GARETH CRONIN’S story is one of triumph over adversity. The success he enjoys in his present career comes after the trauma of rejection from his first choice.
He has got where he is today, by displaying large helpings of the Christian virtues of courage, perseverance and fortitude, and by his adherence to the Commandment: Honour your father and your mother.
However, like many young men of 30, although he acknowledges his Catholic faith, it comes with an addendum: “I’m a lapsed Catholic,” he tells you. He doesn’t believe that he can subscribe to everything the Church teaches.
More of that later, though, first let’s turn to Gareth’s first love – football – and how he came so close to making it with a top English club, before his dream was taken away from him in circumstances that left a bitter taste for many years.
From the picturesque Cork town of Blarney, Gareth was spotted at an early age as a future star in the football firmament. Capped as a schoolboy for Ireland, there was a race to sign him, and Sunderland won, taking him to the North-East of England.
“Leaving Blarney, which has a population of 1,000 devout Catholics, for Sunderland, was a huge culture shock,” he recalled. “For the first six months I was very homesick. I used to go to Mass in the big church in the centre of the town and that was great for me because it was like a little bit of Ireland.”
He spent three and a half years there, and in the summer of 1993, with Terry Butcher as manager, he was training with the first team and played in the pre-season friendlies. “It looked like I was going to make the breakthrough. I could see myself getting into the first team and, with the World Cup in the USA the following year, I even thought that if I had a good season I might be in with a chance of playing for Ireland there.
“But the team had a poor start to the season and after six weeks, the manager called me in and told me he was releasing seven or eight of us. I was devastated because I didn’t see it coming.
“It was a cost-cutting exercise, the manager was under pressure, and he picked on the soft option – the young players. I agreed to sign for Doncaster and flew home to Cork to talk about it with my parents. While I was there, Butcher was sacked, Mike Buxton came in and he took me off the transfer list.
“Doncaster was a three-year contract, so I’m relieved that it didn’t go through. But I was so disillusioned, my head was gone as far as football was concerned, and I was released at the end of that season.”
Gareth, whose farewell to Blarney had featured a big party attended by 200-300 friends, felt he had let them all down, but his family was a firm support to him at that time.
“I was lucky in that I kept a balance all the time,” Gareth explained. “I studied in Sunderland, earning a Diploma in Business and Leisure. I was bored a lot of the time. We trained from about 10.30 and were back in our digs at 1.0, watching stupid soaps, so eventually I said enough is enough. I started studying for my English A levels, but then I kept missing classes because our reserve matches were fixed for the same nights.
“I went over thinking I’d have a chance to play football in the top two Divisions, but I realised my own limitations after a while. Still, the more I stuck at it the better I got, but I wasn’t up to playing in the top two Divisions in England.
“I loved it though, it was a great experience. I came out of it well and made friends over there. Two families from Sunderland are coming over for my wedding in June next year.
“I was devastated at being let go, so much so that I hated Terry Butcher for a long time afterwards. When I was studying for my accountancy exams later I studied so hard that my fiancee, Suzanne (Webster), asked me why I was studying so hard and I said that I had failed in one career and didn’t want to fail in a second. It was a real spur to make something of myself, an experience that I turned to good effect. I used it in a positive way, to work hard and study hard.”
When he returned to Cork from Sunderland in 1994, he made the hard decision to study for his Leaving Cert. “I was 19 that September and there were lads of 15 in the class who called me Grandad, so it was strange at first, but I had no choice. My parents, Mary and Martin, made me promise that I’d go back to my education if I didn’t make it in England.
“I was older and wiser and so I was willing to study more off my own bat. I was a full-time student and also playing for Cork City. After my Leaving Cert I went to UCC to study Commerce and thoroughly enjoyed that. It fitted in perfectly with my football.
“We won the FAI Cup in my second year of Commerce, beating Shelbourne in Dalymount in a replay, but if it had gone to a second replay it would have clashed with my exams.
“I finished my degree in June 2000 and moved to Dublin a week later to work with KPMG and signed for Shamrock Rovers. It was in KPMG that I met Suzanne and she’s the reason I’m still in Dublin. I qualified as a chartered accountant and moved to Irish Life nine months ago.”
As a player, Gareth was one of the best left-backs in Ireland for the past 10 years. He was capped at Under 15, U-16, U-17, U-18, U-21 and B level, only missing out on the ultimate accolade, the full cap. Among his teammates when he played for the B team was Damien Duff, now the star of the Irish team, so that’s a fair indication of how close he was to making the grade.
Still only 30, he had to quit the game last November through injury. “I had been playing for three years on one leg,” he said. “I was on painkillers just to play and after each game my knee would swell up and I’d be in agony on the couch for two days. I reckon I played for two years on my brain.
“I had four operations on my knee and finally the doctor told me that if I didn’t stop playing I would need a replacement knee at the age of 40.” Gareth took the hint, retired from playing, and now gets his kicks from his role as assistant manager to Dublin City.
“I don’t get stressed at work,” he explained. “You’re not as productive as you should be if you’re stressed. In Ireland people work longer hours and we’re losing sight of why we’re working. I’ve seen people working 90 hours a week – ridiculous stuff – at the expense of their home life and their health. I have seen people have nervous breakdowns.
“Football is great like that. You can leave your desk at 5.0 and have a laugh at training with the lads. I know I’m lucky in that respect.”
Gareth has seen young lads head off to England with such high expectations that, when they were rejected, they didn’t even bother to play junior football on their return home. So what is his advice for boys being pursued by English clubs?
“You should definitely have your Leaving Cert done before you go over, and if you don’t you should make the same promise I did. That’s the most important thing. Besides, there are a lot of good FAS courses around the country where the training is on a par with that at English clubs
“For me, the best solution would be for the Government to give each of the 22 clubs in the Eircom League a squad of 16 youth players on 100 Euro a week. Educate them here and train them at night. If they’re good enough they’ll progress and everyone would benefit. We would have a real football industry then.”
With football taken care of, we moved into the realm of faith. I asked him if his marriage next summer would be in a church. “Yes,” he replied, “we will be married in a church – and our children will be baptised in the church.”
He has an unorthodox take on Sunday Mass. “Weddings, funerals, Easter and Christmas Mass is when I go now. Isn’t it better to go when you want to, and not to go out of routine because you have to?
“I still have the faith,” he added, “but I don’t agree with the Church on things like contraception, homosexuality and women. Maybe the new Pope will change things, but then maybe the thing that appeals to people about the Church is that it never changes.”
When I suggested gently that he mightn’t have so many doubts about his faith if he had spent as much time studying it as he did for his degrees, he took the point and said “probably.”
In the course of a free and frank conversation, I told him about a small domestic problem I was having. “I’ll say a prayer for you,” he said straight away.
The following day, out of the blue, a phone call was made, which effectively cleared up that problem.
Perhaps Gareth is closer to God than he realises.