'People think it's negative coming back to Ireland - I think of it as another bounce forward'

Promising Irish youngster Darragh Leahy chats to The42 about moving from Coventry to Bohemians.

Leahy spent three years at Coventry before agreeing to join Bohemians last month.
Leahy spent three years at Coventry before agreeing to join Bohemians last month.
Image: EMPICS Sport

DARRAGH LEAHY FACED a dilemma last month.

There were six months left on his contract at Coventry, but the youngster felt he had not made sufficient progress in three years at the club.

The safe option would arguably have been to see out the season in the faint hope that the Sky Blues would ultimately be persuaded into offering him a new deal.

Yet Leahy was desperate for regular game time. If he decided to stick around at the Ricoh Arena until the summer and no offer was forthcoming, the League of Ireland season would have been at its halfway point and most teams would likely have settled on an established starting XI by then.

Through agreeing to cancel the remainder of his contract with the League Two side, Leahy was able to seal a move to Bohemians that may not have been on offer had he waited until the summer.

“I had a really good chat with [Bohs manager] Keith Long,” Leahy tells The42. ”I wasn’t really getting minutes in Coventry, I was playing reserves and stuff like that.

“It was a really tough decision. I obviously had a few days to think about it back and forward. But there are other boys coming home to play. And such a big club as Bohs had my mind made up nearly, after that.”

Now that he has signed for Bohs, Leahy realises he still faces a fight to earn regular first-team football. He is not shy to admit, however, that he hopes to return to play in England “in the next two to three years” all going well.

The Dubliner was just 16 when he made the initial trip across the water and admits to finding life difficult at first.

“I was thrown into the deep end really. You have to adjust to that,” he says.

“Of course, you get homesick from time to time. But when you have family, friends and a girlfriend, it’s only a [short] flight to come over. They come over and visit you quite a lot, but you finish training at one or two o’clock maybe. The rest of the day, you’re staying in digs, it’s very challenging mentally as well. [The people at Coventry are] there to help and guide you to get on with it.

But at the end of the day, I was the only Irish boy over there. The rest were English. They could all go back to their families. I’d just go back to digs. But you kind of get used to it as well.

“Most would be in a rush to get home [after training]. It kind of is a positive [living in digs], because I would stay there after training and go to the gym, just to waste time and stuff.”

And as lonely as it could occasionally be, the young defender, who has represented Ireland at underage level, had some familiar faces to turn to for advice during his time with the Sky Blues.

Coventry City v Cheltenham Town - Sky Bet League Two - Ricoh Arena Coventry City's captain Michael Doyle took Leahy under his wing. Source: Barrington Coombs

In terms of seeking advice about a career in Britain, there was perhaps no better Irish player to talk to than Michael Doyle, the 36-year-old, who has a senior Ireland appearance to his name from 2004. The experienced midfielder has been for playing at various levels in England’s lower tiers for almost 15 years now, and has made over 700 appearances at senior level.

But despite the disappointing end to his time with Coventry, Leahy is positive about his stint abroad overall.

For two and a half years, I loved every minute of it. I was training every day, it was what you dream of really. But just the last few months of this season, I wasn’t really getting game time, so I felt I had to move on.”

“[Ex-Ireland international] Stephen Hunt was there in my time — he was coming to the end of his career,” Leahy recalls.

“But Michael Doyle, who is obviously the captain, was brilliant. Off the pitch, he was always there for me and helping me out. He’d look out for you because he knows how hard it was when he was my age.

“He took me under his wing a little bit. He’s made over 700 appearances, he’s got enough experience, so you just go to him and listen and learn and take all the advice you get.”

Leahy did enjoy some invaluable experiences at his previous club, sharing a dressing room with countless talented youngsters, including James Maddison, who has since joined Norwich and is currently being linked with potential big-money moves to Liverpool, Man City and Tottenham.

