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‘I didn't want to feel inferior’ – Joe Gamble on being the last domestic player to play for Ireland

Tonight, Dundalk duo Andy Boyle and Daryl Horgan could join a select group of players to represent the national team while playing in the League of Ireland.

IT’S THE CALL every Irish footballer dreams of receiving.

“I had all the feelings you could think of, excited, delighted, happy but mainly extremely proud,” Joe Gamble says – although it was not a call he was expecting.

Gaining international recognition is not something a League of Ireland player anticipates.

But in May 2006, Gamble was asked by the then new Ireland manager Steve Staunton, to join the national team as extra cover for a training camp in Portugal, ahead of a friendly against Chile.

For other players, excitement could quickly turn to apprehension. Doubts about your ability could creep into your head when you compare yourself to established Premier League players.

Not so for Gamble, who was on the back of winning the league title with his club Cork City, the previous year.

Familiar faces, including the presence of then Shelbourne striker Jason Byrne, and the caps won at underage level ensured a smooth transition to the international setup.

“I wasn’t really nervous about anything to be honest. I would have known quite a few players from the U21′s like John O’Shea and Andy Reid. But I was just excited by the whole experience and what lied ahead,” Gamble tells the42.

“It was very easy as all the players were very welcoming Shay Given, Kevin Kilbane, Graham Kavanagh are just some of the names that spring to mind.

“But I remember clearly Damien Duff asking me about a match that I had coming up against Longford Town, which surprised me, but it just showed how grounded all of the players were, which was brilliant.”

Joe Gamble Gamble was an integral member of the Cork side that won the League of Ireland title in 2005. Source: ©INPHO

Even though Gamble joined the squad as a League of Ireland player, he didn’t feel any extra pressure to impress his new teammates. The former midfielder says his experience taught him that every footballer wants to earn the respect of fellow players – no matter what their footballing background is.

“I think a feeling of wanting to gain acceptance from your peers is something that applies to everyone in professional football,” Gamble explains.

“I didn’t want to feel inferior, not that I did. But mainly I didn’t want to let myself down with poor performances in training and get off to a bad start.

“Everyone was there on merit and everyone respected each other, regardless of the level they were playing at.”

Gamble failed to get any minutes at Lansdowne Road as Ireland lost by a single goal to a Chile side that contained Manchester City’s current goalkeeper Claudio Bravo and a young Alexis Sanchez coming off the bench. He would have to wait another 12 months before getting another opportunity with the national team.

In the meantime, Staunton and Ireland began their qualification campaign for Euro 2008.

But just a month before their first qualifier, Ireland lost 4-0 in a friendly to Holland – the worst home defeat in 40 years. A sign of what was to come during Staunton’s ill-fated reign.

An opening day loss away to Germany was followed by a disastrous 5-2 defeat in Cyprus. Ireland’s journey to Austria and Switzerland looked over before it really began.

Clinton Morrison and Damien Duff Staunton's side suffered a shock 5-2 defeat in Cyprus. Source: Andrew Paton/INPHO

But Ireland quickly got their qualification campaign back on track and won 13 points from a possible 15 in their next five games, including wins over Wales and Slovakia at Croke Park.

And it was in the summer of 2007, just before Ireland’s qualifiers came to a conclusion, that Gamble was to get a second chance with the national team.

Staunton wanted to use two friendly matches in America during the close season to introduce fresh blood into the squad.

After Liam Miller and Stephen Ireland were excused from travelling due to family commitments, Gamble was once again invited to join the panel. Reward, in part, for impressing during a ‘B’ international against Scotland in November of the previous year.

Joe Lapira and Joe Gamble at the end of the game Gamble with American-born striker Joe Lapira, who was also called-up for the summer friendlies, despite only having experience of college football with Notre Dame. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

The Ireland manager also used the opportunity to call-up the former Cork City trio Alan Bennett, Kevin Doyle and Shane Long to join Gamble in the relatively inexperienced travelling party to take on Ecuador and Bolivia in two summer friendlies.

Something that made the Leesider more at ease with the squad.

