WIll Power

Irish youngster thankful to 'mentor' Hoolahan following Championship breakthrough

William Hondermarck, 20, recently debuted for Barnsley.

DURING A SUMMER when his future looked uncertain, family and friends urged William Hondermarck to persevere.

They told him that there’s more than one path to success, that hard work doesn’t go unrecognised, and that football is a game of vastly contrasting opinions and philosophies.

They were soon proven right.

Large Barnsley midfielder William Hondermarck. Barnsley FC Barnsley FC

In August he was bidding to earn a contract while on trial at a non-league club. The following month he was playing live on Sky Sports, tussling with former Ireland international Rory Delap on the touchline during a feisty Championship debut for Barnsley against Stoke City. 

“It didn’t surprise me to be playing in the Championship because I’ve always had the belief that I could get to that kind of level,” explains the 20-year-old Dubliner.

“My parents were just saying ‘this is how good you are, you deserve it’, but it also doesn’t take away from the fact that a month beforehand I was trying to get myself into the mindset of what it might be like to play 40 or 50 games in the National League.

“Even if you’re not surprised, it’s still a big switch to go from a situation where you might be playing against Woking, to playing against Stoke and Blackburn. It’s a big step-up that takes time to sink in and adapt to.”

Barnsley signed Hondermarck as a free agent following his departure from Norwich City at the end of last season. He spent two years on the books of the Premier League club, who recruited him on the back of his impressive FAI Cup and First Division performances as a 17-year-old for Drogheda United.

Inclusion on the bench alongside Andrew Omobamidele for a Carabao Cup game against Luton Town in September of last year was as close as Hondermarck came to experiencing first-team football at Norwich.

A loan move to League Two outfit Harrogate Town last January brought the prospect of some much-needed competitive football for a player who was desperate to sharpen his axe. 

However, with Harrogate aiming to stave off the threat of relegation in their first season as a Football League club, the circumstances ultimately weren’t deemed ideal for a youngster learning the ropes and he was restricted to just three appearances.

“The style of play was definitely a factor,” says the six-foot-one midfielder. “I’m someone who likes to get the ball down and play. In League Two, that’s not something that always fits well with the team.

“Harrogate were in a situation where they needed points because they didn’t want to get relegated, so they wanted players with more experience of doing whatever is needed to get the three points. In the end, I wasn’t exactly the best candidate in that scenario.

harrogate-towns-william-hondermarck-right-and-cambridge-uniteds-kyle-knoyle-left-battle-for-the-ball-during-the-sky-bet-league-two-match-at-the-envirovent-stadium-harrogate-picture-date-frida Hondermarck challenging Cambridge United's Kyle Knoyle while playing for Harrogate Town. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

“Because I wasn’t playing much it was a very frustrating and stressful period, but it’s one that I look back on positively because something like that can also help you to mature and grow.

“I’ve gained a lot mentally from it. Even though I wasn’t getting games, I never let my work-rate slip. I’m grateful for that experience now. I’m stronger because of it.

“It also goes to show how much football is based on opinions. One manager might decide that what I can bring to a team is exactly what they need, whereas another might see things completely differently. If you want to be a footballer, that’s something you have to live with. Different people can see different things in the same player.”

The end of the loan spell at Harrogate coincided with his parent club sealing their return to the Premier League, so Hondermarck reckoned it was time to look elsewhere for the opportunities that were required for the sake of his development.

“I spoke to the coaches and the academy director at Norwich,” he says. “It was clear that chances were going to be very limited. I felt I needed first-team minutes instead of more U23 games if I was going to give myself a chance of having a good career. We put two and two together and agreed that extending my contract wouldn’t be beneficial.”

Navigating the choppy waters of free agency in a time of pandemic was a daunting reality for a young player with minimal senior experience, but he was thankful for the guidance provided by a fellow ex-Norwich City man. 

“Covid has changed so much in terms of how clubs operate financially, so it was definitely a tough time to be looking,” Hondermarck says of his search for a new club over the summer.

“I was quite confident in my ability and that I had attributes that might appeal to clubs, but really it comes down to what a manager sees and whether there’s space in his squad.”

In April, Hondermarck played for Harrogate in a dramatic 5-4 win against a Cambridge United side that included former Ireland international Wes Hoolahan. Afterwards, the veteran playmaker sought out his compatriot and phone numbers were exchanged.

“Wes obviously knew I was at Norwich and that I was Irish so he went out of his way to try and look out for me. He just let me know that he was there if I had any questions or needed any help.

soccer-football-pre-season-friendly-cambridge-united-v-brentford-abbey-stadium-cambridge-britain-july-23-2021-cambridge-uniteds-wes-hoolahan-in-action-action-images-via-reuterspaul-child Wes Hoolahan is still going strong at 39. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

“The summer ended up being quite a tough period and I had a lot of questions in my head, because I had never really been through a transfer window before so I didn’t really know how to handle it.

“I called Wes a couple of times and he just told me to relax, not to worry, and that any manager I dealt with could call him and he’d give me a reference. He was just so helpful as a bit of a mentor at a difficult time.

