It was at some point during Paul Corry’s second season at Sheffield Wednesday that one of the players keeping him out of the side approached him after training. He struggles to remember exactly when, but given that the teammate in question, Seyi Olofinjana, was signed by Wednesday in late October 2013, and the manager at the time, Dave Jones, was sacked early that December, it had to be somewhere in between.
“He (Olofinjana) put his arm around me and he goes, ‘get out of here,'” recalls Corry in a telephone call from Dublin that lasts well over an hour. Now 28 and almost two years into his retirement from playing, the former Owls midfielder has had plenty of time for reflection and has no shortage of things to say. “I said, ‘what?’ And he said, ‘get out of here; this club, this style of football and this manager (Jones) is not what you need.’
“That actually upset me. To the point that I was walking into the dressing room and I was questioning everything. I was thinking, ‘holy f***, what’s going on here?’ He said, ‘the type of football you want to play, the talent you have, it’s not going to be extracted here. This is just not the environment that you need to be in.’
“At the time I was only 22 and I was probably a bit stubborn about the whole thing, thinking; I want to play for Sheffield Wednesday, I want to prove myself to the manager and I want to get back in the team. From his point of view, being an experienced pro he was probably at a better standpoint to realise that I was never going to play in that team, particularly under that manager.”
Little more than a year before then things could hardly have been more different for Corry, who chose to join Sheffield Wednesday over another club he prefers not to mention, having also had interest from Birmingham City, Crystal Palace and Sheffield United (“a sniff”). He was just breaking into a team that in his words was “on the up, had started the season well (its first one back in the Championship) and wanted to play good football.”
His debut arrived during a 2-0 defeat to Southampton in the League Cup third round – the same stage at which the Owls will play Everton on Tuesday – less than a month after he signed a three-year contract at Hillsborough in August 2012. Three-and-a-half weeks later he was starting against Leeds United in the Championship – on an evening best remembered for an attack on the then-Wednesday goalkeeper, Chris Kirkland, by a visiting supporter, which prompted Jones to label the five-or-so-thousand in Hillsborough’s Leppings Lane end “vile animals” and call for them to be “banned from every away ground”.
Corry’s path to Sheffield Wednesday was unlike that of any of his peers. He had played close to 100 times for UCD (University College Dublin) in the League of Ireland, while undertaking a business degree at the same institution. But he was nonetheless thrown straight into a typically heated Yorkshire derby that had its temperature cranked up by the fact it was the two clubs’ first meeting in five-and-a-half years and had been moved to a Friday evening for Sky Sports coverage.
“Nothing fazed me about that game,” insists Corry. “I didn’t even think twice about what was going on around me; the fact that it was on the telly, the fact that there was a big crowd there and I was going from playing in front of 2,000 in Ireland to 20-25,000 over in the UK. I didn’t even think about it because I was so confident in myself at the time. I was almost in a state of flow, as they call it. Everything I did seemed to come off; my awareness, my wits. Before I got the ball I knew exactly what I was doing with it. I knew where my teammates were, I knew where the opposition were and I knew exactly what I had to do with the ball when I got it.”
“Then I fast-forward about two years, and I remember coming on at Hillsborough against Bolton under Stuart Gray. I was looking at the clock and thinking, ‘I cannot f****** wait to get off this pitch.'”
What happened in between? Quite a lot, it transpires. First came Corry’s removal from the Wednesday starting eleven, having remained in the side for four successive matches plus another two sporadically. “There was a change in results coming up towards the Christmas time,” he explains. “They said they were going to bring Giles Coke and David Prutton back in, take a more direct route and play a bit more of a percentage game, and that they felt that it didn’t really suit me. But they were happy with what I’d done and they were happy with how I’d progressed since I’d come in.” Then came a six-month loan spell at Tranmere Rovers and a couple of conflicting conversations with Jones.
