Leo Gaxha: ‘He shouted we should head back to our own country - I was shocked’

Leo Gaxha of Republic of Ireland in action against Muhammed Emin Sarikaya of Turkey during the Under 17 International Friendly match between Republic of Ireland and Turkey at Tallaght Stadium in Tallaght, Dublin. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Leo Gaxha of Republic of Ireland in action against Muhammed Emin Sarikaya of Turkey during the Under 17 International Friendly match between Republic of Ireland and Turkey at Tallaght Stadium in Tallaght, Dublin. Picture: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Sheffield United’s influence on the Ireland squad is well established and another home-grown starlet, Leo Gaxha, intends swelling the legion.

Just turned 18, the Kerry-born striker has already broken into the Blades’ U23 side and has another year’s contract left to press his claims for progression.

Aiding him along the way at this season’s Premier League’s surprise packets is a player also attached to the Kingdom, senior John Egan.

The son of the Kerry GAA legend has proven to be a pillar of support as the teen charts his way through the rungs of the professional game.

In Gaxha’s favour, though, is his track record for overcoming challenges from before he’d left Tralee two years ago.

It’s noticeable from the name that Gaxha has mixed nationality; born to Albanian parents who emigrated from their homeland in 1999.

In his eyes, Leo is born and bred Irish, committed to the country both personally and professionally.

Gaxha represented Albania in a couple of underage internationals but didn’t dither when he finally got his Ireland call-up.

Like Egan and teammate Enda Stevens, an Ireland senior cap was his childhood objective.

“That is what I play football for,” he said of the aim to become the first Kerry-born player to be capped since Tony O’Connell 50 years ago.

“Robbie Keane was the Ireland player I admired so much growing up because he’s a small striker like myself. To represent my family, and county of Kerry, in an Ireland jersy is the dream.”

Not even some intermittent racism in the country he calls home altered his view.

Most of the incidents involved opponents in schoolboy matches but the most sinister example was from an adult close to home.

Training with his Dad Lulzim and nine-year brother Albi on a nearby pitch, they were sternly instructed to leave. Worse was to come when they were told exactly where to go.

“He shouted that we should head back to our own country,” explains Lulzim. “I was so shocked that I took out my phone to start recording the abuser. He didn’t deny it when I asked him to confirm the words used.”

Under advice, a complaint was lodged to Gardai, yet the matter is ongoing. Leo feels enforcement, primarily by the football authorities, isn’t sufficiently robust to act as a deterrent.

“I must have been racially abused on 10 separate occasions, without action being taken,” he pointed out. “Some of my teammates were also subjected to it. Maybe if these incidents occurred in Dublin or Cork, they would be have dealt with.

“It makes me sad because Ireland is a country of so many nationalities now. That would put kids off getting into sport.”

Fielding the insults only strengthened Gaxha’s character, as did the benefits of mixing football with GAA.

“Playing for Austin Stacks and John Mitchells toughened me up for the physical side of the English game,” he notes. “Kerry is famous for producing GAA players but I’m confident of flying the flag for football.”

It's particularly true given he’s the only player from the Kingdom attached to a Premier League club. That could have been Burnley, only for Sheffield United to usurp them at the eleventh hour.

Dublin-born Derek Geary, a former player at the club, initially welcomed the Irish recruit into his U18s before the older squad came calling around Christmas.

In the last U23 fixture before the coronavirus disruption in early March, Gaxha fired the Blades ahead at Hillsborough against city rivals, Wednesday.

“It was the biggest stadium I’d played in and the only U23 match that the police have to separate the fans at,” he recalls.

“I had just turned 18 but felt really comfortable at that level. I’m happy with three goals and three assists from my five appearances.”

Irish football is currently abuzz at the abundance of teen attackers vying to be part of Stephen Kenny’s squad for the campaigns ahead. Gaxha doesn’t want to be left behind.

“We’ve a lot of young strikers emerging at UK clubs and I trained in an Ireland squad with Troy Parrott before he got moved up through the age-groups,” he said.

“I’ve got my own ambitions. Every weekend before football was shut down, the first-team manager Chris Wilder would use us U23 strikers to set up against his three central-defenders in preparation for their game at the weekend.

“I’m getting to test myself against quality opposition in a professional environment and really enjoying it. Facing the likes of John Egan can only help me achieve my goal of playing in the Premier League and for Ireland.”

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