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Dublin: 6 °C Thursday 14 November, 2019
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'I just remember the pain of being so completely lost' - How a lifelong wanderer rediscovered his path

Des McAleenan has travelled the world as a goalkeeping coach but his current role has helped him rebuild both his life and love of the game.

Des McAleenan pictured during a recent training session with the Colombian national team.
Des McAleenan pictured during a recent training session with the Colombian national team.

LATE YESTERDAY EVENING, in the Spanish port city of Alicante, Des McAleenan took his place in the dugout and breathed it all in.

As Colombia’s goalkeeping coach and a crucial part of Carlos Queiroz’s backroom team, the Dubliner allowed himself a brief moment to feel the rush of adrenalin, the energy, the excitement.

It was buried for a while but lately it’s returned with interest. 

“I’m a ridiculously self-reflective person”, he says. 

“I’m very philosophical. And when you look back on the journey, it’s just a tremendous sense of gratitude I have. Because I harboured so much bitterness and resentment.”

McAleenan is a raconteur extraordinaire and effortlessly interlinks various stories – all delivered in an accent that belies his status of lifelong itinerant – with a mixture of incisiveness and light-heartedness. And then, with one line, the mood and subject of the conversation changes quite unexpectedly.

“When I came back from Saudi Arabia, I had a horrendous, horrendous fight with depression”, he admits. 

“I struggled wickedly. It scars me even still. I have a deep understanding of and empathy with people who go through dark moments. I was in Belfast and I just remember the pain of being so completely lost. I wanted to give up football. I wanted to give up everything. It was a shocking, horrible thing to go through.

I have a best friend who lost a son to suicide and he wanted me to come to Dublin. And I was just a shell in the car. I felt so bad for him because I kept thinking I was triggering memories of him burying his son. But still, even with that, he wanted to help me and reach out to me. And with the loving support of my family, I started to piece things back together again. I just needed a push. Sometimes when you’re in depression, you just need something. You know when a car gets stuck in the mud and the wheels start to spin and it can’t go anywhere? You just need a little bit of wood under the wheel. You need to catch a hold of something. You need something to make you believe things will change. I went down to Noel Kelly at Stella Maris and he let me do some coaching. Lo and behold, the love came back. I was in love with the game again. I started feeling really positive. And that was the hook for me. I went down every night and it was a big part of me getting well again.”

Things had come full circle.

McAleenan played with the famous northside nursery as a kid, having grown up in Artane. But a move to England never materialised and in 1988 he headed for America instead. He attended Central Connecticut State University for four years and it was there that he first began dabbling in coaching. Bit by bit, it started to become more of a career. And the cerebral element of the work, in particular, turned him on.       

“You had no idea how the future would unfold”, he says. 

“I fell into coaching but I found out I loved working with kids. The camaraderie, the grafting in the sun. I found out that I liked teaching. I didn’t think it at the time but that’s what I was doing. And that’s what I am. There was a guy here – Dan Gasper, a really accomplished goalkeeping coach – and he needed someone for a camp. He was a real clinician so it was very interesting to see his methodology and to break down goalkeeping technique. It was an eye-opener. And I have to be thankful to him because he gave me my start in the coaching world. The same qualities exist no matter what discipline you’re involved in. You hear the same things, whether it’s from a CEO or an elite coach. It’s the same sort of graft and dedication that goes into it to make people successful and you start to pick up on all of those things.

And regarding Ireland, it’s the sort of place that once you leave you can’t really come back to. That’s what I felt anyway. I didn’t really feel like I belonged. In my early years I suppose I was still searching for an identity. And I’m not the person who left Dublin. I’ve travelled the world and seen a lot of things.”

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It’s an understatement.

After various gigs in the Connecticut area, with university and local club teams, McAleenan’s big break came in 2001 when he was hired as goalkeeping coach for Major League Soccer’s New York/New Jersey Metrostars franchise. He ended up staying for nine years, outlasting five different managers and two interim appointments. He even survived five years of a rebrand, as Red Bull swept in as owners in 2004 and rechristened the entire operation.

But there’s one day that is forever etched in his mind.     

“I’ll never forget 9/11″, he begins. 

