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'I've never for one minute doubted his talent and I've always said he would be a senior international'

A detailed look at the rise of Shamrock Rovers’ Danny Mandroiu on the back of his recent Ireland call-up.

20 YEARS AGO, the idea that you could leave England and come back to play football in Ireland, while simultaneously maintaining the hope of representing the Boys in Green at international level, seemed unthinkable.

Of course, over the past few decades, there have been occasional examples of domestic players lining out at international level, including Glen Crowe, Jason Byrne and Joe Gamble.

Yet tellingly, none of the above instances were in a competitive fixture for the senior team.

It was only last November, in the 81st minute of a Nations League encounter against Wales, that Stephen Kenny brought then-Shamrock Rovers player Jack Byrne off the bench.

Byrne’s cameo ended a 35-year wait for a League of Ireland player to be capped at a competitive level for the Irish team — the previous being Pat Byrne, also as a substitute, during a World Cup qualifier for an Eoin Hand-managed side against Denmark in 1985.

It was a sign that Kenny, unlike so many previous managers, is willing to at least consider players from the Premier Division in important games.

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While the upcoming friendlies against Andorra and Hungary are about as far away as you can get from glamour ties in international football, the inclusion of Shamrock Rovers’ Danny Mandroiu in the latest squad is another sign that the perception of the league is changing and players who emerge from it are being taken more seriously than in the past.

It also the latest step in a remarkable personal journey for Mandroiu. At 22, his career has already had its fair share of highs and lows.

And one man who knows the Ballymun native better than most is Alan Caffrey. Appointed the Sporting and Technical Director of Shelbourne earlier this year, he previously spent over a decade as a coach at St Kevin’s Boys and had served as the Dublin club’s Head of Youth Development since 2012.

Starting out at Ballymun United, Mandroiu joined St Kevin’s Boys at around the age of nine. According to Caffrey, he wasn’t an obvious standout player in those early days.

“He was just another lad that came into Kevin’s. Over the years I suppose, he worked on his talent,” he tells The42.

“He is actually a shy lad by nature, even though he has this reputation that’s undeserved. Within the group, he’s a good lad, a great character. Around the club and the coaches, he’s a good lad. But he’s always been down-to-earth, I suppose, is the best way to describe him.”

Caffrey says that it was around the age of 13 when it started to become clear that Mandroiu could g0 far in the game.

“I would have upped his training, so he would have been training in the club probably every night. 

“As much as he would like to tell everybody that it’s a god-given talent, he actually worked hard at being the footballer that we see today.

“He would have had Jack Byrne two years ahead of him. I would have had him watching Jack a lot, and how Jack played. Dan’s a different character to him, but a similar footballer. Good touch, great pass.

“I remember at U15, playing him in U17s games for him to get used to being roughed up a little bit — games were probably too easy for him at his own age, so he gets bad habits. Whereas at an older age, where he trained and played with them, he had to move the ball quicker, or he was going to be hit hard.”

jack-byrne Mandroiu would carefully study Jack Byrne when both players were youngsters at St Kevin's. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

But for all his obvious ability, Mandroiu was far from the finished product back then.

“These talented players just have to realise that their talent will only take them so far. So, I suppose, that was my job, to get at him and make him understand that he had to work hard off the ball, work on the defensive side of his game, build himself up. He would never have been in a gym or anything like that, he was a natural footballer. It was all about football for him. So our job was to teach him off the ball, to change his game up a little bit. He’s still learning that at the moment.”

A lack of creative midfielders has been one of the Irish national team’s biggest problems in recent years and is one of the reasons behind an awful run that has seen the Boys in Green score just four goals in the 11 matches since Stephen Kenny has taken charge.

Mandroiu is one of a number of players who could potentially help solve this problem. But as one of the key figures in Irish underage football, why does Caffrey believe this area has been such an issue for the national team in recent years, with creative players in short supply?

“Maybe it’s the modern game because people pigeonhole them into being a number 6, 8 or 10. With Jack and Dan, they were central midfielders. They basically had two jobs to do. One, when they got the ball, was to express themselves. And two, when they didn’t have the ball, get into a defensive position. I never said ‘you’re the sitting midfielder,’ or ‘you’re the attacking midfielder’. You’re a central midfielder, you’ve got to get up and down the pitch, create goals and score goals. I think the problem is now that it’s too structured. This is the pigeonhole that these players are put into, rather than just naturally letting them go and play. 

“And the other thing is, the likes of Dan and Jack are probably the last of the street footballers, which is obviously a big thing as well. But the main thing I would put it down to is that players at a young age now are just pigeonholed into positions. You’re a number six and you can’t move [too far] in front of the back four and stuff like that.”

Mandroiu’s increasingly impressive performances with Kevin’s attracted interest from across the water. He consequently went on a number of trials. Brighton and Southampton wanted to sign the 15-year-old, and he ultimately opted for the Seagulls on a scholarship, partially due to the influence of Brighton’s Academy Manager, John Morling, who had previously worked as head of the FAI’s Emerging Talent Programme.

