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'I don’t think I was able to develop into the type of man I could have been'

Karl Sheppard reflects on the effects that his time in England had, as well as a history-making spell with Shamrock Rovers and the most intense League of Ireland rivalry of the last 10 years.

Karl Sheppard reflects on his decade.
Karl Sheppard reflects on his decade.
Image: Donall Farmer/INPHO

AT THE START of this decade, Karl Sheppard took the decision to tear up his contract with Everton so he could return to Ireland.

Disillusioned, Galway United helped resurrect the Dubliner’s love of the game and, 10 years on, he looks back on being a key part in both the history-making Shamrock Rovers team that became the first League of Ireland club to reach the Europa League group stages in 2011, as well as the Dundalk-Cork City rivalry which defined the decade.

Now 28, he insists he is coming into his prime with Shelbourne but admits he needs to have one eye on a life after football.

I HATE BANTER. 

You hear all the time how football and banter goes hand in hand.

Not for me.

I can’t stand it. I don’t get it.

There were times in England when teammates probably thought I was a sour pr**k for not finding all their banter hilarious. 

“Your clothes are shit, your trainers are shit, you’re shit.”

Nah, none of that is for me.

I always thought it was crude and just not funny. It’s all about bringing those around you down, that’s how I found it at Everton when I was a kid and not much changed when I went back over to a senior dressing room at Reading.

I can take a joke.

I would say there is a difference between banter and having the craic. In Ireland we can have the craic and slag each other but it never feels like it’s being done to destroy someone.

I get it for my hair. Of course, I do. Lads could call me a baldy b****x with a smile here and I know there’s nothing malicious to it. I can have a laugh with that and slag back. I can take that. You know by the manner of how it is said.

karl-sheppard-celebrates-scoring Sheppard started rebuilding his career with Galway United. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

When you’re 15, 16, 17 years old and away from home it’s a completely different environment. I had the choice of Everton and Portsmouth when I was leaving Dublin – both clubs treated my parents like royalty, made us feel like VIPs and promised us the world when they were showing us around.

Thinking back now I can remember that it wasn’t too long after Wayne Rooney had left Everton to go to Manchester United. They were using that as a selling point.

“This is the pathway we have for you, this is where we can help you get to in our first team.”

But the truth is that unless it looks like you will be a first team player pretty early on they don’t care about you. They don’t tell you that when they want you to sign. 

They don’t tell you about making you run so much as a punishment for some of your teammates going to the cinema the day before a game that you will be getting sick on the side of the pitch. Alan Stubbs was Reserve team manager at Everton and he was like that, he was old school.

When I look back, I feel sad about things because I don’t think I was able to come out of myself properly and develop into the type of man I could have been. You don’t feel like you become the person that you should be. Football clubs in England try to mould you into someone that I wouldn’t see myself as at all.

I am serious when it comes to football and want to relax and not take things too seriously outside it. 

When you leave home so young and are thrown into a room in someone else’s house, how can you be expected to develop mentally as a person? I became withdrawn from everyday life, I didn’t want to mingle with anyone, I would stare at the walls and ring my Dad telling him I wanted to leave and come home.

But I kept going with it. It’s only 10 years ago but feels like a lifetime ago because now, compared to then, it’s much more acceptable to open up and discuss these problems. Society has changed so much, football has changed so much.

These experiences at a young age did hurt but that didn’t stop me from wanting to chase the dream of being a footballer in England – I had a new lease of life under Sean Connor at Galway and then felt like Michael O’Neill helped me so much at Shamrock Rovers so when Reading wanted to sign me I thought I should give it another go.

I was older, 21, and thought it would be different.

It wasn’t.

More banter.

I knew straight away it wasn’t for me. It was just the feeling around the place, the environment in the dressing room. 

paddy-kavanagh-and-patrick-flynn-celebrate Sheppard (far right) with teammates Paddy Kavanagh and Pat Flynn after beating Partizan Belgrade in 2011. Source: Aleksandar Djorovic/INPHO

Brian McDermott brought me out onto the pitch before I signed and asked if I could envisage playing there. I thought I could but some of the same problems I had at Everton were there too.

I just didn’t like it. I had injuries and couldn’t force my way in. I would say that I was terrible around the place. I didn’t feel part of it and I didn’t try to. I didn’t integrate well at all and just retreated into a shell. 

I was on a good contract, good money and was comfortable. But I wasted so much money on stupid stuff. You don’t feel good about yourself as a person so you try to fill that void by going out and getting a new car, watches, spending ridiculous money on jumpers and clothes when the wardrobe was filled with all the same stuff.

I was spending money just to avoid sitting at home. I wasn’t happy and because of that I would say I have been better at saving money here than when I was over there.

That’s another issue I’m dealing with now because me and my girlfriend are struggling to get a mortgage. I really want to have something to show for my career and that for me is a house for my family.

Ashamed is too strong a word for it but the sense of rejection and hurt you feel when you come back to Ireland is very powerful. I was even ready to come home but that sense is still there. It must be worse for the kids who feel totally discarded and told they’re not wanted.

That’s why I will always be grateful to Sean Connor for how he picked me up at Galway. He gets a bad reputation around the League of Ireland but he was a brilliant motivator for young players and knew how to get the best from you.