“When it’s someone with the career that he’s had, you always take what they’re saying seriously. He’s someone I really look up to. It really helped to put me at ease.”

Hondermarck had been on trial for several weeks at Notts County of the National League when he was informed of Barnsley’s interest. He impressed for the South Yorkshire club’s U23 team, was signed on 10 September and came off the bench five days later for his first taste of Championship football. 

“It was crazy the way it all came about so quickly,” Hondermarck says of his Barnsley debut in a 1-1 draw at Stoke City. “But my parents had kept telling me to believe in how good I am and that I can get to the highest levels of English football. They also said that if I need to go through the National League, League Two or League One to get there, then so be it.” 

He’s now in his third season in England, but for Hondermarck it’s still early days in his journey as a full-time professional. Whatever happens for him hereafter, one aspect of his game that’s unlikely to fail him is his work ethic.

“I went through quite a tough patch a few months after I first came over to Norwich,” he says. “It was November and I was realising just how much work I needed to do physically and fitness-wise.

“My body had never been through a full week of training every day so I just wasn’t used to it. It takes a while to adapt, especially when you’re a bigger lad because we’re not as light and nimble as other people.

“There was an international break but I just couldn’t go home because I knew I had so much to do. It was a tough choice to make but everything was there for me, in terms of coaches and analysis and all the things you need, so there were no excuses for me not to put the effort in.

“All my team-mates were able to go home but I stayed behind on my own and that was quite tough. It was cold, I was really missing my family and I was desperate to get home, but I knew what the right choice was.

oxford-uniteds-anthony-forde-right-and-norwich-citys-u21-william-hondermarck-left-battle-for-the-ball-during-the-efl-trophy-southern-section-group-b-match-at-the-kassam-stadium-oxford Hondermarck tackles compatriot Anthony Forde during a Norwich City U21 fixture against Oxford United. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

“To catch up on everyone else, guys who had been in academies here from the age of six and seven, I needed to do the extra work. It was a period when I was definitely asking myself if I was able for that extra work, but there was no other way around it.

“I think it’s important too at that young age that you set your standards for how you want to do things going forward. If there’s a break now and I feel like I need to use it to do some extra work, it won’t be an issue because I’ve done it before. I won’t be looking to take the easy route.

“That period was really tough at the time but it was good for me to go through it. When you see the work that [Cristiano] Ronaldo still puts in at this stage of his career, it’s a no-brainer if you want to reach the standards you set for yourself.”

Born to a French father and Congolese mother in Orléans, Hondermarck moved to Dublin with his family at the age of five. An Irish passport holder since last year, he’s keen to earn his first chance to represent Ireland at international level.

Championship recognition with Barnsley had him in U21 manager Jim Crawford’s thoughts for the recent European Championship qualifiers against Luxembourg and Montenegro. Despite not featuring this time, he’s hopeful of having a green jersey on his back before long.

“If you’re playing well for your club, you know that there’s always a chance of being rewarded with an international call-up. It’s something that will be in the back of my head if I can play a bit more and do well.

“To go from a situation where you move to a new country as a child and try to adapt to the way of life and the culture, to possibly representing that country on the international stage maybe 15 years later, it’s not something that anyone expected when I first came.

“I couldn’t even speak English then, never mind Irish. Now I speak both languages, I’ve done my Leaving Cert and I’ll hopefully get a chance to eventually represent the country. It’s definitely something that me and my family could feel very proud of.”

After his involvement at Stoke, Hondermarck featured again for Barnsley in a goalless draw with Blackburn Rovers. With manager Markus Schopp describing him yesterday as someone who can become “a really interesting player over the next few years” for the club, the implication is that he may have to be patient in his pursuit of more game-time.

For now there’s much to be encouraged by, however, and the rejection he encountered after his first attempt at cracking the professional game in England is no longer such a painful recollection.

william-hondermarck-and-mark-timlin-12102018 Hondermarck made his first-team breakthrough for Drogheda United at the age of 17. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Hondermarck went down a different avenue to chase his dream. He did so with the added benefit of having a Leaving Cert tucked away in his back pocket, should a time come when football ceases to provide him with an income.

“I was sent back from Nottingham Forest when I was 14 or 15 and it was a really tough moment because I had been travelling over and back for months.

“You start hearing then that your chance in England is gone, but I never really let that faze me. I always just saw it as an opinion that I didn’t agree with. Then at 17 I was playing in the League of Ireland and that led to an even better opportunity.

“The point is that there’s not just one path that you have to follow. If you’re honest and hard-working, you’ll eventually get to where you want to go.

“Irish kids have this stress that they need to get over to England as quickly as possible or they won’t make it, but there are plenty of examples to prove that isn’t the case. Give it your all, enjoy your football and the chances you deserve will come.

“For myself personally, the most important thing is that I keep my work-rate and my standards high. As long as I’m doing that, with the ability and attributes I have, I feel like I have a strong chance of having a really good career.”

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