THE DATE WAS 12 August 2017 and Kevin Foley was lining out in front of 1,112 people in the Isthmian League Premier Division for the first time.
Like the ex-Ireland international, his team-mates were playing football part-time and spent the week working on building sites among other occupations.
While Foley’s Billericay Town were being beaten 1-0 at home against Kingstonian, not too far away in terms of geography but in a different world in all other respects, the player’s former clubmate Stephen Ward was scoring a brilliant goal to help Burnley pull off a stunning win over reigning Premier League champions Chelsea.
Just five years previously, Foley had been a regular at Premier League level, but now found himself a million miles away from the glamour and riches of England’s top flight.
To the casual observer, it may seem like a dramatic, depressing fall from grace for a former FAI U21 Player of the Year who was once regarded as one of the best young right-backs plying their trade in British football.
Yet for the first time in a long time, Foley felt happy playing football.
Like most players who make it to professional level, Foley grew up living and breathing football 24/7.
Born in London to Irish parents from Kerry, he moved to Luton, where there was “a big Irish community,” at the age of around five.
My whole childhood was going to Ireland every summer for six weeks with my brother, playing football,” he tells The42. “We had cousins over there. We’d go out from morning until night.”
Aged nine, Foley joined the youth set-up at Luton FC. With football prioritised from a very young age, everything else — most notably education — felt secondary. Fortunately, Foley was one of the lucky few who made it in the game — otherwise, he would not have had much to fall back on.
Obviously, at school, I did as well as I could with my GCSEs, I got quite decent grades, but once you get into that footballing environment, for me, it was football, football, football. That was just the be all and end all.
“I did my stuff in school, thinking: ‘If I don’t get a scholarship, then I can go from here.’ But then once I got a scholarship, that was it, I was all in. We did (classwork) a day and a half a week at Luton, but it was a waste of time really. I couldn’t tell you what I was learning. You’d get different tutors every week — it was just to tick a box really.”
Yet while many people his age were still in school, Foley was already living the dream as a professional footballer. By 18, he had established himself as a first-team regular at Luton.
In the subsequent four years there, the young right-back would experience the kind of dramatic highs and lows that would come to characterise his entire career.
After breaking into the starting XI, he was part of a Luton team that finished 10th in the Second Division. In his second season as a regular, Foley’s side were promoted from League One (it had just been rebranded) as champions.
The following year, the then-20-year-old right-back made 38 appearances as the Hatters secured a solid 10th-place finish in the Championship. Foley also played in a memorable FA Cup tie at Kenilworth Road during this period. With an hour played, Luton found themselves 3-1 up against a Liverpool side that had lifted the Champions League trophy a couple of months previously.
Source: Sumit Shrestha/YouTube
Yet as they did on that incredible night in Istanbul, Liverpool produced an unlikely comeback, with Xabi Alonso’s famous goal from the half-way line (see above) sealing an unlikely 5-3 victory for the Reds and breaking home fans’ hearts in the process.
For Luton, the first hour of that contest was about as good as it would ever get. The following season, Foley was again a regular in the team, but he would endure the first big disappointment of his career, as the club finished second last and were consequently relegated from the Championship.
Yet Foley would remain a second-tier player. Having been named Luton’s Young Player of the Year three seasons on the bounce and proven he was more than capable of holding his own at that level, the 22-year-old right-back joined Mick McCarthy’s Wolves, thereby leaving the club he had spent more than half his life at.
Mick just told me I’d stood out in the games (versus Wolves) and had done well against the left winger there.
“That’s what I know about Mick now — he will quite easily sign players that have played well against him.
I wouldn’t say he’s got a big array of scouting networks — he goes off his own gut feeling with what he sees.
“Luckily for me, I played well in those two games (for Luton against Wolves) and he pretty much signed me on the back of that.”
Foley did not take long to adapt to his new club. He was perfectly suited to McCarthy’s style of football, with its emphasis on playing with a high-tempo, aggression and the manager’s favourite phrase — players ‘putting in a shift’.
In his first season there, Foley featured in all but two of the games, as Wolves missed out on the Championship play-offs on goal difference.
