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London's Irish: Conor Coventry's emergence shaped by struggle of generation before him

The Ireland U-21 captain is on the verge of history with his country – one his grandparents both had to leave in order to make a life for themselves.

A sitting midfielder: Conor Coventry in his back garden.
A sitting midfielder: Conor Coventry in his back garden.

JIMMY KANE WAS 15 years old when he got out of his bed in Ringsend during the middle of the night and left Dublin for England.

As his parents slept, unaware of his plans, he and a friend walked across the Liffey to catch a late sailing from North Wall to Holyhead.

It was 1952 and Jimmy was ready for the rest of his life.

The second youngest of eight siblings, six of them were already spread around England. His 19-year-old brother Eoin had headed across just a few weeks previously.

Jimmy landed in Wales, got the train to Birmingham, and when they arrived at New Street Station they looked at each other and asked: “Which way will we go?”

The joke Jimmy made sure would pass down through generations of his family was that they turned one way and then two hours later, they both walked by the same train station again.

No clue and no money.

Birmingham wasn’t for Jimmy; he headed south to London where he knew family were waiting.

There was work in the building trade, everything from welding to demolition. In the years leading to his death in 2018 at the age of 81, doctors told him asbestos played a part in the deterioration of his health.

Falling from a ladder onto a rockery in his back garden while collecting apples from a tree for his next-door neighbour one Sunday afternoon when he was 77 almost brought about his demise sooner.

An artery in his kidney was lacerated, he needed his shattered pelvis to recover, and doctors told him he would be unlikely to get back on his feet again.

Seven weeks later, he walked out of hospital.

“The cat with nine lives,” his family joke.

image1 (4) Conor Coventry with a canvas collage of early Ireland appearances and his first kit in the background.

Jimmy loved Manchester United – Paul Scholes was his favourite player – but what he loved more than anything was the family of his own he was able to have in London.

It’s estimated that 40,000 Irish people emigrated each year to Britain during the 1950s. Jimmy Kane became one of them when he left his bed in Ringsend in the middle of the night, and so was the woman he would eventually spend the rest of his life with.

***

Kathleen Mulvey is another Dubliner, born on Oliver Bond Street just over three kilometres from where her future husband was born.

It looked as if she and her family would never leave Ireland. Then World War II broke out and her father, James Mulvey, felt a duty to join the British Army and fight the Nazis.

She was only a baby when they arrived in London. But when the Blitz bombing attacks in the early 1940s decimated towns and cities, the decision was taken for the kids to go home.

“When things got rough, all the children were being evacuated,” she explains now, sitting on the cream couch in her sitting room on Hermon Hill in east London.

So they came back to Oliver Bond Street, where she grew into a young woman with ambitions to work and thrive and have her own family.

Dublin couldn’t offer that. London called once again.

At 17, she and her sister Mary moved over together. The tenement houses of Petticoat Lane was one location of refuge.

There was work packaging beer cans in what she describes as “the metal box” before another job in an electrical shop.

It was not long before she met Jimmy Kane and fell in love.

“He was always a bit mad, good mad, even as he got older. You could never watch the football with him because he would be jumping up and down. Oh, he was very biased with the football,” she smiles.

Their family grew and ties to England strengthened.

image2 (3) From left: Lizzie, Conor, Kathleen, Liz and Mia.

“When you have to move away and you are here in England for a while, it breaks your heart,” Kathleen says.

“Then you have a visit home, and you would have to visit home because my mother would kill us if we didn’t, but when you came back here to London after, it just breaks your heart again. It does. It really breaks you heart. You don’t want to be here.

“I used to say to myself all the time, ‘Next week I am going home for good, I’m going home next week’. And here I am still here. All my brothers and sisters came here at one stage, and they all made it home.”

Kathleen and Jimmy made theirs in London, and it was a halfway house of sorts for family and friends finding their own way in the city.

I remember when my brothers would come over and stay while they were looking for work. Then they’d bring friends of their own with them and say ‘it’s grand, Kay, they’ll only need to stay for a little while’. They’d be here for God knows how long but once they got some work and somewhere to live they would go on their way,” she laughs, fondly.

Such hospitality was needed given the nature of the reception from some landladies offering digs. “When we came here first we had all the same: ‘No Irish, no blacks, no dogs’. True to God,” Kathleen explains.

“There were some right old cows! I wouldn’t say it was horrific stuff but it was bad. They were prejudiced. They thought they were above us.”

One of Kathleen’s children, Liz, was born in Dublin and lived in Cabra when they moved home to try and re-establish themselves here.

It didn’t go to plan, and with work for both scarce, the decision was made to return to London.

Liz later married Paul Coventry and they now live five doors down from Kathleen with their two children, Conor (22) and Molly (19). Another uncle lives a few more doors down.

The42 sits by the window in Kathleen’s house on what is a scorching Wednesday afternoon.

image0 (9) Conor Coventry with his mother, Liz, in front of the first Ireland kit he wore in 2016.

