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McCabe joined Sligo from Dunfermline earlier this month.
McCabe joined Sligo from Dunfermline earlier this month.
Image: Dave Howarth

The former Rangers wonderkid now plying his trade at Sligo

Rhys McCabe chats to The42 about playing in the Old Firm Derby and why he chose to move to the League of Ireland.
Jun 29th 2017, 7:00 PM 9,164 3

NOT MANY PEOPLE get to represent their boyhood club in one of football’s biggest derbies while still in their teens, but Rhys McCabe is one of the select few to experience this thrill.

The then-19-year-old had only made his competitive debut earlier in the month, completing 90 minutes in Rangers’ 2-1 win over Hearts.

Born in Polbeth, a former oil shale mining village, near Livingston, West Lothian in Scotland, McCabe had already been given run-outs in pre-season glamour friendlies against Liverpool and Hamburg, while in December 2011, he had signed a contract extension that was supposed to keep him at the club until 2015.

Yet it was on 25 March 2012 that the former Scotland U21 international played amid an occasion that he describes as the highlight of his career so far. Manager Ally McCoist had boldly picked the inexperienced youngster in his starting XI for the Old Firm derby at Ibrox.

The pressure was on Rangers, however. Celtic were on a 21-game unbeaten streak, while a win would guarantee Neil Lennon’s side the league title on their fierce rivals’ home patch — something that had not occurred since 1967.

Some very talented players graced the field that day. Alongside McCabe in midfield was current Northern Ireland and Southampton captain Steven Davis. In the opposition’s starting XI were two other future Southampton stars — Fraser Forster and Victor Wanyama — though the latter now currently plays with Tottenham and is considered one of the top midfielders in the Premier League. Scotland captain Scott Brown and Bhoys legend Georgios Samaras were among the other players to feature that day, though McCabe held his own in such esteemed company.

Source: footballer04ify/YouTube

By that point, the extent of Rangers’ financial problems was rapidly becoming apparent. The club had already entered into administration, leaving McCoist with a somewhat depleted squad as a result, while after finishing that season in second place, they would ultimately be relegated to the Third Division of the Scottish Football League after the organisation’s member clubs voted on the matter.

Remarkably, however, McCabe and co managed to ignore all these looming problems on a memorable day in March, as they ended Celtic’s long unbeaten run with an eventful 3-2 victory, which was a heated affair that saw three players sent off.

During increasingly turbulent times, it was a rare moment of escapism for the club’s fans.

To sign for your boyhood team was a dream come true,” McCabe, who joined Rangers aged nine, tells The42. “The older you get, the wiser you get, so you treat it more as your place of work (ultimately).

“I was fortunate that I got the chance to break through the academy into the Rangers first team and I was obviously thankful for that.

The 90-minute game (against Celtic) was a bit of a blur. I can’t remember too much about it, but it’s obviously the best game I’ve ever had in football.

“To play for your local team in the biggest derby in Scottish football was a great honour for my family and something I’m really proud of.”

Soccer - Clydesdale Bank Scottish Premier League - Rangers v Dundee United - Ibrox Stadium As a teenager McCabe made nine Scottish Premier League appearances for Rangers, featuring in a memorable 3-2 win over Celtic at Ibrox. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

McCabe made nine appearances for Rangers in total during his debut campaign and under more fortunate circumstances, the player might still be there now.

However, like most of the club’s first-team squad, the youngster chose to move on following their demotion amid the administration debacle.

Since then, as is the case with most others who acted accordingly, McCabe has been vilified by a section of the Rangers support, owing to the perception that he took the supposedly easy option to abandon what was a rapidly sinking ship. The player rejected the opportunity to have his contract transferred to the new company set up by Charles Green and was consequently made a free agent owing to a Professional Footballers’ Association of Scotland ruling.

McCabe subsequently joined Championship side Sheffield Wednesday, though the Gers’ followers rarely missed an opportunity to express their disapproval of his behaviour thereafter.

A year after joining the Owls, the youngster came up against his former club in a pre-season friendly. With McCabe’s parents watching on in the stand, the 5,000 travelling Rangers fans roundly booed his every touch in a game that coincided with the midfielder’s 21st birthday.

It was tough,” McCabe told the Daily Record at the time. “Rangers brought down a big crowd and these were the fans I was playing in front of at one stage in my life. They were the ones cheering for me back then.

“To then see it turned around and hear the few fans who were booing was hard to take but, at the end of the day, that’s just football.”

Even to this day, certain Rangers supporters continue to hold a grudge, with the player abused by the Scottish club’s fans on Twitter after his recent move to Sligo was confirmed.

But with the benefit of a couple of years’ hindsight, McCabe suggests the decision was a difficult but necessary step in his career. It may not have gone down well on the blue half of Glasgow, but the player insists he had to prioritise his livelihood over any perceived notions of loyalty.

It’s hard being a supporter and being there for so long, it wasn’t an easy decision, but (the decision to leave) was based purely on footballing reasons,” he says.

“I’d worked so hard to break into one of the top-two teams in Scotland. So to break into that first team and to then be told that you might have to play in the Scottish third tier was a big factor in leaving there and going down south. But it gave me the platform to go and apply my trade at a very high level.”

The transition to English football was not as smooth as McCabe would have liked from a playing perspective.

