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'People will say it can't compare to Arsenal, but I'm extremely proud of what I have here'

Kerry native Sean Kelly reflects on his rollercoaster journey, which included a two-year spell in England.

THE SOUND OF the 5.00am alarm is seldom pleasant for Sean Kelly, but it’s worth being roused before dawn breaks to get a headstart on the city’s notorious traffic.

“I never drank coffee before I moved to this place,” he laughs. “I probably couldn’t survive without it now.”

From his home in Yonkers, he points the car south to get the day’s work started. For the majority of the journey, the Hudson River flanks him on the right. To the left, the towering presence of Manhattan gradually reveals itself along Route 9A.

Half an hour after putting the keys in the ignition, he arrives at his downtown destination, knowing that the homeward commute later that day will take twice as long.

When he first touched down on US soil in 2013, Kelly couldn’t tell one end of a hammer from the other. Nowadays he’s a project manager for a general contractor at New York University.

I knew very little about working life before I came here. All I knew was football. I started off just doing a bit of painting, but I’ve worked hard. Some pure and utter bluffing has helped me along the way too.

“There’s millions and millions of dollars’ worth of work going on here, so it’s a big thing to be involved in. Between working and football, I only sleep about five hours a night. That’s just the way life in general is over here. It’s non-stop, but I love it,” he insists.

“I know people will say ‘how the hell did he end up there?’ and there’s a story behind everything. You can tell lies about your story and keep running away from the truth, or you can be open and honest and have your say.

“This is all stuff that I’ve very rarely talked about, except maybe with family and some friends. It’s nice to get the message out there to young players that there is life after football. If it doesn’t work out, don’t give up.”

inpho_00160969 Kelly was an Ireland U17 and U19 international. Source: INPHO/Andrew Paton

Growing up in Tralee, Kelly dreamed of summer Sundays in Fitzgerald Stadium and Croke Park. He played underage for Kerry alongside future All-Ireland winners like David Moran, Tommy Walsh, Kieran O’Leary and Killian Young.

While excelling for the Austin Stacks club, he was also a stand-out performer on the soccer pitch. His displays for Tralee Dynamos and Kingdom Boys elevated him to the international stage, where he first came to the attention of Arsenal. 

“I was playing for the Ireland U17s out in La Manga against Spain, who had [Cesc] Fabregas and [Gerard] Pique,” he explains. “Liam Brady was there scouting Fabregas for Arsenal. They obviously ended up signing him, and it worked out okay for me as well. 

I was all about going on and playing Gaelic football for the Kerry minors at that stage, but you’re not going to turn down an offer from the Premier League champions.”

In the summer of 2004, shortly before his 17th birthday, Kelly swapped North Kerry for North London to sign for a club on a high from its achievements of the previous season. The Gunners became The Invincibles after avoiding defeat for the duration of a 38-game campaign, which ended with them regaining the league title from Manchester United.

Further down the food chain at the club, Kelly joined the likes of Johan Djourou, Fabrice Muamba, Nicklas Bendtner and Anthony Stokes in the academy. By the time he arrived, Fabregas had already been fast-tracked into the first-team squad.

“To be in the vicinity of fellas like Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires… I think it goes without saying that it was unbelievable, especially at such a young age,” says Kelly. “When I look back now, there’s definitely a part of me that wonders if it actually happened; if that was really me who experienced that.”

Having been signed as a midfielder, Kelly evolved into a ball-playing central defender. He featured regularly for the youth team — who he occasionally captained — and the reserves, yet injuries also curtailed his involvement to a frustrating extent.

Arsenal youths 2004-05 The 2004-05 Arsenal youths, with Kelly furthest right in the back row (Fabregas second from right in the front row). Source: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC

After two years on the books, he was informed that there was no longer a place for him at the club. While Arsenal concluded the 2005-06 season by facing Barcelona in the final of the Champions League, Kelly encountered uncertainty. His plans to play at the highest level under Arsene Wenger had suddenly been discarded.

“I’m a firm believer that a negative mindset can contribute to physical injuries. Maybe that was true for me,” he says. “In my second year at Arsenal I played a pre-season friendly with the first-team against Boreham Wood. I worked hard when I went home that summer and I felt like I was flying it.

“But not long after that I got injured again. It was in a reserve game and a ball was played across the box to me. There was no one near me but I ended up going over on my ankle and destroyed my ligaments. I was out for about six months. When you’re trying to get back fit, you lose a bit of your focus because you’re not involved. That’s when your mind can take over.

