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From the Premier League to Trinity College: the untold story of Rory Ginty

The winger who became the first player from Galway to experience English football’s rebranded top flight.

THE SIGHT OF someone in a club tracksuit drew the young Crystal Palace fans in like a horde of zombified women spying Eoin McLove through the window of Craggy Island Parochial House.

They had come to Selhurst Park in droves to meet players like Nigel Martyn and Gareth Southgate, Ray Houghton and John Salako, yet Rory Ginty found himself surrounded as he left the ground. Pens and pieces of paper suddenly appeared from all angles.

Profile Pic Rory Ginty at Crystal Palace. Source: Crystal Palace FC

“The club used to hold an open day every year, which gave the supporters a chance to see all the teams training,” Ginty recalls.

“About 50 kids ran over to me looking for an autograph. I was just a young fella from Galway so I thought it was great. I was delighted to be signing away, until one of the kids said: ‘So, who is he?’

“A parent who was there said ‘he’s only a youth team player’ and the 50 kids disappeared in an instant!” he laughs.

The majority of his youth team colleagues would ultimately be jettisoned, but Ginty was one of the few who made a name for himself at Palace – albeit briefly.

For the visit of Liverpool during the 1997-98 season, he invited a few friends from back home to spend the weekend in London. It was a big deal for a group of lads who had all been supporters of the Anfield club since childhood.

The night before the game, however, Ginty had to inform his pals that his own ticket was going spare. Instead of watching the game from the stands, he ended up playing in it.

“I said to the lads: ‘Thanks for coming over but I just found out that I have a match tomorrow… yeah, the one ye all came to watch.’

“Playing the next day against the club I had grown up supporting was just an absolutely amazing experience. I can still remember every bit of it too.”

By sharing a pitch with the likes of Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler and a 17-year-old wonderkid named Michael Owen, Ginty became the first man from Galway to play in England’s top flight since a marketing makeover heralded the dawn of the Premier League era. 

crystal-pal-owen-goal Michael Owen celebrating after scoring for Liverpool against Crystal Palace in December 1997. Source: PA

His relationship with Crystal Palace began when he impressed scouts as a 14-year-old playing for Salthill Devon at the Ian Rush Tournament in Wales. Thereafter, he linked up with Palace during school holidays before joining the club on a full-time basis at 17.

“It was only after that tournament when I started feeling: hang on a sec, this might actually be possible,” he says. “You think about being a footballer when you’re a really young kid, but you’d be a bit removed from it in Galway. It’s probably a bit more common today, but it was so rare back then that somebody from Galway would go over on trial.

“I knew early on that things were going pretty well because they tried to sign me on schoolboy forms – which is kind of a precursor to an apprenticeship – after the very first trial.

“I was getting the impression that they were kind of going out of their way to put a vision into my head about what could happen. Clubs will tell players all the things they want to hear and at 14 you obviously buy into the whole thing.

“They wanted me to move over when I was 16, and I had only just finished my Junior Cert. I felt I was still a bit young. I was a bit freaked out by it so I asked if I could hold off. It would have been ideal if I could have gotten the Leaving Cert first.

“From what I can remember there was a little bit of emotional blackmail going on. They were telling me that if I didn’t take the offer, someone else would – all that sort of thing, which they probably do with everyone. But they felt that it was important for my development that I went over at 17 at the very latest.

“I spoke to my parents and we agreed it was a great opportunity, but at the end of the day I had to be prepared to come home and start afresh if things didn’t work out. My attitude was that I’m going to give this one million percent, but if it’s not going the way I want it to then I need to be ready to start all over again. I went over there at 17 with that mindset.” 

For a kid from the west of Ireland, adapting to life at a professional football club based in a working class area of south-east London was a daunting prospect at first.

Ginty’s ability on the pitch quickly convinced his new team-mates that he belonged. After a few months in the youth team, he was rewarded with a two-and-a-half-year professional contract. 

My Salthill Devon u14 team Salthill Devon at the Ian Rush Tournament, with Ginty third from the right in the middle row. Source: Salthill Devon

“From the very first day you’re learning to become a man because you’re in an environment with a big group of guys where you’re all competing for the same few contracts. But I was a footballer and I absolutely loved it.

“It was a great time. You’re at a high level of football, the coaching is excellent, you’re physically fit because you’re training every day, and you’re learning about life as well.

“I don’t know if the clubs do much of this anymore but we had to do menial jobs back then like cleaning boots, scrubbing toilets, painting and whatever else needed to be done. The money was crap but you still had to earn it. It was character-building stuff.

