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How 'a bit of good fortune' has left an Irish footballer working for two Hollywood stars

Fiacre Kelleher is excelling for a club that was recently taken over by Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney.

THEY’RE STILL IN the early stages of their careers, but Fiacre Kelleher and his brother can already swap some compelling tales from their respective journeys as professional footballers.

Last season, Fiacre – whose time as a pro began at Celtic – captained a Macclesfield Town side that battled relegation from the Football League amid the backdrop of a financial crisis that ultimately led to the demise of a 146-year-old club.

kevin-toner Fiacre Kelleher playing for the Ireland U19s against the Netherlands in 2014. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

All the while, Caoimhín continued his bid for a breakthrough as a goalkeeper at Liverpool. After collecting a Champions League medal as a member of Jurgen Klopp’s squad in June 2019, he went on to play four times in cup competitions during a season that culminated with the Reds being crowned English champions for the first time in 30 years.

Between his commitments at club and international level – where he’s been providing back-up to Darren Randolph in the Republic of Ireland senior squad – Caoimhín has been involved in a decent number of significant occasions for a lad who only turned 22 this week.

However, with a much-needed loan move yet to materialise, he hasn’t been exposed to the rigours of regular first-team football in a way that his older sibling has.

Fiacre recently played the 150th competitive club game of his senior career, which was a notable milestone for a man who was left in limbo just a few months ago.

A 24-year-old centre-back, Fiacre Kelleher was a Scottish Youth Cup winner in the same side as Arsenal’s Kieran Tierney during a five-year stint on the books at Celtic, who signed him as a 16-year-old from Avondale United in Cork.

First-team football proved elusive in Glasgow, but he showed his appetite to accelerate his development by embarking on a loan move to Scottish League One club Peterhead.

Joining Oxford United paved the way for another productive loan spell, this time in the National League with Solihull Moors, before he became a Macclesfield Town player in June 2018.

Under the management of former England defender Sol Campbell, Macclesfield achieved their objective of retaining League Two status at the end of 2018-19, and Kelleher was appointed captain for the following season.

Nevertheless, the travails of the team at the wrong end of the table mirrored a turbulent off-the-field situation at the Cheshire club, which was beset by money problems under the ownership of telecom entrepreneur Amar Alkadhi.

The squad’s wages were paid late on eight separate occasions, with the Professional Footballers’ Association stepping in to provide assistance to get the players through Christmas. A supporters’ trust later loaned £10,000 towards the April wage bill. 

rangers-v-peterhead-betfred-cup-second-round-ibrox-stadium Kelleher tackling Joe Dodoo while playing for Peterhead against Rangers at Ibrox. Source: Jeff Holmes

“The difficult thing was trying to manage everybody’s attitudes,” Kelleher recalls. “Some fellas didn’t want to train until their wages were paid, whereas others just wanted to train because they wanted to keep going.

“Come matchday on a Saturday, you’d have four or five players who didn’t want to play because they hadn’t been paid. You do your best to try to get them going but it’s just a horrible situation to be in. I wouldn’t wish it upon anybody.”

In the lead-up to the festive period, the team boycotted a League Two fixture against Crewe Alexandra. Strike action had already been taken a month earlier for an FA Cup first-round tie against Kingstonian, in which Macclesfield fielded youth team players and loanees in a 4-0 defeat to the non-league club.

The EFL [English Football League] acknowledged that “the health and wellbeing of both the players and staff had been adversely affected by the ongoing late payment of wages” in a statement.

In a recent interview with The Guardian, James Pearson – a member of the Macclesfield Town squad last season – revealed that some players were occasionally unable to attend training sessions because they couldn’t afford to put fuel in their cars.

“In League Two a lot of players live month to month,” Pearson said. “When you’re in a dressing room and you see important players breaking down in tears two days before a game, it’s hard.

“The longer it went on, it was starting to affect people at home and if things aren’t going right at home, how the hell are you supposed to play football on a Saturday?

“It really affected one player’s mental health, to the point of… the worst possible scenario. He’s got a girlfriend and a young child. Some people would come in and it would be, ‘we’re a laughing stock, let’s get on with it’, but then you see how it affects people in the opposite way.”

In spite of it all, Macclesfield Town – who installed ex-Ireland winger Mark Kennedy as manager in January – had accumulated a sufficient points tally to avoid relegation when the League Two campaign was brought to a premature conclusion by Covid-19. 

In May, after clubs voted to end the season with immediate effect, the points-per-game method that was used to determine final placings left them second from bottom, with Stevenage at the foot of the table. But uncertainty remained.

soccer-fa-cup-second-round-macclesfield-town-v-brackley-town-moss-rose A view of Moss Rose, Macclesfield Town's home ground. Source: PA

With the club facing misconduct charges arising from the wage issues, Stevenage were given a reprieve in August. Macclesfield Town, whose punishment included a deduction of a total of 17 points, were subsequently relegated.

