Belfast Telegraph

Friday 29 August 2014

American dream: New York Jonny comes marching home for Northern Ireland debut

New York state of mind: Jonny Steele in Turkey
New York state of mind: Jonny Steele in Turkey

He's the lad from Larne living in the Big Apple, with high hopes of becoming a big player for Northern Ireland.

Jonny Steele will make his international debut tomorrow in a friendly in Turkey.

The 27-year-old has travelled a long and winding road to get here from Wolverhampton to Kansas, Ballymena to Puerto Rice, Vancouver and beyond.

And now that he has reached this point he's determined not to let the opportunity pass.

Steele intends to show just that when he turns out for Michael O'Neill's side. Skill too. And the scoring ability from midfield that has made him a hit with Major League Soccer side New York Red Bulls.

Steele's story is as fascinating as his choice of tattoos, which virtually cover his upper body.

Just after he had turned 16, he had STEELE inked across his back (pictured) in Gothic lettering. Other work includes Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara, an Irish cross and the words 'Father, Son, Holy Spirit' in Latin on his arm.

Growing up as a Catholic in Larne, largely a Protestant town, Steele has talked in the past about being involved in scrapes across the religious divide and remembers walking home from St Comgall's school fearful of being attacked.

"Whenever you went out, you always had to look over your shoulder," he said.

"It brought my family closer, but I always hoped I never would get that phone call that something bad happened."

At 18, having shone locally at junior level, Steele, with the blessing of his parents, was offered a contract with Wolves, but two years after displaying promise, he was released much to his disappointment.

Many before him from Northern Ireland experienced the same fate, but while others returned to the province believing professional football was beyond them, Steele retained a burning desire to make the grade.

The next stop was a trial with MLS outfit Dallas Burn, managed by former Northern Ireland striker Colin Clarke. He impressed but Clarke couldn't find room for him in the squad.

Steele refused to give up on his American dream and signed for Syracuse Salty Dogs in the United Soccer League, which was effectively a division down from MLS.

He moved to Kansas City Comets, who played in the Major Indoor Soccer League. His nomadic existence continued with Rochester Rhinos and Baltimore Blast.

Having represented Northern Ireland up to under-19 level, he had little trouble finding a club when he returned home in 2005.

Ballymena United, then managed by Tommy Wright, now in charge of St Johnstone, pounced but as Steele explained to his perplexed boss at the time, he was never going to stay at the Showgrounds for long.

During his press conference in Turkey yesterday, Steele said: "Ballymena came in when I quit playing in America. I thought I was homesick, so I went back home.

"I thought I'd be playing part-time, but I'd got a girl pregnant. I don't think Tommy Wright believed me but it's true, I've got the proof! (his child is called Jaydan).

"Tommy didn't want to let me go, he wasn't happy with me. But I said 'Tommy, I've got someone pregnant in America' so I went back to be part of my son's life."

To make a living Steele played more indoor soccer, which he labels 'a crazy game', and outdoor at the same time, signing for Carolina Railhawks, then Orlando Sharks and Philadelphia KiXX as his tour of the USA continued.

Have boots, will travel should be his motto because he would move to Puerto Rico Islanders, Vancouver Whitecaps, FC Tampa Bay, Carolina again and Syracuse Silver Knights from 2008 to 2011.

He says: "I had a couple of chances to make MLS but the biggest problem was my green card situation – you're only allowed five or six foreigners in the team.

"Eventually I got in at Real Salt Lake last year, one of the best teams in the league, but I was only a bit-part player. I hit all my bonuses there and my salary was due to treble but with the salary cap they decided to let me go."

At that stage Steele had decided to cut his losses and return to England in a bid to keep playing football. Blue Square Premier outfit Macclesfield were ready to sign him.

Then came a life changing call – from the New York Bulls, the biggest soccer franchise in north America.

"To be honest, I wasn't going to go back to America before I got the phone call from New York.

"I was fed up with the salary cap," he says.

"I was very close to going to Macclesfield. My mate was playing there and I had been training with them. Their players were shouting 'sign him up' because I killed them in training.

"The manager asked me about my situation and I was a free agent. I was about to sign on the Friday and it was about to go through but there was something in the paperwork that wasn't right.

"I got a call at 2am from Mike Petke, the coach at the New York Red Bulls, who wanted me. I talked to my dad and he cried at the prospect. He said 'do it for one year' and I said 'I'll do it for you'."

And boy has Steele done it. He's been one of the players of the season for New York where his team-mates and good pals include former Arsenal and Barcelona striker Thierry Henry and ex-Everton hero Tim Cahill. The pair of them offered much needed support recently after Jonny's dad Dan suffered a stroke.

Considered a dynamic midfielder in the States, Steele has scored five goals, starting 34 of the side's MLS and play-off games this year.

In negotiations for a new contract in New York, where ex-Scotland boss Andy Roxburgh is the Sporting Director, and with a first senior international to savour, the lad from Larne could not be much happier.

He'll make his Northern Ireland debut in the southern Turkish city of Adana, less than 200 miles from Syria.

It's been quite a journey.

New boy Steele under the spotlight in Turkey

Question: Jonny, at the age of 27, you've finally made it into the Northern Ireland senior squad. How do you feel?

JS: For me it's only the start. My mentality is that I'm not here for the limelight, I'm here to get my head down and work. I've ticked one box with the call up, now I'm here to work and hopefully stay around the squad. The big picture is the Euro 2016 campaign. Playing for your country is an honour and it's something I've always wanted to do. If it happens, no-one can take it away from you. If I get that opportunity I'm going to be hungrier than I've ever been.

Q: After a nomadic career in America, you've played a lot for New York Red Bulls (pictured) in MLS this year. Has that surprised you?

JS: Not at all. The manager called me in February when the season was just about to start and he said to me, 'would you be okay coming here as an impact player?'. I said to him 'I'll come in whatever way you want but I guarantee you that I'll be a thorn in your side to play me'.

Q: When did making the Northern Ireland squad become a realistic goal?

JS: Once you're in MLS and your team-mates are getting called up for Costa Rica, Australia and USA you know those countries take the league seriously. I know MLS sometimes gets looked at as maybe League One or League Two, but there's no chance, not if you actually watch the games regularly.

Q: What is the MLS standard then?

A: I don't think it's Premier League standard, but I've no doubt our team would hold its own against Championship opposition.

Q: What's it like playing alongside Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill?

JS: They're two special characters. When you see Tim every day you know how he was at Everton for nine years. He's a leader, when guys are down he's the one to talk to. No words can describe what Thierry can do with a ball. It leaves you speechless. I always say to him 'I'd have hated to have seen you at 25'. He says 'you should have seen me at 18'. The man's a genius. When we play away we hang out together. They're good guys, they fight my corner.

Q: Do you know any of your new Northern Ireland team-mates?

JS: I know Sammy Clingan from my time at Wolves. He looked after me. I played against Jonny Evans and Steve Davis when I was younger. The lads have welcomed me with open arms.

Q: You have come a long way to get this far?

JS: I meet a lot of lads back home in my local bar who could have been professional players and they say to me 'the thing about you boy, you never give up'. A lot of them did give up. They left England, played a bit in the Irish League and now they're doing another job. There were hard times, times of struggle but I never gave up. And I'm not finished, far from it. I've still got dreams to play at a higher level. I'm not saying MLS isn't a high level, but you set dreams and goals along the way. The day your goals stop is the day you should stop playing.

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