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Dublin: 4 °C Monday 27 January, 2020

'I know it's possible to turn it around. Plenty of others already have'

Evan Pierce is starting from scratch after being hit by the harsh reality of professional football.

EVERY YOUNG IRISH player who has been given an opportunity by a professional football club in the UK has experienced the type of conversation that often occurs when they encounter a familiar face while back on home soil.

In their estate or their village or their town, they’ve been under a microscope since the day the bags were packed and the pursuit of the dream began in earnest. The local boy done good.

The conversations are easy and enjoyable when things are going well.

“Here he is! Great to see ya! How’s the football going?”

But for the vast majority who make the journey across the Irish Sea, there will eventually be a time when exchanges with old friends and neighbours become burdensome.

Over the past six months or so, those situations have become regrettably frequent for 20-year-old Dubliner Evan Pierce.

“Every time I walk around the corner, someone is like: ‘Have you got a new club yet? Are you playing anywhere? You should go to this club, go to that club’. People are always on to you about it,” he says. “It gets tough after a while.”

Soccer - Premier League 2 Under 23 - West Bromwich Albion v Brighton & Hove Albion Evan Pierce at West Bromwich Albion. Source: Sam Bagnall/AMA

Following the club’s relegation from the Premier League last May, Pierce was released by West Bromwich Albion. Trials at Birmingham City, Hull City and Coventry City failed to yield a contract offer. He subsequently returned home to face the dreaded inquisition.

The pain of rejection was compounded by an uncertain future. Having moved to England without completing his secondary education, football had been his lifeline. But the professional game pays scant regard to those it discards.

Pierce remains a free agent, available for work, waiting for an opportunity to prove that his story is only just beginning. 

“It has been hard,” he says. “It’s not easy to get back up from it. I started to think that it just wasn’t going to work out for me. Your confidence is knocked in a big way. I think it would be the same for anyone. You can’t be put down like that and not be affected by it.”

As a prolific goalscorer with an all-conquering St Kevin’s Boys team, Pierce — along with Dara O’Shea — joined fellow Kevin’s graduate Robbie McCourt at West Brom in the summer of 2015. 

Being away from home at the age of 16 was often challenging, yet he savoured the opportunity to accelerate his development as a footballer. There was nothing else he wanted to do with his life. There was nowhere else he’d rather be. However, his passion for the game did little to curb the interminable solitude and monotony of life in digs.

On the pitch, he performed well for the youth team and later progressed to the U23s. But in a footballing culture where a reliance on flexing financial muscle in the transfer market is increasing at the expense of in-house player development, a first-team breakthrough seldom seemed tangible for Evan Pierce.

Dylan Ward and Evan Pierce Pierce in possession for St Kevin's Boys in the U13 National Cup final against Corinthians in 2012. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“I jumped at the chance to go over to West Brom,” he says. “I didn’t even think of education. They [the club] tell you everything you want to hear.

“I didn’t feel like I was helped to settle in any way. You go back to your room and you sit there for the rest of the day. I spent days upon days in my room on my own. There’s only so much PlayStation you can play.

“And even if you think you’re doing well, all of a sudden a new player is bought and then you’re pushed back down the pecking order. You’re just another number.

“Everyone thinks you’re getting close, but when you’re there in the middle of that environment you always seem so far away. There’s just so many players ahead of you and then younger lads are coming through as well. Everyone is trying to achieve the same thing.”

As the end of last season approached, Pierce was informed by West Brom that there was no longer a place for him at the club. Robbie McCourt suffered the same fate.

McCourt managed to earn himself a deal back at home with Bohemians, but Pierce has yet to take his next step as a footballer. 

“It’s fairly ruthless,” he says of being let go by West Brom at the age of 19. “You’re gone out the door and that’s it. It’s all over and you’re on your own. End of story.”

Unable to source another opportunity in England, Pierce returned to the family home in Dublin 1 to assess his options. Initially, it seemed like there weren’t any.

Posted by on Monday, 27 January 2020

“For a while I was just sitting around,” he says. “I didn’t even want to play football, telling myself that it’s just not going to happen. I felt really down. I didn’t want to do anything. I only had my Junior Cert when I went over to West Brom so there was nothing to fall back on.”

Pierce eventually received a call from a representative of the FAI’s ETB scheme, an initiative which provides an opportunity for Irish footballers to advance their education in the classroom while continuing their development as players under FAI coaches.

After enduring a difficult few months, Pierce is gradually becoming more optimistic about what’s ahead. As well as attending the ETB course in Cabra, he has been training with a League of Ireland First Division club and is hopeful of his prospects of earning a contract.

Aware of the many players who have revived their careers despite being in similar situations, he remains determined to get the best from himself as a footballer. But most importantly, he acknowledges that he can no longer expect the game to shape his future.

“You spend a while doing nothing, but then people will ask you what you’re doing, and you’re thinking, ‘yeah, what am I doing?’ I need to get something going. People can encourage you but the only one who can do it is yourself. You have to push yourself on.

“In the last few weeks I’ve just been telling myself that I have to give it another go to see what I can make of it. I think it’s important to rediscover the love of the game and let that be the main thing; to remind yourself of why you started to play football in the first place.

“I know it’s possible to turn it around. Plenty of others already have. You have to be in the right frame of mind and get your confidence back, which is what I need to do. I just want to play. I’m not even pushed about who it’s with. I want to enjoy football again.

“I’m definitely not giving up on football, but I need to have something else to rely on this time if it doesn’t go well again. I need to find a path to something for when I’m older. But I’m still going to try and push for football. I’m not just going to stop.

Soccer - Premier League 2 Under 23 - West Bromwich Albion v Brighton & Hove Albion 'It's important to rediscover the love of the game.' Source: Sam Bagnall/AMA

“I need to try and get my life back on track, whether it’s football or going to college or something else. It’d be good to try and be someone that can help people coming home from England who find themselves in the same situation.”

Pierce knows that he’s now another statistic to support the argument which is increasingly being made regarding the merits of young Irish players spending more time at home. Is moving abroad without a safety net in place a risk worth taking?

“Because of my own situation, obviously I’d be slow to recommend to a 16-year-old to go over,” he says. “But at the same time, it’s not for me to say what a kid should do because everyone has to make the choice that’s right for them. It’s a short career in football as well, so people will want to get as many years out of it as they can.

“Not many 16-year-olds are going to say no to a big club, even if their parents are encouraging them to do that. But they can’t see the picture four years down the line when there’s a strong chance that you’ll end up out of contract with nothing to come back to.

“If you go over at 20 with a Leaving Cert, at least it’ll be much easier to get a job when you come back if it doesn’t work out. But it’s tricky. If a young kid has a dream to be a footballer in England, how can you stop them if a club wants to sign them at 16?

“Being honest, I’d probably do the same thing again. You have to live with your decisions. The only thing I probably should have done differently is look for something to do for my education while I was sitting in digs. That could have been a big help to me now.”

Evan Pierce can’t alter his own past, but if the harsh lessons he learned can help aspiring footballers to avoid similar pitfalls, playing a small part in creating a better future for others would provide him with a satisfying measure of consolation.

Originally published at 18.44

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About the author:

Paul Dollery

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