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One of his first memories is holding a football, another is being sent to a foster home

Reflecting on a traumatic childhood in care, Mikey Place is glad to be home with Galway United and determined to be an example to kids like him.

mikey123 Role model: Mikey Place in Galway city this week.

“I do recall Tim Clancy being a great role model. One day at Sligo I stayed back to do some extra training and he came out and asked what was wrong. I just remember crying to him and ended up making up some lie, saying ‘I wish I was playing more’ or something. This was during an emotional time for me at 17 or 18 years of age with everything going on. I don’t think he read into it that deep, that I was lying, but just gave me one of those motivational talks.”

***

WE’RE THE LENGTH of a match in, near the end of what’s not your normal chat with a young footballer, yet Mikey Place has not mentioned his trial with Manchester United.
“To be honest,” he reflects six years later, now 21, “I wasn’t good enough. But I could see what I needed to improve on.”

His talents — pace, strength, mainly goals — had long been talked about, initially on muddy sidelines in the West of Ireland. One of the most recognisable faces in Mayo football, Micheál Murphy, clocked it when Mikey was a kid playing for Dunmore, home of the Donnellans.

Ollie Horgan spotted him lording it in the Kennedy Cup, his performances prompting a move to Lucan United, where he would play under Ciaran Masterson and alongside his son Conor.

“I know you’ve had your troubles,” Horgan, cited by Place as a profound influence, told him before he signed him for Finn Harps (and consequently brought them back to the Premier Division) in 2018.

This is the story of Mikey Place.

***

The year is 1998. Galway does not know it yet but Sam Magure, Michael Donnellan an iconic figurehead, will be returning home.

First, it will welcome a baby boy. As ever in the story of Mikey Dilger — he would change his surname to Place to honour his mother — things were not straightforward.

“I was coming out the wrong way,” he offers with reticence and a smile over a coffee in Eyre Square this week. “So they had to fly me to Dublin to get a special something or other.”

Mikey’s father was Jamaican. He would show, the player feels now, no interest in his son, who reflects: “I don’t think I will ever meet him — or want to meet him. When I needed somebody he was never there.”

Mikey’s mum, a Londoner living in Ireland, had given birth to a girl many years earlier.

Thus the world greeted another son of a father who didn’t care. His mother, who did, had been reared in orphanages. After what her son euphemistically recalls as “a tough upbringing” Mrs Place’s adult road would follow a similar trail, demons unrelenting.

One of his first memories is holding a football. Another is being sent to a foster home.

For the first but not the last time he would be hauled away from his mother. “I reckon I was three or four. I think it was in Loughrea. I remember starting school there.”

For whatever reason, the first of four foster homes would prove an ephemeral introduction. He was sent back to his mother briefly before settling in Dunmore for the guts of a decade. Little he knew what he was getting into.

IMG-20200113-WA0011 Football was a sanctuary for Place as a child. Source: Mikey Place

Mikey eventually felt at home, tackling what he thought a normal childhood. Even at six years of age, football was his release. Dunmore coach Fergus Boland — Mikey goes out of his way to mention him — inculcated the basics and more in the early years.

In the Republic there are over 6,000 children in foster care, over 4,200 registered foster carers, according to figures from the Irish Foster Care Association. He thinks he was eight when one such carer, one of five tasked with looking after him throughout his life, asked him was there something going on in the house.

Two girls had made complaints. The girls’ stories were then deemed unreliable.

“Imagine, at eight years of age,” he grimaces, “a long time before I’d even heard of sex education or anything. By the time I was 11, I was being interviewed in Garda stations.

“I had to say things to people that weren’t normal at a time when you barely knew how to tie your shoelaces. I was being bossed by other people.”

*** 

Micheál Murphy, now heavily involved with Galway United, remembers the first time he set eyes on Mikey Place. “I saw him playing for Dunmore under-10s. I was selecting the Roscommon under-11 academy team. The score was 10-0. Mikey scored all ten.”

The wily Murphy hardly needed to be a Premier League scout to know he may have happened upon something. He welcomed Mikey to Lough Harps and, over a decade later, is rarely out of the ear of something of a surrogate son.

Mikey smiles on mention of his mentor. “Micheál would always be out for what was best for you. He used to tell me to kick the ball up in the air 100 times and try and catch it on my foot, which I mastered. He gave me loads of things to practise at home.”