It was a beautiful day and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I remember somebody came in and said that a plane had flown in to the Twin Towers. I was like, ‘What?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, it was a small plane’. We usually trained at 10 o’clock in the morning and around 9.30, as we made our way towards the field, all you could hear was the sirens. We  had started to train – Octavio Zambrano was our coach at the time – when the guy who was in charge of the ground came over and he was crying. He said, ‘The Twin Towers are after falling’. So I went over to Octavio and broke the news, ‘Look, something really bad has happened in Manhattan and it’s best if we stop training’. So he stopped the session and he called all the players in. I think Tim Howard got down on his knees and prayed. We all went into the dressing room where there was one television and we watched together. In shock. And then I think our president brought us to a Colombian restaurant – it was all quite surreal – because the bridges and tunnels were closed down. Everything was shut down for a week. And I actually thought sport wasn’t even going to exist after it. I thought there was going to be a monumental knock-on effect. And it wasn’t like MLS was in a healthy state before that. But thank heavens for Don Garber because the guy is a fucking genius. He really brought the league through it and its never looked back since. It was all very precarious. Overnight, we basically became Red Bull. And that was the start of it. Everything took off.”

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There were plenty of highs, mainly the run to the 2008 MLS Cup and his involvement in Tim Howard’s development and subsequent transfer to Manchester United while he worked under a string of excellent coaches, including Bob Bradley, Bruce Arena and Juan Carlos Osorio. But when he lost his job in 2011, it sent a settled life into a bit of a tailspin. 

“I lived in Jersey, in a lovely neighbourhood called Maplewood and you were in Manhattan in half an hour”, he says. 

“I’m a big music fan and I’d go and see everybody play at places like the Bowery Ballroom and Irving Plaza. I had a great life. But I started accumulating a lot of fucking shite, things you actually thought meant something. But when you’re forced to drop everything and have to make decisions, you realise that everything you worried about was just shite. The suits and shoes – I literally gave everything away because I went to Saudi Arabia. And since then, I’ve become a wanderer. I spend a lot of time in Connecticut. There’s an undying friendship with Johnny Vaughan, a best mate, who runs a great Irish pub in Hartford. He’s been the rock in my life. So half of my stuff is in his place. I’ve got clothes in Dublin and I’ve got clothes in Mexico. But I realised that it’s all shite. The money, the possessions. The time I’m happiest is sharing moments on a field or having a glass of wine with friends. Everything else doesn’t mean anything. It’s about the moments you’re sharing something with somebody and just feeling alive. Because I went through a bad patch, I really just feel grateful.”

In Saudi, McAleenan worked with Al Hilal in the capital city of Riyadh and stayed for two years, sharing a dugout with managers like Thomas Doll, Antoine Kombouaré and current Croatia boss Zlatko Dalic. He was back in the Middle East last year to assist Omid Namazi at Iranian powerhouses Zob Ahan. One game in particular – against Tractor – stands out for him.    

“They had Anthony Stokes playing for them at the time so I went over to him before the game and he said, ‘Ah, Jaysus – there’s a familiar voice’”, he says. 

“Two Irishmen in Iran having a chat in the middle of the field? Very strange. It’s a hotbed of football and the fans were packed in an hour beforehand. It’s really hostile and when you walk out, the sound of the whistling pierces your ears.”   

One consistent for McAleenan in recent years has been his involvement with US Soccer’s underage setup, particularly the Under-20 squad. It gave him some much-needed international experience and he’s forever grateful to Tab Ramos, a former Metrostars player, for bringing him in.  

0-1 McAleenan has been a crucial part of the US Under-20's staff under Tab Ramos.

At the World Cup in Poland earlier this year, the US side looked a strong bet to finish as winners, particularly after a superb win over France in the round of 16. But there was quarter-final disappointment against Ecuador and the group was left to ruminate on a missed opportunity.

“It was a bittersweet tournament”, McAleenan says. 

“I remember Tab the day before we faced Ecuador and he told the players, ‘We have a problem here. One great performance is terrific but it counts for nothing if we can’t follow it up’. And the next day, we stank it out. I’d say we had seven players play – what I would call – below a ’4′. We had seven players shit the bed. It wasn’t that Ecuador were that good. We suffered a VAR decision that went against us before half-time and we never recovered. The game finished 2-1 and they were all devastated. The kids were crying their eyes out, not just because they got beaten but because they knew they let themselves down and played so badly and that we could’ve done something. It was bitterly disappointing and took a while to get over. A horrible, horrible feeling. A World Cup is so intense, staff have given up so much time, everyone is putting in the same effort, there’s the euphoria of a big victory, the atmosphere the day after, moving to new cities, it really is exciting. And we could smell it. We had the chance to make history and I think we let it slip through our fingers. But we should be proud too. Several players played with great distinction and we had one, Chris Richards from Bayern Munich, who I think will be a standout in years to come.”   

