Every young schoolboy player dreams of making it in the world of football, and it was no different for Carlow’s Shane Howard. Tom Byrne sat down with Howard to discuss his personal football story, which included underage success, playing for his country, having trials abroad, and a big decision to move to America to pursue a scholarship
SHANE Howard, a Clonmore, Hacketstown native, joined Aughrim Rangers in County Wicklow as an U9 schoolboy player.
“I went down joining the U9 team but found out a couple of weeks later I was U8 but I didn’t want to change” he says with a grin on his face. “All my first memories in football would be with Aughrim Rangers, especially winning the treble that year I joined the U9 team.”
This was to be Howard’s first taste of winning, and the Carlow man has thrived off success ever since. Next, he joined Carlow side New Oak U11s, where more local success was matched with a big win abroad.
“That team went to Manchester to compete in the Umbro Cup which we won, and as a result we got to go to Carrington, the Manchester United training ground. We were lucky as a team to get a tour of the training grounds and facilities,” he says.
A year later, the winger made the move to the Dublin District Schoolboys League (DDSL), joining the famed St Joseph’s Boys AFC. When asked about how he first got spotted by “Joey’s,” Howard says:
“We played Joey’s in a friendly with New Oak at the time; the move was on the cards, as my cousin Niall McCarney was playing up in Dublin as well. Back then if you weren’t playing in the DDSL it was very difficult to progress. It’s different now, which is much better for Irish football. If you’re playing around the country now you do get opportunities as there are development centres.”
“It was a massive step up in the DDSL,” he explains. “The chat of being the big fish in a small pond is very true. When you go up there the standard is obviously much better but you need that too; it progresses you, playing with better players.”
Even as a 12-year-old, Howard had a busy training regime.
“We had a two-night-a-week commitment, Tuesday and Thursday with a game on the Saturday,” he says. “I was fortunate enough at U12 that I made the county team so that also meant going up on a Sunday to play and train with them; that meant it was a four-day-a-week schedule.
“Only now I know the commitment my family put in for my football, especially having a child now myself. Dad used to come home early from work, eat his dinner at 4:30p.m., and we would be on the road by 4:45 p.m. on a Tuesday and Thursday, and then back up on the weekends for Saturday and Sunday.“
Howard had a very successful first few years in the DDSL, as the long hours paid off.
“We won the Kennedy Cup with the Dublin team at U13 level which was excellent; there were some fantastic players on that team who are still playing, Richie Towell being one. We also went unbeaten in the Kennedy Cup competition without conceding a goal.”
After three years at Joeys, he made the move to Crumlin to join what he describes as a “super team.”
“I spent the next three years there, every year we would win at least two of the three cups,” he says. “We played in the prestigious Milk Cup in Northern Ireland and made it to the final. At that time we would have been the first Irish team to ever win it, but we lost out on penalties to Swindon Town. We had beaten some big teams along the way, Hearts and Ipswich to name a few. For an Irish team to go that far was a good achievement for us. My last year underage, which was U17, was with Belvedere FC, as most of the Crumlin team had gone to England.”
That last season in the DDSL was once again successful, as Howard won the DDSL U17 Premier League and also the All-Ireland with his new “Belvo” side.
Along the way, he also represented his country from U15s up to U18s.
“It was huge for me to be called into the Irish squad; my first game I played was an away trip to Holland for a week. This was probably the biggest step up playing at international level. Just because you got named in one squad didn’t mean you were in the next one; you had to be on the top of your game all the time. I would say at U15 I made ninety per cent of the squads and then it just got more difficult as the years went on.”
Howard has played alongside many players who have gone on to make a career for themselves in the world of football, with the likes of Robbie Brady and Conor Hourihane involved in the same Irish U17 squads.
“Robbie Brady was a year younger but he was good enough to come up and play with us,” Howard says. “At U17 most players were going across the water or were across the water already, so there were fewer playing in Ireland, which made it difficult to stay in those squads and stay playing.”
Howard’s biggest personal success wearing a green jersey came when he was playing for the Ireland U18 Schools team in 2009. That year, he picked up the FAI U18 International School’s Player of the Year award for impressing in the Centenary Shield.
“This was an Irish team of Irish based players which played in the Centenary Shield competition,” Howard says. “We finished second to England in the competition but to win the U18 Schools Player of the Year was a huge success for me. The only downfall was that I was in America for pre-season at the time of the FAI awards so I didn’t get to go on RTE and pick up the award.”
But there were some let downs for Howard as well as gaining valuable experience, such as when he was offered trials in England as a teenager, travelling over on occasion between U14 and U17.
“I spent two weeks at Arsenal, it was an unbelievable experience but in the end it was too big of a jump for me,” he says. “You go over there and you’re only playing three or four times a week max but these guys have been playing six days a week for their whole life. With any of these clubs you need to go over and be better than them so it was a big step up.
“I went over to Leicester for a week, nothing happened there. Same thing with Stoke, I went for a week but nothing happened there also.
“The one I probably came closest to was Nottingham Forest,” he says. “At the time they brought over a squad of eleven Irish players and we spent a week there. A few months later they brought back five or six players from the eleven, so I was in the next round. They decided to bring us over a third time but this time it was only three guys — a forward, a midfielder and a defender. I was in that three, so it seemed like if we had another good week here we might get across. Unfortunately for the three of us none of us got over. It was one thing to get a trial but it was an even bigger challenge to get the contract.”
