Stalybridge Celtic have emerged as one of the success stories in the opening months of this season’s Northern Premier League Premier Division. The 5th-placed Celts are currently five points from the summit, nobody is in finer form, and only leaders South Shields have won more games overall (11 to their ten). It all seems a far cry from a 2018/19 that ultimately saw them finish just two points above the drop.

With Simon Haworth, ‘Bridge have a manager who briefly played as high as the Premier League, while in defender Steve O’Halloran, the ex-Wigan Athletic and Tranmere Rovers marksman can look to someone who also came from a professional grounding in the game. A former Aston Villa prospect, the two-cap Republic of Ireland international has enjoyed a new lease of life at some notable North West non-league clubs in recent years, having more than done his time in football’s hard luck school.

With a physiotherapy career well underway, the unity he has found at the Celts since his summer switch has helped make football far from a spare-time strain. Handed the captain’s armband for the Tamesiders on a number of occasions this season, the man from Cobh took some time to reflect in detail on a footballing road that has brought him the stark, the surreal, and of course, the Stopforth…

 

A few months in at Stalybridge, what have your impressions been so far?

It’s gone really well, especially of late; results have really picked up the last couple of months. We were very erratic at the start of the season, as in we’d win one, lose one. It was frustrating because you can see with the run we’re on at the moment, we’ve got a good team. The manager’s done a different ploy to last season. When I spoke to him in pre-season, he told me last year that they had so many ins and outs and there was no consistency. We’ve got a solid 16/17 core now, there’s a good togetherness, and you can see it starting to click the last couple of months. It’s exciting times at the moment.

Mentioning the manager there, what has he been like to work alongside?

He’s been really good. When I was leaving FC (United) in the summer, I was speaking to a few guys I knew in football and they were like ‘you should speak to Simon at Stalybridge.’ The lads that I’m playing with now, Chris Smalley and Mark Lees who I’ve known from playing with in the past, said that he’s great, a really good manager from a session point of view, ‘you’re gonna enjoy training, but more importantly, he’s getting a good togetherness with the lads.’ If you get that kind of unit together rather than people playing as individuals, it’s hard to stop.

More than busy enough away from playing of course, but how are you feeling in footballing terms at the moment?

I just celebrated my 32nd birthday, and our match was called off at the weekend so I had a run, and the lungs were feeling it after the run. To be honest, I’m enjoying the football now. A veteran now, if you’d put it into a bracket at this stage, at this level, but I feel like I’ve still got another couple of years going at this level at least, if not even the level above. I’ve played Conference/Conference North for a long time, and if I can keep myself fit and in good shape, which I try and do, it’s getting as many games in as I can this year. I think I’ve already played 22 and it’s only December, so it’s going alright this year.

What’s the mix of characters like in the team? Any standouts, for whatever reason?!

We’re a bit of a mixed bag, which is great to be part of. We’ve got some young players; up front we’ve got Neil Kengni, we’ve got Harry Freedman, who’s Dougie Freedman’s son. A really exciting player in Darius Osei; he was at Oldham in the past and he was in the Conference, and he’s come back looking for games. That’s what he’s getting and I think he’s loving feeding off older lads as well that are experienced, like myself, Chris Smalley. Craig Hobson, he’s a character I think everyone knows around non-league, the big lad up front, and he’s been brilliant as well for Darius to learn off. We’ve got lads the gaffer has had in the past – Scott Bakkor and Ross Dent – who give 100 percent for the gaffer, and I think they’re enjoying it this year, compared to last year when it was very up and down.

Going back to the beginnings of your career, and the Ireland call-up under Steve Staunton, you’ve talked before about (Aston Villa and Ireland coach at the time) Kevin MacDonald telling you about it. What about the trip itself (to the US to play Ecuador and Bolivia), though? Was it quite dull and professional, or any lively moments that stick in the mind?

