Mayo youngster Akram hoping to push new boundaries in 2019 season

When the Mayo squad broke up after their Championship defeat to Kildare last June, many of the players capitalised on the early summer exit to travel abroad.

Mayo youngster Akram hoping to push new boundaries in 2019 season

When the Mayo squad broke up after their Championship defeat to Kildare last June, many of the players capitalised on the early summer exit to travel abroad.

Some hit for the US, others jetted out to European hotspots, though Shairoze Akram took the opportunity to visit Pakistan, his homeland and, in parts, a country decimated by poverty.

It was an eye-opening experience for the 21-year-old, who doesn’t recall much about the four years he spent there before relocating to Ireland and Mayo in 2001.

“I’d be from Haroonabad, it would be in the Punjab region,” explained Akram, referencing his roots in the east of a country that’s tucked in tightly between Afghanistan and India, with China bordering on the north.

“I was there during the summer visiting my granny after we were beaten by Kildare, it kind of opened up a window for me to go home and visit my grandparents. It was an experience. You were seeing stuff for the first time, really, because you hadn’t seen it in so long and you didn’t remember the half of it.

“It’s eye-opening stuff, some of the stuff you’d see in regards to poverty and the class [divide] between the rich and poor.”

Almost a third of Pakistanis fall into the ‘poor’ bracket, existing below the poverty line, and the life expectancy there is among the worst in the world, at around 66 years, compared to 81 in Ireland. Those are sobering figures that confronted Akram last summer, just months after he’d earned the distinction of playing against Dublin in a National League game in Castlebar.

A third-year student of sports science at Dublin City University, Akram gets it that he’s in a great position.

“Definitely, the opportunities that are available here to young guys and to people from different backgrounds are immense, even just in terms of college, education, and obviously sport,” he said.

Sport has been particularly good to the speedy half-back, who became the first Pakistani to win an All-Ireland medal when he powered the Mayo U21s to glory in 2016.

He was just 19 at the time and after appearing twice in last season’s league campaign for Mayo, was retained on an eight-man development squad that trained alongside Stephen Rochford’s full squad throughout the 2018 championship.

James Durcan, a starter against Kildare, was in that development group initially too, so Akram knows he’s close. Back at home in Pakistan, some of his extended family are aware of how he’s excelling at a sport he only took up a decade ago.

Others aren’t, and he didn’t even bother trying to explain the ‘Newbridge or Nowhere fiasco’ to them.

“No, no, that would have been a tough one for them to grasp,” smiled Akram. “Even for my own family here that was a tough one to grasp! A lot of the family would have an idea that I play here, but my granny and granddad wouldn’t really get it, they’d be old, but they know I play sport a good bit and are happy to keep in touch and to see that I’m playing away.”

It was work that lured the Akrams to Mayo in the first place, his father taking up a position in the local meat factory.

Andy Moran, the 2017 Footballer of the Year, then spotted Akram’s potential as a sixth class primary school pupil and convinced him to take up Gaelic football.

“I struggled a bit in the first couple of years, just the skills of the game and getting a grasp of the rules, but having worked at it for a couple of years I thankfully improved and I’m playing now at a higher level, obviously,” he said.

In reality, being the first Pakistani to win an All-Ireland isn’t something Akram thinks too much about.

“That’s just an achievement to the side, I wouldn’t really focus on that,” he said. “I’m just focused on the football and how I can improve and how I can hopefully get into the senior team and play for the senior team.”

He’s had contact with new manager James Horan and attended trials, though he isn’t currently part of their 2019 panel. He still fits into the ‘one to watch’ category and has time on his side. The Electric Ireland Sigerson Cup will provide him with a window to impress in the coming weeks and to potentially early a National League call-up. DCU will play IT Carlow at home in mid-January in round one.

“If you look at the Mayo half-back line at the moment, you have a Footballer of the Year from 2016 in Lee [Keegan], you have Colm Boyle, who has a number of All-Stars, and then Paddy Durcan is an up-and-coming young guy that is fighting for his spot, and Stephen Coen who was captain of U21 and minor teams and captain of the Sigerson-Cup-winning team with UCD, so there’s a lot of guys trying to break into that line,” said Akram at the draws for the third-level championships. “It’s a tough one, but hopefully I can get in in the future and make my name.”

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