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Forging a new identity when the Premier League dream begins to fade

Being released at the age of 19 was ‘the best thing that could have happened’ to Gavin Donoghue.

WHEN HE ANSWERED the call and heard his manager’s voice at the other end of the line, Gavin Donoghue knew he was in a spot of bother.

Roy Keane was unhappy – and when you’re a 19-year-old who has made Roy Keane unhappy, you do whatever is required to remedy the situation.

“I was being released by Sunderland at the end of the season so I had arranged a trial at Colchester United,” Donoghue explains. “The problem was that I was due to play on the same night for the Sunderland U18s against Manchester City – I was 19 by then but you can play three overage players.

“I spoke to Kevin Ball, the U18 manager, and I explained that the best thing for me was to go down to Colchester because I needed a club for next season. He agreed with me so I thought it was all sorted. Then Keane called me the night before.

“He made it pretty clear that he wanted me to be in Manchester for the game. He’s quite intimidating, especially for a young lad, so I was like, fuck, what am I supposed to do? 

“I ended up getting a lift down to the game the next day, but I actually didn’t even get kitted out. Kevin told me he had already named his team and preparations were all done, so instead of trying to earn a contract at Colchester I was watching a youth team game in Manchester.”

gavin-donoghue Gavin Donoghue pictured before an Ireland U17 fixture in 2006. Source: Andrew Paton/INPHO

Although angered by the incident for some time afterwards, Donoghue now has an appreciation for the role that Keane’s intervention played in helping him to recognise that his career options didn’t have to be defined by what he could do on a football pitch.

The process of adapting to being discarded by Sunderland soon altered his perspective on the game he once loved. After devoting so much of his young life to succeeding in it, he became resentful when it didn’t deliver the rewards he had been striving for.

Enrolling at Northumbria University then opened his eyes to opportunities that he didn’t think existed for people, like him, who had abandoned education in the hope that football would negate the need for it.

Nowadays, professional football is providing the 31-year-old with a living again. However, a period of time away from the game taught him that it wasn’t his only avenue for fulfilment.

Eight years ago he relocated to the United Arab Emirates, where he’s currently in a full-time position as sports scientist with Dubai-based club Shabab Al-Ahli, the 10-time Arabian Gulf League champions and regular participants in the Asian Champions League.

“Unless you’ve got a very good agent, trying to take that next step as a young player who has been released is very difficult,” he says. “I started to feel a lot of hate towards football. I didn’t have any desire to do it anymore. Looking back, it was better for me that I went in another direction instead of persisting with something I didn’t really want.”

After leaving Cherry Orchard and Dublin to join Sunderland at the age of 16, Donoghue was struck by how naive he was in contrast to his peers, most of whom were local lads.

There was progress nevertheless. In his first year he was often called upon to make the step-up from the youth team to the reserves. With Ireland, he advanced through the age grades to earn caps – occasionally as captain – up to U19 level.

“What I’d tell any young Irish lad going across to England is to be ruthless,” he says. “Don’t be too nice. Rightly or wrongly, there are times when you’ll need a nasty streak to get ahead. That’s just the reality of it and it’s something I needed to learn. Going away from home so young, I was probably behind all the English lads in my mentality as a result.”

The value of fortitude in the dog-eat-dog world of professional football was illustrated by one of Donoghue’s colleagues in the Sunderland academy, who’s now the captain of the Premier League champions and the recently-crowned FWA Footballer of the Year.

“I’d never have thought that Jordan [Henderson] would go on to achieve what he has. You’d look at him and think he had no chance of making it this far.

PA-7671585 A 19-year-old Jordan Henderson at Sunderland. Source: Joe Giddens/EMPICS Sport

“Back then he was smaller and weaker than everybody else, but the one thing you could always say about him was that he was so strong mentally. He backed himself all the way, firmly believing that he was going to be a footballer at the top level no matter how poorly he might have played on a given day. He’d just pick himself up and go again.

“I was surprised when he got a move to Liverpool, but if you look at where he is now it just shows you the importance of being resilient. It’s great to see because he was always a great guy.”

Injuries sidelined Donoghue for most of his second year at Sunderland, so he wasn’t optimistic about his prospects of first-team involvement ahead of the 2007-08 season.

After winning the Championship title under the guidance of Roy Keane, the Black Cats were back in the Premier League. Yet to his surprise, the versatile defender was given a squad number for the campaign ahead, as well as being selected for a pre-season tour to Ireland.

Donoghue featured in friendlies against Cork City and Galway United, before continuing to stake his claim while playing for the reserves. He was satisfied with his rate of development, only for a game at Ewood Park to change the complexion. 

“As a young lad you’re bound to have the occasional dip in form,” he explains. “But the one game I ended up having a real stinker in that year was for the reservers away to Blackburn, who fielded a lot of senior players.

“Unfortunately for me, Keane came to watch that game and I think his mind was probably made up from then on. It was only a few weeks later that I was told there wouldn’t be a contract for me for the year after.”

Sunderland avoided relegation from the Premier League that season with three points to spare. Thirty-one players were used in competitive first-team fixtures, so the squad needed trimming. On a list of eight players who were cut loose, Donoghue’s name was accompanied by the likes of Andy Cole and Ian Harte.

“If you think Keane is harsh when he’s on TV, you can multiply that by 10 when he’s in the changing room. I’ve never been around anyone who has a presence quite like he has,” Donoghue says.

“His standards were just so, so high. It wasn’t hard to see why he played at the highest level for so long and had so much success.

