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'I show my son the clips on YouTube but he cheers for Ronaldo instead of me'

Derek Geary provides an extensive account of his journey from Rivermount Boys to the Premier League.

IN HIS BID to endear himself to Sheffield United supporters, the early signs were ominous for Derek Geary.

“I was on the bench for my first game, which was at home to Plymouth,” he explains. “I went to warm up along the touchline and I was running towards the Kop End with Billy Sharp.

soccer-coca-cola-football-league-championship-sheffield-united-v-cardiff-city Derek Geary pictured shortly after moving to Sheffield United in 2004. Source: EMPICS Sport

“As a new player you might expect a bit of a clap, but there was a load of boos. Then I heard someone in the crowd go: ‘Fuck off back to Wednesday, you piggy bastard!’ Billy turns to me and says: ‘Remind me never to warm up with you again.’

“I remember that night thinking that it might have been a mistake to sign for a club where the fans hated me before I even kicked a ball.”

Geary would go on to defy his inauspicious beginning by earning the reverence of the regulars at Bramall Lane, who were gradually won over by the combative style and dogged honesty of their five-foot-six full-back from Dublin.

In the minds of Sheffield United fans, his contribution during a six-year spell with the club absolved him of his previous affiliation to their rivals from the blue half of the city. It also elevated him to cult hero status.

Aided considerably by their current Irish contingent, Sheffield United now find themselves in the upper reaches of the Premier League. If the likes of John Egan, Enda Stevens and David McGoldrick are held in the same esteem as Derek Geary when they too are a decade deep into retirement, they’ll know that they served the club well.

Geary played his final game for Sheffield United in 2010. Now, as U18 head coach, he has a key role as the club aims to produce young players with the potential to graduate to the first-team. 

Through the transfer fees and sell-on clauses generated by players such as Harry Maguire and Kyle Walker, Sheffield United’s academy has become an increasingly valuable asset.

Having been in the job for the last four years, Geary knows the ins and outs by now. Nevertheless, there’s no module on any of the coaching courses that covers global pandemics, so Covid-19 has presented new challenges.

“The first-team are back in training but we’re obviously a bit down the pecking order,” Geary tells The42 over the phone from his home in Sheffield, a city he has called home for his entire adult life. “What I’m thinking is we might be able to go back in July at the earliest. We’ve been off for two months now so it would be great to get the lads going again.

“It’s been a tough time because we’ll have new scholars coming in, but we also have to communicate with the lads we have who aren’t being kept on to get a contract. We’ve had to tell them that news over a call on Zoom or FaceTime, which isn’t a nice way to have to do it.

sheffield-united-v-bradford-city-sky-bet-league-one-bramall-lane Geary is head coach of Sheffield United's U18s. Source: PA

“Usually in those situations we’d help them with a pathway to move on somewhere else with trial games or by getting other clubs to come and have a look at them, but that’s not possible now. It’s not easy for them and it’s not ideal for us having to deliver that kind of news on a call, but these are strange the times we’re in.”

Geary’s own football education began at Rivermount Boys near his home in Finglas. He was a member of a promising young side, although their success was occasionally thwarted by a lad who played up front for Crumlin United.

“They beat us to win the league one year and Robbie Keane scored a hat-trick,” he recalls. “He was even doing his cartwheel celebration back then.”

While Geary was garnering attention from scouts representing English clubs, most were deterred by his diminutive stature. Shortly after his 17th birthday, Sheffield Wednesday offered a chance to prove that the obstacle was surmountable, yet they too had reservations. 

“I remember playing games for Rivermount and I’d often hear stuff like ‘stick it on the little fella’, which just gave me more determination. It hindered me because quite a few clubs would have been interested in me but they didn’t take it further because of my height.

“Even when I first went to Wednesday, they only gave me a six-month contract. They said ‘we like him as a player and as a lad, but his height is going to be an issue’. It was basically a six-month trial.

“That whole issue was something I turned into a positive. I made it a massive motivation for myself throughout my career. I always felt like I was looking to prove people wrong.

“I wasn’t the most talented kid at all but what I did have was huge desire and determination. I was always working on my game. Even though I wouldn’t have realised it then, just because there are players more talented than you doesn’t mean that you can’t be the one who forges a career. As a coach now, it’s a message I keep reiterating to the lads.”

Two decades have passed since they last occupied English football’s top tier, but the Sheffield Wednesday that Geary joined in 1997 was a well-established Premier League club.

