Jamie Moore sat down with former Belvo player Kealan Dillon this week. Kealan won major trophies at U14, U15 and U17 before signing for Derby County as a 16 year old. Moves then followed to Hull City and St. Mirren. The 20 year old is now home playing for Athlone Town in the League of Ireland.
The dream for many young Irish footballers is to move away at 16 and become a professional footballer, but for 90% of those players who move away at 16, that dream does not become a reality and they are home in Ireland after their first contract has expired.
Like many players, Kealan is coming back to Ireland to build his career.
Question by Jamie Moore (JM) - You made your LOI debut on Saturday night at The Showgrounds in a 2-1 defeat against Sligo. What was the game like and what was your first experience of the League Of Ireland like?
Answer from Kealan Dillon (KD) – “Making my League Of Ireland debut and also my senior debut in football was brilliant but also a huge relief. It has felt like I have been a footballer for a long time and still hadn’t made my first appearance. So I am delighted to finally get off the mark as a first team footballer.”
“Going away to one of the best teams in the league in Sligo and also playing out of my natural position as a right back was a bit of a baptism of fire but I really enjoyed it. It was also good to experience the standard and how competitive the LOI really is. The league gets a lot of stick from the outside and I think it’s unfair. There are a lot of good players and a lot of very good football is played in the league.”
JM - Having played for three UK club in just over three years, in mainly the youth and U21/ reserve teams, how did you find your first game in a senior league as such?
KD – “Every game you play is important in your own career at youth and reserve level. In England there are leagues but with the exception of maybe the FA Youth Cup there is not a massive emphasis on results but more on performance and development. Even if you lose a reserve game but you have performed well you know that maybe you have impressed and there will be a good report going back to the first team staff.”
“Senior football on the other hand is completely results based. There are no special prizes for playing attractive football but not winning. Everyone would like to play good football but circumstances may not allow it so you have to role your sleeves up and battle to get the three points.”
“You can see how much it means to everyone from the players to the fans which creates a completely different atmosphere. I’ve played in games where there may only have been the staff and a few parents watching. You understand the importance of not losing and disappointing fans when playing senior football in front of crowds.”
JM – Let’s work from the start of your Belvo career... when did you join? Why did you join? What age were you? And what is your first memory of Belvo?
KD – “I first joined Belvo at Under 14s. I had represented the North Eastern Counties League at the Kennedy Cup and had played in Ireland trials when Vinny Butler was still the manager. Vinny had previously been my dad’s Belvo manager when he played for Belvo so we had a connection for the club.”
“The club then went to my nanny’s house to ask her for my dad’s number and they rang him to ask if I was interested in coming down on trial at Belvo. A few other Dublin clubs rang as well but for me knowing the history of the club, Belvo was my first choice.”
“I wanted to move to play in the DDSL as it is saw it was as the only way to be seen and get trials in England and also to make a better case for myself to get in the Ireland squad.”
“I remember being nervous going up to Dublin about whether I would get a game or maybe have to play out of position to fit into a team. I still remember my first night training at Belvo running up and down the hills in Fairview for pre-season. I was glad to see the back of those hills!!”
JM - You had a very good time at Belvo, playing in a very good team, winning the U15 All Ireland against big rivals Cherry Orchard in your final game for your own team. But then you jumped on a train to Cork to be part of the U17s squad for their All Ireland final the following day. Tell me about that day and your other good memories of Belvo?
KD – “I was lucky enough to play in a brilliant and successful team at Belvo winning two All Irelands in a row only conceding one goal in the two years (SFAI U14 and SFAI U15 Cup).”
“My last game for my own age was the final in Wayside Celtic against The Orchard. I remember the game being a battle with neither team playing as much football as they normally did. Coming back to win 2-1 having been 1-0 down was such an amazing feeling. To spend my last day with the lads celebrating winning the All Ireland against our biggest rivals was great.”
“My fondest memories of the day are all in the celebrations the details of which should maybe remain behind closed doors!!”
“As soon as celebrations were over, myself, Darragh Lenihan, Lee Brandon and Jamie Moore found our way on the train to cork for the Under 17 All Ireland final in Turners Cross which we also won.”
“They were all good memories at Belvo. Winning the Under 14 All Ireland and staying up on the last day of the same season after being deducted 15 points. Winning the U15s All Ireland where all great achievements but just the time with the group we had together and the fun and banter we had will always be the best memories.”
JM - Describe Belvo and playing 'The Belvo Way?'
KD – “Signing for Belvo was the start of really believing I could achieve something from football. At schoolboy level, The Belvo way is the only way to play. As you get older if you haven’t learned how to pass the ball and to be comfortable to always get on the ball you are at a disadvantage. You can’t really be coached how to battle as that is on the mental side of the game and is easy to do. If you haven’t been brought up to want to pass the ball and get on it in dangerous situations it is very hard to change into a team that want to play that way.”
“Belvo really is more than just a club. It gives you friendships and teaches things that will always last with you. former players are still recognised for being part of the club. Once a Belvo Boy always a Belvo Boy.”
