If you were being generous you’d call him a footnote. So let’s be generous. On a day of MLS history, David Villa and Kaka each ushered in a new soccer City — New York and Orlando — in just the kind of fashion they’d been richly rewarded to. And Sean St Ledger? He was a footnote, the merest one.
It was a March Sunday in Florida and 62,000 went wild when Kaka thumped in an injury-time equaliser. St Ledger then entered the fray and the final whistle blew soon after. Yes, a footnote.
Yet those few seconds actually represented banner headline news in the Sean St Ledger story. Why so? Because of “the gap”. Even now, seven months on, and with the defender at another MLS club, the conversation has to start with “the gap”.
It turns out, St Ledger never actually put a number on it. So when you throw the figure out there, it leaves him bouncing back into his well-upholstered chair. It’s a Friday night in the lobby of the Westin Harbour Hotel and downtown Toronto is buzzing, but the number drowns out all of the commotion.
“Jeeeesus,” he exhales, eyes wide, wondering how. “I didn’t realise it was that [long]. Nineteen months? Really? Jesus.”
Yes really. That late cameo in Florida represented the 30-year-old’s first league appearance as a professional footballer in 19 months. Not since an English Championship season opener at Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium in August 2013 had St Ledger tasted first-team football.
Google the game and you’ll find the picture accompanying the match report shows him racing away in celebration with Leicester City team-mate and match-winner Jamie Vardy. It brings things into sharper, more stark focus.
Vardy is now an England international and sits atop the Premier League scoring charts. Leicester City happily sit fifth in the top flight. St Ledger sits in the hotel lobby across the Atlantic and still wonders.
A chronic groin injury, chronic luck and the chronic realities of modern football combined to be very unkind to St Ledger, so recently an immovable centrepiece of the Ireland defence.
Released by Leicester, he was clubless when the 2014-15 campaign kicked off and the brief glimmer of hope handed to him by Mick McCarthy and Ipswich dimmed quickly too.
But things are finally beginning to brighten. Now he’s playing every week — for Colorado Rapids — and he’s beginning to feel like himself again. But “the gap” still haunts him.
“The hardest part was probably not getting on top of an injury,” he tells the Irish Examiner. “I probably got too used to being injured and when I was younger I took them more lightly. Then I got older and your body just doesn’t let you overrule it. Then being out of contract, I mean, that was harder again.
“I found it tough to sleep at night. I had no routine.
“It made me realise that when I finish football I need to have something lined up. Because I never want to feel again the way I felt during that time.”
Even when ‘that time’ came to an end, things stayed surreal. He took a gamble and crossed the Atlantic, eventually finding a home, he entered his new dressing room in Orlando to find he was sharing a double locker with a Serie A, La Liga, Champions League and World Cup winner.
“When I was at Preston there was a charity auction and there was this Kaka jersey up for auction. I bought it,’ smiles St Ledger.
“AC Milan, that classic shirt. So coming into Orlando and [being at the locker] next to him, I’d say I was actually starstruck. I probably haven’t been that nervous since I went into the Ireland squad and Shay Given, Damien Duff and Robbie Keane were there.”
Despite good form in an unsettled defence, St Ledger found out how different the football environment is Stateside when he strayed, missed the team’s return flight after a game in New York and found himself axed by Orlando along with fellow absentee Martin Paterson. It might have been labelled stupid, rather than sackable. Struggling Colorado swiftly picked him up and he was again in alien surrounds in Denver. It was a familiar face from his Ireland days that helped him catch his breath in the rarified air of the Mile High City.
“As soon as I got there I just ran to Doyler,” he says of Kevin Doyle, Colorado’s marquee name. “I was like the lost puppy running back to his dad. He’s honestly helped me so much.”
The contentment showed on the pitch too, with the basement side winning three and drawing one of St Ledger’s first six games. But the Rapids defence still leaks. There was defeat the afternoon after we spoke to him in Toronto, a rough outing against Houston and another to Salt Lake City on Sunday night, although he did rack up his second assist in that game — again setting up a Doyle goal.
Nonetheless, he feels much more at home in Denver. Always good, engaging company, his eyes are bright when he talks of this latest fresh start. There’s no more boredom thanks to the presence of four other pro sports teams in town, one of just eight US cities to boast an NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB and MLS team. He and his girlfriend, Manchester DJ and model Helen Stelling Holt, are doing the long-distance thing and making it work. He’s content. In one sense, settled. In another though, he’s not. There’s still a gnawing itch. It was hard not to spot the irony that in a time when Jack Grealish was weighing up his national affections, another with a strong twang of the English Midlands was busy explaining how much being an Ireland international meant to him.
St Ledger won 37 caps in a prolific four-year spell at the heart of Giovanni Trapattoni’s defence. He was responsible for two of the high points of the Italian’s Republic reign. He stands alone as the only Irishman to score at a major championship in the past 13 years.
“It’s kind of insane really. That question that Irish people ask you, that feeling of scoring for your country at a major championship. It was obviously an incredible moment for me,” he says of the Euro 2012 header that hauled Ireland level against Croatia in Poznan — only for them to concede two more in that game, four against Spain and two against the Italians. “You want to stop and bottle it.”
He continues: “I would say that Ireland, international football, has been bloody good to me. It’s certainly the most enjoyable time of my career. The chance to play against huge players, big countries, to play in front of those fans and that passion, it was a dream. Those games, 80,000 at Croke Park, the game against Italy [the 2009 World Cup qualifier when he also scored] was just incredible, there’s no forgetting that.”
Martin O’Neill’s side face into a decisive double-header with Germany first coming to town tomorrow as Euro 2016 qualification hopes hang in the balance.
St Ledger is desperate to make more memories, though he knows that hangs in the balance too.
“I would say it looks pretty bleak if I’m being honest, and I like to be honest,” he says of an Ireland return. “I’d probably say if I’ve not been picked now then I’m going to struggle to get back in there. He has his squad and feels like he has the right guys.”
He makes it sound bleak but hope still floats. Seeing Rapids team-mate Doyle return to the fold has sparked a flicker.
“I would probably have more of a chance if I could go back when the season is done here, on loan somewhere in the Championship and try and prove my point to him there,” reasons St Ledger. “I won’t ever close that door. It means too much. In football sometimes it’s all about timing and about luck but I’m not going to go down as the last ever footballer who was unfortunate.”
His luck is turning, though. It’s a progressive place, Denver. St Ledger’s new home state is too. Colorado’s recently re-elected governor is John Hickenlooper, a geologist turned beer brewer turned politician. With current US political discussion dominated by Donald Trump’s moronic bluster, the cerebral Democrat Hickenlooper restores a little faith. ‘Denver is a city that will be far more defined by its future than its past,’ was a recent offering.
One newly arrived resident hopes that proves to be the case. For Sean St Ledger, it’s all about progress now.