In the season that preceded his arrival, a side that included Des Walker, Steve Nicol, Regi Blinker and Benito Carbone finished in seventh place and reached the FA Cup quarter-finals. David Pleat then sought to strengthen his squad with several new additions, the most notable of which was the signing of Paolo Di Canio from Celtic.

soccer-fa-carling-premiership-sheffield-wednesday-v-arsenal Geary was in the Sheffield Wednesday squad when Paolo Di Canio infamously pushed referee Paul Alcock. Source: EMPICS Sport

However, after two more seasons in the Premier League, Wednesday were relegated. Di Canio’s spell at Hillsborough ended with an infamous incident in a game against Arsenal, in which he reacted to being red-carded by pushing referee Paul Alcock to the ground.

“I was a big Liverpool fan as a kid and the first game at Anfield that my dad took me to was against Sheffield Wednesday,” Geary says. “After the game I got a picture outside the ground with Des Walker. A few years later I was training alongside him, which was a bit surreal.

“Des actually took me under his wing a bit when I was at Wednesday. Coming from a brilliant defender like him, someone who played in a World Cup semi-final, that was unbelievable for me as a young lad after coming over from Rivermount. To be around guys like him, Paolo Di Canio and Wim Jonk at that age, I was just in awe of them.

“I was actually in the squad the day Di Canio pushed the ref. He was quite a volatile character but it was still a crazy thing to happen.

“It’s sad to look back on it now actually because the club was starting on its way down at that stage, which was something I probably wouldn’t have been aware of at the time. There was a massive divide in the dressing room and Di Canio was being a bit disruptive, trying to get out.

“There were players on big money so when the club was relegated the following season, obviously the top earners left and the club couldn’t afford to bring in top players. That created chances for the likes of me, because we had a good core of young lads coming through.”

As Wednesday fought for Premier League survival, Geary had to be patient in his pursuit of a first-team debut. He was keen to make the breakthrough, but an extended stay in the reserve team had its benefits. The club’s second-string side were coached by Chris Waddle.

“He was massive for me and I still speak to him now,” Geary says of Waddle, who was named the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year as a Sheffield Wednesday player in 1993. The mercurial former England winger previously won three French titles and played in a European Cup final during his time at Marseille.

“Other than Larry O’Brien, my manager at Rivermount, Chris Waddle was the first one who told me that I could have a real career in the game. He was always pushing for me to be involved in the first-team.

“To hear that from someone like him, that really gave me the belief I needed to get a career for myself. His coaching was good and it made me a better player, but the confidence I got from his words, because of who he was, really made the difference for me.

PA-22309 Chris Waddle playing for Marseille during the 1991 European Cup final against Red Star Belgrade. Source: Ross Kinnaird/EMPICS Sport

“Training with players like Des Walker and Paolo Di Canio could be daunting, but what Chris said to me made me believe that I deserved to be in with them. After I came to England, he was probably the biggest influence on me.”

In 2000, with Sheffield Wednesday dropping down to the Championship – the First Division in old money – Geary began to feature regularly. At the age of 21, supporters selected him as the club’s Player of the Year for the 2001-02 season.

“It was a big challenge at that age to deal with the expectation that comes with playing at a club as big as Sheffield Wednesday when they were on a downhill slide, but I enjoyed every minute of it. Getting to play in the Championship as a young lad was brilliant.

“Because of the situation at the club, I got the kind of break you need. There are far better players than me who came over to England but didn’t get an opportunity because they were at a club where things were stable and there was money to buy other players.

“I was fortunate. Even though Sheffield Wednesday fans wouldn’t be happy with me saying it, the club getting relegated created the pathway that I needed for my career.”

The decline continued for Wednesday with another relegation in 2003. Geary spent one more season with the club before departing for fellow League One side Stockport County. 

Prior to completing the move, he was made aware of interest from elsewhere in Sheffield. Alan Quinn, one of two players who had just swapped Wednesday for United, told his compatriot and former team-mate to expect a call from his new manager, Neil Warnock. 

Geary explains: “Warnock rang me and said ‘I want to sign you but I’m already after taking Leigh Bromby and Alan Quinn, if I take three players from Wednesday the fans here will absolutely kill me’.”

Just two months later, with Sheffield United shorn of full-backs Simon Francis and Rob Kozluk due to injuries, Warnock was on the phone again.

