Larry Ryan: The Cork centre-half who’s a symbol of Detroit defiance

The city of Detroit had three slivers of good press this week, respite from the unrelenting gloom of deaths and unrest and unemployment
Larry Ryan: The Cork centre-half who’s a symbol of Detroit defiance
Stephen Carroll at Keyworth Stadium, Detroit. Pic: Instagram

The city of Detroit had three slivers of good press this week, respite from the unrelenting gloom of deaths and unrest and unemployment.

Its famous son, Eminem, made a splash delivering tubs of ‘mom’s spaghetti’ to healthcare workers battling Covid-19.

A $23m plan to provide 50,000 laptops to kids learning at home will be viewed in 10 years, the mayor Mike Duggan hopes, as a “moment that changed the trajectory of education in our city”.

And the soccer club, Detroit City FC, cemented its emerging reputation as an international hipster’s choice with an extensive BBC Sport feature, under the eye-catching headline: ‘The football team rising from America’s biggest ruin’.

There are plenty more standout lines where that came from.

“There is a mentality that is Detroit against the world. They want independence because that is what Detroit is. Detroit City FC is an independent club,” said its English manager, Trevor James, who scouted for Bobby Robson at Italia ’90.

“Everyone would call Detroit a dead city. If Detroit is a dead city, we are going to be the walking dead,” said Dion Degennaro, a founding member of the club’s ‘ultras’ called the Northern Guard, who let off smoke bombs and wear skeleton masks.

The portrayal of the club’s colourful fanbase ticks all boxes. Noisy. Committed. Crusading. Embedded in the community. Fighting for inclusion and opposing gun violence. Organising food banks for kids who need more than laptops.

It sounds like a club that stands for something, where it really might mean more.

And it caught our eye chiefly because the captain is a 26-year-old from Ballincollig in Cork. A centre-half who sat on the bench for Cork City in 2012 before going on loan to College Corinthians in the Munster Senior League.

Back then, Stephen Carroll feared he was already near the end of his road in the game. He was weighing up football and college as an either-or call.

Today, the club website promises he will join some of the most rabid fans in America for a virtual autograph signing session. Carroll is among the figureheads of a sporting movement said to capture a city’s defiance in perennial adversity.

There’s a story here too, of fan culture, of the clash between capitalism and community when it comes to how big a fan can dream.

But first things first, in these suspicious times, can we trust the narrative?

We know Detroit’s story arc, a curve anything but flat. Once the motor city of Ford and GM and Chrysler, its Rouge River industry the envy of the world.

Once the music city of Motown, it roared in the 20s and swung in the 60s. Then crashed harder than most along the rust belt, culminating, in 2013, in municipal bankruptcy.

Its magnificent Central Station, with marble halls more vaunted than Highbury’s, lay idle as a grand symbol of decay. Eminem’s 8 Mile boundary marked off a crimezone.

How real is all that?

Larry O’Connor’s byline jumps off the sports pages of the Detroit News as a good place to start.

Turns out Larry hasn’t a bit of Irish in him, but still loves us, loves Irish culture, and has been three times.

In 1998, he spent three days in Cork, watched Cork City beat CSKA Kiev in the Cup Winners’ Cup at the Cross. And he loved Beamish too.

He even dropped by unannounced to the old Irish Examiner building on Academy Street to see an Irish pressroom. And somebody gave him the tour.

So Larry will talk all day.

“Yeah, the ruined city thing, there was a bit of negativity to that. Because we see Detroit coming on the rebound.

"It’s a narrative we’ve heard so many times. A cliche. But I’ve worked here since I was a teenager and the transformation in the place is unbelievable. And Detroit City FC is part of that and what they have done there is phenomenal.

It’s a great success story. The city was transforming before the football club came along, but it’s a symbol of it, it’s part of an ongoing process.

Dion Degennaro picks up the phone too. He makes it clear his is very much a living city, but is gracious about the Beeb’s portrayal.

“I think a lot of Detroiters are a little sick of the narrative. There is work to be done in areas, but it’s not the Mad Max wasteland a lot of pieces portray it as.

“And I don’t really feel the BBC piece did that. The author did a pretty good job of capturing what the club is, what the city is, and what the mentality of the people are. But I’m guessing the title was dreamed up by an editor and he didn’t have control over that.”

Dion and the Northern Guard are central to an episode that’s key to Detroit City’s rise, and holds pointers for sport and governance everywhere.

Detroit’s Keyworth Stadium was opened by President Roosevelt in 1936. By 2015 it was a wreck, needing quarter of a million dollars to repair.

A few hundred fans raised it. One got the money by not replacing the windscreen on his truck.

But these weren’t exactly donations. Dion sketches how it worked.

The stadium was owned by the city. A public-private partnership scheme allowed individuals invest in community projects. The money fixed the stadium. And small investors made a 35% return out of matchday revenue.

“Everyone benefited,” Dion says.

“The community has a renovated stadium that still belongs to the school district. So high school soccer, American football, lacrosse players, everyone gets to use it. The club has a place to call home.

"I believe a 10-year lease for something like a dollar a year. Supporters have their team and if you invested, you got a return as well.”

He’s just as enthusiastic about Stephen Carroll.

“Honestly, he’s a great captain. An excellent defender and a leader in the backfield. We had a nine-game clean sheet streak last season and a lot of it was down to his leadership.

