I answered the front door of my Manchester digs to another Irish teenager. He was taking the spare room that became vacant a few weeks earlier. They say you only get one chance to make a first impression. So what to make of the three black plastic bin bags, bursting at the seams with clothes being wrestled into the porch…..? I knew I’d like him straight away.
Stephen Elliott moved in to a three storey red bricked terraced house in Urmston, Manchester that day and joined an already strong Irish contingent at Manchester City Football Club. Glen Whelan, Paddy McCarthy, Brian Murphy and Willo Flood to name a few…
The City youth team was a resilient one. I’m sure we won many games at the Platt Lane academy ground by the sheer comradery we had built up hanging out in our spare time. Moss Side was not an easy place to come and get a result.
Elliott played in the youth and reserve team for a few seasons but his real break came with the appointment of Kevin Keegan as first team manager. It’s always nice as a player to have a manager who played in your position. They notice the little things. The intricacies of a player’s game can be more visible to the trained eye and sometimes results in a far greater appreciation. Keegan wasn’t going to let this talent go unnoticed. Elliott made his premier league debut as a substitute in a 3-1 victory at Bolton Wanderers. One more Premiership appearance was to follow and although offered contract extension his future lay elsewhere.
Mick McCarthy’s Sunderland swooped for the 20 year-old and this was where things started to take off for the talented striker. He quickly established himself as a first team regular winning the Championship in his debut season in 2005 with 47 appearances and 16 crucial goals. It was this instinctive goal scoring reputation that propelled his call up to the senior international team under Brian Kerr. A debut against Croatia at Lansdowne Road and eight further appearances followed. A decisive goal against Cyprus clinched an important World Cup qualifier away win.
To say injuries have hampered Elliott’s career is a massive understatement. His first full Premiership season with Sunderland was thwarted by injuries restricting him to 15 appearances and two long range wonder goals against Manchester United and Newcastle United. The latter goal would write him into the Sunderland history books for obvious reasons. He remains a firm fans favourite there to this day.
McCarthy once again signed the Irishman for a stint at Wolves but he failed to make a strong impact at Molineux and once again was on the move. Troublesome back, ankle and achilles injuries followed along with the clubs Preston, Norwich, Hearts and Coventry. With intermittent and lengthy periods on the treatment table, Carlisle United was the last of the British clubs.
So what to do now for someone who moved to the UK at the tender age of fifteen? Home has always been where the heart is. Up stepped Shelbourne, his first league of Ireland club. This season he teamed up with Pete Mahon’s Drogheda United where another former Irish International Mark Kinsella is now coach.
Tallaght stadium last Friday night saw Shamrock Rovers host Drogheda United. Rovers were trying to apply pressure at the top end of the table. The Drogs were looking to ensure they will appear on that table next season. After playing soundly for 30 minutes; the veteran striker showed the eagerness and determination of a novice, overstretched and turned his ankle trying to regain possession. Sadly, an all too familiar feeling. That was the end of his night.
During the match itself, there was nothing between the teams in the first half in what was a very forgettable 45 minutes. Both teams struggled to retain possession or move the ball with any real purpose. A reinvigorated Rovers team came out after the half time talk. Time and again, teams are most vulnerable in the first and last few minutes of a half. This proved to be Drogheda’s undoing. In the first minute of the second half Rovers went 1 up. In the end they won comfortably with a strong second half performance and ran out convincing 4-1 winners.
As for Elliott, a few weeks on the side lines looks inevitable now but I couldn’t help thinking of this re-occurring career theme. Injuries have been plentiful; occurred at crucial career moments and have been costly. What could have been achieved if the physical demands of the game hadn’t been a prohibiting factor? How many more international appearances would have been made and what further trophies won? Despite the injuries the honours list is solid. Two Championship titles, League One winner, Scottish Cup winner and Irish Senior International. I was fortunate enough to witness the raw talent of this sharp predatory striker from the beginning and followed his career closer than most. Catch the last of it in United Park while you can, it’ll be worth the admission fee alone!
Photo Credit: Larry McQuillan (Drogheda United)