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Dublin: 11°C Tuesday 20 April 2021

'Football is such a bubble - once you're gone, you're gone. But I certainly don't look back with regret'

A different lifetime ago, Seamie Crowe was the most in-demand footballer in Ireland.

Seamie Crowe battles with Bohemians' Paul Keegan in a League of Ireland clash in 2002.
Seamie Crowe battles with Bohemians' Paul Keegan in a League of Ireland clash in 2002.
Image: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

SEAMIE CROWE IS on his way back from Temple Port in Cavan after a busy evening.

He’s just watched his NUIG Freshers comfortably beat QUB in a football league quarter-final. 

“All down to the coaching,” he says with a laugh.

It’s a two-and-a-half hour trek home. Occasionally, the singsong starts down the back but, for the most part, there’s little interruption and Crowe is able to slink into his seat, phone to his ear and drift down memory lane. 

Our conversation will eventually delve into his relationship with the GAA. But the bulk of it focuses on a period – a different lifetime ago now – when Crowe was the most in-demand footballer in Ireland.

“My Dad passed away a few years ago and he had a box kept with stuff from my career,” he says. 

And I think there were offers from 34 clubs – between the Premier League and the First Division.”

Crowe grew up in Menlo, just outside Galway city centre. He was a gifted hurler and Gaelic footballer but soccer came easily to him also. He started out at Corrib Shamrocks and then played with Newcastle Utd and by his early teens, his potential had whipped everyone into a frenzy across the Irish Sea.  

“It all started when I got a trial with Leeds,” he says.

“There was a scout of theirs based in Galway and I went over when I was about 12 or 13 for a weekend. The next thing that happened was the Kennedy Cup and I got Player of the Tournament at that. It was a bit mad because I remember a few teams actually having contracts on the table at the Kennedy Cup, ready for me to sign. I was just a young lad from Galway who was just as interested in playing hurling and football as I was playing soccer and, all of a sudden, all of these top Premier League teams were trying to get me over. Funnily enough, at that time, the only team I didn’t get an offer from was Everton and that’s who I support. I had a friend from the Irish underage team and he was back and forth with them and I was desperately trying to get him to get me over there. But it was probably after the Kennedy Cup when I knew it was only a matter of time before I was going to England.”

From all of Crowe’s various suitors, Celtic and Newcastle were at the top of the queue. After appearing at the Milk Cup in Northern Ireland, the Magpies gave him the royal treatment and flew him and his parents to Tyneside in the mid-90s.

The whole experience proved surreal.

“My family didn’t come from a background of soccer people,” he says.

“There’d have been a few players who went over from Galway but there wouldn’t have been much known about the soccer world in England. Clubs were nearly trying to sell themselves to me, which was funny. And they looked after you. I remember going to St. James’ Park and being introduced to the kit-man. He brought me into the kit-room and he was like, ‘Here you go, take that’. I was like a kid in a sweet shop. Four or five pairs of boots, four or five pairs of runners, any amount of tracksuits. Like, anytime you went to a club and walked into the hotel room there was just a bed covered with gear: scarves, tracksuits. I think my mates back home were the best kitted-out fellas in Ireland at the time.”  

FA Cup 3rd Rnd, Chelsea v Newcastle. Crowe had an unforgettable interaction with Les Ferdinand when the pair met in Newcastle in the mid-90s. Source: Steve Morton

“Newcastle put us up in the Gosforth Park Hotel and Chris Eubank was staying there too because he was fighting there that weekend. I’d been out at training and came back and my Mam was like, ‘There was a big man there walking around the place in his underpants’. And I was like, ‘What?’ And she said, ‘Yeah, a boxer walking around in his underpants.’ And I was saying, ‘Who’s that?’ And the person on reception just said, ‘Oh, that’s Chris Eubank – he’s staying here’. And I was just laughing at my Mother, coming over from the west of Ireland.”

But I’ll always remember the following day after I finished training with the youth team. I was showering and the senior players walk in. They start asking me, ‘How are you getting on?’ And I start telling them, ‘Oh, I was playing in this tournament – the Milk Cup – and they invited me back here and flew my parents over.’ And they were saying, ‘Oh, they must be after you’. There’s Les Ferdinand and David Ginola beside me, like, asking me these questions. And I’m just standing there, sharing a shower with Les Ferdinand and David Ginola. It was just mental. But I was chatting away and I just said, ‘I’m staying at the Gosforth’ and they were like, ‘Ah, we’re staying in the same hotel as you’. Anyway, I had more training that afternoon and as we all gathered outside, a few of the first-team players were walking out. And there’s Les Ferdinand roaring my first name out loud, ‘Seamus – see you in the hotel later, yeah?’ And all the youth team players looking at me saying, How do you know them lads?’”

