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‘Everything went really well… Then I got the reality and the cruelty of the big time'

Owen Garvan tells The42 about the bittersweet life of a professional footballer living away from home in England.

Owen Garvan's move to St Pat's was confirmed on Sunday,
Owen Garvan's move to St Pat's was confirmed on Sunday,
Image: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Updated at 19.51

OWEN GARVAN READILY admits he was not like other kids his age.

In the early 2000s, with his father as coach, Garvan was regularly playing schoolboy football with Home Farm FC.

Around the time Arsenal’s Invincibles were setting the Premier League alight, Garvan and his teammates were enjoying their own impressive unbeaten streak, managing to go three years unbeaten before losing to Belvedere on penalties just before the team broke up, with most of their top players moving to clubs in Britain.

Garvan’s teammates included Shane Supple, who later joined him at Ipswich, Darren O’Dea, who would win 20 caps for Ireland in addition to notably featuring in the Celtic side that brought AC Milan to extra-time in the 2006-07 Champions League and Chris McCann, who would go on to make over 200 appearances with Burnley, playing a handful of Premier League games before a bad injury curtailed his progress.

Of the aforementioned trio, McCann now plays with Atlanta United in Major League Soccer, O’Dea was recently made captain of Scottish Premiership club Dundee and Supple, after taking an extensive break from professional football, is now back playing with Bohemians.

Garvan, who will be joining his old teammate Supple in the League of Ireland after it was confirmed on Sunday that he had signed for St Patrick’s Athletic on an 18-month contract, still remembers those early days fondly.

We had a really good team and sometimes, when I look back as a 13 or 14-year-old kid, the longer you’d go without losing, the more pressure you’d feel.

“While most kids were out drinking or chasing girls, I would have been staying in thinking about the game on the Saturday for two days prior, thinking ‘I don’t want this (unbeaten) record to end’. It kind of makes me laugh now. It’s not what normal kids would do. I was thinking ‘I don’t want to lose, I don’t want to lose, I don’t want to lose’. And then we did.

But it was a good run. We had a great team… A lot of the lads were really enthusiastic and really good players, a lot of teams wanted to sign them.

“I was determined to do really well. They were the sacrifices you had to make as a kid. Something clicked with me to say you can’t really do what normal kids do. That’s what people tell you. You can’t go out and have fun. You’ve got to stay in, prepare and do this, that and the other. I know if I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t have been successful in football.

Even at a young age, you do cop on to these things. So I wouldn’t change (anything) really.”

Even at that point, Garvan certainly wasn’t short of footballing role models. Both his grandfather, Con Martin, and his uncle, Mick Martin, are former Ireland internationals. Meanwhile, his father Gerry played football in the League of Ireland.

Mick Martin Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Garvan grew up supporting Liverpool, but his first taste of English football in the flesh was an Everton game — his uncle had played for Newcastle and got him a ticket to their match with the Toffees. The experience left Garvan in awe even if it was a dour 0-0 and in hindsight, probably “the worst game ever”.

A few years later and Garvan was back in England, only this time, as a player rather than a supporter.

We had so many good players (at Home Farm). They got the limelight. A lot of them went to big clubs at the time – Liverpool, Leeds were massive at the time. They got all the trials. I didn’t really get many. If I did, it was a bit lower — an Ipswich or a Nottingham Forest. Most of them were in the Championship at the time. It was a bit frustrating, but I was playing a year above as well.

“A lot of players used to go everywhere, but as soon as I went to Ipswich, I said ‘this is for me’… Thankfully, they took a chance on me and I did quite well.”

From the outside, Garvan looked a player with enormous confidence and little self-doubt. Known for his on-field leadership qualities even as an inexperienced teenager away from home, the youngster’s rise was meteoric.

Shortly after joining Ipswich, he was part of the side that beat a Southampton team that included Gareth Bale and Theo Walcott in the 2005 FA Youth Cup final.

The Tractor Boys were going through a transitional period at the time owing to financial troubles. After entering into administration in January 2003, a number of players were ultimately sold, including star man Darren Bent.

Yet this unfortunate situation paved the way for Garvan to make his first-team debut at the age of 17. He played the full 90 minutes in a 1-0 win over Cardiff City at Portman Road on the opening day of the 2005-06 season. Joe Royle, someone he describes as “a great manager and a great man as well,” gave him the good news only hours before kick off.

I just remember my name on the back of my shirt and the top with ‘11,’” he recalls. “It scares you in one way because you know you’ve got to go out and perform. In another way, it’s like ‘well, this is kind of what you worked for’.

