Apart from England and Scotland, there are many ex Belvo players further afield. This feature series will talk to and hear from former players all over the world. In the next couple of weeks we will hear from Conor Powell, who plays his football in Norway and Pearse Tormey, who is Head Coach at the Carolina Elite Soccer Academy.
This week, we speak to Shane Howard. Shane has spent the last four years on a soccer scholarship in America. Having had a very successful U17 season with Belvo, he chose to move away and below he tells us about his experiences of life playing 'soccer' and studying in America. Oh and when he says 'field' he means pitch!
By Shane Howard
I never thought I would spend my last schoolboy year with Belvedere, but what a year it turned out to be. I say that because I came from playing with their rivals Crumlin, where I had been for the previous three years. I don't like to use the word hate, but there was certainly some bitterness towards each other. But I also like to think that there was a lot of respect for each other too.
When the Crumlin team parted at the end of the Under 16 schoolboy season, I was left with a tough decision as to what to do next in my footballing career. Do I move to a League Of Ireland club or do I stay in schoolboy football for one more year? The only schoolboy club worth moving to was Belvedere and at first I thought there was no way I could do that. After sitting down with my Crumlin managers they told me it was no brainer and that I should go and play with Belvedere, they had an excellent team that played good football and had great coaching staff. There really was a lot of respect behind all the rivalry after all. I immediately called and committed to Belvedere, I never looked back.
Many good things happened for me in that last year of my schoolboy career including winning the DDSL U17 Premier League, I think we went undefeated for that whole season. We also won the All Ireland. For me personally I added two more International caps against Cyprus for the Ireland U18s and started every game for the Irish International schools team in the Centenary Shield. A lot of my Belvo team-mates were also on the team. I appeared on Sky Sports against England and was voted the FAI International Schools Player Of The Year on RTE.
This run of good form then opened another door for me.
I started to receive a lot of attention from universities in The States to go and play for them.
Before going professional all sports in the US are played through college and universities. I had offers from seven universities offering me full scholarships to go and play for them. I didn’t know much about the whole US process so I did as much research as I could by myself. The scholarships covered full tuition, housing and a meal plan. The actual amount of the scholarship varied from college to college but they were ranging from between 25 and 30 thousand a year and one school was almost 50,000 a year. I was then faced with another decision at the end of the of the U17 schoolboy year, whether to start a League Of Ireland career or to make a move to the US.
For me, playing soccer in the US was the closest thing I could get to a professional set up, playing every day with world class facilities. Old Dominion University flew me over on a recruiting trip in June of 2009, I loved the place and the facilities and I moved there in August for pre-season.
Again I made a decision, I went with my gut and I haven’t looked back even though many people doubted my decision. I had been across to England on trial so I had seen good facilities before. But the facilities here were top class.
The soccer complex had large spacious dressing rooms with a surround sound system. It also had large meeting room and the match field (pitch) and practice field (pitch) were like carpets. We had a fully equipped strength and conditioning facility with our own strength and conditioning coach. We had an athletic training facility where we received treatment, ice baths, hot tubs, heat treatment, steam room etc. We had an Adidas sponsorship so we didn’t have to buy any gear and we had even a laundry service for our gear so I didn’t miss my mum too much in that regard! We ate pre game meals for every match and travelled to our away games on luxury coaches with beds, TVs and Wifi etc and we stayed in nice hotels. We even flew to some games.
Pre-season was tough and consisted of 2/3 sessions a day for 2 weeks. The competitive season which is the fall went from August to November usually which is short and demanding as you play two games a week. The spring season is just training and friendlies. This is why I played in the summers for a club as I was used to playing all year round in Ireland.
The coaching was not any better than it was at home because I always had the best of coaches as a schoolboy player and I was involved in the FAI set up. Being in a college which such great facilities etc, things like nutrition and having a strength and conditioning program and having individual one on one coaching sessions were some of the things that I didn’t get in Ireland. Some games I was playing in front of 1500 people too which was fun. I had four great years of playing soccer in the US, going to three national tournaments and topping my last year off with a Conference Championship. I also added some individual accolades along the way which are always nice. I did all this while most importantly earning a degree. I got a degree in Kinesiology which is the study of the movement of the human body. It was very interesting and leaves me with many options in many fields, weather that be going straight into a job or into further education.
The social side of college life in America is not bad either. There are lots of fun college parties of course. It is a different type of social life than we are used to in Ireland, it is more house parties than a pub scene. Of course you have spring breaks too which are not too far off what you see on TV and the weather is much better than in Ireland. I always coached when I could to earn some money to fund extra-curricular activities.
For my first two years I was in Norfolk, Virginia. After a very good first year being one of only two first year starters and winning many individual awards, my second year was a much more difficult one for me as a new player was signed and I ended up fighting for playing time with him and not seeing the field (pitch) as much as I wanted to. So it wasn’t all plain sailing.
I then decided to transfer for my last two years because of this, this transfer also led me to being able to play for three summers too which turned out to be the best soccer I played. I transferred to the University of Montevallo, a smaller school (college) in Birmingham, Alabama. It was full of International players, it seemed a good fit and I had two very good years there. Luckily I was still able to get a full scholarship covering everything. Transferring was a tough process and not one of my better times in the US. I think I learnt a lot from it though and I came out a stronger person mentally.
In the summers I also played in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) which the third tier of soccer in the US and went to two national semi-finals with the Erie Admirals of which I probably have my fondest memories from.
What is in store for me next, who knows? I am currently taking my coaching licenses in the US, I am a director of coaching at a club here and I am also a personal trainer. I am thinking of pursuing a career in coaching or maybe I might even be at home soon starting that career in the League Of Ireland that I didn't choose to do on two occasions.
For anyone who receives offer from the US, I would advise you to strongly consider it and not to turn up your nose. The standard is very good and the sport is growing and growing here with many opportunities. It is a great opportunity to play full time soccer with top class facilities and earn a degree. You will also meet a lot of great people, travel the US and make some great memories. I feel I have a very good knowledge about the whole system over here now so please feel free to get in touch with me and I will help you out as best I can with any questions.