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'Every year, I've had rejection... It asks a question of your character'

Former Bray player John Sullivan on making the transition from footballer to coach.

After leaving Bray, John Sullivan has increasingly switched his focus to coaching.
After leaving Bray, John Sullivan has increasingly switched his focus to coaching.
Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

FOOTBALLERS ARE DEFINED increasingly by their failures, and their responses to them, as much as their successes.

More people are playing the game than ever. There is consequently greater competition than ever. The Premier League, La Liga and Serie A are considered the pinnacle, and more than ever, they are elite international leagues where the world’s best footballers assemble.

Even for extremely talented players, rejection is becoming commonplace. Declan Rice was released by Chelsea as a youngster. Harry Kane was considered “too chubby” by Arsenal. And at an older age, Mo Salah and Kevin De Bruyne were deemed not good enough to make the Chelsea starting XI and subsequently sold by the club. There will always be the occasional anomaly, such as Lionel Messi, whose career is essentially on an unwavering upward trajectory, but these individuals are the exception to the rule.

At the lower levels of the game, rejection and the need for a steely mentality is similarly stark. John Sullivan is one example of many to have experienced many of football’s highs and lows.

After stints at underage level with Lourdes Celtic and Crumlin United, Sullivan joined Bohemians’ U20 side before moving to Scotland and linking up with Hamilton Academical. His career path since then highlights the instability of life as a footballer and in the League of Ireland in particular, where one-year contracts are the norm and there is frequent uncertainty surrounding the future.

In the 10 years since joining Hamilton, he has moved clubs 10 times, playing for Limerick, Shelbourne (twice), Drogheda, Dundalk, Crumlin United (twice), Bray Wanderers (twice) and Galway United.

His most recent stint in the League of Ireland was with Bray and it was a bittersweet experience. The season before last, under Harry Kenny, the club initially were thriving and not far behind pace-setters Dundalk and Cork at the top of the table. However, financial difficulties undermined their season ultimately, and they have struggled since. 

At the height of their financial troubles, Sullivan gave an interview to RTÉ, in which he spoke with candour about the fact that the club didn’t even have enough money to pay for an operation he required, and the player was told to seek funds elsewhere.

Sullivan earned plenty of plaudits at the time for his honesty, but also was criticised in some circles.

“Sometimes people like honesty and sometimes people don’t,” he tells The42. “But I guess someone had to speak up and there’s a quote I keep telling myself on a daily basis. It’s from ‘Legacy’ [a book about the All Blacks]: ‘Plant seeds for the tree of the future that you’ll never see.’ It takes someone to speak up and say these things, hopefully for the next generation. But I don’t want to bang heads with people, or come across as argumentative. In that case, some liked the interview, some didn’t.”

Italy: New Zealand All Blacks v Italy Sullivan cites 'Legacy,' a book about the All Blacks, as an influence. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Despite being part of this unfortunate situation at Bray, Sullivan remains optimistic about the League of Ireland and its future, pointing to the publicity it is receiving this season and the fact that it is now possible to view goals from games almost instantaneously on social media.

However, at 28, Sullivan has left Bray, departing at the end of last season. He is now back playing with his old club Crumlin United in the Leinster Senior League.

“I had a feeling what way it was going or what way my playing career was going,” he says. “I’d already calculated it. So when myself and the Bray coaching staff had a conversation, we were on the same wavelength.

“I enjoyed my time there. It was fantastic. But I wanted to move on and learn from other coaches — different adventures and experiences. And at the same time, the club was going on a new adventure. So we just shook hands and thanked each other for the experiences we had.”

And while plenty of individuals find life difficult after leaving the League of Ireland behind, Sullivan has plenty to keep him busy. In addition to playing at amateur level, he works as a personal trainer, studies psychology at Dublin Business School and coaches Pearse College as well as St Pius School in Templeogue and “the odd time” with Templeogue U11s and Crumlin United. He has featured on RTÉ’s soccer podcast and does scouting work for other clubs on occasion, while he is also a Uefa B coach.

Every day, I wake up and am thinking like a coach rather than a player. Of course, I play football, I love it as much as anyone else does. But I ask myself am I getting in the way of a younger player getting an opportunity to play and that’s something I don’t want to do. I think that’s what made my decision [to leave Bray] a lot easier — knowing someone else is going to get that opportunity and take it with both hands. I really enjoy coaching. If I go into it now as a full-time profession, I’d like to think it can only get better.”

The psychological aspect to coaching is something that Sullivan is fascinated by and sees as particularly important.

“The majority of hurdles I had as a soccer player and other soccer players have had is never on the pitch. It’s outside of it. And if we can assist in anyway for the better, they’ll come on the field in a different mind-frame, and only then can a player reach their full potential.