“The team-mates in the youth side were very streetwise kids who knew how to look after themselves, whereas I was a very quiet kid, tremendously shy. A lot of these guys were the same age as me but they seemed to have a couple of years of experience on me.

“I was able to get along with them all but sticking up for yourself and being able to take a bit of slagging was something I wouldn’t have been as good at. It took me a while to adjust to that. I felt a bit intimidated. It’s probably a bit of an Irish thing. Some of these guys had already been friends, and I was coming over from Ireland trying to fit in with the crowd.

“You have to find a way to get respect from them and my performances started to get me more acceptance within the group. I became one of the stronger youth team players and – despite my shyness – the respect started coming then. 

“On the pitch, the standard of football was very good but I seemed to be doing well. That was probably reflected when they offered me the new deal. I was like, ‘grand, let’s do it!’

“I basically just signed the thing without even getting into negotiations. I was just so happy to be a professional footballer. I remember at the time, rather naively, thinking to myself: I would gladly do this for free.”

From the outset, Ginty monitored the activities of the first team as he sought to follow the example set by the senior players who had brought Crystal Palace back to the Premier League. 

With Gareth Southgate - club merchandise promo Modelling some Crystal Palace merchandise alongside club captain Gareth Southgate. Source: Crystal Palace FC

“I always admired Gareth Southgate,” he says. “In my first year with the youth team, he would have been 23 or 24 but he was already club captain. I remember looking at him and thinking he was a really decent guy, the kind of role model that I liked. 

“Even from the way he carried himself around the club, I knew there was something special about him and I’m really not surprised that he’s now the England manager. A proper captain who was always willing to give you a bit of advice.

“I could say the same about Ray Wilkins, who was another brilliant guy. It was awful to hear of him passing away a couple of years ago.

“Chris Coleman, Chris Armstrong, John Salako, these were all good guys and good professionals too. I was always asking myself how I could learn from these guys.

“After training with the youth team, I would go straight down and watch the first team just to see what they were doing and if there was anything I could pick up.”

During his first season, Ginty’s ancillary duties as a youth team player provided him with a first-hand view of an infamous and much-publicised incident as it unfolded.

When Crystal Palace hosted Manchester United in January 1995, he was only a few yards away from the clash with a spectator that earned Eric Cantona a nine-month ban.

“For every home match, some of the youth team lads would have to do jobs behind the scenes and I was there for that game,” Ginty explains. “One of our jobs was to clean up the dressing rooms afterwards but while the game was on we were sitting behind the bench.

“I remember vividly seeing Cantona jumping into the crowd. Even the incident that he was sent off for initially, when he kicked Richard Shaw, you could hear the kick from the crowd, it was that loud. It was quite an unbelievable scene, the whole thing.”

soccer-fa-carling-premiership-crystal-palace-v-manchester-united-selhurst-park Ginty was at Selhurst Park on the night of Eric Cantona's infamous kung-fu kick. Source: EMPICS Sport

The following April, Ginty was in the company of royalty on a flight to Hong Kong for an exhibition game that Crystal Palace had committed to.

As the club focused on a relegation battle which ultimately went against them, manager Alan Smith opted to send a second-string side to fulfil the fixture in the Far East.

“This local team over in Hong Kong brought in Jan Molby, Nigel Clough and Kevin Sheedy to play for them in the game,” Ginty says. “Apparently Palace were being paid quite a lot of money for it so they didn’t want to pull out. We were told literally the day before that we were going to Hong Kong to play a match.

“On the way over, the physio came down to us and said: ‘Princess Diana is on the plane’. We obviously thought he was making it up until we landed. We were waiting an hour to get off the plane because she had to get off first to meet the dignitaries and all that.

“I had just turned 18, I had only left Galway a few months earlier and here I was in Hong Kong on the same plane as Princess Diana. It was all a bit surreal. In saying that, I was brought back down to earth fairly fast by playing against Oxford United reserves the day after we got back.”

He adds: “There were 20 of us in my youth team and only four were taken on to be pros, so us four went on to play with the reserve team. Reserve teams were made up of young players, more experienced guys coming back from injuries, or players that clubs were trying to get rid of. But the games were a real-eye opener.

“It was a great standard of football and it was ideal for an up-and-coming guy like me, but a lot of guys didn’t want to be there at all, especially the established players.

“I remember a reserve game against Tottenham. They had a good few household names in their team, one of whom was Darren Caskey, who was being talked about at the time as a future star for England. I was looking at him, thinking: This is class, I’m playing against this guy.

