Ross Gaynor is a pragmatist. A former professional footballer whose head has always been well screwed on. (Pic: Ciarán Culligan)
Ross Gaynor is a pragmatist. A former professional footballer whose head has always been well screwed on. Money, it seems, was never a driving factor, personal circumstances instead informing his decision-making in regard to the career he enjoyed on the field of play.
His late mother, Mary, crops up often during almost an hour of conversation, in which every aspect of his sporting life to date is touched upon. Family is at the core of his thinking and always has been, as is evident when you consider the deals he turned down at Millwall, Cork City and Limerick in a bid to set down “roots” in his native Ardee.
Manager of Permanent TSB’s Drogheda branch, a jump he’s bridged in the space of two years, the former Dundalk star has settled into life after football at the still relatively tender age of 32. Married to Stephanie in February, their 11-month-old daughter, Ayla, is still to fully comprehend a logical sleeping pattern, he jokes.
“It’s a fantastic time in my life,” Gaynor tells The Democrat, in between conference calls. “I couldn’t be happier with how things are going, being married and having a family life with the job.
“It’s such a difference in lifestyle, from training in the morning and playing snooker or golf for the rest of the day to life in the real world.
“I had actually just gone for part-time work in the bank about two years ago and had an interview up in St. Stephen’s Green - I had a connection through the Gaelic in Ardee.
“I’d already signed a pre-contract agreement with Limerick and was due to go down there in July, but the interview went very well and they actually offered me a full-time job.
“I was 29 and had the option of going down to Limerick to earn a bit of cash for a few years and then move into working then, but would the opportunity even be there then?
“I decided to call it a day in the football and try to build a life after it. It’s well documented that if you’re a footballer in Ireland, you’re only on 40-week contracts and when you go to apply for a mortgage with your 40- or 42-week contract, they’ll laugh at you.
“I wanted to get away from that and put down some foundations. I didn’t live in Ardee for most of my 20s, I was mostly away, so I kind of wanted to put down roots - the job was a perfect opportunity for me.”
Not that it was the first time he opted to step away from a lucrative football deal. Dennis Wise gave a teenage Gaynor his senior team chance at Millwall, only for the ex-Chelsea captain’s successor, Nigel Spackman, to rid the panel of youngsters in favour of more experienced options.
A loan move to non-league Sutton was arranged and having impressed, new Lions boss Kenny Jackett called the Ardonian back and from then until the end of the campaign he got plenty of first-team chances.
“I was like, ‘this isn’t for me’,” he recalls thinking at the time of Spackman’s cull. “I didn’t like the fact that one manager would love you and the next would literally toss you - he literally didn’t even want to know my name.
“But when Kenny Jackett came in, one of the nicest men you’ll meet in football, he was very kind, an excellent man-manager and he called me back straight away.”
A new contract was on the table ahead of a season in which Millwall would earn promotion from League One, but Gaynor refused it, leaving London after five years. His mother fell sick and his first nephew was born. He was missing out on too much activity in west County Louth.
“Football was great, but at the same time you don’t want to be missing out on major events in your life. I had to have a happy medium by enjoying playing football - which I wasn’t in England, even though I was doing well, because my mind was elsewhere - while being at home with my family. I couldn’t get that in England.”
“I was very lucky and I just kept telling myself that I was very, very lucky.”
Having only taken up the game at 12, playing U16 with Ardee Celtic, Gaynor was picked by Dundalk Schoolboys League for the Milk Cup, where he struck six times in four matches, winning the competition’s golden boot and earning the attention of Manchester City, Millwall and Aston Villa.
A trial trip to City was ended prematurely after he, Darron Gibson and another Irish lad got a bit exuberant in their hotel room, “trashing the place” in a bid to escape boredom. He laughs at the incident 18 years on, but the club weren’t so laid back, sending the trio home early.
Millwall, though, remained keen and through their links to Belvedere, where Gaynor was soon playing his club football, an agreement was reached which would allow the cultured left-footer to complete his junior cert before going to England at 15.
“The only reason why my parents let me go was because of the education part that they’d promised,” he says. “I was going to be doing my A-levels on sports management, I wanted to do sports therapy from a young age.
“Education was always something that I wanted to make sure I had, it was on my mind from a young age because if it didn’t work out, I’d have something to fall back on. I think that’s a problem at the moment in that a lot of footballers don’t have that. When you retire there’s not that many options.
“Football, as my Mam used to say, it doesn’t last forever. You have to have something at the back of your mind. If I’m blessed with a kid that’s good at football, that’d be my advice to them as well. You need your education, it’s vitally important.
“When you’re an academy player you’re given a day during the week to do your college - it was a Thursday for us - but once you get a sniff of the first-team you’re expected to train five days a week.
“So when I was 17 I was training with the first-team and so if I asked for a day off to go to college, I knew it would affect my chances of making the squads at the weekend. It was obviously then put on the back burner.”
In any case, the realisation that the studies he had been pursuing weren’t worth the paper they were written on led to a temporary lapse on the bookwork front. Hence, when he opted to return home, he had two potential avenues: education or football.
