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How Joshua Daniels prevailed in the wake of an unimaginable tragedy

‘It’s something I always told my mother I would do. Coming over here just meant so much to me.’

JOSHUA DANIELS DOESN’T hesitate with his response when asked which of the two goals he treasures the most.

Making his mark in England was something he spent a long time working towards, but scoring the winner in a Europa League game against a team managed by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was a surreal experience for a lad who grew up supporting Manchester United.

“It was the first game that my wee one came to as well, her first ever match watching her daddy, so it was nice. Scoring in a game like that was something incredible,” he says, recalling Glenavon’s 2-1 first-leg victory against Molde in the qualifying rounds in 2018.

stephen-lowry-with-josh-daniels Joshua Daniels (left) tangling with Stephen Lowry while playing for Glenavon against Linfield. Source: Matt Mackey/INPHO

Daniels’ contribution to the unlikely result stemmed from one of the many performances that enhanced his reputation over the course of a three-season spell with Glenavon.

He was being courted by several other Irish League clubs earlier this year and a transfer to Glentoran was in the offing. While the 24-year-old winger was en route to meet representatives of the Belfast club, a call from Gary Hamilton, his manager at Glenavon, alerted him to an enquiry from across the water.

Signing a two-year contract with Shrewsbury Town has allowed Daniels to launch a career as a full-time professional in England, something he had long aspired to. 

Even as a teenager, when he knocked back the advances of Nottingham Forest in favour of signing for hometown club Derry City – who exposed him to competitive senior football from the age of 17 – it was a decision made with his development in mind. 

Before agreeing to join Shrewsbury, Daniels was a part-time footballer who hadn’t played a game in six months due to Covid-19′s impact on the Irish League. He was therefore restricted to substitute appearances at first, before making the most of his full debut when he was selected in the starting line-up to face Peterborough United a fortnight ago.

Although they were beaten on the day, the game featured a milestone moment for Daniels, who opened his Shrewsbury account with a goal in the defeat to the League One leaders. His objective is to ensure that it’s the first of many for a side that forced Liverpool to an FA Cup fourth-round replay at Anfield back in February.

“I’ve really enjoyed the first few months here,” he says. “The facilities and everything are fantastic. We’ve gone to grounds over here where the lads would be saying the pitch isn’t great, whereas I’m like ‘this pitch is unbelievable, it’s like a carpet!’ Coming from playing part-time in Northern Ireland, I don’t take wee things like that for granted.

“I got used to a professional set-up at Derry City and it was excellent, but over here things are just another level up. It’s a great environment, exactly what I’ve wanted. 

“To be fair to Glenavon, when I signed for the club I told them that my aim was to go full-time with a club across the water. Getting over here has always been my ambition.”

By scoring against Molde and Peterborough United, Daniels created two of his career’s most valued experiences to date. However, regardless of what occurs hereafter, it’s unlikely that any goal will eclipse the significance of his first for Derry City.

“That was a big one for me – very, very special,” he says of his late strike in a north-west derby against Finn Harps in May 2016, a thrilling game at the Brandywell that ended 2-2.

For Daniels, who was aged 20 at the time, it was a moment of joy set against a backdrop of unimaginable tragedy. Seven weeks earlier, he lost several members of his family when their car slid off an algae-covered slipway and entered the water at Buncrana Pier.

Rioghnach-Ann, his four-month-old niece and goddaughter, was rescued by a passerby, but the five other occupants of the vehicle – his mother Ruth (59), sister Jodie-Lee (14), nephews Mark (12) and Evan (8), and their father Sean (46) – couldn’t be saved. 

“What I remember most about the goal is the reaction from both sets of fans. That will stick with me forever,” says Daniels. “I was getting a standing ovation from the Derry fans but also from the Finn Harps fans, which was unbelievable.

“After what had happened, I was back training two weeks later and just made sure I was working as hard as I could to keep my mind focused on football. I’ll never forget that game.”

While absorbing such devastating loss, he was grateful for his club’s unwavering support. Team-mates, coaches, backroom staff and fans rallied around Daniels and his family.

Football became a form of escapism, a semblance of normality during a period of profound mourning, yet he soon realised that a change would be necessary to aid the grieving process, as well as his prospects as a footballer.

As a Derry City player, reminders of the suffering he was enduring were frequent. At every turn he was met by expressions of compassion. They were always appreciated, never taken for granted, but eventually it was time to move on.

Although football could help Daniels to do so, it needed to be detached from the anguish that befell him. Instead of allowing it to be shaped by his connection to such a harrowing event, he resolved to ensure that his life would be defined on his own terms.

“It was important for me to have a clean slate where I’d only be judged on football and nothing else. I’m not a person who craves empathy or sympathy from anybody,” he says.

joshua-daniels-celebrates-scoring The aftermath of his May 2016 goal for Derry City against Finn Harps. Source: Presseye/Lorcan Doherty/INPHO

“You just have to Google my name and what happened is one of the first results that comes up. I understand that it was a massive thing to happen and there was huge public interest. That side of it didn’t matter to me. I was more worried about keeping my sister protected.”

