Football was 'coping mechanism' after Buncrana pier tragedy says Shrewsbury star Josh Daniels ahead of Liverpool clash

Josh Daniels signed for League One Shrewsbury Town in August 2020 after impressing during a spell with Glenavon in the Danske Bank Premiership
Andy Watters

RADIO reports from the second round FA Cup ties passed the time on the way home from Derry where Watty Graham’s had beaten Scotstown in the Ulster Club Championship.

A correspondent brought news of a win for Cheltenham Town and I wondered if they had any Irish players I might interview before the third round of games.

The next morning I check - they don’t. I go through other clubs from the lower leagues: Yeovil Town, Boreham Wood, Rotherham United… Nope, nope, nope. Shrewsbury Town had beaten Carlisle United 2-1 to make it to the third round, so I go through their squad and stumble upon what I was looking for: Josh Daniels, ex-Derry City and Glenavon.

I was annoyed at myself for not thinking of him immediately. I remember Josh, a class act for Glenavon, a genuine ’baller, the type of player you’d go to a game just to watch. He played with confidence and a little swagger and is quick, two-footed and creative - just give him a ball and a yard of grass.

The name will ring a bell for other reasons too: The horrendous accident at Buncrana pier in 2016 when his mother, his sister, his two nephews and their father drowned after their car slid into the sea.

Guiding lights in his life went out on that dark day but in the aftermath Josh promised that he would try never to waste another moment; that he would live his life to the full and make his lost family proud.

So I watched that night’s third round draw with my fingers crossed.

Faye White drew out number 23: Liverpool.

BBC presenter Seema Jaswal posed the question: “Who is going to Anfield?” as England’s former number one David Seaman stuck his big paw into the drum.

The black ball he picked read ‘60’.

“That is Shrewsbury Town of League One and what a game that will be!” says a delighted Jaswal.

A couple of days later, I was able to get in touch with Josh.

“It’s fantastic,” he agreed.

“Obviously there’s a bit of history there. Two years’ ago we drew with them here and got the replay at Anfield. So it’s great, we were hoping for a big name so all the fans and everyone at the club is buzzing.

“I’ve never played in a massive Premier League stadium before and I have mates and family members who are Liverpool fans. For me the thought of even getting to warm-up on the pitch is mind-blowing when you think about where I’ve come from in such a short space of time. It’s crazy how quickly your career can change.

“To potentially play at Anfield… That would be something special.”

JOSH Daniels didn’t play organised soccer until he was 14 and joined Top of the Hill Celtic in Gobnascale, Derry. He played there until U16 level and then moved on to the Derry City U19s. Inside a couple of years, still shy of his 18th birthday, he had turned down an offer from Nottingham Forest and signed his first contract with the Candystripes.

Seven weeks after the Buncrana tragedy, he scored his first goal for his home town club, a late equaliser at the Brandywell against Finn Harps in the north-west derby. After the ball hit the net fans of both clubs rose to their feet to give him a standing ovation he will never forget.

He was in-and-around Derry’s first team until the age of 21 but the lack of opportunities in Kenny Shiels’ side prompted him to seek more regular action.

“I needed to be playing to progress,” he says.

“I had a year left on my contract and I spoke to Kenny and thought it would be best for me to go and play football elsewhere. I needed a fresh start and I heard Glenavon and Gary Hamilton had been interested in me so I spoke to Gary and I liked what I heard. He just seemed so genuine and he wanted to help me. Obviously he has and I can’t thank him enough.”

Daniels had to help himself too and he did. The travelling meant Lurgan was “outside his comfort zone” but he made the long journeys there and back for games and matches and became a first team fixture over three seasons at Mourneview Park.

At Derry he’d been a tricky winger who wanted the ball at his nimble feet but in the dog-eat-dog world of the Irish League he quickly realised that he needed to add aggression and workrate to his game.

He worked hard on that and his tackle count increased, his GPS stats improved, his confidence soared and the goals – including a memorable strike in the 2-1 first-leg victory against Ole Gunnar Solksjaer’s Molde in the Europa League qualifying rounds in 2018 - started to come regularly.

“At Derry, when I was younger, I was always a flair-winger or a number 10,” he says.

“I was always looking to get on the ball but I didn’t have the other ingredients, I didn’t understand the physicality that you needed and the willingness you need just to get on the end of things all the time.

“When I went to Glenavon I had to add that nitty-gritty side to my game, people overlook that at times but you have to have it if you want to try and push on. You have to be good at nearly every aspect of your game and if you have that then there’s no reason why you can’t progress.

“At Glenavon I got the freedom to go and express myself and I started getting among the goals. We had a couple of big wins against the top sides so for me it was all about getting my confidence back and Gary and the players believed in me so it was nice to have that trust.”

By the age of 23 he was one of the top attacking-midfielders in the Irish League. Yes, it took him a while to find his feet, relatively speaking, but he rejects the notion that he is a ‘late developer’.

“It’s more that it was passing me by at Derry,” he says.

“I wasn’t getting game-time – I think if I’d been at Glenavon when I was 18 I probably would have got more of a chance than at Derry.

“People have different career paths. There’s players who leave Ireland at 16 and then there’s players who leave at 26 and go and have great careers. For me, I just wasn’t getting game-time at Derry and if I could go somewhere and get game-time I was always confident that I could focus my ability and kick on again."

