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'I dreamt about playing for that club... signing on the dotted line was surreal'

After leaving Leeds United, Eric Grimes is hoping the League of Ireland can kickstart his career.

Derry City goalkeeper Eric Grimes.
Derry City goalkeeper Eric Grimes.
Image: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

WHEN HE’D RETURN home from watching them play on TV in the company of Cork’s Leeds United Supporters Club, Eric Grimes would lie in bed and imagine what it would be like to be a Leeds player.

He was a goalkeeper, yet Grimes idolised the club’s Irish contingent. Gary Kelly, Ian Harte and Robbie Keane were his heroes. At the age of 16, he no longer had to dream.

Nearly six years have passed since Grimes signed for Leeds United from Ringmahon Rangers. Still awaiting a taste of first-team action which eluded him in England, he has come to Derry City in pursuit of senior football.

Galway United approached him over the winter. They were prepared to make Grimes their first-choice goalkeeper. But he opted for Derry instead, despite accepting that he’d be joining the Candystripes as deputy to arguably the league’s best goalkeeper in Ger Doherty.

He knew that breaking into the team wouldn’t be easy, but Europa League football and the likelihood of being part of a club pushing for the Premier Division title instead of aiming to avoid relegation were major factors in Grimes’ decision to sign for Kenny Shiels’ side.

“There would have been more first-team football at Galway but, to be fair, Derry is just a bit more exciting at the moment. Obviously European football is part of that,” he says.

“I actually went to meet Kenny during the off-season and I got a great feel for the club from him, and a sense of what he wants to achieve. He’s ambitious and he really believes that we can challenge for the title. I just wanted to be part of that.

“There’s a lot of young, local lads here that really want to play for the club and they want to have success with their local club. It feels like there’s something special happening here, like we’re on the cusp of something.”

It’s difficult to argue with that assessment in a week when Derry maintained their 100% start to the season by recording a 3-1 win over a Dundalk side chasing their fourth consecutive Premier Division title. It was Derry’s first victory over the Lilywhites in nearly four years.

Grimes says: “Obviously I wasn’t here then but there was a feeling of grievance among the boys that they didn’t get the results they deserved last year against Dundalk. We did quite a bit of analysis on them and came to the conclusion that some of the goals we conceded against them last year were through our own fault rather than their brilliant play.

“We just had to be more intelligent and not so naive. We took that into the game and deserved the win. Dundalk get a lot of praise for how they play and manage games, but I think we played them off the park in the second half especially. It just goes to show that Dundalk aren’t the only team that can play football.”

The League of Ireland rarely lacks captivating characters and Kenny Shiels certainly fits into that category. Since he took over as manager last season, this Derry City side has been greater than the sum of its parts. Under Shiels, a young team assembled with a relatively modest budget has defied its lack of experience and big names by leading the chasing pack behind Dundalk and Cork City.

Shiels has fostered an us-against-them mentality, portraying his accomplished young side as a band of plucky underdogs fighting an uphill battle. In spite of their third-place finish last season, Derry again came into this year below the radar.

Having overcome the champions, however, they now look ready to join the title race. Grimes has been impressed by Shiels’ management. Nevertheless, he says the former Kilmarnock boss has no magic formula.

“Kenny gives us freedom to play and express ourselves. He’s very encouraging. Don’t get me wrong, because he’s stern, but he gives you a licence to play and that’s all you need. Everyone understands their role and what’s expected of us. That’s it. It’s nothing new, nothing mad. He just wants us to enjoy and express ourselves. I think the boys then take that into games.”

Eric Grimes Grimes has represented the Republic of Ireland up as far as U21 level. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Shiels’ approach to management, while not complicated, is certainly rare, Grimes explains. He only turned 22 last month but the young goalkeeper has already worked with his fair share of managers. During his time at Elland Road, he saw eight different first-team bosses come and go.

“If you compare it to England it is quite unusual because the pressure over there is unbelievable, especially at a club like Leeds United where they expect to be better than mid-table or in the bottom half in the Championship.

“With that expectation, maybe managers sometimes don’t get the time to build something. It’s quite refreshing and brave from Kenny to stay true to his beliefs like that. It’s definitely something different.”

Simon Grayson was in charge at Leeds when Grimes rejected offers from other big clubs in England to join the side he grew up supporting in the summer of 2011. Turner’s Cross featured often in Grimes’ footballing upbringing. He seldom missed a Cork City home game, or a gathering of the Leeds United Supporters Club next door in the Horseshoe Inn.

“I remember watching Leeds when they were flying in the Champions League when I was younger, and when they were always in the top half of the Premier League,” he says.