At 18, Howard felt he was at a career crossroads. There were offers from League of Ireland clubs, and University scholarships were being dangled in America. In the end he chose the latter, going to Old Dominion University in Virginia.
“When I went to America in 2009 I was probably the only one at my age group in the whole country that took the plunge to give it a shot and see how it would go,” he says.“In the few years after that the influx started to happen and now you get hundreds of players going over every year for that kind of opportunity. If you played a decent standard in Ireland, there is a level in America for everybody. I had offers with League of Ireland clubs or I had the choice to give this a shot and I said sure why not, I had nothing to lose.”
In his first year, everything was humming along nicely.
“In freshman year I was one of a few freshmen to start and play all year,” he says. “I made the league’s all-freshmen team, and the conference tournament team, in my first year at Old Dominion. The first blip for me happened in the second year of Old Dominion; it just didn’t happen for me, nothing went right for me with football. I put it down to finishing in November and then you don’t play again until next August.
After returning to the U.S. after a break in Ireland, however, something had changed.
“I went home that summer, obviously you don’t play at home and came back in August but I couldn’t get going,” he says. “I fell out of favour, just coming off the bench for a year. At the end of my second year in Old Dominion, I had to make a decision. Do I stick it out here for the next two years, or do I leave?
“I bit the bullet and decided to move to the University of Montevallo in Alabama. It was a better setup for me down there. There were a couple of Irish lads so it felt more like home. I had a great two years there with them, went on to two National Championships, won a conference and won plenty of awards so I was happy with the move in the end.”
Howard would spend eight years over in America in total, including a stint as a semi-pro, before moving to Vancouver, Canada.
“I can’t fault the American system, for you to not get to England and become a full time professional the next closest thing is probably the American college system,” he says.
“You train every day, go to college and also have strength and conditioning sessions. In my four years of playing College soccer I had some good years, I won conferences and awards as well in college. I also played a semi-pro level in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), which was in the summer.
“The only downfall to the colleges was that the season is very short. Pre-season is in August and then the season is from September to November, it’s very short and condensed. I didn’t fancy the big gap when you’re used to playing all year-round, so I went and played in the NPSL for three years. My fondest memory of soccer in America was playing for the Erie Admirals in Pennsylvania; we had successful runs winning leagues and cups, also going to the nationals and getting to the semi-finals.
“The best coaches I had were John Melody, from Waterford, and Neil Browne for the Erie Admirals. John was a fantastic manager, motivator, and enforcer. He got the best out of his teams. Neil Browne was the most technical and tactical coach I’ve been under, he went into the finest details on everything. He could literally tell me what the opposing left back ate for breakfast.”
Off the field, things hadn’t worked out too badly either, as Howard left college highly qualified.
“In the end, America was the route I took and I got my education, a degree in Kinesiology,” he says. “After the degree I had a year to go and work so I took the opportunity to become the director of coaching with the local club for a year in Alabama. The opportunity then came to become the graduate assistant coach at William Carey University in Mississippi. I didn’t continue playing; it was a thing when you finish college you either make the MLS (Major League Soccer) or there is nothing. “
After doing his coaching badges, he went on to serve as the full-time assistant men’s soccer coach at William Carey.
“I loved it,” he says. “I did that for three years and we grew the programme alongside Barry Farrell, a Dublin native, and Ross Brooks who both continue to improve the programme each year. We ended up becoming a powerhouse and became a top ten team nationally.”
Nowadays, in Vancouver, Howard lives with his fiancée Angela Buonassisi and their child, Lochlann. He works as a regional director at a company called DoctorCare.
“We were supposed to get married this year but COVID happened,” he says. “We met at Montevallo, she played on the women’s team. It was mad because we both wore number 10 and played in the 10 role!”
“I love it here in Vancouver; it’s an unbelievable part of the world to live in. I was delighted to see that there was a pretty well organised amateur league here when I first came. I joined a team in the Premier Division, which had a paid coach. Most players have played at a top level in college or some sort of semi-pro level, so the standard is actually surprisingly really high. For the last three years at the club I have taken the U16s, U17s and U18s, so I am still involved in soccer and I think I always will be.”
Asked if he would have done anything different, as he looks back over his time in the game, Howard is philosophical.
“I always had it in my head, if I didn’t go to America I would have gone to the League of Ireland but where would that have led and would it have been successful for me?” he asks.
“A lot of players I played with took that option. It wasn’t successful for everyone but a lot of the boys are still playing at that level. It’s very hard to say that when I have had such a fantastic experience in America and seeing another part of the world. Looking back at it, I probably wouldn’t have taken the first time off after the first season with Old Dominion. It was probably the first time I got lazy and complacent. “Thinking back on it, I would have done much more myself,” he says.
“I was going off blind, going to America, I could have gone back and gave it a go in Ireland, but everything worked out and every move has been good.“
Shane Howard earned 15 underage international caps for Ireland including featuring in games against Spain, France and Holland. He also captained his country against Northern Ireland, a great honour for any player.
He recently won the Imperial Cup for West Vancouver FC, scoring two goals in the final and receiving the Man of the Match award. Most recently, he was named in Montevallo’s decade team (2010-2020), dating from his playing days there as a college student.
This article originally appeared in the Fireside Companion magazine.