I owe enormous gratitude to Tab Ramos. And he should’ve got the senior job. He had four successive World Cup qualifications, we went to the quarter-finals of two of them. It was a fit-up. The guy who runs US Soccer (Jay Berhalter), who is really in charge and who pulls the strings, his brother (Gregg) became the coach. They never conducted a search. They just said they did.” 

It was through another friend – Belfast native Mick McDermott, who’s now in charge at Glentoran – that the Colombian job came up. McDermott had been in the Middle East for years and served as assistant to Carlos Quieroz during Iran’s stint at the 2018 World Cup. But a proposed move to Bogota with Quieroz was problematic as he didn’t speak Spanish. McAleenan, who had improved his grasp of the language with a gig at West Ham’s international academy in Mexico, jumped at the opportunity. And his first game? A ‘friendly’ against Brazil in Miami in front of 65,000 back in September.     

“This is fucking elite”, he says. 

“This is top-ten. This is a team that has the potential to do something special. As soon as I walked in, it was just a who’s who of household names and big-time players. When we faced Brazil in Miami last month, they were on their heels for a large part of the game. And they had all their crack players involved. But it was interesting because Brazil have a fitness coach, Ricardo Rosa. He’s one of Tite’s right-hand men and he’s also a dear friend of mine. I was actually at Tite’s Christmas party about seven years ago in Dubai so as we were training at one end of the pitch, Brazil – with Claudio Taffarel as their goalkeeping coach – were at the other and I’m chatting to Tite in the middle of the park. He gave me a big hug and I was thinking it was just so surreal. And then Ricardo came over, hugged me too and said, ‘Enjoy this. Congratulations. You’re here now. This is where you belong.’ Ricardo is Neymar’s personal coach and has been since he was at Santos. But he’s deeply religious and always sends me messages, generally some psalms. He was always a great source of encouragement, especially when things weren’t going well for me. And I always thought that maybe one day, if I got a chance, it would be with him. I had told him that the Colombia gig was bubbling so it was lovely to be able to send him a message saying, ‘I’ll see you in Miami’”.  

The language is improving all the time, though it’s still not as good as he’d like it. 

“It would be the equivalent of someone saying, ‘Yeah, I speak English’ and they come over to Dublin but land in Coolock or Darndale. ‘What’s the bleedin’ story? Know what I mean, mate?’ And they’d be like, ‘What? That’s not English’. So it’s the exact same. It’s quite frightening. I’m fine on the field but the butterflies start when I have to start talking to someone for the first time to get the conversation going. I’m not completely fluent just yet. I mean, the look of complete fucking panic on your face when somebody fires something at you. Because I can speak Spanish, people automatically think that I understand everything so the words come back at you like machine gun bullets. I’m catching only ‘X’ amount of them and there’s the moment of terror. So you get very good at laughing and smiling and throwing some words out because you’ve only got 40% of the conversation.”

When McAleenan speaks of the Colombian group, there’s a noticeable giddiness in his voice. Radamel Falcao, James Rodriguez, Juan Cuadrado and an experienced goalkeeper like David Ospina. It’s a pretty decent base from which to work with. And then there’s Queiroz too, another well-traveled football man who has – inevitably enough – already cast quite the spell on McAleenan.  

“He’s very wise and he’s worldly”, he says. 

imago-20190614 McAleenan has a harmonious relationship with Carlos Queiroz. Source: Tiago Caldas via www.imago-images.de

“He’s not your average football coach. His background is quite unique. He grew up in Mozambique. And I was speaking to him earlier about Uganda, the Tutsis and the Hutus and their conflict. He can discuss things that others can’t. I remember being at the Busch Gardens theme park in Florida with him and neither of us wanted to go on the rides. I didn’t know they had a safari in there and he actually owns one. So we’re walking around and he’s giving me the tour, talking to me about every single one of the animals because he knows so much about wildlife. It was just fascinating. He’s accumulated a lot of experiences in life. And Alex Ferguson has a tremendous affection for him and I think he kept his desk open for him, to be honest. All coaches have to be thinkers but he really is one. He’s very, very smart.”

With football always deemed a ruthless and cut-throat environment, McAleenan has benefitted greatly from long-lasting and far-reaching relationships. Certain people have always had his back.

And he’s well aware. 

“It comes back to your belief system. I believe the world began as an equation. Plus and minus. A flow of energy from one direction to another. And I’m big on energy. I think you can detect good energy in people. I’ve attracted the right energy because I think I have a good heart and people pick up on that. For some reason, certain things have happened and fallen in to place. Here I am. It’s phenomenal to be part of something so exciting.” 

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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