“I think I played quite well in the game, so I was pleased with the performance and getting the 1-0 (win).

It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster ever since, because I remember after the second or third game, I was feeling a bit low because I didn’t have a good game.

“That’s the way football makes you feel — if you win, you’re in a good mood, if you’re bad, you sometimes have a bad week.”

Giovanni Trapattoni Giovanni Trapattoni picked Garvan in his first Ireland squad. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Garvan kicked on from there, making 33 appearances in his debut season with the first team. His talent was apparent for all to see and he was even named in Giovanni Trapattoni’s first Ireland squad in May 2008, though he remains uncapped at senior level.

Former Tottenham manager David Pleat was among the youngster’s many admirers.

“Financial restrictions have forced Ipswich to make the most of their youth policy and Owen Garvan, one of the homegrown talents, looks destined for the very top,” Pleat wrote in The Guardian’s scouting report.

“He looks to have shades of Arnold Muhren, Kevin Sheedy and Liam Brady: an old-fashioned midfielder with a good left foot.”

But while Garvan appeared to be living the dream, the player admits now that like many Irish teenagers who go abroad to play football, he had doubts about the whole experience and suffered from homesickness at times.

Going back to when you’re a kid, you’re so determined and focused. As soon as you finish training, people are telling you ‘you need to rest’.

“It was probably tougher after I was in the first team when I was a regular. Then I was thinking I was going to be a regular forever. That kicks in and you realise, you’re in the first team, you’re actually going to be living here for a whole 20 years. That can be a bit of a daunting thing.

I have struggled. A lot of people struggle. I can understand it, especially if things aren’t going well. It’s hard to dig in.

“Maybe with myself even now, I could have stayed over there. I still had another year to go (on my Colchester contract). But I chose to come home because I wasn’t really enjoying my football down at that level and I wanted to see more of my family.

I can definitely understand why people do struggle when they’re over there.”

Despite Ipswich’s financial woes, they managed to remain a relatively steady Championship club, and even punched above their weight for a while, with Royle leading them to the playoffs in 2004 and 2005, losing to West Ham on both occasions.

In Garvan’s first season under Royle, however, the lack of resources finally started to tell, and they finished 15th in the Championship — at the time their lowest league position since 1966.

The Dubliner’s fellow midfielder, Jim Magilton, consequently took over as player-manager, after Royle left by mutual consent. The veteran star, capped 52 times by Northern Ireland, kept faith with the young Irish underage international, playing him 29 times the following season, as the club marginally improved on the previous campaign, finishing 14th in the league.

By the 2007-08 campaign, Garvan was very much an established first-team player at Ipswich, playing 45 times in total and featuring in all but three of their Championship matches, while he played 39 times the following season.

Yet the powers that be were not satisfied with Magilton, despite guiding the club to an eighth-place finish in his second season in charge. After taking over as owner towards the end of 2007, the £12 million Marcus Evans spent on new players did not result in an immediate return to the Premier League.

Soccer - Coca-Cola Football League Championship - Newcastle United v Ipswich Town - St James' Park Garvan worked under Roy Keane at Ipswich. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

After it became clear that the club were going to miss out on promotion towards the end of the 2008-09 season, Magilton was dismissed from his role and replaced by one of Garvan’s childhood idols, former Man United and Ireland midfielder Roy Keane.

Just seven years previously, Garvan — like every other football-loving kid growing up in Ireland — had been gripped by the Saipan controversy and Keane’s infamous exit from the Ireland squad on the eve of the 2002 World Cup. Now, all of a sudden, the Dubliner was working under his one-time hero.

What he did for Man United — he won a lot. And obviously coming in as a manager and being Irish, it was just a strange atmosphere to be at a club. Something that I hadn’t experienced with the last two managers. Everything seemed to be done differently. Players were reacting differently. Going into games, it was a different vibe to what me or the other lads had experienced.”

Yet in stark contrast to his time at Sunderland, when he enjoyed instant success and guided the club from second bottom to promotion in his first season there, Keane struggled to have the desired effect at Ipswich.

After earning victories in two dead rubbers at the end of the 2008-09 campaign, Ipswich failed to win any of their opening 14 games the following season under Keane.

Morale quickly dwindled and after Ipswich finished the season in 15th place, Garvan was allowed to leave and join fellow Championship side Crystal Palace.

