The Irishmen, the Norwegian and the Kiwi: How footballers' lives tell a story

Brothers in arms: from left, Garbhan Coughlan, Markus Fjortoft, Stephen Last, Liam Little and Conor O'Keeffe at Southern United training in Tahuna Park, Dunedin.
PAUL CULLY/STUFFBrothers in arms: from left, Garbhan Coughlan, Markus Fjortoft, Stephen Last, Liam Little and Conor O’Keeffe at Southern United training in Tahuna Park, Dunedin.

Garbhan Coughlan, a 25-year-old striker from Ireland, is sitting beside countrymen Stephen Last and Conor O’Keeffe, Norwegian Markus Fjortoft and Kiwi Liam Little in the change room before an evening training session with the world’s southernmost football club.

He’s 19,000 kilometres from home, all the familiar things of his youth. And he sounds fulfilled.

Young Irishman Garbhan Coughlan, centre, is embraced by team-mate Abdulla Al-Khalisy, right, a son of Iraq.
PHOTOSPORTYoung Irishman Garbhan Coughlan, centre, is embraced by team-mate Abdulla Al-Khalisy, right, a son of Iraq.

“We were having a chat about it a few weeks go,” he says. “Just the nations in the [Southern United] group. Norway, England, Ireland, Iraq, Vanuatu, New Zealand, a Colombian, I don’t think in any job you’d get that mix.

“People from everywhere. Only football can do it. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, what you look like. We’re all in the same team here, we’re all together.”

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If that sounds like a profound thing for a young sportsman say to say, well you need to drop your preconceptions at the door before entering Southern United in Dunedin.

Fjortoft, 25, is multilingual son of a former English Premier League striker and has a Masters from Duke university in the US. Before the interview I engage in small talk with the Irishmen and O’Keeffe winces at the very mention of the word Brexit, anxious about what it could mean for the island of Ireland. They are self aware  young men and engaged with the world around them. 

Perhaps their curiosity is part of the reason they ended up in New Zealand the first place, although that story really begins with Southern United coach Paul O’Reilly.

The Irishman knew his compatriots before recruiting them after they had finished their university courses in Ireland and tells Stuff that finding the quality of player needed for New Zealand’s national league is something of a paradox in the deep south: it’s almost easier to sell the club and the Kiwi deam to European players than sell Dunedin to Kiwis.   

Southern United defender Stephen Last, right, says it is 'difficult' to hear Kiwis being critical of players from overseas but is determined to win them over.
PHOTOSPORTSouthern United defender Stephen Last, right, says it is ‘difficult’ to hear Kiwis being critical of players from overseas but is determined to win them over.

Hence the arrivals of Europeans to the deep south of New Zealand.

But as anyone who has travelled will tell you, arriving is the easy part, it’s the staying and building something that’s the tougher part.

The Irishmen have stayed the course for more than two and a half years now, blown away by this country’s beauty, the lifestyle and the warmth of the welcome, even though they have had to make some cultural adjustments to make and deal with some criticism from New Zealanders. 

“We don’t have fans everywhere,” says O’Keeffe, 25. 

“There are some people who are against imports. There are a lot more people who support us ut there are still come people who don’t agree with imports. A lot of people thought we’d come here for six months and then be gone again but we’re here for the longer term.

“We’re working in football [in development roles for Football South], not just playing football. We’re trying to grow the whole game and we’re here for the long term, for the forseeable future so I think people are slowly getting onside.”

The criticism upsets the 27-year-old Last. “You put on the Southern United jersey every week to represent the region,” he says. “When you hear that some people don’t support us it’s difficult because the amount the effort we’re putting in to try and get the club to the next level. For us it’s about sticking at it and trying to get these people on board.”

Little, the New Zealander in our group interview, is like the bridge between these players of disparate backgrounds and his countrymen. He has also heard the grumbles that the imports take the spots of Kiwi players and give nothing back, but he’s having none of it.

“”People get that impression from other teams,” he says. “Auckland City have a lot of imports and they don’t do any work, no coaching . . . People assume that’s what happening down here but it’s not. These guys are going to schools, they’re coaching at the weekends.”

There have been other little challenges too. In Ireland, robust personal interactions are as much part of the lifestyle as the weather. Here, a gentler approach is needed.  

Markus Fjortoft was drawn to the 'unpredictability' of a move to New Zealand.
PHOTOSPORTMarkus Fjortoft was drawn to the ‘unpredictability’ of a move to New Zealand.

Last, Couglan and O’Keeffe say they’ve had to offer reassurances to Kiwis that there’s no personal malice involved when they critique them – it’s all about raising standards at the club.

Little acknowledges Kiwis, especially younger ones, can be taken aback by sharp tongues.

“I played in England and Scotland for a few years so I know what it’s like compared to back here,” he says. 

“It’s so much more laidback here you can’t really get onto people, especially kids, as you can over there. You have to be a bit softer in your approach, especially in Dunedin. You could probably get away with it in Auckland but not down here. People are too relaxed, too easy going.”  

Yet asked if Southern United’s recent upturn in recent seasons would be possible without the players from overseas, Little is succinct. “No. Not possible.”

Connor O'Keeffe, in blue, has relished the chance to mature on and off the field. 'You've got to stand up and make a life for yourself.'
PHOTOSPORTConnor O’Keeffe, in blue, has relished the chance to mature on and off the field. ‘You’ve got to stand up and make a life for yourself.’

But the football is only part of a bigger picture.

While it is often said that technology has made the world a smaller place there is still a certain roll of the dice for young men to board a plane to New Zealand from the other side of the world.

Fjortoft says the “unpredictability” of the move to New Zealand was something he was looking for after a recommendation from Lutz Pfannenstiel, the former Otago United goalkeeper from Germany who famously played professionally in all six Fifa confederations around the world.

Still, there’s no possibility of a quick flight back to the family in the case of an emergency. There’s not much of a safety net. 

But for them all, any doubts were extinguished the minute they hit the tarmac in New Zealand. They have taken to the country. The Irishmen arrived on working holiday visas but then successfully applied to extend their stays.

“The lifestyle has been amazing,” Last says. “Some of the places you go and see, Queenstown and Wanaka, parts of Dunedin.

“After we settled in for the first couple of months straight away we were like ‘I could see myself living here for a long time’.

“And it’s the people as well. Very nice people all around the place.”

Coughlan adds: “Personally I thought of it as a very farflung place that I probably would never have gone to without football.

“But I remember meeting the boys [when they arrived in New Zealand] and I was thinking, ‘This is amazing, this is where I want to be’.”

It has led Coughlan to other unexpected paths as well. He quietly offers that he now has a Kiwi girlfriend, prompting some gentle teasing from his team-mates (“That’s hot off the presses!”).

Southern United coach Paul O'Reilly has built a multination squad in the deep south, bringing together young men from all walks of life.
PHOTOSPORTSouthern United coach Paul O’Reilly has built a multination squad in the deep south, bringing together young men from all walks of life.

Yet, they all acknowledge that’s all part of the attraction of coming to a distant land. Yes it’s the work, yes it’s the football, but it’s also the richness of life experiences. 

Fjortoft says: “I know that this isn’t something that would happen anywhere else. You’ve got a great club, a great project to work on as a team.

“Then you also have the chance to fit in socially, as I have here, then there’s also  seeing a country. So you have this threefold experience.

“In many cases it’s a zero sum game where you have give up certain elements. We’re in a very fortunate position  where we can have three aspects satisfied.”

O’Keeffe echoes the sentiment. “As a person it’s allowed me to grow, as far away from home as you can get. You’ve got to stand up and make a life for yourself.”

Stuff