STEVEN McCarthy is more determined than ever to realise his football dream.
At just 19 years old he has already seen the many faces of professional soccer – the good, the bad and the frustrating.
The Skibbereen teenager was just 16 when he was snapped up on a scholarship by Premier League giants Sunderland at the start of the 2012/13 season. He was ready to live the dream of every football-loving supporter, and for two years he did. That was the good.
But bridging that gap between a club’s academy and earning a professional contract is the biggest step to make and, unfortunately for Steven, it just didn’t work out at Sunderland (the bad) after an ankle injury suffered (the frustrating) at the end of the first season denied him the chance to prove to the North East club just how good he is.
Now he’s back home in his native West Cork, and after training with Cork City at the end of last year to build up his fitness after that troublesome ankle injury, he joined Cobh Ramblers in January and he can’t wait for the season to get underway – UCD are first up in the 2015 Airtricity First Division campaign this Saturday evening, at home in Cobh.
This is an important year for the former Skibbereen AFC teenage prodigy as he looks to play regular football, get a full season under his belt and get back enjoying the game after that spell on the sidelines.
‘When you are young and playing all the time you take it all for granted. The injury showed me how much I missed football and that’s why I am really looking forward to this season with Cobh. It’s all about playing, getting back to top form and I’m eager to make up for lost time. Joining Cobh just ticks all the right boxes,’ Steven told The Southern Star.
During an impressive pre-season campaign for Cobh, he has already found the back of the net for his new side, and he’s confident he will rediscover the form that prompted Sunderland to sign him three years ago.
‘My first competitive game for Cobh was a few weeks back against Douglas Hall and that was my first competitive game in almost seven months. I haven’t had a full season in a while and I’ve been out of football for a bit, which was very frustrating and tough. That’s why this season is so important,’ he explained.
After he returned home from Sunderland after two years on Wearside, deciding not to take up the option of a further six months with the club, the Skibbereen teenager – son of Helen and the late, great O’Donovan Rossa and Cork football star Mick McCarthy (Small Mick) – trained with Cork City for a spell to regain his fitness and sharpness, but a permanent move wasn’t on the cards. Instead, Cobh Ramblers came calling.
‘I was talking to (Cork City manager) John Caulfield and we both said what I need now, after coming back from England and after the injury I had, is to get back playing. A couple of weeks later (Cobh Ramblers manager) Martin Cambridge got onto me,’ Steven explained.
‘I met up with him and he told me what his plans are for Cobh this year. They didn’t have a good run last year and they struggled a bit but this year he is positive that it will be a better season for the club and he has brought in some really good signings.
‘It’s going well so far. We’ve had a good run in pre-season, we played well and it’s looking good for the year ahead.’
Brimming with positivity ahead of the First Division kick off this Saturday, the smile is back on Steven’s face, a world away from the end of his first season at Sunderland when he suffered the ankle injury that plagued his second year with the club.
‘It was the last game, or second last, in my first season with Sunderland. We were playing Tottenham. A lad caught me on my ankle inside the first five minutes and it pushed the ankle back. It was so swollen that they couldn’t really put a finger on what was wrong at the time,’ Steven recalled.
‘I went home for the summer. The swelling had gone down. But once I went back over and started pre-season it swelled up again and it wasn’t right. I was out for two more months, did my physio, came back playing but it still wasn’t right.
‘We waited it out until November before I had an operation. The bone at the back of my ankle, the os trigonum bone, was broken. I had two injuries in the one ankle.
‘The front of the ankle was severely bruised as well and it wasn’t settling down so when the operation came around they had to remove the bone at the back and clean up all the inflammation.
‘I was out for six to eight weeks after that. I played the last six games for Sunderland but at that stage I knew that things weren’t going great.
‘The managers over there told us that the first season was all about settling in, getting to grips with playing at the top level, the second year is when you push on and try to impress. That was taken away from me. It’s very hard to get a contract when you can’t play.’
Despite the ankle injury Steven was still selected to play for the Republic of Ireland U19s last season and featured in the UEFA U19 Championships Elite Qualifying Round against Iceland, Turkey and Serbia – the ‘only positive’ from last season, he says.
At the end of his second season with Sunderland, the summer of 2014, it was decision time for Steven, as he had the option of extending his stay for a further six months.
But he knew he wasn’t part of the club’s plans and he wanted to get game time, especially after the injury.
After exploring a few options, including the Nike Academy, the former West Cork Schoolboys’ League star decided that moving back home and trying to further his career in the League of Ireland was the best option for him. It’s a gamble the winger/striker feels he had to take.
‘There’s a lot of players now leaving Ireland and heading across the water – look at Brian Lenihan moving to Hull City – so I feel that moving home is the right move for me, to come home, get game time and see where that takes me. Playing in England is still the dream, but right now I am very happy with Cobh,’ he said.
While it didn’t work out with Sunderland Steven feels he matured as both a footballer and a person during his time there, but he does wonder how differently things might have turned out if he moved there now, at 19, rather than as a 16 year old.
‘If an English club comes knocking on your door you are hardly going to turn it down, but it has to be a good English club,’ he said.
‘Brian Lenihan stayed in Ireland and he moved when he was 20. There is an element that you are more mature if you stay home first. I was 16 when I moved – was I mentally prepared and ready for it? That’s questionable. Maybe if I went over for the first time now or next year I would be a lot more prepared. I’d be older and wiser because it is tough going over at a young age.’
He added: ‘With an academy there is pressure on you to compete for places against players from all over the world. In Cork you might be one of the best players in the league but then you move to England and you are one of 100 good players. The competition is fierce. It’s very hard.
‘Every day you have to be on top form because you are being watched at training and in every game. At scholarship level you are fighting for a contract every day. It’s hard. It’s not all sunshine.
‘If you get the contract, that’s great. If not, it can be a tough business to be in. But if you make it, it’s worth it.’
With his ankle problems behind him McCarthy still dreams of making it and his next step is with Cobh Ramblers, starting this Saturday.
It’s time to experience the good side of football again.