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‘I felt I was too good to be playing amateur football’

With three goals in four games, Irish striker Dean Ebbe has been in impressive form for TNS in Europe, and is looking to add to his tally tonight.

The New Saints' Dean Ebbe celebrates scoring his side's first goal of the game during the UEFA Champions League, first qualifying round.
The New Saints' Dean Ebbe celebrates scoring his side's first goal of the game during the UEFA Champions League, first qualifying round.
Image: Barry Coombs

A YEAR CAN be a long time in football. 12 months ago, Dean Ebbe was playing for Bluebell United in the Leinster Senior League. Now, he is starring in Europe for Welsh side TNS.

At 24, the Dubliner has already experienced his fair share of boosts and setbacks in the game.

Ebbe, who grew up in Clondalkin, played with St Francis at schoolboy level. From there, he encountered the first of his near misses with professional football.

As a teenager, he looked set to join then-Championship team Crystal Palace. However, with the club in serious financial trouble in addition to facing a relegation battle, the manager Neil Warnock was sacked as Ebbe was on the verge of signing. Paul Hart came in as Warnock’s replacement and the deal for the young attacker fell by the wayside.

“I was meant to sign, but he got sacked, the new fella came in, he didn’t know who I was, so there was no hope of going back over there and signing,” Ebbe tells The42.

Instead, Ebbe joined Shamrock Rovers in 2012. It was an exciting time for the club, with Michael O’Neill guiding them to two league titles and a memorable Europa League run.

Thereafter, Stephen Kenny took over after O’Neill agreed to become Northern Ireland manager, and Ebbe appeared to be making good progress.

Having impressed with the U19s, the young striker made a couple of appearances for the Hoops’ senior side during the 2012 and 2013 campaigns. However, when Trevor Croly took over from Kenny, Ebbe’s first-team chances became increasingly limited and he moved to Longford on loan.

I got called up to the first team, but the next year [2013], I should have moved onto the first team, but a new manager came in and I ended up staying with the 19s, and it didn’t really benefit me,” he recalls.

It was with the First Division side, who at the time were managed by former Bohs and Shamrock Rovers star Tony Cousins, that Ebbe got his first taste of playing senior football on a regular basis.

Yet despite this boost, the next part of his career would prove frustratingly stop-start. He had short stints at Athlone and Cabinteely in the League of Ireland, as well as Collinstown FC and Bluebell United in the Leinster Senior League.

Ebbe never really stuck around anywhere long enough to make a major impact, and at one stage, he was feeling distinctly disillusioned with the game.

I gave up on dreams of England and that, when I finished with Rovers,” he admits. “I thought I’d probably stay in League of Ireland. But when I went to Bluebell, I thought: ‘I probably won’t even get back into League of Ireland now.’

“Most of my friends are [playing junior football], so I went there just to get the love of football back again. I didn’t really feel like I wanted to be playing football [at a higher level], so I just went there and after a year, I was like: ‘Right, I need to be back playing good football.’”

Andy Noonan Ebbe worked under Andy Noonan, right, at Bluebell. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Yet while fortune deserted a teenage Ebbe as his move to Crystal Palace fell apart in an instant, he enjoyed much better luck one day while playing for Bluebell. He had a stormer in a particular game that a scout from Britain so happened to be watching.

In an interview with The Scottish Sun, Bluebell manager Andy Noonan recalled that fateful afternoon.

“I laugh when I think back to the summer. Like most clubs part of the initiation at Bluebell is to sing a song for the other lads but Dean’s a shy guy and had been stressing himself about it.

“We were playing UCD in the league on the Sunday and he asked if I’d let him off with it if he scored a hat-trick.

“I agreed. He only went and scored four goals in a 4-0 win and picked up man of the match!

“Luckily the Inverness scout was in the crowd watching that day. Maybe it was fate.”

Ebbe adds: “It’s just all about luck and you have to be a good player, but somebody needs to look at you on the right day when you’re playing well and you’ll get a contract or trial.”

Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out for Ebbe at Inverness. Managed by ex-Ireland U21 international Richie Foran at the time, he could not prevent their relegation from the Scottish top flight. As a result, Foran was sacked, and a number of players, including Ebbe, were released. The experience was over before it really started, with the Dubliner appearing just four times for the struggling side.