At Lough Harps (for whom he would play under-14s through 16s), he thrived in an unusually strong side for that level. Things started to kick off for his career when he starred in the historic Kennedy Cup. A promising life at school derailed — he failed everything in his Junior Cert — but there was one constant friend and assurance.

“Football was the one thing that always made me happy. If I am not playing football I am not entirely happy.” Lucan were happy enough to sign him, though it was never going to be easy.

Mikey had secured a move to a nursery club in Dublin where, as a shy kid from the west of Ireland, he’d tog out alongside Conor Masterson, Sean Whelan, Brandon Payne, Sean Quinn, Ciaran Kelly and Mark Travers. He was ready for the next step, until his life outside of the football pitch was thrown into further chaos.

***

Not long after his Kennedy Cup heroics, a court order compelled Mikey to leave Dunmore. His foster parents’ son, residing with him and the other kids, had never given Mikey any trouble.

Between 2003 and 2007, three of the girls staying in the home with Mikey had been repeatedly raped by Keith Burke, then a teenager. In 2007 one of the victims revealed she had been sexually abused and that a second girl, who was living with the same family, had also been raped.  

The two other children in the foster home, including Mikey, denied that anything untoward had happened to them. A decision was made to leave them in the foster home under a safety plan which stipulated the alleged abuser must live elsewhere and have no unsupervised contact with them. It was not until the third girl told her story that things finally started to happen in the girls’ fight for justice.

“Tusla had been aware of the allegations for some time,” Mikey recalls. Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, would concede it made critical mistakes in the case, some of which Mikey even now cannot escape from.

“I knew a little bit but I was so young, you know? You don’t notice things you see. You see a boy and a girl go up the field. You don’t think anything of it. The only reason I was moved on at 14 was because a third girl had said something.”

***

Having left as a toddler, Mikey was back living with his mother — this time in Roscommon town — as a teen with plenty to look forward to and a great deal more to look back on whether he wanted to or not. It would not prove a long stay.

“It was mixed emotions really. I was led by people working on my behalf to not speak to my mother. I think they knew it was in their best interests, whatever about mine. For a year-and-a-half or two, I didn’t speak to her.

“My mother is brilliant at the heart of it all but, the way she was brought up, she genuinely felt that I was better off being in foster care rather than with her. When I went back to live with her, things were still really tough there. So I was then moved to a new place in Co Roscommon which I hated. As much as Dunmore had stuff going on, that was kind of my home for 10 years.

“I remember the last day at school in Dunmore I wasn’t allowed to tell any of my friends I was going. The next day I was in a different home.”

***

Finally, a bit of luck. As much as he struggled in his third foster home, he had his trips to Lucan; and to one particular carer, with whom he still converses weekly, he owes so much. Throughout a particularly rough stage of his mid-teens, when even a happy kid can be grappling with a lot, he had her.

“Her daughter had been in my class at Dunmore and the first day I met this carer I introduced myself to her daughter. My case came across her desk and said she’d take it on. If I have a problem I ring her. She is like a second mum to me.

“At this time I managed to get a grant off Tusla for petrol and used to go up to Dublin three days a week — twice training and once for a match. I wasn’t going to school or doing my homework but I got to know her at least.

“Over those years I think I had at least five different social carers. You can’t develop trust or a relationship. She brought me from Roscommon to Dublin three days a week. We developed a relationship in the car.”

He remembers doing pretty well at Lucan, starting up top but finding the level of technical ability another world from his days in the Roscommon & District League. In a final against St Kevin’s, memories are a withered husk but he does recollect Trevor Clarke, Luke Wade-Slater and Ross Treacy playing for a victorious Kevin’s team.

“I wouldn’t be nearly as good if I hadn’t gone to Dublin.”

***

The abuser gone from Dunmore, Mikey was sent back to his old foster home. His old buddies had now changed. He wanted to play football — even won a Minor B medal playing the Gaelic variety for Dunmore — but laughs now that his mates were getting “more into tractors”.

“I finished Transition Year and figured I’d be in school until I was 19 but I saw that there was a FÁS football course in Castlebar. I begged my foster parents to let me go.”

