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In form and in demand but Sadlier keeping Ireland debut on the long finger

A fine season for the Doncaster Rovers winger has captured the attention of Mick McCarthy.

AS HE BOARDED a plane at Stansted Airport, Kieran Sadlier knew he was making a move that would shape his career thereafter – for better or worse.

This is a player who was 12 years old when he was brought onto the Upton Park pitch at half-time in a Premier League game to sign a four-year academy contract with West Ham United. When that expired, a four-year professional deal took its place.

During his time on West Ham’s books, he mapped out his future by envisioning himself emulating the likes of Carlos Tevez, whose brace of goals led West Ham to a 3-1 victory over Bolton Wanderers on that aforementioned afternoon.

One thing that certainly didn’t feature in his initial plan was a Ryanair flight to “the world’s smallest airport” on a wretched January evening in 2016.

kieran-sadlier Kieran Sadlier at Sligo Rovers in 2016. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Sadlier, who was 21 at the time, had no idea what to expect at Sligo Rovers. What he did know was that he couldn’t afford to fail. The League of Ireland is a land of opportunity for those in search of a fresh start after encountering setbacks in the UK. It can make a player’s prospects of a successful career in the game, but it can break them too.

Having left West Ham 12 months earlier, he took a few different routes to kickstart his career, each one bringing him to a dead end. Within the space of a year he had spells with St Mirren, Peterborough United and Halifax Town, none of which worked out in his favour. The next throw of the dice landed on the League of Ireland.

By the time he touched down in Knock, the Virgin Mary had clocked off for the evening. Divine intervention was instead provided by a former manager.

“I flew over at night time, arrived at Knock Airport and then got picked up to go to Sligo, where I’d never been before,” recalls the English-born winger. “There were floods in the roads and it was completely dark so it felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. 

“Even though I didn’t really know where I was or what to expect, it felt like the right option for me at that stage. I wasn’t enjoying things and I was kind of at a crossroads.”

The move to The Showgrounds was orchestrated by Sligo Rovers boss Dave Robertson, who recognised Sadlier’s potential during his time in charge at Peterborough.

With his technical ability immediately discernible, he adapted swiftly to life in the League of Ireland. Over a three-year period that also encompassed a spell at Cork City, he was a regular contributor of assists and (often spectacular) goals.

After helping City to win a Premier Division and FAI Cup double in 2017, he scored 26 times the following season and earned a place in the PFAI Team of the Year. His performances during the 2018 campaign also presented him with the type of opportunity he had set out to create when the pilgrimage began.

Amid a significant level of interest from English clubs, he joined Doncaster Rovers in January of last year. For a team with designs on playing in the Championship next season, Sadlier has proven to be an indispensable asset.

His season so far has yielded 11 goals, six assists and a nod of approval from Republic of Ireland senior manager Mick McCarthy. Sadlier, who has been capped at U21 level, qualifies to represent Ireland via his grandfather from Tipperary.

As an indication of his progress, he scored four goals in the three games he has played for Doncaster against Peterborough United, where his short stint in 2015 amounted to a single appearance in the League Cup.

“My aim for this season was to get double figures in goals and I wanted to get around 10 assists as well,” says the 25-year-old, who has been a key player for a Doncaster side sitting just two points adrift of a play-off place in League One. “There are still 14 games to play so I’m happy with how things have gone so far.

“The main thing for me was to play regularly and then build from there. I believe in my ability to score and create goals. I’m really enjoying my football at the moment.

“This season has been great and my confidence is there. My stats are good at the moment and I don’t want to rest on that. I’m always hungry for more goals and assists so hopefully things will keep going the way they are.”

Source: Doncaster Rovers/YouTube

Although he has yet to make the final cut, Sadlier has been included in extended Ireland squads on three occasions since September.

With Mick McCarthy expressing a reluctance to deviate when it comes to selection for next month’s Euro 2020 play-off against Slovakia, hopes of an international debut will stay on the long finger.

Nevertheless, the man who’s due to succeed McCarthy later this year is well aware of Sadlier’s capability. While managing Dundalk, Stephen Kenny made an approach to sign him when he was also being courted by Cork City.

“The first time my name was in the provisional squad it came as a massive surprise. I didn’t even know until someone from Doncaster contacted me after it was announced,” he explains.

“I was just delighted to see my name included. If it’s a 40-man squad and I’m in that pool of 40 players, that’s one step further than I was last year. I think I’m capable of eventually breaking in and playing, but it’s a long-term target.

“I write targets out each season. Getting into the play-offs with Doncaster – at a minimum – was the main one this season. Hopefully I can finish the season well and set new targets for next season. Breaking into the Ireland set-up will probably be one of those.”

coventry-city-v-doncaster-rovers-sky-bet-league-one-st-andrews-trillion-trophy-stadium Sadlier in possession for Doncaster Rovers against Coventry City. Source: Barrington Coombs

That Doncaster are glad to have brought in Kieran Sadlier just over a year ago is of little doubt. What they are certainly regretting, however, is their decision to cap his first contract at 18 months.

That’s evidenced by the fact that the offer of a new deal has already been tabled. While negotiations are ongoing, he continues to strengthen his position by considerably aiding their push for a place in the Championship, which resumes with this afternoon’s visit to Gillingham.

Doncaster’s promotion bid is unlikely to be his only potential avenue into the Championship either. Hull City, who are managed by Grant McCann, the man who signed Sadlier at Doncaster, are among the clubs reportedly monitoring the situation.

While Championship interest is inevitable given the level of his performances, he admits that the “perfect” scenario would be to advance to the next tier with Doncaster, who have been managed by Darren Moore since McCann’s departure last summer.

“It’s something I’ve left for my agents to take care of so I can focus on what’s happening on the pitch. They’re talking with the club and it’ll be resolved at some point,” Sadlier says.

“We don’t really talk about it, me and the manager. He’s made it clear that whatever happens, I remain the same and my work-rate is still the same. That will always be the case. We’re just concentrating on winning all the games and getting to the play-offs. There’s no hurry with anything else.”

kieran-sadlier-lifts-the-irish-daily-mail-fai-cup Celebrations after scoring the winning penalty in the 2017 FAI Cup final. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Wherever he ends up, he won’t forget that flight to Knock and what it led to.

“It felt like a massive gamble but it turned out to be probably the best gamble I’ve ever taken in my career. 

“For players under the age of 24, I’d say if you want to go somewhere to showcase your ability, Ireland is the perfect place. I’ve said that to many players I’ve met over here. It’s a great place to go and experience what it’s like to play and be valued. 

“Those three years were some of the best of my career. It gave me the platform to hopefully go on and achieve bigger things over here.”

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Paul Dollery

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