Signing for Tony Cousins Longford Town in January, 2012, nobody could have ever predicted Gary Shaw would go onto become one of the Midland clubs all-time fans favorites. Initially spotted playing non-league football for Newbridge Town, by then Town boss Gareth Cronnin, in 2010, the deal to bring the towering striker to the “Flansiro” fell apart when Cronnin left the club in acrimonious circumstances. As a result, Shaw would end up on the books of Bray Wanderers, as opposed to Longford Town, with the talented forward registering on his debut against Dundalk, prior to scoring three more goals in another eleven appearances for the county Wicklow side. The following 2011 season was to be a disaster for the teenager however, as Shaw only managed to tog out seven times for the “Seagulls” through injury. Looking back on those defining moments early on in his League of Ireland career, Shaw had this to say when asked about the early interest in him from Longford:
“I think someone did bring it to my attention alright, I was still in school then so I thought it was deadly that some fella wanted to pay me to play football. Nothing came of it, I was young so it didn’t bother me at all.”
Going on to talk about his eventual move to the Carlise Grounds and the successful season that followed, Shaw was full of praise for the side his new club turned over 2-0 in the most recent round of League of Ireland matches.
“I only played in the milk cup with the Rovers schoolboy team as a guest and that’s it. There was a another Gary Shaw around then and I’m constantly mixed up with him. When I joined Bray, they were bottom of the league and some people had them dead and buried already. I went in with Keith Long and Pat Devlin, I was playing nearly with no pressure each game and it turned out great for me. I ended up playing in the U19 European Championships at the end of that season and Bray stayed up after an eventful playoff against Monaghan. I really enjoyed playing with Bray and looking back at it, we had an excellent team that would do very well in the division now.”
As mentioned above, Shaw’s fortunes would soon take an unwanted and sudden turn as a broken foot, coupled with other niggling injury set-backs, saw the youngster miss the vast majority of the 2011 season. With patience wearing thin and some even writing off the chances of Shaw ever returning to his pre-injury levels, the former Newbridge man decided to sign for Tony Cousins Longford Town.
” I just wanted to play football after that spell of bad luck. I had 2 offers from Premier Division clubs that year, but I met Tony and he was a top striker in his day, who had to deal with injuries, and we spoke about decisions he would’ve made if he was a footballer again and really all you want to do is be on that pitch playing. If I went to either of those Premier Division clubs, would I have got the opportunity every week that Longford gave me ? I don’t think so. I was still 19 and was still developing as a player so its first team football I was after.”
Town boss Cousins currently holds the record as the longest serving manager active in the League of Ireland and for four of his six-year years in charge, Shaw served loyally under the former Galway United chief. When asked about his old boss, Shaw was full of praise for the often maligned Cousins:
“Anyone who asks me this question (about Tony Cousins), I’ll always say look at the start of the 2014 season. He managed to bring in Stephen Rice, Pat Flynn and Pat Sullivan and those those acquisitions proved to be the difference that year. We were so close year after year, trying to escape the First Division and seemed to keep falling at the final hurdle but managed to do it in style and then finished 6th in the first year of the Premier Division and get to an FAI Cup semi final. Tony deserves massive credit for that and for what he’s doing at the club. I think Longford were 3rd or 4th last in the previous First Division season to when Tony took over and the club have come a long way since then. Tony was delighted for me (upon signing for Rovers) and couldn’t have been more supportive, as was everyone at the club and it was great to leave on those terms.”
As Shaw mentioned, “De Town” constantly fell at the final hurdles during a three season long chase for promotion back to the top flight, which the club hadn’t played in since 2007. However, on a damp Friday night under the lights at City Calling Stadium, Shaw and his Longford team-mates finally got their hands on that First Division trophy, as a thumping 5-0 triumph over Shamrock Rovers ‘B’ team secured promotion as Champions. Revealing a light-hearted story to ‘Between the Stripes’, you can see what that night meant to Shaw, his manager, team-mates and the club as a whole. However, Shaw also went on to state his disappointment at the lack of support the team received upon their return to the elite level of Irish football in 2015, an issue that can be seen in attendances this season far more drastically.
“It was a special night. I remember leaving Dublin and got stuck in traffic and then my car was giving up on me on the way down. When I got to the ground about 45 minutes late I had thought I had locked my car keys in my car as I dashed to the dressing room. Pat Sullivan was ready to smash in my window to get them only for me to find the set of keys halfway through Tony’s team talk and I had to tell “Sully” not to do it! It Wasn’t ideal preparation!! But we came out for that game all guns blazing and it was over at half time. It’s a pity about that night because I’d say every man, woman and child that came through those turnstiles that night went home with a smile on their face and had a great experience. The following season, for me anyways, the crowds didn’t live up to expectations of a club with Premier Division status.”
Despite going on an incredible scoring drought of over thirty-games during Longford’s first season back in the top-flight, Shaw impressed the pundits and rival managers alike with his work-rate and unique set of attributes. A late flurry of goals helped Town on their way to survival and an eventual sixth-placed finish but that was to be to Longford’s detriment as the big boys came a calling for Shaw’s services.