I was doing well for the (Under-)21s at the time with Ireland, but it was a shock. Kev Mac rang me in the afternoon, and we were meant to be going to the Hong Kong Sevens to play a load of different international teams, and I’d been before and I was looking forward to it. He goes ‘Stevie…you’re not coming to Hong Kong with me.’ I told him to fuck off, I was going mad – I was looking forward to it! Getting my Hong Kong dollars changed and everything like that. He goes ‘you’re coming with me to the Republic of Ireland team.’ I goes ‘what?’ He says ‘yeah, you’ve been called up to the senior squad.’ I was stood in the middle of the supermarket, I was just shocked. It was a great moment, that.

The trip itself was really good. It was one of those that I feel really lucky and privileged to be a part of, because there was lads pulled out for whatever reason, but I felt like I went and I took my chance. I ended up getting two caps, which is more than a lot of people, and I can always be proud of that as well. There was lads that were there who’ve gone on and done really well, like Shane Long. It was professional to a point, but I remember we did let our hair down when we went out; we went out in Boston. The funny thing was I was underage, going out over there, because I was only 19 at the time, so I was nearly having to sneak into all these places with older lads ahead of me! I was looked after by a lot of the older lads that were on the trip; Kevin Kilbane was there and he’s had some career, and he looked after all the younger lads that were in the squad at that time.

Rewinding even further, what did you find when you came over to England with Villa as a teenager? Life at the club, and outside of it, in digs etc.

I was 15 when I moved over, and I always have a joke when my mam’s getting on my back – ‘well, you kicked me out of the house when I was 15, mam.’ I think I was running on adrenaline at the time, you’re going over, you’re living the dream, kind of thing. I was staying with another lad who was from Donegal, who unfortunately never made it. He was having a really tough time with it, really homesick, but homesickness or anything like that never affected me. I was just loving the fact I was 15 and over with a Premier League club, getting experience. At the time, I wasn’t able to play in the Under-17s, because I had to wait until my 16th birthday. I was training with the reserve team at the time because there was no one else to play with at the weekends, so I got to play with some great players who’ve done well. Steve Davis, who went on to play with Southampton and Rangers, there was a couple of Irish lads, like Wayne Henderson, who eventually had a back injury and had to retire. Boško Balaban, Villa’s expensive signing at the time, I was 15 and I gave him a two-footed tackle and he was pinning me to the floor on a Saturday morning! I was like ‘what the hell is going on?’ but I knew I was welcomed in when the reserve manager and the boys were backing me up. It was a great experience, being over in England and living the dream.

In football overall up to now, has there been a happiest spell for you? On the pitch, life outside football, great set of lads in the changing room etc.?

When I came back from my knee injury, it was 2010 and I was out for nearly two years with it, so coming back, playing with lads in the reserves, we ended up coming runners-up to Man U in the National Reserve League. I got to play at my boyhood club, at Old Trafford, and against some good players. We had a good team ourselves, players like Barry Bannan, Ciaran Clark, who are still playing now. I still keep in touch with quite a lot of them and I was really happy at that stage. After I left Villa, it was difficult, I never got a good run of games, had little niggles, had another arthroscopy on my knee as well. Then when I dropped into non-league, I was trying to rebuild not just my career, but my life. I built it back up. I’ll always be thankful to Stockport. At the time, Alan Lord was manager, the club was going through a difficult time, but with the fans there, I was like ‘yeah, I’m loving this.’ Back to doing what I enjoy, I played 50 games that season. Unfortunately, when Neil Young came in I didn’t stay there, but I was then lucky enough to go to Salford City, and I had two amazing seasons under Jonno (Anthony Johnson) and Bern (Morley). So I’d say those two seasons were probably a highlight for me for enjoying my football, winning games, and I still keep in touch with the lads from there. The likes of Gary Stopforth, who you know about! I’d say that was my most complete time, 2015 to 2017, I loved it.

I was gonna ask about a possible funniest (or most ‘out there’) teammate from your time in football, but no need to bother now Gaz Stopforth’s been mentioned…

My roommate at the time. I could write a book about that lad.

Having been in teams and dressing rooms in the pro game, did you notice a big difference in non-league, and was it refreshing even?

