News Singapore Premier League • September 5, 2020
Barry Maguire embraces Geylang challenge after injury nightmare
SINGAPORE, 5 SEPTEMBER 2020 – Barry Maguire remembers when the pain, shooting down from his back to his left foot, left him physically unable to get into his car.
That was in October 2015, after a training session that involved uphill runs through a forest in Norway. “My back was so sore, all the way down through to my (left) leg and I just couldn’t do it,” he told SPL.sg recently. The Dutchman had been looking to stay fit ahead of a fresh start in America’s Major League Soccer the following January, and Sarpsborg 08 was the stop-gap solution after two seasons with Den Bosch in the Netherlands’ second-tier Eerste Divisie. An assist on his debut was followed by a goal in the next game, but things quickly went downhill.
The diagnosis was a double prolapse, where bulging discs in his lower back pressed on nerves from the spinal cord and caused the pain. “There’s just not enough power in the (left) leg anymore,” he said. He lost around 70 per cent of the power in that leg and the injury sidelined him for most of the next two years.
Back in Holland, treatment and recovery was complicated. “They had never seen it before with a professional footballer or athlete, at my level at least,” he said. “Nobody really knew… if I was going to be 100 per cent again, so that that made it a little bit more difficult.”
Advised to let the injury heal on its own, that went well enough for nine months until a relapse. “It was like if you pinched a balloon (and it burst),” he said. “The power just went out of my leg and was gone.” The only option left was surgery, which took place in August 2016. “I had two prolapses on two levels… and they only do surgery on one at a time because otherwise the risk of hitting a nerve and being paralysed is even higher,” he added. The surgeons had to choose the “most effective” option.
It was never really supposed to pan out this way. Born in Tiel, Maguire started playing at six and trained with hometown side Theole before Den Bosch picked him up at nine. He was also a budding distance runner, ranked among the country’s best at 12, but Maguire’s heart was always set on football.
At 16, Maguire signed his first professional contract while still in high school and made his debut at right-back against Go Ahead Eagles. He was named Man of the Match and then, converted from centre-back to centre midfielder, played every game that season in 2006.
His best moments arguably came at top-flight Utrecht, whom he joined in 2008. Maguire played alongside the likes of Michel Vorm, Dries Mertens and Kevin Strootman, and rubbed shoulders with Tim Krul, Daley Blind, Georginio Wijnaldum, Leroy Fer and Vurnon Anita at Under-18 to U20 international level. They would go on to play in Europe’s top leagues, and Maguire remarked: “Sometimes it’s just like being in the right place at the right moment and other stuff like that. Wijnaldum was already really good back then. But yeah, you have to get a little bit lucky too.”
The rub of the green did not come for Maguire, whose career was flipped on its head in 2010. That August, he made headlines by scoring the fourth goal in Utrecht’s 4-0 home win against Celtic in their Europa League qualifying play-off. Maguire, whose father is Irish, met then-manager Giovanni Trapattoni in October. “I actually made a choice to play for Ireland because I got the invitation,” he recalled. “(He) was going to invite me in March next year to play the (next) international game.”
Instead, Maguire completed only three more league games after falling out of favour under a new coach. “The year before, I did really well and then… He was looking for something and didn’t give me any explanations at all,” he said. “That was when I was 20, 21; it’s (still) difficult to accept sometimes.” The Ireland call-up never materialised. “If I had played those two months back then, I could have made my debut for Ireland and my career would have definitely taken a different direction,” he said.
He went to VVV-Venlo for the next two seasons, back to Den Bosch for the following two, before his injury hell started. Recovery was tough but Maguire was determined to play again. “It doesn’t really matter if it’s going to take three, six or nine months as long as you keep on improving a little bit,” he said. “I couldn’t even stand (up) on my toes… The first time I went for a run, a 15, 20-minute jog really, I couldn’t walk normally for five days after that.”
In January 2017, five months after surgery, Maguire turned out for local semi-professional side TEC in the third tier. After a move to South Africa’s Chippa United fell through, Maguire represented Limerick in Ireland in February 2018 before finding his way to Singapore last year.
He was looking for “something interesting” when an agent got in touch with an opportunity in the Singapore Premier League (SPL) with Geylang International. “Like I said, if you don’t get back to the highest level, you try to explore new things and try to find a new challenge,” he said. “And I think at that point, Geylang was a really good challenge for me.”
Head coach Mohd Noor Ali believes that his number eight is one of the best players in the SPL. “We knew about the injuries but what impressed me was his intelligence on the pitch; it’s very hard to get this kind of player,” he told SPL.sg. The former Singapore international, moulding a youthful side in his first full season, cited Maguire’s professionalism and leadership as valuable attributes. “They have a certain level of respect for him and they can learn a lot,” he said. “He is always encouraging and supportive, he is a good character to have, with a winning mentality.”
