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'I still believe deep down that I can make it as a Premier League player'

Ex-Ireland U21 captain Tommie Hoban hasn’t allowed injuries to dampen his desire to succeed.

JUST OVER 12 months ago, Tommie Hoban gave a video interview to Watford FC’s official website on his 24th birthday.

The subject matter was regrettably familiar for the former Republic of Ireland U21 captain. Since his debut for the club at 17, the majority of questions posed of him have centred on the injuries that have so far defined his career. At this stage, he has become more acquainted to the treatment table than the training pitch.

Thomas Hoban Hoban captained Ireland at U21 level. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Once more, he was travelling the road to recovery. On the eve of a new Premier League campaign, Hoban tore his anterior cruciate knee ligament in the summer of 2017. In an instant, the central defender’s season was written off. 

Hoban is an infectiously upbeat character, seemingly predisposed to honing in on the bright side of the darkest scenarios. But everyone has limits. Last season, he began to wonder if he had finally reached his.

“Sometimes you start to question if it’s meant to be,” he said in January 2018. “Am I meant to be doing this? Should I start looking at other things?”

Hoban’s candid assessment suggested that his patience was wearing thin. Before the knee injury there was a complicated pelvic issue, which followed long-term shoulder and ankle problems.

The repeated setbacks have prevented him from fulfilling the potential that reportedly piqued the interest of Manchester United and Liverpool when he was an 18-year-old in his first full season as a Watford player.

Nearly eight years since his maiden senior appearance, injuries have curtailed his career to the extent that a 100th professional game is a milestone he still hasn’t reached.

“Unfortunately for me it’s been one thing after another,” he tells The42. “You do get to a point where you have to ask yourself if you can go back to it again.”

Born in North London, Hoban was at Arsenal from the age of seven. Despite being released by the Gunners at 14, he was playing for Watford in the Championship just three years later. He was hailed as “an unbelievable talent” by Gianfranco Zola during the Italian’s managerial reign at Vicarage Road. 

Soccer - FA Cup - Third Round - Chelsea v Watford - Stamford Bridge Challenging Chelsea's Diego Costa in an FA Cup third-round game in January 2015. Source: Adam Davy

Hoban’s breakthrough was later rewarded with a five-year contract extension. He made 30 appearances during the 2014-15 season, which ended with Watford being promoted. The Hornets are now in their fourth consecutive season as a top-flight club, but Hoban has yet to get a taste of Premier League football.

He was sent out on loan to Blackburn Rovers for the 2016-17 season in order to accumulate much-needed game-time following a year on the sidelines. Another fresh start was required at the beginning of this season, when he made a temporary move to Aberdeen following his recovery from the aforementioned ACL rupture.

Having impressed in both legs of a Europa League defeat to Burnley last August, it appeared as though he was finally being dealt a long-overdue measure of good fortune. He went on to give Aberdeen the lead against Hibernian in his league debut for the club later that month.

Hoping he had finally turned a corner, Hoban’s optimism was short-lived. After the game, he discovered that surgery would be required on a shoulder injury sustained in the process of scoring in the 1-1 draw. After taking a significant step forward, once again he was forced two steps back.

“I was devastated, to be honest,” he says. “You try to stay as positive as you can, but when so much time in your career is going to waste it does get hard to keep your spirits up. If you get too down it can become a negative cycle which can be really hard to get out of.

“When the injury happened, my son was a few weeks away from being born, so you’re starting to think about his future as well. ‘How many more times can I go through this?’ — that’s what you’re asking yourself. 

“I had already been looking into a few other things, doing some extra studying outside of football just to prepare for the worst-case scenario if it ever got to that stage. My dad has a business in financial advising and it’s something I’ve always had an interest in.

“It’s hard to explain, but even when you get back to fitness, you’ve missed so much football that your body doesn’t feel the same as it did before. You have to make a lot of adjustments. Your recovery takes longer and that can take a bit of getting used to.” 

Aberdeen v Rangers - Ladbrokes Scottish Premiership - Pittodrie Stadium Tangling with Jermain Defoe of Rangers. Source: Jeff Holmes

Just over a fortnight ago, Hoban marked his 25th birthday by returning from a five-month absence with a substitute appearance against Kilmarnock. He has since made three consecutive starts, earning rave reviews for his displays in Aberdeen’s defence.

“Obviously it has been great to be back playing recently,” says the Watford loanee, who’s likely to feature in this afternoon’s Scottish Cup fifth-round clash with Queen of the South. 

“I feel fit now but I still have issues sometimes with pain. I’ve had to take tablets before and after games. That can all take a toll on you. But being part of a winning team, as I have been in the last few weeks, is a feeling that not many things can come close to. 

“Although I have had it tough with injuries — and other boys have had it much tougher — this is definitely what I want to do with my life. I’m not as young as I once was, but I still feel like there’s plenty of time for me to go on and have a good career at a high level.

“Now that I’m back out there, my focus is fully on football. In saying that, I do think it’s good to prepare for a life outside of the game because so many other players have had injuries that they haven’t been able to recover from.”

If the word ‘cursed’ didn’t exist, it would have to be invented to describe Tommie Hoban’s career to date. However, a cause for optimism amid his hindered journey is that the injuries he has suffered haven’t been connected in a domino pattern. Had it been a case of old wounds continually reopening, prevailing to this point would have been an even greater challenge.

