Derry City new boys Rory and Ronan Hale aiming for England return
THE Hale brothers breeze into the café like two ordinary Joes. They’re back on home soil and looking like they’ve never been away. Rory orders a Latte with an extra shot and Ronan settles for a mug of hot chocolate.
They can’t be tempted by one of Sylvester’s all-day fry-ups.
It’s a grey Thursday morning and rush hour has come and gone.
The café sits snugly along the lower Antrim Road, just around the corner from the Newington area where Rory and Ronan were born and bred.
They’re glad to be home – but both are hoping England will come calling again.
Rory was on Aston Villa’s books and Ronan is still with Birmingham City where he’s been loaned out to Derry City for six months and will hook up with his elder brother.
Rory is 21 and Ronan 19.
The capture of the Hales could prove to be two of the shrewdest bits of transfer business done by Derry City boss Kenny Shiels.
After over four years at Aston Villa, Rory was released two weeks before the end of last season.
Steve Bruce called him in and said there would be no contract renewal on the table.
It was like being hit by a 40-tonne truck.
Across town, Ronan was scoring goals for fun for Birmingham City’s youth sides and still hopes to make the first team breakthrough.
When they arrived in England the Hales had a different road map in mind.
They were hoping hard graft and talent would see them shatter football’s glass ceiling.
The dream was – and remains – signing the big contract, becoming a first team regular and playing in front of packed crowds in the finest stadiums in England.
But the dream has stalled.
“Everything was going well at Villa,” says Rory, who was formerly a Milk Cup Golden Boot winner.
“I spoke to the Gaffer at the time, Steve Bruce, and he said I wouldn’t be getting a new contract.
“I was shocked because I was training regularly with the first team, I was captain of the U23s and playing every week. I was one of the standout players for them. It was a reality check when I was let go.”
Rejection is tough in football. It’s even tougher when you’re 20-years-old, nowhere to go, and feeling like a million miles from home.
“I got let go about two weeks before the end of the season,” he says matter-of-factly.
“Our U23 season was over, so I couldn’t go to another U23 team to try and impress another manager. No club wants to come and look at a trialist at that time of the season.”
Every day thousands of young footballers walk the same roads as Rory Hale.
They traipse around the country, auditioning, busting a gut and probably pining for home.
Players like Rory Hale soon realise the brutal business they’ve chosen to make a living.
After Villa’s bombshell, he trialled at West Brom, Sheffield United, Cambridge and even ended up giving Conference club Dover a try.
The two brothers have bounced off football’s glass ceiling like thousands of other young players.
When Galway United came calling last summer Rory, an all-action central midfielder, jumped at the chance.
There were plenty more euros on offer at other League of Ireland clubs, and easier stations than a relegation-threatened club, but Rory liked Galway manager Shane Keegan instantly.
“Shane Keegan got my confidence back,” he says. “He put me straight into the team, no messing about.
“All thanks to Shane because it was him that got my love back for the game.”
Contract negotiations with the Republic of Ireland U21 international, Keegan recalls, were “one of the easiest” he’s ever been involved in.
“Rory was more interested in what my plans were and did I see him getting into the starting XI very quickly,” says Keegan.
“His first game was against Dundalk in the EA Cup in which we made a few changes and brought some of the younger players in.
“We got a bit of a run-around and we decided to take Rory off after 60 minutes before he blew up altogether.
“We’d be big into our GPS stats and sports science and within two weeks of that game Rory was top of the GPS in training and in matches. It used to be a close run thing who came out top of those stats but when Rory came in he came out top week in, week out.”
Rory, Keegan says, had “incredible energy levels” and was “technically excellent”.
The pair spent many hours together in the manager’s car as Keegan would often pick Rory up from Dublin after U21 international duty.
“You could have proper, intelligent football conversations with him. He was an absolute fans’ favourite. There are no airs or graces or notions about Rory.”
Like many younger brothers Ronan is the quieter of the two but equally resilient.
A precocious goal-scorer, Ronan learned his trade at Irish League club Crusaders before attracting Birmingham’s interest.
His goals are already something of a YouTube hit in England’s youth circles and he announced his arrival on the international stage by scoring for the Republic of Ireland U19s on his debut in June 2016.
But, like Rory, you sense Ronan’s frustration at the lack of opportunities to break into Birmingham’s first team. Managerial upheaval at the club hasn’t helped.
Harry Redknapp saved the Blues from Championship relegation last season but was sacked in September following six straight defeats.
During his short spell at St Andrew’s Redknapp signed 13 new players.
The brutal economic realities of professional football dictates that Redknapp was never likely to delve into the club’s academy and invest in a rookie goal-scorer like Ronan Hale, which must make young players question the trappings and value of academy football.
“You know yourself when you’re playing well and then you feel you’re not making any progress,” says Ronan.
“You’re wondering what else can you do. You’re killing yourself.
“Managers just want to stick to what they know. The top clubs get the best players and all the young players [at academies] are waiting their chance and hope their chance will come.”
In BT Sports’ documentary ‘No Hunger in Paradise’, former Liverpool midfielder Steven Gerrard said in order to make the breakthrough at the top English clubs young players now have to be “world class”.
Rory adds: “If you’re going to develop young players you’re going to have to give them a chance.
“If a player can do no more at U23s then you have to give him a chance. If you send them on loan they’ll at least get a taste of first team football.”
Rory cites the examples of former Villa club-mate Keinan Davis and young Declan Rice at West Ham who have managed to break into their respective first teams.
