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'What would winning the FAI Cup with Bohs mean? Everything. Full stop'

Bohemians goalkeeper James Talbot talks to The42 about falling back in love with football after leaving Sunderland, Cristiano Ronaldo, and playing GAA for Ballymun.

THERE’S A DIFFERENCE between playing on the biggest stage and feeling at the centre of the world: there are, as we’ve been told, Iliads made of local rows. 

james-talbot James Talbot poses with the FAI Cup ahead of the final later today. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“I’d played at Old Trafford, Ethiad, Anfield and Stamford Bridge, I had played in stadiums that people would die for”, says James Talbot.

“But the pitch was like a bog and I loved it. To be there with friends and family texting you was…so special. I will always remember that.” 

The pitch was O’Toole Park in Crumlin on a December Saturday, and Talbot was part of a Ballymun Kickhams side that beat Thomas Davis by double scores to win a Dublin U21 Championship. 

Talbot had returned from England earlier that year, disillusioned by a lonely plight on the fringes of Sunderland’s first team. He first moved five years earlier, signing a three-year professional contract with Sunderland as the reigning FAI Schoolboy of the Year. The start was exciting, and at 17 he was part of a matchday squad at the Emirates Stadium for an FA Cup tie, seeing Olivier Giroud stride past him in the tunnel.

That game would be remembered as Jordan Pickford’s debut, and by the time Talbot was back in Dublin and determined to quit football, he was watching his old team-mate peacocking in goal at the 2018 World Cup. 

Talbot earned a two-year contract renewal at Sunderland but his time quickly soured, playing occasionally in England’s grand but empty arenas in U23 games and training for too long without any games.

His friend and housemate Dan Casey was released and Talbot grew disenchanted and isolated, getting into bad habits of staying up late and arriving for training lacking sleep and motivation. He finally forced a loan move to non-league Darlington to simply play, but a broadly encouraging spell was mantled by the red mist of his final game; years of accumulated frustration getting the better of him as he was sent off for scuffling with an opponent. 

He left Darlington and played a single U23s game for Sunderland against Everton, which proved to be his only game of football across a stretch of 14 months as he returned home.

“I had a couple of phone calls from other clubs in the league and I wasn’t interested at all in the League of Ireland. I wasn’t going back to football at all, I wanted to play Gaelic. I was playing for Ballymun. That was my plan: go back, play Gaelic, get an education, get a job. Hurrah.” 

The desire to compete that dwindled and disappeared at Sunderland came back at Kickhams. He trained four times a week, regained his fitness and sharpness and played at midfield and half-back, all the while believing he could repurpose himself in the full-back line and eventually force his way onto the Dublin panel. Even today there is still a part of him that wonders about that road not taken, and whether he would have proved to himself he could have made the panel and cut it at the sport’s sharpest end. 

But instead, as 2018 drew to a close, his old housemate rang him. Casey was now at Bohemians and Keith Long was looking for a goalkeeper. 

“I remember getting off the phone and thinking, ‘That’s…interesting.’ Because it’s Bohs. It means something to me.” 

bohemians-v-stjarnan-uefa-europa-conference-league-first-qualifying-round-second-leg-dublin-arena Talbot and team-mates celebrate victory against Stjarnan in the Europa Conference League qualifier at the Aviva Stadium in July. Source: PA

Talbot grew up going to Bohs games and that was strong enough to pull him back to football. He threw himself into training, initially aiming to challenge Shane Supple for the number one jersey until Supple was forced to retire with a hip injury. And so the 2019 season began as a battle between Talbot and Niall Corbett – the ‘keeper in the 2017 First Division Team of the Year – for the jersey. 

“He was highly regarded, and I remember the first month of training was unbelievable. The standard…we were both pushing and pushing and pushing for a spot.” Talbot won out, and started the 2019 season. 

“Then we didn’t concede a goal for the first six games and I was thinking, ‘What the fuck’s going on?’

“We were tipped for relegation that year. I didn’t really know the league, but I remember thinking, ‘We are tipped for relegation? The likes of Danny [Mandroiu] were here and other good players, I was thinking, ‘This league must be really, really good if we are going to be relegated.’” 

Bohs weren’t relegated – they finished third. And Talbot’s form was such that Mick McCarthy called him up to the international squad midway through the season, for Euro 2020 qualifiers away to Denmark and at home to Gibraltar.

