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Aaron Callaghan reveals missed opportunity to join Liverpool

Aaron Callaghan’s ability was evident from a young age. He made the decision to turn down the opportunity to represent the Irish GAA Football Schools team in Australia so he could attend soccer trials, a decision that would ultimately see a worthwhile career forged out in the upper echelons of English football. In England he experienced distinct contrasts in managers; but from one man he received the ultimate footballing education.

In the first of a two part interview with Brian Strahan, Waterford United’s first team coach, speaks of his influences and experiences, as well as the decisions he would make that would shape his career.

Aaron Callaghan: I joined Lourdes Celtic from Under-13 age group and it was from Lourdes I was to sign for Stoke at the age of fifteen. Al O’Kearney was the Stoke scout in Ireland and he was the person who gave me the opportunity to start a career in Stoke. Al and I became great friends and he later scouted for me when I managed crusaders up in Belfast.

Brian Strahan: That’s interesting. I don’t know anything about Al, but clearly he made, that transition easier. Did it make things a lot more bearable for your family?

AC: My Mam and Dad were fully supportive of me going to the UK, but I did miss the Mam;s dinners! They knew how much I loved playing football and had been kicking a ball since I was knee height.

BS: What was your set-up then when you went to Stoke?

AC: Stoke was in the top flight at the time and had players playing for their country’s. Sammy McIlroy, Micky Thomas, Dave Watson, Alan Hudson, Brendan O’Callaghan, Mark Chamberlain, Joe Corrigan Steve Bould and later Lee Dixon. The goalkeeper coach at the club was the legendary Gordon Banks. They were fantastic players who I had been watching on match of the day with my Grandad a few months earlier. It was a surreal moment walking into that dressing room for the first time. My grandad actually thought I was a better GAA player, but he loved the soccer. My dad says he plagued him after I signed for stoke to see how I was getting on.

BS: And how did you get on?

AC: I signed in 1983 as an apprentice for 2 years and 1 year pro but when I made my debut against Aston Villa in front of forty thousand fans, the club extended my contract. The apprentices and pros at the club became great friends and I still stay in touch with many of them. We played at the old Victoria ground which was one of the first grounds to have corporate boxes and I loved the pitch.

BS: What was Stoke itself like?

AC: Stoke town centre was a difficult place to live back then, but the surrounding boroughs of Hanley, Trentham and Newcastle were lovely places. The people were very warm and accommodating and I stayed in digs with a fantastic couple, Maureen and Len Galley. Len was the groundsman at the club and Maureen who was always referred to as Mrs G,. fed all the players after training. Mrs G always made sure I got extra portions and I quickly became part of her family. My mam got on great with her and she loved coming over to Dublin for a holiday. Mrs G was my mother in England and to this day I keep in contact. Without her I don’t think I would have stayed. Richie Barker was the manager at the time and we had a very successful youth team guided by the youth manager Tony Lacey. We got to the final of the FA youth cup in 1985 against all the odds beating a Niall Quinn, Tony Adams star studded Arsenal. We got narrowly beat in the final against Everton over two legs.The club turned down an offer from Liverpool of €250,000 after this final which I was unaware of at the time. After a difficult adjustment period I quickly settled at the club and within the community. I enjoyed my time at the club but things started to change when Richie Barker got sacked. The board at the club was changing and investment at the club was minimal and this led to the club’s relegation to the second division. Other managers came and went Bill Asprey, Tony Lacey and then the club appointed Mick Mills.

BS: A couple of things stand out from that. Firstly Maureen Galley, it strikes me how important the role herself and Len Galley had to play. They treated you with, frankly, love. That’s incredible.

AC: Yep, they had two daughters and I become the adopted son.

BS: Ok, so the offer from Liverpool. That would have been quite a move.

AC: Life changing to say the least but I wasn’t made aware of it by the club at the time of the offer. They wanted to keep their best young players at that time so it wasn’t to be.

BS: The move to Oldham then was after relegation?

AC: The move to Oldham was the consequences of Mick Mills policies of placing his faith in senior players. All the young players from the successful youth team were sold; me included. Oldham at the time were riding high in the division so it was a no-brainer for me. I had a year left on my contract and was quite happy to stay and fight for a place in the team, but Mick had other ideas.

BS: How much did you for?

