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'I don't think I would get a good reception if I went back to the club and that is disappointing'

The last defender to win the PFAI Player of the Year award on life in New Zealand and what went before it.

WHEN SEAN MAGUIRE was named PFAI Player of the Year last month, it had us wondering when the award was last won by a defender.

In recent years, it has been the property of strikers and midfielders. Maguire was preceded by Daryl Horgan, Richie Towell, Christy Fagan, Killian Brennan, Mark Quigley, Eamon Zayed, Richie Ryan, Gary Twigg and Keith Fahey.

A decade has passed since a defensive player was last recognised as the League of Ireland’s top performer, something the man in question was only reminded of when he was contacted after November’s awards ceremony by the PFAI’s general secretary.

“Stephen McGuinness actually messaged me to say it was 10 years ago since I won it. Time has flown,” says Brian Shelley, who was rewarded for his contribution from right-back to Drogheda United’s Premier Division title triumph in 2007.

Brian Shelly celebrates winning the league Brian Shelley celebrates Drogheda United's Premier Division title triumph in 2007. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“That was an amazing season which I’ll never forget. I was part of a very good squad of players at Drogheda. To pick up that award was pretty special, especially as a defender because that doesn’t happen often.”

Shelley is back on Irish soil for the first time in three years this Christmas. New Zealand has been home for the former Ireland U21 international since 2012, although he continues to closely monitor the league where his senior career began.

Having been unable to make the breakthrough at Shamrock Rovers, a long association with Roddy Collins began when he signed for rivals Bohemians in 2000. Shelley was handed his debut for the Gypsies in slightly surreal circumstances that September.

Earlier that summer, he was an 18-year-old watching from his couch at home in Dublin as World Cup holders France won the European Championships with a team that included Youri Djorkaeff. Two months later, Shelley was on the same pitch as Djorkaeff in a Uefa Cup tie.

“I got a call from Roddy Collins one day and he offered me an opportunity at Bohs,” Shelley recalls. “Roddy has his flaws but I do have a lot of time for him. He gave me a chance in the game when nobody else wanted to. He put me into some very important games as a young player.”

The first of those was against Kaiserslautern, a game which was played at Tolka Park. As well as Djorkaeff, the German side — who were Bundesliga champions just two years earlier — had a player who would go on to set a record for goals scored at the World Cup.

One of the men who came off the bench during Kaiserslautern’s 3-1 first leg victory was Miroslav Klose. By contrast, Bohs introduced a young defender who had yet to have his first taste of senior football. Brian Shelley was introduced for his debut in the closing stages.

He says: “It’s one of those moments I’ll never forget. I just remember Roddy saying, ‘warm up, you’re coming on’, and I kind of started panicking. I remember running onto the pitch and passing Djorkaeff and almost feeling as if I was dreaming. My head was spinning.

PA-1340458 Youri Djorkaeff under pressure from Bohemians captain Kevin Hunt. Source: PA Images

“To be on the same pitch as someone like that was a bit mad, especially for my debut. As a kid coming on in a game like that was incredible. I was only on the pitch for a few minutes but it’s something I’ll never forget. You definitely appreciate it more too as time goes on.”

Although they didn’t advance to the next round, Bohs secured a famous victory in the second leg in Germany, with Glen Crowe scoring the only goal of the game. Given that they had already eliminated Aberdeen in the qualifying round, it had been a brief but memorable campaign for the Gypsies. They then reproduced that form domestically.

Roddy Collins’ side ended the season by winning the club’s first Premier Division and FAI Cup double in 73 years. But despite being thrown in at the deep end by Collins against Kaiserslautern, Shelley was used sparingly over the course of the season.

With Collins then departing for Carlisle United, Shelley had a short stint at Longford Town before joining the former Bohs boss at the English fourth-tier outfit. Collins brought a sizeable Irish contingent to Cumbria and Shelley was the last man standing when he finally left the club in 2005. It had been an eventful three years.

“At the time — and it’s probably still a little bit like this — players saw going to England as the natural progression. They think that’s the answer to everything, and now I’m not sure personally that it always is,” Shelley explains.

“When the opportunity popped up I wanted to go over there and test myself. I don’t regret it, it was a good experience in my three years at the club and I was grateful for doing it.”

Shelley’s time at Carlisle was a constant battle to avoid relegation from the Football League, although it nearly came to a premature end in his first season. Much of Collins’ reign was documented for TV in ‘The Rod Squad’, with one episode featuring Shelley — along with fellow Irish defender Dessie Byrne — falling foul of the manager.

Shelley eventually repaired the damage, but he spent some time on the transfer list after being spotted in a nightclub with Byrne following a 5-1 home defeat to Hull City.

Soccer - Nationwide League Division Three - Doncaster Rovers v Carlisle United Shelley in possession for Carlisle United in May 2004. Source: EMPICS Sport

“It’s funny looking back on it now,” he laughs. “It was just a breakdown in communication. There was no game until the following Saturday. I think me and Dessie Byrne left the dressing room early. The right decision would have been to go home and bury our heads but we were young lads. We went into the city and had a few drinks.

