Steele reflects on rollercoaster ride

13 November 2013 06:46

Earlier this year Jonny Steele was pondering a contract offer from non-league Macclesfield when a late-night phone call gave him the chance to join New York Red Bulls and set him on the path to international recognition.

The 27-year-old midfielder has one of the more incredulous back stories in the modern game - with indoor football in hockey arenas, fortuitous administrative errors and an unexpected pregnancy all playing their part in his unlikely rise.

Northern Ireland boss Michael O'Neill is set to hand Steele his international bow in the friendly against Turkey on Friday and when the chance does come, he will savour it in a way only someone with his experiences could imagine.

Having started his career on Wolves' books, the Larne-born player moved to the United States as a teenager only for his dreams of making it at the highest level to be confounded.

He was first forced to accept contracts with a succession of indoor franchises, with comic-book names such as Baltimore Blast and Philadelphia KiXX, then when he did make a breakthrough in Major League Soccer with Real Salt Lake, found himself edged out by the league's complex salary cap.

In February he came back to England and trained with Conference side Macclesfield, who may have signed him but for a minor problem with the paperwork.

The next thing Steele knew, he had an offer to play in the Big Apple with Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill for team-mates.

"I was very close to joining Macclesfield. I wasn't going back to America before I got the call from the Red Bulls," he said.

"A mate of mine, Matt Barnes-Homer, who I went out to America with at 18 was playing for Macclesfield and I had been training with them.

"Their boys were shouting 'sign him up' because I killed them in training. The manager asked me about my situation and I was a free agent. I was about to sign; it was about to go through but there was something in the paperwork that wasn't right.

"I got a call that night at about 2am and it was (head coach) Mike Petke from New York Red Bulls.

"He asked would I be willing to come out and be an impact player for them. I jumped at it."

Steele has been a revelation since then, becoming a first-choice starter in the Red Bulls' surge to the MLS play-offs and earning praise from Henry and Cahill.

But as if his tale did not have enough unexpected twists in it, he may never have been in a position to catch Petke's attention at Real Salt Lake had it not been for a change in his private life.

Steele had originally decided to quit the USA several years earlier and had joined Irish League outfit Ballymena United when a surprising piece of news drew him back across the Atlantic.

"I went to Ballymena when I quit playing in America. I thought I was homesick, so I came back to play part-time or whatever," he explained.

"But I had a girl pregnant. I don't think (Ballymena boss) Tommy Wright believed me but it's true, I've got the proof!

"Tommy didn't want to let me go, he wasn't happy with me, but I told him 'Tommy, I've got someone pregnant in America' and I went back.

"I went back to be a part of my son's life."

In order to do so, Steele had to throw himself into a footballing format more familiar with recreational players on this side of the water.

"When I went back I was grinding it out, playing indoor and outdoor football at the same time," he said.

"Indoor football is a crazy game, but you need to make an income and it was out there.

"It's played in a hockey arena and it's rolling subs, on for a minute, off for a minute.

"But it was a big game out there. In Baltimore we had a record crowd of 15,000 and an average of 7,000."

Steele appreciates just how unusual his path to the Northern Ireland set-up is, but he insists the same attitude that has taken him so far already can help make him a regular in the squad.

"For me it's only the start, getting your face in," he said.

"The big picture is the Euro 2016 campaign next year.

"Playing for your country is an honour and it's something I've always wanted to do and if I get that opportunity I'm going to be hungrier than I've ever been."

Source: PA