“I remember being with my dad at the Supporters Club and watching the games and thinking, ‘Yeah, that’s all I want to do. I want to play for Leeds United’. I’d go to bed thinking that afterwards. I dreamt about playing for that club.

“I had a few offers on the table but when your boyhood club comes in it’s an easy decision. When I signed on the dotted line it was surreal. For the first few weeks there I was just blown away by it all. From watching on TV all my life to then being there at the age of 16, it was amazing.”

EG Grimes training with Leeds United. Source: Twitter.com/LUFC

For the most part, Grimes’ time at Leeds went according to plan. He was playing for the reserves at 16, made the bench for the first team on a couple of occasions and continued his progress at international level by representing the Republic of Ireland through to U21.

After two years with the club, Grimes was given his first professional contract. A one-year extension followed in 2015 but a chance to play first-team football never arrived. With a high turnover of under-pressure managers, throwing a young, unproven goalkeeper in at the deep end was a risk none of them could afford to take. Grimes understood that and was therefore keen to pursue opportunities elsewhere by going out on loan. But Massimo Cellino, the club’s divisive owner, was reluctant to agree.

“It was a bit frustrating because I felt I needed to get out and play first-team football somewhere. I had a few opportunities to go but with Cellino, for some reason, they didn’t want to send the young boys on loan at all,” says Grimes.

“The final say was his and that kind of hampered my progress a little bit. It’s all well and good doing it in the reserves and U21s but they needed someone with first-team experience of playing against men when the pressure is on. People’s livelihoods depended on it and three points could mean extra money or getting closer to the play-offs instead of the relegation zone.

“I was pretty desperate to go out on loan, the opportunities were there, but it wasn’t allowed to happen. The last two years at Leeds were a bit topsy-turvy but I really enjoyed my time there. It’s where I got my football education.”

Grimes’ five-year spell with Leeds United ended last summer when the club declined to extend his contract. Initially there was a possibility of joining his former Leeds manager Neil Warnock at Rotherham United, but that move fell through when Warnock left the job.

From one boyhood club to another, Grimes decided to come home and sign a short-term deal with Cork City. The Mahon native says he was assured by manager John Caufield that opportunities for first-team football would be available, but — aside from a 1-1 draw against Oman in a friendly last August — he ultimately had to be content with competing against Matthew Connor to provide back-up to Mark McNulty.

Colin Healy Grimes lines up behind Colin Healy before last August's friendly against Oman, his only Cork City appearance. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Grimes: “To be honest, it was a bit disappointing not to play some first-team football with Cork City because I believe the opportunities were there. It became a bit of a lame duck at the end of the season because Dundalk had theoretically already won the league.

“I felt there was an opportunity to play the last few games to see out the season. I told John I needed games and he told me I’d play in the cup, so I was disappointed that I didn’t. There’s no animosity, that’s just how things pan out in football. I’ll just take the good with the bad and learn from it.”

Grimes’ departure from Cork City is what led him to Derry in January. That long-awaited first-team debut won’t came easily there either, although again he has been promised a chance in the cup competitions. When the time comes, he’s keen to make it count.

“I told Kenny [Shiels] that the main thing for me was getting games, especially because I had the offer to go in and be number one somewhere else, but probably in a lesser team. But minutes are vital. He told me the jersey wasn’t nailed on but that the cup games would be there for me to impress. Hopefully we’ll get a few of those and that will be my opportunity. But taking nothing away from Ger [Doherty] because, in fairness, he’s been unbelievable.”

Grimes believes goalkeepers can be a little more patient than their outfield peers during the wait for a chance to make a mark. Having said that, he knows he can’t afford to be a reserve for too much longer if he’s to emulate the likes of Peterborough United captain Chris Forrester and QPR midfielder Ryan Manning by using the League of Ireland as a launchpad for a successful career in England.

“As a goalkeeper in England you probably don’t start playing regularly until you’re 25,” Grimes says. “There aren’t many first-choice goalkeepers around who are much younger than that. It’s a bit of an older man’s game, although I still think if you’re good enough you’re old enough.”

He adds: “I don’t hold any bitterness about how things have gone for me. You do need a little bit of luck but my attitude is that the cream will always rise to the top if you’re good enough. The road to success isn’t always straightforward.

Cork celebrate winning The Irish Daily Mail FAI Cup in the dressing rooms Grimes (front row, left) celebrates with the Cork City squad after their 2016 FAI Cup final win over Dundalk. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“You look at what guys like Chris Forrester and Ryan Manning have done because clubs love looking at how many first-team games fellas have played, whether it’s in England or Ireland. More first-team games gets you a better contract at a club than what you’d have if you came through an academy.

“If you’re good enough you’ll find a way to get back. It’s down to me now from here.”

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Paul Dollery

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