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'It was a rough time: you've got a baby on the way, no new contract - what are you going to do?'

Michael Allen decided to retire from rugby at 26, and he’s delighted he did.

THE COFFEE SHOP hums away unabated, steam jets out into cups, music plays in the background and the bottom falls from the stage Michael Allen has been making a living on.

‘Mike, there’s no easy way to say this. The contract’s no longer there.’

Having made his professional rugby debut in 2011, Allen moved from Ulster to Edinburgh in 2015 seeking a change of scenery and a settled position. 

Michael Allen File photo; Allen at Ravenhill in 2013. Source: Brian Little

A versatile back boasting electric pace, which took him out of the centre to the wing more often than he would have liked, there was a sense that Allen could even benefit from a three-year residency rule and see international rugby for Scotland before this year’s World Cup. 

Whatever the prospects, he felt utterly welcomed and at home in his new club and his new home city and, as he turned 26, was more than happy to re-sign when contract discussions came up in 2016.

In the lead-up to that Christmas, he was under the impression that the deal was agreed and simply awaiting a signature. But Hogmanay came and went, January and February too. Still no word. It fell to Duncan Hodge, Edinburgh’s interim head coach, to bear the bad news that somebody’s opinion of Allen’s future had shifted.

“The whole time I had been thinking things will be fine, happy days. To be hit with that bombshell was pretty horrendous,” Allen tells The42.

“I remember saying to Duncan Hodge that Wednesday morning, ‘I’ve a wife and a baby on the way.

“She’s due in July.’”

***

When The42 first got in contact with Allen last month, he was basking in bright Alpine sunshine, wrapped up against the cold of a ski-slope and thoroughly enjoying the sort of time off that seemed so alien to him while he as a professional rugby player.

The turmoil of losing a job and switching away from a career many view as a dream has all been smoothed out.

It worked out for the best and he holds no regrets, but if he wishes anything had turned out differently, it’s the timeline. A little extra warning that a move was necessary to further his rugby career would have given him a level playing field. But three months out from the end of the campaign, most clubs have their business done.

I remember sitting in the hotel saying to the wife, ‘What am I going to do? I don’t know how I’m going to make money.’”

Before that, his flight of fancy had always been to take up a scissors and shears. There was a barbering qualification tucked away in the drawer and the broad strokes of his plan had been to open his own shop and snip away from his mid-30s on. But that wasn’t a serious option any more. Not with a child on the way and no nest egg to kick-start a new business.

The choices were clear: he could chase the dream as a rugby player, up sticks, switch clubs and push for five more years in his current career, or he could get started on the next one.

“And those five years could be a year at one club, a year at another,” adds Allen. “You could be hopping around. I don’t have anything against guys who do that, I just wasn’t up for it and that’s just me.”

His wife Eireann was prepared to hit the road and bring a newborn along. After all, what Pro D2 lacks in on-field glamour, it makes up for with the backdrop of places like Biarritz, Beziers and Carcassonne. However, the prospect of clocking up clubs and kit did not appeal to Allen half as much as continuing to build his life in Edinburgh and doing so around his wife and daughter – rather than the other way around.

That sounded like value and a quality use of his time.

“I didn’t want to drop down a level just to pick up a pay cheque, even if the pay cheque was substantial…  it probably seemed a strange decision, but looking back now, I’m happy where I am.”

When the time came to say goodbye to the game in a tux at Edinburgh’s end of season awards, he had already sat an exam and had himself bound for a day job which demanded a suit rather than boots.

Allen was put into contact with Chris Tweed and set about working and studying his way through a different sort of academy system, towards a role in financial services.

“I owe a massive amount to Tweed Wealth Management for taking me on,” says Allen.

“It was a pretty rough time: you’ve got a baby on the way in three or four months’ time, no new contract — what are you going to do?”

Throughout it all, Eireann remained a constant for Allen. Though she was content to move elsewhere if needed, as a doctor studying to qualify as an anaesthetist, the lure of a job in the Royal Hospital was a strong tether to keep roots in the Scottish capital.