The Swords native was given the chance to impress at senior level with Coventry in pre-season in the summer of 2016, coming up against recently retired Irish international Wes Hoolahan, among others. The left-back, who is comfortable playing in the centre of defence, also had two separate loan stints with Nuneaton Town.

“I was only 18 and playing non-league football,” he says. “I think you have to learn that side of the game — [playing against] the big, tough, strong people.

If you want to get proper men’s football at such a young age, it’s a good experience.”

And whereas young players returning from England to try their luck in the League of Ireland 20 or even 10 years ago were often effectively written off as failures by pessimists, there is an increased tendency now to view playing in the domestic game as an opportunity for promising young talent rather than a consolation for those unable to ‘make it’ at the highest level.

Sean Maguire Leahy regards Ireland international Sean Maguire as a role model. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

It is for that reason that Leahy views footballers such as Sean Maguire and Richie Towell as role models, as they are two good examples of players who got a second bite of the British footballing cherry, having resurrected their careers in the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division.

“It is doable,” he adds. “It’s going to be very hard, it’s very optimistic, but that’s my goal, of course.

People might look at it and think it’s negative coming back to Ireland — I think of it as another bounce forward. If you’ve one or two good seasons, you’re straight back across.”

Regardless of what happens in 2018 and thereafter, it has already been a career full of highs and lows for Leahy. He represented Swords Celtic, Malahide and St Kevin’s Boys at schoolboy level, having practised the game compulsively as a youngster.

“Growing up, I’d play football out on the road from dusk till dawn. You’re just out there all day and your parents will call you in. You’d have to go to school and then it’d be straight back out the next day with your mates. You’d be playing all sorts of games out on the green with the older lads as well.

“I suppose social media [makes football on the streets less common now]… These days, I don’t see many kids out there.”

Trevor Clarke 16/9/2017 Leahy played in the same schoolboy side as Shamrock Rovers youngster Trevor Clarke. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

It was for Kevin’s, the club who coincidentally have just officially launched a partnership with Bohs, that Leahy began to establish himself as one of the top young players in the country, playing alongside other notable names, including Robbie McCourt (West Brom), Daniel Mandroiu (Brighton) and Trevor Clarke (Shamrock Rovers).

“I signed for Kevin’s U15s. I think we finished second that year. The next year U16s, we won the treble. It was ourselves and Malahide fighting it out for the league. We had something like nine or 10 games in hand because we had such a good cup run. Malahide had finished their season and we had to win nine of our games.

“We played Malahide, and it could have been the fifth or fourth last game of the season. They just needed a draw to win the league. We went down to eight men, we won the game and we went on to win the league.

Four or five of the boys would have moved over to England after the U16s. I was still over here in Ireland. I had no offers or anything.

“I had a decision to stay with Kevin’s and go U17s, or I could have gone to League of Ireland.

“I decided to stay with Kevin’s and then obviously, that’s how I went to Coventry. We just had a little tour over in England. We played a game against Coventry, they obviously liked what they saw. I stayed on for a week trial, all the boys went home, and it just took off from there really.”

Soccer - Sky Bet League One - Coventry City Photocall 2015/16 - Ryton Training Ground Leahy was just 16 when he signed for Coventry. Source: Barrington Coombs

Football since then has not been so straightforward and idyllic, but Leahy is wise enough to know that even the most talented players are not guaranteed a long-term career in the game, which is why the teenager is not putting all his eggs in one basket yet.

I’m actually working with my dad at the minute,” he says. “He’s in upholstery, so I’m starting an apprenticeship with him — it’s going well so far.

“It was tough at the start just to get used to it, especially training at night with Bohs, it was hard to adapt.

“But we’re five, six weeks in, everything is just normal again, I’ve settled straight back into it.”

Leahy continues to dream big though, and his advice to aspiring young footballers is telling.

“Just never give up,” he says. “Football’s a funny game. You never know what’s going to happen. You never know who’s watching the game. So you have to be at the top of your game every game. Just keep working hard and keep your head down.”

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