He’d always dreamt (haven’t we all?) of getting a move to England or Scotland and becoming a full-time, professional footballer. He was 24 when he got the phonecall…

“I was coming into the last couple of months of my contract and there was a couple of clubs in the Irish League sniffing around (a transfer to Glentoran was rumoured) but I wanted to go full-time, I was just at that stage of my career,” he says.

“I had never heard anything of any English clubs being interested and then I got a phonecall from Gary to say: ‘Shrewsbury have just put in a bid for you and we’ve accepted the offer’.

“He said I could go and speak to them and that if I wanted to finalise the deal it was up to me.”

It took him roughly 0.01 seconds to make up his mind.

“I was absolutely buzzing,” he says.

“It came out of the blue and I was ecstatic because I had no idea that it was going to happen. It was one of those moments where I was just bamboozled, it came out of nowhere, they put in a bid and that was me, I was going.

“To be honest, if I was any younger I don’t know if I’d have been ready for the move because it’s a lot to handle. Really, it couldn’t have come at a better time for me in my life.”

In action for Glenavon against Carrick Rangers at Mournview Park. Photo Alan Weir/Pacemaker Press

HE arrived at Shrewsbury Town’s Montgomery Waters Meadow (formerly New Meadow and before that Gay Meadow) in August 2020 and, inevitably given that he was coming from playing part-time, found himself a little behind the rest of the squad.

He worked hard to get up to speed with his new team-mates and after six weeks his fiancé Hannah and daughter Zahra joined him in Shropshire.

He had flourished as a winger with Glenavon but Shrewsbury converted him into a wing-back. His first goal for ‘the Shrews’ came on Halloween 2020 and was a consolation for him in a loss to Peterborough. The second came when he showcased his under-rated aerial ability with a thumping header in the 2-0 win over Rochdale.

“I’ve been a winger or a number 10 my whole career but over here they don’t play with wingers so I’ve had to learn a new role and I’m trying to develop as a wing-back,” Josh explains.

“It’s one of those things where, if the manager asks me to do a job for him, I’m going to do it to the best of my ability. I’m not one of these players who’ll complain – as long as I’m getting on the pitch I’m happy to do whatever is asked of me and it’s just about trying to make an impact and staying in the team.

“I think my hard work will pay off eventually and I think I’m a prime example of working hard and just being determined all the time, not being comfortable with where you are and not letting anything pass you by. I just try and be as professional as I can.”

At international level, he played for Northern Ireland at U17 and U19 level and was invited to a training camp for the Republic U21s. He says it would be “a dream to be recognised internationally” like his former Derry team-mate Ronan Curtis but that all hinges on his success with Shrewsbury.

“That is out of my head and out of my reach at the minute,” he says.

“My goal is to do well at the club, get in the team and then anything can happen. Going from Glenavon to here happened in the blink of an eye so you never know.”

Shrewsbury finished 17th in League One last season and Daniels got his head down in the summer and worked hard to be ready for the start of this term.

He was in the shape of his life but things have been difficult for him. Injuries meant six weeks’ on the sidelines and in November Steve Cotterill replaced Sam Ricketts, the man who’d brought him to the club, as manager. He has been in and out of the team since then but he’s a regular off the bench and played his part as the Shrews pulled away from the relegation zone with three wins and a draw in their last four.

Confidence is high for the trip to Anfield particularly since Shrewsbury have some encouraging recent history against Merseyside giants.

They cemented their place in FA Cup folklore with a 2-1 victory over Everton back in 2003 and Liverpool were World Club champions when they made the trip to Shropshire for a round four tie two years ago.

The seven-time Cup winners were lucky to get away with a 2-2 draw in front of a packed house at ‘The Meadow’ and only won the replay because of an unfortunate own goal by Roshaun Williams after the underdogs had inexplicably had a goal disallowed for offside by VAR.

Defender Donald Love also scored an own goal in the drawn game so maybe the underdogs are owed a little luck at Anfield tomorrow?

ALMOST six years have passed since his life was torn apart by that horrendous tragedy in Donegal.

March 20, 2016. Josh was 20 and playing his football with Derry City when his mother Ruth, sister Jodie-Lee (14), nephews Mark (12) and Evan (8) and their father Sean McGrotty (46) drowned at Buncrana Pier. Their car slid down the algae-covered slipway at the harbour and into Lough Swilly.

Rioghnach-Ann, Josh’s four-month-old niece and god-daughter, rescued by passerby Davitt Walsh, was the only survivor.

Buncrana Pier tragedy survivor Rioghnach-Ann McGrotty pictured with her uncle and godfather Josh Daniels. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

Watching a player on the field you might think it’s been easy for them to get to where they are, that talent alone has allowed them to breeze through life. The truth is you have no idea what they’ve come through, or what drives them on.

Football, says Josh, was a “coping mechanism” as he learned to live with loss.

“It was the only thing that kept me sane,” he says.

“My partner Hannah was there for me through the whole thing and I have grieved so much for my family. It’s weird when I tell people that the last few years have been the best years of my life.

“I got engaged, we’ve got our daughter now, we moved into our first house and now I’m at Shrewsbury. After it happened I knew that I would never look back and I would use it as motivation for the rest of my life to push myself as much as I can in every aspect of my life, not just football.

“It made me realise that nothing lasts forever and to take everything by the scruff of the neck and push forward. Growing up I always told my mum: ‘One day I’ll be a professional footballer’ and I want to make my family proud.

“She believed in me, she was my biggest supporter and so when I got here it was a proud moment knowing that I had done what I told her I was going to do.”

You wish him luck in whatever he does. Come on you Shrews…

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