JM - You played your last game in that final for the U15s... but you also won a treble with the U17s in the same season, playing two years out of your age and if I remember correctly, you got a winner in one of those big games... tell me about that?
KD – “Our season finished a few weeks earlier than the Under 17 season did and they were short of players. The Under 16s season was still going so Derek O’Brien asked John Moore and Jimmy Jackson if they could have a few players to help them out.”
“I played 9 or 10 games at the end of their season winning the League Cup, my 3rd All Ireland and the DDSL U17 Premier title in a play-off against WFTA. That was my last ever game for the club. The game finished 1-1 and went to extra time. My last kick of a ball for the club was a last minute goal that was probably my best for the club and we won the league.”
“I was so happy that my last action for the club was important and meant a lot to the club and the players as it would be their last games for Belvo too.”
JM - You then signed for Derby, having had lots of trials and lots of options... What was your time at Derby like and your first experience in England?
KD – “I had trials at a few clubs and had offers for trials at other clubs but I knew from the first time on trial at Derby that was the club I was going to sign for if an offer came along.”
"My time at Derby was a great learning curve. It was also maybe harder on me then I would ever like to admit. Moving at 16 is a big deal for anyone but there was never a doubt in my mind that I was going.”
“Even though you think the DDSL is a good standard and you may be one of the better players and an important player in your team, when you go away it’s not going to be like that. All the players in the academy were the best in their teams. You then have the young pros and the reserves who are better than what is in the youth team and then a further squad of maybe 30+ players in the first team squad who are better again. So in order of the most important players at the club you go from the top of the list at your schoolboy club in Ireland, right to the very bottom at your English club.”
“Not knowingly at the time but looking back now, maybe I struggled with that and my attitude wasn’t as good as it should have been. I was so desperate to prove that I was good enough to be there that I was trying too hard. When I made mistakes and was criticised I lost confidence in myself which only led to worse performances. As the criticism kept coming I was completely drained of confidence.”
“It is times like that when you miss having the support of everyone at home. They all ring and text or even come to see you for the weekend and do everything they can but some days you just need to go home to your own house to take your mind off football.”
JM – Early into your second season at Derby you left the club to join Hull City... Why was that?
“I had considered not going back to Derby for my second year but after really thinking about it I decided to put it down to just being a first year and that this was going to be my year in the youth team. After I went back I could see the same pattern developing as the year before. I felt I had already lost a year of my career with the lack of playing and I couldn’t afford to lose another.”
“My relationship with the academy staff was worsening so I decided to have my contract cancelled and leave before the transfer window shut so I could try to sign for another club.”
JM - Tell me about your time at Hull, it started well but you ended up moving on after two seasons to join St Mirren in the SPL. Tell me about that move and why?
KD – “Adam Pearson had been the chairman of Derby when I had signed and he had since moved to Hull as Director of Football. When he heard that I had left Derby he invited me in straight away to have a trial at Hull. I trained for a couple of weeks and eventually signed.”
“I loved every minute of my time at Hull. I was straight into the reserve team which moved me a year up as I was still young enough to play in the youth team. I had three managers in less than two years at Hull. I had been training with the first team under Nigel Pearson and then under Nick Barmby.”
“At the start of my second season, Steve Bruce came in as did a number of experienced players as the club pushed to get back into the Premier League (which they did). This meant less opportunities for young players.”
“At the end of the season the club decided that they couldn’t see a place for me to break through so they felt I was better going elsewhere and trying to get first team football. I found myself back on the hunt for a club. I had trials at a couple of League 2 and Conference clubs and at St Mirren in Scotland where I eventually signed as felt it was the right place to push on in my career.”
JM - You made the bench for some St Mirren first team games at the start of the season but then you were back in the U20s. Why do you think that didn't work out? Eventually you made the big decision to come home... why was that and how hard was that decision?
“I spent all of pre-season with the first team at St. Mirren and played in all the friendlies. I was then in the squad for the first game of the season away at Inverness and was an unused sub. I was in the squad and an unused sub again against Kilmarnock at home.”
“I was then named in the squad to travel to Ross County away but was replaced at the last minute by a player who had missed most of preseason due to injury. After that I found myself back with the Under 20 team. I went from being captain of the Under 20s to suddenly not playing. When I first went to St. Mirren I found a lift in confidence after being released from Hull but as the weeks went on and even Under 20 appearances became rare, I felt my confidence draining again. I found myself not wanting to waste more valuable time in my career being unhappy and not playing. I was also living alone which again maybe didn't help after a bad day at training so I made the decision to have my contract cancelled for the second time in my short career.”
“I wanted to get it cancelled before the transfer window opened to allow me to be able to sign for a League Of Ireland club and have a full pre-season rather than wait until the end of the season in Scotland which would have meant trying to work my way into a team which had already had a half a season played in Ireland.”
“Coming home was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made. I had a fear of coming home and everyone seeing you as a "failure" because you hadn't made it. The decision to come home wasn't one I took lightly and I made sure it was definitely what I wanted and needed to do. I knew I had to forget what everyone else thought and do what was right for my career. For me that was to come home and make a fresh start in Ireland.”
JM - Having lived in Derby, Hull and Glasgow for 3/4 years before you even turned 20, what was that experience like? And are you happy to back home with your mum,dad and family?
