Sometimes it is about more than what takes place on the pitch – it’s the memories made, friendships forged and the opportunity to have played even just a small part in a club’s rich history that counts, writes Paul Berry.
Goalkeeper Aaron McCarey spent six-and-a-half years at Wolves. Which was interrupted by several loan spells.
During that time he chalked up seven first team appearances.
He would have loved to have made more – of course he would – but not for a minute does that figure devalue the immense pride and gratitude he feels for the time spent at Molineux.
It is that feeling which left him close to tears when laying a wreath in front of the South Bank before a game against Bristol City in memory of Wolves legend Bert Williams.
It is that feeling which prompted his passion and enthusiasm to sometimes spill over in support of his Molineux team-mates, even from the substitute’s bench.
It is that feeling which saw him decide, when in Wolverhampton and away from his family for Christmas, to spend Christmas Day helping serve dinner to the homeless at a local charity.
And it is that feeling which saw him drive down from Scotland a year after departing Wolves to show his support for team-mate and friend Carl Ikeme following his leukaemia diagnosis at a fundraising event organised by Wolves supporter Steve Plant.
McCarey’s time at Wolves was regularly eventful, and his push for a place in the first team wasn’t the only battle he had to fight during his stay at the club.
Indeed, it is only over the last year or so that he has realised how much a positive drugs test back in 2015 had adversely affected him mentally, even though the trace was sufficiently small that the overall punishment from the FA was ultimately extremely lenient.
McCarey has had to come through plenty of challenges during his career, both at Wolves and elsewhere, and that is why now, at the age of 28, his quest for a place in the Dundalk team in the League of Ireland is a particularly timely one.
Because, just like Wolves last season, Dundalk have qualified for the group stages of the Europa League, and this week kick off their Group B schedule which will take in ties home and away with Molde, Rapid Vienna and Arsenal.
Serious stuff, or more to the point extremely exciting, and something which McCarey would love to be involved in.
“It’s going to be an amazing six weeks of European football,” he says. The sense of anticipation is palpable.
Just like when he first checked in at Wolves back in the day, as a fresh-faced 17-year-old, all set for a thrilling new adventure.
McCarey was a promising Gaelic footballer in his formative years, representing Scotstown in his home town of Monaghan, with possibilities of a career in the sport to follow.
But then he also started playing football, working his way through the age groups before, injuries and suspensions in the goalkeeping department saw him landing a chance in the first team for Monaghan United in the Irish First Division.
It proved an opportunity he grabbed with both hands – as you would hope a goalkeeper would – and he kept a string of successive clean sheets.
Very quickly the performances of this previously unknown teenager started to attract attention, and when Monaghan earned a reply with Premier League St Patrick’s Athletic in the FAI Cup, Wolves’ then goalkeeping coach Pat Mountain and development coach Steve Weaver flew over to watch.
McCarey takes up the story.
“I had got this opportunity out of the blue to play for the first team, so I suppose it was a case of right place, right time.
“I think any 17-year-old goalkeeper who plays a few first team games and keeps a few clean sheets is always going to catch the imagination.
“St Patrick’s were in the division above, but we took them to a replay, and then extra time, and I got man of the match.
“As it turned out, Pat Mountain and Steve Weaver had come over to watch, and within ten days I was over at Wolves for a few days of training.
“Wolves were looking for a young goalkeeper as unfortunately Daniel Wright who had been there and was a similar age to me had been forced to stop playing due to a heart problem.
“Pat was always keen to have a young goalkeeper working with the senior pros, a rough diamond if you like, and I fitted the bill!
“He was always very good at nurturing goalkeepers and bringing them on and probably saw me as a project and someone who he could really work with.”
And so the deal was done, although amid his understandable excitement and determination to succeed, McCarey admits to feelings of insecurity and wondering if he was worthy of the opportunity of joining a team in the Premier League.
“When I first went over, I questioned myself an awful lot,” he explains.
“I hadn’t had much goalkeeping coaching before, I was a big presence and was good at keeping the ball out of the net, but my technique wasn’t very good.
“I really struggled at first in terms of feeling I wasn’t really good enough to be there.
“My first game for the reserves was against Chelsea – they had Lukaku and Daniel Sturridge playing, and we lost 5-0.
“I got back in the dressing room and went and sat in the toilet cubicle and was thinking in my head that the next day I was going to go upstairs to the offices and tell them I needed to go home because I just wasn’t good enough.”