Within a few months of moving to Scotland, Ebbe was back with Bluebell. While grateful to have played against teams of the calibre of Celtic, he remained eager to prove his critics wrong.

I wanted to play at a level I felt like I could play at,” he says. “I felt I was too good to be playing amateur football.”

Ebbe continued to work hard and last January, the striker sealed his return to full-time football, as the New Saints came calling.

“When he came back he was training with us in pre-season, got a couple of offers from League of Ireland,” Noonan told Extratime.ie.

“But he just took a selfish stand with himself and said: ‘no, I’m going to stay at Bluebell, get as fit as I possibly can and be in the shop window in January, I want to go back over’.”

Having again impressed at Bluebell, Ebbe initially joined TNS, who have won the Welsh Premier League for the past seven consecutive seasons, on a six-month deal.

The switch to full-time football proved relatively seamless for the striker, given that even in his amateur days, he would work hard off the field and always look to “do a bit extra”.

David O’Sullivan celebrates with goalscorer Dean Ebbe after his sides first goal Ebbe pictured during his Longford days. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The disciplined approach has consequently paid off. Ebbe helped guide the Welsh club to the League Cup and the title, signing on for another year after a successful first campaign there.

“I just think we have the best team and the best players,” he says. “We just try to play football all the time, starting from the back, from the ‘keeper out, not bombing balls forward, just trying to play in the right way. And everyone’s bought into it.”

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He believes the standard compared with the League of Ireland is “around the same,” while he has impressed at a higher level this year, scoring three goals in four games as part of the club’s European campaign.

TNS’ opening Champions League qualifier panned out in unusual fashion. They were hammered 5-0 by Macedonian outfit KF Shkendija in the first leg, before winning the second leg 4-0 (with Ebbe scoring the opener) and narrowly losing out on aggregate.

In the first game, we didn’t play our normal game. I felt like, as soon as they scored, heads went down. But when we got to the second game, we had nothing to lose, so we were just playing the way we always play in the [Welsh] league.

“We should have gone with that [attitude] in the first game, it didn’t happen, but it was a good result in the second leg just to get a bit of pride back.

“We were used to winning games all the time in the league, but getting beaten 5-0 was just a reality check. We can’t run over every single team, we have to go in with different gameplans [in Europe].”

TNS were subsequently entered into the Europa League. In their first tie, they overcame Lincoln Red Imps of Gibraltar 3-2 on aggregate, with Ebbe scoring in both legs.

“It was my first European campaign, so I was happy just to play in it, but scoring in it was even better.”

The style of play, Ebbe adds, is quite different to the football he is accustomed to.

Even the heat plays a massive part in it. We’re obviously not used to playing in places like Macedonia. The players’ technique, everyone’s good on the ball, whereas in the Welsh league, you can pick out someone who’s not good on the ball and try to target them.”

Tonight, they play Danish club Midtjylland, a side who got as far as the Europa League round of 32 in 2016, beating Man United 2-1 in the first leg of their knockout clash before bowing out. The first leg takes place away from TNS’ normal home (Park Hall) at Cardiff City Stadium, before they travel for next week’s return fixture in Denmark, with the victors set to play either Sweden’s Malmo or Hungary’s Videoton in the play-off round. The striker admits his side will have to endure long spells without the ball and play quite defensively at times.

“We’ll probably try to catch them on the break and that type of stuff,” Ebbe says.

“They’re obviously going to go into the game as favourites to go through.”

Whatever happens though, the Irish star can be proud of the substantial contribution he has made at the club thus far. He hopes to advance and play at an even higher level some day, but is focused on the matter of hand for now. And despite the recent acclaim, Ebbe is taking nothing for granted, as he has had plenty of first-hand experience with the unpredictable nature of life in the game.

“If you want to be a professional footballer, just don’t give up,” he adds. “I gave up and luckily enough, it just happened for me [afterwards]. You never know what’s around the corner, anything can happen. Like I said earlier, a manager [who takes a shine to you] could come in or go out, it’s just ups and downs all the time. You have to try to stay positive and you’ll get that chance.”

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Paul Fennessy

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