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'You become paranoid and think: ‘Are my team-mates talking about me?''

Irish striker Cillian Sheridan reflects on his career so far and discusses the challenges of adapting to life as a footballer on the continent.

Cillian Sheridan has thrived since moving abroad.
Cillian Sheridan has thrived since moving abroad.
Image: AP/Press Association Images

CILLIAN SHERIDAN IS no stranger to feeling like the odd man out.

During the week, the Irish striker’s move to Polish title contenders Jagiellonia Bialystok was confirmed.

Sheridan will consequently become the first-ever Irish footballer to play in Poland’s top flight, the Ekstraklasa.

And so the Cavan native is somewhat of an anomaly in Irish football.

While players from these shores seldom re-locate any further than Britain, Sheridan has now represented clubs in five different countries if you include loan moves.

Yet the striker — who has earned three Ireland caps, the last of which came in a friendly against Argentina in 2010 — has always stood out, and not only because of his imposing six-foot-five stature.

In an industry in which many people take themselves far too seriously, there is a light-hearted side to Sheridan encapsulated by his Father Ted-referencing Twitter by-line: “For bookings contact Father Dougal McGuire.” A joke which itself has led to hilarious consequences on at least one occasion.

Moreover, from an early age, he seemed an unusual fit for a footballer.

I would have grown up playing Gaelic,” he tells The42. “When I was about 14 I started going up and down to Belvedere FC in Dublin. I was juggling the two and it wasn’t until my last season (with Belvedere) when I laid off playing Gaelic, because I was playing a game up in Dublin on a Saturday morning and coming back on a Saturday afternoon and playing a Gaelic match, it was getting too much. But I miss GAA now.”

Sheridan clearly had a degree of talent for GAA, representing Cavan’s footballers at minor level and playing locally for Bailieborough Shamrocks. The multi-talented athlete even rejected an approach from Aussie Rules side Brisbane Lions. However, he ultimately chose to pursue soccer despite some early teething problems.

I was playing in the mindset almost of playing Gaelic. It was difficult to adjust to it,” he says.

Representing a renowned Dublin schoolboy club in Belvedere, which has produced a number of Ireland internationals including Wes Hoolahan, Mark Kennedy and David Forde, Sheridan says he wasn’t an obvious professional footballer in the making, or even the main star of the side.

Paul Skinner and Eric Foley, who currently play in the League of Ireland with Longford and Galway United respectively, were both team-mates, as was Paul Cahalane, who has gone on to play Gaelic football with Laois.

“From the 11 players that would play every week, I’m sure literally every one of them went over to a team (in Britain),” he adds.

Most of the fellas in that Belvedere team went over (to Britain) before me. A lot of the time, it’s fellas who bloom late or maybe go under the radar that get a career.”

But Sheridan increasingly impressed at this level, earning call-ups to Irish underage sides and before long, there were a number of teams across the water offering trials, with Celtic ultimately signing him up in the summer of 2006.

After impressing with the youth team, the promising youngster made his debut with the senior side less than a year after joining the club, two days after his 18th birthday, coming on as a substitute amid a 2-1 Scottish Cup win over Inverness.

When I first went over, there was a good group of Irish fellas there, so I never felt homesick or anything. As soon as I went over, I settled in straight away.

“I had a good season with the youth team in my first year and then had a chance with the first team.”

Soccer - Clydesdale Bank Scottish Premier League - Inverness Caledonian Thistle - Celtic - Tulloch Caledonian Stadium A young Cillian Sheridan (right) holds off Inverness' Jamie Duff. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Nonetheless, first-team opportunities remained hard to come by. He had to wait until the final game of the season to make his league debut, coming on as an 88th-minute substitute for Craig Beattie and the following season, he would add just one more league match to his appearance tally.

The 2008-09 campaign, however, at least threatened to be Sheridan’s breakthrough year. There were some memorable moments that season, including a respectable tally of four goals in 12 league appearances and a Champions League debut at Old Trafford. Although the latter occasion was not quite as spectacular as it sounds. Sheridan replaced Scott McDonald in the 77th minute, with Man United 3-0 up and the game along with Celtic’s Champions League hopes effectively over.

Nevertheless, for a 19-year-old teenager from Cavan, it was still a highly impressive feat.

“I just remember, being on the pitch, there was something about Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez that struck me,” he remembers. “Every pass, their technique, things like that were standing out and I remember little things like that.

And obviously, playing at Old Trafford, the stadium, you’re a little bit in awe. It’s hard to describe.

“When I came on, the game was basically done, and maybe that’s why (the manager) brought me on. Maybe to give me a taste of it. So I’d be grateful for that.”

Despite these early promising signs, Sheridan spent the next season and a half on loan, agreeing to stints at Motherwell, Plymouth and St Johnstone.