Fortunately McCarey slept on it, decided against throwing in the towel and, slowly but surely, with training and experience, he started to settle.
He thinks back to many reasons why he was able to find his feet, and start to make progress on his goalkeeping journey.
The guidance of Mountain and support of the senior keepers such as Matt Murray, Wayne Hennessey, Marcus Hahnemann, Ikeme and Dorus de Vries.
The support of the contingent of senior Irish players at the club at the time – “it sounds small but even just a conversation and them asking how I was getting on worked wonders for my self-belief.”
Then there were Chris and Alex McNamee, McCarey’s landlords for two years, who took him in and made him feel part of their family while he was away from his own on the other side of the Irish Sea.
Not to mention Mick McCarthy, an Irish legend, managing Wolves at the time.
“The great thing about being a young keeper at Wolves was not only being able to work with the senior keepers every day but also the chance to train with the first team,” McCarey explains.
“And Mick was brilliant.
“I wasn’t around the first team matchday squad in his time but was training with them, getting involved in shooting drills and he was always upbeat and really encouraging.
“He instilled confidence in players and looked after you if you were doing well, and he had everyone’s respect.
“If you were walking down the corridor of the training ground and he was coming towards you, then you knew he was going to shake your hand and have a chat.
“You would pick yourself up a bit, make yourself look tall, tuck your shirt in.
“He had that aura about him which the players respected, and the most important thing is that he was open and honest.
“People knew where they stood with Mick, and that goes a long way in football, and it seems like that sort of manager is going out of the game a bit at the moment which is a shame.”
As with many young goalkeepers, especially when up against the quality and experience of Wolves’ glovemen at the time, loan spells were pivotal for McCarey.
He actually preferred the pressure and expectation around first team competition, as opposed to the more development-based ethos of the Academy, right from his very first enjoyable loan spell with AFC Telford.
Some loans worked better than others, particularly working under former Wolves midfielder Paul Cook at Portsmouth later on in his Wolves career, and also at York, but it was just a junction down the motorway at Walsall where McCarey was delighted to launch his career in England during the 2012/13 campaign.
McCarey made 14 appearances, of which the Saddlers – under Dean Smith - lost just twice, and of course the footballing gods decreed that when he was to make his Wolves bow just a few months later, it was Walsall who were the opposition.
Tuesday September 3rd, 2013. The first round of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. Not perhaps one to roll off the tongue, but a special night for McCarey, whom after a 2-2 draw over 90 minutes made two decisive penalty saves in the shootout to seal a dream debut.
“That was a surreal night,” he recalls with a smile.
“I can’t remember too much about the build-up to the game, but unfortunately the club had gone to League One and Kenny (Jackett) had come in and introduced a lot of young lads to the squad.
“To make my Wolves debut at Molineux, against the team that I made my Football League debut for, well that was big enough, but then it couldn’t have ended better with the penalty shootout.
“I know it was only the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, but that is a memory that will stay with me for a lifetime and something I will always cherish.”
His league debut would come on the first Friday of 2014 away at Gillingham after an injury to Ikeme in the New Year’s Day draw at Tranmere.
McCarey was called back from loan – and indeed from his sickbed in a B&B in York where he was suffering from flu – amid doubts around Hennessey’s involvement with Crystal Palace waiting in the wings.
“I was recalled from loans on several different occasions so I wasn’t thinking too much of it, and I wasn’t really privy to what had been going on behind the scenes at Wolves,” McCarey recalls.
“Pat had called me back to the training ground and then when we started the session he told me I was going to be playing the next day.
“’Yeh, yeh nice one’, I replied, I thought he was taking the mickey.
“He then confirmed that he wasn’t, and told me to get my head on it, I was indeed going to be starting.
“It was strange how it worked out as about ten of my family members had gone over from Ireland to see my Auntie in Rochester for a few days, so it was easy for them to get to the game.
“I hadn’t been feeling the best, but it was another proud moment for me, even though it was really disappointing to lose it right at the end.
“I know Wayno gets a bad press for what was going on at that time but he was on the bench for the following games so was ready to play, but Kenny kept faith in me in the team, which was a massive boost of confidence.”
McCarey made five consecutive League One appearances before Ikeme regained fitness, Wolves winning the following four after Gillingham in which he kept three clean sheets and only conceded one goal.
That included a 3-1 victory against Bristol City, when the young Irishman was given the opportunity to play a part in the pre-match tribute to Wolves legend Bert Williams, who had passed away at the age of 93.
“I was very emotional that day and I was choking up carrying the wreath towards the South Bank,” he says.
