'It’s not a good place. People think you’re living the dream but you’re not'

Bohs’ goalkeeper James Talbot talks to The42 about the other side to life with a big club in England, and finding happiness at home.

James Talbot playing for Sunderland's U23s against Arsenal in 2017.
James Talbot playing for Sunderland's U23s against Arsenal in 2017.
Image: SIPA USA/PA Images

DURING THE WORLD Cup quarter-final between England and Sweden, James Talbot was in a pub watching Jordan Pickford making saves and insolently puffing out his chest.

Talbot then sucked from the depths of his phone a photo taken around 18 months earlier, showing Pickford at Sunderland, training with…him. 

He’s playing for England in the quarter-final of a World Cup and I’m in a pub without a club, not playing football, and eating a chicken wrap.

“I was just thinking of how football can go.” 

Whereas Pickford went from the Sunderland youth ranks to first-team to Everton to World Cup semi-finals, Talbot had a brief spell on loan at Darlington and is now home again, working as a postman and playing in goal for Bohemians. 

Pickford left his boyhood club; Talbot came back to his. 

And delighted that he did so. 

“I’m loving it. The lads are great, the staff is great: everyone at the club. I’m in a good place now and that’s down to Bohs.” 

Talbot left for Sunderland in 2013, signing a three-year contract as the Irish U16 ‘keeper and the reigning FAI Schoolboy Player of the Year. 

“It was a dream come true to sign on professional terms in England, with Sunderland”, Talbot tells The42. 

Initially, things went to script. 

“I went down to the Emirates with the first team squad when I was 17, in the FA Cup. It was Jordan Pickford’s debut, I think Arsenal won 3-1. 

“That was definitely one of the best experiences. I was walking alongside the likes of Giroud – a World Cup winner now. I felt out of place, really, even though I was playing professional football at the time. It was an unbelievable experience.

“The second year we won the Division Two league with a team that wasn’t expected to win, and I played in some unbelievable stadiums. We went down to Reading having to beat them to win the league. We played at the Madejski Stadium and beat them 1-0.

“I played well and that feeling is unbelievable. Being around the first team, the likes of John O’Shea and Keiren Westwood – he’s an absolute legend.

“Even now he still texts me, he’s quality. It’s absolutely massive, for a kid to be around the first-team there was unbelievable.

“It was all a dream for me, I was just overwhelmed.” 

Elite football clubs, however, are often indifferent to dreaming. 

After these initial three years elapsed, Talbot was rewarded with a two-year contract.

Alan Mannus comes up for a late corner Talbot has to contend with Rovers' goalkeeper Alan Mannus amid the frenzied final minutes of last month's Dublin Derby. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

At the same time his friend and housemate Dan Casey – now of Cork City having also returned to Bohs – was released. 

“Things didn’t go to plan”, reflects Talbot. 

A promise of an instant loan move didn’t materialised and he instead languished on the edges of the club’s U23 team, unable to force his way into the starting team. 

“You don’t mind not playing if there’s a reason for it. The first year I went over, we played Chelsea away. I wasn’t expecting to play as it was my first year, but I knew that I had a really good pre-season.

“But in the hotel in London the morning of the game, I was told I was starting.

“I thought that was how it was going to be: if you perform well, you’re going to be playing.”

Circumstances – and people – changed, however, and Talbot couldn’t force his way into the team, and the monotony of training with little hope of selection afflicted him badly.

“I felt alone. I had nothing to do, and was getting into bad habits: staying up late, going into training with a couple of hours sleep.

“When you’re not playing and you’re just training and you know you’re not going to play… football can be so false. I knew no matter how well I was performing at training – I could train ten times better than the other ‘keeper – I knew I wasn’t going to play.

“So it’s hard to get motivated to train.

“If you’re training for a year and not playing, it’s not good. You need games to get experience; to challenge yourself.

“You don’t know what will happen in a game, whereas in training you always know what drills you’re doing.

“I was just going through the motions. It was just hard. It’s hard when you’re not playing.

“Then you are going home and you have nothing to do. It’s not a good place. People think you’re living the dream but you’re not.”

He knew he needed to go on loan to get regular game-time at senior level, but saw a couple of moves collapse. Eventually, into the second year of his contract, Talbot told Sunderland he wanted to leave. In response, they found him a place on loan at non-league Darlington. 

Talbot joined the sixth-tier club in December 2017..and returned to Sunderland in February. While his performances were solid, it all curdled in the last minute of a game with Alfreton Town. 

“I did well at Darlington, personally speaking.

It was just the last game, I got sent off. I’d actually played one of the best games I’d ever had, but I got sent off in the 90th minute for getting in a little scuffle with a player.

“That cost me everything. I got fined by both clubs, I only played one more game after that. I played for Sunderland U23s against Everton, and that was my last game for 14 months.” 

Talbot had been subjected to rough treatment throughout that game, and the final minute brought one clash too many. As he punched a ball clear, the opposing striker raked his studs from Talbot’s hip to his knee. 

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“I reacted by grabbing him. The way I grabbed him, as he was getting back up, it looked like I struck him.

“It was right in front of their end and the fans went crazy. The referee didn’t see it, it was the lino that called it.

“It was more in my head than anything else… I just saw red. It’s not like me. That is part of the reason I decided to come home.

“I knew I wasn’t in the right frame of mind, mentally I was all over the place.” 

Talbot says the loan move should have happened a year earlier, and may have been more successful then as he would have been in a better frame of mind; less lashed with the frustration of Sunderland. 

He moved back to Dublin, and after a three-month break from everything, he returned to Gaelic football with Ballymun Kickhams. Bohemians then offered him a route back to football in November of last year. 

Shane Supple’s surprise retirement offered Talbot an early shot at first-team action this season, and he has responded superbly. In four games this season, he has yet to concede a goal. 

Derry City visit Dalymount Park tonight with a view to upsetting that streak, and Talbot attributes his early-season form to an edge at Bohs that he missed at Sunderland. 

“I know that if I play against Derry tonight and don’t perform, Niall [Corbet] will be knocking on Keith’s door.

“I’ve started the season well but the reason I’ve done well is there’s pressure on me.

“Niall is unbelievable. The two of us are pushing, pushing and that’s how it should be in football.”

Talbot is still only 21, but he has lived a life already, such that he is able to look back on his experience in England and say that he had “the best times and the worst times”. 

Now he’s back home with Bohs, the good times may just keep on rolling. 

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