After the trial, Newcastle were desperate for Crowe to sign. But he wanted to think it over and take some more time before making a final decision. And it was at that moment that he gave into another club’s persistence and took a trip to the West Midlands. 

“Wolves had been onto me for ages to go over,” he says. 

“So I headed over for a weekend and I rang a few days later to tell the family, ‘Look, I’m going to stay here.’ The main thing was that when I trained with the youth team, all the young players genuinely loved it there. They loved the setup. And that was the main attraction. It seemed to have a real homely feel to it and I said, ‘Right, that’s good enough for me’.

There was that expectation because there was so much interest in me but I suppose I took some of that away by signing for a First Division club. I think if I’d signed with Arsenal or Liverpool or Leeds then the spotlight would have been completely on me. And I definitely thought I’d have a better chance of breaking into the first team at Wolves – who were still a big club – than with Arsenal or Liverpool.”

Crowe wasn’t alone and had a strong Irish group to rely on at Wolves. There was Alan Dixon, Stephen Hackett, Keith Andrews and a cocky fella from Tallaght called Robbie Keane. By the time the quintet all arrived in the summer of 1996, Glen Crowe (no relation) and Dominic Foley were already at Molineux.  

Still, despite there being a decent support network, they were all kids. There were times – for all of them – when they just wanted to go home. 

“The hardest part was going back after Christmas,” Crowe says. 

I remember flying out and that was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Getting on the plane in Carnmore Airport in Galway, I’d say by the time I got to Wolverhampton I had grown up more in that couple of hours than I would have in a couple of years back at home. I really had to harden up. I was just gone 16 and when you look at some of the boys going over now you realise just how young we all were. But we all looked after each other.”

Within a year, Keane had moved on from the youth side and already scored twice on his Wolves senior debut against Norwich. But his progress was a motivator for Crowe and others.   

“Even when he made his breakthrough and started to became a household name he always looked after us,” he says. 

Soccer - Nationwide League Division One - Wolverhampton Wanderers v Sheffield United Robbie Keane, seen here in action for Wolves against Sheffield United in August 1997, was an inspirational figure for Crowe and the other young players at the club. Source: Matthew Ashton

“It was always, ‘Right, keep pushing, keep going’ – he was always positive, always backing us and genuinely wanted us to make the breakthrough as well. From day one, he was such a confident lad on the pitch and off the pitch as well, obviously. But nothing fazed him. He didn’t care who he was playing against. And he was like that from the very start. He was just like, ‘I’m going to do my own thing’. He played football like he did in the streets and he played like that right up until he retired. He was one of these guys who just loved football, loved being on the pitch, loved scoring goals. And that’s why he’s done so well.”

Crowe was signed as a striker but was quickly converted to a midfielder. As a diminutive, technical player, the role suited him better anyway. He completed his two-year apprenticeship and was handed a pro contract. He graduated to the reserve side and got a taste of the big time – playing in big grounds and facing some high-profile players. 

Soccer - FA Carling Premiership - Tottenham Hotspur v Middlesbrough One of Crowe's biggest highlights from his time at Wolves is facing Paul Gascoigne, who effectively coached him through the game. Source: Neal Simpson

“The highlight was when we played Middlesbrough at Molineux,” he says. 

You’d come across some big players who were coming back from injury. A lot of lads playing first-team football would see it as a punishment to play with the reserves. But if it was a young lad coming through, you’d think, ‘Brilliant – I’m after getting a call up from the youth team’, which was a massive thing. But that night, myself and Keith Andrews were playing in central midfield and were up against Paul Gascoigne. I remember the very first thing he did was absolutely rattle one of us with a tackle. I can’t remember if it was me or Keith – but he put us up in the air. But after that, every time you played a good pass he’d say, ‘Well done, son – brilliant’. He was nearly talking us through the game. And it showed how good he was. He was obviously saying, ‘These are young fellas starting out. I’m not going to be an asshole here’. He was basically coaching us through the game. ‘That’s brilliant, lad. That’s an unbelievable pass. Do more of that.’”

“I remember Keith Curle was managing the reserves at the time and Steve Bull was coming back from injury for us. And I think we were playing Derby or Man City and about 12,000 people showed up to watch Bully. Keith brought me on early in the second half and just said, ‘Get out there and enjoy it.’ And it was a real taste of it. I loved the big occasion, even to this day. I’d rather that than playing in front of one man and his dog.”

Crowe was inching forward all the time and he came close to tasting senior action. But then injuries started to hit him hard and he eventually ran out of road.    

“I signed under Graham Taylor but by the time I moved over he was gone and Mark McGhee was manager and I got on very well with him,” Crowe says. 

