Crusaders old boy Dallas hoping to sting Chelsea
Stuart Dallas is ‘living the dream’. His words. A few years ago the young winger from Cookstown was playing intermediate football. Now he is a professional across the water with an ambitious London club and could be taking on European champions Chelsea in the FA Cup on Sunday.
Living the dream indeed.
Stuart plays with Brentford, nicknamed the Bees. And, yes, he is buzzing about his life right now.
The 21-year-old's story is an uplifting one, especially for youngsters playing football here at all levels in Northern Ireland hoping one day to make it across the water.
Winger Dallas honed his skills at county Tyrone village team Coagh United before being snapped up by shrewd Crusaders manager Stephen Baxter in the summer of 2010.
Stuart had such a sensational first season in the Irish Premier League that he was named Young Player and Player of the Year by the local football scribes.
With another campaign under his belt, League One side Brentford came calling and the Northern Ireland international has been progressing at Griffin Park ever since.
Thankfully all the trappings that come with being a professional footballer have not changed him.
Dallas remains a genuine, decent young bloke, who has not forgotten his roots, talking as passionately about the Irish League as when he played in it.
Indeed this weekend two major matches are on his mind — the Irn Bru League Cup final on Saturday night between his old club Crusaders and league leaders Cliftonville and then of course on Sunday the big one, Brentford at home to Chelsea in the fourth round of the FA Cup.
Big Liverpool fan Dallas would love to face Chelsea, Fernando Torres, Rafa Benitez and all.
“We have a massive game at the weekend against Chelsea. It's huge for us taking on the European champions,” says Stuart.
“It's one of the biggest games the club has been involved in for a while and with them being neighbours to us here in London it's going to be a special occasion. We're all looking forward to it and hopefully I'll be involved in the squad.
“Our home form has been good this season. There will be a packed house and our crowd will really get behind us. Chelsea are favourites but you never know what can happen.”
Dallas has already played in the FA Cup, in a win over League Cup heroes Bradford City. There was a feeling that the 2012-2013 campaign would be one in which the ex-Crusaders ace would have to get used to life in England as a reserve player but he has shown enough promise and ability for German manager Uwe Rosler, perhaps best known for his days as a popular striker at Manchester City, to throw him into the first team.
“I suppose you could say that I'm ahead of schedule because I wasn't expecting to be involved in the first team at this stage of the season. I've played a few games and hope to push on now,” says Dallas, who made his one senior international appearance to date against Wales in the Carling Nations Cup in 2011.
“I have really enjoyed the first team matches and I have to give credit to the management team for giving me the chance to prove myself.
“I haven't been involved the last couple of weeks but I'll keep working hard and hopefully things will happen for me.
“My debut was as a substitute against Crawley in the Johnstone Paint trophy and then I came on a few times in the league. My first senior start was against Bradford in the FA Cup and then my first league start was against Shrewsbury.
“I love full-time football and I'm glad that I made the choice I did. It's something I'd always wanted to do as a young lad and thankfully Brentford gave me the opportunity.
“No disrespect to the Irish League or Crusaders but coming over here has been a big step up. Full-time football is a lot faster and more physical and you have to be a lot fitter so it has helped me and I feel I have improved as a player.
“I loved my time at Crusaders, who signed me from Coagh United. Without the Crues I wouldn't be where I am now.”
Dallas continues to keep in touch with many of his old Seaview team-mates and will be roaring them on from his armchair when he is watching the Irn Bru Cup final on Sky Sports on Saturday night.
“The Crusaders result is always the first I look for on a Saturday after our game and I'm glad to see they are doing really, really well in the Cups and the league,” says Dallas, whose last game for the north Belfast side was a Setanta Cup final success over Derry City.
“I'm looking forward to watching the final on TV on Saturday night. Our game is on Sunday so it works out nicely. Hopefully the Crues can win it.”
Dallas has already proved to be a winner, moving from Coagh to Crusaders to Brentford in double quick time.
“I hope what has happened to me gives other players in the Irish League hope that it's never too late and if you keep working hard dreams can come true,” he says.
“People have asked me if I regret not moving to England at a younger age, but I honestly don't regret a thing. Had I come over earlier I maybe could have got homesick. Right now things are going well for me. I couldn't be happier.”
Long may that continue for this gifted young player and fine young man.