The following 2008-09 campaign could scarcely have gone any better, however. Wolves were promoted as champions and Foley was named the club’s Player of the Season. They subsequently spent the next three seasons playing Premier League football, winning plenty of admirers along the way.
When we got promoted, we had a team full of players that were young and hungry, because not one player in the team had played in the Premier League,” he explains.
“Maybe a couple came on loan, but the likes of Michael Kightly, Wardy, Matt Jarvis, Karl Henry, Sylvan Ebanks-Blake — there were a lot of players there that were all trying to get the same thing. That was the key to it and we never had any injuries.”
Foley says the highlight of his time in England’s top flight was captaining Wolves to a 1-0 victory over Liverpool at Anfield, as fellow Irish star Ward scored the only goal of the game.
“We played them away and we’d had a few injuries. Liverpool were 4-4-2 and we set up 4-4-2 as well.
Mick just said: ‘We’re going to go man-to-man all over the pitch.’ They liked to take short goal kicks. He said: ‘Too many teams are letting them do it,’ and they’d get out and find players.
“‘So we’ll push right up, we’ll leave two-v-two at the back.’ It was a big risk, because if one of the lads switched off, they were in on goal. But we went there and did a real good professional, tactical job on them.
It was a really great feeling and over the three years we were in the Premier League, we beat almost every big team. We stopped Man United the season they were going unbeaten, we beat them just after Christmas 2-1… We beat Chelsea. The only big team we never beat was Arsenal.”
After relatively comfortably beating the drop by finishing 15th in their first season back in the Premier League, in the following campaign, Foley and Wolves survived in dramatic fashion on the final day, despite losing 3-2 against fellow strugglers Blackburn in what the defender describes as “the maddest game I’ve ever played in”.
“We stayed up on the last day of the season after a Stephen Hunt top-corner goal against Blackburn,” he recalls.
Blackburn could have gone down as well. It got to the stage where they were beating us 3-2. They were safe on points difference, we were safe on goal difference. There were five minutes left in the game, and no one was tackling anyone, because we were both safe. The ref jumped in and said: ‘Look, I’ll have to abandon this game if you don’t start making tackles.’ We made a few tackles and kicked the ball long a few times and that was it — thankfully we stayed up.”
Yet there would be no repeat heroics the following campaign, as the wheels came off and Wolves finished bottom of the Premier League, collapsing badly in the second half of the season and winning just one of their 19 games following the turn of the year.
Wolves struggled to recover after Mick McCarthy’s sacking and subsequently suffered back-to-back relegations.
Source: Joe Giddens
“We started out very well,” he says. “We were bloody top after three games. We won two and drew one. But then we went on a bad run.
I had an operation then and didn’t get back until about Christmas — even that was probably way too early, but I was just trying to get the games in so I could look like I’m fit. But we ended up getting relegated, Mick got the sack, Terry Connor took over and it was a bit of a shambles in the end.
“The thing is what Wolves did, they sacked their manager and didn’t get a manager. They had no one in place. We were under pressure as a team. We knew the manager would be under pressure, but I didn’t see him getting sacked.
We’d lost 5-1 to West Brom, our biggest rivals, so that was the worst result you could think of. On top of that, we went and lost 3-0 to Liverpool, which was (chairman) Steve Morgan’s boyhood team. So I don’t think those two results went down well with him.
“In the end, he took the decision and never got anyone in. Terry Connor ended up taking over. He’s Mick McCarthy’s number two. They play the same style, they’ve got a good relationship. So I think it was the wrong decision at the time… When people were saying ‘we need a new manager,’ I was always thinking: ‘No, you need to be careful what you wish for.’
I look at Mick now and the job he does at Ipswich — they’ve got a great start again this season. I know last season they didn’t get in the play-offs and the season before, they missed out (narrowly). But bar that, they’ve always been in and around the play-offs on a limited budget and by no means the most talented squad, but he gets the very best out of players.
“When I was at Ipswich, it was a bit half and half. Half loved him, half didn’t. And I think that’s the way it’ll always be (with Mick). That’s what it was like at Wolves and I can imagine, at Sunderland — it’s just the way he is, the type of player he signs, the football that he plays. But he gets results and I definitely think that was the wrong decision at the time, but you never know what might have happened.”
