William Tells

Premier League platform awaits as French-born midfielder tackles the Leaving Cert

Before he relocates to England, there’s work to be done for William Hondermarck at St Fintan’s High School.

BACK IN AUGUST, life after secondary school became an increasingly pertinent consideration for William Hondermarck as he began sixth year.

While his teachers preached the importance of homework, revision and preparing for the future, Hondermarck knew that his ideal career wasn’t catered for on the CAO form.

William Hondermarck and Ronan Finn Drogheda United's William Hondermarck under pressure from Ronan Finn of Shamrock Rovers. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

A couple of weeks earlier, he made a pivotal contribution to Drogheda United’s FAI Cup upset over Shamrock Rovers — a result that earned him plenty of attention within the domestic game.

But as a 17-year-old with a handful of appearances for a second-tier League of Ireland club, a full-time career in football wasn’t a prospect he could afford to place all his chips on.

Nevertheless, the landscape has changed considerably for Hondermarck over the course of his final year as a student at St Fintan’s High School in Sutton.

He’ll have his first Leaving Certificate examination on Wednesday. A week after he sits his last, his time on the books of a Premier League club will begin in earnest.

“Everything happened really quickly,” he says. “That Shamrock Rovers game was probably the start of it. I’m not sure what I would have put on the CAO form — maybe some kind of business course — but things ended up working out a bit differently.”

After his promising outing against the Hoops, Hondermarck played in all of Drogheda United’s remaining fixtures as their promotion hopes were ultimately dashed by a play-off defeat to Finn Harps.

By then, UK clubs had begun to express their interest in the midfielder, who celebrated his 18th birthday in December. Brentford and Dundee United were particularly keen, but it was Norwich City who landed his signature in January. 

“Obviously I had never played in a game anywhere near the scale of the Shamrock Rovers one,” he recalls. “When you do play and you play well, it catches you a little bit by surprise. But at the same time, that’s what I train for every day so it didn’t come as a massive shock either. It’s what I had been working towards and I knew that I had the ability.” 

As he proudly posed with the canary yellow shirt of a club that was en route to the Premier League, quadratic equations and the modh coinníollach couldn’t have been further from Hondermarck’s thoughts. However, the ground rules established by his parents ensured that it wasn’t long before he was back in the woolly jumper of St Fintan’s.

A wise head on young shoulders, Hondermarck is aware of the many tales of young Irish footballers who pursued success in the professional game in England, only to return home without the consolation of a Plan B. 

Large Hondermarck became a Norwich City player in January. Norwich City FC Norwich City FC

“My parents had it set out from the very start that I wouldn’t be moving over to Norwich in January,” he explains. “I wasn’t going to throw my education away just for six months of football. 

“Sometimes when it gets tough in school you start thinking that you’d be love to be over there playing football instead of worrying about exams. But I know it’s the right thing to do. Once I have the Leaving Cert out of the way it will always be there for me as a back-up.” 

Although his education hasn’t been abandoned, Hondermarck already has an inkling of what to expect at Norwich City. During school holidays and on occasional weekends, he travelled across to East Anglia and made several appearances for the club’s U18 and U23 teams.

He’s also adamant that this is an opportunity he’s now fully prepared for. With the benefit of hindsight, Hondermarck admits that wasn’t the case when Nottingham Forest had him on trial at the age of 16.

“I was too young,” he says. “I thought I was ready for a big move like that, but I was nowhere near mature enough. It’s better off that it didn’t work out. Going over at this age is much better for me. Some people are ready at that age, but I don’t think I would have been.

“I’ve really enjoyed the time I’ve spent over at Norwich so far. I’ve already learned a lot. When you play against teams like Tottenham and Arsenal, you get more of an understanding of the technical and tactical side of the game.

“Everything — the players, the pitches, the training — is of a high standard. To be able to go into an environment like that is a dream come true. Is it a challenge? Of course. But I wouldn’t say it’s daunting. To get a chance like this is a gift.” 

A tall but mobile central midfielder, Hondermarck enjoys the freedom of a box-to-box role, to which his impressive athleticism is conducive. Parallels drawn with Patrick Vieira by a former coach have resonated with others who have seen how he plays the game. 

The similarities with Vieira don’t end there. Two years after the former Arsenal captain became a World Cup winner in Paris in 1998, Hondermarck was born 130 kilometres south of the French capital in Orleans.

By now, his Dublin accent disguises the fact that he spent the first five years of his life in France, but there remains a strong attachment to his birthplace. When Hondermarck’s parents relocated to Ireland for work opportunities in 2005, their only child at the time understandably found the transition difficult.

William Hondermarck 'Going over at this age is much better for me.' Oisin Keniry / INPHO Oisin Keniry / INPHO / INPHO

“It was very, very tough,” he says. “I didn’t speak a word of English, which is obviously going to be hard for a five-year-old going into a new school in a new country where you don’t know anyone. My mam tells me I used to cry every morning because I didn’t want to go in. 

“But things obviously change after a while. I settled in, and within a year I was fluent in the language. You pick things up very quickly at that age. For a while, ‘pass’ was the only word I needed when I was chasing a football around our green in Killester.”

Having previously been invited to train with the U19 squad, Hondermarck is now eligible to represent the Republic of Ireland at international level. He’s currently in the latter stages of the process to secure an Irish passport.

“I’ll focus on Norwich, because if I perform at Norwich then other things might come from that. But it would always be a goal of mine, definitely,” he says of his prospects of playing for the Boys in Green.

After the move to Norwich City was announced, former Drogheda United chairman Fiachra Kierans tipped Hondermarck to make a first-team breakthrough within two years.

Joining the ranks of a Premier League club is a big deal, but the youngster is pragmatic enough to recognise that it’s just one of many small steps he’ll need to make in order to prove that he’s capable of operating at that level.

“I’m not thinking about making any specific targets like that,” he insists. “The best thing I can do is take it day by day, focus on myself, make sure I’m working as hard as I can, and hopefully that’ll leave me in a good place. You need a bit of luck at the right times too. 

“I don’t tend to look too far into the future. I prefer to focus on what I have now. In life, what you have now will determine what you have ahead of you. There’s no point in worrying about what might happen. Concentrate on what you can control right now, which — for me — is the Leaving Cert. After that I’ll have pre-season at Norwich, but I’ll worry about that once the exams are done. 

“I prefer to put 100% into each day as it comes. You can only reap what you sow.”

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