My confidence was gone but he knew I needed an arm around me and would make me feel amazing about myself.

It was such a shame how things ended at Galway and the money troubles they were going through and that’s when I had the choice between going to Shamrock Rovers or Sporting Fingal.

My Dad told me to go to Rovers and I didn’t regret it. Not just because Fingal went bust a week later, but because Michael O’Neill did so much for me. He is such a funny, quick-witted man. Tactically, he is the best manager I worked with but he was more than that.

He has everything as a manager. He creates a bond with his players but you know that there is a line there that cannot be crossed. You know he is the boss. He had us so well drilled. We knew exactly what we had to do on the pitch and were so efficient because of it.

michael-oneill Former Shamrock Rovers manager Michael O'Neill knew how to create a bond with players. Source: Nicolo' Zangirolami Insidefoto

That’s why we were successful. You’d hear people say we didn’t play great football but Michael had everything down to a tee and that is why we won things. 

I was 19 and I hate to say it but I took what we achieved for granted. Even when things were serious for me health wise I only cared about football and didn’t really think about it.

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Ten weeks before we played Flora Tallinn in the Champions League qualifiers in 2011 I had to go for heart surgery. When I was training it felt like my heart was beating through my chest, the palpitations were really powerful.

I was diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White (WPW) syndrome and needed an operation. Basically, it’s where there is an extra pathway in the heart and it is beating too fast to cope.

I could have had a cardiac arrest but when I was told to rest by the doctors and the club I didn’t listen. I was out running and training with mates to make sure I could be as a fit as possible. I was on to the doctor constantly saying I was fine and wanted to play in the Champions League qualifiers. I was raging and not really thinking of the consequences.

They couldn’t allow it but my second game back was in Belgrade against Partizan and I was blowing like crazy. That remains one of the great nights.

Whenever I see any of the lads around that is what we end up talking about. It was something special to be part of but I can only really understand that now. At the time you just think it’s normal, that winning trophies and playing in Europe is what it’s all about all the time.

Then Michael left and you realise it’s not like that. Rovers were going through managers then. Stephen Kenny came in and didn’t really get a chance to do what he wanted after Michael. Then Trevor Croly took over and this was when the game was beginning to change.

Trevor wanted to bring in gym sessions but there will still lads in the squad from the old mindset of going for pints after a game. You’d be on the bus and hear how dumbbells never won a match or having a Snickers never lost a match.

Then you’d play Dundalk and they would run all over you. It clicked with me then that something wasn’t right so it came at the perfect time when John Caulfield brought me to Cork.

john-caulfield-celebrates-in-the-dressing-room-after-the-game John Caulfield helped change Sheppard's outlook. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

I had a little gut on me when I arrived, I had a belly. I had a skinny fat man’s body but John was changing everything. He brought in a fitness guy called Kevin Tattan and he brought us all on a million miles. 

He made us into athletes and we started living properly. You couldn’t go drinking like you would before, on a Saturday or a Tuesday, because there would always be extra sessions on. You didn’t want to fall behind.

This was only around 2015 but there was a change happening around the league. It needed to change because Dundalk were setting a standard that everyone else needed to reach.

Hatred is too strong a word but that rivalry we had was intense. I f***ing loved it. What made it better was how the games always had a sense of occasion. There would be 6,000 down in Cork, close to a sell-out in Dundalk.

For the first year I was there we knew they were better than us. But then John showed why he is such a good manager because he was prepared to go for young, energetic players and try to match what Dundalk had.

Steven Beattie would slag me and say I was a clone of him on the pitch and I suppose I was. Work hard on the pitch and relax a bit when you’re off it. John would be the same. He wasn’t always this crazy, intense mad man, but there would be times I looked at him and thought he could have a heart attack.

That’s why it wasn’t a surprise how it ended for him like it did last season. We had won the league, the FAI Cup, but going into the start of last season we knew we were short. The depth wasn’t there and the quality wasn’t either.

For John it always felt like it would end one of two ways; going out in a blaze of glory when we had just won another trophy, or going during the season. He has such high standards and we couldn’t meet them.

conor-mccormack-steven-beattie-and-karl-sheppard-celebrate-winning-the-sse-airtricity-league Conor McCormack (left) Steven Beattie (centre) Karl Sheppard celebrate winning The SSE Airtricity League Premier Division. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

My plan was to stay in Cork. I was coaching with Avondale, had started to look at a mortgage – even if they laugh you out of the place when you tell them you’re a League of Ireland footballer – and that’s when I realised I needed to look beyond football.

I’m 28 and feel like I’m coming into my prime. I was the one who picked up the phone and told Ian Morris my plans. Thankfully he wanted me at Shelbourne when I explained my thinking. 

I did an online course last year because I hadn’t got a Leaving Cert. I’m looking at the guards or fire service, something like that, for when I finish but in terms of what I’m aiming for on the pitch, I definitely won’t be letting my standards drop or be willing to lessen my expectations.

Last year was a disappointing one. I know I wasn’t good enough and it was a struggle for the whole club. You have to take those types of seasons on the chin and come back from it. I feel like I’m still in my prime and want to show that next year because I still believe I can be one of the best players in the league.

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