Ex-NI international Joe Dolan passing on knowledge to next generation
Joe Dolan was sitting in the changing room at Chelsea when he was told for the first time that he had been called up to represent Northern Ireland U18’s during the upcoming international break.
The son of a mother from Londonderry and father born in Belfast who met at Queen’s University, Dolan had lived in the London area his whole life after his parents moved in the 1980’s, but when the call came from Northern Ireland it felt right to him.
That was in 1998 during a time where he was trying to make his way at one of the biggest clubs in English football, surrounded by youth internationals while cleaning the boots of Gianfranco Zola.
“I couldn’t even get my hand in Gianfranco’s boots because they were so small,” recalls Dolan.
The defender would go on to earn five U18 caps and played six times for the U21’s between 1998-2000, sharing a changing room with the likes of David Healy and Roy Carroll, and Dolan looks back on that time of his life with great fondness.
“In the changing room at Chelsea, Gwyn Williams would go around saying ‘England call-up, England call-up, England call-up’ and I was thinking what is he going to say when he gets to me!” he said.
“I was proud as punch and straight onto the phone to my parents to tell them that they had expressed an interest. I didn’t hesitate for a second.”
Healy, who was on the books of Manchester United at the time, was one that really stood out to Dolan and there was no doubt in his mind that the striker would go on to thrive in the professional game.
“He had an incredible ability to make runs into places that defenders couldn’t find him,” he adds.
“If you ask any player in any team what they want from their centre forward, they’ll say they want someone like him who won’t just occupy a back four but is also going to be ruthless and selfish in the box to do whatever it takes to score.
“He was our Michael Owen – he was sharp, quick, very clever, his movement was superb and he was ruthless.
“I think we have too many players in the game at the moment who want to pass it when they are six yards out and there’s no way you would find David not having a shot. He was a top centre-forward.
“David used to live off things around the box with the likes of Warren Feeney, Gary Hamilton and Mo Harkin. He was a terrific player to play with.”
With the abundance of quality at Chelsea, Dolan never made a senior appearance and he knew the writing was on the wall when a certain John Terry was moved back into defence.
“I played a lot with the youth team and reserves and it was all going well, then they moved JT from midfield to centre-back and I’m not really sure whether they made the right decision or not!” he chuckles.
Dolan signed for Millwall in April 1998 and was a regular in the first team until he suffered a broken leg a few years later and that started a run of injuries which derailed his professional career.
Rather than dwelling on lost time or opportunity, Dolan completed a degree in sports science and gained coaching badges before rounding out his playing days mainly in Non-League football.
“I broke my leg in 2001 and the surgeon told my dad that night that I’d never play again it was such a bad break,” he said.
“I never gave up and managed to get back to training from that injury but then ruptured my ACL, which is a pretty major one.
“I was very grateful to play at any level after those two injuries and then I ruptured my ACL for a second time, so I had three career-ending injuries in three years.
“It takes the end of your career or a major injury to think about the next step and what you’re going to be good at.
“It was nice to be in my twenties doing coaching badges with senior professionals. Nigel Worthington was my U21 coach before he went on to the senior job and he was always great with me.”
Dolan coached at Crystal Palace following his retirement before moving to Australia in 2015 to become Director of Football and a boarding housemaster at The Southport School on the Gold Coast.
Despite his trials and tribulations, the 40-year-old doesn’t have any bitterness towards the game and is now passing on his knowledge to the next generation in Queensland.
“Don’t get me wrong – there were some dark days when I broke my leg and ruptured my ACL twice, but I was so fortunate to get to that point anyway,” he said.
“There are a lot of boys and girls who are told how good they are early on in their lives and end up feeling disappointed, but that wasn’t the case for me.
“I was guided by my dad and encouraged by him but moulded by my coaches and teachers.
“I was very lucky. I had a really enjoyable Non-League career and that’s the kind of thing football brings.
“A lot of people talk about retirement but in my head I never retired, I just wasn’t good enough anymore.
“I still play in the over-35’s league over here and play upfront because I’ve done my time as a centre-half!
“You meet good people, have a good time and wherever it takes you is up to the gods. I was very lucky and fortunate to get the opportunities I did.”
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