well now but I’ve still had way more lows than highs in my career. Every player could probably be called a confidence player, but for me especially it’s a really important thing. The lower your confidence gets, the harder it is to build it back up. My confidence levels back then were so far away from where they are now.”

For Maguire, the move to Cork was a last throw of the dice. If this one didn’t work out, he’d be likely to reach a dead end. There was a mostly tepid reception to the news of his signing from many City supporters, who understandably questioned the rationale of attempting to dislodge the champions by bringing in a player who hadn’t been deemed good enough to play for them. If things weren’t going well, Maguire — the ex-Dundalk substitute — would have been a sitting duck.

“People obviously felt John was taking a big gamble,” he says. “I hadn’t done much in the year or so before that to make anyone think any differently. If things didn’t work out, I probably would have been a scapegoat. Fingers would have been pointed.”

He put himself under pressure to perform and his first chance to prove himself came against his former club. Maguire scored the first of his seven goals for Cork City against Dundalk as his new club claimed the President’s Cup. A week later he claimed a brace in his league debut against Bohemians. Gradually he replenished his confidence and Caulfield’s gamble was upgraded to a masterstroke. Maguire was making the most of the opportunities he had craved.

“John took a chance on me and I think he knew, especially when I scored goals in my first few games, that I’m not a bad player when I’ve got confidence,” Maguire explains. “We have a great relationship, on and off the pitch. He was a hard-working striker so I’ve taken a lot of tips from him. He’s changed my career, to be honest. He can’t be given enough credit for what he’s done for me.”

Maguire’s journey in Cork hasn’t been entirely smooth either. He might have been on his way to becoming Caulfield’s star pupil, but that didn’t immunise him from a kick in the rear when one was required. As difficult as it is to imagine now, there were times in 2016 when — despite ending the year with 29 goals in total — he was relegated to the bench.

Contract Maguire with John Caulfeld after signing for Cork City in December 2015. Source: Cork City FC

“John left me out of the team a couple of times,” Maguire recalls. “He pulled me aside and said ‘you’re not scoring, we haven’t been winning, so I’m just going to leave you out today’. I think he took me out away to Derry and after that I scored 12 goals in 10 games. I kicked on from there. It was frustrating but I can see now why he did it. He knew what he was doing.”

Goals are a striker’s most valuable currency, but a thorough assessment of Maguire’s ability requires scratching beneath the surface of the statistics to reveal the substance. He’s proficient in each facet of his game, but it’s all underpinned by an irrepressible workrate.

He says: “I think the most important part of my game, more than anything else, is giving 110%. Everything else follows on from that. I think I always had a good workrate but the desire has probably only come into it in the last year and a half. When I came to Cork, I just really wanted to prove to everyone how good I was. That side of my game improved and that’s where everything else stems from.”

Having topped the SSE Airtricity League’s goalscoring charts at the end of his first season with Cork City, Maguire had a decision to make. Interest came from as far away as Belgium, yet he ultimately concluded that another season on Leeside was the most sensible option. Maguire didn’t just believe he could match his contribution of the previous season. He expected to better it. Some saw it as a risk — the threat of injury and loss of form looms for every player — but he backed himself.

“I had offers but it was a strange one because clubs in England probably still felt like I was a one-season wonder. They were obviously looking at the previous couple of years too when I hadn’t done enough,” the 23-year-old explains.

“I didn’t want to join someone as a squad player only getting the odd opportunity here and there. I felt if I signed back with Cork and gave it another good season that I’d have even better opportunities then. That’s how it turned out.”

He adds: “I was speaking to my dad and he was saying I wouldn’t even have to score as many goals as my first season. I wouldn’t have to score 29. But I had a different view on it. I thought I could do a lot more, even though there was more pressure this time. I really believed I had more in me.”

Sean Maguire celebrates scoring his second goal of the game The shape of things to come: Maguire scored twice for City on his league debut against Bohemians. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Having seemingly gotten his career back on track, Maguire could have been excused for taking a breather during the off-season. But by then he had the bit between his teeth. If he was promising that there was more to come, there was work to be done before he could deliver. Maguire’s first year in Cork was impressive, but his efforts over the winter paved the way for him to bring his game to the next level in 2017.

“There was a lot of hunger there at that stage,” he says. “The off-season in the League of Ireland is obviously around Christmas so you’d like to relax and enjoy yourself. I had a couple of nights but I had one eye on this season because I felt it was a huge year for me.

“I came back in from 2 January onwards and worked really hard with a few of the lads. Even in the cup final last year, I felt I wasn’t in the shape I wanted to be in. I was being pushed off the ball and stuff. I feel stronger this year, quicker and sharper. I could feel myself coasting past players last night. I’ve surprised myself by how much quicker I am this year.”

Twelve months after he watched from the stands as the club he played for won the FAI Cup, Maguire was back at the Aviva Stadium in November 2016 for another final between Dundalk and Cork City. This time he scored the winner to bring the silverware back to Cork for the first time in nine years. The good times have also been plentiful this season.

With Maguire scoring 22 goals in as many games, John Caulfield’s undefeated team have had one hand on the Premier Division trophy since the first series of games ended. But the highlight of Maguire’s time at Cork City came the night before his move to Preston was announced. Nothing can top the hat-trick he scored at Oriel Park to send City 18 points clear at the summit of the table.

Maguire: “That’s definitely been the best night for me. It was a special night, especially with so many Cork City fans up there. Hammering them up in Oriel Park, that’s what I always wanted when I left Dundalk.