Defender Darren Teh, who quickly became close friends with the new arrival, was impressed. “He is a leader and has helped a lot by giving me advice and pushing me to the next level,” the 24-year-old told SPL.sg. “He’s probably the best player I’ve ever played with… not afraid to voice his opinions (but) off the pitch, everyone loves him. It didn’t take him long to adapt and fit in with our culture.”
Maguire missed only five games in 2019 as Geylang finished fourth – up from eighth in 2018 – and second runners-up in the Singapore Cup. He earned plaudits for his calm play and superior technique, chipping in with five goals – including a jaw-dropping strike (above) that was voted Goal of the Year. “Definitely the best goal I’ve scored!” he quipped.
The transition was made smoother by his alignment with Noor Ali’s ideas. “The way we play with Geylang is more, for me, like Dutch or European standards,” Maguire said. “We want to keep it on the ground… and I like the way we do that.” Key figures like Teh, Fareez Farhan, Firdaus Kasman and Shawal Anuar were involved with the Singapore national team as a result and Maguire speaks with pride about their progress. “I think the whole team has stepped up and worked really hard to get better as a team but also as individuals,” he said. “They see that some players are making it to the national team and that motivates them to step it up another notch – and that works out better for the team. And then, you can already see that some players want to come to Geylang, like Iqbal (Hussain), because he knows he gets an opportunity here and if you do well, you get a chance at the national team again.”
A number of young talents have also been given opportunities and Maguire is happy to discuss them, like Umar Akhbar (“incredible progress”), Zikos Chua (“potential national team player”), Harith Kanadi (“amazing and plays like he’s had a season or two”), Azri Suhaili and Muhd Noor Ariff (“can be in national team if they put the work in”). He draws parallels to the culture back home, where it’s “mandatory” to play football on the ground and young players start “every single week” in most clubs across the first and second divisions.
All this has been achieved thanks to an indomitable team spirit. “I definitely think that’s also one of our strengths,” Maguire noted. “It’s hard to explain how something like that comes together… Everybody is on the same page in understanding what the coach wants… we all have the same goals in mind and we’re working really hard together to achieve them.”
He wants to try and win the league here and help push the Eagles towards the AFC Champions League (ACL). “I want to see what the club is thinking and their expectations for the next couple years… (but) for now I would love to stay,” Maguire said. “I already know in football, you can never really be certain… (but) for now, I am just focused on getting Geylang to the ACL.”
Of course, Maguire still thinks about playing at the “highest level possible” again. He has vivid memories of the atmospheres at Liverpool and Napoli in the Europa League, “extra special” because of the history of San Paolo and Anfield; in Romania, away to Steaua Bucuresti (now FCSB), the fans were “insane”. He chuckled: “I think if we won, we’d have to find some way to get out (safely)!”
Bringing back the passion
There was some interest from European clubs after the end of last season but Maguire believes prospective suitors are still put by off his two-year spell on the sidelines and perceived lower quality of other leagues. You sense that it is something he has made his peace with. “Sometimes, there’s no fighting against it,” he said. “So you find also different challenges, like going for new opportunities, as I did when I came to Singapore.”
He was happy to return to Geylang, having assimilated well to life on our shores and done plenty of exploring. “I take friends and family to rooftop terraces when they come over because Holland is flat,” he said. “There’s a nice view and everybody likes that!” Sometimes, he hangs out with team-mates, like Teh and Christopher van Huizen. “We share a lot of common interests and he has also started to learn Chinese and mahjong!” Teh says. “He’s really talkative and can talk to you for the whole day.” Maguire is also partial to sitting down with a coffee and a book; current reads include Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell and Zig Ziglar’s Secret of Closing the Sale.
A future in coaching also appeals to Maguire, who dabbled in it with during his Utrecht days with their U12s and he hopes to get started with the FAS’ coaching courses soon. Noor Ali approves, saying: “Someone like him coaching at our youth level (could be beneficial) as he’s very technical and could bring a different approach.”
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The conversation wraps with Maguire’s thoughts on the fan culture here. “I’ve seen footage of our coach playing 15 years ago and it was like 20,000 to 30,000 people at the games,” he said. “Where did those people go? The games (now) are at normal times, the weather is actually (almost) always good… It’s only that (the SPL needs) to get people excited about football again.”
He hopes that the rise of supporter groups in recent years – almost every SPL club has their own now – can be the catalyst for change. Referring to Geylang’s own Ultra Eagles, Maguire said: “Them being there is a motivation for us and it basically made it way more fun to play again. If we’re playing the football we are right now and winning games, then it’s way easier to get other people excited too. And when people come to the game and see how excited those Ultra Eagles are about supporting us, they get more excited; that’s how it works with everything. If people are excited about something, then other people will follow.”