‘I want to prevent young people taking their lives’

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November 4, 2021
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    Walsall winger Brendan KiernanBrendan Kiernan worked as a teaching assistant and personal trainer as he battled to get back into full-time football

    Brendan Kiernan knows all about rejection.

    Aged 16, his hopes of making it at as a winger alongside academy team-mates such as Wilfried Zaha were shattered when he was let go by Crystal Palace.

    "All I ever wanted was to be a professional footballer and it felt like I had hit a dead end," says Kiernan.

    In an attempt to keep alive his dream, he travelled the country having trials at QPR, Derby County, Charlton, Southend, Leeds and Leicester.

    It turned into a demoralising experience for the teenager as each trial ended the same way – without a contract.

    "Every young player wants to make it. When that does not happen, some feel they don't have anything to offer," Kiernan tells BBC Sport.

    At the age of 28 – and having twice come close to walking away from the game – Kiernan now plays for League Two Walsallexternal-link and tells his own story to young players to show rejection does not necessarily mean the end of a playing career.

    Away from the club, he is training to become a counsellor and spends his spare time mentoring players who have been let go by clubs.

    "I've read reports of a young player being found dead after being let go. As someone who has been rejected by several clubs, that had a big impact on me," says Kiernan, who is set to play in Walsall's FA Cup first-round tie at King's Lynn Town on Saturday.

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    'There's always something to live for'

    In 2017, journalist Michael Calvin wrote in his book No Hunger in Paradise that only 180 of the 1.5 million players who are playing organised youth football in England at any one time will make it as a Premier League professional.

    In October 2020, former Manchester City academy player Jeremy Wisten, 18, was found dead in his room. The teenager played for City's elite youth squads before an injury reportedly led him to leaving the club in 2019.

    There are no suggestions City acted improperly regarding his release, or that being let go had any direct link to his death. Wisten's father, Manila, spoke highly of the club in an interview with the Manchester Evening News.external-link He also added that more needed to be done to support young players after their release.

    Kiernan said clubs are getting better at checking up on young players they let go. But he believes there is still lots of room for improvement.

    "I know players who have come out of football and gone on to have really good jobs," he adds. "One of my key messages is that there is a lot to live for. There are always other options."

    Crystal Palace under-16sBrendan Kiernan (bottom row, second right) with Crystal Palace Under-16s at Selhurst Park. Wilfried Zaha is top row first left. "There was a lot of talent in this group and I am still in touch with a lot of them," says Kiernan

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    'Never give up'

    Kiernan is a regular in Matt Taylor's Walsall team, who sit three points off a play-off spot after 15 games.

    His journey to full-time football has been anything but smooth.

    Growing up a stone's throw from Arsenal's old Highbury ground, he would stand outside his house listening for the name of his favourite player Thierry Henry to be read out over the speakers before kick-off while kicking a ball in the street.

    By 2001, aged nine, Kiernan knew he wanted to be a footballer after his dad, Stephen, took him to his first Gunners match.

    Eight years later, after being rejected by Palace, and following a series of unsuccessful trials, his love for the game was fading rapidly.

    He was seriously considering another career when his dad persuaded him to go for one last trial at AFC Wimbledon.

    Kiernan impressed then academy boss and now first-team manager Mark Robinson, and was playing in the first team at the age of 18.

    "After all the setbacks I had experienced, it felt amazing," he says. "To top it all, we won promotion to the Football League that season."

    He was dealt another blow, however, when aged 20, he was back on the scrapheap after being released by the Dons.external-link

    Kiernan worked as a teaching assistant and then a personal trainer while playing non-league with Bromley, Staines and Ebbsfleet United.

    In 2015, aged 22, he was about to step away from football when he was persuaded to play for Surrey non-league club Lingfield.

    Kiernan, who had gone from playing League Two to the ninth tier of English football in the space of two years, adds: "It felt like my dream of making it as a professional was well and truly over."

    However, he says the "right doors started to open up for me" and after moving up the leagues at Hampton and Richmond and Welling United, Kiernan scored an EFL hat-trick for Harrogate Town last season.

    "It's been a long journey to get back but it's been worth it," he adds.

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    Brendan Kiernan pictured doing his trademark 'call me' goal celebration gestureBrendan Kiernan's trademark goal celebration is a 'call me' gesture and there is even a #CallBK hashtag. "It's about being in a place to reach out and help – both on and off the pitch," he says

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    'I want to be part of the solution'

    "There are young players who are in a place I used to be. It makes sense to pass on advice I have learned over the years."

    Kiernan, who signed a two-year contract with Walsall in June, is explaining why he has set up a website where players – both in and out of the game – can reach out for help and advice.

    Having completed a level two course in counselling, his goal is to become fully qualified but he is already putting his mentoring skills to the test.

    "There were ex-footballers, current professionals, academy coaches on my course. Some of them were talking about how it is difficult to find support for boys they are letting go," he says.

    "It's a massive issue, but I am hopeful that I can join in providing some kind of support. Most recently I've been working with players from Manchester United, Barnsley and Salford City.

    "I know what rejection feels like and I wanted to be part of the solution and hopefully try to help prevent young people taking their lives."

    He adds: "Everyone is dealing with their own mental health.

    "It's all about building a mindset to survive in what is a ruthless industry. It's about surrounding yourself with the right people and the right support network."

    • BBC Action Line provides information and support for viewers and listeners affected by issues addressed in BBC programmes

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