Conor Clifford was sitting in an office at Oriel Park and broke down in tears after being informed that he was suspended for six months for betting offences.
Dundalk had just contested the Leinster Senior Cup final and Clifford had netted a cracking free-kick. They lost the game but that was nothing compared to what was to follow.
“Stephen Kenny had brought me into the office with (general manager) Martin Connolly, saying I was under investigation for betting. ‘Betting? I had an account two years ago,’ I said. ‘We’ll sort it out,’ they said.
“I played against Shelbourne, scored a great free-kick and felt I was was flying. The FAI Cup final was coming up and I thought with the few injuries there was I might have a chance.
“Stephen Kenny said after the game I’d a six-month ban, though he knew before the game and decided to wait until afterwards – he’s a great man, a great person. I was crying in the office, gutted and gobsmacked.”
The nature of the six-month worldwide ban – the lightest possible sentence, and it was a sentence, that Clifford could have been given – is quite shocking. By his return in early April, he will have spent six months unable to play, unable to train with team-mates, unable to visit a football game, barred from coaching kids. “I couldn’t even go to the Cup final,” he says over a coffee.
We’ve met in Kilmainham, not far from the home he shares with his parents in Palmerston. After the guts of a decade in England, going from Chelsea to the non-league via the Lord knows what, he came home to Dundalk last season, encouraged by Kenny that he could resurrect his career, like so many under the Dubliner throughout his Dundalk reign.
We’re not here to go over what went wrong in England but plenty did.
He went on loan to Plymouth from Chelsea, under the best manager he’s worked for in Peter Reid, but was repatriated after Plymouth went into liquidation.
On loan at Notts County, the first thing then-manager Paul Ince commented on was how small he was. (“After the first training session he came over to me and said he took it back.”)
Later he was loaned to Crawley Town, where the first thing he was asked was what foot he kicked with.
He ended up in a London flat suffering from depression and playing for not only a non-league team but a bad one at that. “I’d been on loan to Barnet from Southend and we got promoted to League Two. I was flying.
“Then (manager) Martin Allen shook hands with me on a deal. I’ve a few stories about him – he’d bring an alsatian onto the pitch to kick the football with – but he was a good manager.
“We went to Benidorm for winning the league, Benidorm! It was mad. We shook hands on coming back in the airport, a three-year-deal in League Two. When I came back from pre-season I was messed around and I offered something very different to what we agreed.
“Closer to the start of the season I needed to sign somewhere. Billy Clifford, my mate, got signed for Boreham Wood. I’d just got promoted with Barnet and I never wanted to play in that league again — it was horrible, more rugby than football. I love getting stuck in but this wasn’t good.
“We need a run of games Billy said. From winning that league the year before we just about stayed up – on the last day. It was a mad year.
“I felt really down in myself. How have I ended up here? I’d broken up with my girlfriend. I went home to a flat on my own with nothing to do.”
He met a psychiatrist, came back home to Dundalk and it was not like he had envisaged. Mates in England, particularly Irish ones, were discussing the 2016 European run and Dundalk’s performances were very much at odds with their understanding of the League of Ireland.
While Clifford knew it would not be easy, he was still a long way off. Players aplenty impressed him, Graham Burke at Shamrock Rovers the first he mentions of those outside of his own dressing room.
“To be honest I watched Dundalk in Europe, but didn’t watch too much of the league. The standard shocked me. It was a lot better than I thought it would be, a lot more professional. It was a lot faster than I thought; the teams are a lot, lot fitter.
“I’ve done loads of pre-seasons and the first pre-season I did with Dundalk, with their strength and conditioning coach Graham Byrne, was the hardest I have ever done at any club. The guys are really fit. It was tough.”
Still, things began promisingly. “I knew it was going to be difficult and it was: you’d Stephen O’Donnell, Shieldsy (Chris Shields) and (Robbie) Benson, all great players in my position. Kenny knows them inside out. It was always going to be difficult to shaft them. I’d have to bide my time.
“I played the first six or seven games, thought I’d done really well. We went to Rovers and lost and I was bang average myself. After that I was out in the cold. I didn’t play for several games, not even off the bench; O’Donnell got fit and they went on a run.
“I had to bide my time, playing EA Sports Cup, Leinster Senior Cup with the younger lads; it was hard but I played and got on with it. I just had to wait.
“Then I got another little run before the ban was up; I felt really good and confident. Overall it was really stop-start. I think the only time in the league we lost when I was in the team was against Rovers.”
Clifford’s ban was especially unfortunate timing, as it came in the season of the damaging match-fixing investigations involving Athlone Town and Bray Wanderers. Rather absurdly, Clifford would be chucked into the same bracket as fixers, even if he were punished for a series of trivial bets that were utterly harmless and never involving games he was playing.
“Two and a half years ago I had a betting account with Skybet. It was £800 worth of bets over two years, no wins, and the biggest stake a £15 accumulator. All football bets, out of boredom basically. I knew I wasn’t meant to be doing it but I was thinking: who am I?
“I’ve been on bus coaches going to games before and everyone was doing it, but I got caught. There was a rule you could bet on other matches but then it was changed. Someone did not tell us that though, the FA never did. I was naive.
“If I (were) fixing matches I deserve to be banned for life. I 100 per cent believe that but £800 over two years? Another thing I didn’t know was the FA has a contract with every betting company that if they suspect a footballer has an account, they pass on my account to the FA. That’s what happened. I was so naive, the account was in my own name.”
Clifford has been treated like a criminal but he was entirely honest with the FA, the PFA helped him and his ban expires in April. However, he has no club, and fears being forgotten.
“It’s the best shape I ever have been in at the moment – gym, running and boxing. I’ve been training two or three times a day, I’ve nothing else to do.
“Training being taken away from me really opened my eyes to how much I took being a footballer for granted. Getting up, doing what I loved doing.
“I loved the training with Dundalk. Graham Byrne is very good, Vinny (Perth) had great sessions. Dundalk did so well because they are so dedicated and professional; they do their pre-hab in the gym before training.
“Stevie O’Donnell – what a player and what a man – runs that dressing room in a good way. He’s rung me to check up how I am a couple of times; I can’t speak highly enough of him. In the winter, though, I had time to reflect and get myself in peak condition. Pre-season was all on my own.”
He’s been running in the park, his dad timing his sprints, and his mom cooking him healthy meals when he gets home. Kenny has called him but he is unattached and hungry to get back.
“I feel great. I have no preference club-wise: I just want to play football. Stephen has called me but he wasn’t sure what the story was with the investors and all of that, so we’ll have to see.”
What will a manager get if he signs Conor Clifford? “He’ll get someone who will work his nuts off and give everything for the club. I believe I can become one of the best midfielders in the league if given a chance.”
Conor Clifford is 26 years of age but has seen more than his fair share. He’d advise all youngsters leaving Ireland to preferably stay at home and certainly not go for a youth-team contract, which he says is a free gamble for the clubs over there.
He regrets wasting some of his large Chelsea wage on clobber he wouldn’t look twice at now, and marvels at “kids being on 17 grand a week now who haven’t made one appearance for the first team”.
Chat over, he makes his apologies, as he is off to train on his own in Celbridge. He seems happy now, not the man down and out in London. Just one thing is missing.