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The Irish striker whose 'little demons' couldn't get the better of him

Dave Mooney on his League of Ireland beginnings and ultimately carving out a successful career abroad.

Dave Mooney lined out for a number of clubs in Ireland and England.
Dave Mooney lined out for a number of clubs in Ireland and England.
Image: PA Archive/PA Images

IN THE FOREWORD to his acclaimed book ‘Only a Game,’ an account of his time at Millwall, Eamon Dunphy writes: “I believe the good pro was the true hero of professional sport. He is not necessarily a great player, or even the best player in the team, although he can be both.

“His goodness has to do not just with his talent but also with his spiritual state… He may not be ‘what the game is about’, but his integrity, his nobility of spirit, his dedication to duty and his commitment to cause are what the game was largely about for this journeyman pro.”

43 years on from the book’s publication, that sentiment still rings true. Very few professional footballers can reach the heights of Lionel Messi. The majority aren’t even stars or particularly well known. But given its current level of popularity, simply surviving in the game and making the most of your abilities is worthy of respect.

Dave Mooney admits he was never most talented of footballers, but through sheer force of will and a painstaking work ethic, he carved out a creditable career in the game.

Growing up in Glenview Park, Tallaght, Mooney came from a sporty family. His cousin Brian is a former Ireland underage international and was on the books at Liverpool as a youngster, going on to play for Preston, Sunderland, Shelbourne and Bohemians among others. His younger brother played with Shamrock Rovers at underage level and also lined out in the Leinster Senior League.

Meanwhile, his wife’s cousin is 18-year-old Dublin footballer Niamh Hetherton, who came off the bench in their recent All-Ireland final win over Galway. Mooney himself played GAA as a youngster with Templeogue Synge Street, but eventually opted to pursue soccer instead. At underage level, he represented Tymon Bawn and Bushy Park Rangers, before linking up with Shamrock Rovers in 2000, while still a student at Coláiste Éanna.

“I was always not a bad player,” he tells The42. “I knew where the back of the net was. You’d always get that bit more of a chance because you might nick a goal.

But I just worked really hard at my game, especially when I got to 16, where the chance of getting a contract at Rovers was on the cards and you’re thinking; ‘That’s the club I support and I’ve got a chance to play here.’”

Mooney excelled at underage level, scoring in every round as Rovers won the U17 All Ireland trophy in 2002. Two years later, aged 19, he broke into the first team and performed relatively well, registering nine goals in 40 games.

trevor-molloy-celebrates-after-scoring-22112005 Mooney played alongside Trevor Molloy at Shamrock Rovers. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Yet the Hoops’ precarious financial position meant Mooney was forced to leave just over a year after his first-team debut.

“I just remember playing with Trevor Molloy. I think Stephen Grant, Tony Grant and all were there. It was great to be able to come through and play with these lads. I supported them and sang the songs on the terraces. Then you get a chance to play with them and learn from them and stuff. But to make my debut and play a couple of games in the first team was obviously a massive highlight for me.

“Things didn’t go as planned because of the financial issues — everything that was going on at the club. But that’s my main club. The club I supported. I still speak to one or two of the lads.

“Trevor Croly was there at Rovers at the time as well. Stephen McGuinness was there when I was a kid coming through. Tony Cousins was finishing up. He was great for me as well. All people like that, they help you out massively. You don’t really meet anybody who doesn’t want to help you. Marc Kenny, who I would have played with there, I still speak to him now.

“It’s invaluable learning off these lads. I don’t know anybody who has a chip on their shoulder, once they get a bit older — the ones that do fall out of the game a bit earlier”

Leaving his boyhood club was ultimately a difficult but necessary decision for Mooney.

At the end of the day, it’s a job. You get paid more when someone can give you a better deal. It always makes me laugh: ‘Oh, so and so has no loyalty.’ I’ve been on the other end of it where clubs have no loyalty either. It’s a short career — you’ve got to do what you feel is best for you in certain situations. It was probably a great decision in hindsight to go [to Longford] and have the career I had from then on.” 

Under the guidance of Alan Mathews and Trevor Croly at Longford, Mooney thrived. It took a while for him to settle, but once he started scoring regularly, he could hardly stop.

2007 was a particularly brilliant campaign from an individual perspective. He finished the season as top scorer with 19 goals, in addition to being nominated for the PFAI Player of the Year and winning the FAI Player of the Year. He also helped guide Longford to the FAI Cup final, which they lost 1-0 to Cork.

dave-mooney-and-dessie-baker-celebrate-28102007 Dave Mooney and Dessie Baker pictured during their days together at Longford. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Despite all these achievements though, the club were also relegated that season, having been hit with a six-point deduction for failing to meet licensing requirements.

“Me and Dessie Baker had this telepathic partnership where we knew when he was fit and playing, we would always cause teams trouble.

