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'I was looking up to these older lads who weren't good for me' - The Englishman who found redemption in Ireland

Danny North looks back on his career and recalls how his lowest moment in football turned into his greatest one.

Danny North is a former St Patrick's Athletic, Sligo Rovers and Shamrock Rovers player.
Danny North is a former St Patrick's Athletic, Sligo Rovers and Shamrock Rovers player.
Image: Gary Carr/INPHO

MORE THAN anything, what makes a successful footballer is the ability to endure and cope with adversity.

Danny North’s story reflects this sentiment.

As a youngster, he started as a goalkeeper playing locally, then became a defender and had eventually moved up front by his teens.

North progressed at the Grimsby Town school of excellence to the point that he made his debut for the senior team aged just 17.

But he was on the periphery for a while yet, making just one appearance the following season.

It was only in 2006, when Alan Buckley was appointed manager at the club for the third time, that North caught his eye in training and began to get regular opportunities in the first team.

“My second year as a pro, he gave me the number nine shirt,” North tells The42. “I played every week and got player of the month in January. I finished top scorer with 10 goals. We got to Wembley [losing 2-0 to MK Dons in the Football League Trophy].”

However, early on in the following season, Buckley was sacked and replaced by Mike Newell, and North fell out of favour under the former Blackburn player.

“When managers come in, they want to bring their own players in,” North says. “The local lads are always the easy options to drop. He was bringing in lads on big money. Obviously, it’s not all his fault. Some of it was probably mine. And it just didn’t work out under him. He got sacked eventually. That was the start of Grimsby going down into the conference. It was just a bad time at the club. A lot of bad eggs around. As a young lad, I was looking up to these older lads who weren’t good for me.

“My first couple of years, some of the senior pros at the club were amazing. The likes of John McDermott was there 20 years. I still speak to him now. He’s got the most appearances for Grimsby (754).

“You had Rob Jones who ended up having a good career with Scunthorpe and Doncaster, there were loads. As they all left and other players came in, they weren’t as professional as them and unfortunately, it didn’t work out for Grimsby or myself.”

The young striker’s future was uncertain with just six months remaining on his contract. While Grimsby were struggling towards the bottom of the table, Bury were in contention for the play-offs near the top and wanted to sign North on loan. However, after he impressed in a reserve game, the club decided he was going nowhere.

“Then a month later, they paid me up so it sort of scuppered that one,” he explains. “I went to Scunthorpe in the Championship on trial under Nigel Adkins. It was class, just seeing their preparation. Because realistically Scunny are a smaller club than Grimsby, but they were punching above their weight and had a top-class manager. I was training with them every day and being around players like Gary Hooper and Grant McCann.

“But ultimately, I was a young kid and needed money, so I went to Alfreton Town [in Conference North] for a few months, just to basically get me through the summer, then I’d have a look and assess my options, but it was just a bit of a shambles there, to be honest.

“You go into a team and it was like March time and they were flying all year. The two lads up front were banging in 20 and 25 goals. So it was never going to be easy to break in and the manager had his system. I played a couple of games, just got to the end of the season and it was: ‘See you later.’”

pete-mahon Pete Mahon brought North to St Pat's. Source: James Crombie

North’s stock had fallen since impressing early on at Grimsby and he considered playing football outside of England for the first time.

He got word that both Sligo Rovers boss Paul Cook and St Pat’s manager Pete Mahon were interested in signing him.

Ultimately, he agreed to a short trial at Pat’s during the 2010 mid-season break.

“I stayed in the Lucan Hotel for a couple of days, trained out in Celbridge. I remember we did the first XI against the reserves. I started in the reserves and then they swapped me over. I was flying, I felt I’d done well and just from there really, I spoke to Pete and he was like: ‘We want you.’”

North admits he didn’t know much about Irish football initially, aside from a couple of team names that were familiar from his time playing Championship/Football Manager, while former Grimsby team-mate Darren Mansaram had spent time playing in the Premier Division with Sligo, Bohs and Dundalk.

“I probably needed to get away from Grimsby if I wanted to progress in my career, being honest,” he adds

“It was tough at first, I’d always lived at home with my family. Moving in with two lads was interesting times.

“I was in and out of the team and I honestly thought: ‘What’s the point of being over here?’ I was close to calling it a day. I had a couple of options back in England at conference level. I spoke to Philip Nolan who was involved at Pat’s. He took me back from a game against Sporting Fingal one night. He basically just said: ‘Stick it out, you’ll get your chance.’ And I ended the season really well. So those words of wisdom paid off.”

North lived with teammates, Vinny Faherty and Shane Guthrie. Faherty then left at the end of the season and Daryl Kavanagh moved into their new place in Lucan Village.