“I cried for a week, probably longer,” Daniel’s mother, Sarah, told The42 last year. “I knew he wasn’t ready, he was still only a baby, but he kept telling me it was what he wanted and Dano was so determined.”

oxford-united-v-brighton-and-hove-albion-u21-checkatrade-trophy-southern-group-g-the-kassam-stadium Mandroiu pictured playing for Brighton U21s in 2017. Source: David Davies

Of the decision to move over at a young age, Caffrey says: “He comes from a good family, so he found it hard like the majority of footballers. But a player of his talent going into a professional set-up and excellent training ground, he was right to go and 100% wanted to go.

“That’s what he’s dreamed of. He’s dreamed of being a professional footballer in England. He didn’t dream of anything else.

“It made him stronger over there. It helped him learn how to be a professional footballer. Obviously, he had to play a quicker game and have a better touch, so it made him a better player. It wasn’t a mistake by any stretch of the imagination.” 

Caffrey continued to serve as a mentor to Mandroiu, even after he left Kevin’s, while his Dublin-based family would regularly fly over to visit him during the four years he spent there.

“Danny had a very good few years with us,” Morling tells The42. “A very talented player, excellent vision, great passer of the ball, could score goals. I’m not going to go into why his contract didn’t get renewed, that’s a private matter.

“However, what I would say is, everyone w0uld have been really proud of him and lots of people would have talked about it at the club when he got selected for the Irish senior team. And everyone would be really happy for him and proud he’s done that. And it’s a great thing for other players when you do get a knockback, or you get released, or your contract’s not renewed, and you’re faced with a hurdle or cr0ssroads in your life, and you take it positively and use what you’ve learned, and you go on and achieve what Danny has achieved now.

“If you’re trying to be an elite sportsperson, you’re going to be faced with disappointment at different times during your career. The way you handle disappointment defines where you end up, or whether your potential gets fulfilled or not.”

Morling may be reluctant to go into too much detail over his exit, but his problems at Brighton have been well-documented elsewhere, with homesickness seemingly a big factor, as a mutual agreement was made to end his contract with the Seagulls early.

“Brighton were great because when Dano did start having problems, they were able to get him speaking to a counsellor to help,” Sarah said last year. “It was right for him to come home and I’m glad he did because he has been so happy since playing for Bohs.

“I have my boy back and it’s great to hear him singing around the house again.”

“I was 15 when I went over to Brighton and I’m still doing my growing up now,” Mandroiu told reporters in July 2019. “I’m only 20 but ever since I’ve come back to Bohs, I’ve grown up that bit more. And to be honest, I needed to grow up. It’s a stable environment over here.

“I did have loads of friends and good teammates over at Brighton. I had good people around me, but it just didn’t work out and hopefully, now I can revive things.”

Morling, meanwhile, believes his time in England should not be viewed through a negative lens and objects to the phrasing of a question suggesting it ultimately “didn’t work out” at Brighton.

“When you say ‘it didn’t work out,’ sometimes wherever a player ends his journey, you take the positives from everywhere. He’ll take the positives from St Kevin’s in his upbringing, you take the positives from Brighton, I’m sure he’d take the positives from Bohemians and Shamrock Rovers and wherever he’s going to end up.

“So I wouldn’t say it ‘didn’t work out,’ I think it was four years well spent. He would have learned a lot on and off the pitch, and it might have contributed a little bit to him being involved in an Irish international. But there are a lot of people that would be involved in a players’ journey, whether it’s 1%, 10%, or 50%. They all add up to contribute to someone doing quite well.”

Nonetheless, there has long been a sense of stigma attached to any player who chooses to return to Ireland without breaking through at first-team level in Britain. It appears to be lessening if the increasing number of players who subsequently thrive in the Premier Division is anything to go by, but it undoubtedly still exists to some degree.

“There are people who come up and call me a waster, they have a go and throw it in your face that you didn’t make it and have come home, but they haven’t a clue,” Mandroiu told The Irish Mail on Sunday in 2019.

“When I came back, I had a few weeks off, but then I just wanted to get straight back into football, which is what I did with Bohs,” he later told journalists, after being awarded the SWAI Player of the Month award for June 2019. “We’ve gone from there and right now I’m loving football.

“People are always going to have their opinions of you and you just have to prove them wrong.”

Mandroiu was quite simply a revelation in that first season at Bohs. 11 goals in 28 appearances helped guide the club to a third-place finish in 2019 and earned the Dubliner the PFAI Young Player of the Year award, beating out stiff competition from fellow St Kevin’s graduate Jack Byrne and David Parkhouse.