Lizzie and Mia are on the couch opposite; the sisters live with their Nana following the passing of their mother, having previously split their time between London and Australia.

The days of the two girls taking turns as goalkeeper in the back garden for their older cousin to practice shooting on them are long gone.

Conor Coventry has also been sitting on the couch beside his Nana, listening to her experiences of finding a new life.

They are not new stories, and the understanding of what has come before him is well understood by the West Ham United midfielder, who is captain of Ireland’s U-21s and holds the record for appearances at that level – 26.

The normality of the fight to survive which Jimmy and Kathleen Kane faced is one which generations of Irish can relate to.

It’s 30 years since they moved to this house, and so much that led them to that point in their lives – the struggles and battles and decisions – have helped shape the next generation.

Conor Coventry is Jimmy and Kathleen Kane’s grandson, and his life in football is now in front of him.

Struggles, battles and decisions of a much different kind await.

***

He’s not sure of the exact age, he reckons he was five or six, but the memory remains vivid for Conor Coventry.

He was sitting on the bottom of the stairs one Saturday morning and the rain outside was pelting down. He felt sick and had absolutely no desire to go to his match for local side Interwood.

One of the reasons that club also appealed is because they wore the green and white hoops of Celtic, a grá which is still evident given that one of the footballs in his back garden bears the crest of the Scottish champions.

“I didn’t want to leave the house. My Dad asked me what was wrong and I told him I wasn’t feeling too well. My Grandad would always have MUTV on and whenever Scholes and Keane were on he would call me in.

“Scholes was his favourite player and he loved Keane. So my Dad said, ‘What do you think Roy Keane would do if he didn’t feel too well? Sit in bed or go out to train?’ I went training. And that has always stayed with me, that moment. That you need that kind of mentality.

“It doesn’t matter if you are feeling tired or not great, just do your best to do the work, do what you can to get through because when you know that you’ve done the work, there is no doubt in your mind.

“Things won’t always go great for you, but when you know you’ve done the work, that helps.”

Ridgeway Rovers – the club David Beckham also started out with – was another that Coventry played with simultaneously.

From the age of six there were regular visits to the development centres for the likes of Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea, Arsenal, Fulham and Charlton Athletic.

Rejection was a constant from the age of seven, until West Ham offered him an academy place at 10.

ipswich-town-v-west-ham-united-pre-season-friendly-portman-road Coventry in pre-season action for West Ham United on Tuesday night. Source: PA

With his mother Liz on one side and Nana Kathleen on the other, memories of those formative years come flooding back as he prepares for another crucial stage in ensuring his ambitions for both club and country can be fulfilled.

Nana Kathleen: The draw back for him in the early days was he was only small, he was tiny.

Conor: Coaches used to all say, ‘You will be a good player when you grow’. I used to be so angry going home hearing that – you will be a good player. Am I not a good player now? I always knew that [growth spurt] was to come so I worked on technical stuff, trying to understand the game so when I did grow, I believed I could be one of the better ones. It helps when you believe things will change. The best boys at 15, 16, 17 can often be gone from football at 18.

Conor: Me and Nan used to have a running thing at home. She would ask how training went. I would always say, ‘Good’, even when I was terrible. Nan would say, ‘How did you know you were good? Did anyone tell you?’

Liz: You have to drag information out of Conor. Honestly, he’s so laid back sometimes I want to shake him!

Conor: Mum is all about the motivation, she’s the one who gives the hair dryer. Dad isn’t quite like that.

Liz: That’s because I know best!

Liz: I have photos from some of the training camps at Chelsea, there are over 60 kids in some of these photos. There were so many kids aiming for the same. You would always see the same boys, they would be going from different clubs.

Conor: Reece James, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Rhian Brewster, they would be some who came through.

Liz: There was one Chelsea camp in the summer, Conor would have been seven or eight. We didn’t go because we had a holiday booked and he wasn’t asked back again. That’s how it was in some places. But we still go back to that place in Portugal every year.

After Spurs turned him down for a place in their academy three times, a six-week trial at West Ham resulted in the offer of a contract.

It also led to Paul coming good a promise to his 10-year-old son.

“We got a sausage dog,” Coventry laughs. “I named him Hamlet.”

It was in his early teens when Coventry, who has only ever held an Irish passport, came on the radar of the FAI’s renowned London-based scout Mark O’Toole.

At 14, he travelled over to the AUL Complex for his first training camp. He was back and forth for another five to six months, and eventually made his debut in an Under-16s game against Turkey at Home Farm.

Afterwards he brought the full kit home, had it framed and presented it to his Grandad Jimmy. It now hangs on the wall just beside the double doors out to the back garden where the pair would also play football together.

“That was very emotional for us,” Kathleen says. “For Conor to play for Ireland, it brought a tear to our eyes, it really did. It was special.”

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image1 (5) Coventry with his mother Liz.

Jimmy passed in 2018, two years after his grandson’s debut, and he made sure to squeeze in as many trips to watch him play for Ireland as he could.

