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Dublin: 5°C Monday 17 May 2021

The Corkman aiming to ensure the future is bright for Leicester City's youngsters

‘Addressing small things off the pitch can have a big impact on it,’ says Leon McSweeney.

AS THE TRAIN pulled out from Carlisle station, Leon McSweeney felt crippled by fear and anxiety over the direction in which he was going.

With his head resting against the window, the bleak outlook for his future caused the tears to flow.

Being released was a setback, but he had consoled himself with the belief that options would be abundant for a player with a Premier League club on his CV.

As countless others have also discovered, it was a naive assumption.

PA-16033464 Leon McSweeney. Source: Simon Cooper/EMPICS Sport

Trials had come and gone at Port Vale, Kidderminster Harriers, Raith Rovers and Carlisle United, yet he remained an unemployed 20-year-old footballer.

“I was getting trains all over the country trying to find a new club, but it was just rejection after rejection,” recalls McSweeney, who was let go by Leicester City in 2003, having joined the club as an 18-year-old from hometown club Cork City.

“Those rejections hit me hard. I just thought, ‘fuck, this is not what I was expecting, I wasn’t ready for this’. I was away in a different country so I didn’t have my family around me to lend support. It was a tough thing to go through on your own. You start to feel like a failure very quickly, like you’ve let down the people who believed in you.”

With nothing promising ahead of him, McSweeney was forced to turn back. He picked up the phone and called the club that had just cut him loose, searching for an answer to the question at the forefront of his mind: what do you do when you’re a professional footballer without a football club to play for?

Fortunately, there was someone at the other end of the line with some advice he could make sense of. At that point, McSweeney’s mother was vindicated for urging her son not to move to England until there was a Leaving Cert in his back pocket.

“Being told that you’re not wanted and not part of a club’s plans, it took me a while to process it. That was when I needed some guidance. I didn’t have an agent at the time and my family aren’t really a football family, so I didn’t know who to ask for advice. I knew I’d have to start looking for a Plan B to fall back on.”

Aided by Leicester City’s education officer Howard Riley, McSweeney enrolled as a student at Loughborough University. At the time it was a case of needs must, but he’s still reaping the benefits of the decision nearly two decades later.

“Going so quickly from a Premier League club to university, I wouldn’t even say it was a mature thing to do. I just didn’t think I had any other options. I was totally disillusioned.

“I didn’t want to go back home because I was so worried about being seen as a failure by people. The university thing was something I saw as a chance to stay in the country to keep the dream alive.

“But going to university was an absolute blessing. During that time I also had some really good success playing non-league football and the whole thing just rebuilt my confidence.” 

While he was attaining a degree in Sport Management, McSweeney accumulated valuable experience of competitive football with clubs like Hucknall Town, where he won a Conference North title. More significantly, however, he was improving his long-term career prospects.

The safety net provided by the degree gave him the peace of mind that eventually allowed for a return to the pursuit of full-time football. He went on to have eight seasons of playing professionally, before adding to his qualifications by spending three years training as a teacher.

soccer-npower-football-league-one-hartlepool-united-v-sheffield-wednesday-victoria-park Playing for Hartlepool United in 2010. Source: EMPICS Sport

Thanks to the time he invested in education, McSweeney is now employed at the club where he once feared his hopes of earning a living from football had been crushed. In 2018, Leicester City hired him as their liaison officer for academy players from U18 to U23.

Whether the youngsters at the Premier League club are progressing to the first-team or being forced to look elsewhere for a career in the game, McSweeney’s objective is to make their transition as smooth as it can possibly be.

The varied job description includes duties ranging from organising accommodation for players, to working directly with them during coaching sessions on the training ground. 

“The reason I went for the role in the first place is because I wanted to be the kind of mentor for players that I never had, but needed,” he explains. “I came from Cork City straight over to a new country, trying to adapt to a full-time environment and all the stuff that goes with a dressing room. It was really, really tough.

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‘I don’t think you realise how much of an effect it has on you as a person until you finish your career and you start to reflect on it. You think back and go, ‘Jesus, that didn’t help me at all’. So it’s good that I’m in a position now where I can see certain things on a day-to-day basis.

“I have great contact with the players and you can just have a chat with them about stuff, giving them your advice and opinion, trying to guide them as well as you can. They won’t always take your advice, but you do have an eye for stuff that goes on and you’re hoping that lads will take it on board and that it will have a positive effect on their careers.

“I think the way the game has progressed now, especially with increased focus on the importance of mental health, addressing small things off the pitch can have a big impact on it.

“When I think back to my experiences of being in digs, living with 10 or 12 other lads, I absolutely hated it. I found it really hard to cope. It was only in my second year when I moved into a smaller house with two other guys that I started to settle.