“But apparently after we left the dressing room Roddy said if anyone was to go out they’d be in big trouble. Myself and Des weren’t there for that. If we were, we wouldn’t have been that stupid. We were losing games so Roddy was under a lot of pressure. I appreciated that.

“Roddy found out the next day and reacted pretty harshly in my opinion. I think he needed to make an example of people so he put us on the transfer list. It took me a while to build the bridge with Roddy again but thankfully I did.”

Shelley adds: “The spotlight was on us over there. We had an Irish owner, an Irish manager, and I think seven or eight Irish players at one point. Unless you’re winning and things are going well, you’re going to be under pressure.

“With so many Irish people at the club all of a sudden, the locals probably directed most of the stick our way when things weren’t going well. It was nothing I hadn’t experienced before and it made me a better player. I probably ended up getting worse from the Bohs fans after what happened there later on. That did filter out onto the streets.”

Before Shelley and Bohemians could fall out of love, he signed up for a third stint under Roddy Collins by leaving Carlisle for a short stay at Shamrock Rovers.

“Over the years I’ve heard people bad-mouth Roddy but I wouldn’t get involved in that personally,” Shelley insists. “He’s done too much for me. When I was a young kid he took a chance on me. I won’t ever forget that.

“There were stages when I was younger when I probably wasn’t fully focused on football. Roddy just seemed to understand that. He’s a big character, full of life, and he brings the spotlight with him wherever he goes. But people forget that while he maybe didn’t have a great time at some clubs, he’s also had a lot of success too.”

Soccer - Nationwide League Division Two - Rushden & Diamonds v Carlisle United Roddy Collins Source: EMPICS Sport

Drogheda United were spending money in their bid to conquer Irish football and Shelley joined the club for the 2006 season. He won back-to-back Setanta Sports Cups in his first two years at United Park, but the highlight came when they were crowned Premier Division champions for the first and only time in 2007, with Shelley the star man at right-back.

He recalls: “It’s hard to say that it’s better winning the league with one team more than another, but that achievement with Drogheda — the celebrations there and the way we were received in the town — will always stick with me. It’s literally a whole town behind you when the club is doing well.

“United Park wasn’t the prettiest stadium but it was bouncing as we got closer to winning the league. The celebrations went on for days. It was pretty special to win that one. Winning the league up there against Cork City definitely stands out as a career highlight for me.”

That achievement sent Drogheda into the qualifying stages of the Champions League for the 2008-09 season. After eliminating Levadia Tallinn of Estonia, Paul Doolin’s side were paired with Ukrainian giants Dynamo Kiev.

It’s perhaps an oft-forgotten tie given that Drogheda ultimately failed to advance, but they were agonisingly close to doing so at the expense of a club who defeated Spartak Moscow 8-2 on aggregate in the next round. Dynamo subsequently progressed to the group stages, where they recorded wins over Fenerbahce and Porto.

But their campaign very nearly ground to a halt in the second qualifying round when Drogheda went to Kiev aiming to overturn a 1-2 first-leg deficit. When Graham Gartland scored in the 88th minute to make it 2-2 on the night, Drogs knew that one more goal would send them through — and they had their chances.

Adam Hughes scuffed a half-volley over the crossbar when the home side’s goalkeeper was stranded, and then Shane Robinson was inches away from his second goal of the night when his effort from a narrow angle struck the woodwork. Dynamo Kiev survived, and the Drogheda United players are still wondering what might have been.

The Drogheda bench reacts to a late missed chance The Drogheda United bench reacts to a late missed chance in the second leg against Dynamo Kiev. Source: Andrey Lukatsky/INPHO

“Robbo’s shot that hit the post and rolled across the line, that still replays in my brain whenever I think about that game. We were literally a kick of a ball away from knocking them out. We almost achieved something huge,” Shelley says.

“They’re great experiences and memories but that definitely was a near miss. It probably would have changed the careers of the players and Drogheda United as a whole. It’s probably not unrealistic to say that a lot of us would still be there.”

But the wheels soon came off for Drogheda. As was the case with clubs throughout the League of Ireland at the time, expenditure and income were polls apart. Something had to give, and Shelley ultimately opted to return for a second spell with Bohemians in 2009.

His first season back at Dalymount Park yielded a League Cup medal and another Premier Division title, but Bohs weren’t immune to the problems that were widespread in Irish football. Ahead of the 2011 season, Shelley and team-mate Steven Gray instructed PFAI solicitor Stuart Gilhooly to issue the club with a winding-up order over a financial dispute.

With FAI chief executive John Delaney among those who attempted to intervene, the situation was eventually resolved. But in spite of his vital contribution for the club on the field, Shelley had already burned his bridges with Bohs supporters. In their eyes, the club they loved was on life support and Shelley had his hand on the plug. Nearly seven years on, he still wouldn’t expect a warm welcome around Phibsboro.

