'I was working at a chocolate factory in Carlow. Two years later I’m at the Fifa Club World Cup alongside Real Madrid'

Former Wexford Youths winger Eric Molloy discusses moving to New Zealand and playing at last month’s Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi.

The Team Wellington winger represented Ireland at the 2015 University Games in South Korea.
The Team Wellington winger represented Ireland at the 2015 University Games in South Korea.
Image: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

THIS PAST DECEMBER was the first time in three years Eric Molloy was able to get back home to Rathvilly and celebrate Christmas with his family. Since he moved to New Zealand in the autumn of 2016 he had not been able to get back at all in two whole years.

The small, rural village in Carlow has a population of a little under 1,000 people. Growing up amid its surroundings Molloy showed a great deal of promise in a host of different sports: GAA, gymnastics and football too. Multi-talented across a whole host of games and codes.

He could have been a successful gaelic footballer at Dr Cullen Park according to his former manager with Wexford Youths, Shane Keegan. “As a kid, his initial talent lay in gymnastics. In a small village like Rathvilly, though, he was unlikely to escape the clutches of the local gaelic football team for long,” his old manager said last month.

“He quickly became a star player in their side and was called up to county development squads. Indeed, had he dedicated himself in that direction, it’s not a stretch to imagine he may have found himself playing a role in the Carlow senior footballers’ eye-catching exploits [last] summer.”

inpho_01465111 Molloy joined amateur side Southern United from Wexford Youths in 2016. United play in the New Zealand's top division. Source: Photosport/Adam Binns/INPHO

But arriving off the plane at Dublin airport a few weeks ago having taken part in the Fifa Club World Cup in front of tens of thousands of supporters in Abu Dhabi, Molloy can be satisfied and content he has chosen the right path in his career.

A path which might not have yet produced the riches and fortune associated with footballers who go abroad in search of greener pastures, but a path which has yielded a treasure-trove of unique and unforgettable life experiences in faraway lands. As the saying goes, the memories last a lifetime.

Molloy won the SSE Airtricity League First Division with Wexford Youths in 2015. Less than a year later he took up an offer to play amateur football in New Zealand, linking up with one of his old coaches at IT Carlow, Paul O’Reilly, who he had gotten to know while studying a BA in Sport and Exercise at the college.

The transformation in Molloy’s life has been rapid ever since taking the plunge and moving abroad. Only two years ago he was doing factory work to supplement his life as a League of Ireland footballer alongside his college studies.

Fast forward to just a few weeks ago in Abu Dhabi and he became just the fifth ever Irishman to ever play at the esteemed tournament, which is routinely won by some of the biggest names in the history of the game.

“It is mad when you think about it,” he laughs. “I was working at a chocolate factory in Carlow. Two years later I’m at the Club World Cup alongside teams like Real Madrid.”

After a promising first season with his new amateur club Southern United, a move which was supposed to last just a few months during the League of Ireland off-season, Molloy impressed and was picked up by Team Wellington, who are one of the elite sides in New Zealand’s top division, the Handa Premiership.

Football is a funny game, he says. A sport which can lead you all across the world and to places you never imagined yourself in. But you have to have the daring to let it take you there, to not just be content with what is familiar and easy, he explains.

“It never even crossed my mind growing up,” the winger smiles when asked about the prospect of playing in the same competition as teams like Real Madrid and River Plate while growing up in Rathvilly all those years ago.

Eric Molloy The winger spent five years with Wexford Youths and won the SSE Airtricity League First Division in 2015. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“It’s just one of those weird things where football can kind of take you anywhere. You get a call from someone, a manager, and they will try and sell you their idea, their thoughts. You either have a gut instinct and you go with it, or you don’t.

“That’s what happened when I arrived over with Southern United with Paul O’Reilly and some of the Irish lads in 2016. When I first arrived in New Zealand I thought: ‘right yeah, this’ll be great for just a few months.’  I didn’t think I’d actually stay this long.

I played that first season and ended up getting taken up by Team Wellington, who are one of the top sides over here. After playing a year with them I got into the team and was playing heavily and doing well. I’ve been here ever since.”

Molloy and four of his Wexford Youths team-mates — Conor O’Keefe, Danny Ledwith, Stephen Last and Andy Mulligan — caused a stir when they made the move to Dunedin in the autumn of 2016, joining the amateur side Southern United based on the coast of New Zealand’s South Island.

Geographically Dunedin is the furthest city in the world from Dublin (approximately 19,141 km away), requiring three flights and more than 30 hours of air travel to reach from Dublin airport.

