What has Newbridge native Gary Shaw got in common with well-known household soccer internationals such as Jeff Hendrick, Shane Duffy, John Egan, Robbie Brady and Daryl Horgan?
They were all members of the Ireland soccer squad that made it to the U19 European Championship finals in 2011.
Gary made his international debut in a 5-0 win over Luxembourg, starting up front alongside Robbie Brady, going on to defeat Bulgaria and booking a place in the finals.
Just 12 months earlier Shaw was selected for the Irish Schools’ team which took part in the Centenary Shield, an annual inter-
national tournament made up of sides from England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — and after losing their opening match, Ireland went on to record wins over Wales 1-0; Scotland 5-2 (Shaw on the score sheet) and England 1-0, to claim the title.
After that the Newbridge player got the call-up to the U19 international side, then managed by Paul Doolin.
Ireland qualified for the European finals, making it to the semi finals, losing out to Spain but for Gary Shaw it was heartbreak, as a broken foot while playing for the Ireland Colleges ruled him out of action.
It was the start of what can only be described as a string of injuries that hit this talented player in his emerging, and promising, career.
Gary Shaw was born in Newbridge in 1992; and while as a youngster his one dream was to become a jockey (“I used to be on the back of the couch at home, silks, saddle the lot”) but soon out-grew that particular career.
Initially he played Gaelic football with Sarsfields but three people in particular saw him turn to soccer — Don Nea, Richard Doherty and the late Barney Fleming.
“When we were about nine myself, Richard's young lad Neil and Barney's lad, Peter, along with a few other lads — including Adam Tyrrell — played indoor soccer every Sunday before the lads approached Newbridge Town with an interest in forming an U11 side.
“The only other soccer we played at that time was Community Games, we made up four teams in the town and then under the guidance of Philie Wolfe (snr) a Newbridge team was formed for the CG and it was soon after that I told Sarsfields I was concentrating on soccer over Gaelic.
I really wanted to play the soccer and with the Kennedy Cup (U13 tournament) had to make a decision, and my da rang Alex Kiernan and Seanie Dunne to tell them I was giving up the Gaa to play soccer.
Wouldn't say that went down too well?
“No, it didn't, Alex was not too pleased but it was just too much with all the different training times and the Kennedy Cup was the opportunity — really it was the first big decision in life I had to make” said Gary.
“I started with Newbridge U11s and went all the way up to U16, with all the same group of lads and then we had a Youth squad; Sean Gaffney was the manager.”
Gary's potential did not take too long to be recognised and at just 15 was called into the Newbridge Town senior set-up.
“I was brought in one Christmas and started training with the senior squad 2nds and then the senior 1st team; while also playing with the U16s; it was a busy time with games on Fridays and Saturdays but I loved it.”
At 16 Gary headed to Birmingham City for a week's trial, his first of many across the pond and, as he says himself “I got on very well. However at that time in Birmingham a player was offered a two year place as a ‘scholar’ in their youth programme and then moved up into their Reserves followed by a pro contract.
“I had just missed out on being a 1st year ‘scholar’ (you had to be born after July) but as I was born in May, I missed by two months but could have been brought in as a second year ‘scholar’ but they don't really do that as they want lads to do the full two years so I missed out on that.”
It was the first of many set-backs he was to experience in the coming years but it wasn't long before another trial came along.
Leeds United came to Newbridge Town, held a clinic and a game and following that Gary was off to Leeds for a trial.
“I was brought over and did well but because I had turned 17 I would have been brought in as a second year ‘scholar’ but they just did not see that as fit.”
To be honest, adds Gary “I have been on plenty of trails and you just get the same old speel but it's very tough to make it over there; the competition is massive; so many talented players.”
2010 was the start of an absolute whirlwind period for Gary and while he admits he knew nothing about League of Ireland football at the time “I just loved playing football; and apart from enjoying my time with Newbridge Town, and keeping an eye on Sarsfields (and Moorefield) that really was all I cared about.”
Having been spotted by, and recommended to Bray Wanderers early 2010, Gary was invited to a trial.
“I went up to Bray, trained with them on a Wednesday; Pat Devlin was the manager, and he said after the training ‘that's it we want to sign you; we want to get the forms signed tonight, we are playing up in Dundalk on Friday’.”
