Dublin: 12°C Thursday 30 June 2022

Cleaning Ian Harte's boots, learning from Jaap Stam and chasing a historic double

After over five years at Reading, patience has been the key for Cork City star Shane Griffin.

Shane Griffin playing for Reading in a pre-season friendly against Bristol Rovers in 2015.
Shane Griffin playing for Reading in a pre-season friendly against Bristol Rovers in 2015.
Image: Joe Giddens

Updated at 15.35

HE DOESN’T REMEMBER his playing career, but Shane Griffin heard enough about Jaap Stam to understand that Reading had made a major appointment when replacing Brian McDermott as manager in June 2016.

When the Manchester United team Stam played in swiped the Champions League trophy from under Bayern Munich’s noses in 1999, Griffin was four years old — a little too young to appreciate the significance of that Camp Nou cliffhanger.

The Cork native had mixed feelings when the former Dutch international took over at the Madejski Stadium.

McDermott, Stam’s predecessor, had just handed Griffin a one-year contract extension which was accompanied by a promise of a long-awaited opportunity to prove himself in the first team.

On the other hand, as a young defender, he was intrigued by the prospect of learning from a man of the calibre and experience of Jaap Stam, who was selected at centre-half in the PFA’s Team of the Year in each of the three seasons he spent at Old Trafford before moving on to Lazio, AC Milan and then Ajax.

In his first season in charge of the Championship club, Stam guided Reading to the brink of a return to the Premier League. Huddersfield Town ultimately denied them after a penalty shootout at Wembley last May. By then, however, Griffin had moved on.

“After Brian McDermott gave me a new contract, he spoke to me and said I’d get a chance to prove to him that I was good enough the following season. Whether I was good enough or not was going to be up to me, but the opportunity was going to be there, which was all I wanted,” Griffin explains.

Huddersfield Town v Reading - Sky Bet Championship - Play Off - Final - Wembley Stadium Reading manager Jaap Stam before last season's Championship play-off final at Wembley. Source: EMPICS Sport

“Then he lost his job and Jaap Stam came in. He started with a clean slate and, for whatever reason, I wasn’t in his plans. He brought in a few players in the same position as me that suited his style of football. It was disappointing in the off-season thinking that I had something to work towards, and then when a new manager comes in you’re starting again.

“I was used to the challenge of trying to impress a new manager — we had three managers in the space of 12 months at one stage. I would have loved to play for him. He had a great career himself. In training you could just tell that he knew exactly what he was talking about, especially with the defensive qualities that he’d pass on to defenders.

“In fairness to him, they got to the play-off final last season when they were probably hoping to be mid-table at best. He’s obviously done a good job there so you can’t fault him. It’s frustrating, but that’s football. I just had to accept at the end of the day that I wasn’t good enough to fit into his plans or his style of play.”

When his time at Reading ended, over five-and-a-half years had passed since Griffin joined the club from Carrigaline United on the outskirts of Cork city. His goal of breaking into the Royals’ first team hadn’t been achieved, but doing so was never going to be easy in the context of the quality of his competition for the left-back berth.

More recently, England U20 international Jordan Obita and former Manchester United defender Tyler Blackett were in his way. Before that it was full internationals like Wayne Bridge, Nicky Shorey and compatriot Ian Harte, who took Griffin under his wing when he arrived in Berkshire as a raw 16-year-old.

“I used to clean Ian Harte’s boots when I first went over,” Griffin recalls. “He was a bit of a mentor for me. He’d speak to me nearly every day and he’d always be passing on little tips. He was a great guy, in fairness. It was brilliant to watch him play because he was just so experienced. He was really good to me.”

With a few months still to run on his contract, Griffin decided back in January that he was no longer content with reserve team football. Cork City manager John Caulfield was monitoring his situation and opened the door for a return to Leeside. The Ireland U21 international didn’t need to be asked twice.

