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Brain Shelley, who's 32, is player / joint head coach of the New Zealand Premiership side, Waitakere United. As a player, he has won league titles in Ireland and New Zealand, and has appeared in the Champions League in both Europe and Oceania. Here he talks about moving to the other side of the world, why he left Ireland, and what it's like playing away games in Vanuatu...
People don't realise the opportunities you get in New Zealand. The top teams enter the Oceania Champions League, which is a brilliant experience. You really see some different cultures - last season we played games in Tahiti and New Caledonia, and our semi-final first leg was in Vanuatu.
These places are beautiful, paradise islands, but the conditions can be tricky. The stadiums can be hostile, the pitches can be bobbly, and it's warm. So things are stacked against you - especially when you're an Irishman from the other side of the world. But it's great to have these things on your CV.
If you win the Oceania Champions League, you enter the Club Word Cup, so it's a gateway into one of the biggest competitions in the world. I think the OCL final is worth 500,000 US dollars, and the club gets a big chunk of that. In the Club World Cup, you can pick up another 500,000 for every game you win, so it's a big deal. Last season, we made the OCL final but lost to Auckland City, which meant missing out on the Club World Cup in Morocco. We were devastated. It was hard to take.
Throughout my ten years as a professional in Ireland, I ran into trouble with clubs. Don't get me wrong - I enjoyed it, and I was successful. But I think I played for two clubs (Drogheda United and Bohemians) that almost went into liquidation. The final straw was when I bought a house in Ireland, then soon afterwards, the club got into trouble and couldn't pay the players. I'd had enough of the situation, to be honest. Me and my family thought: "It's time to try something new."
In 2011, I moved to an up-and-coming Australian club called the Ballarat Red Devils. They play in the lower leagues, below the A League, and to be honest I had better footballing options. But in Ireland, full-time football was beginning to come to an end, and it's no secret that the country's economy isn't in the best state. So I'd have had to find another job, which wouldn't have been easy.
Ballarat created a role for me, which meant I was a full-time employee. I played, I coached younger players, and I did other bits and pieces like bringing in sponsorship, and getting more people to games. In my second year, I was offered the role of player / head coach. The technical director was a guy called Paul Smalley, who had been an (English) FA tutor and director of youth at Portsmouth (from 2008 - 2010). He became a mentor to me, and really helped shape and develop me as a coach.
I led Ballarat to their highest finish, but - to be honest - I was a little disappointed with the standard of football in the league. I thought "I've got a few years before I hang up my boots", so through a mutual friend I got talking to Paul Marshall, the coach of Waitakere. He flew over to watch me play, and things went from there. The standard in New Zealand is definitely better, 100 per cent.
When I arrived, I came into a really strong team. We had players from around the world, and we did really well, winning pretty much everything apart from the OCL. Then at the start of this season, the head coach couldn't come to an agreement with the club, so he went, and I became co-head coach. It's been a challenge - we started with a budget a quarter of what we had last year - so we lost some players. Roy Krishna, who's a Fijian international, went to Wellington Phoenix in the A League, and Auckland City signed a couple of ours too. We couldn't compete with them financially.
Our aim was to finish in the top four and qualify for the end-of-season play-offs, which we did. Unfortunately we lost 8-1 over two legs to Auckland City. It's hard to take, but we were beaten by a better side. It's fair to say that Waitakere United, with the squad we had last year, wasn't sustainable. We're trying to bring through young players, plan long-term, and get structures in place.
Waitakere is a semi-professional club. We train three evenings a week, with the games on Sunday. My day job is director of football at Rangitoto College, which is the biggest college in New Zealand. There are 3,500 kids ranging from 12 to 18, so it's a great challenge, and a brilliant experience.
Do I miss Ireland? The only thing I miss is the people. In terms of a place to live, New Zealand is pretty amazing. My family are here and they love it. Having said that, people think Australia and New Zealand is all about sitting on beaches and relaxing. It's not - I work really, really hard over here.
I want to coach and manage at the highest level - although I'm aware a few million people want to do the same thing. Six months before I left Dublin I did my UEFA B licence, and I completed part one of my UEFA A at St George's Park last July. I've been accepted onto part two, which means flying back this July. I want to keep learning, gain experience, and see where it takes me.
Being a player coach is difficult, and the higher the level, the harder it becomes. If you look at the history of player coaches, they don't have a great record. When you're training, you're probably not contributing as much as a player, because you're also coaching. And as a coach, you're probably not giving the other players what they need, because you're also playing. So I'll take it one season at a time. When I feel that it's not working, I'll take a step back. It's about self-awareness, knowing when to pull the plug on the playing side.
I've been fortunate to play in major tournaments like the Champions League and the UEFA Cup. One of my first games in senior football was for Bohemians against Kaiserslautern (a 3-1 home defeat in the 2000/01 UEFA Cup). I don't remember a lot of games I played in, but I remember that - Youri Djorkaeff was playing for them. That was pretty special.
Other favourite games? We've all played friendlies against big players, so I don't really count those. I played against Henrik Larsson (for Drogheda United against Helsingborg in the 2007/08 UEFA Cup) which was great. And I've come pretty close to conquering some big European teams - at Drogheda, we almost knocked Dynamo Kiev out of the Champions League (in 2008/09). We hit the post in the last couple of minutes, it rolled across the line, and hit the other post. Football can be cruel.
People in Ireland think that if they haven't played in England, they've failed. But football's a global game. They don't look far enough. They're not willing to take a chance and see what's on the other side of the world. We all get comfortable, but I'm glad I took the chance. A few years ago, sitting in Dublin, who'd have thought I'd be going to Fiji to play in the Oceania Champions League?
The format of the OCL has changed this year, with the groups being held in one country (Fiji) across one week in April. If we make it through the groups, it's home and away semi-finals. Obviously the dream is to win the tournament, and make the Club World Cup. To be playing or coaching at that level, in my mid-30s, would be fantastic.