“If you’re going to pick a positive, that’s probably one,” he says. “It hasn’t been the same thing over and over again. I do recover well from the injuries I’ve had. A lot of them have just been ridiculously unlucky. Even with the knee injury, it all started because someone landed on it. It’s not as if I was running and it gave out. 

“It was the same with the shoulder; it was a contact thing. If it was something like a hamstring that just couldn’t live up to the demands of football, it would probably be a different scenario and I would be worried.”

Nottingham Forest v Blackburn Rovers - Sky Bet Championship - City Ground Celebrating after scoring for Blackburn Rovers against Nottingham Forest in April 2017. Source: Nigel French

While his initial aim is to maintain his fitness over a sustained period, Hoban’s desire to represent his country at the highest level has never dissipated.

A full cap seemed inevitable when he was consistently delivering impressive displays as captain of the Ireland U21 team. During his tenure as senior boss, Martin O’Neill spoke highly of Hoban and watched him in action for Watford on multiple occasions. The debilitating impact of his injury problems hasn’t only been felt at club level.

“Becoming a senior international with Ireland has always been one of my goals,” he says. “I probably wasn’t too far off when I was playing regularly at Watford a few years back. It’s definitely something I believe I can do but I know there are a lot of good players — who have played a lot more football than I have — there at the minute.  

“Captaining the U21s was massive for me. Leading the team out with the green jersey on, standing there for the national anthem as captain of your country, there’s not much that can top that. It’s something I’m massively proud of and so are my family. 

“Getting into the senior set-up is not going to be easy, but it’s a challenge that I’m up for. If I can stay fit and keep playing, I’d be hopeful that my performances will warrant a call-up. If and when that comes, I’ll be ready. It’s definitely something I’m working towards.

“My memories of playing with the U21s are unbelievable, so if I can get the opportunity with the senior team it would obviously be even more special. To play at the Aviva with my family in the crowd would be amazing.”

Hoban’s roots are in English soil, but they were planted by Irish hands. His mother is a Dublin woman. His father’s parents came from Westport and Limerick. 

“I’ve lived in England all my life but we’ve always seen ourselves as an Irish family,” he explains. “Having played for Ireland since U17s, I could never see myself playing for England now. It’s not that I’d feel like I’m betraying Ireland, but I see myself as Irish so that’s just what makes sense to me. 

“Ireland gave me my chance to play international football, which means a lot to me. There are obviously a lot of good players in England, but if I did ever have the choice between the two, I’d definitely be staying with Ireland.”

The subject of dual nationality has received much coverage in recent months, owing to Declan Rice’s hesitation in declaring his intentions. Capped three times by Ireland in friendlies, the London-born youngster can still switch his allegiance to England.

“Every person and every family is different,” Hoban says. “I wouldn’t cast judgement on any player. Everyone has their own reasons. Personally I’ll always see myself as being Irish, but other boys who might have one English parent might see it differently. There’s nothing wrong with that as well. It’s down to the individual.

“I don’t think it’s fair to judge someone without knowing their situation. Obviously it’s better for Ireland if we keep the better players, but if one player does decide to join England, there’ll be plenty of others who’ll be ready to step in and represent Ireland.” 

For Tommie Hoban, past difficulties have created an uncertain future. His Watford contract expires at the end of the season. He’s pragmatic enough to recognise that the scarcity of appearances on his CV might deter the club from retaining him.

Hoban’s preference is to stay at Vicarage Road. He’ll back himself to capitalise should he be presented with an adequate opportunity. If not, he’ll be devoid of animosity.

His career has so far lacked structure. With a five-month-old child to care for now, settling down for the sake of his young family is at the top of his list of priorities. Once that box has been ticked, he’ll pursue Premier League appearances and international caps.

“It would be nice to think that I’m getting all my injury problems out of the way now so I can have a good run when I’m older,” he says. “I’d definitely take that, although I thought that would have ended a couple of years ago. At the minute I feel good and I believe I’ll only get fitter and stronger by playing more games.

Thomas Hoban with Gregor Bajde Winning a header for Ireland U21s against Slovenia. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“Having a baby does change things and it’s something I’ve thought a lot about in the last six months or so. My family and my partner’s family all live down around London, so being settled there would obviously be perfect.

“I’d love to be able to prove myself as a Premier League player at Watford, but the main objective is to stay fit and play every week again, wherever that may be.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen next season. Either way, I’d like to sign a contract somewhere for a few years so I can get my head down, improve as a player and enjoy my family life, because that is the most important thing.

“Deep down, I still feel like I haven’t shown what I can do as a player. I know what I’m capable of when I get a run of games. There’s no doubt in my belief in myself, which I think every player has to have if they want to make it at the top. If that ever changes, that’s when I probably would start to properly consider giving up.

“But I’ve always believed that I’m capable of playing at the top. I’m hoping that I can show that by helping Aberdeen to do well between now and the end of the season.

“I still believe deep down that I can make it as a Premier League player. That’s always been my goal and it still is. Things can change so quickly in football. With a bit of luck and with the right people watching, one good season can change your career.” 

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About the author:

Paul Dollery

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