“Tonight was another indication of the quality he has, so the sky’s the limit for him. He can be whatever he wants to be,” Bohs boss Keith Long told reporters, after an especially impressive brace in a 2-1 win over Shamrock Rovers in June 2019.

However, in that same interview, Long added: “There was a reason he was at a Premier League club. There’s also a reason why he’s with us at this moment in time.

“He’s enjoying his football. We’ve been able to give him that. He’s back home, enjoying being home for the moment. I think he’s still ambitious. But he still has areas to improve in terms of [off] the ball.”

The defensive part of Mandroiu’s game is something that has been brought up regularly, with both Stephen Kenny and Stephen Bradley recently indicating he has improved in this area.

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Equally, Bradley has dismissed any suggestions of question marks over the player’s attitude.

stephen-bradley-before-the-game Stephen Bradley has been full of praise for Mandroiu, after the player's excellent start to the campaign. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

The Brighton departure has not been the only setback in his career though.

After a fantastic first season at Bohs, Mandroiu did not replicate this form in 2020. The player started just five of the Gypsies’ 18 league matches, with only one of those coming after the season’s Covid-19 enforced break.

Injury and the emergence of the similarly talented Dawson Devoy were part of the reasons for Mandroiu’s lack of game time, as doubts emerged over his long-term future.

“We have five or six games left if you include the cup, and Danny will be part of our plans from now until the end of the season,” Bohs boss Long told reporters last September. “After that, we’ll wait and see.”

It was evidently an unhappy end to his time at Dalymount Park, not helped by an awkward incident when the club had to issue an apology after an official press release described the player as “gargled”.

“Regarding the team news that @bfcdublin sent out earlier, what was said was completely untrue,” the player tweeted.

“I am out injured at the moment. I’m sure you will hear this from the club too eventually but I just wanted to clear that up for myself and my reputation.”

Of the disappointing end to his time at Bohs, Caffrey says: “It was hard for him last year. He only wants to play football. That’s all Dan wants to do. He just wants to be a footballer. So obviously, when you can’t do what you love, that’s frustrating. But it’s an experience. It makes him stronger. Gives him something to prove, which he’s more than capable of doing.”

Mandroiu’s initial years spent in England evidently did not put him off returning there.

“100%, I do want to go back over,” he said in 2019. “If not England, anywhere else like Europe or Scotland. I know I’m only 20 but I’m ambitious and have lots still to learn. I want to be at the top — I don’t mind where I play.

“I do like the way some European teams play. I like the style of play, but I’m just going to see what happens. I’m not looking too far ahead, I’m just keeping my feet on the ground.

“Jack Byrne and Connor Ronan (who have played in Holland and Slovakia) are very good players, they’re very technical like myself. They’re always going to shine in a league and in a country where they play technical football and the ball’s on the floor. It gives you a boost to know you can do that, too.”

He was linked with a move to Dutch side FC Twente last July before it was announced in December that he agreed to join Shamrock Rovers.

Source: Shamrock Rovers TV/YouTube

Since then, Mandroiu has begun to return to the excellent form of 2019. Of the Hoops’ 14 Premier Division matches so far, he has started in all but one, scoring four goals in the process and even adapting well to a deeper midfield role recently as a result of injuries to others.

“I’ve been at four Shamrock Rovers games this year and he’s been very good,” Caffrey says. “He’s been kicked up and down the pitch, gets up, gets on with the game. Stephen Kenny’s obviously seen that.

“His goal against Pat’s was outstanding. People say he doesn’t have a defensive side to his game, but in that goal, he presses, he wins the tackle, he runs 40 yards and he scores in injury time. So that will tell you everything about the type of player he is or can be.”

On the back of his Ireland call-up, Kenny added: ”He has very high technical ability. He is an incredibly creative passer capable of scoring goals from outside the box. He has become a more mature player than he was at Brighton at a young age, he has gone back and played at Bohemians and Shamrock Rovers. He has got himself in a better place physically and mentally, and is a more mature individual.” 

Caffrey has been following Mandroiu’s career more closely than most and says he was confident the player would make a big impact in the game, even after leaving Brighton.

“Me and Dan are close. We’ve got a very good relationship off the pitch. We don’t always talk about football. But I’ve never for one minute doubted his talent and I’ve always said he would be a senior international. I’ve never doubted that. Yeah, coming back to Ireland, you’ve just got to do it a different way. Jack Byrne had shown that way, so it didn’t mean it was impossible.”

And how far can he go ultimately?

“That’s up to Dan. Do I think he has the potential skill-wise to play at the top? Yeah. He’ll find his role. He’s working hard mentally. He’s working hard physically.

“Stephen Bradley has said in a couple of interviews recently that since he’s gone to Shamrock Rovers, he’s been nothing but a pleasure to work with. And it was always a pleasure when I worked with him. So he has all the attributes, and with a bit of luck, hopefully, he can fulfil what he’s always wanted to do.”

For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more >

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Paul Fennessy

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