Niall Owens highlights journey from Ballinamallard to California

Niall Owens can vividly recall the moment he achieved a childhood dream by scoring his first senior goal for Ballinamallard United – a club he had been at since the age of three.

Monday, 22nd February 2021, 5:33 pm

Having made his debut in the final 20 minutes of a memorable play-off second-leg draw against Institute in which a 94th-minute Steve Feeney goal ensured Ballinamallard’s place in the Danske Bank Premiership for the 2016/17 campaign, Owens went on to make his first top-flight appearance in a victory over Glenavon a matter of months later aged only 16.

Owens scored his maiden goal with a 92nd-minute strike against Dungannon Swifts in January of that season to earn Ballinamallard a point and it was certainly worth the wait for the young winger.

“I had never experienced anything like that,” he said. “It’s one thing to score but another to get a really important point away from home in what is a derby game for Ballinamallard.

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Former Irish League player Niall Owens (left) on show for CSUB. Pic courtesy of CSUB Athletics

“I’ll never forget that game or the goal.

“Ryan Mayse slipped me in and I just slotted it past the keeper and I can’t really remember much from the point I scored – it’s all a bit of a blur of running away to celebrate.

“I’ll always remember getting back into the changing room buzzing that I’ve scored and Gavin (Dykes, manager) came up to me saying ‘Well done...but what about the time you didn’t track the full-back back just before you scored’.

“He always kept me humble and making me learn.

“It was an amazing feeling not just for me but for my family too because without them I wouldn’t have been there.

“I went back into school the next day and everyone knew about it because it was on social media and it felt really good.”

Owens has now switched Ferney Park for America and combining his studies with playing for California State University - Bakersfield in NCAA Division One.

Around the time of breaking into the Ballinamallard squad, Owens had trials at Blackpool and Rotherham United but didn’t really know what the next chapter would hold after leaving St Michael’s College in Enniskillen.

That was until the offer of heading Stateside came about and he believes it has helped bring his game to the next level.

“I had just broken into the first team at the time and everything was coming at me a hundred miles an hour,” he added. “At the time, I wasn’t too sure about going because I was doing well at Ballinamallard and had been across the water at a few clubs.

“I got a bad injury at the end of my time at St Michael’s that put me out for the whole season and it made me look back on things and think what if I got a serious injury and had nothing to fall back on?

“When I was at Ballinamallard I was so young and people probably thought I was a bit mad moving away at the time.

“It has made me grow up so much.

“In terms of football, it has improved me a lot.

“When you’re playing back home, some teams can only train a couple of nights a week but here we are in every single day training.

“You have to be on it every day because people are always trying to take your place.”

It has been a difficult period for Owens with last season cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic and he is now recovering from back surgery that helped to correct a spinal issue before Christmas.

The 20-year-old has started rehab, determined to be back in time for the new campaign.

“I went home in March until July and then came back out here and haven’t been home since,” he said. “Over Christmas, I had a big back surgery, it was a massive setback.

“I had a problem for a few months but we weren’t too sure what it was, but I went down to Los Angeles to see a specialist and within 30 seconds he told me we needed to operate.

“The recovery has been tough, for the first month I couldn’t do anything, even simple things like putting on socks was hard.

“I just want to play all the time so to have it taken away from you is hard to wrap your head around at times but I have a good support system here and I’m just looking forward to getting back.”

Owens, who can choose to spend an extra year with the university side, is hoping the experience will set him up for further opportunities in the football world, whether in the Irish League or beyond.

“I have a vision of when I finish up here that I want to go on and play at the next level again,” he said. “If I get an offer here that suits or I get an offer at home that would be great but even if an offer came elsewhere I’m open to anything.

“At some stage I would love to come back and play in the Irish League and love to play for Ballinamallard again.

“I think the Irish League is doing something really great at the minute, especially for young players and there’s so many coming through.”

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