“If a young player gets his chance he can shine,” Rory insists. “But young players need a chance. A lot of those players are capable of first team football. I think I’d be capable of playing first team football but haven’t had the luck or that chance. I know if I’d got a chance I would have taken it.
“It’s near enough impossible to break through in this day and age with the money that’s getting pumped into the clubs. I think Villa spent £80m since they have been in the Championship… I was training with the first team, I was playing with the U23s and standing out and you don’t look out of place and when it comes to Saturday you’re not getting involved and you think: ‘What more can I do here?’
“You get older and younger players are coming through. I’m 21 now. I was 20 at the time [when I got released] and I thought I might get a chance but it just didn’t come my way.”
Rory’s up front in saying that he wishes he’d been loaned out at Ronan’s age as it might have increased the chances of reaching first team status.
“There are players out on loan playing first team football at 17 and 18-years-of-age and I’m glad Ronan is out on loan getting first team football as opposed to playing academy football.”
When Birmingham decided to send their young striker out on loan and Derry expressed an interest, Ronan didn’t have to think twice.
It meant he would be playing alongside Rory and he could spend more time with his six-month-old daughter Mya.
“Fatherhood,” Ronan says with a broad smile, “is amazing. Nobody ever knows what it feels like until you experience it. There was just a point in England where I got homesick and I wanted to see more of my wee girl because they weren’t getting over as much.
“I’d been playing U23 football for two or three years. I was supposed to go to a few Conference clubs but now I’ve got my own wee family I’d rather go home and play League of Ireland football, get a few first team games under the belt and take it from there. I just want to challenge myself against men and see how I do.
“I know Birmingham got a load of players in during the transfer market… You have to look at it and see if you’re going to get in the team. So I thought I’d go out and get some experience and when I go back [to Birmingham] I’ll be ready, if needed.
“There were a few other Irish League clubs that came in for me but once Derry came in for me I was straight on the phone to Rory.”
The early afternoon trade begins to amble into the café.
Rory may be 21 and Ronan coming out of his teens, but they both speak with maturity beyond their years.
You realise pursuing the dream isn’t as romantic as the wide-eyed kid in the street imagined it to be.
It’s a rough trade full of sharp, unforgiving edges.
“I think Irish people suffer the most from homesickness in England,” says Rory.
“You have to learn quickly. You have to cook, you have to do your own washing, sort your own bills, sort out your own tax. It’s a young age to have to do all that.”
Laughing at the memory, Rory adds: “I remember I had to go on YouTube to see how to make scrambled eggs.
“There is pressure. Everybody thinks we have it easy. I know they’re short days [as a professional footballer] but when everybody goes home, you’re going back to your ‘gaff’, curtains closed just watching TV.
“I was signing one-year deals. You’re out of a job. And when you’re coming from a small place like Newington everybody knows who you are and have big expectations of you.”
Despite the never-ending obstacles and the ruthless nature of top-level football, Rory and Ronan Hale have no regrets about chasing the dream.
Their experiences in England have toughened them, made them grow up quicker than had they stayed at home.
Derry City could turn out to be the right launch pad for the pair to get back to England.
“Ever since I started playing football that’s all I wanted to do,” says Ronan.
“From the age of 12 or 13 that’s when I started knuckling down… It’s been a lot tougher than I thought. At Derry, I want to play as many games as I can and try and learn off other players that have the experience and see where it takes me. Hopefully it’ll get me back to England next season.”
Rory harbours similar ambitions.
The tougher the road, it seems, the more determined the Hale brothers become.
“I don’t think Ronan or me would have got this far – and that’s all down to our parents. We’ve been through a lot.
“Hopefully I can do what Seani Maguire did. He was let go by West Ham, came home, rejected at Dundalk, went to Cork, he backed himself and now he’s back in England [with Preston NE] and is an Ireland international. Maybe one or two seasons in this league, and if I do well for Derry, maybe a big club will come in for me.”
With typical blue-collar modesty, Rory is quick to add: “But we can’t complain. We’re still getting paid to play football. We still love what we do.”
What doesn’t break you makes you stronger.
Rory and Ronan Hale still believe in the dream that drove them on as kids when they kicked a ball around the streets of Newington. They will re-ignite the flame against Waterford United tomorrow night.
The Hale lineage is alive and well at the Brandywell...
RORY and Ronan Hale follow in the footsteps of their grandfather Danny Hale who attained legendary status during his successful three-year stint at Derry City between 1968-71.
Danny, who lives in the Duncairn area of north Belfast, was one of the best strikers to grace local football – north and south.
In three seasons at the Brandywell, Hale scored over 100 goals, including a remarkable 45 goals in his debut season.
Hale, who won Amateur International recognition, cut a dash with Crusaders for several seasons – where he also bagged over 100 goals – before he was asked to sign for Derry by former Newcastle and Everton star Jimmy Hill.
“Jimmy Hill was player/manager of Derry at the time,” Danny recalls. “Jimmy came to my house one day and asked me did I fancy going to Derry. It wasn’t for big money – you were maybe getting £10 or £15 per match – and we had good bonuses.
“He was a great man. He put together a great team together at Derry. I really enjoyed my three years there. We got to the final of the Irish Cup and lost to Distillery and I remember Linfield beat us by a point to win the league in one of those years.”
With the onset of ‘The Troubles’, Danny moved closer to home and ended his playing days with Ards.
In his 13-year senior career, he averaged 25 goals per season.
“The Derry supporters were brilliant because they always backed you the whole way,” he says. “I really loved my time in Derry. And I’m delighted my two grandsons are with the club now and I’m looking forward to watching some of their games.”