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'It was strange. I thought I'd finish my career at Dundalk, now I was a new lad at 30'

Ahead of today’s derby with Glentoran, Chris Shields discusses his new life at Linfield, his exit from Dundalk and Brian Kerr’s criticism of his old team-mate, Stephen O’Donnell.

Chris Shields pictured bidding farewell to Dundalk fans after his last game for the club earlier this year.
Chris Shields pictured bidding farewell to Dundalk fans after his last game for the club earlier this year.
Image: Ciaran Culligan/INPHO

CHRIS SHIELDS WILL begin his 32nd year preparing for a derby game perhaps like no other. 

Linfield host Glentoran at a sold-out Windsor Park on Monday and it could not be more favorably set. The pair are level on points, Glentoran having made a remarkable rally after a brutal start to potentially being on the road to a first title since 2009. 

‘The Big Two’ was in danger of becoming something of a misnomer but, helped by major investment by a UK-based consortium led by Welshman Ali Pour, the Glens are becoming challengers again.

It’s one of the reasons why, earlier this year, Chris Shields decided to up sticks and take on a new challenge after 10 years at Dundalk. Linfield boss David Healy was moved in October to say that when his Blues side had been beaten 6-0 by Dundalk in the second leg of the Unite The Union Cup two years ago, it was as if there were three Chris Shields on the pitch.

One might suffice on Monday at Windsor Park. 

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Johnny Ward [JW]: Why did you leave?

Chris Shields [CS]: I felt it was the right time and I always said I’d end up playing up here. The constant travelling was hard. Away days I could be gone for 18 hours, missing days. I didn’t think when the two kids came along it would affect me as much. 

I’d a chat with David Healy and also Glens. It happened quickly. I’d given everything to Dundalk. I’m not finished but I fancied a new challenge. It’s like the excitement of a new job. Things had gone a bit stale at Dundalk. 

JW: Your form seemed to suffer.

CS: I wasn’t playing as well as I could have or I had been. You try not to take notice of what’s happening off the pitch but it does affect you. The new owners have brought that back, Stevie (O’Donnell) has spoken about it and it’s great to see. The club was at a crossroads and this just came out of nowhere. I got a new lease of life. It’s going well for me. 

JW: Going back to Dundalk. When Filippo Giovagnoli and Giuseppe Rossi came in, were things OK? How did it culminate last season?

CS: Some people have bad words about Giuseppe and Filippo but they were good guys, that was the way the squad felt. Of course 2020, defending the title was rubbish, awful; everyone felt so bad how we defended the title. But then we got luck in the draw for the Europa League. It didn’t go too well but after we won the Cup we all thought this could be something to build on if we recruit right; we could have a right crack at it because we felt we were not a million miles away. Then suddenly in April the guys were gone and Jim [Magilton] was in. 

I get on with Jim but he was constantly saying: ‘I don’t want the manager’s job’. He was saying that for a good few weeks. But he took it for the guts of ten weeks! What were we supposed to think? I had no problems with Vinny [Perth] coming back but for things to go full circle showed the direction we were going under Peak 6. The only saving grace was there was never friction in the squad. They were a great bunch.

JW: What was it like when Vinny came back? So much had happened in the meantime.

CS:  It was a shock. Vinny told me had he been in earlier he would not have let me leave. Vinny did himself justice when he came back given we were ninth for a while. Everyone may have said could the impossible happen, relegation? Vinny and the players, down to the bare bones, made a run for Europe somehow.  

JW: What are your favourite Dundalk memories?

CS: Probably proving you wrong in April 2019 when you said the league was dead and buried.

JW: That was the worst call ever.

CS: We all make bad calls! It’s hard to look past [Europa League group stage run in] 2016. The magic of it all. It captured the imagination of everyone. And we retained the league title, which looked like it might be an impossible feat. Getting points and performing in Europe. What a year. 

chris-shields-with-javi-garcia Chris Shields challenges Javi Gracia of Zenit St Petersburg in a 2016 Europa League clash. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

JW: How did you improve as a player, to the extent you were definitely one of the outstanding Dundalk European players? People might have seen you earlier in your career and not seen how you could be so good on the ball, like your performance in Vienna last year. Europe seemed to bring you to another level.