Despite scoring a stunning volley against Charlton relatively early on his Sheffield Wednesday career (see video below), he found first-team football increasingly hard to come by. 22 Championship appearances over the course of his first season with the club was about as good as it got. He would feature just eight more times in the league over the next two seasons, joining then-League Two side Portsmouth on loan for a few games during the 2013-14 season.

Source: Jordan Harrold/YouTube

Moreover, having made just one Championship appearance in total for Wednesday during the 2014-15 campaign, the writing was seemingly on the wall for McCabe and so it proved. In June 2015, a little over three years after breaking into the Rangers senior team as a teenager, McCabe had gone from hero to zero in footballing terms, as he was confirmed as one of 11 players released by the Owls.

In the final year of my contract at Sheffield Wednesday, I wasn’t playing,” he recalls. “So it was hard to take, having to watch the game on a Saturday and not even be in the squad, knowing that you can’t try and help your team, it’s a bit de-motivating.”

That said, notwithstanding its disappointing culmination, McCabe still took positives from the overall experience.

Going down to Sheffield was really the first time I’d moved away from home. I learned more in terms of off-field stuff and having to mature as a person than I did on the training pitch. When you get to a certain age, you know what to do on a pitch. So I matured as a person when I went down south.”

And after being deemed surplus to requirements by the Championship team, there was no shortage of interested parties once McCabe became a free agent. He had trials with St Johnstone and Hibernian, though ultimately joined Dunfermline, a Scottish League One side at the time, with the player helping the club earn promotion and win the title during his first season there, featuring 15 times and scoring two goals over the course of this period.

When I went to Dunfermline, it was purely to get that enjoyment back and to play regular games on a Saturday,” he says.

There was progress in his second season with the club, as he made 23 league appearances and scored three goals. But the campaign ultimately ended in disappointment for the club as a whole, however, as they finished fifth, four points off the play-off quarter-finals for the Scottish Premiership, thereby consigning them to another season outside of the top flight.

Despite that setback, McCabe says he was close to agreeing a new deal with Dunfermline before Sligo Rovers’ interest became apparent.

The player, who turns 25 next month, credits Gerard Lyttle, who was only appointed as Sligo’s manager back in April, with persuading him to make the move to Ireland. He describes the former Cliftonville boss as “open” and “approachable,” adding:

They showed real interest and I flew over for the Finn Harps game a few weeks back. I took in the game and obviously had a sit-down chat with the manager and board members.

“I just found the place really welcoming and homely — a real community-based club. I thought the ambition and the way the manager wants the club to go direction-wise back to European spots, that was a big (challenge) for me.”

With the move having only been confirmed earlier this month, McCabe is still growing accustomed to his new surroundings. Last week, he moved into a new house with a couple of Sligo teammates. Everyone has been appropriately friendly so far, while he has been encouraged by the positive mood in training.

Soccer - UEFA European Under 21 Championship 2013 - Group Ten - Scotland v Luxembourg - Saint Mirren Park McCabe is a former Scotland U21 international. Source: Tony Marshall

On the downside, with 19 games played, Sligo sit just outside the relegation zone on 17 points in ninth place, having picked up only three wins all season. Nonetheless, McCabe, from the limited action he has seen, believes the team are better than their current position in the table suggests.

There’s no sulking,” he says. “Everyone’s bubbly at training. Everyone works at a high professional standard. The manager’s not been here long, so it might take a couple of weeks for him, but since I’ve been here, he’s been great at putting his message across on the training pitch.

“It’s just a case of getting that first initial result from the games I’ve seen.

The lads in training are not short of confidence. They’ve had okay performances in recent weeks, but it’s been about getting the monkey off your back, so to speak, and getting going in the second half of the season.”

Given their current troubles, it’s easy to forget that Sligo were playing in Europe with relative regularity not so long ago. Between 2009 and 2014, they qualified for either the Europa or Champions League five times out of six attempts.

It is still only three years since the club earned a memorable 2-1 win away to Norwegian side and former Champions League quarter-finalists, Rosenborg, before bowing out against the same opponents following a heartbreaking 3-1 home loss.

McCabe, who could make his debut as Sligo host Shamrock Rovers on Sunday, is hopeful he can help the club return to the European stage sooner rather than later.

“The main attraction coming to Ireland was Europe. Maybe not so much with the position we’re in now, but under the manager and where he wants to be and where him and his coaching staff see the club going in the next year or two, is that European spot, whether it be (finishing in) the top one, two or three.

To play in Europe is a massive thing in football, not every club in the country gets to do that. There are even big clubs in the English Championship that don’t get a chance to play in Europe.

“Obviously, there are opportunities here that if you do well, you can get rewarded with that European spot.

Sligo is a community-based club. It would bring in great revenue for the local town and give them something to cheer about.”

And as much as he is enjoying life at his new club, McCabe is honest enough to admit that he retains ambitions to play at the highest level possible, with the hope of possibly even eclipsing his achievements as a teenager in the process.

I don’t see myself being here for the remaining years of my career,” he says.

“I’m ambitious, I want to play at the highest level I possibly can and if I get the chance to do that, then great. But I’ll give it my all, I’ll give it 110% for Sligo, because that’s who I’m committed to at the moment.”

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