“When the teams were coming out of the dressing rooms beforehand, he just looked at us and goes: ‘What the fuck am I doing here?’ His career never really kicked off and I can maybe see why now.

Ray Wilkins With the late Ray Wilkins during his time at Crystal Palace. Source: Rory Ginty

“Reserve team football is a bit different now, but in those days it was very competitive. You’re playing against guys who are trying to pay mortgages, and a contract is a contract for them. They don’t want some 18-year-old to take that contract away from them. Reserve football was a big step-up from youth level, very ruthless, but I held my own.”

After being guided to promotion via the play-offs by Steve Coppell, Palace were back in the top tier in 1997. Coppell made some significant additions to his squad in an effort to prevent a third relegation from the Premier League in the space of six seasons.

Among the new signings were Italian internationals Attilio Lombardo and Michele Padovano, who both arrived from Juventus as Serie A and Champions League winners. 

With Lombardo to the fore, Palace’s form during the first few months of the season was encouraging. A win away to Tottenham Hotspur on 24 November moved them up to 10th place.

A mounting injury list would contribute to the derailment of the campaign, but for 20-year-old Rory Ginty it created an opportunity on a day when he was planning to entertain guests from Galway. 

“Like me, a few of my friends are Liverpool fans and they came over for the weekend when Palace were due to play against them. Obviously I was planning to be watching the match too until I was told otherwise on the Friday evening.”

When Lombardo went down injured, Ginty was summoned from the bench in the early stages of the second half of a 3-0 defeat. Steve McManaman’s opener just before half-time was followed by goals from Michael Owen and Oyvind Leonhardsen.

“I came on for Lombardo just after half-time. I’d say I did okay but we were well beaten. To be honest, they were absolute class. But to be in the middle of something that you genuinely had actual dreams about was just remarkable. Truly remarkable.

“I worked very hard to get to that point where I might be able to play at that level. To be able to do it against Liverpool was just brilliant. I’ll never let go of those memories.”

David Jones:PA Archive:PA Images Attilio Lombardo and Tomas Brolin at Crystal Palace.

His outing against Liverpool was the first of six first-team appearances Ginty made between 13 December and 2 February. However, his run in the side came at a time when Palace were struggling badly amid a run of 15 games without a victory.

“I wasn’t setting the world alight, far from it, but after playing in the first-team you start to think: Okay, this is promising now in terms of my career. 

“Having said that, I knew deep down that I was only in because there were a few guys injured so I had to see how things would be when those guys came back.

“The step-up in standard from youth and reserve team games was enormous. With the youth team, you get way more touches and way more crosses, which was what my game was all about – getting on the ball, taking on defenders, getting the ball into the box. I was a typical winger.

“I found that in these games I wasn’t getting many touches of the ball. They were tough games. You had to work a lot harder to get on the ball, and when you did you had to make sure something happened.

“You might have been on the same pitch as them, but you had to be a realist about where you stood as well. Guys like Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman were on another level. Michael Owen was unbelievable. These guys were just shit-hot.

“Palace were in relegation trouble at the time so they wouldn’t have been playing free-flowing football. It was just about survival.

“When the more experienced guys were getting back to full fitness, they were ready for the relegation dog-fight and I was finding myself out of the side again.”

In spite of his graduation to the first-team squad at a Premier League club, international recognition at any level eluded Ginty for the duration of his career.

Galway City Tribune December 1997 Ginty's Premier League debut featured in the Galway City Tribune on 19 December, 1997. Source: Galway City Tribune

He says: “While I was at Palace, I have a feeling I would have been really under the radar of Irish managers. I was quietly going about my business so I wouldn’t have been a household name. I wouldn’t say I’m annoyed about it but it would have been nice to put on the Irish jersey.”  

In a bid to improve their ailing fortunes, Palace – who had dropped into the relegation zone – moved Steve Coppell into a Director of Football role and named Attilio Lombardo as player-manager at the end of February. 

Swedish striker Tomas Brolin, who was signed in January, was named Lombardo’s assistant. Brolin played 13 games for Palace, but Ginty recalls that one of the former Parma player’s main responsibilities was to act as an interpreter for the new gaffer.

“Lombardo seemed a very nice guy, a top-class player, but he couldn’t speak a word of English. You’d almost be using sign language to communicate with him.

“When Brolin came in it was a big story because it was said that he was on 10 grand a week, which was an absolute fortune back then. He just kind of turned up to training one day out of the blue, and you’re thinking: Oh right, so we’ve signed Tomas Brolin.