They said no and Micheál Murphy advised against it but, stubbornly believing it was the right move, Mikey enlisted the support of his carer. He was off to Castlebar.

There, a measure of independence. He would train under two former Sligo Rovers players, Micky Feeney and Leo Tierney, undertaking the FAI ETB Player Development Course. Now he had training each morning, class in the afternoon and a couple of bob.

“Ronan ‘Olly’ Doherty, who was at Cockhill Celtic then but is now with Cliftonville, was there. So was Mikey Grant from Ballybofey and Declan Sharkey. I loved it.

“The two years at Lucan United had helped me. I had mates with Sligo Rovers’ underage and I joined them there. I even played a friendly against Motherwell when Joey Ndo was manager and I’ll never forget Gavin Dykes (Ndo’s assistant), telling me the day before that I was going to play.

“Dave Robertson gave me my full debut the day before my 18th birthday. I remember saying after the game, ‘this is what I want to do’. It was unbelievable.”

At Sligo, young, troubled and raw, he mingled in a dressing room bereft of egos; with Raf Cretaro and Gavin Peers looking after any youngster coming through. Tim Clancy, now Drogheda United manager, was something of a guardian, sensing a kid who had something. Clancy remembers a team-mate who could be “deep and distant” but ultimately was a good kid “when he trusted people”.

***

Mikey Place talks with a mild East Galway accent, warming to you as he earns your trust, with a somewhat timid demeanour; a measured delivery of what he wants to say. When one sees the light after prolonged darkness, only for things to get even worse than they were before, it can be fatal. It nearly was.

mikey-place-celebrates-after-the-game-12102018 Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Things were going reasonably well at Sligo as the timebomb ticked away. One day, rather than attend training, none of his team-mates knew that he was in court testifying against the rapist who had ruined the lives of three girls in Dunmore.

Mikey’s bravery, with little or nothing to gain for himself, ensured that a predator would be sentenced to six-and-a-half years in jail. His former housemates had achieved a measure of justice at last.

A report later slammed both the HSE and Tusla for “systemic flaws in management” over their handling of the abuse. A solicitor representing two of the victims said the contents of a National Review Panel report into the handling of the case called into serious question the ability of State agencies to properly exercise their statutory functions which were to improve outcomes for children.

For Mikey, the ordeal was far from over. “It was very full on. It brought back a lot of bad feelings, memories, emotions that I didn’t know how to deal with. I was not unscathed throughout it, you could not call me one of the lucky ones. For me the biggest hurt was what it did to me emotionally.”

One of the investigators in the case told him he was “the key piece in the puzzle”. He may never appreciate the honour of his actions.

The ordeal of a child testifying in court is difficult to comprehend. 

His witness testimony preceded his life falling further apart.

***

Gavin Dykes, now Ballinamallard manager, plagued Mikey to join but there was more to it than that: he was persistently in touch to check the troubled kid was doing okay. These are the things ones does not forget.

Kenny Shiels and Derry City snapped him up for the 2017 season. However, there was little chance of Mikey ever showing Shiels what he could do in Brandywell. One positive of his life by the Foyle was meeting his girlfriend Corrie, who is still his girlfriend today, even doing the long-distance thing.

That summer, Mikey told Shiels he had to leave, departing without even informing his team-mates.

“What happened with me was a common-sense situation. That summer after I’d joined Derry was really hard personally. Everything that had happened, let’s say since I was eight, it had been leading up to this moment.

“In Derry the first few weeks I was doing good but then I wasn’t talking to anyone at training or in the house. I was really struggling, depressed.

“I have never seen a counsellor all my life. I got depressed, I was in a really bad place, suicidal. Really down. You wouldn’t go to a friend and tell him. I was in a bad place. I just wanted everything to go away, to forget everything.

“I just wanted a normal life. I didn’t know what to do.”

***

He moved back with his mother. “It wasn’t good”. He was to suffer that Christmas out, he and four walls of a room in a near-empty hotel, only for the father of one of his best friends to invite him to theirs. Thus a solitary Christmas Day, his company all the worries of the world, was avoided. After a month staying with his buddy, he was ripe to start again.

A trial with Galway United did not produce a result to complement his reckoning that he had done pretty well. Ollie Horgan was sniffing around but he tried too long to make it at Terryland Park. Not long would pass and he was talking to Ollie again.