“Having said that, the injuries weren’t entirely to blame. I messed up too. For some reason when I went over to Arsenal I convinced myself that I had to do something different, something more. I kept putting pressure on myself about whether or not I was doing enough.

I was trying to change my game and it kind of fucked me up. I completely over-thought things at times.

“I have no idea why I did that. Maybe it was because Arsenal were Premier League champions and I was trying too hard to make an impression. But they signed me for who I was so I should have stuck with that. Like anything in life, the best person you can be is yourself.

“A major factor for me was not being confident enough. Nerves would very often get the better of me. If I hit a bad pass it would stick in my head. And when you’re thinking that way, your next pass is more than likely going to be a bad pass too.

“I wish I had been able to handle that side of things better. The club had psychology programmes in place for us to deal with that sort of stuff, but I was so young that I didn’t realise that this was what they were trying to teach us.

“For a lot of fellas at that age, homesickness is the big problem when they go over to England. But that wasn’t my problem. Nerves and over-thinking things were the issues for me. For any kid going over to England, it’s probably more important to be mentally ready before you’re physically ready. A strong mind is what makes the difference at the top level.

Kelly 1 041129AFC Playing for Arsenal reserves against Charlton Athletic. Source: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC

“The whole Arsenal experience is one of those where you’re left thinking that you didn’t know what you had until it was gone. I look back now and obviously I’d do things differently. It was a fantastic time but I wish I could have taken in more of it. You know, in the sense of ‘wow, I’m at Arsenal, this is amazing’. I was young, so I didn’t really do that.”

Dejected but undeterred, Kelly’s search for a new club brought him to League One side Yeovil Town, with whom he agreed terms before heading home for the summer break. However, after the 19-year-old returned to Somerset for pre-season training, the goalposts were moved when Russell Slade replaced Steve Thompson as manager.

He explains: “I was mad keen to get started at Yeovil. Then a new manager came in and he just didn’t want to do the deal. There had been talk of something up in Scotland with Falkirk, but by the time things fell through at Yeovil, Falkirk had spent their budget and there was nothing there for me. I was absolutely heartbroken.

“That was the first time I ever cried in my life over football. I’ll never forget getting on the train from Yeovil to London to get a flight. I was in bits on the train. That was it.

There was nothing over there for me anymore. My bags were packed and I was heading home. I felt completely broken from it.”

Word of Kelly’s availability soon reached Damien Richardson, who had recently guided Cork City to their first League of Ireland Premier Division title in 12 years. Shortly after committing to City, he told The Kerryman newspaper that his ambition was “to return to England, play Premiership football and play for my country.”

Kelly has some fond memories of his time on Leeside. He was a member of an FAI Cup-winning squad in 2007. A Setanta Sports Cup medal followed a year later. There were European appearances too.

Nevertheless, he’s candid enough to admit now that during a two-and-a-half-year spell at Turner’s Cross, he didn’t often look like a player who was destined for senior international honours or a move back to the UK.

“The lads at Cork were brilliant,” he says. “The likes of Dan Murray and John O’Flynn would always be telling me that I was going to be back over in England before too long. But I knew I wasn’t doing enough — not even close. My confidence was shot. It’s tough to come back when you’ve been through something that breaks your heart.

inpho_00233080 Challenging Hammarby's Haris Laitinen during an Intertoto Cup game with Cork City. Source: ©INPHO/Neil Danton

“Overall I really enjoyed it at Cork, especially under Damien [Richardson]. But then he left, the club ran into financial trouble and I was picking up niggles because I wasn’t looking after myself. The Cork nightlife was good and I got sucked into it more than I should have.

“When Paul Doolin took over as manager, that was the end for me. I wasn’t fit, and if you’re not fit for Paul Doolin then there’s no point in even turning up. Even though I didn’t agree at the time, he was right. My mind wasn’t where it needed to be and neither was my body.”

Spells at Galway United and Limerick gave Kelly three more seasons in the League of Ireland. He then sought employment away from football for the first time. While there was satisfaction from earning a few quid as a courier in North Kerry, it felt as if a downward spiral accelerated when he suffered a broken leg during a game for Limerick junior side Pike Rovers. 

“When I was playing for Pike I was thinking I’d get a move back to the League of Ireland,” he recalls. “Then things changed completely with the injury. I ended up being out for a year.

At that stage I basically decided that I was done — finished with football.