“That’s kind of the angle for having this sort of player care role at the club. It’s about seeing that these are the things that matter to players and they influence how they feel, which is obviously going to affect their performance.

“If we can get the majority of things right in players’ lives, hopefully – for the club and the players – it’ll give us a better chance of creating good footballers who can have successful careers.” 

McSweeney – who began his career as a striker before playing mostly as a right-midfielder – kickstarted his own stretch in the full-time game by returning home for a spell with Cork City in 2007. He helped the club to win the FAI Cup by defeating Longford Town, having produced a man-of-the-match display in the semi-final win over Bohemians.

inpho_00245000 McSweeney won an FAI Cup with Cork City in 2007. Source: ©INPHO/Neil Danton

Amid a financial crisis at City, McSweeney left in January 2008 to join Stockport County, with whom he won the League Two play-off final at Wembley. After making over 200 appearances while representing several Football League clubs, he retired in 2014 following a spell at Northampton Town, where he was signed by current Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder.

“With the role I’m in now, I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to kind of grow it to how I see fit,” says the 37-year-old. “But the whole thing is very much a team effort. Various staff members will get together daily and flag the needs of certain players before addressing them.

“My role has branched off into me being a player mentor and doing bits of coaching here and there. You’re out there with the players on the training pitch and you’re travelling to away games, so you’re in it with them.

“In that kind of environment, you start to find out more about the players because they’ll start to open up more when that element of trust is built. A player has to trust you before he’s willing to take your advice, so you have to build a relationship first. That’s the part of the job that I really enjoy.

“I open my door to every player and they’ve been really receptive. They respect where I’ve come from because I’m quite open about my career experiences and what I’ve gone through, good and bad. The players appreciate that.

“Some of them will buy into that and while they might not always take your advice, they’ll definitely listen. Other players will have their own advisors or their own people in their lives who they trust, which is absolutely fine, and they’ll go down that route. But I think it’s important that this club – and every other club – has someone like that who a player can have access to.”

In recent weeks, McSweeney has been kept busy by one of the more unsavoury aspects of the job. He has experience of being on both sides of the conversation, but communicating to young players that there’s no longer a place for them at the club isn’t pleasant for anyone involved. Doing so via video calls has compounded the difficulty.

“The pandemic has made that very tough. A lot of the things we usually do to support and reassure players in those situations, like organising trials at other clubs, just aren’t possible now because of what’s going on. You almost feel handicapped because you can’t do things the way you normally would.

“Doing something like that over a Zoom call also just isn’t nice. There’s a coldness to it. You’re doing your job in a way that you don’t want to be doing it, but unfortunately it’s something we can’t really do anything about.”

In the past, players deemed surplus to requirements were ruthlessly discarded by many clubs that should have known better. However, there’s now an increased awareness of the duty of care to players, as evidenced by the existence of positions such as the one McSweeney now occupies. 

“When you’re dealing with players who are being released, there’s no rocket science to it,” he says. “But something as simple as a phone call goes a long way. Having that support network for players is very important.

“A lot of it is up to the player too, because they’re the ones who have to pick up the phone when they need to. What we do while they’re at the club is we try to educate them and remove that stigma of looking for help. Asking for help isn’t a sign of failure.

soccer-coca-cola-football-league-two-stockport-county-v-accrington-stanley-edgeley-park McSweeney (left) achieved promotion from League Two with Stockport County. Source: EMPICS Sport

“What we all want in an ideal world is players going on to break into the first-team, but I’d also love to see released players maintaining the hunger and desire to forge a career somewhere else and kind of prove people wrong.”

McSweeney recently published a blog post containing advice for released players, which is a worthwhile read for any aspiring footballer currently in a state of flux.

“The truest thing anyone ever said to me is that you’ll be a long time retired, so make a plan for life after football. I always advise players to explore other avenues.

“Even for guys who are in professional football, I’m a big believer in having a dual career. I actually think you perform better as a player when your time is not completely taken up by one thing. 

“When you’re in the football bubble, everything is maximised, small things are blown out of proportion and you tend to overthink. Having other interests is healthy and it can improve your performance as a footballer.

“Another thing I’ve always believed in is that your fitness is your responsibility. If an opportunity comes and you’re not fit enough to take it, that’s down to you.

“There were times when I think I actually got clubs because of my fitness. When I was at clubs I was always picked, and that was down to being ready and looking after myself.

“I also know that doing that on your own – especially after experiencing rejection – is a very tough gig, but the reality is that it’s essential if you want to stay in the game.” 

Take it from a man who’s been down this road before. 

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About the author:

Paul Dollery

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