FROM A HOOP TO A SAINT
After a frustrating 2018 season with Shamrock Rovers, Gary Shaw is looking forward to making his mark at his new club, St Patrick’s Athletic
By Daire Walsh
FOLLOWING the high of being named Shamrock Rovers’ Player of the Year in 2017, the past 12 months proved to be a frustrating period for Newbridge’s Gary Shaw.
After a personal best of 12 goals in the previous campaign, the powerful centre-forward found starts hard to come by in 2018. Already behind Dan Carr in the attacking pecking order, the summer return of Aaron Greene to the Tallaght Stadium further limited his opportunities in the second half of the season.
He admits being close to leaving the south Dublin club months before his eventual move to St Patrick’s Athletic at the end of the seasond, though it didn’t quite materialise.
“I knew in my head that when we signed Aaron Greene, I was kind of saying ‘I’m not going to hang around here if they’re going to sign Aaron and I wasn’t really playing’. I kind of got the picture there,” Shaw remembers.
“I had in my head that I was probably going to move on. There was talk in July as well, but the move didn’t happen at the time for whatever reason.”
In stark contrast to his 37 starts in 2017, Shaw led the line on just 11 occasions in the past term. Largely restricted to appearances off the bench, he finally opened his account in a 1-0 Premier Division victory against Waterford on July 22.
He was on target at home to Sligo Rovers five days later, but was forced to wait until the penultimate round of the league – a 3-1 win at the expense of Waterford in Tallaght – for his third and final goal of 2018.
Having become a firm favourite with the Rovers fans, Shaw was understandably disappointed not to deliver on a more consistent basis. He had worked hard in pre-season to recover from a broken arm sustained in an October 2017 encounter with Bray Wanderers and believes this injury presented a mental obstacle as well as a physical one.
“I just felt last year I didn’t quite achieve what I wanted to. A big thing for me was when I broke my arm. It was a really bad break and going through the pre-season with the rehab and all that, I felt it was going really well. Then when the season started, you really feel how it is when players are coming in pulling out of you, tackling you or whatever.
“The lads at Rovers knew it was so bad, so they kind of took it easy around me. But when the competitive games came around, you kind of knew. It was in my head then for the season. Couldn’t really trust myself fully.
“You can’t see that behind the scenes, but that period you’re after losing form and you’re not playing to your full potential. A big thing for me is, I’m a target man. I hold defenders off and get the ball into me. I just couldn’t quite do it. Defenders could get in front of me fairly easily and I couldn’t hold them off. It was a big thing and I just couldn’t get it right. The confidence was affected.”
However, rather than dwelling on the past, all of Shaw’s focus will be on an exciting new venture with St Patrick’s Athletic. His departure from the Hoops was officially confirmed by the club on November 4 and just four days later he was unveiled as Harry Kenny’s first signing as Saints boss.
Kenny (a four-time league winner with Shamrock Rovers as a player) was assistant manager to Liam Buckley when Pat’s last won the top-flight title in 2013 and now replaces the ex-Republic of Ireland international in the hot seat.
Despite some much-publicised financial difficulties, the Dubliner guided Bray Wanderers to consecutive sixth-place Premier Division finishes in 2016 and 2017. He has already identified the top-four as a realistic aim for his new squad, as a host of teams aim to take advantage of his namesake Stephen’s departure from champions Dundalk.
“Stephen Kenny was the key to Dundalk. He gathered that group of players together and he made them tick. Taking him away it might disrupt things, it might not. We don’t know, time will tell. Other teams and ourselves, we have to take advantage of that,” Shaw says.
“We have to start the season well and looking back at Pat’s last year, it was just inconsistency that disrupted their season. I think just adding a couple more players, like Harry is doing at the moment, will just bridge that gap. It will definitely improve the chances of getting that fourth spot and even higher maybe.
“He’s run the FAI FAS course in Clondalkin there for a good few years and I’d know of him through my time working with the FAI. I know a couple of his brothers. I’ve heard nothing but great things about him, so I’m looking forward to working with him and hopefully we can achieve good things.”
Without knowing exactly how his new manager is going to develop the side, Shaw believes Pat’s have all the tools to help him prosper in these new surroundings.
“I really feel myself again and obviously first and foremost is to nail down that [starting] position. I don’t even know what kind of formation Harry will want to play. Will he play one up top or two up top, we’ll wait and see. I just have to work hard and get that jersey. Make sure I’m in the 11 on the Friday night when the league rolls around in February.