“He had a lot of time for me and one time when my father was over visiting, he said to him, ‘Listen, it’s a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’ when it comes to Seamus making the breakthrough’. I was going well and playing well in the reserves and then Mark got the sack and his assistant, Colin Lee, took over. And I got on very, very well with Colin. I stayed involved with the first team but then I picked up a knee injury.”

I was just gone 17 and I’m not getting the violin out here or anything but it came at the wrong time. They said I was too young to operate on so I did all the rehab and it didn’t work. So, I was given a few more weeks off in the summer to try and recuperate and rest up. But coming back after pre-season, there was no change. It had gone on for about 12 months at that stage but I did get back eventually. I got the knee right, returned to the first-team squad and Colin was still in charge. And then the same knee went again. It wasn’t anything serious but it was another couple of months out. And by the time I got myself fit again and back in the picture, Colin had been let go and Dave Jones came in. And, like what happens a hundred times, he had his budget, he had to bring in his own players and he had to cut a lot of lads. Unfortunately, I was one of them. I had never trained or played under him because I’d been injured. When I came back and was playing with the reserves you’re just trying to get your feet right, your touch right. And I think it was a case of him drawing a line through a few of us. And it was ‘Right, out you go’”.

“And that was when ITV Digital crashed too and all the money went out of the lower league clubs. So instead of 100 lads looking for clubs, there was something like 1000 or 2000. It was a lot harder. But Keith Curle was a good mate of mine and he brought me to Sheffield United and I went up there for a few months. Steve Bull brought me on loan to Hereford too but my knee was always playing up and it wasn’t right and that was pretty much it. I spent the guts of a year floating around and I thought, ‘I’m still young, I still have my whole life ahead of me’. I got a bit disillusioned with the game itself and I thought, ‘I can stay here and try and plod around the lower divisions and eke out a living and maybe make a breakthrough and get back up or I can call it quits and head back home’. And that’s what I decided to do.”

Notts Forest v Wolves Dave Jones' arrival as Wolves manager in 2001 signalled the end of Crowe's time with the club. Source: Rui Vieira

The conversation with Jones was pretty cliched. Crowe was called into his office and given a generic explanation. And that was it. Less than two minutes later and he was gone.    

“Football is such a bubble,” he says. 

“When you’re out of it, that’s it. You’d be such good friends with guys for so long and once you’re not a footballer anymore then you’re not involved.”

It was bad luck at the time, I guess. My knee was struggling and I couldn’t get it right. And then you’re trying to get your fitness back and you’re heading off on loan or on trial and then you’re almost trying too much. And then the confidence is at an all-time low. And I mean bottom of the barrel low. Maybe six months or 12 months before and you’re peaking and putting it up to anyone you’re facing. And then, all of sudden, everything becomes a struggle. Every touch is tough. Everything is tough. And my confidence was absolutely shot. In hindsight I probably never recovered from that and probably part of the reason why I did decide to call it a day – no hard feelings – and try my luck back home.”

The prospect of dropping down wasn’t appealing. Anyway, ball-playing central midfielders weren’t exactly in demand in Division Three or the Conference.   

At the time it was more about being 6-foot plus and a powerhouse whereas I was a bit more of a football player,” Crowe says. 

That definitely went against me. The game has changed an awful lot now and it’s more suited to smaller, more technical players. But at the time – in the early 2000s – you’d go down to a lower league team and there was absolutely zero chance of playing out from the back. It was back to front stuff. And that did nothing for me. The ball would just be going over my head. What they really wanted was workers. Fellas who could put in tackles and move it on. Workhorses. There was no real need for someone with a bit of craft, who could pick a pass or thread a ball through or switch the play.” 

“I have thought about that. If I had gone to an Arsenal or a Liverpool at the beginning then it might have been easier to get picked up by a First Division or Second Division. I remember when I went to Hereford and I was coming from the luxury of a massive club like Wolves who were set up like a Premier League team with the facilities and the stadium. They had everything you wanted. All of a sudden all the luxuries were gone. That didn’t really bother me but I found that a lot of lads were – I’m not gonna say spiteful – but had chips on their shoulders. They were like, ‘Right, this lad is coming down from a team like Wolves and thinking he’s the boss’.

Seamie Crowe and Michael Comer Crowe in action for Salthill against Corofin in 2013. Source: Mike Shaughnessy/INPHO

It was 2001 when Crowe returned to Ireland.

After spending some time in Galway, he was tapped up by a friend from home – another ex-pro Daragh Sheridan – to come to DCU and enrol in a programme Sheridan had designed called REAP, effectively an educational course for footballers who’d been let go by clubs in England and were attempting to transition back to ‘real life’. It also set players up with League of Ireland sides which allowed them maintain a certain standard of training and conditioning while dangling the possibility of earning a contract. Crowe graduated alongside Sean Dillon who would go on to win FAI Cups with Longford Town, a League of Ireland with Shelbourne and spend 11 seasons with Dundee United.     

