“Sean Graham swapped the comforts of home to pursue a professional soccer contract in England. His early years saw him begin with GAA and the colours of Ballinderry Shamrocks. Michael McMullan caught up with Graham during a visit back home and recalls his journey to Blackpool...”
IT might not always have been soccer but Sean Graham’s life was always destined to gravitate towards sport.
An underage Gaelic football career with Ballinderry and his schooling in St Mary’s Magherafelt – that was just the beginning.
Soccer joined the race for Graham’s talents and soon the Tyrone Milk Cup (now called Super Cup NI) squad came calling. The perfect shop window to showcase all he had to offer.
Blackpool’s scout was in attendance and liked what he saw. Graham’s left boot was among the attributes to catch the eye and soon the wheels were set in motion.
The 16 year-old went on trial with ‘The Tangerines’, signed on the dotted line and is now part of the club’s Youth Academy.
From the shores of Lough Neagh, Graham’s lifestyle has now totally changed – though he still lives by the shore. This time in the shadow of Blackpool Tower and the Pleasure Beach of Lancashire’s popular tourism epicentre.
When the County Derry Post caught up with Graham, it was on a visit back home to attend ‘The Social’ of his old Alma matter St Mary’s Grammar School Magherafelt.
A teenager stationed away from home is a tough station. On the outside, the pathway to the professional game is lined with bright lights, glitz and glamour. In reality, it is a battle of wills.
The mental side of the game asks the most taxing of questions, but speaking just days after training with Blackpool’s first team – Graham was ignited. He knows exactly what he wants.
“This is for me,” the youngster summed up after being called in for a session under manager Gary Bowyer.
A RARE Sunday at home sees Graham sitting at the kitchen table. His father Robert sits to his left - as proud as punch.
His mother Shauna, nee Conway from Ballinderry, puts the kettle on. Like a household anywhere in Ireland - it’s a welcoming scene.
Sean is no different to any young budding star. He cites Gareth Bale and Messi among his idols, but his initial drive in sport came closer to home.
“It is just the family background, with everyone playing it. That’s where it all started, they were all encouraging me to get into it and to stick at it,” Graham admits.
His uncle Niall Conway has a successful career in football management. James, Darren and Brendan played on Ballinderry championship winning teams. The stock is there.
But before all of that, there was another influence – his first sporting memory.
“The Sunday Game was a good one and dancing to the theme tune.” he recalls of his years as a toddler.
Graham’s sporting dreams followed the path of most. Start at the very beginning and work from there.
“It started with the Gaelic, with the U6s and the U8s (in Ballinderry). I played with the likes of Charlie Duffy, Eoghan Rocks, Michael McKee, Matthew Smyth and Conor O’Neill. They were all Gaelic men.”
A friend of his mother Shauna had a son going to soccer at the time and recommended it. Cookstown Youths came to Derrychrin and Sean went along for a taster. The seeds of a soccer career were sown.
Ireland soccer goalkeeping legend Packie Bonner often credited battling for supremacy in the GAA midfield battleground as giving him the attributes to rise among a packed penalty area to pluck a cross. The contact nature braced him.
“My idol in soccer is Gareth Bale but when I was growing up it was Lionel Messi. I just like his style and I try to recreate what they do." - Sean Graham
Graham doesn’t see it that way: “They are two different sports. I was always small, but I was quite strong and I was hard to knock off the ball.
“I played both (soccer and Gaelic) right the way up until minor – then I had to decide.”
On the eve of Derry minor trials last season came the crossroads. Matthew Smyth went on to be part of Derry’s Ulster winning squad. Sean didn’t, as his mother Shauna explains.
“I think the choice for Sean was last year when he was asked to Derry minor trials. On the Friday night, he said ‘look, there’s no point.’ It was going to collide with the Milk Cup if he made it again. That was his decision made – at the age 16/17 there was going to be a choice.”
As the years passed and his focus turned to soccer, a new set of heroes emerged.
“My idol in soccer is Gareth Bale but when I was growing up it was Lionel Messi. I just like his style and I try to recreate what they do.
“They have different traits, Messi is a bit of a flair player – he is one of a kind. They are both good players, you can’t really separate them can you.”
EVEN at the age of seven, the signs were there. First impressions are everything and on his first session of soccer, Graham shone like a beacon among the rest.