“Being honest now, there were some really dark days then. I couldn’t play football, I couldn’t work, I was back living at home for the first time since I was 16, I was on the social welfare — it was a bad, bad time.

“When you have to queue up for the social welfare, it’s hard to feel like you’re any lower. I don’t mean any disrespect to people who are in that situation — some people have no choice — but nobody wants to be relying on it in an ideal world.

“I was also just blocking out the reality of my situation. I was fucking about with my friends, drinking and partying to take my mind off things. It’s a scary place to be when you have no idea what to do next with your life. I really hadn’t a clue what I was going to do. The hardest days were when you’d see fellas on the TV who you used to play with. They were real ‘fucking hell!’ moments.

“Thankfully things picked up when the injury got sorted and I was able to get back on my feet. I actually started playing Gaelic again and I was going to concentrate on that. That was when the call came in from America.”

Pat Sullivan with Sean Kelly Challenging for a header with Pat Sullivan of Shamrock Rovers while playing for Galway United. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Stephen Conway, an old friend from Kerry, had passed Kelly’s number on to Lansdowne Bhoys, a Yonkers-based club run by Irish emigrants involved in the construction industry in New York. He bit their hands off to accept an offer of football accompanied by full-time work.

“I can’t explain how fortunate I was to get that call, especially at that stage,” he says. “I had always wanted to go to America anyway, but the timing was perfect. Myself and my girlfriend set foot in New York six years ago and we’ve loved it here ever since. 

“I had no clue about construction when I came over here so I’m proud of myself for what I’ve done to get this far in the job. The work gives me a lot of joy. I think I have a good ethic towards it.

I did some courses in my spare time and I used to bring plans and drawings home to study. I tried to get familiar with it that way.

“If I wasn’t sure of something, I’d turn to my boss, a Westmeath man, James Kirby. He’s just a gem of a person. Meeting him was one of the best things that ever happened to me. A lot of people have made a huge difference to my life in the last few years, but I’m hugely grateful to him and a man named Robbie Jackson for their help.”

The work has allowed Kelly to lay a strong foundation, but football remains prominent in his life. An increasing passion for coaching has even convinced him that the game may again — when the time is right — provide him with a career.

Now aged 31, he’s the first-team coach and captain of one of the top amateur sides in America, a status evidenced by their national title win in 2017.

Thanks to goals from former League of Ireland players Daryl Kavanagh and Craig Purcell, Lansdowne Bhoys also reached the last 32 of the US Open Cup — the USA’s equivalent of the FAI Cup — in 2016 by recording a 2-0 win over Pittsburgh Riverhounds, a professional club who play in the United Soccer League (the second-highest tier of US football).

“I’ve been involved in a lot of success with Lansdowne,” says Kelly. “People will say it can’t compare to Arsenal, but I’m extremely proud of what I have here and no one will ever take that away from me.

32708075_1964844473590350_3613558725761040384_n Kelly (second from right in the front row) lining out for Lansdowne Bhoys. Source: Lansdowne Bhoys

“This club gave me a second chance at life. Did that phone call save my life? Possibly. It has certainly made my life. That’s why I’m so passionate about this club, the people involved in it and what they’ve all done for me.”

Making a fresh start in New York has also given Kelly a brighter perspective on an experience that hung over him like a dark cloud for so long. Not making the grade at Arsenal stung, and the years that followed did little to ease the pain, yet the journey has taken him to a place where he no longer feels suffocated by a fear of the future.

“For a long time I was angry towards the experience at Arsenal,” he explains. “My girlfriend kept telling me to stop beating myself up over it. Making it at Arsenal is a fucking hard thing to do. That’s life. What’s meant for one person isn’t always going to be meant for you too. Everyone has a different path. It took me a while to understand that.

Now I’m just happy that I had the experience and I can use it to benefit me and others too. I was with Arsenal, I’m proud of it and it’s something that I can always have on my CV.

“But having to depend on football is something that will never happen again. I want to do well in the game, but my outlook will be different. What will be will be. It will always bring me joy, but the days of relying on football for happiness are gone.

“I’m living in New York, doing good work and still playing the game I love. That’s all I need. My job pays the bills but football is still my first love. But it’s not the be-all and end-all. Not anymore.”

He sometimes wishes that the evening traffic was more akin to Ballybunion than The Bronx, but apart from that, Sean Kelly wouldn’t change a thing.

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Paul Dollery

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