I’ve never been one with the money and stuff like that, so I was never flashy; if you look at my clothes I’m definitely not one of those flashy footballers anyway. Definitely the car I’m driving’s a shitheap! The lads in the pro game have got their own clique and their little bubble, and I still speak to lads there and we have the same banter ten years on or whatever, but I felt more at home having a laugh with the Salford lads. Enjoying a laugh and just playing with their mates; obviously a lot of them are earning some good money now as well. Looking at that winning mentality with Salford, I loved it. You weren’t just with your teammates, you were with your mates, trying to win a game.

Is the North West home now or could you see yourself going back to Ireland to live?

At the moment I’m loving being in Manchester. I’ve been in Manchester since 2013, my girlfriend’s moved over from Ireland, so she’s working at Salford Royal now; she’s a nurse and she’s doing amazing now over here. We’re really settled and we’ve got a good bunch of mates as well. I definitely see the short-term future and probably the end of my football career in England. Long-term, looking at different opportunities, I’ll have to see. At the moment, I’m working at Spire Healthcare, it’s a private hospital and I’m a senior physio there. I’m also doing my Master’s at Salford Uni in Strength and Conditioning, so keeping busy!

With the injuries earlier on, do you put it down to bad luck? Was there anything you started to do differently that might have contributed to you having a better time of it since?

You see lads recovering from ACLs, but I did my second one when I went on loan to Swansea, and I was just getting into the team. ‘Right, I’m back, I’m playing now.’ Under Roberto Martínez, I’m like ‘I’m gonna be going places, playing football for this guy.’ Third game in, went up for a header, landed funny on it and thought ‘nah, surely not.’

It does take a run of games, so I’d say to any young footballer playing with the 23s, they need to go out and play senior games, even if it is playing Conference/Conference North. We’ve had lads in the past who’ve gone on and done brilliant; you look at Lewis Hardcastle, who came to Salford from Blackburn at 17, played second round of the FA Cup on TV, now he’s top of the league with Barrow. It is that run of games at senior level; it came a bit later for me after all my bad luck. I think I’ve played close to 300 games, so I’ve done alright at this level anyway.

Could you see yourself being a physio at a professional club in the future?

It’d be interesting to see, because I’ve been there, from an injured player’s point of view, so I know the work it takes to recover. That was 12 years ago nearly for me now and I’m still playing now, even if it is a lower standard. It would be interesting to see at the top level how it’s advanced from an injury recovery point of view. At the moment, I’m enjoying the work/playing balance, it’s going really well. I’ve spoke to the gaffer about doing a couple of things with the lads in the New Year to try and help with strength and conditioning side, so any little help to try and give our boys, I think I’d enjoy that side of it.

One singer/band/song you’d sneak on to the team playlist? Assuming that you don’t run it already…

I am the DJ at the moment; we’ve got a random selection. The gaffer wanted a bit of Kings of Leon; he wanted ‘the Celts are on fire,’ I don’t know how that goes down with other lads! I’d go with the Irish songs. For my 30th, with a few of the Salford and Stockport boys, I had a proper traditional Irish band, with the accordion and everything. So I’d go with the traditional Irish songs; Christy Moore, The Wolftones…even a bit of Riverdance…feck it, we’ll throw a bit of that on for the boys!

Not masses of time for you outside football/work/studying, but are there any other interests you have away from all the rest of it?

I’m a big TV fan, when I try and relax; I was a bit of a geek with Game of Thrones. I’m that busy but I do enjoy the travelling side when the season’s done; me and my missus went away to Rome and I go back to Ireland when I get chance.

Finally, through it all up to now, what do you reckon you’ve learned the most from football?

You’ve got to enjoy it, because I’m looking back now, and ten years since I did my knee, and it’s flown by. Whatever level it’s at, you need to be enjoying it. The amount of lads that I talk to that just see it as a job, and it gets to the stage that they’re not enjoying it. With any other job, I think you’d look at a career change. It’s about still enjoying your football, no matter what age you are. My nan said when I first moved over here, it’s a bit like a meat factory – ‘when you’re prime rib, everyone’s loving you; when it’s your sell-by date, you’re gone.’ Enjoy it while you can, and if you can pick up a few mates on the way, even better. I still have a couple of years left anyway, so I’m gonna keep enjoying it.

Interview by @chris_brookes

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