Pat Fenlon, manager of Bohemians, got in touch and offered terms with a view to the 2009 campaign, but Stephen Henderson sold him Cobh Ramblers and so he headed for Cork, where he excelled over a few months in the First Division.
Stints at Sporting Fingal and Drogheda United were short-lasting ahead of a “dream” move to Dundalk, where he worked under Ian Foster for his two seasons in charge, reaching the Setanta Cup final in 2011.
Departing wasn’t his preferred option later that year and he waited until December in the hope that a deal would be tabled. In the end he had the choice of St. Patrick’s Athletic or Sligo Rovers, and so he upped sticks and headed for the west.
“That was the best team I’ve ever been involved in - Danny North, Quigs (Mark Quigley), Raff (Cretaro), Joey N’Do, Danny Ventre…”
They won the league title with Gaynor playing ‘out of position’ at left-back in a defence which shielded current Dundalk No1 Gary Rogers, taking the FAI Cup the following year and the Setanta Cup in 2014. But their fortunes slid downhill thereafter and Gaynor remains critical of the decision to sack manager Ian Baraclough, a Leicester man who he holds in high regard.
All the while Gaynor was undertaking online courses, conscious of life’s next stage.
“Richie Sadlier was a big example to me. He was playing for Ireland and being scouted by Liverpool; an amazing footballer at Millwall. But he got a bad hip injury and had to retire very young. What did he have to fall back on? He did a psychology degree and he’s a well-accomplished man now, but at 21 or 22 his world ended. For me, I didn’t want that and I knew football could be a short career.
“I was blessed to have had no major injuries, but I wanted to be prepared and I spent five or six years trying different courses. I suppose then to even get the opportunity of going for an interview, I didn’t think I’d get the job, to be honest.
“I was walking in with half a CV which was all based around football and it’s very difficult to get a job with that, unless it’s in football.”
Physiotherapy was a path of interest and he completed 18 months of a course based in Edinburgh, undergoing most of it online, albeit he had to travel to Scotland for practical assessments. It was all manageable, until he transferred to Cork City, where John Caulfield’s regime commanded much more.
The degree was, again, put aside and when he got the opportunity to resume it, when moving to Linfield in 2016, the particular subject had been discontinued and so he would have to enroll on another four-year programme if his sports treatment interest was to be pursued.
Back at square one, his two years at Linfield saw him dip his toes in different study pools before he finally stepped away from the game at 29, bowing out after a domestic treble win.
Drogheda Institute of Further Education was thought of as a possibility, but then came his TSB interview and, as they say, the rest is history.
“It’s crazy to think that we’ve the two largest towns in Ireland and there’s only been a handful of guys who’ve actually played professionally in England.”
More of a GAA player in his youth, featuring for Ardee St. Mary’s, it wasn’t until Belvo got a grip of Gaynor that his Gaelic games involvement waned. He was now training thrice weekly in Dublin, with a match at the weekend, his father, Noel, having sacrificed a lot to make the travelling possible.
In a bid to give back, Ross has spent time coaching Ardee Celtic juveniles and recognises the level of talent that exists in both the Deeside and wider Louth areas.
And for towns with such traditions of soccer, Dundalk and Drogheda, to have produced so few who would go on to have top careers across the water is a mystery.
“I did a bit of coaching in the Ardee Celtic academy a couple of years ago and the talent is incredible; very good. I did academy coaching when I was at Millwall and the levels are similar.
“For me, I’m not sure why. Is the coaching up to the same kind of standard as in Dublin? Is it parents? I was very lucky that my Dad would have driven me up to Belvedere three days a week to give me the opportunity to get to England.
“Are the kids travelling to Dublin now? There’s lots of things to think about. I suppose Dundalk to Dublin is a long oul trek three times a week for an hour’s training and then maybe a game at the weekend.”
It’s a commute he knows only too well, even to this day. His banking role continues to involve studies at UCD and with a masters on the horizon, the 7am starts from Ardee are likely to continue.
Since leaving elite-level football, he’s togged out for Ardee Celtic and Square United in the North-East League, and even gave his original love, St. Mary’s, another twist. But the game had moved on, as had priorities.
“I did try to go back to the Mary’s, the speed and fitness was there, but the last time I’d played a game I was 15 and to come back at 29 to try and play, you’ve lost the skills and I didn’t know the patterns of play.
“I played with the juniors for a full year and really enjoyed it. I could kick a point and run all day, but the little things that come very naturally to the guys, I felt I didn’t have those, I felt I was very mechanical.
“I really wanted to get back and I took it extremely seriously - I was fit, strong and did all the right things. But I just couldn’t make the step up to the seniors.”
He was either training or playing every night, an unsustainable routine post a 13-hour day of work and travel. So now it’s about playing when he can for Square while concentrating on domestic matters.
“I think I got what I wanted out of my career. I enjoyed some very good successes and to go out on a treble at Linfield was perfect timing.
“I know I’m only 32 and could probably still play to a decent level, but it’s just the commitment. A lot of my time and effort has to go into the job, it’s a full-time job and especially with Covid-19 and people getting in touch with their mortgages and all that. We’re working around the clock to make sure everyone is okay. It’s a demanding job.”
Harder than being a left-back “who couldn’t defend”?
Only Gaynor knows.