“I get emotional about things like that at the best of times but, as a young lad, to be asked to do that and pay my respects to a Wolves and England goalkeeping legend was amazing.
“It probably took away some of my nerves for the game as well, and the reception from the South Bank in showing their own respects to Bert was incredible that day.”
After that run in the team, McCarey would only enjoy one more senior appearance, in the League Cup against Northampton, although he was often on the bench in the Championship as cover for Ikeme or Tomasz Kuszczak.
But still to come was the moment which threatened to bring his whole career crashing down, when he failed an out-of-competition drug test for a non-performance enhancing substance.
The test had followed a night out during the international break, with McCarey protesting his innocence and insisting he had no idea how the drug had entered his body.
Medical and scientific analysis commissioned by the PFA on behalf of the keeper, including a hair follicle test he requested himself, showed that the trace amount in his system was extremely small.
FA rules however are based around strict liability in that all players are responsible for whatever enters their body, and so, there was still punishment of a four month ban from all football, although the last section of that was suspended.
McCarey, who has absolutely no issues with the FA’s approach and was pleased to have received a ‘fair hearing’, suddenly found himself thrust into an extremely unwanted national spotlight.
“I think it is only now that I realise how difficult of a time it was for me personally and for my family,” he says.
“My life was suddenly being played out in the media at such a young age, I was accused of being this person that I knew wasn’t me, and it was very tough to deal with.
“When I think now and look back, I was trying to put on a brave face and saying it didn’t affect me too much but deep down, it was absolutely killing me inside.
“It was all over the papers, social media, and I knew how my family would be feeling and I was bottling things up.
“The thing is, I pride myself on being an honest person, and I said all along that I didn’t commit the crime.
“If I had done it, I would have been the first to hold my hands up and admit it, and face up to it, because it really wasn’t something I wanted lingering over me for any length of time.
“We all make mistakes in life – I have made plenty and will always admit to them and learn from them when I do – but on this occasion I had to defend myself because I knew I hadn’t done anything deliberately.
“I think that told in the FA’s judgement in the end, they have got their own rules and regulations and I appreciate and accept these and I feel I got a very fair hearing.
“What I also really want to put on the record, is how incredibly supportive the club were of me through that time.
“The support of Kenny Jackett and his wife, and the club and Jez Moxey, meant an awful lot, and the backing of my team-mates and the fans gave me great strength.
“On the day that it happened Kenny even invited me over to his house and made tea for me because he could see the state I was in, away from my family, and didn’t want me going back to an apartment on my own.
“Taking all the professional side of it away, he was looking out for another human being that day, knowing they were on the floor, and that is why I have so much respect for him not just as a manager but as a person as well.
“With the support of my family, Kenny, Pat, all the staff around the club, it helped me get through, and I think it has also brought home to me the mental side to the game, in appreciating how important it is to speak openly about things that are affecting you.
“That time of my life has played a part in making me the person I am today, but I still feel I can face people and walk around with my head held high.’
McCarey’s interest in mental health has extended to not just thinking about his own situation through those difficult times, but that of others as well.
Much was also brought home to McCarey when the Dundalk groundsman/videographer Harry Taaffe took his own life this summer to the devastation of everyone at the club.
He has supported the Irish charity Cycle Against Suicide, where his sister Alanna works in marketing, as well as Pieta House, a charity which his wife Michelle is involved with, which supports people in suicidal distress and with other mental health issues.
Always one of the more socially conscious footballers, he is passionate that highlighting issues and promoting community work is crucial, as he has done throughout his career.
“I always think you if you are in the position to help other people then you should help them, and that was how I was brought up back home in Ireland,” says McCarey.
“If you can raise the profile of an organisation or help them out in some way then you should always be willing to put yourself forward.
“I think social media for young people in the modern age can put a lot of pressure on, giving them a perception of what they should look like or do, and if they don’t reach that they can go into themselves and into the doldrums.
“With this pandemic too, I think we could see an awful lot of problems over the next couple of years in all aspects of health because a lot of services have been stopped for a long time.
“As professional footballers you can often have a lot of spare time on your hands and then gives the opportunity to help in the local community.
“I had been on a club visit to the Good Shepherd charity when I was at Wolves, serving food to people who needed it, and decided to go back again on Christmas Day.
“I didn’t do that for publicity, I just wanted to do it, and it really opened my eyes.
“I knew these people were not having it easy, they were suffering, to have go to a food kitchen on Christmas Day, but there were all these other people who wanted to help them.