“When I went on the first day, I had to move up an age group just because I was a bit advanced,” he recalls. “Then I had to move up another one. That’s when I was like ‘this is for me’ so I stuck at it.”
Within three short years came the first transfer, he continues: “There was an IFA excellence academy. We had this trial phase and we were playing all these mini games and I saw the Dungannon (Swifts) coach out of the corner of my eye.
“It was a week later, I got the phone call and I had to come up for training that week and got signed by them.”
It was time for the taxi service to kick into gear. Two sessions a week and a game every Friday night. All through the U13, U14 and U15 grades.
“It is no different – with Gaelic clubs, soccer clubs, rugby clubs and the like,” adds his father Robert.
There was Northern Ireland involvement threw in for good measure and eventually the Swifts’ U17 team. All the while, playing under Tyrone Milk Cup coach Richard Clarke, there was a further step up the ladder.
"I went for a training session one night, as a trial and he said we would want you to sign." - Sean Graham
“Richard Clarke was a player at Crusaders and he told us they were looking to strengthen their squad. They had lost a lot of their players. I went for a training session one night, as a trial and he said we would want you to sign. Richard played a big part – he put the word in for me,” expresses Sean.
“I knew one or two from the Northern Ireland setup. I was a bit nervous, I’m not going to lie but I settled in fairly quick. They were very welcoming. At the end of that trial match, they asked ‘do you want to sign for us’.”
Graham didn’t bat an eyelid, he committed straight away. When you are a fanatical sporty teenager, the impulsive desire to succeed rules above all other emotions.
It was only Belfast. The next step was the biggest. It would be life changing.
FOR most of his underage life Sean Graham was used to being judged. From the early days at Cookstown when he was promoted through the age groups, there have been scouts on the outside looking in.
The Milk Cup is the daddy of them all and at last season’s competition Blackpool scout spotted two players with something special. It was time for the English club to dig deeper into the ability of Sean Graham and his team mate Thomas Mullan.
“At that time when I was asked to go for a trial, there was no second guessing. This is what I am here for, I am not going to pass up the opportunity.
“I went over with him (Thomas) and that was a big help – it meant I didn’t have to walk in on my own.
“It was just training every day and they were testing me out. There were no trial games and I was a bit surprised at that. I didn’t think too much about it, I didn’t want to overthink – I have a tendency to overanalyse. I am negative and always think the worst.”
With all the steps in the progression, the intensity level lifted but Blackpool was above anything he had experienced, as he continues.
“There was training in the morning and then there was the gym in afternoon. I didn’t do the gym work because I didn’t want to put any more stress on as the training is so high tempo. It was because of the duration of it, it was five days a week from two days a week – it was a big jump. I liked it from the start, I thought ‘this is what I want to do’.
“It was the volume of it. They weren’t long training sessions, they were just very intense. They home in around intensity and if it is not there, there is no point in doing it. You don’t have to have your quality, you just have to have your intensity – that’s what they are looking for most.”
Once again, Graham ticked all the boxes and by the fourth day, Blackpool had their mind made up. They were ‘very interested’ in snapping him up.
“They wanted me to sign, ‘we like your left foot’…they emphasised that a lot. There was no second guessing.”
He knew what he wanted but this wasn’t like any switch. Sean Graham’s career rested at a fork in the road.
“I got a phone call on the Friday from Steve Edwards (Youth Administrator) and John Murphy (Professional Development Phase Coach) was interested and I can put the wheels in motion,” recalls Shauna of her son’s transfer to Blackpool.
Kids from England would have been phased in before the switch, but from the other side of the water there is no middle ground. At the age of 16 it is time to up root and make the move.
“There is no time to mess about, they’ll just sign somebody else,” Roberts adds.
There was still the stumbling block of negotiations between Blackpool and his previous clubs.
“Dungannon and Crusaders have financial clauses if he goes on to make it as a pro,” Shauna explains. “I was on the phone to Blackpool, to Dungannon and Crusaders – thankfully we have always had good relationships with the clubs. I was able to talk directly to people.
“I wonder how many cubs fall through the loop in these financial dealings. It only takes one club to say ‘no’ it doesn’t happen. It was a learning curve for us and thankfully we had good people around us to help us through it.”
FROM rural Ireland, from the shores of Lough Neagh to Blackpool is more than a step up. It is a giant leap. Especially when you are 16.
