Family man

‘I never sat with my Da and just talked, not really. But I learned more about him drinking together for three hours than ever before’

Shamrock Rovers midfielder Aaron McEneff visits Dolphin’s Barn in Dublin, where his father grew up supporting the Hoops in the 1980s, as the Derry native explains to The42 how winning the FAI Cup led to a breakthrough in their relationship.

BLINK AND YOU’D miss it.

Reilly’s Avenue in Dolphin’s Barn is sandwiched between the Coombe Hospital and Lowe’s Pub.

Many a baby’s head has been wetted in there, no doubt.

Avenue is perhaps too stoic a word for what is beautifully preserved snapshot of old Dublin.

Venture down this portal to a bygone era and you will find 19 two up, two down terraced homes facing each other just a few metres apart. There is a mixture of various brick work and recently painted pebble dash. The doors are blue, red, black, green and white, with some just bearing a fresh layer of varnish on the wood.

Aaron McEneff stands in the middle of the narrow road and can almost reach from one side to the other. The Shamrock Rovers midfielder walks up and down and strains for memories. “I know I have been here,” he sighs. “I just can’t remember.

“We used to come down in the summer. I remember going to the zoo and out to Fort Lucan and the Aquatic Centre. It’s so small here, though, these houses are tiny.”

Reilly’s Avenue is where his father, Noel, was born and raised. McEneff looks over at the Coombe and points out that his where his Nanny Nuala worked before retiring to her new home nearby on the Crumlin Road.

mc5-4 McEneff stands in the middle of the narrow Reilly's Avenue in Dolphin's Barn.

“And I know my Da used to drink in Lowe’s. He liked a few pints in there,” the Rovers man smiles, as we make our way across the road to the Spar-cum-Insomina for a coffee, where an 11-year-old Hoops supporter follows him around the shop before his mother plucks up the courage to ask for a photo and an autograph on his purple away jersey.

They talk about football, GAA and where his season ticket is in Tallaght Stadium. They talk about last Friday’s dramatic 3-2 win over Dundalk and Saturday’s away game against Sligo Rovers.

“What has you here,” the boy’s mother asks.

“We’re doing an interview,” McEneff replies. “This is where my Da is from, he grew up just over the road there.”

There will be some Rovers fans who aren’t aware of that, or how the club has been an intrinsic part of the McEneff family long before Aaron was born in 1995.

img_7604-2 McEneff bumped into 11-year-old Rovers supporter Conor Doyle while walking around Dolphin's Barn earlier this week.

Noel McEneff now speaks with a hybrid Dublin-Derry accent that certainly has more of northern twang. That’s because Carnhill is where he made his home, it is where he met Jackie and made a life for himself and their three boys.

Aaron is the eldest while Nathan, currently studying at Liverpool University is the middle child and 19-year-old Jordan is on the books with Arsenal.

Dublin – Dolphin’s Barn – is home for Noel. “It was a great place to grow up,” he explains. “The stories you hear about what it was like, people have a perception of what it’s like, but when you are in the middle of it and you have great friends like I did it is the best place to be because we knew everybody and everybody knew us. It was a community.”

That sense of belonging extended to Rovers during his childhood and into his teens.

I went to Milltown, out to Glenmalure Park, all the time. Liam Buckley, Pat Byrne, Liam O’Brien and Alan Campbell, these players were my heroes. I can still remember the pitch, it was the greenest grass, the best pitch in Ireland.”

The 1980s belonged to Rovers and Noel was there in Dalymount Park in ’87 when they beat Dundalk 3-0 to win the FAI Cup. “Of course! I wasn’t going to miss that,” he beams.

Noel moved to Derry not long afterwards and so began the start of a FAI Cup drought that would last 32 years. It ended last November, when Dundalk were once again put to the sword by the Hoops, this time in an epic penalty shootout.

It was almost done and dusted long before that, though, when Aaron stepped up to bury an 89th-minute spot kick during normal time. “I’ve never experienced a feeling like that in football,” he says.

“It was incredible. A moment like that, it makes you feel like every sacrifice and every bit of hurt or pain you’ve ever had in your career has been worth it.”

mc3-7 McEneff at Reilly's Avenue, Dolphin's Barn.

No sooner had the ball hit the net then McEneff turned on his heels to sprint 60 yards back to where his family were all standing.

“I wanted to celebrate with them and be there with them,” he explains.

“I’d got my Da one of the Cup final polos from the club shop so he had that on. He always has his big Rovers jacket on him like he’s a scout,” McEneff laughs.

It was a moment shared between the whole family. “That’s what it’s all about,” Noel beams. “I never thought it would take more than 30 years for us to win the Cup and then to do it with my son in the team. It was just… It was just incredible to be honest with you.”

noelaaron McEneff with his father Noel celebrating the FAI Cup win at a function in the Rovers team hotel after the final.

But that penalty wasn’t the winner. Michael Duffy, a schoolfriend of McEneff, one of ‘The Shanty Boys’ as he describes him, struck a sublime volley to equalise with the last kick of the game in the 93rd minute.

“We were laughing about it in extra-time,” McEneff reveals. “He just came up behind me on the pitch and was like; ‘it’s mad how football works, isn’t it?’