Relegation was not Foley’s only painful memory from the 2011-12 campaign. Despite being born in England, he had grown up dreaming of representing Ireland.
“If I (opted) for England, I’d be disowned by the rest of the family,” he jokes.
Foley would win eight senior Ireland caps in total, playing just once competitively — a 2-1 home win over Macedonia in a Euro 2012 qualifier.
I was in plenty of squads but never really played that much, but I can’t bemoan it — I’ve played for Ireland, I’ve represented my country. It’s many boys’ dreams to do that and I’m grateful I did manage to do that on a few occasions.”
And what was it like sharing a dressing room with Irish footballing legends such as Robbie Keane and Damien Duff?
It was my last season at Luton when Steve Staunton called me into the squad (for the first time). Someone got injured and I came in. I’m sure they didn’t even know who I was. Meeting John O’Shea, Robbie Keane, Damien Duff, I was in awe of them, but they make you feel really settled and look after you. It’s the typical way of the Irish, and they’re no different.
“There were no big-time players around. It was a breath of fresh air to be around something like that. And I played with some great players there.”
Yet despite all these happy memories, many Irish fans will remember Foley for what will probably go down as the biggest disappointment of his career.
Although the Wolves star was initially named in the 23-man squad for Euro 2012, then-Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni had a change of heart with the deadline looming and decided to pick Paul McShane instead of Foley.
Clearly hurt and shocked by the decision, a distraught Foley left the Ireland camp with his dream cruelly denied to him at the 11th hour.
I spent my whole season gearing up for the Euros. Obviously, we’d got relegated at Wolves, but my main thing was trying to get into the squad and to get through injury. And not to blag my way in there, but make sure I was available for the call.
“On the few occasions when Trapattoni came to watch me, I’d make sure I was the best player on the pitch. He came to watch me against Sunderland and I played really well.
“To get in the squad was a massive thing for me and then to get it taken away before a deadline which I didn’t even know about — I thought the deadline was when he named the squad — it was hard to take, it was upsetting.”
Trapattoni controversially left Foley out of Ireland’s Euro 2012 squad at the last minute.
Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO
At the time, the star said he felt “betrayed” owing to the decision, but feels more sympathy for Trapattoni with the passing of time.
If I was to see Trapattoni now, I’d be fine. I’d chat to him.
“I know it was a real hard decision for him at the time. He said it was probably the hardest decision of his career. And he’s had a big career.
So I don’t hold any grudges against him at all. Not one bit. He was trying to do (what was best) for the team. There were three centre-backs that were carrying injuries, (Richard) Dunney, John O’Shea and Darren O’Dea. I was a right-back/midfielder and Paul McShane was a right back/centre-back. So he thought, better to be safe and get another centre-back in.
“At the time, that wasn’t clear. It was only about a week after I realised that and because the communication wasn’t good and their English wasn’t good, it was hard to actually know what the hell was going on at the time.”
Since then, Foley’s club career has not gone as well as he would have hoped. The following season, the full-back was part of a Wolves side that was relegated for the second successive campaign and last year was the first time since 2012-13 that he achieved double figures in terms of appearances for a single club.
Yet the player rejects any suggestions that the Euros debacle and his subsequent difficulties at club level are linked.
I didn’t really dwell on (the Euros disappointment) too much. People say: ‘Bloody hell, what happened you after that? It ruined you.’ It didn’t ruin me as a footballer or a person.
“I had an injury anyway leading up to (the Euros)… It’s probably a coincidence. I had to try to get on with things in football.
I just wish I was fully fit to just get my head down and get on with it. You’re always trying to stay fit and get in the squad and get in the team.
“People don’t always see that, they probably thought: ‘Oh, he got taken out of the Ireland squad and that just killed off his career.’ That’s not the case.”
After being deemed surplus to requirements at embattled Wolves, a loan move to Blackpool and a handful of appearances in two separate spells ultimately came to nothing.
In the last four seasons, he has had tenures at five different clubs, including a six-month stint in Denmark with FC Copenhagen. It was there where he linked up Stale Solbakken, who had originally managed Foley at Wolves during the Norwegian coach’s brief, ill-fated spell in the charge at Molineux.
