Football/Soccer

Eunan O'Kane's perseverance a shining example

Bournemouth midfielder Eunan O'Kane in action against Liverpool's Philippe Coutinho. The county Derry man made his debut for Ireland last Friday night, having battled his way back to the Premier League after being dropped by Everton in 2009. Picture by Peter Byrne/PA

THERE’S a famous scene in The Simpsons where Homer is enticed back into the house by Marge while all out warfare between the Japanese and Italian mafias goes on in the garden.

As he steps back inside, there’s a glance over the shoulder, a tearful look in the eye. “The little guy hasn’t done anything yet. He’s gonna do something and I know it’s gonna be good.”

That was how I felt a decade ago when the decision was made to stay at home instead of travelling to Glenullin for an under-16 championship final between Banagher and Foreglen.

The game was widely anticipated as a potential classic. Sure enough, that’s how it transpired.

Nine goals and umpteen points were shared. No sign of a defensive structure anywhere near the Eagle’s Glen that night.

Banagher looked to have it in their grasp deep into extra-time as the dusk sank, but Foreglen turned it on its head in the dying moments.

But all night, the little guy stood out a mile.

Eunan O’Kane ran the game all evening. When it looked gone from them in normal time, he popped up with a brilliant equalising goal to send it into another 20 minutes.

A supremely talented Gaelic footballer, he played anywhere from half-back up. More often than not, he was stationed in the half-forward line.

There’s no doubt that had it not been for his soccer career he would have gone on to be a regular in the Derry team.

It might not show quite as much on the professional slopes of the Premier League but in club football, he had pace to burn.

As a fifth year, he was drafted in late St. Patrick’s Maghera’s MacRory Cup panel and brought on as a sub in the semi-final, but was unable to stop them slipping to defeat against St. Macartan’s.

He had played in Brock and Corn na nÓg finals, losing both but standing out an absolute mile on a team that included Antrim defender James Laverty.

O’Kane (no relation, by the way) left the school at the end of fifth year, determined to succeed.

In an interview in 2007, just after heading to Everton, he told this writer: “For years, I had tried to juggle the two but when I turned 15, I realised that I was going to have to choose because one was holding the other back and the soccer was suffering because of that. I’ll only get one chance at this and I can go back to the Gaelic when I’m older.”

He had blossomed at Maiden City and made his Irish League debut for Limavady United aged just 16. The call from Everton came after he impressed in a trial.

He headed for Merseyside at the age of 16, and there he stayed until the summer of 2009. But all along, there was the nagging doubt in the club’s mind.

The little guy was too little, they said.

Everton decided not to give him a new contract at the end the 2008/09 season, citing the fact that he was too small to make it at Premier League level.

At that point in his life, Eunan O’Kane’s career could have gone the way of so many hundreds of young lads from Ireland.

Go across the water, get a taste of the good life and then find it ripped away from you. Almost all of them end up back at their roots, either playing grassroots soccer or GAA.

We could all name a handful of lads who were ‘good at the soccer’. Within a five-mile radius of home, double digits of men who had trials across the water spring instantly to mind.

None made it, and some never really pursued sport at all thereafter. That scrapheap can be a ruinous place.

To put it in perspective, he was one of five players released by Everton in the summer of 2009. John Irving, John Paul Kissock, Scott Spencer and Cory Sinnott were all dropped as well.

None of that quartet has made it beyond League One on the English footballing pyramid.

When Eunan O’Kane was told by Everton he was too small, he returned home and was signed by Coleraine.

A life mixing Banagher with the Irish League beckoned. But he wanted better. He wanted to prove himself.

His star shone so brightly in his few months at Coleraine that in just 13 appearances, he managed to ignite interest across the water.

Torquay made a January offer and he jumped in again, unperturbed by the Everton experience.

Hardened by it, even.

The south coast has been his home since early 2010. It was hard for him to leave home again but that was the sacrifice he was willing to make.

In the summer of 2012, he hopped on up the coast to Bournemouth just as their ascent began.

His own story juxtaposes nicely with that of the club, who have gone from bucket collections to stay in business to now looking forward to the biggest TV payout in football history this summer.

He helped make them a Premier League team, and they helped make him a Premier League player.

And on Good Friday, Eunan O’Kane became an international footballer. Handed a first cap by fellow Derry man Martin O’Neill, he came so close to marking it with a late goal, only to see his effort slip wide.

He earned it through sheer perseverance.

When they told him he was too small, he got bigger.

On a two-week break at home last May, he spent every day of the first week with renowned strength and conditioning coach Ollie Cummings, training alongside professional boxer, and fellow Banagher man, Eamonn O’Kane.

All the while, he has remained firmly grounded. As his former school prepared for their dramatic Hogan Cup semi-final win over Summerhill College last week, he tweeted a good luck message and revealed that he hopes to be in Croke Park for the final on Saturday.

Eunan O’Kane might not have been blessed with the natural physique of an Ireland international, but he had the mentality to get over a huge setback and go back and fix it.

There’s a lesson there for all of us.

Football/Soccer

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