“It wasn’t really about revenge. I was getting a lot of stick from their fans, which I didn’t understand because I never really got a chance to play for them. It wasn’t like I was a club legend who left for their rivals. So it was nice to get the hat-trick that night. I enjoyed it a lot.”

Sean Maguire scores the first goal of the game in extra time From sitting in the stands watching the FAI Cup final to scoring the winning goal a year later. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

He adds: “I have nothing against Stephen Kenny. Maybe he could have thrown me in for a few more games up front when I was at Dundalk, because I’m not a winger. But in fairness to him, he was managing a team that only lost once all season, that had David McMillan and Ciaran Kilduff scoring goals. I can’t have any regrets because my experience at Dundalk helped me to mature and made me into the player I am now.”

Following Maguire’s second-half tour de force against Levadia Tallinn on Thursday night, the debate over where he deserves to feature on the club’s list of all-time greats again dominated the tributaries of social media occupied by Cork City supporters. Yet this time, in the eyes of many of those who shared their opinions, the debate has been settled. City’s number 24 is the new number one.

“I saw some of that actually,” Maguire says. “Jesus, that’s… yeah, it’s hard to put into words how that makes me feel. It’s obviously a huge compliment. Some brilliant players have come through this club and gone on to big things. That means a lot.

“Even for my mam, she has such a love for Cork City now because of the love there is for me down here. She has actually told my girlfriend that she’s cried a couple of times because of the fact that I’m leaving Cork City. It’s hard for her because she’s seen me at my lowest and this is where it all changed for the better.”

Cork didn’t mean much to Sean Maguire up until 18 months ago, but the relationship has come a long way in the meantime. Meeting a local girl helped him to settle and it’s close enough for his family in Kilkenny to attend every home game.

At the corner where the Grand Parade meets the South Mall, the Lee sparkles beneath the Friday morning sunshine as Maguire sips a cappuccino after a recovery session with his team-mates in the Mardyke.

He’s still on a high after scoring a Europa League hat-trick the night before. The rest of his day is free and the priority is to recharge sufficiently for the visit of St Patrick’s Athletic on Sunday. A chance to take another step towards the league title.

Seán Maguire 'My mam has cried a couple of times because of the fact that I'm leaving Cork City.' Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Maguire is content in Cork. England is where he now needs to be to find out how far his ability can take him, but if it was a Leeside lifestyle for the remainder of his career, there’d be no complaints.

“I’m from Kilkenny,” he says. “It’s only up the road but I barely go home anymore. It’s usually my parents coming down here. I might go up home once every couple of months. It just shows how much Cork feels like home. If I was going to say where my home is now, it feels like it’s Cork.”

He adds: “Maybe one day I will get to play in the Europa League again or the Champions League for another club, but will it be the same as doing it for a club that I love as much as Cork City? It’s hard to imagine that now. The memory of scoring a hat-trick in Europe in front of the Shed is something that will never leave me.”

Throughout this season, John Caulfield has commended Maguire publicly for delivering for his team in spite of the transfer speculation that lingered in the background. Even since his move to Preston was confirmed last month, he has continued to perform to a level that the League of Ireland has seldom seen from one player so consistently.

It’s a testament to Maguire’s professionalism that he hasn’t been distracted from his role as a Cork City player, but with an apparent debt to repay, perhaps that’s not surprising. Although life is looking good right now, the tough times are still fresh enough in the memory to serve as a reminder that he can’t afford to take this position for granted.

“I feel like I owe a lot to this club,” he says. “I wouldn’t be in this situation if it wasn’t for Cork City. The club gave me the opportunity to keep my career alive so I go into every game knowing that I owe something to the club.

“After Dundalk, I really could have packed it in. I wasn’t in a good place then. I still sometimes think back to those times, at Sligo and Dundalk. It gives me a little tingle in my heart. You say to yourself, ‘imagine being back there’, and it’s not a nice thought. I’m especially grateful for where I am now because of where I was then — and that wasn’t that long ago. That’s why I still have to repay this club. I can’t ease off.”

Sean Maguire celebrates after the game Maguire celebrates after completing his hat-trick against Levadia Tallinn on Thursday. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

It’s likely to be much later than 10.45pm by the time Maguire gets out of Turner’s Cross this Thursday night after the first leg of Cork City’s Europa League second round qualifier against AEK Larnaca. The meeting with the Cypriot side will mark his final home game before he departs for Preston with City left-back Kevin O’Connor on 24 July. There’s an emotional occasion in store.

“I’d say I’ll feel like breaking down into tears for it. It will be very hard but these are the things you need to do to try and achieve your goals of playing at the highest level you possibly can,” says the five-foot-eight striker.

“There’s people who told me over the years that I wasn’t good enough, that I was too small, and they’re all still in the back of my head. I still feel like I have to prove them wrong. If I can prove myself at Preston — and the same for Kevin — you’d never know what’ll lie ahead for us.”

League of Ireland players are seldom mentioned when young football fans in this country are asked about their idols. But in Cork at least, Sean Maguire has bucked that trend by showing youngsters that their heroes don’t only exist behind a TV screen.

He arrived to a lukewarm reception with his career hanging in the balance, before departing 18 months later with a litany of destinations to choose from. Home it may be for Sean Maguire, but it’s time to move on for now.

Cork will miss him when he’s gone. A small man, but with big shoes to fill.

‘I know one day that I will put on the Irish jersey and show them how good I am’

Hat-trick hero Maguire breaks club record as Cork City advance in Europe

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