Sean Kelly: Living the American dream

Sean Kelly playing for Cork City

Sean Kelly is happily discovering that there is indeed a second act in life, and in football, in America.

Cork City fans will remember Kelly as a defender who spent three seasons at the club, making 25 league appearances between 2006 and 2009. 

Before that, he was a highly promising member of Arsenal’s youth team, the captain in a dressing room which boasted the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Nicklas Bendtner, and Fabrice Muamba.

However, a succession of injuries ended Kelly’s Premier League dreams and the Tralee native found himself back in Ireland, looking to start afresh at Turner’s Cross with then league champions City.

“I loved it,” he says in an interview with the US Soccer website. “But I found myself losing focus on what I always wanted. You’re out drinking, you’re eating crap the next day. I put on weight. 

It’s not how a professional is supposed to be. Then, the injuries really started to come and, before I knew it, Cork wanted to get rid of me.

After spells with Galway United and Limerick, he dropped down the levels to join junior club Pike Rovers in Limerick only to suffer his worst injury yet, snapping his leg in three places.

However, the toll of broken dreams proved to be even more unbearable than the pain of broken bones. Stuck in a dark place, he decided to pack in the game he loved.

“I was fed up, mentally. I was going the wrong way in my life. I could have fallen right off. When you have a dream and it’s snatched away, it can be hard to get back up. I was going down a bad, bad road and then, thank god, the phone rang.”

The call that reached him in Kerry five years ago was from a club in Yonkers called Lansdowne Bhoys, with an irresistible offer of work and football in the Big Apple.

“I always dreamed of coming to America,” says Kelly. “This was my second chance in life. And I knew it was and I was not going to let it go. I’m living in New York City, man, I’m working and playing football. You don’t need any more than that. Well, I don’t anyway.”

A multi-national team whose backbone is made up of Irish immigrants, Lansdowne Bhoys — founded in 1997 and, as the second part of their name suggests, playing in the green and white hoops of Celtic — hold the distinction of being the amateur champions in the US. 

This evening, they travel to play Brooklyn Italians FC in the first round proper of the Lamar Hunt Open Cup, America’s equivalent of the FA Cup.

The dream for skipper Kelly and his teammates – who include former St Pat’s, Shamrock Rovers, and Cork City man Daryl Kavanagh — is to go on a run, like they did in the competition two years ago, which could bring them face to face with pro teams from the higher leagues, including the MLS.

I really thought this was all over,” says Kelly. “I’d watch my old teammates from my Arsenal days winning things on TV and there was such depression from that. Now, I’m here with a chance to feel it all again.

The 30-year-old fits in his gym work and football training around his day job as a construction project manager in high-rise Manhattan. 

Five years after he felt just about as low as he could go, he’s high on the improbability of it all and not slow to admit he owes a huge debt to Lansdowne Bhoys.

“I got a second crack at life,” he says. “I want to give back to the club and I think I am. 

"I’m where I was always meant to be: Playing football and doing honest work. Honest everything. Can’t go wrong if you’re honest.”

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