“At the end of the season I had played up to 20 games between Tranmere and Sheffield Wednesday and I was absolutely buzzing,” recalls Corry. “I stepped into Dave Jones’ office at the end of the season and he sat down and said, ‘how do you think you’ve done?’ I said, ‘I think I’ve done OK’. And he said, ‘well, I think you’re downplaying exactly how far you’ve come in these nine months. We are absolutely delighted with you. It’s a really big year for you next season. Go away and enjoy your off-season.’ At that stage I’d done back-to-back seasons because of the summer league over here. I’d done almost 18 months straight. So that was tough. I was told to go away, rest up my legs and come back fresh for pre-season.
“I came back into pre-season and within seven to 10 days I was told I wasn’t in his plans. How much of a head**** is that? You’re going to tell me exactly how well I’ve done and probably eight weeks later tell me I’m not in your plans? That was really tough to deal with.”
It was around that time that Corry’s relationship with the man who brought him to Sheffield Wednesday reached the point of no return.
“We played Rotherham in the League Cup at the start of that second season,” recalls Corry. “We trained on the Monday. It was a Tuesday game and they said, ‘right, everybody report to the training ground for what might have been a three o’clock for a meal before we set off for Rotherham. I got a call on Tuesday about 12 or one o’clock to ask me where I was. I lived up at Middlewood, so I was only about two minutes away from the training ground. I said, ‘why?’ It was one of the management team and they said, ‘well, you were meant to be in at training today. I said, ‘what training?’ And they said, ‘you were meant to be in with the Under-23s and the U18s today.’ I said, ‘nobody told me.’ Like, as far as I was concerned I was standing in that group when you were telling people to report to the training ground for 3 o’clock. And he said, ‘the manager’s not happy, he’s going to dock you a day’s wages.’ It was almost like they were trying to push me out of the club for no apparent reason.
“In hindsight – and this was the thing about me not really knowing the environment – I should have gone straight to the PFA and I should have said, ‘this is exactly what’s happening. A fine’s been put on my doorstep and this is what I’ve been communicated.’ That is completely unacceptable for any manager to one, fine me for something that I wasn’t in the wrong for and also, to treat people in that way is absolutely disgraceful.
“I’m very thankful for Dave Jones for giving me the opportunity to sign for Sheffield Wednesday. But I’m annoyed and I’m angry about some of the ways that I was treated when I was there and some of the things he said about me in the press. I remember at one stage he said that my father was advising me not to go on loan and that my father was an accountant and what does he know about football. Stuff that was completely untrue.
“Around the time I was told that I wasn’t in the manager’s plans, I was called up to his office. He said to me that there were a number of teams in for me on loan, and that he would like me to go. He said, ‘we want you and Danny Mayor to go to Bury.’ I said, ‘OK. Let me discuss it with my agent and I’ll come back to you.’ I said, ‘I’ll ring him straight away.’ At the time, Bury had (recently been under) a transfer embargo. Kevin Blackwell was the manager and I vividly remember on Sky Sports him saying that he actually didn’t know some of the players’ names. They’d brought in a number of players, he’d just come in as manager and he was still getting to know the lay of the land. So I went back in and Eamonn Collins, my agent, said to me, ‘Bury wouldn’t be a great club to go to at this moment in time, because they’re probably bottom end of League Two. You’ve just played well for Sheffield Wednesday in your first season. You’ve gone on loan to Tranmere who were up in the top half of League One. Why is it that you would drop down to the bottom of League Two?’
“He said, ‘go in and ask who the other teams are and that you want to know before you decide whether or not you’re going to Bury.’ I was sitting in the manager’s office with him and his two assistants, and I was told that I wasn’t being told what the options were and that they wanted me to go to Bury; that was the decision that was being made. I was advised to stand firm, that better options would come up and that I wanted to go to somewhere that was a bit higher up the Football League. As it turned out, Danny Mayor went to Bury. I didn’t go and I was fined a day’s wages and training with the U18s probably within seven days.