“It was the biggest scare of my life,” Sean recalls of his move away from home. “The first weekend, they didn’t have a game and I was there on my own – it was a real tester. Everybody (else) has the luxury of going home – they get on a train and away they go.
“I have to book flights and trains and all that. I had no TV, no internet…48 hours with no wifi - it was Bear Grylls stuff. Most of them (rest of squad) are home once a week. There are two guys from London and one from Scarborough and we all stay there (in Blackpool).”
After his GCSEs in St Mary’s Magherafelt, going back to school was pathway of choice. Until Blackpool came calling.
Now, Sean – like all the academy players – is doing a BTEC in sport. It’s part of the English Football League’s requirement.
“Everyone has to be seen to be given an education. There is a whole child protection ethos in soccer that there wasn’t 10 years ago,” Shauna explains.
“All the academies have to be seen to be educating them so at the end of their one or two years, they are not just dumped. There is something to fall back on,” adds Robert.
Blackpool’s U18s are through to the fourth round of the FA Youth Cup. They face Southampton. Sean played in the earlier rounds, but as a ‘first year scholar’ he is among the youngest in the squad. The second years have the monopoly on the game time.
He played in the earlier rounds and came on in a 4-1 win over Walsall but saw no game time in the win at West Ham
“I started off just alright and I started the first two games just to get into it,” Sean outlines. “There is a different style over in England, there is definitely a different intensity and physicality. There was a quality jump as well.
“I was starting a few games, then I took a bit of a dip in performance levels. I was bit unsettled, I wasn’t content and you could see it in my training.
“I felt it myself, so I didn’t get to start a few games after that and I haven't play in the last two or three games – not even a minute. Football is harsh and you’ve just got to roll with the punches.”
Going from living in a family home to living in digs is the ultimate challenge. Sean agrees.
“It is being away from home – definitely. I will adapt to the (football) standards over there but it’s just natural to miss home.”
But beneath the challenges, Sean knows exactly what he wants. Becoming a pro is the next level. The next step.
“That’s what’s keeping me there. Seeing the pros every day – the way they go about their work. They are all professional – it’s the lifestyle I have wanted to do.
“I have trained with the first team and I loved it. It made me realise that this is for me. It is another level, the quality difference is massive. They were all welcoming and it is a rotational thing to give everyone a taste (of the first team) and seeing can you adapt to it. I loved every minute of it.”
“I think fate threw Sean a hand as well. Sean went through Ballinderry underage when there was only three boys in his class at school." - Shauna Graham
FATE played a part in Graham swaying towards soccer. Sometimes things fall into place. Ballinderry was once a hotbed of underage success. As Sean moved up the ranks, medals and trophies were absent, as Shauna explains.
“I think fate threw Sean a hand as well. Sean went through Ballinderry underage when there was only three boys in his class at school. They were always playing Grade B – they were never up there with the Ballinderry of old.
“He was watching his uncles (the Conways) who were always on a winning team – Sean was never on a winning team the whole way through.”
“Possibly if you (Sean) were on a winning team with Ballinderry at 8 or 9 (years of age), soccer may not have came into it.”
Five years of Ulster Colleges GAA saw him fail to win a game – until the last one, as Sean outlines.
“We won one game (Gaelic football) after five years. We won the Rannafast Shield. I couldn’t believe we won that night up in The Dub.”
Like Derry minors winning Ulster, St Mary’s went on to win the MacRory Cup. Sean could have had his feet in both winning camps but there were no regrets. Soccer was the choice and the GAA was simply parked.
“I was a wee bit - ’do I or do I not’? Do I give it a shot? But I came to the realisation that the two wouldn’t have worked together. Everyone has supported me in whatever I have done.”
On Tuesday Blackpool will host Southampton at Bloomfield Road. The prize for the winners – a place in round five of the FA Youth Cup. A competition won by Manchester United in the early 1990s, a side that backboned the club’s drive to the top of European football.
For Sean Graham, the cup run is a means to an end. Securing a professional contract is what it is all about.
Robert and Shauna Graham will wait patiently on updates from the game. Sean’s brother Matt, his sisters Claire and Kerrie are like all the rest – willing him to succeed.
Bloomfield Road is a long way from Ballinderry’s Shamrock Park. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since Cookstown Youths caught a glimpse of his talents. Sean Graham will be craving more days. Then again, sport has always been at the forefront.
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