“If a doctor has an off-day it could cost somebody their life, and that’s the way Keane saw football. You just couldn’t have an off-day with him.

soccer-sunderland-training-session-the-academy-of-light Roy Keane on the training ground during his reign as Sunderland manager. Source: PA

“Not long before I found out I was being released he called me up to his office and asked if I’d be interested in going on loan to Shamrock Rovers until the end of the season, but I said no.

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“I had that Irish thing where I thought I’d never get back to England if I went home. I saw it as a step backwards because I’d be living with my ma and da again, but really it was a step forward because I’d have been playing men’s football. If a team from League Two or the Conference came in I probably would have had a different mindset, which was wrong.

“A few weeks later I was let go. I’d imagine Keane wasn’t too happy about the fact that he set something up for me and I refused it. That was the end of me at Sunderland, but looking back it was the best thing that could have happened. I can see now that it was for the best.”

Ill-equipped to deal with the psychological consequences of rejection, many young footballers struggle after learning that they’re no longer wanted. Gavin Donoghue was in that category too. Despite what he had assumed, a reference from a Premier League club wasn’t a golden ticket to a contract further down the pyramid.

“I never really drank much when I was younger but I did quite a bit of it when I left Sunderland. I just felt like I no longer had an identity.

“From a young age, I was Gavin who played for Cherry Orchard and went to Sunderland. People have this expectation that you’re on the way to becoming a big-time footballer, so when it all falls apart you just feel embarrassed. A lot of people invest their time to help you along the way so you feel like you’ve let them all down.

“So many young lads go through that same experience every year and it’s really tough. If you don’t have any guidance or stability in your life, you’re more than likely going to fall off the wagon completely.

“My ma and da weren’t football people so they didn’t have the expertise to know what I should do. My brother was graduating from college, whereas all of a sudden I hadn’t a clue what I was at.”

During a trial, former England manager Glenn Hoddle was sufficiently impressed by Donoghue to extend an invitation to his academy in Spain, where the objective was to provide a route back into professional football for unattached youngsters.

He stayed for eight months, but Donoghue couldn’t shake the feeling that he was merely prolonging the inevitable. He was also being tempted by an opportunity that opened up back in the UK. 

“Even though it was enjoyable out in Spain, I felt from early on that it was very unlikely I’d get back into the game from there. By that stage I had the scholarship offer as well.”

PA-2491457 Donoghue spent time at the Glenn Hoddle Academy in Spain. Source: John Walton/EMPICS Sport

Donoghue had explored the possibility of pursuing third-level education at home, but having left for Sunderland without a Leaving Cert, his efforts soon ran aground. At Northumbria University, however, his football background proved to be “a useful tool”.

“I had a couple of friends from Clondalkin who were studying physio in Newcastle at the time,” he explains. “I used to go and see them quite often and being there started to make me realise that there’s a lot more to life than football.

“When you’re involved in football, you believe it’s the only thing that’ll ever make you happy. You tell yourself that if I don’t play at the top level and if I don’t earn a certain amount of money, I’m never going to have a good life. You’re living in a little bubble.

“I began to accept that I could either keep chasing football with no certainty of what it might bring, or I can go and get a qualification that nobody can take away from me. A degree is something that you can have for life. It seemed like it was the best way to bring some stability to my life, which was something that really appealed to me.

“Football was definitely helpful with the scholarship because we had a good team there playing in the Universities League. I basically got a bye into college. They monitored me for a year and fortunately it all went well. It was just a godsend. Going down that route is one thing that I can say I’m proud of myself for.”

Three years after his first university lecture, Donoghue emerged from the Newcastle campus with a degree in Applied Sports and Exercise Sciences, and, crucially, a new sense of identity. His final year dissertation focused on a topic close to his heart: The Exit Transition.

Donoghue says: “I ended up writing it on the psychological impact on young players when they get released. Because I lived it, it was easy for me to research it and put it down on paper.

“Massive numbers of lads are trying to take that next step in life but they’ve lost their identity and they can’t find themselves for a very long time. Major mental health issues stem from that. Even now, I know a lot of lads who still haven’t found themselves. It remains a huge issue in the game.”

Donoghue, who played his last game of competitive football in university at the age of 23, is now tasked with “optimising the performance of the players” at Shabab Al-Ahli.

“Sports science is all about managing players on a day-to-day basis,” he says of his current role. “Basically you’re trying to make them as fit as you possibly can while also limiting injuries.” 

To players who have stayed in the game at a level where the earnings aren’t astronomical, his advice is to sacrifice the occasional round of golf in order to safeguard their futures.

a1b3dda2-ddef-43bf-a8ac-4bcde2f0ae41 Gavin Donoghue (right) in Uzbekistan before an AFC Champions League game for Shabab Al-Ahli in February.

“Unless you’re playing Premier League or Championship football, you’re not going to be making the kind of money to keep you going through retirement. Below that, a lot of lads are living week-to-week, often on one-year contracts. Just for me personally, it’s not a life that I wanted. It’s very hard to do that if you want to build a stable life with a family.

“I actually think it’s something that needs to be addressed heavily. Lads can play professional football, but it will stand to them in the long run if they also have something else going on the side so that when their football career finishes they’re going to be okay. The way things are now, a lot of lads when they finish up are not okay at all.

“I’m not saying they have to give up on their dreams – absolutely not, keep working towards them if you’re determined to do that – but stage two of your life should always be in the back of your mind. When stage two comes, if you’re not prepared it’ll hit like a steam train. I’ve spoken to a lot of lads who have gone through that and it’s tough.

“Anybody in football who laughs at you for doing something on the side to prepare for life after retirement is just a dickhead.” 

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About the author:

Paul Dollery

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