Crowe had a stint with Longford too but as much as he enjoyed it, he couldn’t count on football anymore. He weighed up his options but eventually came to the conclusion that the thing he knew most about and was still most passionate about, was sport.

By that stage, he’d come full circle and was immersed deeply in GAA again, enticed back by the same friends he’d grown up with.

In 1998, he sat with Robbie Keane in Wolverhampton and watched Galway win the All-Ireland football final, with Keane marvelling at Michael Donnellan’s display. Eight years later, Crowe was playing alongside Donnellan for Salthill-Knocknacarra and winning an All-Ireland club medal.

Crowe, voted Galway Club Footballer of the Year in 2005, ended up with two county championships, a provincial crown and an All-Ireland Junior ‘B’ hurling title with Menlo.      

“After coming back home, I ended up taking a break from sport for about three months,” he says.

Seamie Crowe Crowe celebrates Salthill's All-Ireland triumph in 2006. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“But a friend was playing for Salthill and he said, ‘Come out and start training with us’ and that was my start with them and I’ve been there ever since. And then my local hurling team – with all my mates I grew up with – said, ‘Will you train us?’ They were very cute, like. I was still in my early 20s so within a few months, of course, I was back playing with them.” 

There’s no money involved, no contracts involved, everyone’s at the same level. I was at a big club like Salthill too so it took everything away from soccer. It took all my concentration and I put it into GAA.” 

Gradually, the enjoyment for soccer returned too and he started playing with Mervue United and with Athenry. Inevitably, despite the dodgy knee, he excelled and between 2008 and 2010, he was voted both Junior and Intermediate Player of the Year at the FAI awards.     

And it was through those local connections that professional opportunities opened up for him.   

“I worked in a few factories – and absolutely nothing against that – but it wasn’t for me,” he says.

“I needed to find out what I wanted to do. I had friends who I had played with and they turned their backs on all sports and ended up taking jobs for the sake of it. I tried out lots of different jobs and was within a click of a button of going back as a mature student and becoming a secondary teacher.”

But through some contacts in Athenry, I opened a sports shop even though I knew nothing about running a business. I said, ‘Right, I’ll wing it here’ and that’s what I did for a few years. But I was always interested in fitness and a warehouse became available in the town and I built it up bit by bit, literally. I started with nothing. My father-in-law gave me some empty barrels. A friend gave me some kegs and everything went from there.”

That empty warehouse in an industrial estate in Raheen eventually became District, a hugely-successful health and fitness centre that now boasts a state-of-the-art gym, dance studios (Crowe’s wife Mary is an Irish dancing teacher), an astro-turf pitch, a wellness space and a physiotherapy clinic. He’s currently working on plans to open up a similar facility in another part of the country.  

Regrets? Not really. 

“Everything happens for a reason,” he says. 

10_athenry_v_carberry_team Crowe, far left in the front row, with his Athenry team-mates.

“I went to England for a reason. I came home for a reason. At times, I will think about certain things. Maybe if I did finish at Wolves and say, Right, let’s put the head down and work hard’, would I have got a contract somewhere else? There’s a lot more money in the game now and it’s great if you’re on 20, 30 or 100 grand per week. But I saw the lower levels – you’re still on good money but for how long? I just found that it’s such a bubble. Once you’re in it, you’re in it. But once you’re gone, you’re gone. There’s a lot of falseness there too. It’s a real dog-eat-dog world and people genuinely don’t care about each other.”  

When I look back I think about being 15 and moving to England. That first few months I grew up more than if I was at home for five years. I would’ve been in Galway and living the easy life. I got to spend five or six years as a professional sportsman. I’m friends with a lot of high-profile GAA players and they’re not pros. So you always have that. And in business circles, when people ask about your past and you tell them, straightaway you can see their attention has been turned. I never bring it up unless someone says it to me. That’s not who I am. I plough away and play things down more than anything.” 

“My memories are in my head, the jerseys are in a cupboard somewhere. I have a few medals and trophies since coming home but it’s funny. My wife is an Irish dancer and our daughter is following in her footsteps. She’s only five but she nearly has more medals than me. So, it’s kinda like, ‘Okay Dad, it’s my turn’ so she’s started to take over now.

Look, another step and I could’ve been a professional footballer for a while but I wouldn’t have met my wife and wouldn’t have had two kids. I wouldn’t be one for looking back too much. And I certainly don’t look back with regret. I look back and I’m very proud of what I’ve done and extremely proud of how far I did get.”      

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