“She’s very happy, she’s very good at her job and is well-respected and regarded.”

“She actually did her last exam when she was 36 weeks pregnant. She went down to London for that which was, eh… a bit of a laugh.”

Not all heroes wear capes.

***

“I remember standing there thinking: ‘This is Ronan O’Gara!’”

Allen doesn’t have a pre-formed list of go-to highlights to turn to when we ask about his fondest memories of rugby. He genuinely racks his brain and the moments that jump out are not individual flourishes where he is skating around defenders to ground a try. They are collective efforts with just a fleck of a sense of new beginning and fresh starts about them on a personal level.

When he mentions O’Gara, it’s in the context of a ‘made-it’ moment early in the 2012/13 season. Allen was manning the left wing, maintaining the line’s integrity with All Black great Doug Howlett directly opposite him, and O’Gara, the expert at pulling matches from the fire, working in tandem with Conor Murray to probe this way and that in search of a gap and any weakness in Ulster.

James Downey tackled by Michael Allen Allen tackling James Downey in Ulster's narrow win over Munster in 2012. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Munster cranked through 23 phases worth of pressure, but could not turn the 20-19 deficit around. Securing that win gave Allen a sense of momentum in his chosen field as he nods to a win over Glasgow two weeks earlier – though he doesn’t breathe a word of the match-turning try he scored.

A more meaningful win over Glasgow is the second fond memory that springs to mind. The back-to-back successes for Edinburgh in the ’1872′ derby clashes gave him his only medal as a professional, and helped him feel fully embedded in his new club after an ill-timed run of injuries during his first six months by the North Sea.

He donned an Ireland jersey in 2013 and 2014 as part of Emerging Ireland squads sent to Georgia and Romania, where he played with the likes of Rhys Ruddock, Jordi Murphy, Tiernan O’Halloran, Tommy O’Donnell and Ian Keatley. 

He believes he was capable of achieving more in his career, yet he’s at peace with that.

“I’m proud of what I did achieve. I’m completely okay with the fact that I think I under-achieved. I always wanted to play international, always wanted to get 50, 100 caps for Ulster. That’s not the case and I’m completely fine with that now.

Michael Allen Green light: Allen in his Emerging Ireland gear in 2014. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“I wasn’t when I was playing. I just have a very different outlook on career, lifestyle and things like that. I’m a much more relaxed person now than I was when I was playing.”

“It was disappointing because I did aspire to be an international, but when it came down to it, I wasn’t good enough. I was a decent player, I played quite a lot, but I wasn’t good enough to play internationally. I know that now.

“When I was playing, you have to have aspirations and goals, but now that I’ve left rugby, I don’t have any problem being truthful about it.”

Indeed, those moments he fell short in his past career, may have been a blessing in disguise as he can now reap the benefits in ‘the afterlife’.

“Maybe it was the type of player I was. I wasn’t an international, wasn’t a household name. I finished and went, ‘Right, that was good, what next?’

“Some guys who are more high profile find it more difficult to move away, but I knew I couldn’t make money out of rugby any more when I retired. I wasn’t that type of guy.

“Stevie Ferris has got his punditry and all, but he’s a Lion, he’s one of the best back rows to ever play for Ulster. He can do that with his name, but there are a lot of players who think they can go on with rugby because of their name, but it’s not big enough.

I wasn’t a superstar so it didn’t hit me like a ton of bricks. I could go play golf, go skiing, and spend time with my family and my kid.

“People say, ‘Do you miss it?’ And I say not at all and that’s the truth. I don’t miss it at all.”

The longer Allen speaks, the better the quiet life sounds. At work, his boss is a fellow Ulsterman and he works alongside another Irish former rugby player in Paul Rowley. The office provides enough of that dressing room-style back-and-forth to fulfill the camaraderie many sportspeople miss when they hang up their boots. and the rest is quality family time.

He has made the transition in incredibly smooth fashion and he knows how grateful he ought to be for that, cognisant of the many who struggled mentally with the same change of circumstances.

Michael Allen and Tiernan O’Halloran Allen chases down Tiernan O'Halloran in 2016. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Allen is not settling with life outside of sport. He is thriving in it.