“That March, I moved in with my girlfriend in Derry and signed on the dole but that May I trained with Harps. Ollie Horgan has always had my back. He knew of my past. Sure, Ollie knows everything. He was always advising me.

“He signed me for six weeks and told me if I did well going into the mid-season break he’d sign me for longer. I scored in every game until the mid-season break. Ollie kept me on.

“I started to enjoy football a lot more. My girlfriend helped me do my first CV and I got a little job in a hotel. Ollie really made me put my head down, get down to work.”

***

Incredibly, Place finished the 2018 season Harps’ top scorer as they fashioned promotion to the Premier Division. At Harps last term, it seemed as though he and Sean Boyd could progress into a dynamic duo to revive a struggling side at the top level.

Boyd, now bidding to rebuild his own fledgling career after rupturing his cruciate ligament in a PFAI-organised pre-season game for out-of-contract players, was impressed. “He had lots of ability,” recalls the young Dubliner but, for whatever reason, Horgan didn’t fancy throwing Place into too much combat at Premier Division level.

Harps survived the drop, there was no ill-feeling between the pair and, when Galway United came calling this winter, Mikey Place knew that he was going back to where it all began, back to play with his old Lough Harps buddy Carlton Ubaezuonu, for the Tribesmen.

mikey-place-and-luke-heeney Place under pressure from Luke Heeney of Drogheda. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Life, pre-season training with Alan Murphy’s impressive squad, is good. The toddler tossed around between homes might become an athlete with the world of Irish football at his feet, grafting for a manager who has been chasing him for some time, before a Galway crowd that will grow to love the quiet kid from Dunmore.

“I don’t know if you know it but most young people homeless are young people who were in care. After they turn 18 they move on; that’s it, they’re just out.

“There’s not really any support, anything to fall back on; they just end up on the streets. That could have been me.

“It doesn’t matter that you’re in foster care or having a tough time, in general in life, you can be successful. You can overcome it.

“I do believe that everything happens for a reason: now I look back, it all happened to make me what I am today, to appreciate everything I have since I was 17.

“I paid for my driver’s license, I paid for my own car, for my first car insurance I took out a four-grand loan, which I paid back. Everything I did, I did by myself. It gives me satisfaction: it is better than being handed it.

“I don’t feel like I am different. I am kind of proud the way I was brought up because otherwise I don’t think I’d take football as seriously. It was the one thing that always made me happy.”

***

The kid who trained with Angel Gomes at Manchester United — and who had other trials at Preston and Brighton — remains, in the words of Micheál Murphy, unpolished. Galway United fans could be in for a diamond.

There’s another incentive to return to the City of the Tribes: his half-brother, born to their mother 11 years ago, resides there. “He lives with his dad, who is a brilliant father to him,” Mikey says, the reference pointed. “He goes to a Gaelscoil, learning full Irish. I get to see him more now I live in Galway. It’s good for him, good for me.”

Before our chat, a follower of Off The Ball shouts over and is keen to introduce himself. His name is Conor McNamara; you wouldn’t think it to look at him. He has a thick Tipperary accent.

“I was adopted, you see. My brother and I came over here after the fall of Ceaucescu in Romania as kids. I’m from Tipperary but I live in Galway.”

Further interrogation reveals that he works alongside Alan Murphy as a teacher in ‘The Bish’ in Galway.

paul-mcgrath 'I always remember thinking about Paul McGrath,' says Place. Source: INPHO

We shake hands, the man born in Romania with a Tipp accent departs and I relay his unconventional back-story to Mikey Place, the son of a Jamaican with a Dunmore accent. An hour and a half later he has told me his.

The football chapters await, starting with United’s friendly against against his old club Sligo tomorrow — taking place in Castlebar, where he first felt like a man. Their opening league game sees him reacquaint with Adrian Carberry, Athlone Town manager, a coach he felt “had the right answer to everything I asked him” as a kid representing Roscommon.

***

Mikey Place knows, in a perplex sort of way, how lucky he is. Soon, Galway United fans will realise how lucky they are too.

“I always remember thinking about Paul McGrath,” he says, “a footballer with a similar background who didn’t have it easy but overcame the obstacles it to become a very successful player.”

The boy is now a man. Coming out the right way.

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About the author:

Johnny Ward

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