From Gresty Road to Brawney Road: The Journey of Aaron Callaghan

Aaron Callaghan

In the latest instalment of our look at some of the top players to showcase their talent on both sides of the Irish football border, we will take a closer look at someone who enjoyed a long career in professional football in England as well, not to mention a long coaching career that is still active today.

Aaron Callaghan had a distinguished and lengthy career in England, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland across a 20 year playing career,

Aaron moved to England as a teenager when he was snapped up by Stoke City. During his spell at the Potters he was sent on loan to Crewe Alexandra, a club which would play a big part in his later career. When his time at Stoke came to a permanent end he spent a season at Oldham Athletic, before Dario Gradi came calling again and he made the move to Crewe, this time for a permanent four-year spell. During this spell with the Railwaymen Aaron was teammates with players like David Platt, Rob Jones and Neil Lennon, just a few of the long line of talent produced by the Gresty Road side.

After over 150 appearances for The Alex, Preston North End was his next port of call, and his time there coincided with the arrival of John Beck to Deepdale. Beck was appointed Preston boss on the back of a successful spell at Cambridge Utd, where he had been promoted to manager at the age of just 36. His playing style was widely criticised in the English media, but it had proved very successful at Cambridge. Beck guided the club to two successive promotions and narrowly missed out on a third before being sacked by the U’s board. That led to his move to Preston, where Callaghan found his football philosophy hard to deal with.

Having been brought up in a playing style more in line with the modern day Man City, Aaron found Becks preference for direct football hard to deal with. After over ten years in England, Aaron felt the calling to cross the Irish Sea again, and a chance meeting with former Republic of Ireland boss Eoin Hand led to a loan move to Shelbourne, where Hand was in charge. Unfortunately for Aaron, the man who repatriated him would not stay at the helm at Tolka Park for long and with a new manager came a new set of ideas, under which Aarons’ face didn’t fit.

It was at this time when another of footballs famous coincidences would take Aarons career on a different path. Up in Belfast, there was a revolution of sorts taking place along the Shore Road, helped along in no little terms by a swathe of Dublin based footballers. Aaron was friends with one of the original Dublin based Hatchetmen, Martin Murray, and a long-term injury to another Dubliner, Peter Eccles, meant that Crusaders boss Roy Walker was putting his southern contacts on high alert for a commanding defender to slot in alongside the cultured Glen Dunlop at the heart of the Seaview back line. Aaron answered that call, initially on the customary 8 week loan period, but it didn’t take Walker 8 weeks to decide that Callaghan was the man he wanted.

Aaron would prove to be another shrewd signing by Walker, as he pieced together a side that would be the best in the country during the mid-nineties. Two league titles, a Gold Cup and the clubs first ever League Cup trophy, along with countless other cup semi-finals and finals made it a great time to be of a red and black persuasion.

During his playing years in Belfast Aaron got involved with the coaching set up for the Republic of Ireland junior teams, and in 1998, when Walker made the move to Mid Ulster and Glenavon, the Crusaders board didn’t have to look far for their next manager. At the tender age of just 32, Aaron took up the role of Player-Manager at Seaview. Aided by his longtime friend, Crusaders and Dundalk legend Martin Murray, who incidentally would go on to succeed Aaron at Seaview, Callaghan took his first foray into senior management.

After a tough start where the Crues failed to register a point in the first five games, Callaghan went out and brought back a player who was a prolific scorer coming through the Seaview ranks but had gone elsewhere in the search for regular football. Crawford McCrae was a late addition to a side which had been decimated by Walkers departure, one which Callaghan had bolstered with his own southern contacts, adding the likes of Glen Wade, Ian Hill, Pat O’Toole and Conor Frawley. The Crues would go on to finish 3rd behind only the traditional ‘Big Two’ of Glentoran and Linfield, and, perhaps satisfyingly,  some eleven points ahead of Walker and the former Crusaders contingent at Mourneview.

During that summer, budget constraints at Seaview meant that Callaghan decided to leave the club and continue his playing career on the other side of the Irish border, firstly at St.Pats Athletic, followed by Dundalk and latterly with Longford Town. He also squeezed a short loan spell in back in the Irish League with Glenavon while at St.Pats, and picked up an FAI Cup medal in 2002 while at Dundalk. The Dundalk side that day was managed by Martin Murray and included a number of former and future Irish League players, such as Garry Haylock, Martin Reilly and John Connolly.

While he wound up his playing days at Longford Town, Callaghan took up a coaching role at the club which would last almost four years, perforated only by a short stint in charge of Athlone Town in 2004. In 2007 Aaron became one of the first coaches in Ireland to achieve his UEFA ‘A’ Licence, and after a spell out of the senior game, he returned to Longford to take up the managers position for the 2007/08 season. At the Town, however, Callaghan found a number of unexpected financial problems at the club which led to a series of problems within the ranks at Strokestown Road. Failure to pay players and a lack of provisions and facilities on away trips were just some of the issues Callaghan faced in this spell in the Midlands, and this led to the two parting ways.