“I think just the way Pat’s play, it’s going to suit me. They get a lot of crosses into the box. They’ve a lot of attacking players. I think I’ll get a lot of chances and I don’t think I got a lot of chances at Rovers. That’s just one of the things I found, but with Pat’s when you’re playing against them, they use their wide players very well and they get crosses into the box.
“They put the ball into danger areas and I think their strikers always get chances. It’s just about putting them away. I think if I can do that, I can really kick on and get a good few goals. That’ll be the aim.”
Much of his impressively-assembled squad are set to remain in place, but it is still anticipated that Stephen Kenny will leave a sizeable void at Oriel Park. At the time of going to print, Dundalk were yet to appoint a successor to the new Republic of Ireland U21 head – who will take over from Mick McCarthy as senior international supremo in August 2020.
Given all he has achieved with the Lilywhites – four league crowns in the space of five years, alongside double triumphs in the League Cup and FAI Cup – Shaw believes his ascent to the international stage is fully justified.
During the summer of 2015, the then Longford Town striker had his own sliding doors moment. Kenny submitted a concrete bid that could have found Shaw transferring to the county Louth side.
They were well on their way to securing back-to-back Premier Division titles and ended that particular campaign with just one defeat out of 33. There was also considerable interest from Rovers, but Town manager Tony Cousins (who enjoyed a brief spell in charge of Kildare County in 2008) was eager to retain one of his prized assets.
A move to Tallaght ultimately transpired a few months later, and in the meantime, Kilcock native Ciaran Kilduff made his way to Dundalk.
“Any time I’ve spoken to Stephen, I’ve always got on well with him and he has taken a liking to me. You kind of look back to that ‘what if I signed for Dundalk?’ All the what ifs could come across you. The best thing about him, he seems to have a very good eye for a player. That’s kind of what I take away from it. During that time, he obviously saw something in me that I could go on.
“I really hope that he does well and I hope everyone thinks the same. That he goes and does well with the U21s.
“It’d be a nice little stepping stone for him. Being involved in that kind of set-up. I’d imagine he’ll be speaking to Mick McCarthy regularly and he’ll be involved with the senior team just to get a feel for things.
“I think he’s managed and he’s created the best team that’s ever played in the League of Ireland. I think a lot of people would find it hard to argue that. Take Stephen Kenny out of that and who knows what might happen, because I think he’s a big part of why that group does so well.”
Shaw’s off-season transfer to Shamrock Rovers in the winter of 2015 marked a significant shift in his career trajectory. Not only was he moving to a club that hold the record for most League of Ireland and FAI Cup successes – he also became a professional footballer for the first time.
He will continue to operate on a full-time basis at Pat’s, who provide a scholarship scheme in conjunction with Maynooth University. The closing weeks of 2018 saw him sampling life away from football and he is now looking forward to a return to normality!
“I’m actually doing a bit of work for four weeks with Diageo. Going around Dublin to Dunnes Stores and it’s just obviously financially to keep yourself ticking over. You have to do it. It’s a bit of a shock to the system, putting in a long day’s work. Instead of when you’re going to training, you’re training for the hour, two hours and then you’re coming home and you have your day.
“It’s a bit of a shock and you’re trying to fit in family life, gym, work and everything else around it that goes with life. When you’ve been doing football full-time for three years, it’s a bit of a shock. Like I said, it’s only temporary and I’ll be back into the swing of things, thanks God, in January.”
At 26 years of age, Shaw will be one of the younger members in the Saints squad. Conversely, he can also count himself as one of the most experienced players at Harry Kenny’s disposal. It was eight years ago this September that he announced himself on the League of Ireland stage, by scoring on his Bray Wanderers debut in an away trip to Dundalk.
Given how he has become an established piece of the domestic soccer furniture, it is unsurprising that a number of clubs were vying for his signature in the close season. Although the prestige of Pat’s played a major role in his final decision, there were other considerations that came into play.
“I know they [Pat’s] trained up at the Airport, but I think that’s changing this year. I think it’s moving closer to me, which is even better. I had a couple of offers to move elsewhere around the country, which would have involved a bit of travelling. I had to politely turn those down.
“I have a partner here with a child and I just feel that it’s better to stick around and not be going travelling around the country. That was ultimately the decision I came to.
“I’m delighted with it, because Pat’s is a good club. We’ve a couple of lads that I’ve played with before and know a lot of the other lads on the team.
“I don’t think gelling in with the group is going to be difficult. I’ve already met a couple of them and this is going to be my 10th year in the league. I’ve got to know a lot of lads very well through playing against them and they know me. It’s all good.”
With everything in its right place, February 2019 – and the start of his latest LOI odyssey – can’t come soon enough for Shaw.