Two promising Northern Ireland footballers and lifelong friends are set to follow the American dream after accepting University football scholarships Stateside.
St Malachy’s pupils Lewis McGarvey and Mark Donnelly will cross the Atlantic this summer, provided the Covid-19 pandemic is under control. Sunday Life Sport’s David Kelly spoke to them about the hugely exciting next chapters awaiting in their blossoming football careers:
Glentoran ace McGarvey targets MLS dream
Rising Glentoran ace Lewis McGarvey is relishing the opportunity of a scholarship at the highly regarded Duke University in North Carolina – even if his coach will be a former Linfield player.
The 18-year-old St Malachy’s College student, part of the Northern Ireland team that won the Centenary Shield last year, had the chance of a contract at The Oval, but the opportunity of fulfilling a long-held ambition to head to the States was the deciding factor.
Glentoran boss Mick McDermott, impressed with McGarvey’s progress in the reserves, had given the Belfast lad his senior debut in the County Antrim Shield this season and played a key role in making sure he was able to secure the move to Duke.
“It really hasn’t sunk in yet, it feels surreal, I’m living out my dream. Being able to go to Duke University with the history it has of top sports people is amazing,” says centre-back Lewis, a keen three-handicap golfer.
“I’m very grateful to the Glens coach Mick McDermott because he is friendly with the coach, so he opened the door and just said it was over to me to impress him. When it turned out that it was John Kerr, who told me he had played for Linfield, I said that could be a sticking point, I might have to rethink!
“Seriously, though, even after a few positive phone calls and some good feedback after I sent him some videos, I was still thinking there’s no way this will happen. So when the offer came through, I was just delighted.
“Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to go to America to develop my football and at the same time get a top-quality education. Mick did say I could stay and have a contract but going to America is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I’m realistic as well that not everyone makes it in football, so I want to make sure I have a good degree as well.”
Having spent the best part of eight years at The Oval, he scooped numerous junior medals with the Glens, including All Ireland Cup success, while also enjoying Cup glory with St Malachy’s.
Now he hopes that Duke University and coach Kerr will be able to give him the foundation to go and become a professional footballer – and some day even a return to play for the Glens.
“I love the game and the ultimate goal has to be to make it as a professional – I’d love to be part of the draft in my fourth year and have the chance to play in the MLS and maybe at some point play in Europe. Having spent so long at The Oval, I would love to come back and play for the Glens,” adds Lewis.
“I love the Irish League and the difference that Mick has made since he came to The Oval has been great. He made everyone believe themselves, you could sense the mentality changing. I’ve had the chance to train with the first team all year and been on the bench and everything has just transformed this season.
“It helped me a lot because I was training in an adult environment and I believe that impressed the guys at Duke as well.”
Donnelly determined to forge his own path in football career
When your dad is a club hero and Irish League legend, it is not always easy to develop your own career path but Mark Donnelly believes West Liberty University in West Virginia will offer him the perfect route to fulfilling his potential.
While insisting he does not want to be compared to title-winning Cliftonville star Mickey Donnelly, the teenager — who has just received a scholarship to WLU — admits that emulating the championship success of his father with the Reds would be “special”.
Having played in the reserves over the past season, Mark was surprised and delighted to learn that the Reds connection will continue even when he is 4,000 miles from his Crumlin home.
“The head coach is Sean Regan and in our initial phone call he started to tell me how his family was originally from the Cliftonville Road and how his dad used to always go to the Cliftonville games. I couldn’t believe it,” says 18-year-old Mark, who is hoping to arrive at WLU in August, assuming coronavirus restrictions have been eased.
“Sean then sent me some old Cliftonville photos and I was able to tell him about what my dad did at the club. Since I started playing football, my dad has been my hero. I’ve seen lots of videos and of course the one of him lifting the League in 1998. I understand that to most he is a club legend but to me he is dad and he has been a great motivation and support to me in every way — he always gives me the right advice.
“I love playing at Cliftonville and, although it is way off at the moment, my dream has always been to pull on the first team shirt. That would be great.”
While dad Mickey is his number one hero, central midfielder Mark says two other men in red shirts have been examples of those he would seek to emulate.
“I’m a big Liverpool fan, I’ve watched them all my life, so growing up a hero of mine was Steven Gerrard. He always showed the enthusiasm and attitude you need every time you walk on to the pitch and that is something that I’ve tried to replicate. It’s the same with Cliftonville’s George McMullan — he’s a hero as well because he always gives 100 per cent,” added Mark, whose dad has been coaching him since he was seven.
“Going to America will be a big challenge for me. It’s something that my dad said he couldn’t have done because he was a home bird. I’m just excited about the new experience and I want to do my family proud — my parents and my two sisters, Rachel and Nicole.
“Getting a top education and being able to develop my football, I couldn’t ask for more and I have to say a big thanks to all my PE teachers at St Malachy’s because they were a great inspiration to me and all my friends.”