Gamble was not to be disappointed for a second time, however. Just as the clocked ticked towards 69 minutes in the Giants Stadium against Ecuador in the opening game, he was called to take to the field.

In the process, he achieved one of the greatest honours in the game and a lifetime ambition – becoming a senior international.

“I remember, like all young Irish lads, watching Ireland in the glory days of Italia ‘90 and USA ’94, in particular Ray Houghton’s famous goal against Italy in New York.

Joe Gamble Gamble replaced Andy Keogh for the closing stages in New York. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“But to think some years later I would be making my full international debut in that same stadium is surreal to me. I remember thinking how immensely honoured and privileged I was to be able to say that I was going to be a full Irish international.”

The score remained 1-1, but the 25-year-old had little time to dwell on his debut appearance, with his first international start to follow two days later against Bolivia.

Playing two such technically-accomplished sides back-to-back was certainly a new experience for Gamble. Coming up against free-flowing South American-style football wasn’t a regular occurrence at Turner’s Cross.

“It was obviously a higher standard, without stating the obvious. You don’t really get time to think in international football. I had to play a lot more with instinct. Individually, players have greater pace and power. On top of that, the tactical side of the game requires more concentration, you can’t switch off or else you will be punished.”

That match against Bolivia marked not only Gamble’s last appearance in an Ireland jersey, but the last match a League of Ireland player played for the national team – a record Dundalk stars Andy Boyle and Daryl Horgan will be aiming to change tonight, when Ireland take on Austria in Vienna.

In fact, if either of them were to play any part in the World Cup qualifier, they would become the first domestic player to play for the national team since Shamrock Rovers’ Pat Byrne played against Denmark in 1985.

It was a record though, Gamble knew he personally wouldn’t be able to break.

“Being brutally honest, I didn’t talk I could force my way into the side for the qualifiers. My performances in America were only okay, but I didn’t exactly pull up any trees.

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“However, the Dundalk lads are playing against high calibre of opposition in the Europa League, so it is easier for Martin O’Neill to assess them, where I was playing in the League of Ireland and Staunton couldn’t. But I’ve no qualms with that.

“All players want to be called-up on merit nobody wants to be a token gesture.”

Ireland went on to finish 10 points outside the qualifying places with Staunton sacked before his maiden managerial campaign had finished, following a disappointing draw at home ended any hopes of Ireland making the finals.

Gamble went on to win more silverware on Leeside. FAI and Setanta Cup triumphs were to follow, before he departed Cork in 2010, amid financial turmoil around the club.

18 months at Hartlepool United in League One was to come, before Gamble returned to Ireland with Limerick, where he picked up the First Division title and promotion in his second season with the club.

Joe Gamble and Chris Shields Gamble won the First Division title with Limerick before moving to the Far East. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

There was to be one more move for the Cork native before he decided to hang up his boots, 12,000 kilometres away in Brunei with DPMM FC, to be exact. A spell Gamble describes as the best in his career.

In his two years with the club, who compete in Singapore’s S-League, Gamble helped DPMM FC, who were managed at the time by the former Blackburn Rovers manager Steve Kean, to their first-ever championship.

But it was his time off the pitch, just as much as his time on it, that helped his stint in Asia he become the happiest of his time in football.

“I would recommend any player to give it serious thought if the opportunity arises.

“Everything from the lifestyle with my wife and kids, the different culture, the people and the type of football was perfect, I couldn’t speak highly enough of my time there.”

But having retired from playing last year, the 34-year-old has already planted solid foundations to remain in the game and hopes to obtain his Uefa A licence, the highest coaching certification available next year, having been appointed as a senior coach with Munster Senior League side College Corinthians this summer.

“I retired after having six operations on my knee, I couldn’t take it anymore, but I can’t complain. I had 16 years with the same injury and time has taken its toll.

“I’m talking to a few League of Ireland clubs about getting involved next year to use my Strength and Conditioning degree along with my football badges to further progress this part of my career.It’s an avenue I’m passionate about and I feel I’ve a lot to offer.”

You get the feeling, whatever openings come Gamble’s way, the former Irish international will relish the opportunity.

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