“If you’re asked to play a style of football that doesn’t suit you on loan and you come back and you haven’t done well, you almost tarnish your reputation a bit. People are starting to ask questions about whether or not you can do it. That’s how important the decisions of who it is you go to and what manager you play for, because you have to play to your strengths.”
Shortly afterwards, Jones recruited two players with whom he had worked before, Olofinjana and Stephen McPhail, in Corry’s position.
“That’s what it was (the reason for which he thought Jones was trying to force him out),” suggests Corry. “I wouldn’t go as far as saying it was bringing in his old pals. He just wanted me out to free up wages. In particular, he wanted to bring in a centre-forward. As a player and somebody who was under contract I felt it was my own right to know who was in for me and if there were other clubs in for me then maybe it might be best if I play for a team more suited to me and maybe not a Bury who are going to be scrapping down the bottom of League Two.
“Olofinjana was such a good man – I couldn’t speak highly enough of him. As was Stephen McPhail (who would later work with Corry at Shamrock Rovers). And these are people who were competing in my position but who I got on really well with, like most of my teammates.”
To make matters worse for Corry, Jones’ comments would help to create a negative perception of him within some sections of the Sheffield Wednesday fanbase.
“People used to say to me, ‘did you turn down loan moves? Did you refuse to go out on loan?’ recalls Corry. “And I would think, ‘are you winding me up?’ If I wasn’t playing, why would I turn down a loan move? If I was willing to go on loan to Carlisle, who were down the bottom of League Two, towards the end of my third season, why the f*** would I have turned down a loan move earlier on?” Bury being the only, and perhaps justified, exception.
Even after Jones was relieved of his duties, by which point Sheffield Wednesday had won just one of their 17 games across all competitions that season and sat 23rd in the Championship, below Yeovil Town and level on points with bottom-club Barnsley, Corry sensed that his circumstances were not going to improve.
“Probably what killed me was the fact that when Dave Jones left it went into Stuart Gray’s hands and Stuart didn’t even see me play when I was in the Championship,” explains Corry, with Gray having been brought to Hillsborough as one of Jones’ assistants shortly after the Dubliner’s run in the team ended. “I used to love Stuart Gray’s training sessions. I used to love working with him. And Stuart liked me but he never played me. I’d much rather a manager dislike me and play me every week than like me and not be involved in his plans.
“There was a situation during my second year, when Paul Cook was in charge of Chesterfield. Paul was somebody that I’d known quite well because he was manager of Sligo Rovers when I was in Ireland. He actually tried to sign me when he was at Sligo and he knew me well. I played in an in-house game with Sheffield Wednesday against Chesterfield and I did really well. It was a day-and-a-half before the loan window closed. Chesterfield made an offer for me, they offered to pay a certain amount of my wages and I wasn’t allowed to go. The reasoning was that if I was to go out on loan it would have meant they would have had to bring up one of the U23 players to sit on the bench.
“I was quite new to the system over there. I was quite new to the environment and how, I guess, the ways of working were within English professional football. And I wasn’t the type – I wish I had have been – to go banging on managers’ doors and start demanding that I’m allowed to go, or start… I wouldn’t say threatening, but you hear players saying, ‘oh, we’re not going to train or we’re not going to play if we’re not allowed to go.’ I wasn’t brought up that way and I never really faced those challenges playing here (Ireland) because I was probably a bigger fish in a smaller pond.”
As far as Corry was concerned, Gray’s explanation failed to add up.
“I was thinking to myself, hold on a second, I remember vividly about three weeks before that Rhys McCabe had started in central midfield (against Reading),” recalls Corry. “Rhys came off and instead of putting me in to play central midfield he (brought on Michail Antonio and) put Jeremy Helan, who was a left-back, in to play in the middle. I was like, ‘nah, nah, nah, nah.’ I was thinking in my head, no matter what happens here Stuart, you are not going to play me. You’ve dropped Chris Maguire from the 10 space to play central midfield. You’ve played Jeremy Helan in central midfield. What difference does it make if it’s me or an U23 player on the bench? You’re not going to play either of us.