So with no fuss or bother Gary signed the amateur forms, went home and checked out Bray Wanderers only to discover they were bottom of the Premier Division, seven points adrift, but decided “no matter it will be grand, it will be nice experience anyway.”
So come Friday the young, now former Newbridge Town player, met up with his new teammates at the Coach-
man's Inn near the Airport, went to Oriel Park, where he was more than surprised to be named on the bench.
And what happened after that fell into the fairytale category.
“After nine or ten minutes Shane O'Neill, no. 1 striker with Bray at the time, went down with a shoulder injury and Pat Devlin turned to me and said ‘right, get yourself ready’ and I was thrown in at the deep end and about five minutes later I put us one up; we ended up winning 2-0; it was mad; I was on the League of Ireland Team of the Week and all sorts of stuff.”
With Shane O'Neill still out injured the following week, Gary was given a starting shirt for a game against Galway; which they (Bray) won 4-0, Shaw found the net again.
Bray went on and avoided relegation, retained their place in the Premier Division, while Gary, having been playing with the Ireland Colleges team also at the time (was studying in IT Carlow) was called up to the Ireland U19 squad, Paul Doolin was manager.
A 5-0 win against Luxembourg followed by a win against Bulgaria saw Ireland, with Gary — and the aforementioned lads that went on to become full Ireland international players — qualify for the European finals; finals that Gary missed out through injury.
“When I was in Carlow studying the injuries began, a few bits and pieces but I bounced back and continued on but I broke my foot in January training for the Ireland Colleges in 2011, came back but in a game with Bray, my first full season with Bray, broke my foot again and that ruled me out for two months; the fifth metatarsal, the same one again and on the first game back.
“At that time I was also due to go to Bournmouth but that was called off with the break and then Niall Quinn, Sunderland Chairman, asked me over to Sunderland (not sure how that came about) but in fairness to Niall he just told me to get myself right and come over in April but “ when I broke the foot a second time I missed out going to the U19s Championship finals with Ireland while also missed out on Sunderland.”
I finished out that season but was struggling somewhat and I felt I really wanted to try and restart again.
“Andy Cousins always stuck by me and his brother Tony, a League of Ireland legend with Shamrock Rovers, who had been with Liverpool, was the manager in Longford and he took me so I signed for them for the 2012 season and did very well; we won the 1st Division title and were promoted to the Premier Division.”
Back in the shop window both Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers came knocking in mid-summer, while also having a trial with Peterborough, but as he was now under contract a transfer fee was involved but Longford refused to do any business. However a few months later, December 2015, Shamrock Rovers renewed their interest, Pat Felon was the manager and offered Gary a full time contract.
At this stage Gary had a full time job, working with FAI in Sponsorship and Events, the commercial side of the soccer body, a decent steady job, that he would have to leave, but after a lot of thought decided to stay put, rang Pat Devlin, said “thanks but no thanks.”
Gary takes up the story.
“I was driving home from Blanchardstown (FAI) and was coming over Newlands flyover one evening and I said to myself what am I doing here, what am I thinking, I needed to go and play full time football; a full time professional, this could be my only chance.
“I picked up the phone, said nothing to anyone, and said ‘Pat I've changed my mind, I want to sign’.”
And sign he did, a two year contract.
But like most of Gary's soccer career there was another twist coming just down the road.
Mid-way through 2016, Shamrock Rovers, playing in the Europa League, were defeated (at home) by a Finish team, Pat Fenlon was given his marching orders and Stephen Bradley was appointed, his first game was the second leg in the Europa League, losing again.
A new manager, new ideas and all that entails; at the end of that season their was a lot of uncertainty. Stephen Bradley, naturally wanted to put his own stamp on affairs, released 10 or 11 of the first team squad but offered Gary a new contract which was duly signed.
The following season, 2017, was probably Gary's most successful one; played in the Europa League, scored against Stjarnan from Iceland, who they beat, and the former Newbridge Town player was voted Shamrock Rovers Player of the Year. However another twist in a career that has seen so many twists and turns, was just around the corner, again.
In a freak football accident Gary broke his arm, his humerus — the long bone of his upper arm that extends from the shoulder to the elbow.
