There are only a handful of Irish names who have graced the Spanish league that spring to mind. John Aldridge spent two seasons at Real Sociedad back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, scoring a hatful of goals. While his former Republic of Ireland teammate Kevin Moran also got a taste of life in La Liga playing for Sporting Gijon from 1988 to 1990. More recently, full-backs Ian Harte and Steve Finnan enjoyed spells at Levante and Espanyol, respectively. Two new names that may need to be added to the list in the near future are Getafe’s John Joe Patrick Finn (yet to declare for Ireland) and Villareal’s Caden McLoughlin.
We have now entered a new era of football where the sport, and each of it’s domestic leagues, has become more diverse in terms of nationality. This subsequently coincides with a choice that many a player finds themselves having to make when it comes to international allegiance. Not many Irish fans will need to be reminded of the impact this can have on the prospects for an international team as it wasn’t so long ago that two promising players, by the names of Jack Grealish and Declan Rice, jumped ship once their name, and their game, began to gather the attention of the English media and national team.
Some Irish fans may be in fear of a recurring storyline when they hear of Caden McLoughlin’s place of birth (Kingston, London), yet their minds are put at ease as soon as we see the smile on McLoughlin’s face as he reminisces about his experience of scoring (as captain) against England for Ireland U-15’s. “Great feeling to be honest, not going to lie”.
That game at St George’s Park finished 3-1 to Ireland, with fellow Irish prospect Kevin Zefi netting the other two goals in the win. Zefi, who is reportedly bound for the city of Milan to continue his career with Italian giants Inter, is just one of several talented Irish players coming through the ranks at youth level. McLoughlin alludes to the potential among the Irish youth set-up, “we have a lot of talent on that team, that’s the first thing I saw. When we played, the way we linked up the first time we met, it was like a family”. Ireland U-15 coach Jason Donohue played his part in creating this sense of togetherness among the players as well as instilling a sense of identity within his squad.
Although Caden McLoughlin has lived the majority of his life in Spain, he doesn’t need much help in forming a sense of identity with the Irish flag. With his mother originally from Finglas in Dublin along with the rest his family, there is a strong connection with his Irish roots that is witnessed throughout the interview. Another prominent theme is family and the importance of their support in his life and throughout his career thus far. The youngster has missed out on this support, in a physical sense, during the past year due the pandemic and it’s associated restrictions. Yet it is something he has relied on in the past when certain setbacks have come his way.
After a promising start to McLoughlin’s career in the youth academy of local team ADC Esteponense in the south of Spain, it wasn’t long before a bigger club in Malaga became aware of his ability. McLoughlin spent two of his five years at ADC Esteponense double jobbing it as he togged out for Malaga on a trial period, which included a top scorer accolade at a European tournament in Germany amongst other achievements. After successful stint with Malaga, McLoughlin was on the cusp of signing on the dotted line of his first contract with the Spanish side until his appendix burst… and so did the tyres of an exciting journey in football that was only taking off. Setback number one had arrived and his career was brought to a halt for two years.
McLoughlin eventually did sign for Malaga who felt he was too good to let go but initially he found it hard to get going and struggled for game time, which is vital for any youngster who is aiming to progress and reach the pinnacle of the game. A frustrating final year in 7-aside rolled into a first year playing at an 11-aside level. A change in structure but not much of a change in fortune as McLoughlin felt there was a lack of belief and confidence from his coach. Steamrolling through setback number two, the forward went on to become top scorer in the league during the following season, scoring 27 goals. “After that everything exploded. I got interest from different teams. We talked to them all, but in the end Malaga believed in me”.
It wasn’t a straightforward trajectory from one season to the next for the 16-year-old however, who admits that he “wanted to leave. If I’m not going to play now, I’m not going to play when I’m older. I’m not going to make it, that was my mindset in that moment”. McLoughlin is grateful to his parents for sowing the seeds of belief within him during this ‘bad moment’ in his career. Since then his game has gone from strength to strength, typified by a move to Villareal last summer after flourishing during his time with Malaga.
From setbacks to sacrifices and the high of signing for a big a club as Villareal has also come with the lows of trying to make it as a professional footballer in the midst of a global pandemic. Every 16-year-old will have struggled with the lack of interaction with their friends in recent times, but none more so than McLoughlin who finds himself ten hours away from home and his friends and family. “I become sad sometimes because I’m just lying down in my room, doing nothing one weekend while my friends are out meeting up and my parents are going out meeting with my sister and I’m just here on my own”. These are the sacrifices that the majority of young footballers have to make in today’s game and it is something that is often forgotten about. “I do this for a reason”, McLoughlin reminds himself during these tough times with his mindset firmly fixed on his footballing aspirations.
So far, the sacrifices definitely appear to be paying off. McLoughlin is top scorer in the league with 13 goals for Villareal U-16’s and recently signed his first professional contract with the club. Add to this a bright start in international football with five goals in nine appearances to his name in the green shirt of Ireland. The aim now is to continue developing and to stamp his mark on the professional game in the not so distant future.
“To be the best. That’s my aim and it should be everybody’s aim.”
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