Callaghan’s next role was as assistant to former Portadown and St. Pats midfielder Martin Russell at UCD. The pair enjoyed a successful spell with the Students, gaining promotion to the top flight thanks to a First Division title win in 2009. They would keep the Belfield side in the top flight throughout their time together, however, Aarons work commitments as a senior Sports Development officer with the Dublin City Council meant that his coaching career would take a back seat for a time. St.Pats Athletic were able to provide Aaron with some time in a coaching capacity, but it wouldn’t be long till Callaghan would be tempted by another crack at senior management, this time on the north side of the city at Bohemians in 2012.

The Bohs job looked a daunting one back then, coming off the back of a successful first decade of the new millennium, particularly under Stephen Kenny and Pat Fenlon. With purse strings being tightened in Phibsborough, Callaghan had to cut his cloth accordingly, reshaping the squad with the template of young talent intertwined with a sprinkling of experienced heads.

Very early in his tenure, Callaghan was handed a return to Seaview, when his new club were paired with Crusaders in the Setanta Cup. The Crues would knock out Aarons new club as they went on to lift the All-Ireland title, also seeing off Sligo Rovers before beating Derry City on penalties in the final at The Oval.

Aarons ties with Dublin City Council ended up establishing a link between Bohemians and the council, and this ended with the Councils purchase of the Bohs Dalymount Park, an asset which had been sold by the club in 2006 in anticipation of a relocation project for the club. The proposed new stadium was in Harristown, some 5 miles further north in the vicinity of Dublin Airport, but delays to the project, allied with the collapse of the property market, meant that the plan was all but dead in the water by the time Callaghan joined the club.

Jump forward to 2018, and the redevelopment plans for Dalymount have gathered pace. Plans are in place to have the ‘new’ Dalymount open for 2022, before which the Bohs will share Tolka Park with near neighbours Shelbourne, and after which the two clubs will become co-tenants at the brand new 10,000 seater stadium.

Despite signing a two-year contract extension at the Gypsies, Callaghan was relieved of his duties in the summer of 2013, with the club citing an eleven game winless run in the league as the reason for the change. Aaron soon made a return to UCD where he spent the 2014 season, but the Students dropped into the First Division for the first time since Callaghan served as assistant to Martin Russell back in 2009.

A short spell with his old friend Roddy Collins at Waterford followed, but for his next managerial port of call, a return to the Irish Premier League beckoned. Carrick Rangers were struggling near the foot of the table as Callaghan took the reins following Kieran Hardings ill-fated spell in charge. Rangers had won just one of their opening eleven league games but went on to secure their position in the top flight via the end of season promotion/relegation playoff.

Callaghan, however, was not in the dugout for this series of games, as he stepped down from the job a matter of days before the crucial double header. Since then, Callaghan has admitted that he was frustrated at the lack of commitment and professionalism shown by the players at Carrick, and he felt that putting control of their destiny into the players hands might focus them in their task. And so it proved as Carrick defeated Institute 5-2 in the two-legged playoff, following up a 1-1 draw at Drumahoe with a 4-1 win at Taylors Avenue.

Carrick also reached their first ever League Cup Final during that season, losing out to a Davy Jeffrey inspired Ballymena United. The game was in the balance for long periods, with Callaghan enjoying the familiar surroundings of the final venue of Seaview. Ballymena had forged into a first-half lead and had Carrick on the back foot for a spell, but they weathered the storm and indeed finished the game in the ascendency, only to be caught on the break in stoppage time where Ballymena put some gloss on the result with a second goal.

Aaron is now just a few months into his latest job, and it’s a club he knows well as he has made a return to Athlone Town in the First Division. Once again his path is entwined with Roddy Collins, as the well-travelled Dubliner had been in charge of the Lissywollen men throughout the 2017 season. In the post season Collins had been expected to continue in the role, but before long the club announced that he would take on a General Manager role and that Callaghan would join as manager.

After a season which saw the Town finish rock bottom of the division, it was clear Callaghan and his assistant Terry Butler had a rebuilding job on their hands. Athlone had in fact spent almost all of the previous two seasons at the bottom of the division while witnessing a number of high profile episodes which dragged the club through the mire. Goalkeeper Igors Labuts and midfielder Dragos Sfrijan have been banned from football for one year pending appeal for ‘gambling, manipulating matches and bringing the game into disrepute’. This follows a probe into suspicious betting patterns arising during a game against Longford Town in April 2017. Meanwhile forward Jason Lyons was hit with a seven-game ban by the FAI after he was found guilty of betting offences also, albeit in a game unrelated to that which Labuts and Sfrijan were cited for.

Athlone took an unusual approach to their summer recruitment drive, with Callaghan organising a series of open trials as he looked to build a new look, all amateur side for the Midlanders. Callaghan felt he could exploit a gap he saw in the development system across the country, with a number of players falling by the wayside once they come out of the u19 setup when deemed not quite good enough for the traditional big teams in the League of Ireland.

With Callaghan also well aware of the talent levels of those plying their trade in the Leinster Senior league, this was another avenue he looked to exploit as he set about the new First Division season. Within a few weeks, Athlone announced their brand new 30 man first team squad ahead of the kick off of the new season in Galway.

Things would take another unexpected turn as, following an opening night 4-1 defeat at Eamon Deacy Park, Roddy Collins made the decision to step down from his new role. Collins may have stepped away from a full-time position but he remains on board in an advisory capacity as the oldest club in the League of Ireland look to rebuild on the Brawney Road under the watchful eye of Callaghan.