Major surgery ensued where two plates and 16 bolts were required in constructive surgery.
Gary admits being in a bad place, both mentally and physically after that.
“I played the 2018 season but just could not get back to the level I was at having done so well the year before” adding “football is a very ruthless game; just one thing happens, and suddenly you are irrelevant, just cut away, as clubs simply look at the next player and carry on.”
Not for the first time Gary Shaw had to knuckle down and start to re-build his career as he departed Shamrock Rovers, moving to St Patrick's Athletic.
However the 2019 season did not go well despite, as he says himself, “having a good group of players; good individuals; good manager, but come Friday night, it just did not click for me; it was constant disappointment on the pitch, injury-wise and all that kind of stuff, basically I just had to write that season off.”
At this stage Gary was married to Debbie, had a son so began to focus on the future and as he says himself, moving from the transition of football to ‘real’ life.
“I went back to the working world; signed for manager Gary Cronin at Bray Wanderers”, adding “so ten years on I am back to where it all began in 2010.”
Needless to say last season (2020) was a season best forgotten but still being classed as an elite sport managed to get the season finished, Bray just missing out on promotion.
Gary returned to the training ground with his Bray Wanderers teammates just last week; five days a week; 6 or 7 full weeks of pre-season training for the new season; lots of restrictions but delighted to be back nevertheless.
Living in Newbridge, now with two young children, training takes place in Carrickmines “just 40 minutes away so not too bad.”
Back working full time also, business development, so no doubt a busy household.
“Not much free time; fairly crazy; planning practically every hour as one thing ends, you are on to the next; trying to keep the wife happy; the kids happy; the manager happy, all go; might have to let one of two people down now and again” he laughs.
After a full decade of soccer does Gary Shaw often wonder what might have been?
“At this stage I have learned to accept where I am; I always said from an early stage I would love to have the life of a professional footballer; fortunately I got to live it here but it's not the same.
“There are, of course, times when I look back on what could have been, but for the injuries; especially that time when I broke my foot; I had broken onto the scene at the top level; come through the Ireland Youth systems; playing on the same level as lads who have gone on to have international careers; I was doing so well ...
“I feel I could have had a decent career in the championship or League One; plenty of Irish players over there and while I am not saying I would have made it in the Premiership but I do think I would have had a good career in England but injuries played a big part and that, unfortunately, is just life; this is all part of sport; you have to take the good with the bad.
“Having said that I was mature enough to say on a number of occasions, look I will just re-start and try and build up again, and that was when I went to Longford, it took a couple of years; but I worked my way back up.
“Played with Shamrock Rovers; got to travel to India, Finland, Sweden, Czech Republic, to name just a few countries, all because of football; incredible experience; played in the Europa League, played at the top level; two years ago I played against Chelsea, Frank Lampart had just been appointed and brought them over to Dublin and played against Bohs and Pats; also played against Celtic.
“I may sound like I am talking about football from 20 years ago but I am still only 28 and feel I have plenty of games left in me; I am not on the wind-down just yet” he laughs; “still giving it everything; still putting everything into the game.”
Interested, down the road, in getting involved at the coaching or management level?
“I have my Uefa B licence in coaching but that is a very saturated career; so many want to go down that road; very hard to make good money but I really enjoy the psychology side of things; the mental side; really into that; performance coaching.
“With the likes of injuries, the ups and the downs that go along with playing there are so many things that can affect you mentally that can disturb or disrupt your game.
“I do really enjoy getting into that side of things; what people are thinking and how they get over set-backs; so that's kind of the avenue I want to go down, the psychology route, but not for a few years yet” he adds quickly.
One just has to take one's hat off to Gary Shaw; so much heartbreak; so much disappointment; so many set-backs; injuries coming at the wrong time; missing out on an U19 Euro finals; fighting back; only to be hit with another injury; but refusing to lie down, refusing to walk away.
And at 28 years of age, why would he.
Gary has got to the very top in League of Ireland soccer and while he would dearly have loved to have gotten the chance to give it a real go across the pond, he is now at an age, given a decent break, a decent run of injury-free football he can return to the top rung of soccer here at home.
And as he says himself, who knows what's around the corner; who knows what will pop up.
We wish Gary, his wife Debbie, children Max and Paige all the best in 2021.