“Unfortunately there are Bohs fans who only remember me for what happened at the end, which is disappointing. It’s hard for supporters to understand what’s going on because there’s emotion in football and people forget that it’s our job. It’s how we make a living,” he says.

“With Drogheda, I was probably four or five months into a three-year deal — the best deal I ever got domestically. I bought a house and then the club turned around and said they had no money left. I walked — what else could I do? The chairman was in tears. He was putting his own money into the club, just a really genuine bloke who got things wrong.

“Myself and the family had to pick up the pieces from that. I went to Bohs, things went well there initially, but how it all ended was sad. But I stand by what happened. How Bohs treated me towards the end was pretty terrible. I had a year to run on my contract but they didn’t want me to take that year. I had nothing else sorted at the time.

inpho_00365237 Shelley won another Premier Division medal with Bohemians in 2009. Source: INPHO/Donall Farmer

“All Bohemians offered me to walk away was eight weeks’ money. I agreed to take that, but when I met the chairman he said he wouldn’t give me the eight weeks’ money unless every other player agreed to the same. That was ridiculous because there were players who had two years left and players who were on more money than I was. I wasn’t willing to accept that.

“I started to speak to other clubs then, which I don’t regret either. I was trying to find an alternative for me and my family. There was a big song and dance, and a very public bust-up. All I left Bohs with in the end was the eight weeks’ money, which was what they originally offered me anyway.

“I wasn’t trying to screw the club. I was trying to make a stand to say that clubs couldn’t keep treating players like that. It was starting to go on all over the league. I told myself I wasn’t going to accept that. We had bills to pay as well.”

He adds: “I was disappointed that supporters decided to blame me. I understand I was an easy target. At no stage did anyone from the Bohs board come out and tell the truth, and explain that I was one of the people who was actually accepting the offer of eight weeks’ money. They just hid behind the supporters.

“It’s easier for supporters to blame players, it’s a lot harder for them to turn on their own club. At the time Bohs was being completely mis-managed by people. I don’t regret holding those people accountable.

“The way things might be as a result of that, it does hurt. But I suppose there are bigger things in life. I gave absolutely everything when I played for Bohs. There was no one more committed than me to the club when I was there, and I’d like to think I was like that for every club I played for.

“At the same time, I don’t think all Bohs fans feel the same. There are a lot of them who knew the club wasn’t being managed right, who appreciated my side of the situation and the contribution I made to the club. I don’t think I would get a good reception if I went back to the club and that is disappointing. But that’s football.”

After his acrimonious departure from Dalymount Park, Shelley decided a fresh start was required. At the age of 29, he ventured down under and joined Ballarat Red Devils in the lower leagues in Australia — where he admits the standard of football “wasn’t great” — but the move did allow him to take his first steps as a coach.

He admits: “I probably wasn’t thinking straight when I made the decision to go to Australia. I was full of disappointment. I said to the family, ‘I’ve had enough of this now, that’s two clubs in a row’, and it had a big impact on me and the family in what we were trying to do in Ireland financially. It was still difficult to go.

Brian Shelly "The way things might be as a result of that, it does hurt. But I suppose there are bigger things in life." Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“I met Michael O’Neill before I left and he offered me a good contract at Shamrock Rovers. When they were playing in the group stages of the Europa League the following year I was definitely thinking that could have been me.

“Did I leave too early? Possibly. But at the same time I wanted something new. I was already starting to think about coaching and I didn’t see many opportunities in Ireland to get experience of that. There were a number of factors but it all happened so quickly. The next thing I knew I was on the other side of the world.”

Shelley spent 18 months in Australia before moving to New Zealand to join Waitakere United, with whom he played in the OFC Champions League final in 2013. Had they gotten the better of Auckland City, Waitakere would have advanced to the Club World Cup to face a Raja Casablanca side who ended up taking on Bayern Munich in the decider.

As well as winning the New Zealand Premiership, Shelley’s time at Waitakere allowed him to advance his coaching credentials. He served as head coach until his departure from the club in November 2015, but since then the Dubliner has been focused on his first full-time job away from football.

At 36, he’s still playing locally in Auckland, where he lives with his wife and 15-year-old daughter. Nowadays, football plays second fiddle to Shelley’s role as a business development manager for an IT equipment company. It’s a job he appreciates, but the yearning to coach remains. He’s realistic enough to accept that he’s unlikely to scratch that itch in a country like New Zealand, where rugby rules the roost.

“I’m enjoying what I’m doing outside of football at the moment,” he says. “But I am going to get back into doing a little bit more coaching, that will start around March. I’ll have to see how the next year or two pans out. But if I do want to get back into the game and progress, I’m not sure I can do that in New Zealand. Obviously that’s not an easy decision because it involves pulling the family around again, which I don’t really want to do.

“I’d like to think long-term that I’ll end up back in football and coaching. The opportunities in New Zealand are limited. It’s not a full-time environment, there’s very few people making a living from the game. That’s the only concern I have.

“If I want to be in football long-term, is the answer New Zealand? Probably not. But we’ll have to wait and see how that plays out.”

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