AC: I think Stoke got around sixty-thousand for me. Oldham was an industrialised town in the greater Manchester area and always seemed cold. If I’m not wrong, it is one of the highest league grounds above sea level and the winds coming from the Pennines could freeze an Eskimo. I was joining a squad with a lot of players my own age; Mike Milligan, Denis Irwin, Tommy Wright, Tony Ellis and Andy Goram and some seasoned pros like Tony Henry, Willie Donachie, Roger Palmer, Frank Bunn and Andy Ritchie. Joe Royle was a great manager, but the only downfall for me at the time was the plastic pitch. It was the second plastic pitch to be installed after Luton and was hard underfoot. Some teams thought we had an advantage playing on it but most of the players struggled at some stage or another with injuries caused from training and playing on it. We had some great cup runs at the time holding Everton to a draw in the league cup was a stand out game for me. In the end I had to leave due to a persistent ankle injury that would not allow me to move freely on the plastic surface.

BS: Would it be fair to say playing under Dario Gradi at your next club, Crewe, was more enjoyable ?

AC: Dario was a great influence on my career from day one and I had a great relationship with him. I skippered the club and started out on my coaching journey with Dario’s blessing. I passed my advanced coaching licence with the FA and played about 170 senior games during my contract at Crewe. Dario’s philosophy on how the game should be played gave me the appetite to pursue a career in coaching and management once I retired.

BS: You were happier there than at Oldham?

AC: Cheshire was a lovely area to live and I bought my first house in Crewe. I got married to my wife Claudette in 1988 and she was a great support to me during my career. Twenty-Eight years later we are still happily married. The club has been redeveloped now from my time at the club and the current manager Steve Davis is a very close friend. We got promoted along with Tranmere in my first year at the club and held Chelsea to a 1-1 draw at Stamford bridge in the FA cup in 1990. We had some memorable games against Liverpool in the Rumbelows Cup and playing at Anfield was a highlight. The scouts started to flock at Gresty Road back then and I had a couple of offers from Rotherham and Cardiff which I declined. Crewe was definitely the highlight of my career and I still head over to games when I get a break from work. I was on Jack Charlton’s radar at this time but never got the call up.

BS: We will come back to Jack Charlton. What though was Dario’s philosophy on the game?

AC: Prior to me joining Crewe in 1988, Dario had spent the summer travelling to Spain, Italy, Holland and Germany to study playing styles and tactics of the top teams in those countries. He had an Italian background so had many contacts in Milan and Juventus. His approach was fairly simple; get players to pass and move on and off the ball and give the opposition a problem by rotating positions on the field. He encouraged players to build up from the back and play through the oppositions midfield, allowing players to express themselves on the ball. Combination plays in the last third were always on the agenda at training and if you lost possession he would ask you questions on what you were thinking at the time.

BS: What was training like?

AC: We always had the ball out at training, playing lots of small sided games at high intensity. He tweaked his own systems and sometimes we could change tactics up to four times during a game. A guided discovery approach would be the easiest way to describe his coaching style and he allowed players make decisions on the pitch if they came across a problem. He encouraged me to sit in on staff talks to help solve some of those problems we faced from different teams. These meetings gave me a great insight in the operations of management and from here Dario encouraged me to take my coaching qualifications. It was at Crewe I caught the coaching bug and passed my FA advanced coaching licence in 1989 at a relatively young age of 23. I believe this qualification made me a better player and gave me great confidence to lead the club as captain. Dario never gave team talks as he believed the planning for games had been completed during the training week. He spent his preparation coaching the kids and ten minutes before kick off he would pop his head in the door to wish us good luck. It might sound odd but he was a purist and a perfectionist and he wanted us to play the game the right way at all costs. He was the first manager to introduce video analysis and we would regularly review matches on a Monday afternoon. Dario was a visionary and he was always on the look-out for new ways to improve you as player and a team.

BS: Like what?

AC: He introduced yoga, aerobics, gymnastics as part of our warms ups and upon signing for the club it was compulsory to have an eye test. He will be greatly remembered for transforming the youth academy at the club and once the word got out about his philosophy players were queuing up to join. He was unique at the time defiantly ahead of his peers and he turned down many high profile jobs to complete his mission. He was also the first manager to sign a ten year contract unheard off at the time. He became a great friend and reluctantly with great sadness I moved on to Preston after 5 seasons.

BS: Kevin Moran once described Kevin Heffernan as being ahead of his time. This obviously applies to Dario. Do you think, on his own personal level, he under achieved? He could have had a higher profile but refused it, what do you think his reasoning was?