CS: It did. It helped me improve as a player. You have to adapt completely, learn when to do things. In Europe, covering ground won’t cut the mustard. I always say the volume of games really helped. I always loved a backlog of games! That was always the case for us under Stephen Kenny. I always learnt a lot from Stevie [O’Donnell] and Higgy [Ruaidhri Higgins] when I was young. You’ve to try to learn from them while competing for places with them.

JW: When Stevie was injured in 2016 you came in, you seemed to do so well. You all of a sudden looked very comfortable on the ball. There’s a lot of pressure on the ball in Europe. You seemed to go up a level.

CS: Yeah, I always say in a sense I was lucky to play with Stevie because he was injured so much! I was 25 in that run and he used to get injured. All of a sudden I am starting in a pivotal role and you’re either good on the ball or your team are in lots of trouble. Adrenaline got me through it.

JW: Stevie’s had an interesting time of it of late. Can you see why he is back at Oriel?

CS: Absolutely. I see Brian Kerr giving out a lot lately. Say if the shoe were on the other foot, it had been Brian Kerr in the past and he were managing someone else and the chance came to manage Pat’s, Pat’s fans would be saying it was his chance to come home. This is the exact same for Stevie. 

He said his career was dead before he signed for Dundalk and he became the club’s most successful captain ever, the forefront of everything we did. Stevie said his proudest moment in football was winning the Cup with Pat’s. We always knew he’d be a manager. For him to say that it was his proudest moment, the aspirations to manage a club you’ve such a bond with, why would he not want to take that up? 

He knows the owners. It’s a rebuild. I can’t get the gripe between Pat’s fans and Stevie. He was well within his rights to leave. He gave everything. Look where he took them from to what they have become. He has them in Europe. Dundalk aren’t in Europe!

JW: Was Brian Kerr out of order?

CS: Far worse things have happened in the League of Ireland. Stevie left at the end of the season. He didn’t leave them in the shit. He’s won them a cup.  

JW: Any regrets so you’re not still at Dundalk so?

CS: A small bit obviously but I’m loving where I am, enjoying it more than I thought I would. But when you see a coach like him who I lived and played with and enjoyed my time with, obviously your relationship would have had to change but it would have been nice to play under him.

Linfield was a bit of a risk. Some players make moves that don’t work out, lads have stinkers and are seen as flops. The magnitude of Linfield means that fans will voice their opinions. 

JW: You mentioned the fact you could have gone to Glens.

CS: I met [manager Mick McDermott] and Windy [Paul Millar]. I’d always talk to people rather than just say no. They had a keen interest, it just came down to me deciding where I wanted to go. My thought process was Linfield.

JW: Why so?

CS: I half-knew the gaffer David Healy as he’s from Bangor. My wife’s friend lives next door to him. I’d have chatted football to him every so often. We got on. Linfield and Windsor is a big pull. As much as I loved Dundalk, Oriel every week took a toll on the body. 

JW: What was it like going into a new dressing-room, especially Linfield, with its unionist tradition and so on?

CS: It was strange. I thought I’d finish my career at Dundalk, now I was a new lad at 30. I didn’t really know anyone bar the manager. It was odd enough, having to learn a whole new group, having an initiation song. 

The dressing room is A1, a top, bunch of lads. Both sides of the community are represented here. You can get bogged down in preconceptions. The dressing room made me settle in early. You still feel like a kid going into school even at my age. I’m buddies with Jimmy Callacher, Kirk Millar, Jordan Steward; Connor Pepper is a Dub, I wasn’t on my own! Mainly them boys and also Niall Quinn and Matty Clarke, a staunch Rangers fan from up near Strabane. He goes to Rangers games when he can. You never come across that in the League of Ireland, even if my dad is Scottish and he’s a Rangers fan! It’s an interesting mix. Staunch Belfast lads, the odd Celtic fan here as well.

chris-shields-celebrates-winning Shields celebrates a Linfield victory against Larne earlier this year. Source: Stephen Hamilton/INPHO

JW: How have the fans taken to you?

CS: It’s all performance-based. I haven’t been abused as of yet! I think I’ve won them around with a few good performances. You play for the badge and once fans see that you’ll be liked enough. Linfield fans make their voices heard, you can hear one or two boos at half-time if it is nil-all. It’s high expectations. We had a bad week in November but we bounced back. They say one defeat here is a crisis. 

JW: I guess when you think of Northern Ireland and the division, Glens and Linfield is really the Old Firm in some respects despite their similar traditions.