“I was happy at Stockport but in fairness to Sammy McIlroy, Sheffield United were in the Championship and he said he wouldn’t stand in my way if a bigger club came in. He was a man of his word.

soccer-nationwide-league-division-one-sheffield-united-v-sheffield-wednesday Geary keeping tabs on Peter Ndlovu during a Sheffield derby in 2003. Source: EMPICS Sport

“I signed for Sheffield United the next morning. When he met me, Warnock said ‘I’m going to be lynched for signing you’, but it worked out okay – eventually.”

Despite their initially hostile reaction to the signing of another former Wednesday player, it didn’t take the Sheffield United fans long to alter their perception of Derek Geary. The catalyst came in stoppage time in his fifth appearance for the club, a 30-yard volley – the only goal of his professional career – securing a 2-1 win at Millwall.

“I felt with the type of player that I was, and with the type of city that Sheffield is – a working-class city where they appreciate players who give it their all – that I’d be able to gain their trust. That Millwall goal obviously helped and the fans really took to me after that.

“In the end I had more of an affinity with Sheffield United than I had with Wednesday. If you had told me that when I was a younger player – because I was a real Wednesday boy who didn’t like Sheffield United – I would have said that you were mad.

“The derbies in Sheffield are intense occasions. I remember playing in one when I was a young lad at Wednesday. The ball went out of play so I went over to pick it up. A Sheffield United fan picked it up before me and went to hand it back. I thought it was a kind gesture – until I put my hand out to take it and he bounced it off my head. At that stage I was saying to myself ‘I absolute hate these!’

“It’s amazing how the coin flipped. To win the Sheffield United fans over after spending so long at Wednesday, I wouldn’t say it’s my biggest achievement, but it’s definitely the most satisfying one.”

At the conclusion of the 2005-06 season, Geary’s second with the club, Sheffield United ended their 12-year absence from the top flight by finishing second in the Championship.

Facing the club he supported as a child, he made his Premier League debut against Liverpool on the opening day of the campaign. The 1-1 draw is one of the many memories he savours from that season, although the two games against Manchester United left the most indelible mark.

Geary engineered the opening goal for his side at Bramall Lane by providing the cross that Keith Gillespie headed in, before a Wayne Rooney double gave the visitors the three points. Rooney and Michael Carrick scored the goals in a 2-0 win for Alex Ferguson’s side in the return game at Old Trafford later in the season.

“In both of the games I had to man-mark Ronaldo, who actually got the Ballon d’Or the following year,” says Geary. “One of the games was on Monday Night Football and I just remember thinking that I wish this wasn’t live on telly because my mates are going to hammer me after I get ripped up by Ronaldo.

soccer-fa-barclays-premiership-manchester-united-v-sheffield-united-old-trafford Challenging Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo in April 2007. Source: PA

“When we got to the ground, Neil Warnock said to me ‘I feel sorry for you having to mark Ronaldo in front of millions of people’. That was one of the things he was great at – making light of a situation to ease the pressure, because he knew I would have been feeling it.

“The amount of goals Ronaldo has scored is incredible, but at least I can always say he didn’t score any in the games I played against him. For a player of his calibre not to score in the three hours I played against him is something I’d look back on with a bit of pride.

“You’re trying your best to get in his face and make it uncomfortable for him. You can’t stop players like him, you can only limit them, whether it’s me or the best defender in the world. They’re going to get opportunities but fortunately he didn’t take any in those games. It was a struggle but I didn’t feel like I was totally out of my depth or anything.”

By the final day of the season, Sheffield United’s efforts to maintain their Premier League status were ongoing. When a draw at home to Wigan Athletic would have guaranteed their safety, the Blades fell to a 2-1 defeat. Coupled with Carlos Tevez’s winning goal for West Ham at Manchester United, Geary’s side went down on goal difference.

It was a relegation battle mired in controversy. Sheffield United were aggrieved by the third-party ownership issue surrounding Tevez and Javier Mascherano, whose ineligibility had seen West Ham hit with a £5.5million fine by the Premier League.

Sheffield United failed in their bid to overturn their relegation, with an out-of-court settlement – reported to be in the region of £20m – eventually agreed between the clubs. 

Geary says: “Even though it was a tough way for it to end, I look back very fondly on that season. Playing against top players every week was amazing. I don’t think I would have been expected to play as many times as I did, to be honest. People probably thought the step-up from the Championship would be too big. I felt like I coped really well.