“I goes: ‘what do you mean?’

“He laughs: ‘sure I’ve been shite all game and then I score a screamer.’

“We both bursted out laughing. And he was right, it is a mad game. I was playing with this fella on a school pitch when we were kids and here we were in the Aviva. There is a rivalry there but we have a bond, too, because we have known each other for so long.”

Rovers eventually triumphed and the night was spend celebrating with teammates and family back at the team hotel.

It was early November and McEneff already had a holiday away planned with his girlfriend. As December arrived and Noel’s birthday approached, he did something he had never done before.

It was around Christmas time and I said to him: ‘look, we’re going for a few pints together’. I’d never done it before. Never really sat with my Da, just us two, and chatted. Within those three hours, you hear so many stories about Dublin, about his own life growing up and our family. It was just good craic, like.

“You learn about your Da. He was saying about going the Rovers games when he was younger. It makes you realise what that meant to him that night in the Aviva. Whereas, I would never have really knew that before. My Dad is the most chilled man on the planet, he never forced anything on any of us.

“He just wanted the best for us and helped us. I knew he went to the last Cup final Rovers won but I never knew to what extent he actually loved Rovers. It was a packed Saturday night when we went out, it was the Blackbird in Derry, and we had to stand at first but once we got a seat sure that made us stay longer,” McEneff laughs.

“We talked about football, we chatted about my brothers and how we were all getting on. My Da actually worked in The Square in Tallaght when he was younger. We literally just sat and talked together.

“You have to be grateful for times like that, to have that chat with my Da, to be able to have it because there are so many people out there who can’t do it. You get the feel of what it really means. It’s a great feeling as a son to look and go, “fucking yeah, I made you proud’. And you do, you learn more about your Da sitting having a few pints then you ever would.”

pjimage From top left: McEneff scores his penalty during normal time, wheels away in celebration in front of his family and then lifts the trophy. Pics: INPHO

If that triumph helped bring them even closer, it was hardly a relationship that needed much more strengthening. Noel and Jackie had been a source of comfort and support to their oldest son from the time he left home for Tottenham Hotspur as a 17-year-old.

When Tim Sherwood bluntly told him during the second year of his youth team contract, just before a week at home for Halloween, that he would release him if it had of been the end of the end of the season, it was his parents that McEneff confided in.

“I came back from that week a new person and worked as hard as I ever did. I got in and was training with the first team.”

McEneff was offered a one-year professional extension but early in he injured his knee, damaging the tendon that connects the bone to the muscle. “It felt like the outside of it was going to snap off whenever I got up,” he recalls.

But the vibe I got from the club was that they thought I was taking the piss because I went for a MRI and not was showing up. The same when I had an ultra-sound, there was nothing. The physios were at me to just give it a go but I knew it wasn’t right, I kept telling them it was like it would snap in half.

“I was in the pool and the gym every day. I was swimming like Michael Phelps by the end. [Mauricio] Pochettino was in as manager by then and every day he would come in and see me getting treatment, nearly every day he pop his head in and ask me the same question: ‘are you training today?’

“It killed me because I had to say no every time. Fuck. I just couldn’t train, and then that starts playing on your mind that he’s asking you this and you have to keep saying no. That’s hard when you are only a kid.”

Eventually, one of the medical staff decided to send him to a specialist in London. “Within two minutes he spotted the problem and gave me my options.”

McEneff was 19 and was faced with either a season-ending surgery in his final year, or a six-week course of pain-killing injections.”

“I went for the injections but at the end of the season I was told there was nothing there for me anymore. That’s how football is.”

michael-duffy-scores-a-goal-to-bring-the-sides-level Michael Duffy wheels away in celebration after scoring the equaliser at Aviva Stadium. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

A trial at Nottingham Forest was arranged, there was one practice game with Sheffield Wednesday and two visits to Birmingham City, before a final throw of the dice in Britain with St Mirren. “I rang my brother Nathan and told him I was ready to come home. I had to get back to Derry then because it was killing me by the end over there.”

So Peter Hutton offered him some respite at Derry, although the fans were less than forgiving. “I realised, if you want to play football at any level there is nobody that can get you out of a hole other than yourself.

“You have to work hard. You can get all the advice from people, people can tell you anything they want and support you, that’s great and I am grateful but when you go out on the pitch it’s up to you.

We got beat by Drogheda 3-0 early on and there were a few fans shouting as we came off roaring at me. They were expecting a superstar coming back from Spurs, I think. You must be brilliant if you were there. But that’s not how it works. I’m not brilliant.

“This fella was shouting at me: ‘McEneff, you can’t pass water, you should be donating your wages to the Foyle Hospice’. I’m thinking: ‘I may as well just pack it in’. You don’t get that stuff when you come off having a stinker for the Under-21s over in England at some training ground and there are a few agents just standing there. You don’t get that feeling.”

Derry provided the platform for him to rebuild his career, and life, in the League of Ireland. He moved home with his parents before Stephen Bradley brought him to Rovers last season.

“Even then my Da never put pressure on me. It was the same as when me and my brothers were kids, he just asks me after every game if I enjoyed it. It was only when we went for those pints together that I properly realised what it means to him that I play for Rovers.” 

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