Worse was to follow, as the club – which came into existence in 1874 – was wound up by the UK’s Insolvency and Companies Court due to debts that exceeded £500,000.

Four weeks out from the start of 2020-21 season, Kelleher was left searching for a club at a stage when most managers had already spent their transfer budgets.

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“At the end of last season, Macclesfield had a contract option of an extra year for me, which they decided to exercise, but that option only exercised if we stayed in League Two,” explains the former Ireland U19 international, who had been assured that the club’s future as a Football League club wasn’t under threat.

“Relegation then voided my contract. It left everything really late for me. My agent was phoning around everywhere but nearly all clubs had their business done by then. I was three months behind. It was a pretty difficult time.” 

Although the team found good results hard to come by, Kelleher’s own stats placed him among League Two’s top defenders and he earned Macclesfield Town’s Player of the Year award. He took his role as captain seriously too, embedding himself in the club and the community.

Aware of the precarious situation unfolding at Macclesfield, several clubs made enquiries about signing him during the January transfer window. Bids were knocked back, but Kelleher didn’t object. A legacy as a captain who abandoned a sinking ship was one he was reluctant to leave at Moss Rose. Upon reflection, he admits that he was perhaps guilty of being too loyal.

“I could have left if I wanted to force it, but that’s not how I wanted to do things. If the club were saying no, I just kind of left it at that. I got along well with a lot of people at the club. Had I left, being captain, maybe it would have made things a little bit darker there, which I obviously didn’t want. That weighed on me a bit.” 

There won’t be any football at Moss Rose this season, but local businessman Robert Smethurst has implemented a plan to launch a rebranded club, Macclesfield FC, with the intention of starting from scratch next year in the North West Counties League.

Kelleher says: “What happened was horrible for all the people who gave so much time and effort to the club. You just wanted them to get something back. I know a lot of them haven’t and it’ll be a time in their lives that they’ll always look back on with bad memories. That’s the hardest part.”

After an anxious month, an opportunity presented itself to Kelleher on the eve of the new season. In the same week that news of a takeover bid for the club emerged, he signed for Wrexham in the National League.

Since his arrival, Wrexham have attracted a level of media attention that one wouldn’t usually associate with a fifth-tier club. The form of the team has been encouraging, with a run of four consecutive clean sheets pushing them into promotion contention, but the identity of their new owners is what has generated headlines.

Earlier this month, Wrexham AFC was acquired by Hollywood actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney, who have vowed to draw on their considerable resources in an effort to turn the club into “a global force”. For the foreseeable future, Kelleher is unlikely to have concerns about his wages landing in his account on time. 

“Coming here has been a massive change in that I don’t have to worry about any off-the-field issues like being paid or anything, which is obviously nice,” he says.

“Last year I was in a situation where you were trying to avoid getting relegated, whereas this year the aim is promotion, so the change of mentality is positive too. There’s obviously a bit of excitement around the club as well with the new takeover.”

The move has also allowed Kelleher and his younger brother to remain in close proximity.

“It can be hard to find time but it’s lovely to be so near to one another – we’re only about 40 minutes away. Any evenings we have off we try and get together and have a bit of dinner or a bit of craic. It’s really good to have him there. We both support one another.

“It’s great for my mum especially because she’s really happy that we can look after each other over here. My family love coming over and spending time with the two of us. It’s nice to have a bit of home away from home.” 

Wrexham spent 87 years in the Football League prior to their relegation in 2008. Currently sitting within six points of the top of the National League table, the club’s aim is to be back in League Two by next summer – an ambition Kelleher shares.

“For things to end the way they did at Macclesfield, with me having to take a step down, it obviously wasn’t ideal, but at the same time I know that I’m well capable of playing in that league. It’s just about getting back up there now to show it again.

pokemon-detective-pikachu-premiere-new-york Movie stars Ryan Reynolds (pictured) and Rob McElhenney are the new owners of Wrexham AFC. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

“Signing for Wrexham, maybe this is my bit of good fortune. It’s crazy really the way it has all happened. 

“We’ve not heard much from the owners, we know as much as everybody else does, but what they’ve outlined in terms of what they want to do for the club sounds great.

“There’s talk of a new training ground and that they’ll be doing up the stadium as well. I’m sure if we need any equipment or new players in January or whatever they’ll be able to help with that too.

“It’s really exciting and it’s good to be involved in something positive again.”

He may be playing at a level below the one where he excelled last season, but it didn’t take long for Fiacre Kelleher’s move to Wrexham to feel like a step in the right direction.

Screenshot 2020-11-24 at 9.04.07 AM

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Paul Dollery

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