“We had Pete coming down and checking on us, you had to be careful. We obviously liked to drink at times. He’d come round randomly, I had to hide the cans and stuff like that. We had a few of the lads around, I think it was half the team one night. The next day, he came around. We’ve got this little balcony and we’ve hidden them and kept the curtains closed. He looked out beyond the curtains. Dil wasn’t drinking at the time. Gutsy had gone back down to Tralee, so it was all pinned on me. I thought: ‘Oh no, that’s all I need.’”

shane-guthrie North shared a place with Shane Guthrie. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

He continues: “I wouldn’t say there was a drinking culture. I’d seen a bigger drinking culture [at Grimsby]. In my last year, there were a lot of big drinkers.

“Over the years up to now, it’s weaned its way out of the game. I remember [in England] boys would go away for six weeks at the end of the season. There was a lad Lee Peacock, I’d known him through other people, he’d had a decent career at Swindon and others. He used to go and work in Magaluf for six weeks and then come back for pre-season. Nowadays, boys are coming back fully fit.

“We enjoyed a night out. We had to do it at the right times though. We never took the piss with it really, not in Ireland anyway. Pete and Giller [John Gill] used to get us in on a Sunday morning to the gym in Smithfield. We’d have a spinning class at 10 o’clock. Obviously, we played on a Friday night. I think it was to stop the boys going out, but there was a few [strange] smells on Sunday morning.”

After a slow start, North became increasingly prolific at Pat’s and he was named the Supporters’ Young Player of the Year for 2011.

“We weren’t the best in the league. But we had leaders in the team, we had Bradser [Stephen Bradley], Dave Mulcahy, Conor Kenna at the back, Gary Rogers in goal, Anto Murphy.

“And it was a great atmosphere to play in, it was enjoyable, I think that’s what got us points in some games where we were not necessarily playing good football — when you’ve got that experience to drag you through, it helps massively.”

Yet by the end of the 2011 season, it seemed clear North’s time at Richmond Park was approaching its conclusion.

“There were rumours of Liam Buckley coming in and Pete didn’t know what was going on. I owed a lot to Pete. I got on with him really well. We had arguments at times, don’t get me wrong. It was just because we both wanted to win and it was for the benefit of the team.

“We played Drogheda last game of the season and we had nothing to play for. At the end of the game, he said: ‘If you’ve got offers, consider them because nobody knows what’s happening at this club.’”

The following Tuesday, North got a call from Sligo boss Cook. He wanted him as a replacement for the outgoing Eoin Doyle.

The Bit O’Red were an attractive proposition. They had not won the title since 1977 but had finished just four points behind champions Shamrock Rovers in the previous two seasons, in addition to winning the FAI Cup in both 2010 and 2011.

eoin-doyle-celebrates-scoring-the-opening-goal North replaced the outgoing Eoin Doyle at Sligo. Source: James Crombie

“When you saw the boys that signed and the squad that was already in place, you’re thinking: ‘There are some good players here, we’ve got a great chance [to triumph].’

“Then two weeks into pre-season, Cookie does one and goes to Accrington. So we’re all in limbo a bit and Gerry Carr is taking pre-season training. There were strikers — obviously Quigs [Mark Quigley] at the time. But they were constantly rotating me and Raf [Cretaro]. I was thinking: ‘Am I going to be playing here?’

“But then Gerry didn’t get the job, he stayed on as an assistant. Ian Baraclough came in. He was the first-team coach at Scuny when I went on trial there, so I knew him. It just worked out, we hit the ground running. It was like something you wouldn’t believe. I’ve seen the lads say before, you’re standing in the tunnel with other teams and they’re looking across at you. You’ve got the likes of Joey [N’Do], Quigs, you could go through the entire team, to be honest, and [the opposition would] almost be beaten before you got on the pitch.”

A promising start to North’s Sligo career, though, was cruelly halted, as he suffered a serious injury that ended his season prematurely.

“Once I got a few goals, I thought: ‘I’m going to be top scorer in the league this year and win the title.’ It was all going to plan and then in the European game I missed a penalty and 20 minutes later did my cruciate. So it was a nightmare situation.”

Despite North’s injury, Sligo managed to cope well without him and eventually ended a 35-year wait to win the title, triumphing for just the third time in their history overall.

“When it came down to the last couple of games, your focus is on praying that the lads win. There were a couple of us injured and some games I’d rather have not been there. I found it so tough to watch. Even though they were my teammates and we were flying and we were all close, it was just hard not being out on that pitch, that was the toughest part.”

The mental challenge of overcoming a long-term injury was also considerable. Baraclough’s connections allowed him to do rehab at the FA’s school of excellence at Lilleshall.

“I had a couple of times where I felt I was getting closer and then there was a little setback with my hamstring. 11 months altogether I think it was. In a short career, that’s a long time. And then that season, coming back, my first game was at Waterford away in the FAI Cup. I came on with about 20 minutes left and I remember sprinting for a ball. I thought: ‘My knee doesn’t feel right here,’ and I honestly thought that was it again. But I think it was just the impact of being back, stepping up to game pace. I just iced it for a couple of days and from then, it was okay.”

sligo-supporters Sligo Rovers supporters celebrate. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

But despite this taxing recovery, he was still able to enjoy the title success.