“The Premier League is a monster when it comes to the standard. That’s why I’d have so much respect for players like Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, because you can’t overstate how hard it is to perform at that level every week for so many years. 

“I only played one season and it was unbelievably demanding. For players like them to have that longevity really goes to show how good they were, both in terms of their talent and their mental strength.

“I absolutely loved the experience of that season. It was great as well to come up against Robbie Keane again after the days of playing for Rivermount against Crumlin. It was just gut-wrenching to get relegated the way we did with the whole Tevez thing.”

soccer-fa-barclays-premiership-sheffield-united-v-wigan-athletic-bramall-lane Keith Gillespie and Derek Geary react to Sheffield United's relegation from the Premier League. Source: PA

During that campaign, Geary’s club manager told the press that he had the best Irish full-back in England in his squad. He was playing regularly in the Premier League, proving himself to be adept when performing on either side of defence, yet the manager of his country didn’t seem to agree with Neil Warnock’s assessment.

A 5-2 defeat in Cyprus suggested that the Ireland team might need fresh faces, but Geary continued to be overlooked by Steve Staunton during the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign.

When he was eventually summoned to join a patched-up squad for a couple of end-of-season friendlies in the USA, an injury prevented him from travelling.

“The one regret I would think of is not getting to play for my country at senior level,” the ex-Ireland U18 international says. “When I was playing in the Championship I thought I might get a shout. Brian Kerr, when he was the manager, used to tell Neil Warnock that he was keeping an eye on me.

“When I got into the Premier League I thought my chance would come, even if it was just to be called into a squad so they could have a look at me. It was frustrating because I felt I was giving a good account of myself playing against fellas like Ronaldo and Arjen Robben,

“During the international windows, the lads at Sheffield United, Paddy Kenny and Alan Quinn, would be going away with Ireland and I’d be going back to Finglas to watch the matches in the pub.

“Having grown up during the Jack Charlton era, playing for Ireland was a massive ambition for me. To be able to look back at even just one cap now would mean so much to me. I’d have done anything for it. It’s why I can’t stand the fact that there can be situations like the Declan Rice one, where you can play for one country and then decide to go off and play for someone else.

“I have absolutely no problem with players who aren’t Irish-born representing Ireland – my own son is English and I loved the likes of John Aldridge and Andy Townsend back in the day – but if you play for a country then that should be the end of it.

“Don’t just commit to a country for a while because being an international footballer enhances your reputation or your brand. There are young kids out there, like I was, who dream of playing for Ireland, but their path is being blocked by others who are exploiting it. I know people will probably say I’m bitter about it but it’s just something I think is not right.”

Wigan’s attempt to keep Geary in the Premier League by lining him up as a potential replacement for Everton-bound Leighton Baines in the summer of 2007 was an indication of how well he was performing.

inpho_00016149 Geary wasn't capped by Ireland beyond U18 level. Source: INPHO/Andrew Paton

The interest prompted Sheffield United to offer him a new three-year contract, which he didn’t hesitate to accept. By the time that deal expired, however, Geary had made just 37 more appearances for the club.

Since his time at Sheffield Wednesday, he had suffered from knee injuries that required the expertise of surgeons with frustrating frequency. As the end of the 2009-10 season approached, he recognised that the toll had become too debilitating to ignore. Before reaching his 30th birthday, he accepted retirement as his only option.

“I had already gone through about eight operations on my knee at that stage. I always came back successfully from them, but I got a bit of a surprise after I had to go in for another bit of keyhole surgery.

“When I came out, the surgeon told me that I had a knee that was capable of getting me through a nice walk every now and then, but to keep playing football with it at the level I was at was going to be a stretch.

“I was determined to keep playing on but it was deteriorating fast, to the extent that I’d have to sit out for about two weeks after every game I played because the knee was swelling up so badly.

“I’ll always remember being outside Bramall Lane and some old bloke came up and told me he felt sorry for me. When I asked him why, he said ‘you’re limping around the pitch’ – and he was right.

“The pain was just too much and it was massively affecting the level of my performances. My form took a huge dip. I was getting through games and telling myself that I was doing okay, but I was only kidding myself. On top of that, Kyle Walker was coming through behind me so I didn’t stand a chance.”

Understandably, beginning the process of adapting to life as a retired 29-year-old without a plan in place for life after football wasn’t straightforward.