I thought: ‘If I don’t take this opportunity, I’ll always regret it, because Copenhagen are the biggest team in Scandinavia.’ I thought: ‘Why not?’ I spoke to the wife and (the club) said: ‘If it goes well, we’ll give you a two-year deal. If you like it, you can come and live here permanently.’ So I went over. My missus came over on the holidays and on a few weekends with the kids… I really enjoyed it.
“But my first game for them, I dislocated my shoulder. It was a mini pre-season in January and for the rest of the season, it just kept popping in and out, so I ended up only playing four or five games. So on a footballing level, it was disappointing, but these things happen.
“I’m glad I went out there, I wish it could have been a bit better (on the pitch), but at least I experienced a different culture.”
Kevin Foley pictured playing for Coventry last April.
Source: Scott Heavey
After returning from Denmark, Foley had brief spells in the Championship and League One, with Ipswich, Charlton and Coventry respectively. And while he at least managed to put a decent run of games together, he did not stay for long in any of these places.
Injuries have taken their toll and while missing out on the Euros may not have affected Foley psychologically in the long-term, he concedes in hindsight that the decision to rush back from injury in order to try to do enough to impress Trap and earn a place in the Ireland squad that summer did no favours to his body.
I got an injury in 2011-12 and since then, I wouldn’t say I’ve been the player I was back in the day,” he admits. “I’m not the first player to get an injury like that and I won’t be the last. It does change you as a player. I suppose it’s how you deal with it.
“I never wanted to be a player that has a lot of clubs on my CV, because at the start of my career, it was just Luton and Wolves for probably the first eight or nine years, but that’s football, isn’t it? You just have to keep playing as long as you enjoy it.
I probably didn’t enjoy last season because I was away from my family a lot and Ipswich the season before, though Mick gave me six months there.
“I haven’t really enjoyed football for a fair few years, so I’m hoping that I can just enjoy this (at Billericay). It could be the start of something big for such a lowly club.
I’m actually enjoying (playing at non-league level). The last three or four years, I was getting to stages where you’re just trying to get through training because you have a niggle here and there. But this ticks a few boxes for me, where I can train a couple of days a week and the main focus is just getting ready for the game. I’m professional enough to look after myself for the rest of the week because I’ve done it throughout my whole career.”
Foley will turn 33 on 1 November and he knows the end of his football career is not too far off. Consequently, the offer to play part-time football at a decent level proved attractive, as it gave him time to focus on other interests without sacrificing the thrill or pressure of battling for three points on a Saturday.
He has just recently returned from Dublin having completed his A licence in coaching, while getting into the property business is another option he will contemplate in the future.
“It’s nice having a bit of extra time off, but I’m at a stage in my career where I need to take advantage of this extra time off and put it to good use, because football doesn’t last forever,” he adds.
Source: Billericay Town TV/YouTube
Foley is one of a handful of ex-Premier League players lining out for Billericay, who have been backed by the substantial resources of their millionaire owner and manager Glenn Tamplin, with the presence of Jermaine Pennant, Jamie O’Hara and Paul Konchesky helping to convince the former Ireland international to join the set-up.
But despite his illustrious career in comparison to everyone he comes up against, Foley feels no added pressure to perform.
I’m on Instagram, but I’m private, I’m not on Twitter. I’ve not looked at one thing about me going to Billericay, because it’s my own decision. It’s what I wanted to do, it was right for me and my family.
“I’m just seeing it as another football team, I’m not really seeing it as ‘it’s a big drop down’. It’s just me going to another football team, trying to do the best that I can and trying to help the lads win as many games as possible.”
As I speak to Foley over the phone, occasional noises can be heard in the background. He explains that his wife has gone to the gym, leaving him in charge of their young kids. He apologises unnecessarily at one point, breaking his train of thought in order to gently admonish the increasingly impatient child: “You’re not going to cry, are you?” he asks.
It consequently seems clear then that after growing up as a footballing obsessive, Foley has now found something that outweighs even his passion for the sport, something that makes all those frequent treks from his home in the midlands to Billericay’s base in Essex worthwhile.
If it was going to a team and it was full-time down there, you’d have to consider moving (closer to the ground),” he says. “But now I’ve got three kids and two of them are settled in school, you sort of work round your family rather than them working round you.”
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