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'I feel I can probably pass on some knowledge from where I went wrong'

His playing career is now over, but Karl Sheppard isn’t finished with football just yet.

Karl Sheppard announced his retirement recently after spending the 2020 League of Ireland season with Shelbourne.
Karl Sheppard announced his retirement recently after spending the 2020 League of Ireland season with Shelbourne.
Image: SIPA USA/PA Images

KARL SHEPPARD’S LEGACY won’t be shaped by the fact that his football career ended before his 20s did.

In fact, he has always been grateful that a premature conclusion didn’t arrive much sooner.

In 2011, being diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome required him to undergo surgery on his heart.

Even before that, the psychological wounds sustained while attempting to make the grade with Everton took a considerable toll on his desire to make the game his profession.

He persevered nevertheless, and a career as one of Irish domestic football’s most successful players of the last decade was to follow.

Aged 29, Sheppard announced his retirement earlier this month after making a decision that was ultimately forced upon him by his struggles with psoriatic arthritis.

In an ideal world he’d now be preparing for his second season with Shelbourne, yet the process of coming to terms with his status as a former footballer has been eased by a firm belief that he left nothing behind.

He’s most closely associated with his spells at Shamrock Rovers and Cork City, where his respective achievements included qualification for the Europa League group stages and a Premier Division and FAI Cup double.

Overall, however, he can be remembered as a player who demonstrated that success and satisfaction from a football career isn’t only attainable across the Irish Sea.

“Football has given me some unbelievable nights – the best ones of my life,” says the attacker from Portmarnock, who also received international recognition with the Republic of Ireland at U21 level while earning his living at home.

karl-sheppard Sheppard playing for the Ireland U21s in a European Championship qualifier against Liechtenstein. Source: Cathal Noonan

Sheppard’s advocacy for the possibilities on offer in the League of Ireland has been reinforced by the two stints he had in England, neither of which are recalled with fondness.

When he entered the academy at Everton at the age of 16, it was the realisation of a dream. He stuck it out for nearly three years, but life on the books of a Premier League club wasn’t all that he imagined it would be.

“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,” he told  The42 in December 2019.

“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.”

Early in 2010 he did just that, cutting his time on Merseyside short in favour of a flight home and a move to Galway United. There, as a 19-year-old sampling competitive senior football for the first time, he excelled under Sean Connor.

Shamrock Rovers manager Michael O’Neill was suitably impressed and signed him for the League of Ireland Premier Division champions ahead of a memorable 2011 season.

In addition to winning his first league title, Sheppard was part of the first Irish side to qualify for the group stages of a European competition. He scored one of his 15 goals that year away to PAOK Salonika, before facing the likes of Jermain Defoe and Harry Kane when Tottenham Hotspur came to Tallaght Stadium.

His performances that season yielded an opportunity to return to England. With the benefit of an extra couple of years of maturity and experience, Sheppard was adamant that things would be different this time when he signed for a Premier League-bound Reading side who were en route to winning the Championship.

Twelve months later, with his only first-team football having come during a loan spell at Accrington Stanley in League Two, Sheppard was a Shamrock Rovers player once again. 

karl-sheppard-and-niko-kranjcar In possession for Shamrock Rovers against Tottenham. Source: James Crombie

“I just didn’t like it,” he said of his second crack at professional football in England. “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.

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“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… I was spending money just to avoid sitting at home.”

Sheppard spent two more seasons in Tallaght, before a five-year spell at Cork City began in 2015. He was a key ingredient in John Caulfield’s success as manager, which peaked with the double the Leesiders claimed at the expense of a previously dominant Dundalk outfit.

“What advice would I give my younger self now? Probably to stay at home, get into the League of Ireland and play a hundred or so games before looking to go away,” he told The42 this week.

“You can get your education done at the same time then as well. Going across the water with a degree in your back pocket is a great position to be in, as you see from guys like Danny Grant (Bohemians to Huddersfield Town) and Conor McCarthy (Cork City to St Mirren).

“These boys have stayed at home and experienced men’s football. They’re in a better position in terms of their careers after football but they’ve also become better players for it. And even if you don’t go away, the League of Ireland can give you a great career and a lot of great nights.

“I had two stints in England and both times when I came back my confidence was on the floor. When I came back from Everton it was Sean Connor who picked me back up, and after Reading it wasn’t until John Caulfield put his arm around me and gave me a kick up the backside that I was able to get back to the level I wanted to be at.” 

While Sheppard acknowledges that a one-size-fits-all pathway for player development doesn’t exist, and that many teenagers embrace the opportunity to move to England, he believes Brexit’s potential to keep young Irish players at home for longer could be of immense benefit.

“I wouldn’t push any kid away from the idea of going to England, but I would advise that in Ireland you can have a great career where you can also get your education alongside it and you’ll get plenty more in return.

inpho_01126981 Sheppard (left) won two FAI Cups and a Premier Division title at Cork City. Source: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

“There’s a huge drop-off of kids who fall out of love with the game when they come back from England. Instead of having to play U23s football in England, you can become accustomed to playing men’s football in Ireland and you can grow that way.

“When they come back they go one of two ways, which I’ve seen so many times. They could be no longer playing football at all within six months, or they’re going to rediscover their confidence and they’ll be flying again. You just hope that when they come back they’ll have the right people around them so they can rebuild.

“There are so many advantages to staying in Ireland, especially if you can get in with one of the top clubs, because then you’ll get the chance to play in Europe as well. There are brilliant players in the Championship and League One in England who will never really get that chance. That opportunity is there every year in Ireland.

“For me personally, when the Reading move came up after the European run with Rovers I thought I’d give it one more try, but when I came home I knew there was never a question again of even trying to look at the possibility of a move back to England.

“There was no chance of me going back, no matter how good the money might have been or anything like that. I’d never have considered it. It’s different for everyone obviously but it just wasn’t for me.”

Sheppard is now focused on his role in sales with the Cuco Coffee company, but it’s his intention to ensure that his experiences in football are put to use again.

He says: “I have my coaching badges so I’ll either go down that route and potentially look at getting into management in the League of Ireland, or I could also go down the agent route.

“I suppose I have a lot of experience in terms of what doesn’t help young players when they go over to England and that’s something I’ve always been passionate about. I feel I can probably pass on some knowledge from where I went wrong.”

Screenshot 2020-11-24 at 9.04.07 AM

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Paul Dollery

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