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'With trying to sign some guys in Ireland, when it comes to crunch time, they get scared'

Former LOI star Eamon Zayed on the challenges of starting up a new club in America.

Eamon Zayed (file pic).
Eamon Zayed (file pic).
Image: Donall Farmer/INPHO

EAMON ZAYED is no stranger to travelling long distances to reach his desired destination.

While he spent the majority of the first half of his career playing in the League of Ireland, the last decade has been spent almost entirely abroad.

After a stint with Leicester City at youth level, he returned home.

While at Bray, there was a brief spell on loan at Norwegian club Aalesunds, but it was only while with Drogheda that the Dubliner started to seriously contemplate playing beyond Ireland and Britain in the long term.

The Louth club were going through serious financial difficulties towards the end of his three years there, resulting in some unpaid wages and leaving Zayed along with other members of the squad facing deeply uncertain futures.

With some encouragement and advice primarily from three foreign teammates at Drogheda — two Australians, John Tambouras and Adam Hughes, and a Bosnian, Faz Kuduzović, Zayed sent his CV to numerous agents around the world.

And while the opportunity to travel grew increasingly appealing, it wasn’t until three years after his Drogheda departure that Zayed finally made that bold step. 

In the intervening period, there was another financial debacle, this time at Sporting Fingal, and an unexpected call up to the Libya national team — both of which were instrumental in paving the way for a more unpredictable and adventurous second half of his career.

Since 2011, Zayed has played in Iran (Persepolis, Aluminium Hormozgan), Malaysia (Sabah) and America (Indy Eleven, Charlotte Independence, Chattanooga Red Wolves).

Now aged 38, last season finally brought a halt to a playing career that began more than 20 years ago as a youngster at Leicester.

“I love the game too much,” he tells The42. “If I could continue playing until I was well into my 40s, I would. I never wanted to stop. Last year, I got a bad injury. The first bad injury I’ve ever gotten. I tried to recover and play on, but it just wasn’t to be.”

Nonetheless, another exciting opportunity was on the horizon. After “three to four interviews” over a period of about five months, Zayed was offered the chance to become head coach of Northern Colorado Hailstorm — a new team starting up.

They will compete in USL League One — effectively the third tier of American football behind MLS and the USL Championship, albeit with no promotion or relegation, they will likely be competing in the division for the foreseeable future.

“We never say ‘that’s the first division and that’s the second division and that’s the third division,’ Zayed explains. “We look at it as just a professional league. Yeah, Championship and MLS are at a higher level, but it’s hard to look at it as a division when there is no promotion or relegation, and everything is dealt with on money alone.

“How much money you have and what you’re willing to put in will dictate what division you’ll go into.”

july-24-2011-phoenix-arizona-u-s-colorado-rockies-outfielder-ryan-spilborghs-19-waits-for-a-pitch-at-the-plate-during-a-game-against-the-arizona-diamondbacks-the-diamondbacks-and-rockies-squ Former professional baseball player Ryan Spilborghs is a co-owner of Northern Colorado Hailstorm, along with Jeff and Casey Katofsky. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Northern Colorado will be one of 11 teams competing in the 2022 season, which is due to get underway in April.

It is almost a year to the day since the club were officially founded (on 12 January 2021) and they will be competing in a league that has only existed since 2019.

“It’s probably the fastest growing league in America. Between now and the next three to five years, you’re going to see that league double or triple in numbers.

“Our owner could have gone into the USL Championship if he wanted. He just felt financially and geographically, it made sense to go into League One.”

American soccer is also structured differently compared with English or Irish football. Last season, for instance, the top-six teams in USL League One reached the playoffs, so you could technically come sixth in the table and still emerge as champions as the race for the title effectively morphs into a cup competition in the dying stages of the campaign.

Zayed is hopeful his team can make the playoffs in their debut season as he aims to build a squad capable of winning trophies.

It won’t be easy but Zayed has never been afraid of a challenge. Even his latest move was not exactly local, going from Chattanooga Red Wolves (where he finished his playing career) in Tennessee to Colorado, which if you were to drive that distance, takes just over 19 hours. And this tendency to embrace faraway opportunities contrasts starkly with some Irish footballers. 

“I was always up for the challenge and I loved the challenge of going into a different country or culture and trying to make a name for yourself,” he says. “Some people shy away from it and get scared when the opportunity becomes realistic. And I’ve experienced that with trying to sign some guys in Ireland. The idea sounds great. They’re really up for the idea. They speak so enthusiastically. Then when it comes to crunch time and you offer them the contract and it is real, they get scared.

“America is massive but it’s been an easy country to transition into, you’re not overwhelmed by anything. It’s crazy. The football world in Ireland is so small and everybody knows everybody if you’ve been playing there for a few years. For such a big country in America, it’s the exact same. Once you’re there for a few years and you’re open-minded, it’s easy to make connections — everybody knows everybody, or so it seems.” 

On the subject of certain Irish players’ reluctance to follow his example, Zayed adds: “There are a couple of guys from Ireland that I reached out to, and even guys that reached out to me, asking if I was interested. But when it came to crunch time and I offered them a deal, the idea kind of frightened them a little bit. They decided to stay with their clubs, which I respect, but I feel like they just got scared at the thought of coming over to another culture in America. I think Irish people by nature are home birds, which is a characteristic that in one way is fantastic.

“I remember going on holidays with the guys when we were younger. You go to Spain for a week and you find yourself in an Irish pub, and it was just a thing. A lot of my friends that grow up and travel abroad end up moving back and living in a house on the same street that they were brought up on. 