AC: Agree that he was ahead of his time. I just felt he had a long term project and he put his life and soul into changing the culture of a club that over the years finished towards the bottom end of the football league. I did wonder at times why he didn’t move particularly when England came calling but it’s different strokes for different folks I guess.

BS: So we said we’d come back to the jack charlton thing. You were on his radar?

AC: At Oldham I was definitely on the radar but when you had {David} O’Leary, {Paul} McGrath and {Mick} Mccarthy ahead of you, it was always going to be difficult to get into the squad as a young centre-back. Mike Milligan and Denis Irwin got into the early squads and it was tough watching them go off on international duty. I played well for the Under-21’s each time and Jack acknowledged this on several occasions. I wasn’t a player to look back so I kept plugging away kept my head down and hoped I might just somehow sneak into a squad. But the call never came.

BS: This was at a golden age in Irish football, does that make it easier or harder to accept?

AC: It was what it was. I always took the positives out of being a pro footballer and having a brief spell for Stoke in the top flight of the game. I rarely looked back; always looking to my next challenge. The game was good to me and I was always good to the game, I think that’s why I’m still involved now. Addiction I suppose, but of the round ball type.

BS: So your time in England ended with Preston. Was Les Chapman still in charge when you arrived?

AC: Yes, he was a great manager and one I was looking forward to working with. He played me in holding midfield role long before it became the norm’ in the Premiership. He was a football man and in some ways similar to Dario. Because of his lack of funds he had to blood a lot of young players. Kevin Kilbane was my apprentice at the time and David Moyes was a centre-half at the club. Sam Allardyce was the reserve team manager. When Les got sacked Sam took over the reins and done a fantastic job. He played with 3 centre backs in a lot of the games and he picked himself as a sweeper behind David Moyes and I. The team picked up some valuable points during this period and the local radio station had a phone in vote to predict the next manager and Sam topped the poll. It was a shock when the board announced John Beck as the new manager.

BS: Why?

AC: John Beck was the total opposite to Dario and he played a style of football a lá Wimbledon. Long balls, long throw ins, long tracksuit bottoms for defenders and a lot of the players had long faces during his tenure. He was a strict disciplinarian and regularly brought us in on Sunday’s for running sessions after our defeats. He wanted all players to have cold showers before games and he had the apprentices sweeping against the grain on the plastic pitch at each match. I fell out with him on regular occasions and he changed quite a lot of the players when he took over.

He played me in both full back roles and I had a two year contract to complete when he arrived. He took me off in one game for passing the ball to our midfield player and our relationship quickly went downhill after this. Preston as a club was fantastic with a lot of good people behind the scenes. The are well supported and would grace the Premier league if they ever reach the holy grail. The plastic pitch we played on was the old type of surface and felt like concrete when you made tackles. I’m glad they eventually replaced it.

BS: Shelbourne beckoned. Were you sorry to be leaving English football?

AC: I had no plans initially to leave the UK, it came out of the blue. I was on the transfer list at the time and Eoin Hand rang me to see if I would be interested in coming home. My wife Claudette had a great job in Barclays Bank and she would have stayed no problem. I wasn’t enjoying my football and was desperate to get out of the dictatorship environment under Beck. Shelbourne was the last place I was thinking off but Eoin came over to have a chat and outlined his plans for Shels going forward. He was a great guy and one that I felt could get me back on track, but if I’d known he would resign after 12 games I definitely wouldn’t have signed for Shels.

Leaving the UK was a big wrench at but I honestly thought I would go back at some stage. Eamonn Gregg took over after Eoin and from day one he ignored me as a player. He put his faith in Mick Neville and Anto Whelan at centre back and I was the odd one out. In between selling my house in the UK and trying to buy one in Dublin the transition in moving home was difficult. When you are a professional footballer and not playing on a weekly basis it can get you down. I think Eamon Gregg was trying to move me on because I was on a full-time contract and in the summer I had a few arguments with Ollie Byrne about the nature of my contract. Luckily for me the PFA Union in the UK came to my rescue. The writing was on the wall for me the next season and it was during a conversation with a close friend and fellow neighbour Martin Murray that I had an opportunity to go on loan to Crusaders up North. It’s a funny world football but Shels didn’t want me anymore as a player and would nearly price me out of a move once they found out Crusaders wanted to sign me full time.
Brian Strahan
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