The problem was that when (Roy) came in, everybody expected us to get promoted,” he recalls. “It really does have a negative effect and most of the time, when I was there or he was there, you’re battling to stay in the league. The performances weren’t great. The results weren’t great. And generally, the atmosphere wasn’t great, because you’re not getting the right results. It just didn’t really work out well for anybody.

“(Roy) would have been a bit standoffish and I think that’s right as well, because when you’re going into a club, you want to put your marker down. It was one of those where a lot of people stayed clear of him. If things weren’t going well, which things (usually) weren’t, you didn’t want to be the one to get the brunt of it.

It was just kind of a vicious cycle really where you come in and the team wouldn’t play that well, the team would change. It would be a tough week to get through training, so it was pretty much Groundhog Day when I look back on it.”

In his autobiography, The Second Half, Keane admitted that he was particularly harsh on the Irish players he managed at club level, with the Corkonian suggesting he almost expected more from his fellow countrymen than other players. Did Garvan find this to be the case?

There were a lot of comments about where people are from and certain things like that, which again probably wouldn’t have been my style. You can’t really help what county you’re from or what country you’re from.

“For me, you’ve got to stick to the footballing matters and try to get the best result for the team on the Saturday. If that happened, things would have been a lot better, because everybody’s in a better mood if you’re winning.

It got to a stage (where) maybe a lot of the talk or the shouting and giving out fell on deaf ears after a little while, as if to say, ‘here we go again’.

“I think the time Roy was there, I never really got going. We never really had a settled team, never had a team where lads were confident that we’d do really well and get on a roll.

It just didn’t work out. Everybody at the club will have their own reasons why. That’s just football – it was a tough time for everybody.”

Soccer - Pre-Season Friendly - Crystal Palace v Lazio - Selhurst Park After leaving Ipswich, Garvan experienced mixed fortunes at Crystal Palace. Source: EMPICS Sport

After subsequently moving to Palace, Garvan experienced both the incredible highs and lows that football can produce in a relatively short space of time.

The former Ireland U21 international joined a club that had finished 21st the previous season. Their improvement was only marginal initially. For the next two seasons, Garvan was part of a side that continued to be closer to the relegation zone than the play-off places, coming 20th and 17th in respective campaigns.

Yet in the 2012-13 season, everything suddenly clicked into place. Key players such as Damien Delaney, Danny Gabbidon, Yannick Bolasie and Joel Ward were recruited. A young Wilfried Zaha was producing the type of impressive performances that would ultimately prompt Man United to sign him for £15 million. Glenn Murray, meanwhile, was hitting career-best form, with 30 goals in 42 Championship appearances.

Garvan was similarly an integral part of the side, featuring 32 times as Palace secured promotion to the Premier League after beating Watford 1-0 in the final of the play-offs.

For the Irish star, the Wembley success was the highlight of his career up to that point.

They were a great bunch of lads,” he says. “And we had a structure and style of play that we stuck to. It took a while and once we started winning, I remember going out in games and you don’t get it a lot in the Championship where you’re thinking: ‘We’re going to steamroll this team 3 or 4-0.’”

But the Drumcondra native’s career high point was swiftly followed by what is surely the lowest moment of his time as a footballer. As he puts it: “Everything went really well that year, then I got the reality and the cruelty of the big time, being in the Premier League.”

After playing the first 66 minutes of the club’s opening top-flight game — a 1-0 defeat to a much-changed Tottenham side that had just spent millions on several players with the money Real Madrid gave them for Gareth Bale — Garvan had to make do with a 27-minute cameo in their next match, a 2-1 defeat away to Stoke. Little did he know it at the time, but he would never play Premier League football again.

Having been a regular in their triumphant promotion-winning campaign, Garvan suddenly found himself ostracised from the squad.

After falling foul of manager Ian Holloway, the Irish star was controversially left out of Palace’s final 25-man Premier League squad, meaning he was ineligible to play for the first team for the remainder of the campaign.

“He made it totally clear to me that he didn’t want to be in the 25 if he wasn’t starting almost every week. I couldn’t guarantee him that,” Holloway said at the time.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - Southampton v Crystal Palace - St Mary's Garvan fellow out with manager Ian Holloway during their time together at Crystal Palace. Source: Daniel Hambury

An inflammatory tweet subsequently posted by Garvan did not help matters. ”I’ll be here longer then he will…trust me,” it read.

It was difficult, but I still look back on the situation and I believe I was right,” Garvan says. “In fairness to Ian, when he did get the sack a few months later, he held a meeting and apologised to me in front of everybody. He admitted he was wrong and he shouldn’t have done what he did.