Despite signing for Glenavon in August 2017, Daniels continued to live in Derry, remaining close to his older sibling Louise, who lost her partner and two sons in the Buncrana tragedy.

“Going to Glenavon was the best thing I could have done because it tested my character. It was an hour and 50 minutes away and I was driving there by myself twice a week, going over the Glenshane Mountain on lots of cold, dark nights. All those things sort of built me up mentally.

“I could have joined Coleraine, where I knew a few of the boys and it was only a 40-minute drive. I went to Glenavon because I needed to get away from Derry. I didn’t know anybody there so it was a chance for me to step out of my comfort zone and make a fresh start.

“I knew it was going to test me and it was quite difficult at times, but it was what I needed to do if I was going to get what I wanted, which was to become a full-time professional across the water.

“The set-up at Glenavon was part-time but I never allowed myself to fall into the trap of having a part-time mentality. I always made sure I was doing my extra bits and pieces.

“I’m over in England now at an age where I feel I’ve matured, not just as a footballer but as a person. I might not even have been ready for this move two years ago, so it has all worked out well for me.

“The lads at Shrewsbury weren’t familiar with my background when I came over here. You know the way at a lot of clubs they make you sing as part of your initiation? Here they ask you to talk about yourself and it was one of the things I had to bring up. It was a bit weird explaining it to people who knew nothing about me beforehand.”

When asked if he can allow himself to feel proud of how he prevailed in the wake of an incident that could have left his own plans for the future in tatters, Daniels says: “I don’t think I deserve any credit or anything. I’m just being myself in how I go about things. This is my life and I’m living it the only way I know how to.

“After it happened, my missus would have said to me ‘you can cry, it’s okay to cry and feel sad about it’, but the first time that I really felt overly emotional was when I signed here [for Shrewsbury].

shrewsbury-town-v-bolton-wanderers-efl-trophy-montgomery-waters-meadow Daniels has 'a brilliant desire and attitude to want to succeed' according to Shrewsbury Town boss Sam Ricketts. Source: PA

“I was in a hotel on my own for a while when I first came over, so I suppose I had a lot of time to myself and I was a bit overwhelmed, because it’s something I always told my mother I would do. Coming over here just meant so much to me.

“I’ll be 25 next February so I was starting to wonder if my time had passed in terms of getting the opportunity. That was just me being realistic, wondering if the dream was fading.

“But I kept working hard, doing the extra bit, trying to do more than everybody else, and luckily my chance came. I was overcome with emotion in the hotel at that stage but they were tears of just pure happiness.

“What happened is something I try to use in a positive manner as much as I can. I haven’t allowed it to pull me down and I always try to make sure that what I’m doing would make them proud.

“There’s nothing I can do about it now, it’s in the past, but what I can do is keep plugging away to make my own path and create positive things out of something that was a tragedy.

“Thankfully that has been working out for me. It hasn’t been a burden for me, because since it happened all the best things in my life came after it.”

In addition to declaring himself satisfied with where he is at this stage in his football career, the outlook is positive for Daniels away from the pitch too. He has been joined in Shrewsbury by his fiancée Hannah and their two-year-old daughter Zahra.

Before the wedding comes around next May in Enniskillen, he’s eager to play his part in pushing Shrewsbury Town up the table. There are also some long-term personal goals to work towards.

International recognition isn’t currently a realistic prospect, he acknowledges, but having seen one of his best pals use League One as a platform to break into the Republic of Ireland senior squad, Daniels knows what’s possible should he hit the right notes.

His former Derry City team-mate Ronan Curtis, who joined Portsmouth two years ago, earned his fifth Ireland cap in last Thursday night’s game against England at Wembley.

Screen Shot 2020-11-13 at 09.17.44 Joshua Daniels with his fiancée Hannah and daughter Zahra. Source: Joshua Daniels

After representing Northern Ireland up to U19 level, Daniels received a call-up from Noel King to a home-based Republic of Ireland U21 squad in February 2017.

“In the short term I need to make sure I’m in the Shrewsbury team regularly and scoring and creating as many goals as I can. Anything that comes from that is a bonus,” he says.

“If I can achieve what Ronan has done I’ll be delighted because it’s every young boy’s ambition to play for their country, but I’m not as close as I need to be just yet.

“I know a lot of players who have gone on to do really well for themselves after coming to League One, so hopefully I can do that as well. Ronan is an international now because he took his opportunity. I’m working hard every day to make sure I grab mine with both hands.”

A desire to turn his favourite hobby into a job is something Joshua Daniels can trace back to the days when he learned the ropes as a teenager at Top of the Hill Celtic in Gobnascale.

With unforeseen challenges to overcome, it may have taken longer than he would have liked, but now he’s finally living his dream. 

“I go in every day and play football to earn a living – what have I got to complain about?”

About the author:

Paul Dollery

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