“Anyway, making a long story short, they didn’t let me go. That happened twice and that really hindered what could have been a really good opportunity for me because one, I knew Paul Cook; he knew what my strengths were, he was playing a type of football that really kind of suited how I play. And another point was that Chesterfield were going so strongly at that moment in time. They went on to win League Two and then the season after that they pushed on for the play-offs in League One. If I had gotten in, if I had played games for them then maybe I would have started to rebuild my confidence.
“But when I was at Sheffield Wednesday, not one person was showing any sort of belief in my potential or my ability to play. When that happens and when you’re so lacking in match fitness and then you’re thrown into a Championship game against Bolton when your team are one-down, it’s very hard to then step up and just click back into gear like I when I played against Leeds. When I played against Leeds I’d come off the back of playing 100 games in the League of Ireland, at a senior level. When I played against Bolton, I’d come off the back of a year-and-a-half of playing U23s football, which is so false.”
Ironically, it was a manager who like Cook possessed strong footballing principles – which aligned with those of Corry – to whom Sheffield Wednesday turned after Gray’s shock sacking in June 2015. But by the time that man, Carlos Carvalhal, arrived at Hillsborough, Corry was back in Ireland and out of work after Wednesday failed to renew his contract. In total, he had played just 10 times for the Owls. He admits it was a “pretty bad time, mentally.
“What was meant to have been the dream and what I’d worked for my whole life to get to that stage, it almost ended in a nightmare,” adds Corry. “I came home and I was really, really down and I didn’t know where my next step was, in England or Ireland. I actually didn’t even want to think or talk about football and it got to stage where I actually just sat in my bedroom for a week and I didn’t want to see or talk to anybody because I was so down about it. That’s probably a side that the fans, in particular, don’t see. They almost think you’re happy not to be playing and it doesn’t bother you. It really gets to people.”
Then 24, Corry was offered a lifeline, through a new representative, by a manager who knew all about his time at Sheffield Wednesday, although his affiliation had been and is now again with the Owls’ city rivals, United. But he would have to impress on trial first.
“I didn’t want to be going on trial like an 18-or-19-year-old does,” admits Corry. “But anyway I went over and I played for Northampton against Derby and Birmingham. I trained really well. You talk about systems of play that I saw myself playing; Northampton were really making an effort to pop the ball around and to play out and play through the thirds when it was on. When it’s not on they were 100 per cent playing a more percentage pass. But I liked what it was that Chris Wilder and Alan Knill were doing. And it was nice for me to step into a new environment with new managers who wanted to progress me. I probably wasn’t looked after at the end because they knew at Sheffield Wednesday that I was leaving. It was nice to get in and have somebody put their arm around me. I was thinking with this management team and their players they’ll go very close in League Two.”
Shortly afterwards, Corry signed a one-year contract with Northampton, who went on to exceed his initial high expectation by ending the 2015-16 campaign as runaway leaders. But his own on-pitch involvement ceased just 11 games into it in league and cup – of which he had appeared in four – thanks to a knee injury so bad that Andy Williams – a sports surgeon who in Corry’s words “does everybody from Danny Welbeck and the Manchester City players, to the top rugby players and the top athletes within England” – deemed it one of the worst he had ever seen. He failed to earn a new deal, but accepts that if he was the manager, “I wouldn’t have offered me one either.” A return to Ireland followed with Shamrock Rovers.
“To make a long story short, I didn’t come back from it,” explains Corry. “I ended up re-tearing the cartilage in my knee. But it was the extent of the injury the first time that killed me off. And I was basically told if you don’t stop now you won’t walk in 10 years. So I hadn’t any option at all (but to retire).”