CS: The derby is the first fixture I looked for. The fact it was in the Oval I like even better, to get the full flak. It’s heated, there is a genuine disdain for each other. I love the Oval. We beat them 3-0 in the Oval but it was overshadowed with lads sitting on top of fences, screaming at Mick McDermott for his head. A lot of the hatred was focussed on the manager, both sets of fans saying ‘you’re getting sacked in the morning’. And look at the turnaround he has had. The Boxing Day derby, as they say up here, is such a great thing. 

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JW: Sean Murray’s move to Glentoran is big news. Is the standard on the rise?

CS: The standard is definitely improving with more teams full-time, more teams wanting to play more attractive football. In the south we used to say they’d just play it up to the big man here. Lots of clubs have changed from that. They do it right through the youth academy. 

As for Sean, if he can continue his form at the end of the season with Dundalk, goals from midfield, he could really light up the league here. He’s a friend of mine and I’d like to see him stay injury-free even if we’ll be in direct competition when we play.  

JW: Is Northern Ireland in a better place? 

CS: It is. Maybe years ago would you have had Celtic and Rangers fans getting on so well in a dressing room? Some of them are best of friends. In football that is gone a long time. We’ve come on leaps and bounds. I’ve never had any problems in Bangor, a heavily Protestant town. People’s thoughts have changed for the better. We’ve come a long, long way. 

JW: Are you considering declaring for Northern Ireland like your old team-mate but now rival Michael O’Connor?

CS: [Pause]. My agent Gary Rogers has a good relationship with Ian Baraclough if he fancies one of those dud tours to America.

JW: Stephen Kenny is going into Christmas quite happy I guess.

CS: Everyone who played for him knew what he could do. Nobody was hurting more than the players he managed when everything was going against him from the natural order. It’s the strongest finish to an international campaign I’ve seen. They are playing above themselves. It’s the Kenny effect. Taking on Portugal, had Ronaldo not been playing [it would have been] four points from the two games. When did we last have the chance to do that? Maybe when Roy Keane was still playing. 

I’m delighted for him. He’s proved a lot of people wrong. This will be the real test trying to get into the Euros, maybe make or break him. Stephen is Stephen. He’ll relish stuff like that.

JW: Any part of you worried how maybe the dressing room would be, when they were losing in Andorra, and losing against Lixembourg?

CS: Yeah, definitely. You’d worry about Premier League egos and so on. These lads did not deal with him before. You have to buy into what he is doing or it falls flat on its face. You see what happened at Shamrock Rovers. There were egos there and that was his downfall. That was the worry with Ireland, maybe they would have seen his background and said who is this fellow? 

The end of the campaign has given everyone hope. Portugal could have steam-rolled us not that long ago. I don’t really see anyone doing that to us at the minute. We’ve promoted youth. We haven’t had a keeper like Bazunu since Shay Given. Josh Cullen is getting better every time we see him play. I’m more excited about this Irish time than I was for about 20 years.

JW: I’d have lost interest in Ireland.

CS: I was a bit the same. Can I be bothered watching us this week? I’d lost interest in the national team. Maybe a lot of people have. Stephen is maybe reigniting things. People were calling for his head but I presume he’s won a lot of them around. When international weeks come around now you are generally very excited. The brand of football now is far easier on the eye than the Plan B days. Stephen’s a normal fella and he just manages Ireland. 

JW: How will your old buddy Higgy get on at Derry? 

CS: The young managers throughout the league is a brilliant thing. I’m delighted for these lads and Tim Clancy getting the Pat’s job. He deserved it. I’ve a good relationship with Keith Long too. Somebody has to catch Rovers. There hasn’t been much of a title race since 2018. That’s what you are looking for. Rovers won both at a canter and given the financial package, are Derry the ones to push them close? Higgy won’t like me saying it but I imagine they are. I’ll get my own badges to coach next year. I’ll take my step and see how I get on. I’ll do the badges up here. I can’t imagine being out of football.

JW: Call it on Monday?

CS: I don’t know how the BBC is not showing it but it’s available to buy on channel 245 for £7.50 and it’s sold out too. Both teams are in good form going into the game, level on points at the top of the table, so I expect a cagey affair with no one wanting to make any sort of mistake but obviously I’ll be hoping for a Linfield win to make it a happy 31st birthday.

 

About the author:

Johnny Ward

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