Education: Life Beyond Soccer is an ongoing series examining the importance and sustainability of education in the lives of young sportspeople in Ireland. Previous instalments in the series can be found here.
He appears on our TV screens every week as a Soccer Republic pundit, but for those of us of a certain vintage Alan Cawley is the decorated League of Ireland midfielder who was part of Shelbourne’s European run and spent time with clubs including UCD, Bray Wanderers and Dundalk before retiring and taking up media work.
Cawley’s potential was first spotted by overseas scouts when he was playing with the Republic of Ireland under-14 and 15 squads under Vinny Butler. Leeds United agreed to sign him when he was 16 on the condition that he play football at the highest schoolboy level in the country.
This entailed the former Summerhill College student signing for a Belvedere squad which included the likes of Wes Hoolahan - with whom he would later link up with at Shelbourne - and Robbie Martin, another young Irishman who spent time at Leeds.
Speaking to extratime.ie, Cawley spoke of how the spins up the motorway wouldn’t be necessary anymore as Sligo Rovers are playing at an elite underage level.
He said: “It’s a better route now than back then, there are great opportunities. Lads are much better off nowadays. Back then the route was to go England at 15 or 16 and not 21 or 22 like now. The chances are there, the pathway is the way to go - it’s a no brainer. Under-15, under-17, under-19 and then into the first team. Young fellows have to play. If you’re good enough you’ll come.”
Regarding the importance of education, Cawley is adamant that parents have a vital role to play in their child’s development: “it could be very difficult to turn down the lucrative offer (from abroad) and you need a strong parent as well as a strong child. It can never be overestimated the guidance of parents when kids are in their teens.
"As soon as you sign (in England) you’re just another player, there’s a conveyor belt and you’ll be replaced if you’re not performing. Education is obviously big and it’s important to have that. Too many young fellas think that they’re footballers while earning pittance in the league and doing nothing outside. For the majority of players the league isn’t secure enough. You need to build a career outside the game.”
As the Soccer Republic pundit is the first interviewee in this series to have spent a considerable period playing in England, it was important to ask a few questions about life in England and how he felt about returning to play in the League of Ireland.
“At 18 I was playing in the reserves but with Leeds in the Champions League - it was great for the club but maybe not for me as a young player - it was hard to get an opportunity.”
Cawley moved across Yorkshire to Sheffield Wednesday before arriving at Belfield to join UCD, debuting for The Students at the age of 20. Speaking about his mindset at arriving back in Ireland he is honest about how he felt.
“I was lucky as I’d a couple of offers unlike others who didn’t stay (in England). I wasn’t disillusioned as I wanted to play. Paul Doolin (then UCD manager) was excellent and very professional. I got the love back for the game.”
With the love came success on the field, in the shape of a league title at Shelbourne in 2004, along with the fabled European odyssey. Cawley played for a number of clubs, most prolifically at Bray Wanderers and St Patrick’s Athletic before finishing up his League of Ireland career at Dundalk in 2010.
Following a short stint at Portadown, he retired and is now working for RTÉ on both television and radio as a soccer analyst where he sees transfers such as Graham Burke leaving Shamrock Rovers for Preston North End as a good sign “because it sets a decent fee”.
We spoke also about the possible merits of a single 16-team division which allows for a greater promotion of each fixture and “all of sudden clubs are getting bigger."
While a single division is a debate for another series, a parting shot from the Sligo man who grew up on the Bit O’Red, is that it’s important to be a bit well read when considering a career in the League of Ireland, “the stats prove that a tiny fraction make it (in England), the pathway is the way to go. The landscape has changed.”