Soccer - npower Football League Championship - Play Off - Final - Reading v Swansea City - Wembley Stadium Former Republic of Ireland defender Ian Harte was a mentor to Shane Griffin at Reading. Source: EMPICS Sport

He says: “When John made it known that he wanted me, I knew I wanted to come to Cork City. He made me feel valued and I’ve been very grateful for that. I felt like my career had kind of stalled. I just wanted to kick on and start playing.

“If you do well at Cork City, it’s proven itself to be a club where you can kick on to the next level if you’re good enough. It’s a good shop window. But the main thing was that it was a chance to play for my hometown club. That was very appealing. I jumped at the chance.”

Regular first-team football was finally on the horizon, but Griffin still had to remain patient at first. At Cork City, the player occupying his position was being courted by a club in the division from which Griffin had just returned.

It was the end of July when Kevin O’Connor left for Preston North End. Griffin had impressed with his cameos before then, but his performances since O’Connor moved to the Championship have been one of the most encouraging features for the Leesiders recently as they’ve approached their first Premier Division title triumph in 12 years.

Since setting a frantic pace that their rivals couldn’t handle for the first two-thirds of the season, City’s rate of progress towards that destination has slowed down recently. The form of top goalscorer Sean Maguire, who accompanied O’Connor to Preston, was largely responsible.

“What Seanie did at Cork City, the way he improved and progressed with the training, the gym work, the coaching, it’s a credit to himself but also to all the staff at Cork City. They’ve played a big part in making him the player he is now,” Griffin says.

“But he always had that drive and that hunger to go to the next level. It’s great to see him doing what he’s doing at Preston. Looking at the highlights of their games, he’s totally comfortable at that level and he’s making a good impact.

Shane Griffin and Keith Buckley Griffin tangling with Keith Buckley of Bray Wanderers. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“It’s inspiring because it was only a few months ago that he was training and playing alongside us. It lets you know that it is possible to go from this level and slot straight into the Championship.”

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If Griffin can maintain his current form, it may not be long before he’s the next Cork City player attracting interest from suitors east of the Irish Sea. Having turned 23 earlier this month, he’s had to wait longer than he would have liked for his chance to experience competitive senior football on a weekly basis. But he’s making the most of his chance.

“There’s definitely a massive difference between playing reserve football, which is what I was doing for three or four years, and playing week-in-week-out for three points and playing for your wages at a level like this.

“I could tell from the intensity of the training in the first few weeks when I came here. It’s a very competitive environment and it’s a big club full of very good players. I expected a high standard but I was surprised by just how good it was.”

He adds: “I’m loving it over the last few weeks since I’ve been starting in every game after Kev left. It took me one or two games to get into the swing of things but I’m really enjoying it now. I can’t wait for every game.”

After a two-week break, City return to Premier Division action tonight away to Limerick. If results go their way over the course of the next week, the league title could be wrapped up and another FAI Cup final appearance may also be secured.

Having been faultless all year, a cluster of poor performances and results in the post-Maguire era have meant that John Caulfield’s side have had to contend with doubts over their ability to prosper in the absence of the Preston striker.

Shane Griffin Griffin has seamlessly filled the void left by the departure of Kevin O'Connor. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Yet the first Premier Division and FAI Cup double in the club’s history remains within touching distance. It’s the Markets Field instead of the Madejski Stadium tonight for Shane Griffin, but for the time being at least, there’s nowhere else he’d rather be.

“People didn’t have a bad word to say about us all year and when we had a couple of slip-ups they jumped on. But it’s nothing to us. While we haven’t been taking much notice of what other people are saying, we do feel ourselves that we can perform better. We’re looking forward to putting things right,” Griffin says.

“It’s a massive week for us, with Dundalk on Monday and the semi-final against Limerick at Turner’s Cross next Friday. This game [tonight] in Limerick is all we’re thinking about for now, but it would be great to get to the Aviva Stadium as well.

“The lads here won the cup there last year and they all talk about how great a day it was. Playing in front of so many City fans at the Aviva and then bringing the cup back down to Cork, that was an amazing experience for them.

“It’s something I want a taste of myself.”

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Paul Dollery

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