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Kevin Grogan, who's 32, is head coach of Clarkstown SC Eagles in the American fourth tier. He began his playing career at Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson, won the Under-16 European Championships with Ireland, and also had spells at Millwall and in the League of Ireland. Here, he talks about, soccer in New York, hard work, and what he and Sir Alex discussed over breakfast...
When I moved to America, and I needed a visa, Alex Ferguson wrote a letter to endorse me. I was going for an O-1 visa, which is for artists, singers, sportspeople, and so on. A lot of it is reference-based, I needed people to support me, so I contacted the club. It was great to get that letter back on Manchester United headed note paper. I got the same thing from Brian Kerr - who I played for when Ireland won the Under-16 European Championships in 1998 - so I was very lucky.
I first trained with Manchester United when I was 12. I'd go over on school holidays until I was 15, and then I signed full time. I was there from 1996 until 2000, but it was very stop-start. I'd do well, get injured, come back, do well, get injured, and so on. I loved it there, but it was very frustrating.
I was in the Nou Camp for the 1999 European Cup final. It was a great time - I'd played a part in the youth set-up, we'd done well, and then we (the first team) won the Treble. We had the game against Tottenham to win the league, we all went to the FA Cup final against Newcastle, and then we all went to the Nou Camp. It was probably my best time at the club; a fantastic experience.
There were some good players in our youth team. In my year there was Danny Webber, Jimmy Davis, the year above had Luke Chadwick, year above that was Wes Brown, David Healy, Richie Wellens...when I coach, I do refer to my time at Man United, because of the standards the club set.
Winning the Under-16 European Championships with Ireland in 1998 was massive. Vincent Butler, the Under-15s coach, got the squad together, and he passed it on to Brian Kerr and Noel O'Reilly, who were fantastic coaches. We went into every game thinking we could win. There was real chemistry, and real team spirit (the squad included John O'Shea, Andy Reid, and Liam Miller). The Under-18s won their championship in the same year, so it was a great time for Irish soccer.
I moved to the United States in 2009. Injuries had ended my playing career, and I was coaching in Ireland. But I fancied a change, an adventure. I did a lot of research on coaching abroad, and America really stood out. It's a growing market, it's a good place to live, so I decided to give it a go. I came on a six-month networking visa, saw how soccer worked over here, and ended up staying.
My first official job was director of coaching for Metro Soccer, which is a New York company. They have three strings to their bow - after-school programmes for disadvantaged areas; an adult social league; and private camps and clinics. I ran the private end, and I got involved in the after school programme. It was really interesting to see these places - Harlem, the Bronx, areas like that.
I knew those places had a reputation. You've seen the movies; you know they're tough areas. But everyone I crossed paths with was great. The schools are making a big effort to give kids opportunities, and we helped them to stay off the streets, and stay out of trouble. It was definitely an eye-opener, but it was also a great experience. I met some fantastic people.
After Metro Soccer, I became head coach of a local side, Lansdowne Bhoys. We had great success, won our league, and I was headhunted by Jersey City Eagles. They were a franchise in National Premier Soccer League, which is a fourth tier league. At the same time, I became director of coaching for Clarkstown Soccer Club, which had over 2,500 kids. We ended up merging the two organisations - it meant I could develop the kids from ages 8 to 18, get them college scholarships, and in the summer, they come back and play NPSL. It's been very successful so far.
I have to say that, for the first year or two of my career, I wasn't an amazing coach. When you retire, you're almost forced into coaching, because that's all you know. A lot of players think they can automatically become good coaches, but that's not the case. You have to work at it. I've worked really hard over the past ten years. I always want to educate myself, and I always want to get better.
You have to be honest with yourself. Yes, I was a decent coach, but to be an elite coach, you need to push yourself. You need to watch sessions, travel around, speak to coaches, do your badges. You've got be a sponge for information. Then you add your personality, and create your own style.
By itself, a coaching badge won't make you a good coach. You've got to do them, and learn what you can. But what's more important is watching sessions, reading, watching videos, making sure you're up-to-date with new techniques. It's not about badges, or your playing career, or your contacts. It's about everything. If you put them all together, you've got a chance of becoming a great coach.
If I want to try to become a top manager in England, I'd have to move back in a year or two, because you've got to climb the ladder. If I want to progress here, going through the USL, the MLS, that's an option too. But now, my sole focus is on producing kids. We have 2,500 here, and if we get them scholarships, or into the professional ranks, we've done a good job. That's what I'm focused on.
Moving to New York was a turning point for me. When I had to stop playing, it was a tough time. You can get down and depressed; at times you can get bitter. But moving here gave me a new lease of life. Off the pitch, it's an amazing city. Lively, energetic, busy. It gives you great energy; great enthusiasm. The mentality is, if you work hard, and you're honest, people will help you. Socially, I've got some great friends, I've got a girlfriend over here, work is going well, so I couldn't be happier.
I got to sit down with Alex Ferguson last September in New York. He has an apartment here, and one of his friends owns a bar on First Avenue, where he goes for breakfast. The guy who owns the bar, his nephew is one of my players. They mentioned me to him, and I was invited the next morning.
You'd think, aged 32, that I'd walk in and be confident. But I wasn't - the fear factor came over me again! There was five of us round the table. What did we talk about? To be honest, the main conversation was horse racing. He was on his holidays, and probably didn't want to talk about football. It was good to reconnect, and he signed a couple of Clarkstown jerseys, which was great.