Corry’s business degree attracted offers from Google and AIB (Allied Irish Banks), but he was advised instead to undertake an internship with a company called McNulty – founded by the former Armagh Gaelic footballer turned sports psychologist, Enda McNulty – which led to a permanent job. Like his mentor, Corry also completed a sports psychology degree after his retirement.
“The day job is working with everybody from Amazon to Microsoft, to some small to medium enterprises in Ireland,” explains Corry. “And this is what brought me into the business; working with clients and teams within the pro sports sector. Since I’ve been here I’ve headed up that department and I’ve built a business model around that.
“If you were to take for instance, just plucking out a name, Lewis McGugan when I was at Sheffield Wednesday – a person with unbelievable talent but probably somebody who didn’t extract every bit of that. I’m not saying that Lewis McGugan wasn’t an unbelievably good professional. But it’s about putting all those support structures around people to actually help them to perform at their optimum level on a consistent basis.
“It’s looking at the psychology of it, it’s looking at how people live their lives. Because if you look at a lot of footballers, some of the levels of unprofessionalism are scary. And I was guilty of that. I’ll be the first person to admit. When I was at Sheffield Wednesday when I wasn’t in the team and when Dave Jones had told me that he didn’t see me as part of his plans, they’re the really tough times when you have to be strong and you actually have to continue to at least try to develop and continue to be professional and wait for the next opportunity to come. That’s an extremely difficult thing to do.
“So if you almost have a support structure, a third party on the side who can help you along the way to do that, well that’s ultimately what we want to do. We built our business model around that, based on the work that Enda would have done with the Irish rugby team and looked to try to bring that into professional football. So we’ve worked with a couple of individuals to date, and we’ve also worked with one of the Premier League teams – I can’t say who, but it’s one of the top six – working with their coaching staff and working with their younger players. If you’re talking about the coaching staff, you’re trying to get them to open up their eyes to where it is they can actually develop, putting a personal development plan in place where they set their own goals and they’re constantly trying to get better.
“Because if you look within football and if you look at the coaches and you look at the players, a lot of people are conforming to be the same. How can we go in and spark their thinking, to actually think differently? How can you learn something from the most elite business manager and how can you learn something from maybe some of the rugby guys and some of the Olympic athletes? And how can you take their little one-percenters and bring it into your teams, into how you coach your players and to how you manage people?
“It’d be naive of us to go in and talk about how to technically improve players. I don’t have the coaching badges to go in and start orchestrating things at a top Premier League side. It’s the communication skills. It’s the day-to-day living. It’s the inter-personal relationships. It’s the mental side of the game for the players. It’s how a young 16-year-old looks at Harry Kane and lives his life like Harry Kane and not like say somebody who’s down in League Two and has p***** away their talent.”
When Corry has returned to Sheffield it has been to watch United rather than Wednesday. He is close friends with Caolan Lavery, the Canada-born forward with Irish heritage who swapped Hillsborough for Bramall Lane in 2016. He has also visited Wilder, Knill and Matt Prestridge, the first-team coach who oversaw his rehabilitation at Northampton. He has, however, kept a close eye on events at his first English club and insists that “nobody wants Sheffield Wednesday to go up more than me.
Big boots to fill pal https://t.co/XaSlzvSprq
— Paul Corry (@paul_corry) August 8, 2019
“I actually haven’t been back to Hillsborough since,” adds Corry. “I will eventually get back over I’m sure, because I have a lot of time and respect for the people. I’m just not sure if I’m ready yet to step back in because I have a feeling that if I stood back into the stadium, I’d probably start to have a bit of regret; start to think of what-ifs and maybes. That’s not a stage of my life that I want to be at now. I’m still in the transition. I’m still in the moving on stage, past football; trying to settle into my new career. And once maybe I’m happy with the fact that football has moved on and is out of my life, from a playing point of view anyway, well then maybe it’s something that I’ll look into.”