“Lombardo would say something in Italian and Brolin would translate that message into English for the rest of us. It was just so weird.

“We were in a survival battle where you probably needed a Sam Allardyce type of character to get us over the finish line. You’ve seen it before where chairmen think that giving a job to a big-name player like Lombardo will motivate the squad, but it really didn’t work.”

Palace finished the season at the bottom of the table, their relegation confirmed with three games to spare following a 3-0 defeat at home to Manchester United.

There were wholesale changes at the club in the summer as they prepared for a return to the second tier. Terry Venables became manager, a new owner took the reins, and Rory Ginty was part of a sizeable contingent of players who departed.

unnamed Ginty made six first-team appearances for Crystal Palace. Source: Action Images

“Quite a few guys were released at the end of the season and I was one of them,” he says. “There was a new chairman who was promising to pump a load of money into the club to bring it back into the Premier League. 

“Obviously it was really disappointing at the time. You’re in shock and you find yourself in limbo professionally. I spoke to Steve Coppell and he said: ‘If you stayed with all this money that’s being put in, I don’t know what type of opportunities you’d get.’

“So in may ways they did me a favour in letting me go, because I wouldn’t have wanted to hang around if there wasn’t any chance of me progressing.

“I spoke to a lot of football people, and the likelihood for me then was that I’d have to go down to the lower leagues to try and work my way back up. I had a little trial period at Macclesfield and there were a few other clubs interested as well, but it was obviously all League One and League Two level.

“Other people I spoke to would have said that if I was going down to that level in England, I’d be just as well to play in the League of Ireland. They said if you’re good enough – and I still believe this now because there are so many examples to back it up – that you will find a way back to England.

“That sounded like the best option for me because it felt like a good opportunity for me to take stock and see where I stood. Leaving Palace also left me conscious of where my football career might be going, so I was becoming very aware of the fact that I hadn’t done my Leaving Cert.”

Ahead of the 1998-99 season, Ginty joined Dermot Keely’s Shelbourne. More significantly, he also enrolled in a post-Leaving Cert computer business skills course at Ballsbridge College of Further Education. 

“My plan was to get the best of both worlds. I wanted to play football at a really good level, but I also wanted to catch up on my education. Education was important to me but my immediate priority was still football and getting back over to England.

“With Shelbourne, the standard was really good but there was more of a part-time feel to it in comparison to what I had been accustomed to at Palace. That’s something I found difficult to adjust to. 

inpho_00017690 Dermot Keely brought Ginty to Shelbourne. Source: INPHO/Billy Stickland

“I was so used to a certain routine – almost institutionalised – and I was obsessed with football. For years it was my entire life, all day and every day. Then all of a sudden it was only half my life. That was a big change. And because I wasn’t training as much as I had been when I was a full-time footballer, I could feel the impact of that when I was playing.

“The other thing was that there was a new distraction in my life: school. It was taking up a lot of time that had been reserved for football and I was friends again with a lot of the people I had left behind in Galway, because a lot of them had started going to college in places like UCD. 

“They had been envious of me playing football over in England, but I felt even more envious of them living the college life and getting their degrees. I loved the idea of that.”

Following a brief stay at Tolka Park, his playing career resumed north of the border instead with Derry-based club Coleraine. Nevertheless, within a year of playing in the Premier League, the prominence of football in his life was gradually being eroded by a burgeoning enthusiasm for his studies.

“The bottom line was that I had to be able to afford to live in Dublin so I could keep going to college, and Coleraine had come in with a good offer. 

“It was a good standard and they were very professional, but what I didn’t take into account was the travel involved. Between trains and buses, I’d be travelling for over three hours before every match. Because of that, and the fact that I was no longer training as much as I used to, I could feel my performances just weren’t what they used to be. 

“To cut an hour off the travelling, I joined Ards just outside Belfast until the end of the season. The issue there was that I was training remotely, away from the rest of the squad, and just turning up on the day for each game, which didn’t work for me at all.  

“Even though I still felt a sense of determination when it came to football, I was starting to really enjoy the college side of my life. I was doing well at it too. I had actually been quite good at school until football took over when I was 14. But now I was back into it.

“I decided to keep going with football so I signed for Kilkenny City, but I also got my first job around that time with Hibernian [now Aviva]. It was something I was enjoying massively.

Match Programme On the cover of the Crystal Palace match programme.

“The problem was that I was almost living a 24-hour lifestyle – working during the day, training in the evening and then I was still studying too. Obviously my performances on the pitch weren’t up to scratch because I just had too much on my plate.