Source: FIFATV/YouTube

The players each fancied a fresh start, they said at the time, even if just for a few months before returning to the League of Ireland in time for the 2017 campaign. Dubliner O’Reilly, who the players knew through their time at IT Carlow, had recently been made head coach with United and convinced the small Wexford cohort to come over and give it a bash.

The young men coached youth football and assisted with summer camps in the local area to earn their keep, with all five Irishmen living under the same roof. Despite finishing smack bottom of the Handa Premiership during their first season, Molloy provided enough individual flair and promise to be snatched up by champions Team Wellington.

Wellington defended their league crown in 2017, claiming back-to-back titles, before going on to win the Oceania Champions League after overcoming rivals Auckland City in the semi-finals and then beating Fijian outfit Lautoka FC 10-3 in a goal-studded, two-legged final.

All of this culminated in Team Wellington, and Molloy, being entered into the 2018 Fifa Club World Cup in the UAE. The champions of each continent battled it out in December, with the Carlow man watching last May’s Champions League final between Liverpool and Real Madrid knowing he could potentially be coming up against one or the other later in the year out in Abu Dhabi.

“I secretly wanted Real Madrid to win in the back of my head,” he smiles. “Because I’d rather have got the chance to play them if we did happen to get through a few rounds.”

As it transpired though, Molloy’s dream of lining out against Luka Modric, Gareth Bale and Sergio Ramos failed to materialise. Real Madrid made it past Liverpool in Kiev and also made it to the final of the Club World Cup at the Zayed Sports City Stadium in the UAE. The plucky New Zealanders, however, did not.

Team Wellington were pitted against UAE Pro League winners Al-Ain in the first round, representing the Asian Football Confederation, who were hosting the competition. The New Zealand side raced into an astonishing 3-0 lead early in the first half, but crumbled under the weight pressure of seeing the game out, and heartbreakingly lost on penalties at the first hurdle.

No-one even talked in the dressing room afterwards,” Molloy sighs in a serious tone which still carries a certain weight of regret about how the game went from a dream to a horrible nightmare for himself and his team-mates. “It was just dead silence — that’s what it was like afterwards when we lost.

“Look, the experience of the game was fantastic. When we walked out into the stadium, there were tens of thousands of people there — it was honestly like a Champions League night that you watch on the telly back home, and you’re actually in the thick of it. It’s like a movie, you’re looking around at the size of the crowd and everything thinking ‘am I actually here right now?’

DuJdcKjX4AAI4_V Molloy (left) at the Hazza Bin Sayed Stadium during the 2018 Fifa Club World Cup.

“During the game… it was one of the toughest games I’ve played in. It was played at a really high tempo and a really high pace. The Al-Ain players were very quick and they worked very well with the ball. But we knew how disorganised they were when they lost possession.

“All our lads were heavily disappointed to go 3-0 up and end up losing. Even with 10 minutes to go we were 3-2 up. In the back of my head from an Irish style of football, I was like ‘let’s park the bus, let’s make this really difficult and hard for them, let’s make this a horrible game.’

But that’s not what happened, they drew level and won on penalties. A lot of us just felt like the game slipped out of our hands. Everyone was disappointed afterwards. The lads didn’t want to talk to any media or do anything. It was just dead silence.”

Truth be told, it would have been a major shock for Team Wellington to have gotten through even a single round at the Fifa Club World Cup. After all, this is still an amateur side, with Molloy working for the club as a coach for the U13, U15 and U17 sides throughout the week on top of his playing duties.

“It’s less physical,” he says when comparing the style and level of football in New Zealand to back home with Wexford Youths in the SSE Airtricity League. “It’s more tactical and a lot more playing ball. The teams are well able to pass and move and keep the ball. There’s less long balls than there is in the League of Ireland and less physical challenges.

Eric Molloy Molloy became the first Irishman in a decade to play at the Fifa Club World Cup. Source: Photosport/Raghavan Venugopal/INPHO

“And because it is hotter over here, you could be playing in 25-28 degrees during games at the weekend at 2pm in the middle of the day. It’s very warm, so you can’t afford to be running constantly.”

Molloy says he is happy with his decision to stay out in New Zealand, noting that the lifestyle, weather and opportunities to see another way of life were all key motivations for moving abroad.

It is still absolutely rugby country, he says, with football firmly down the pecking order in terms of funding and public support at the moment compared to Steve Hansen’s mighty All Blacks.

But instead of staying in Ireland, or trying to work his up towards a move to League One or possibly Scotland, his decision has reaped a different kind of reward.

He recognises that he is still an amateur footballer playing in a semi-professional league, but getting to enjoy a life somewhere hot and beautiful like Wellington, and being given the opportunity to feature in competitions like the Fifa Club World Cup, have made it absolutely worthwhile, even if unorthodox.