The freedom he feels is palpable. It’s about more than just heading for the slopes to ski, a pursuit all too risky when earning a living with your body. It’s every single weekend, every evening, and every last meal choice.

“Now I don’t mind sharing a bottle of wine of a Tuesday night. With rugby, it’s never something you can do,” he says with a laugh.

“Just having the ability to have a weekend. I can fly back to Belfast, don’t have to ask. Just book it and go.

“What you sacrifice as a rugby player is so much more than anyone gives any player credit for. The weddings you miss, best friends’ birthdays or even, my wife’s a very good snowboarder and the jealousy of seeing her go away on a ski trip for a week was just so annoying.

“You do sacrifice a hell of a lot. To be able to come out of it and be happy and to have a good job with a longevity and be able to have a nice life with my family in Edinburgh is quite nice.”

“I don’t feel guilty about not eating well — I never had a couple of takeaways in a week, but if I had I’d be dwelling on it — ‘That’s really bad’ — whereas now, pfft! Fine. I’ll get to the gym once in about three months.”

The absence of a fitness regime is one aspect Allen does miss, but he is content to wait a while longer before pushing tin again in the future.

He has taken the odd bike ride and the odd run on top of those quarterly gym visits. Add a tendency to sustain himself with breakfast and coffee during busy days when he’s kept on the go and it all amounts to the loss of muscle mass.

He has a rack of old suits which now look like they belong to another man.

“Since January it’s been New Year, same me,” he jokes, “but it’s either go to the gym after work or do bath and bed with the baby.

“She’d go down at seven most nights and by the time that’s done all I want to do is sit and watch a show with my wife.

“I’m never going to be the size I was and that’s just what it is. I’ve suits up there in my wardrobe and they just hang off me. I’m not going to try and work my way into filling them.”

***

Looking back on the pivotal coffee shop meeting that swept one career path away and brought him to the current state of contentment, Allen has held on to no ill will.

Hodge was clearly left in a difficult position as interim head coach and Allen feels the backs specialist did him a good turn by finally getting the bad news confirmed.

Current Edinburgh head coach Richard Cockerill was announced as the new incoming boss in the weeks before Allen’s fate was sealed, but if the 26-year-old was bitter, the 28-year-old has cleansed his palate.

“Maybe a new coach comes in and he could think, ‘He’s not what I want going forward’, and that’s fine. I don’t really hold a grudge. I did for a while, because it was very sudden.

“If I could change how they dealt with me, rather than stringing me along for those months, I could have gotten my head around it. But they told me in March and then you only have two months to find a club if you do want to keep playing rugby and that’s just too short a time.”

Michael Allen Allen running against the Warriors during the traditional '1872' derby clash. Source: Russell Cheyne/INPHO

Allen liberally drops in phrases like ‘I wasn’t good enough’ when he’s chatting about international honours, be they at U20 or Test level, but he was unquestionably cut out for high-level professional rugby and surely would not have had to spend long out of the top divisions had he chosen that route.

Instead he took an incredibly mature, long-term option over the obvious ‘dream’. He chose the best thing for him and his family.

“I gave up rugby because I wanted to. I wasn’t forced to stop. I could have kept playing, but I was happy to say I’m going to go into something completely new and different. Start studying again for the first time in eight years.”

It wasn’t a completely clean break from rugby. Allen bridged out of ‘the bubble’ by playing with Watsonians last season, but since the summer, rugby holds a role of diminishing importance in his life.

He checks the scores to see how his former clubs got on, but he doesn’t have to build his weekends around the fixture schedule. And so he doesn’t.

Next weekend, the Heineken Champions Cup will come to his doorstep as Edinburgh host Munster just a short spin down the road from his office. There’s as much chance of him going along to it as there is of him trekking to Dublin to see Ulster face Leinster.

“To be honest, I’d rather sit and watch it at home with the baby, light the fire, have a cup of tea. Maybe a beer.

“Not that I’m saying I’ll never go to another rugby match. I will.

“But right now, I’m enjoying not being a part of it.”

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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