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“The celebrations went on for about a week. The whole town erupted, it was amazing really. Just to see the happiness of all the fans and you had the older generation who could remember ’77. We were obviously a part of history and no one could ever take that away. The way it was built up from Cookie taking it and building a team to when Ian came in was the ultimate reward for all the hard work that had been put in. You can see the effort that goes in from the volunteers and the committee and everything, it was just amazing.

“It’s a small town, a footballing community, they live and breathe it. You’re walking down the street with your family, they’re giving you well wishes and asking how you’re getting on. They know all your business as well, which isn’t the best sometimes. If it’s not going as well, they’re not afraid to say: ‘What is going on?’ But it’s such a good town and it was the best time in my career by far.”

Yet another 12 months would elapse before North’s “best moment,” which came just after arguably his worst.

Having been unavailable for the title run-in, North was determined to make up for missing out on that by helping Sligo win the 2013 FAI Cup.

But his excitement was cut short when he realised he would be left out of the XI for the final against Drogheda.

“I was obviously gutted that I wasn’t in the starting line-up, but I sort of had an inkling anyway because the last two games, he mixed the teams up. I didn’t start the game [previously] so I sort of had an idea.

“I was rooming with Dave Cawley. We didn’t speak to each other all night. It was laying in the room, a bottle of coke, crisps, sweets, thinking: ‘I hate the manager. I hate everything.’ This and that.

“Obviously you get over it and the next day, you’re focused on coming on to make an impact and it worked out well for me.”

Sligo were 1-0 down when North was introduced with 20 minutes remaining. He proceeded to hit a quick-fire brace, turning the game in his side’s favour.

Drogheda hit back with a goal in stoppage time before a last-gasp Anthony Elding effort won it for Sligo. The triumph left North with a feeling of redemption, having worked so hard to recover from injury while doubting whether he could ever get back to playing at the highest level.

“When the lads are flying and you’re there just in the gym, dealing with little setbacks, you don’t think you’re going to get back to what you were.

“It was the last game of the season. There were 17,000 there. And the fact that [my family] had come over, just to come on and have my little kid, she’s my eldest now, to have my little girl on the pitch after coming up to get the man-of-the-match trophy, it’s a bit emotional, talking about it now and looking back. All that makes it [worth it] at the end of the day, just to see the happiness.”

Source: Bridget O/YouTube

Yet it was, unfortunately, the beginning of the end of that great era for Sligo — the Bit O’Red have not won a major trophy since.

Several key players departed around that period and North was no exception, joining Shamrock Rovers ahead of the 2015 season, with the move proving ill-fated ultimately.

“No one was more disappointed than me. I obviously started well both seasons.

“Then I was having little niggly things with my knee. So I was in and out. I had an injection, a little cleanout with my cartilage, and then I finished the season quite well.

“Then my gran died just after that. I found that tough because at home, I had lived with her for years and she used to come over all the time. It was during the off-season, so it didn’t affect my football as much. But she got ill towards the end of the season. I remember finding out and we played Limerick away. We had to go back on the coach, my eyes were streaming and the lads were like: ‘What’s up with you?’ I obviously told Pat [Fenlon], and to be fair to him, he was great. He said: ‘Go home if you want.’ I was like: ‘It’s fine.’ So I managed to finish the season and then got home.

“I came back pre-season 2016 and we went to India. I was fine, enjoying it. But it just didn’t work out, I was in and out of the team. I was in talks to go up to Linfield. And then, I got shoulder barged by Rob Cornwall in training, I planted my leg and my knee just gave way. And that was the end of that really. The lads thought I was having them on because we were going to St Anne’s Park — Pat’s famous runs up the hill and stuff. They thought I was just throwing one in. I went for a scan and it came back that my cartilage was completely gone.

“As soon as that happened, I saw a specialist and I was advised not to play again, otherwise: ‘You’ll have arthritis and you’ll need a knee replacement early.’ At the time, I was in and out of the team and probably didn’t love football as much as I used to. It’s never good to get an injury, but I made my mind up that football was done.”

North may have left the League of Ireland behind, but the 33-year-old continues to play at an amateur level, lining out for Cleethorpes Town, Lincoln United and Nunsthorpe Tavern of late, while he was recently appointed player-assistant manager of Barton Town, with his friend and former Grimsby team-mate Nathan Jarman in the hot seat.

He continues to keep an eye on the Premier Division and in particular the fortunes of Sligo Rovers from afar, while away from football, he is transport manager at a courier company in Grimsby. Before Covid hit, he also regularly returned to Ireland and doesn’t rule out coming back for a job in football someday.

“I’ve made friends outside of football as well, my kid’s best mate in Drogheda, we were over for the communion a couple of years ago and the kids still speak. Every chance we get, we come over in the summer and the odd weekend here and there. So we’ll always visit. My daughter was born over there, we had my youngest and with coaching, never say never.”

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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