KD – “During my time away I had some ups and a lot of downs. The ups have always outweighed all the downs and when things are going right there is no better feeling. Although my time in England maybe didn't work out, it is an experience I would never change because I have learnt so much over the years and was lucky enough to have done things millions of people could only ever dream of.”
“Anything you have learnt from and gained so much from can only be seen as a positive. Of course I would have liked to go away and everything to fall into place and end up in the Derby first team but it didn't work out that way. Even though I felt at times that football wasn't for me and just letting it go was the best thing to do, I knew that I wouldn't be able to leave things as they were. So I made the decision to keep going and sign for a club at home. I felt it would give me a fresh start and I could get back out and be seen again while playing and gaining experience.”
“Being at home is obviously a lot more settled and it is great to be back around my family but living at home wasn't the main factor in coming back to Ireland. My decision was based on what I felt was best for me and my career and for me that was the League Of Ireland.”
JM - The professional dream for every Irish 16 year old is to move away, is it the be all and end all? (90% of Irish players don’t get a second contract)
“Is it the be all and end all? No, probably not but I would certainly not change anything about my time. You have got to back yourself to be in the 10% of players that do get the second contract. I had my mind made up when I knew I could go away that I was going to go. That experience of academy, reserve and first team football in a full time environment is something you can't buy or gain without having been there.”
“You learn more than just the technical skills of being a footballer. You learn about the right choices to make in your lifestyle when you're off the pitch and even away from the club. You get to see first hand what it takes to get in a first team and learn from players who have been there and done it.”
“What I will say is that if you don't have the chance to go at 16, the dream isn't over. You have just always got to play at highest level possible and keep pushing and working hard. There are a lot of players now going away later on in their careers, maybe after gaining first team experience and some after years of playing in the LOI.”
JM - Tell me about your international career with Ireland, what games/tournaments/qualifiers have you played in?
“I've played for Ireland from U15s up to U19s. I'm not sure exactly how many caps I have but it would be around 40. I've been blessed over that time to have played against some of the best teams in Europe. I have also played with some great players who have now gone on to do really well at their clubs and are only getting better.”
“In my year at Under 17s we qualified from the first phase of European qualifiers and we were then seconds from qualifying for the European Championship when a last minute goal by Denmark knocked us out in the second phase. News had come through that Denmark had drawn with Greece and we had qualified which turned out not to be true.”
“We had already started celebrating. It all came to a halt and our dreams were over when we found out that Denmark had scored. I played two years at Under 19 and played in the first phase of qualifying in the second year which we qualified from. That campaign included a 2-2 draw against a very good Germany team in a game nobody gave us a chance to get a result from. I was also lucky enough to have played with a lot of the other Belvo lads during my time.” (Sean Kavanagh, Pierce Sweeney, Adam Evans, Darragh Lenihan, Danny Rogers, Eoin Hyland.)
JM - So you came home and signed for Athlone, having spoken to a number of LOI manager, why Athlone and what has pre-season and the start of the season been like?
“My agent rang a few of the managers in the league. I met with a few of them but I had no real first team experience and with the managers not really knowing me, I was offered trials at a few clubs. I played in a trial game for Dundalk which Mick Cooke and Harry Kenny watched. After the game I spoke with Mick and he said he was interested in signing me. I then met up with Mick and liked what he had to say about what he had in mind for me and Athlone.”
“I felt it was a club that I had a good chance of playing a lot of football for and finally gaining that all important first team experience. The stability of knowing there was an offer on the table from a manager who was really interested in signing me was the main reason I signed for Athlone.”
“Pre-season has been very well and we have a great group of lads and we have all gelled well as a squad with a lot of new players. I have really enjoyed playing and getting a consistent run of games which I have rarely had over the last 4 years.”
JM – What are your hopes for the season?
“My main hope for the season is to get back enjoying my football. Sometimes you can get caught up too much in football and lose the one reason you first ever start playing football, the simple fact that you love playing.”
“At times you can see football as a just a job, rather than getting paid to do what you love. People outside the game read what's in the papers and how the top players live but those players are a very small minority of footballers. Football isn't that glamorous at all levels. Hopefully now that I'm enjoying my football, I will start performing well and hopefully achieve things with Athlone.”
JM – Finally, what are your hopes for the future?
“I hope eventually to go back to England and I’m hoping the LOI can provide the springboard I need to get back over there. But I’m also hoping for a good season personally and to for the club to have a good season. It’s our first season back in the Premier Division for a long time.”
“Becoming a footballer has always been what I have wanted to do and that has never changed. I might be going the long way about it but the end product never changes. I still work every day at training and in matches the same as I always have to try and make a living out of what I love doing. For me there could be no better reward than getting paid to do what you really love every day for as long as I can.”
2008-2010 Belvedere FC SFAI U14 Cup
2010-2011 Derby County SFAI U15 Cup
2011-2013 Hull City FAI U17 Cup
2013-2014 St. Mirren DDSL U17 Premier winner
2014- Present Athlone Town DDSL U17 League Cup
Belvedere Club Player of Year 2009-10