He didn’t get to soak in the Aviva atmosphere pre-game as the team bus broke down outside the hotel in Castleknock, but he did get an extensive view of today’s Cup final venue during Bohs’ European run this summer, made most notable for a first-leg victory against PAOK. 

That brought Talbot back on the international radar, and injury to Mark Travers meant a call-up for the September triple-header against Portugal, Azerbaijan, and Serbia. 

That game against Portugal. 

“The experience was unbelievable. I wished them all the best: the stand-outs would be Pepe, Bruno and obviously Ronaldo. For me to say, ‘All the best this year’, [to them] is mad. Stephen [McCarthy] from Sportsfile asked me why I didn’t go to Ronaldo at the end of the game, but he was celebrating with all the Portuguese fans, I didn’t want that. I was more disappointed for the lads. It was a really good performance and to get sucker-punched like that..nobody else scores those goals. Only Ronaldo.” 

Talbot was on standby for the rematch with Portugal this month and is effectively fourth choice now, ahead of Darren Randolph but behind Travers, Caoimhin Kelleher, and Gavin Bazunu. Talbot doesn’t betray any frustration at the fact it is now harder to become the Irish goalkeeper than it has been in decades.

darren-randolph-james-talbot-and-alan-kelly Talbot with Darren Randolph and coach Alan Kelly in the Irish camp in 2019. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“We are in safe hands for the next 10 years with Gavin, Mark and Caoimhin. They are three exceptional goalkeepers. Mark has been performing at a crazy level in the Championship this year, Caoimhin everyone knows – he’s a superstar at Liverpool – and Gavin hasn’t put a foot wrong. He has been unbelievable.

“He has grown and grown, and you can see him going on to have an unbelievable career. He has everything, to be honest. I am delighted for him. I really am. Even though he’s a Rovers lad! That doesn’t mean anything to me. I am delighted for him and want him to go to the very top. Which, to be honest, I think he will. He is so talented, he is ridiculous.”

Talbot felt comfortable among rarefied company. 

“The first thing [Goalkeeper coach] Dean Kiely said to me: He said he doesn’t care where I am playing, he just wants to see a good goalkeeper. To be neat and tidy. That’s one of the reasons I am there, and it’s not a token for the league.” 

Not in the squad for the home game with Portugal, Talbot ended up giving a lift home to a couple of Bohs fans he recognised on the way back. 

“The club means a lot”, says Talbot. “From the top to the bottom, it’s just brilliant. I can’t find another word to use. It means everything to me. The club will always be there, there is always someone there to give a helping hand. You can be quite honest with people in the club because that is the type of club it is. Throughout the board, throughout management and throughout staff, and the dressing room is quite knitted.

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“The dressing room reminds me of being with Kickhams. GAA teams are usually more knitted, for obvious reasons. That’s why this is special.” 

“I’ll give little Rossi [Tierney] a shout-out because I remember when he first came up, when he played in Derry, he played a stormer. I think he played as a six that day. From there, to see his progression and to see how happy he is now, that means something to me. I couldn’t be happier for someone like him, and hopefully he plays well on Sunday.

“I want to see people progress on and off the pitch, and to help people through good or bad times. That’s how we are, that’s how the club is and that is one of the main reasons I am here.” 

Bohs are also benefitting from more tangible links to the GAA. Philly McMahon has been brought on board as a performance coach, while the club now train out of the same DCU facilities as the Dublin senior football team. 

A few other recognisable faces have helped Talbot in the background. 

“Paddy Christie. I love Paddy Christie. When I came home he looked after me, he always gave me the best advice. He is level-headed and doesn’t bullshit me, he doesn’t say ‘James you’re great, you’re this and you’re that.’

“I don’t want to hear that. He would say, ‘You haven’t gone to NCI’. I was supposed to go to NCI to do social studies but it got pushed back another year. He would say, ‘Why?That’s your fault.’

“And that’s how it should be and they are the kinds of people I want around me as they help me grow as a person and a player. Once I have that sorted, the pitch will look after itself.” 

This afternoon the biggest stage will also be at the centre of the world. 

And what would it mean to Talbot to win the FAI Cup with Bohs? 

“Everything. 

“Full stop.” 

FAI Cup Final: Bohemians vs Saint Patrick’s Athletic, Aviva Stadium 

KO: 4pm; Live: RTÉ Two

  

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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