“When I was at Sheffield Wednesday,” says Geary, “I had an operation and I was told afterwards that I’d have a 50/50 chance of playing again. I managed to keep going for another seven years so I should have been happy with that. But I found it very hard for a long, long time.

“I had no interest in doing anything else for a while because football was all I knew since I was a kid. Coming to terms with being retired at that age was really tough, especially when I was looking around at all my best mates still playing every Saturday. I stayed away from games for ages because it was just too tough. I missed it massively.

soccer-nationwide-league-division-one-sheffield-wednesday-v-sheffield-united Geary's knee problems began at Sheffield Wednesday. Source: EMPICS Sport

“I can completely understand how players can fall into addiction or have their marriages break down after they retire, because it’s a very difficult thing to get used to when such a big part of your life is taken away.

“There’s the buzz of a win on a Saturday, there’s the support from fans, people telling you they look up to you, the camaraderie of a dressing room at a football club that makes you feel like you belong to something good – it’s suddenly all gone and you know you’ll never get it back.

“You can get very low when that realisation kicks in. There were some very dark days, to be honest. It took me a while to get going again.”

It was perhaps somewhat ironic that when he finally felt ready to begin a new chapter as a former footballer, Sheffield United was his first port of call. After expressing an interest in coaching, he set about getting the necessary badges while working with the club’s U12 and U13 teams. Geary’s impact was impressive enough to earn him the U18 gig in 2016.

“I do put an emphasis on building a good team and winning games, because it’s important that players have a winning mentality. Having said that, developing good individuals and keeping those players coming through is the main objective.

“The reality is that football clubs are businesses too so we’ve got to generate players. I think it was £15million we sold David Brooks to Bournemouth for a couple of years ago, which is important for the club.

“Producing players is what we’ll be judged on. It’s hard work – on a normal day I’m in at half-seven every morning and could be there until eight or nine o’clock at night – but it’s a job that I love and it’s the next best thing after playing.”

In addition to providing him with a livelihood, Geary’s progress as a coach helped him to make peace with the premature end to his playing career. It wasn’t always the case, but instead of being consumed by what might have been, he can now appreciate what was. 

“Because my height was something that went against me from early on, I felt like I was always fighting against the grain. To go on and play in the Premier League – even though I’d love to have done it for longer – is something I’m very proud of.

soccer-fa-barclays-premiership-sheffield-united-v-manchester-united-bramall-lane 'To go on and play in the Premier League is something I'm very proud of.' Source: PA

“My son wasn’t alive back then but when we go to Bramall Lane now he asks me why people come up and talk to me. I explain to him that I used to play there and all that, which is good. He’s getting mad into the likes of Ronaldo as well, so it’s nice for him to think that his dad played against him.”

On the wall of his parents’ home in Dublin, there’s a cherished memento from a day when Derek Geary went up against one of the greats of the modern game. 

“After playing against Ronaldo at Bramall Lane, I was looking to get his jersey but he headed off down the tunnel straight away. Apparently he was still fuming over missing a chance. As a fellow full-back, I asked Gary Neville for his instead but he said he had already promised it to Keith Gillespie. 

“Anyway, I just left it then but I was in the dressing room later when Brian Kidd – who was our assistant manager – came into me. He said ‘I’ve just been speaking to Gary Neville, he’s sorry he couldn’t give you his jersey but he got you Ronaldo’s instead’ – so that worked out quite well!

“Ronaldo’s jersey is framed in my mam and dad’s house now. It’s a good one to show people. I show my son the clips on YouTube but he cheers for Ronaldo instead of me.”

On the days when Geary allows his thoughts to drift towards his lost years as a player, he could be excused for indulging in some self-pity. That temptation is suppressed by reminding himself of the fate that befell three of his former colleagues.

The 39-year-old has mourned the deaths of Phil O’Donnell, who he played alongside at Sheffield Wednesday, and ex-Sheffield United team-mates Gary Speed and Ugo Ehiogu.

“As a young Irish lad who grew up supporting Celtic, I latched onto Phil immediately. He was such a lovely bloke. He used to bring myself and Alan Quinn up to Glasgow all the time to watch the Old Firm games.

“Ugo Ehiogu was another brilliant lad who helped me a lot at Sheffield United, and I actually roomed with Gary Speed. Everyone knows how good a player he was, but he was an ever better person.

“I became quite close to all three of those lads when I played with them, so it hit hard when they passed away. In that perspective, not being able to play football because of a bad knee is something you quickly forget about. There’s a much bigger picture to life.”

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