“The biggest challenge is with yourself. I enjoy it, asking myself: ‘Did I give the right advice? Am I being open-minded? Am I being biased here, towards one person or another person? At this moment in time, what is the best decision for this player or this group of people, regardless of what I may think or someone else may think?’ It comes down to reflecting.”

Trevor Croly A conversation with Trevor Croly helped Sullivan see the game from more of a tactical perspective. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Even as a player, Sullivan says he was particularly interested by the tactical side of the game.

“I talked to Trevor Croly on the phone years ago. I don’t know how, but something just clicked. I was thinking more about systems and tactics and positions on the pitch. And sometimes I was overanalysing and going into training thinking like a coach when that’s not my role as a player. I should just turn up and train. It’s like that quote: ‘A little bit of knowledge is dangerous.’ I was questioning why we were doing this method over that method. I wasn’t challenging it, I was curious. I knew in the next couple of years, I was going to be a coach. And the more information I have, the better.

“So I was possibly thinking too much as a coach. But it did assist me at times in games.”

Sullivan misses “the buzz” of playing in the League of Ireland and “everything that comes with it,” but is also enjoying life at Crumlin under the guidance of their two coaches, Martin Loughran and former Shamrock Rovers player, Marc Kenny.

“We’ve also got really good footballers — they could play League of Ireland,” he adds. “The question is if they want to. They definitely have the ability to play. The majority of them have prioritised work and other commitments over football, that’s why they play at this level.”

Reflection, goal-setting and acquiring as much knowledge as possible, he says, are all key to making it in football, and something which he constantly urges the young players he works with to do.

Of course, they’re going to get setbacks and rejections. Every year, I’ve had rejection,” he says. “The great thing about rejection is it asks a question of your character. What are you going to do about it? Are you going to sulk? Are you going to let someone’s opinion define you? Or are you going to go back to the drawing board and ask yourself what am I going to do to make myself better? And maybe, for that moment of time, you become enemy centred, just to prove someone wrong. But it can be fantastic.

“That’s why I’m very excited to see where the future of football is going with sports psychology [increasingly] coming in. I think it’s going to be the next step in Irish football, because coaches themselves don’t have enough time and some of them aren’t qualified to listen and speak and help you from a psychological perspective. They give their best as coaches, but they’re not qualified in that background.”

Sullivan considers himself very lucky with the coaches he was given the opportunity to work with, citing Stephen Kenny, Alan Mathews, Mick Cooke, Tommy Dunne and Harry Kenny among the standouts.

“I haven’t won a trophy with any of them and some people think I’m joking but I’m not — what I’ve gained in experience and knowledge means more than any piece of silverware, because a piece of silverware you can put in the bin. You can lose that. But you can’t lose the experience or the information I’ve learned from each of those as people and as coaches. It’s one of the reasons that made me a coach. They’ve been fantastic how they treated me.”

Stephen Kenny Sullivan has worked with Ireland U21s boss Stephen Kenny among others. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Accordingly, Sullivan is hoping he can serve as a similarly positive influence to the young players he works with currently.

“At the start of the week [of a soccer camp], you may see some players that are quite shy and some are confident. Those that are confident find it easy to express themselves and by the end of the week, that person that was not confident becomes confident with the people around them and you’re like: ‘Wow, how did that happen?’ That flower just blossomed. And that’s why I really enjoy it. I get to see these people play together and they all assist each other in becoming better players before you categorise them to elite levels and whatnot.”

Sullivan is “very conscious” of concerns expressed in some quarters that too many young players are over-coached these days, and it is a trapping he is determined to avoid. He feels a sense of fun should always outweigh the pressure to make it in the game.

Reflecting back to when I played, there wasn’t this elite category [of coaching young players]. Apparently, it’s fantastic. I haven’t looked too much into it. But I’m just afraid of the kids that don’t make it from 13s and 15s in that category. What happens to them? Where do they go? Do they go back to their clubs? Some get told they aren’t good enough. I don’t believe it’s the right age for them to be told such things.

“I was lucky when I was a kid I had so many coaches that constantly encouraged me. They put me on the right path and no one ever told me: ‘I want you to be a professional footballer.’ I couldn’t get a game before I was 13. I got dropped from a team because I missed the pre-season and wasn’t fit enough. I begged the manager could I come back, rang him on the phone crying. Niall Byrne his name was, a fantastic person. He said to me: ‘I’ll give you a chance, come back up.’ That was one of the turning points for me playing soccer. But I don’t know if this happens anymore, because everyone just wants the best of the best.”

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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