“I’m nothing like a big name, nowhere near, but maybe seeing a Wolves player go in and having a chat to them and put a few smiles on faces made a little bit of difference.
“I am always very grateful for what I have, and I know that not everyone in life is fortunate to have everything that they need.”
And talking of grateful, Aaron and wife Michelle were delighted to become parents this summer to young Harry.
“The best feeling in the world,” and “a gift of life” is how McCarey describes becoming a Dad, bringing plenty of perspective to those obstacles he has faced in his career so far.
Bringing it back to the football, he found his way to Dundalk via an enjoyable spell in Scotland with Ross County – including lining up against Celtic and Rangers – and a time playing for Warrenpoint Town in the Northern Ireland Premiership where he found an excellent run of form working with manager – and former team-mate in junior football, Stephen McDonnell.
“Dundalk are the reigning champions who have been in the Europa League a few years ago and that was the target to get back to again,” says McCarey.
“They are an ambitious club and great to be a part of.
“Up until recently, it probably hadn’t really worked out for me but a new manager (Filippo Giovagnoli) came in and it was a clean slate and he has given everyone a fair crack of the whip.
“I have had a couple of opportunities so far and when they come along it is up to me to try and take them, especially if I want to feature in the European games which is a big ambition.
“The Europa League is going to be an incredible experience for all of us at Dundalk.
“We are one of the bigger clubs in Ireland domestically, but not so much in Europe and to come up against the likes of Arsenal, Rapid Vienna and Molde is a fantastic challenge.
“We are going to be up against it but this is why you play football, to test yourselves at the highest level and against the very best teams.
“It’s a great achievement for us as a group of lads, and one we need to relish and enjoy.
“Hopefully we have an amazing six weeks of European football coming up, and something to really look forward to.
“I’d love to be involved, and be able to look back one day and say I have played for Dundalk in European competition.
“Not every professional footballer gets the chance to do that, even those in the highest levels in England and at a much higher level than I have been.
“If it happens I am going to savour every moment and make sure I make the very most of it.”
As an added bonus, Dundalk get to play their home fixtures at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium, home to the national team and a reminder too that McCarey represented his country up to Under-21 level – including reaching the semi-finals of the European Under-19 championships - as well as being twice named in senior squads.
His only disappointment is that Wolves didn’t quite make it into the Europa League this time around – that could have been quite a reunion!
He still remains in close touch with several of his former team-mates at Molineux, including Matt Doherty, Conor Coady and Kevin McDonald, and Ikeme, who he viewed very much as a mentor-type figure as he tried to find his path at Molineux.
And that was why he and Michelle made that long journey down from Scotland to support his fundraiser after he had been diagnosed with leukaemia.
“Carl is a once in a lifetime bloke isn’t he?” he says.
“I remember when he first diagnosed, and I was away on pre-season with Ross County and just couldn’t believe it.
“But my attention quickly swung to thinking that if anyone was going to beat it, then it was Kemes.
“He has that inner belief and fighting spirit in him, and has been a real role model not only to me but I am sure to so many others as well.
“For me, I took so much out of him on a personal level, his standards in training, his work ethic and how giving he was with his time.
“I’m absolutely delighted to see him having now come out the other side, doing well and being able to enjoy family life again.”
McCarey is equally delighted to see the success of Wolves in recent times.
Delighted, and also proud, to have played just a small part in that record-breaking League One season hailed by many as such a pivotal turning point after back-to-back relegations.
His League One title-winning medal will remain a prized souvenir of a “great six-and-a-half years”.
“To have been involved with a club like Wolves, and seen where they are now, to just be a really small part of their history is amazing,” adds McCarthy.
“They are the club whose results I always check, I watch as many games as I can, and I made some friends for life over there both at the club and outside of football.
“I became a Wolves fan when I was there, and to see that the club has gone from strength to strength is fantastic.”
Ask him about his own career, and McCarey is brutally honest.
“I’d say average, could have done better,” he replies.
“Maybe when I look back when I finish I might be able to take more from it.”
At 28, as a goalkeeper, there are clearly still plenty of miles left in the tank, and he is already working through his coaching badges eyeing a potential post-playing career which could also include passing on advice and guidance to young players.
But ‘average’ and ‘could have done better’ does a lot to play down the overall contribution McCarey has made to the clubs that he has represented, on and off the pitch.
If he does get an opportunity to taste European football at any stage over the next six weeks, then no one could argue that it isn’t deserved.