“I just wish there was a little bit more adventure to it at times in football anyway, as it is a short career.”

robert-cornwall-celebrates Ex-Bohemians defender Rob Cornwall recently became the first Irish player to sign for Zayed's new club. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Nonetheless, Zayed has still managed to find two Irish players so far who have been attracted by the lure of a fully professional league.

Defender Rob Cornwall’s signing from Bohemians was announced in December, while 35-year-old midfielder Shane McFaul, who played with Zayed at Sporting Fingal, was confirmed as the club’s latest signing last week.

“Shane will be by far my oldest player, but he’s an experienced guy. It still feels like he has a massive point to prove. He’s been dying for an opportunity to go to America and I feel like I can get one or two years out of him playing at a really high level over in America. I’m delighted to get someone of that experience. Shane on his day is technically one of the better players I’ve seen play League of Ireland.

“Rob Cornwall has been someone that a couple of other teams in America have asked me about in the past, sides in the Championship. I know Rob going back to my days in Shamrock Rovers and he was just a young 18-19-year-old trying to break through. He was very good for his age back then and I feel he’s done really well at Bohs and he had become a bit of a legend there. I think he will really fit the style of America. And I want and expect him to come in and be my leader and possibly my captain. I spoke to him about that already.”

In total, Zayed will need to build a squad of 20-22 players with a maximum of seven foreigners allowed. So far, he has 16, including individuals from England, Scotland and Australia, while he was waiting to hear back from a Senegalese player at the time of the interview. He hopes to sign two or three more before the start of pre-season and wants to leave three to four spots open and watch the team play before he decides which areas need further depth.

While Zayed has enjoyed the challenge of building a squad and identifying players to sign, some aspects of managing a club that he has less control over are more stress-inducing.

The team are due to play home games at Future Legends Complex, a 118-acre multi-sport complex that they will share with the minor-league baseball team Northern Colorado Owlz, which is set to hold 12 soccer pitches and 10 baseball fields in total.


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“Especially in this day and age, Covid has impacted supply chain issues and distribution issues,” he says.

“Our stadium was meant to be built months before, now we’re looking at 4 July for a home opener and it should have been ready for the start of the season. We had construction issues that were just out of our hands.

“We have a full-size indoor soccer dome that we were meant to be able to use, given the weather conditions in Colorado for pre-season. The materials, aluminium or steel haven’t been delivered and there’s an issue around the world with aluminium and steel. That’s not going to be ready until April, so we’re running around, trying to get a training facility ready before 15 February [when pre-season begins].

“Those kinds of issues are out of your hands but they are what keeps you up at night.”

shane-mcfaul Shane McFaul is set to reunite with Zayed, with the pair having previously played together at Sporting Fingal. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Having not played in Ireland since a short spell with Shamrock Rovers ended in 2014, Zayed does not sound as if he plans on returning home anytime soon, despite keeping a close eye on developments in the League of Ireland.

Financial issues were the primary reason Zayed left in the first place, and they are also likely to dissuade him from returning home anytime soon.

“If I was to come back and coach in Ireland, where are the opportunities? If I want to be a full-time coach in Ireland, where am I going? As far as I’m aware, only a certain handful of the coaches in the Premier Division are full-time. I still think a few of the coaches in the top league in Ireland have part-time jobs elsewhere and I know in the First Division, they do. And outside of that, there are a handful of jobs with the FAI, but that’s it.

“I remember when I was doing the Uefa A and B courses with some top coaches who were from Ireland and were coaching in Ireland. The majority of them were coaching voluntarily, which is admirable, but it’s hard.

“I was listening to a podcast with Stephen Rice, who has done really well for himself. He decided to go from Shamrock Rovers to Crystal Palace U23s. Now he is obviously back with the Irish national team. But he was spot on. He said: ‘Why did I go to Crystal Palace? Because of the opportunities. I could actually concentrate on being a full-time coach and not have to juggle part-time coaching with another job, so I couldn’t give it 100%. Now I’m over at Crystal Palace and that’s my job. Day in day out, that’s what I’m working on all the time. I can actually give it my all and become a better coach.’

“So it’s 100% the biggest factor in terms of why would you coach elsewhere if you’re from Ireland. It’s opportunities. And I think it’s the same with players as well.

“I’m a League of Ireland fan. I played for 10 years there. Yesterday I picked up John Caulfield’s book from Easons. He did really well at Cork and I like his mentality. And I listen to all the League of Ireland podcasts.

“But the league is difficult in terms of opportunities for coaches and players. That’s why I left Derry City and travelled and played elsewhere because there are not many opportunities in Ireland. It’s great when you’re playing for Shamrock Rovers at the moment, who have won the league the last few years and are going to be playing in Europe — it’s great when you’re playing for those teams. But when you’re playing for other teams, it’s difficult. And I do think there are some really good players.

“I was talking to James Brown’s agent earlier in the year when he was doing well at Drogheda. I just wasn’t looking for a right full at the time. He’s done exceptionally well and now I’m obviously cursing myself because he’s gone on and Blackburn Rovers have signed him.

“But there are some really good quality players, playing in the League of Ireland and it doesn’t have to be England and Scotland [that they move to], it could be elsewhere and I wish some of the players were a bit more open-minded and saw the opportunities that are outside of Ireland, England and Scotland. America is the natural, easier destination to look at because it’s so easy to fit into the culture there — same language, same food, same everything.

“And it’s easy for Irish players to fit in and do really well. The proof is in the pudding with the players that have gone over. Richie Ryan, James Chambers, Dan Casey are players that have gone over and done really well. So opportunity is the big thing.”

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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