“I did a season with Kilkenny, and at the end of it I had to ask myself: what do I really want from my life? Where is this all going?

“Another big opportunity opened up then, which helped me to decide what I wanted to do. I remember walking through Dublin with a mate after I came back from Palace, and I looked in the famous gates of Trinity College and saw all the students. I just thought to myself at the time that I’d absolutely love to study in this place.

“I ended up hearing about a five-year degree programme in Information Systems by night at Trinity, which I would be eligible for – despite not having a Leaving Cert – because of courses I had been doing outside of work just to get myself up to speed.

“To my absolute delight, I managed to get accepted onto the course. Looking back, I’d say that this was when the transition out of football totally ended. I had been half in, half out for a couple of years at that stage. I wasn’t playing as well as I used to and I also wasn’t enjoying it as much. If I was working by day and studying for a degree at Trinity College by night, football at a high level was no longer sustainable.

“From the age of 14, I was consumed by football. I sacrificed a lot to make it work – and for a while it did. I played a few games of elite level football. But like a lot of footballers, I got to a stage where I knew I needed to prepare for life away from the game. 

“Even though I was still quite young, it was obvious to me that football wasn’t going to give me the kind of career that would set me up for a long time. This time I was sacrificing football to get a career that would leave me in a good place.”

Ginty, aged 43, has now been employed by Aviva for almost 20 years. His current role is based in his hometown of Galway with the company’s global cyber security team.

He went on to play a few games for Salthill Devon as an overage player in the League of Ireland U21 Division, but his appearances for Kilkenny City were his last in senior competitive football.  

trinity-college-dublin 'I just thought to myself at the time that I'd absolutely love to study in this place.' Source: DPA/PA Images

“I was paranoid about it for a while, but it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” says Ginty, who was 23 when he finished up with Kilkenny. “When there’s something you love doing but you know you’re not able to give it the same commitment that you used to, it’s a difficult thing to get to grips with and it hurts, but you have to be true to yourself.

“Thankfully I’m very passionate about what I do for a living now. If I had continued playing in the League of Ireland and made it my priority, I wouldn’t have had the same opportunities that I have gotten in the job because I wouldn’t have been able to give the same commitment. It just wouldn’t have worked.

“What I do want to say about football is that my time in the game wasn’t just about football, because I picked up so much other valuable stuff along the way which has helped me.

“I got a top-class football education at Palace, but I learned some unbelievable life skills as well – discipline, working hard, leadership, and I was no longer that quiet, shy person who first went over there. You bring those skills to your next challenges in life.”

Ginty maintains a connection to football through his involvement with Salthill Devon’s U10 girls team, where his eight-year-old daughter Saoirse is among the players being coached by the first Galway man to play in the Premier League – a title he’s unlikely ever to embrace. 

“It sounds great, but it’s not really true,” he insists. “The Premier League is the old First Division with a new name. I mean, the great Eamonn Deacy played for Aston Villa and he got a European Cup medal too. If you look at the records there might have been another fella from Galway before that. 

“It probably is surprising that there are so few fellas from Galway to have played in the Premier League era – Tony Folan played at Palace as well and I think Greg Cunningham might have been next – but there are also other Galway guys who have had really good careers elsewhere, like Daryl Horgan, Colin Hawkins, David Forde and Ryan Manning.

“I happened to play in the Premier League, but you’ll never find me going around telling people that I was a Premier League footballer. The guys I mentioned there have had way better careers than me.” 

RoryGinty-Trinity Graduation - Bsc Information Systems At Trinity College on graduation day. Source: Rory Ginty

He adds: “I’m a realist. When I analyse my performances honestly, I was a very good youth team player and I was okay in the reserves. In the first team, I got a few games but I did nothing special. My level would have been below that, without a doubt.

“Just because I managed to get matches in the Premier League doesn’t mean that I was a Premier League footballer. Playing at that level doesn’t give you a divine right to a good career in the game.

“I was lucky that somebody thought I was playing well enough in the reserves to get a chance at the higher level. They were putting me in to see if I had what it took to stay at that level. I did fine, but it obviously wasn’t good enough. That’s grand. I can live with not being good enough as long as I know I’ve done my best – which I did. 

“I’m proud of the career that I had, but I’m even more proud of making the transition into something else. From the experiences I’ve had, I’d love to be able to help players or other athletes who face the same challenges that I did.

“Sometimes I can be quite hard on myself in terms of what I achieved in football, but when I look back on it now I feel that I actually achieved an awful lot.”

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Paul Dollery

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