“That was big of him, given the fact that there was a room full of professionals there. He admitted he got caught up in the emotions and the pressures of being a manager. In one way, I think he was big enough to admit he was wrong, but in another way, I think it hasn’t really helped my career, because I had a year of not being able to play football.

Then you kind of get forgotten about. Every (Palace) manager went: ‘What have you been doing this past year?’ They bought a few players for a lot of money and that was the end of my career at Palace really.”

Loan spells at Millwall and Bolton followed, before Garvan was released by the Eagles, allowing him to join Colchester on a free transfer ahead of the 2015-16 campaign.

While he was afforded regular first-team football again, earning a contract extension after an initial six-month deal there, Garvan ultimately quit the lower-league side with one year of his current deal remaining. The club were relegated from League One in his first season there and subsequently failed to gain promotion back in his second and final campaign at the club.

Moreover, Garvan missed Dublin and football had started to feel more like a chore than a passion. The time felt right to make the move to the League of Ireland, in the process ending a 14-year stint in Britain.

Since I’ve been over in England, I’ve played in the Championship. I’ve played at good grounds… You’re used to playing with a certain type of quality.

“You’re going out and expecting lads to do what the other lads had done. It’s a bit unfair, because you’re used to playing at that standard, but they’re not. At Colchester, we had so many young lads who never played in the league, and might not even make a career. Most of them probably won’t — the harsh reality of football is that way.

Then I just got frustrated, because I was thinking: ‘I’m playing well, but we’re not really doing great as a team, we’re not getting promoted.’ That was the aim. And that was the frustrating thing, thinking I know I can play at a higher level, I’ve done it before, I want to get back there. It just wasn’t happening.

“You get frustrated. And then all of a sudden, I thought: ‘I’m not enjoying this anymore, if it ain’t going to happen here, I want to go back and have a crack at the Irish league.’”

Liam Buckley Liam Buckley played a big role in persuading Garvan to join St Pat's. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

After it became apparent that he was seeking a move back to Ireland, Garvan had a few options. He was in touch with some Dublin-based clubs and a couple in other parts of the country, before ultimately choosing Pat’s.

Moving to the Saints felt instinctively right for Garvan, despite the club currently struggling one point above the bottom of the Premier Division.

When I met (Liam) the first time, I thought ‘this is where I’m going to go’.

“It’s a very possession-based team. Sometimes, you look at them and wonder why they’re down at the bottom.

A lot of managers would try to change how they’re going to play if things aren’t going well. He believes that if we keep playing the way we are, we’ll create a few more chances to get out of the trouble we’re in.

“Since I’ve been back, I’ve watched a few League of Ireland games. There’s not a lot between the teams. You go to a game and wonder how one team won and the other lost.

Even watching the two games since I’ve been here — both of them have been draws and could have gone either way.

“You’ve just got to get your first win over and done with and then confidence comes back.
People start scoring and doing a few other things. All of a sudden you’re in a healthier place.

In training, there are a few young lads that have got a lot of quality. At the moment, the end product needs to be a little bit better to create a few chances for the lads up front.

“I’m sure once we do that and once we get the first win, the team can go on a run and forget all about being at the bottom of the table.”

Garvan made a promising debut last night, starting in a 1-0 win friendly win over Hearts. The 29-year-old will now hope to continue that encouraging form in their game away to unbeaten league leaders Cork on Sunday.

I never set myself goals,” he adds. “I just want to go out and enjoy playing my football. I’m still passionate about it, so when I go out on the pitch, I want to show people what I can do.

“The main thing is when I come off the pitch, I always want to be on the winning team. It gets you down if you’re not. So you think: ‘Do you want to have a good week or not?’ The next 90 minutes will affect that.”

Predictions

Every week, we’re giving readers the chance to take us on in predicting the Premier Division results. After Week 19, here are the standings:

The Readers: 58
The42: 57

Next up is Gerry Conway from Waterford

Drogheda United v Finn Harps — Finn Harps win
Galway United v Limerick — Draw
Cork City v St. Patrick’s Athletic — Cork City win
Derry City v Sligo Rovers — Derry City win

The42 (Paul Fennessy)

Drogheda United v Finn Harps — Draw
Galway United v Limerick — Limerick win
Cork City v St. Patrick’s Athletic — Cork City win
Derry City v Sligo Rovers — Derry City win

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Paul Fennessy

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