Former Wexford star Croke looking forward to Champions League challenge

“I never thought I’d be coaching at the Champions League level.”

By Gerard Mulreaney (@gerardmulreaney)

When Thomas Croke left Wexford FC at the end of the 2019 season little did he know that just 12 months on he’d be looking forward to coaching a team in the UEFA Champions League. But that’s precisely what he’ll be doing on Wednesday night, as his team, FK Gintra of Lithuania will face Slovan Bratislava of Slovakia in the first qualifying round of the Women’s Champions League.

“I’m really excited for this week, it’s my first Champions League experience. I wish I would have got there as a player but that didn’t work out,” said Thomas ahead of the game.

When Croke left Wexford FC at the end of the 2019 season it was to head stateside with his girlfriend McKenna Davidson, herself a former Wexford Youths player, after her visa came to an end. Her final appearance for the Youths was a successful one, after they won the FAI Cup final with a 3-2 victory over Peamount United at the Aviva Stadium.

The idea was for both of them to sign for clubs in the states, however the stars just didn’t line up. Thomas said: “I had a couple of offers on the East Coast, in Richmond and places like that. Kenna also had interest, including Seattle Reign of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). The problem was, clubs on the west coast wanted Kenna while clubs on the East Coast wanted me.

“With the two of us heading into full time training it just wasn’t gonna work out with the distance. It was a big, big issue, because the states are so big. I think after spending the year with Wexford last year so close together, to spend a year apart, especially with me in a new country and stuff, probably wasn’t going to work out.”

They then started to look at clubs in Europe. McKenna had been contacted by FK Gintra after she left Wexford Youths. They played against each other in the 2019 UEFA Champions League, when Wexford beat them 2-1, with McKenna scoring one goal and setting up the other for Lauren Kelly. But at that time the plan was to head stateside so talks ended. She also had an offer from Icelandic side Thor.

McKenna decided to take up the offer at Gintra and herself and Thomas packed their bags and headed to Lithuania just after Christmas. The first thing that struck them was the cold: “When we first arrived here it was the end of January it was cold, very cold, especially after we were traveling from Hawaii straight to Lithuania. Going from maybe 28 degrees down to freezing in a couple of days. I acclimatised a little bit quicker than Kenna did but yeah, it was it was a big shock for both of us. It was a big change, especially for her,” said Thomas.

He then tried to get himself sorted with a club. He spent time at last season’s First Division champions Džiugas Telšiai, before training with Derry City’s Europa League conquerors FK Riteriai. Again, just like in the states, offers came, but with conditions: “Both clubs wanted me to move and they offered me an apartment in two different cities here in Lithuania, which were an hour, hour and a half away from Šiauliai, so again that wasn’t going to work out. I wasn’t going to leave McKenna in a different city while I was off playing, especially with her being in a strange country so we went against that.”

They say, ‘Love will always find a way’ and that decision turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the country, like many others, into a lockdown. It was during this time that Thomas started one on one training sessions with McKenna, and it led to him getting value out of his UEFA B licence that he got in IT Carlow in 2015: “There’s a couple of other girls here from the States and they wanted some sessions done so I started designing some sessions, started putting my coaching badges to use. I put one v one sessions on, group sessions on. After that Gintra approached me and asked would I come on board as an assistant coach to the manager. They’ve given me free rein, so it’s been great. It’s been fantastic for me to develop as a coach.”

The season has gone brilliantly so far, with the team winning the league for a 16th straight season, winning all 20 games. The club now want to make progress in the champions league, but Croke knows it will be a difficult task. It’s a massive step up from the Lithuanian league: “We didn’t drop any points this season in the league, our biggest win was 17-0, while the lowest one was 3-1. As for the game against Slovan, we are favourites to beat them, but it’s over 90 minutes. It’s like a cup final, you know the way it is, one legged affairs like that. They could sit in and make it difficult for us, but we’re expected to win by the powers that be here in the club and the local media.

“We have a lot of Internationals here, there’s actually seven of them, mostly from the States, and one Serbian. They’re brought in and paid to be full time and it’s really for the champions league they’re brought in for. That’s what gauges the season, whether it’s been a success or a failure, getting through to the last 32 of the Champions League. This year, we’ve got the two qualification rounds, so hopefully, fingers crossed the draw is good to us. If we get through on Wednesday, we’ll reach that goal we set at the start of the season.”

When he decided to get involved in coaching, he never saw himself coaching a women’s team, but he’s delighted he did: “To be honest I never thought I’d be coaching at Champions League level, never mind a team in women’s soccer. Before I met McKenna, I didn’t really have much involvement in women’s soccer in Ireland, but after we got together and going into games and seeing how well the women play, I got drawn into it.

“It’s great to coach them. They seem to take on information, maybe sometimes a little bit better than some of the men’s teams that I’ve been involved with. And it’s great to be able to coach, obviously my first season with a professional outfit. I’m able to wake up in the morning, and plan my session, or plan it the night before, be involved in a full time professional outfit and get paid for being a coach in your first year at a top level, you couldn’t ask for much more to be fair.”

Whatever happens on Wednesday night both Thomas and McKenna will have a decision to make. Gintra are eager for both to remain at the club, but they’ve had offers form clubs in both New Zealand and America. New Zealand sounds appealing, especially as it’s a little bit closer to home for McKenna, but with travel restrictions still in place there’s no guarantee they’ll be allowed entry. A lot will depend on how they fare in the champions league: “If we were to get through to the round of 32 it would be difficult to walk awa. It would be great to get the opportunity to go and do it again next year. At the minute we’re open to all offers. We just really enjoyed this year, to be involved in full time football, so I think it definitely has to be somewhere where we’ll be in full time and it’s a professional outfit,” said Croke.

So, has he given up on playing: “I’d love to continue to play, it’s been a difficult year for me. I’ve been playing football since I was four or five years of age. I’ve had a couple of injuries but I’m feeling great this year. I’m spending a lot of time in the gym, but it’s just not the same. You miss the Friday night, walking out onto the floodlit pitch, even the smell of the cold air. It’s been a big change for me. I’ve had a little bit of a taste of it here with the coaching but it’s not really hitting the same spot as playing is. It would be great to get to go somewhere and continue my coaching, maybe play in a Semi Pro League or something like that to get that 90 minutes in every week. I have to admit, I really did miss it this season.

“Going forward, I’d love to just go and get my A licence done next and keep developing as a coach. I think there’s not really a limit on where I can take it. I’ll push as hard as I can to go as high as I can with the coaching.”

Photo Credit: Wexford FC

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