“We just couldn’t get Dessie out every single game. He was a top player. One of the best I played with across the board. We just had a great relationship on and off the pitch. I still keep in touch with him now [as I do] with a lot of the lads from Longford.

“There were a few issues at the club. We fought our hearts out and did the best we could. It just wasn’t to be at the end of the day. I don’t think anybody lost any face off that. I think if we weren’t deducted points, we would have stayed up.

“You can’t do much about it when your club are financially stricken, you can’t bring in a player to give you a dig out. You’re always going to struggle.”

Mooney’s heightened status, coupled with Longford’s woes, rendered a departure inevitable. Leeds, Crystal Palace, Colchester, Blackburn and Fulham were among the club’s linked with the youngster’s signature.

“I went to Birmingham as well. I really enjoyed that. But they had no money. I thought: ‘I’m just getting followed around by clubs that have no money.’

I went to Blackburn. I would have signed. The deal just couldn’t get put through in time on the deadline. We missed January Deadline Day. It was the negotiations. ‘The agent gets this and that’ and we just ran out of time. 

“I was talking to Pat’s at the time as well as Cork. Although it was still only down the road, to just move and be down [in Cork] on my own and probably grow up a bit, and still be in the same country, where I could just drive home if I had a day off, I felt it was probably the right decision for me and obviously [Longford team-mate] Pat Sullivan came with me and Alan Mathews was there.

“The team they were building and the plans that the owner had, you just couldn’t turn that opportunity down. Obviously, it was a good contract and I was happy. It was my first proper stint in that full-time aspect of it.

“I was getting loads of phone calls. Every Tom, Dick and Harry ringing me: ‘Sign with me, I’m the best agent. He’s rubbish. I’m better than him.’

“I never let any of that get on top of me. So I just kept playing, kept working hard. I think I still finished top goalscorer in the league that year even though I only played 20 games. But that was one of the best times in my life, that six months at Cork. The lads there are some of the best lads I’ve ever met.

“And again, the financial difficulties followed. In the end, I had to be sold. I thought I could hang on until the end of the season. But Alan rang me one day and said: ‘Listen, we need you to go.’ Otherwise the club was going to fold. They needed the transfer fee to help pay off the debts and stop the club from going into complete liquidation. I guess I was the pawn in that situation, so I had to go. It was just where I was going to go.

“When Reading came in, it was probably the most [on offer] for Cork. The deal my agent conducted was very good from my point of view, so off we went. In hindsight, it probably wasn’t the right club at the right time, but it is what it is.”

soccer-coca-cola-football-league-championship-reading-v-swansea-city-madejski-stadium At Reading, Mooney was competing for a spot up front with fellow Irish striker Kevin Doyle. Source: Daniel Hambury

With Cork understood to be in debt to the tune of around €800,000, the reported fee of €260,000 that Mooney attracted went some way towards paying off that substantial sum.

However, the player’s free-scoring form did not continue across the water for the simple reason that he barely played for Reading, who had been relegated from the Premier League the previous season.

There were no fewer than seven other Irish players that were part of the first-team squad at the time — Kevin Doyle, Stephen Hunt, Noel Hunt, Jay Tabb, Julian Kelly, Alan Bennett and Shane Long. In addition to Doyle, Hunt and Long, when he got there, Mooney was also competing for a spot up front with Leroy Lita and Simon Church.

As he subsequently failed to get a look in, Mooney’s form and confidence suffered.

“I just found that there’s a lot of politics in football, especially in England. And you’ve got to be completely and utterly mentally strong. At the start, I was so used to having everything coming my way that it took me a while to adapt and read certain situations properly.

If I could go back and relive it, I don’t know whether I would have gone there. They had a lot of players at the time who were more established and better connected at the club than I was. Financially, it was a good decision, but career-wise it wasn’t great to go there initially. 

“If I had gone over and just got thrown straight in, I think I would have flourished. But the longer it goes on that you’re not involved, the little demons start to kick in. You start questioning yourself and you think: ‘I’m not this or I’m not that.’

“But I had some good loan moves and I met some good people off the back of that. I guess from my point of view, I would have loved to have just played, but I didn’t.

“I tried to play and I tried my best in training. Some days I thought: ‘I might have a chance here.’ But it just wasn’t meant to be.”

Consequently, in the three years he spent at Reading, Mooney was restricted to just four League Cup appearances. Much of his time on the books at the club was spent playing elsewhere. He had loan stints at Stockport, Norwich, Charlton and Colchester, enjoying varying levels of success at each club, without ever recapturing his prolific League of Ireland form.

He finally secured a level of stability after moving to Leyton Orient permanently in July 2011. His first season there was not easy, as the club endured an ultimately successful battle to avoid relegation, with Mooney scoring five goals in 37 League One appearances. He emulated that tally in 32 matches the next season, though the team were much improved, finishing just three points off the play-offs in seventh.