“I think all the guys respect him. He seems pretty quiet but he has a lot of personality. He definitely speaks up when he has to.”

Larry knows his Cork legends.

Maybe it’s just because he comes from the same part of the world, but he kind of reminds me of Roy Keane a little bit. That intensity. He refuses to accept anything less than winning.

“He’s definitely one of the core group but he doesn’t really seek the limelight. As a journalist, I try to talk to him because he is the captain, but I get the sense he’s kind of reluctant.”

When Stephen picks up the phone, it’s pure Cork. Six years in America, not a twang.

He says it’s because he’s been talking to home. Maybe if you heard him in the dressing room.

Larry O'Connor on Stephen: 'Honestly, he’s a great captain. An excellent defender and a leader in the backfield. We had a nine-game clean sheet streak last season and a lot of it was down to his leadership.'
Larry O'Connor on Stephen: 'Honestly, he’s a great captain. An excellent defender and a leader in the backfield. We had a nine-game clean sheet streak last season and a lot of it was down to his leadership.'

As Larry O’Connor predicts, his instinct is to play down.

“It was a lot more physical at home but more technical and athletic here. Though I don’t have much of that. At the back, it’s no messing about, just don’t get caught on the ball.”

He had been close to Tommy Dunne’s first team plans as Cork City began life back in the top flight.

“Tommy asked me to go to Corinthians for a season. And then he left the club and I was kind of out of the picture. And I knew it would be tough to get back in.”

He played for Greg O’Halloran at Carrigaline United before an offer came to study sports management in America — and play soccer.

The family always travelled so he first enrolled at Martin Methodist College in Pulaski, Tennessee, under the wing of Irishman Gerry Cleary.

Then onto Davenport University, Michigan, where he was spotted by Detroit City.

“When I first came, driving into Detroit, the mile or two surrounding downtown, it was like something out of a movie. These enormous warehouses, completely abandoned, like the plague came in or something.

"Factories and factories everywhere, that look like they could have hired a million people, just in ruins. But as you get closer to downtown, it’s as nice a city as anywhere.

“Some Detroit people ride that stigma. They love being known as the grubby place that made it through.

“It was once the best place in the country, it went to shit and they are rebuilding it. And they pride themselves on that.”

They took great pride when Carroll lifted the NPSL Members Cup last October, after ‘Le Rouge’s’ 23-game unbeaten league campaign.

Crowds grow, home games average 5,000-plus. And this was to be the club’s first year fully pro, in the US third tier, the National Independent Soccer Association.

“At our level, there’s a handful of teams in the country that would get the crowds we do,” Carroll says.

“We can challenge the USL Championship teams, which is one below MLS.”

Stephen Carroll lifts the Member's Cup at Keyworth Stadium, Detroit. Pic: Instagram
Stephen Carroll lifts the Member's Cup at Keyworth Stadium, Detroit. Pic: Instagram

How high can they go? American soccer doesn’t do pyramids. You buy your way onto the top table.

Carroll adds: “It’s where the owners want to take it. Do they want to get lost in the big bucks? Or keep it more supporter based, family based?”

You probably need a billionaire to make MLS, says Dion. And he reckons the owners, local guys, would never sell up.

“It might be possible to retain the spirit of what the club means but I think once you get up to those levels and that amount of money, you kind of lose sight of what this is about.”

Sadly, speculation like that belongs to old normals. Lockdown is a blow places like Detroit can ill afford. Nor small soccer clubs. Stephen is still getting paid. But this is a city affected worse than most. The tragedy is suffocating.

“It’s really bad,” O’Connor says.

“The numbers are overwhelming. It’s awful. Unimaginable. I haven’t left my house in about a month, just to walk around the block. The devastation is horrible.”

Fighting contagion is complicated by the toxicity of politics. 70% of people are on board with staying home, reckons Dion, but this week, protesters marched on the governor’s mansion, demanding their freedom.

“Some of it is people thinking big government is telling them how to live their lives,” O’Connor says. “But I think they are being led by the nose-ring by Trump. It’s Trump’s way of holding rallies that he can’t hold since the outbreak.”

The club’s pro season lasted one game — a 2-0 win away to LA Force. On the way home from that trip, Stephen was stopped by a cop close to his house.

“He was asking where I’m coming from because it was 1 o’clock in the morning. And when I told him, he was ‘wow, you play for Detroit’ and just wanted to chat about soccer.

I never in my life thought I’d be noticed in the street but it’s happened a few times already. I’d be downtown walking around with my friends or my girlfriend and someone will stop me and say ‘are you Stephen Carroll’.

“It’s cool. Our fans are diehards and need to know every player.”

Before the virus, life had been good. He’s just moved into a place with his girlfriend. With a garden for the dogs. He reckons he’s probably living better here than if he had cracked the League of Ireland.

“It’s paycheque to paycheque, but they look after you. The clubs here want to be as professional as they can.

“I know it won’t benefit me when I’m 40. I’ll have to start looking after myself at some stage, but I want to see how far soccer will take me for now. And I have the degree anyway.”

He’s usually home to Ballincollig every Christmas, but couldn’t make it this year because his visa was being renewed. So he has yet to see his new nephew, his sister’s baby.

He’ll visit when lockdowns are lifted, but won’t stay long.

“I wouldn’t want to go home I’d say. I’m pretty settled here. A house and two dogs, there’s no getting out of that.

“This is where I made my own name for myself, got my independence.”

Sounds like he came to the right place.

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