By the time he returned to Celtic, Gordon Strachan — the manager who had shown such faith in playing the teenage striker — was gone, and Sheridan was subsequently deemed surplus to requirements at Celtic Park.

In these circumstances, most Irish players would generally settle for a lower-level English or Scottish side, yet Sheridan took a more unconventional route, joining Bulgarian team CSKA Sofia in the summer of 2010.

The transition was far from seamless, however. He never fully established himself in CSKA’s first team, scoring four goals, but making just nine starts in his first season with the club.

I was only 21 when I went,” he recalls. “The club was just on their way down. They had lots of money problems and they weren’t doing so good. There was all this shunting going on.

“So that was hard to get used to… You don’t really get used to it. That was one of the biggest shocks, and then after a while, the manager got sacked. After the new guy came in, I was never playing. At least when I was playing, it was okay because I was playing. But when I wasn’t playing and being there on my own, I hated it.

Before I went (to Bulgaria), I always said the worst thing that can happen is I’m there for three years, I hate it, I come back and I’m still only going to be 24 and I’ll still have the experience of being abroad. That helped me massively the next time when it came up to go to Cyprus. I didn’t really have to think about it, I said straight away ‘I want to go’.”

So following a further loan spell with St Johnstone and an injury-ridden season playing for Kilmarnock, Sheridan made another left-of-centre move to APOEL Nicosia.

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Cyprus Champions League Soccer Barcelona's Ivan Rakitic fights for the ball with APOEL's Cillian Sheridan during a Champions League Group F soccer match. Source: Petros Karadjias

It was in Cyprus where Sheridan’s career really seemed to take off. He won two league titles and two Cypriot Cups, also appearing in all six of APOEL’s group games during the 2014-15 Champions League campaign. They picked up just one point in a difficult group that also featured Ajax, PSG and Barcelona, though they only lost 1-0 at the Nou Camp to a side that included Lionel Messi, Neymar and Xavi.

The following season, he joined the club’s local rivals Omonia Nicosia and flourished, reaching double figures for the first time in his career, with 15 goals in 22 starts last season. This year, he continued to impress, with eight goals in 17 starts before his just-announced move to Jagiellonia.

I loved it there,” he says of Cyprus. “The people were very welcoming and friendly when I went over at the beginning. With both teams, I had quite a good relationship with the fans, so it was definitely a nice time that I can look back and be happy about.”

But never shy of a challenge, Sheridan left Nicosia behind in a bid to test himself at a higher level and possibly even catch the attention of the Irish management. Furthermore, he is keen not to repeat the same mistakes he made in Sofia.

“It’s like Bulgaria in the sense that it’s Eastern Europe, it’s a different language. There’s not as much English as there would be in Cyprus. I know what goes on and how things work. But the experience of doing things once gives you foundations for the future.

I don’t find (living abroad) difficult. I’m planning to learn the language here, because to be involved in the dressing room, you obviously need to understand (the players and staff). You never get frozen out or they don’t not talk to you on purpose, the natural thing to do is just to speak in your own language.

“The problem for me in Bulgaria was that I was ignorant, to not to try and learn the language. When they’re talking you become paranoid and think: ‘Are (my team-mates) talking about me?’ Or, they don’t want to talk to me. Stuff like that, I learned from the first time.

Cyprus was different, because everyone there speaks such good English that there was never need for me to learn Greek.

“People would speak to me in English anyway. I wouldn’t have to say ‘sorry, I don’t speak Greek’. They were already assuming that I don’t speak Greek so naturally, they’d just speak to me in English. It made me lazy, not having to learn it.”

At 28, Sheridan is coming into what should be his footballing prime — an assertion supported by his increased goals-per-game ratio over the past two seasons. He credits help from sports psychologist Niall Stack, who is currently working with the Tipperary footballers, as one reason for his recent improvement.

That was one of the big changes I made last year, working with him,” he says. “Doing that helped me gain some more consistency. You’ve kind of a different outlook on football, every day going into training and games and things like that. It’s something that I’d encourage others to try.”

Source: ONCOM VIDEOS/YouTube

It is now almost four years since Sheridan swapped Scotland for Cyprus. He has been away from Ireland for over a decade and only gets a chance to go back these days for roughly a week at both Christmas and summertime. Yet while he may occasionally miss friends, family and people who can appreciate Father Ted references, the peripatetic striker has benefited immensely as a footballer by travelling around and testing himself in various different environments.

“I’m a much different and better footballer than I was before I went abroad. It might sound weird, but going to a lesser league has made me better. You learn from different cultures and styles of playing.

You’re maturing anyway and you might think differently about football, make different decisions and stuff like that. Even just things that would naturally happen (to improve my game) have happened for me as well.

“People obviously wouldn’t see my progression. I was over in Cyprus so no one’s going to watch me play. But for me, I’m now a different player, and for the better.”

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Paul Fennessy

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