Conor: He loved it and I love that he got to see me play before he died. He wasn’t well but he would never let you know that he wasn’t.

Kathleen: God, I really am so proud. When I hear the anthem before the games it brings tears to my eyes every time.

Lizzie: It’s funny, Nan. You and Grandad had to leave Ireland and came here to live, but now we all get to go back to Dublin all the time to watch Conor play and see all the family we have there.

Kathleen: You never lose that connection, it always stays with us.

Conor: There are times when they are all travelling over and seeing all the family, or away on trips, that I wish I could be with them enjoying it. I used to feel extra pressure because it was Ireland, you don’t want to let everyone down, but after a while and when you’re settled in, that pressure isn’t as bad. You still want to do everything to win.

Ever since O’Toole brought Coventry over at 14, he has been entrenched in the Irish set-up and, as captain of the U-21s, he will lead the side into a play-off this September against Israel, with a place in the European Championships at stake.

It would be an historic achievement for an Ireland side at that level.

conor-coventry-celebrates-scoring-their-second-goal-from-a-penalty Coventry celebrates scoring against Luxembourg during this U-21 Euro campaign. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Conor: We want to go to the Euros and be the first Ireland side to do it, of course, but one of the things driving us all is winning so that we can be a group together for a bit longer. The players and the staff, we’ve all been part of each other’s lives for a long time now. I’ve been with some of the lads since U-16s.

Liz: Brian [Maher]!

Conor: Yeah, me, (goalkeeper) Brian and Gavin Kilkenny have been really good mates since we were kids. Tyreik Wright was a year below but has been a part of it. Andy Lyons too. We want to achieve something together and then the dream is to go and play for the seniors.

“It’s something we all believe we can do, because the feeling is that if you are playing at a good level and doing things properly in your career you will get the chance. I’ve worked with Stephen [Kenny] at the U-21s and I know I have his belief, that he rates me.

“When I went into one of the first camps and the seniors were there, I had barely played any senior game, I was thinking they would not have a clue who I am. What was I doing there!? But Seamus Coleman was the first one to come over straight away, talking to me like best mates, discussing injuries I’d had, the loans I’d been on and the last U-23s game I’d played [for West Ham].

“The way he spoke to me, I never experienced anything like that after. I just felt so calm and at home, like I belonged. We’ve played some practice games with the seniors and it feels like one big team, it doesn’t feel separate. Everyone is so together.”

image0 (10) Liz with one of the canvas prints she had made (bottom left in the canvas is their dog Hamlet who passed away two years ago).

***

This time last year Conor Coventry was in a very similar position at West Ham to the one he finds himself in now: a part of the first team squad but realising he will have to go on loan to play regular football.

Twelve months ago, Mark Noble, then captain, came to him and told him to seek a meeting with David Moyes to discuss his future.

The feeling among the senior players was that the young midfielder had their trust, the coaches felt the same way, and that the manager also agreed, but it was decided that a loan was the best option to get as many games as possible.

A move to Peterborough was agreed on the final day of the summer transfer window, but it was a struggle.

A second stint away, this time at MK Dons pushing for promotion from League One, was of far more benefit in the second half of the season.

Conor: I do feel like there is a lot more to come from me, and that I can develop. But I also believe that I am ready to play at West Ham. I feel good enough now to do it.

“Where I am weighing things up, as much as I would love to play for West Ham, at the same time I have ambitions to play for Ireland and for that to happen I have to be playing. To help the 21s [in September], I have to be playing.

“Sometimes you feel so close and then sometimes you feel like it’s so far away from you.”

Conor: After last season I feel like I know what to do in situations more. I feel calmer in myself on the pitch and feel I can deal with men’s football.

When the pressure is on every game to get a result, and you might not have a great game but have done some things to get a result, you realise how important every little thing is to help the team get it.

“When you’re not playing games, like at Peterborough, you can sit there and think ‘I’ve not played, so I can’t do this and I can’t do that’. Can I eat that when I have not played for two games? I’m still in good shape but you get inside your head and are paranoid. Should I do this instead? Playing PlayStation to relax, you think is it really good for you?

“When things aren’t going well in football, everything in your life gets questioned.

Kathleen: You never told us all that.

Conor: You zone in on things that you do and pick the best things for you, but it’s not bad because it refines how you live and the decisions you make. It’s about the discipline, always doing the right things.

image2 (4) Conor Coventry at home in Hermon Hill (with a Celtic ball at his feet).

Conor: It’s a constant thing. You always have to prove yourself in football. There are always players to contend with, someone new coming in. That’s part of football.

Liz: It’s hard to usually get so much out of Conor. He’s normally so laid back he only gets upset when he comes home and there are no chocolate buttons in the freezer.

Cousin Lizzie: You see, he’s bit of the golden child.

Liz: Don’t ask [his sister] Molly about that, she knows all about that from going to all the games growing up. But she’s probably right. I suppose he’s your typical Irish son.

– First published 08.00, 16 July

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