“They (Shamrock Rovers) were interested halfway through last season, so I was expecting some sort of interest at the end of the season, yet when I got the phone call I was still excited. I then had to make a decision that if I was to sign I would have to leave my job. It wasn’t a quick process and it was a big decision for me and I asked a lot of people what should I do. I asked my Mam and Dad and they said don’t be leaving a full time job but then my dad rang me one night and said you’ll regret it the rest of your life if you turned it down and were left wondering ‘what if’. I was always swaying towards leaving the job and signing but just wanted that reassurance.”
At the age of twenty-four, this would be Shaw’s first taste of full-time football, a subject which Town boss Tony Cousins has spoken about in almost every post match interview so far this season. In the opinion of Cousins, the full-time status of clubs such as Rovers, Dundalk and Cork city, makes it extremely difficult for his part-time team to compete in the Premier Division, with the former Rovers striker already admitting it will be a major task to keep his side in the division for another season. When asked about the step up to full-time training and professionalism, as well as the comments of his former manager, Shaw responded:
” Just for the record, I’m not 24 until next week! It’s been great, you are a full time footballer and I am just delighted with the decision I made. With Longford I would go to the gym at 7am before work, do a full days work then go to training and come home and be home for 9pm. It was difficult and did take a lot out of you. I would definitely agree with Tony as the opportunity that full time football gives you is fantastic. In each morning to train/go to the gym, have your food afterwards and your done at 2pm. You can fully focus on your football and rest and recovery in this environment.”
In a clear case of the have versus the have not nature of LOI football, Gary Shaw’s new club set off for India in pre-season for an international tournament, whereas “De Town” had to settle for run of the mill preparation matches against lowly ranked First Division opponents. Speaking on the experience gained from that trip to India, Shaw stated:
“Never in a million years did I think I’d see the day I was sat on a plane bound for India for pre-season training. It was just hilarious when the manager said we were going. You were just thinking to yourself what have we got ourselves in for. To get to India was the longest trip known to man but we got there after 25+ hours of travelling. The first thing that any of the lads would mention would be the heat, I’ve never experienced anything like it. We had to train early in the mornings, before it got too warm, and then our games were 7pm in the evening. The games were great as you had 20,000+ Indians cheering for both teams, so anytime the ball was near either penalty box they would start screaming like mad! It was a well run tournament and looking back on it, it was a lot better than expected. I would say it was a great way for me to settle in with all the lads, staying in the hotel for 3 weeks, I got to know all of them really well.”
With so much goodwill towards Shaw from his former adoring fans at Longford Town, many will find themselves in the strange position of hoping an opposition player can pass a fitness test pre-match. Rating his chances of lining out for the “Hoops” at City Calling Stadium, Shaw said:
“I’m hoping to be fit, it’s nothing major but we just want to make sure I’m right. It could be a decision made on the day of the game!”
Going on to talk about that warm Longford support he still receives, Shaw admitted his excitement ahead of a potential return:
“It’ll be great to go back and see the faces that I was so used to seeing. Everyone there was nothing but honest and friendly to me during my time there. I think the big moment will be the “SOS” back on the same pitch and Rhys Gorman is really looking forward to that.”
Ahead of this weekends encounter, Rovers know a win over rock-bottom Longford could see them climb as high as second in the league table. Despite some important wins over the likes of Bohemians and Bray Wanderers of late, defeats to title favorites Dundalk and Cork City have proved harmful to Pat Fenlon’s side. While there were often calls for Tony Cousins head during Shaw’s time in the Midlands, this kind of pressure and spotlight is sure to be a learning curve for the striker and he admitted as much when quizzed on the recent pressure on his new boss, Pat Fenlon:
“I’ve learned in my short time so far that every game is a must win. The clubs history, resources and fan base means we expect nothing less than a win every week and it’s as simple as that. It’s the right attitude and I look at the game against “Bohs” two weeks ago, the passion the fans had that night was unbelievable. This club wants to win as many trophies as they can every year, and in the last couple of years it hasn’t happened, so you can see why expectations are so high.”
“There’s pressure in any job you go in to. Football is about results and when you don’t get results you come under scrutiny from the ‘experts’. A manager like Pat, has plenty of years behind him at the top level to know how to deal with any pressures put on the squad. You will have good and bad spells in a season, he just wants 100% commitment from each player in training everyday, if he gets that then there is enough quality in the side to achieve big things.”
It’s not only his boss who has come under fire in recent weeks, but Shaw himself has received fire from RTE’s football pundit and former LOI star, Alan Cawley. The former Dundalk player questioned Shaw’s addition to the Rovers squad recently during his analysis on Soccer Republic and judging by Shaw’s reply, Cawley very well may have lit a fire under the former Longford striker.
“I’m sure Alan Cawley hasn’t seen me play that much to have an opinion like that on me. But I’m definitely going to try and prove him wrong. I may not be a 20+ goal striker but I will give 100% each game and I play to my strengths and managers set out a team that plays to my strengths. I will hold up the ball, I’m good in the air and will cause defenders problems. Even looking at this season, I’ve played 5 games so far and we’ve won 4 of those. I just want to get back fit now and do the best I can for the club. There is enough quality all over the park that this club can achieve things.”
Throughout this interview, it has been clear that a certain passion and respect remains between Shaw and the club he is set to face on Saturday night. Wrapping things up, Shaw wanted to end with a fun request to the home faithful at City Calling Stadium. ” I’d love to hear the 12 days of Gary Shaw one more time.”