“There definitely is a whole world out there beyond just England and Ireland,” he explains. “One of the things I found is that you have to mentally prepare for a move abroad. You have to be prepared to live independently, be able to work with different types of people. You have to be able to get on well with everyone.

Soccer - Carling Cup - Fourth Round - Manchester United v Queens Park Rangers - Old Trafford Darron Gibson and John O'Shea were the last Irish players to play at the Fifa Club World Cup a decade ago. Source: EMPICS Sport

“If you are going to go and live in a different place on your own without knowing anybody, you are going to have to make friends and work hard. It’s going to be difficult because you’re not from that area. To adjust to the culture and the different styles of play. Once you’re mentally ready and open for that, you’ll be fine. You have got to be open-minded and willing to learn.

One of the reasons I came out to New Zealand was to check out the country, because I had never been out here before,” he continues. “I had heard how beautiful it was and to see some of the sights has been incredible. But I do feel like football isn’t taken as seriously over here and obviously one of my life-long ambitions is to become a professional.

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“So after this season I’m not sure where I could be or where football will take me. All I know is that I will be working extremely hard and preparing for the next chapter.”

Molloy points out that the Club World Cup isn’t taken as seriously by clubs in Europe, and that he had his own eyes open to just how much it means to smaller clubs like Team Wellington, or Tunisian champions Espérance — who featured former Bohemians winger Ayman Ben Mohamed — or for Copa Libertadores winners River Plate.

While for a Premier League club, or for Real Madrid it might be an unimportant competition with a pre-season feeling to it interspersed between crucial domestic and Champions League affairs, for others it is the absolute pinnacle. For some it represents the culmination of years of hard work.

“Getting there was the achievement for us, and getting to experience the whole ‘event’ of the Club World Cup was phenomenal,” Molloy reflects. “That in itself was enough. Just competing at that level, at that stage… I mean, the minute you got off the bus you’re greeted by television cameras absolutely everywhere.

You feel like a pro walking into the stadium and then when you’re walking around there’s all sorts of media wanting to speak with you. You walk into the dressing room and you see televisions everywhere — it was just an amazing experience. 

“At the same time we were still very focussed going into it. As players and as a team we didn’t focus too much on the glitz and glam of it. We were focussed on winning the game because we were well and truly prepared and were in the mentality of knowing that we could do this if we put in a really good performance.

“We knew we were capable. It was just disheartening, really disheartening, to lose the way we did having gone 3-0 up. We felt that we had the quality to win, even though we are amateur footballers.

48266636_2364173023597086_1425707049513123840_o Team Wellington were the only amateur team at the competition. They received $500,000 for finishing in seventh. Source: Team Wellington Facebook

“We put in a lot of work and effort and you’re comparing us to them [Al-Ain]. Speaking to some of the locals in Abu Dhabi, they were saying one of the Al-Ain players Caio Fernandes was in talks with FC Porto and that he’s on about €40,000 a week at the minute.

“We’re amateurs not getting paid, and to put in a performance like we did against a team of that calibre just goes to show the quality that some of our lads are at, even for an amateur club.”

Looking to the future, Molloy says while it was a dream to play at the Fifa Club World Cup, he still has ambitions to become a fully-recognised professional footballer. At 26, and having proven himself at a high level, he feels that there is more than enough motivation and desire to push on again and reach another level.

Wexford Youths celebrate after the game gaining promotion The Carlow footballer helped Wexford Youths win the First Division in 2015 before moving to New Zealand. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Lining out for Team Wellington last month, he followed in the footsteps of Roy Keane, Denis Irwin, Steve Finnan, Darron Gibson and John O’Shea as the only Irish-born footballers to feature in the competition which pits the best of the best from each continent against one another.

It embarrasses him to be even brought up in the same breath as such players, he says.

“Honestly it is honouring to be even mentioned in the same sentence as players like Roy Keane and Denis Irwin and Steve Finnan and John O’Shea. These have been phenomenal players for Ireland and for their clubs. To be even mentioned alongside them is an honour. It seems a bit surreal that I see my name being mentioned alongside their’s.

48045799_2364162560264799_4254712517449744384_o Molloy said he hopes to become a fully professional player in the near future.

“It’s something that I never thought would happen, but I’m just hoping now that this can all be used as a stepping stone for me to maybe get into a professional team

I’d love to follow in their footsteps one day. There’s a lot of hard work between now and then though,” he says.

From Carlow to Wexford, to New Zealand, all the way out to Abu Dhabi, it’s been an unorthodox trek through the world of football for Eric Molloy so far. An unorthodox, intercontinental journey for the 26-year-old which has proven well worth it, with the final chapter still to be written.

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