The striker was subsequently rewarded with a new two-year contract and repaid boss Russell Slade with undoubtedly his best season since arriving in England, registering 19 goals in 38 games. In the process, he helped Orient get all the way to final of the play-offs.

Source: Rotherham United Football Club/YouTube

But heartbreak followed. They were 2-0 up at half-time at Wembley, before an Alex Revell brace brought Rotherham level. As a result, the fate of Orient’s entire season would cruelly depend on the outcome of a penalty shootout, which they lost 4-3.

“It was difficult to take, the result. It probably took us a bit of time to get over it, especially in the circumstances. If you could rewind the clock back to half-time, we should have gone out, sealed it up and just won 2-0.

“We were going for the third goal and got caught out early in the second half, then Revell scores a goal that he’ll never score again in his life from I don’t know how far out on the volley. You’re thinking: ‘Come on. We ease our way back into it.’ We’re up for the penalty shootout, we miss two towards the end and that’s your lot. But it was a great day. At least you can always say that you played [at Wembley].”

It went from bad to worse the following season. Despite nine goals in 33 games for Mooney, the club descended from the brink of promotion to the Championship to relegation to League Two over the course of a single campaign.

There was massive turmoil. The new owner came in and the lads who were there from the season before felt a bit undermined. The bigger contracts [for new players] didn’t filter their way down to them. It’s the usual politics type of stuff in football. Then sometimes, when the results start going against you, it’s the snowball effect — you can’t get yourself out of the rut.

“We got relegated and were very poor that year. The wage bill would have been really high as well. I guess it’s one of those learning experiences that the fans now appreciate having a good owner more so than a solid season, making sure the club is in steady hands rather than investing massively in things that eventually don’t work. From that point of view, I think it was a learning experience for everybody on the pitfalls of English football. You’re investing too much money too quickly. I think it’s important to have a base — [take care of] your base and see how you go from there.”

Thereafter, Mooney never really rediscovered the heights of that brilliant 2013-14 season. He remained in League One following Orient’s relegation, linking up with Southend, and managing 14 goals in 46 appearances during two seasons there.

In 2017, he returned to Orient. Yet the club were in the National League by that stage and in serious financial trouble to the point where the team’s future appeared uncertain, though their fortunes have improved lately after regaining their spot in the Football League.

soccer-pre-season-friendly-leyton-orient-v-queens-park-rangers-matchroom-stadium Mooney's time at Leyton Orient ended in disappointment. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

For Mooney though, the old adage in football about ‘never going back’ rung true. His second spell at the club ultimately did not work out, and he spent part of last season on loan at non-league outfit Royston Town.

“I had a bad injury when I was at Southend, but physically I felt good. Just sometimes your face fits and sometimes it doesn’t.

“You sometimes just have to hold your hands up and be like: ‘I’m not for him.’ Or the dynamics of the game change and maybe they want to play with one up front and a few rapid wingers, so if that’s the case, you’re probably not going to play as much or whatever. So you’re just going to try to adapt and do your best and work hard every day. That’s one thing I always can hold my head up [about] — nobody can ever say that I didn’t give 100%.”

His last year in English football was especially tough. “I can’t go into what happened,” he adds. “It’s just one of them situations — it’s a legal thing.”

Consequently, after 12 years away amid what he considers to have been a very positive experience overall, Mooney recently made the decision to return home.

My wife is Irish. We’ve got two girls. They’re at an [important] age now, especially the eldest. We had a chat a few months ago, where it was: ‘We either move back now or never.’

“I went to England with the mindset of not staying there forever, but the longer it goes on, the older you become, you have a base and friends. She was working and I had a few bits going on outside football. But you miss your family, people have to fly over to see you and you don’t see them as much. You need babysitters and you miss out on a lot of little family events that happen during the year.

“And although it was a tough decision to make, I think it was the right one. I’m enjoying being back now about a month. The kids are in school and settling in well. I’m just delighted they’re doing really well, because as a parent, you worry about how they’re going to settle in: ‘Are they going to do this and are they going to have friends?’ The two of them seem to be loving life at the minute.”

And at 34, Mooney hasn’t hung up the boots just yet. He is currently lining out for Leinster Senior League side Lucan United.

“The manager’s a lovely fella and it’s a great set-up. I actually come home from training in the evenings now and my wife says to me: ‘Jaysus, you’re loving it there.’

Obviously, there are massive differences, but it’s great to get out and have a run around — keep smiling and keep fit. It’s important that you’re happy. I find I’m at my happiest when I’m running about with a smile on my face. For me, it’s important that I do enjoy the football and continue to play for as long as I can. I’m enjoying it, especially after the past year or so that I’ve had. 

“At the minute, I’m not doing anything [outside of football]. But over the next while, I will. I’ve done my coaching badges. I want to stay involved in football. It’s something I’ve spoken to Lucan about. 

“Once I know the girls are settled in and everybody’s happy enough with the home life, I’m obviously happy and smiling. For me, that’s the most important thing.”

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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