Ivan Sproule admits his playing career reads like a fairytale, the welder plucked from the obscurity of part-time football in Northern Ireland to become a household name “across the water”.
From a reserve match against Motherwell at Stenhousemuir in which another newcomer Amadou Konte scored three, the Castelderg flying machine went on to become the first Hibs player to score a hat-trick at Ibrox in a century, lifted the CIS Insurance Cup, starred in an English Premiership play-off final in front of 85,000 at Wembley and made his international debut with a win against England.
Now the 36-year-old has begun his own quest to help put the next young Irish hopeful on the path to stardom having taken his first managerial job as player/boss of Ardrstraw FC, a little club with big ambitions based just ten minutes from his home.
After two knee operations Sproule found himself still in demand both as a player and with offers to become an assistant manager at a higher level. However, the chance to be his own man proved too good to resist.
He said: “You never know when it’s the right time but Ardstraw have, over the last few years, put the foundations in place, they have fantastic facilities, as good as a pro set-up, and are trying to progress. That gives me a good starting point in trying to bring players in.
“It’s a local club, I know all the people on the committee and in recent years they’ve been going close so, I think, they see me as someone who can knock them over the line.
“We are in the Northern Ireland Intermediate League, the third tier, but we have ambitions to go all the way up. It’s a change, something different but this is the way I wanted to do it and I know the club are wanting to back me. Hopefully, I can bring a higher profile and with my influence bring a few signings.”
At present, Ardstraw’s players are unpaid but Sproule has already begun to make his mark, signing his brother Andrew – who many would argue shares his electrifying turn of pace.
He said: “It wasn’t easy because he’s my brother, but Andrew is probably in the best nick of his life and could be playing at a higher level. I’m speaking to three or four others I’m hoping to tempt to the club but I’m looking forward to working with the younger players in particular.
“Anyone who knows my history knows I came from amateur football, someone from very much a rural area where few make it across the water and then go on to play for their country. I’m looking to give something back to the local area and, who knows, maybe find the next Ivan Sproule.
“I know when I came to Scotland – someone who wasn’t known at all – I had a big mountain to climb. There were a lot of people ready to write me off believing I’d be sent back pretty quickly. I proved them wrong. For me, it became a dream career.
“I played for Hibs, a club I still call my club, played in a great side and won a cup with them. I had four years playing for Bristol City in the English Championship, came back to Hibs and then Ross County before coming home and signing for Linfield.
“I played at Wembley in front of 85,000 people. I can remember warming up alongside Jermain Defoe before going on to make my debut for Northern Ireland at Windsor Park in Belfast against England, a European Championship qualifying match we won 1-0, the first time we’d beaten them in more than 30 years.
“It sounds crazy for someone where I came from but it shows what can happen with hard work and it’s inspired me to try to give something back to my local area.”
Sproule, who was reunited with the CIS Cup-winning team of 2007 only a few weeks ago at Easter Road, intends to combine playing with management. He said: “I’ve had two knee operations but I’ve got myself back fit and in shape again. I did have offers to go and play in the Irish League but I knew my heart wasn’t really in it. I’m aiming to be our player/manager but most of all I’m looking forward to working with the younger players, that’s where my heart lies.”
Admitting he was a fiery character as a player, Sproule agrees there may be some fans, former team-mates and probably the odd ex-manager, who’ll find the step he’s taken something of a surprise but, he insisted, there’s much he has learned since becoming a surprise £5000 signing by Hibs boss Tony Mowbray 12 years ago before making that £500,000 switch to Bristol City.
He said: “I had offers to come in as an assistant manager at a higher level but that didn’t appeal. I like to do things my way and if anything goes wrong then I only have myself to blame. The buck stops with me.
“I had to work hard as a player and hopefully that’s what I can pass on to my young players, to give it everything and hopefully their career will kick on and they’ll find the chance to push on and not only play in the NIFL Premiership but across the water. Players don’t just need to come through club academies. Just look at Jamie Vardy of Leicester City, for instance.”
As for his own management style? “I’ve done my coaching badges and I think they are an excellent thing. But I also think there are a lot of good coaches without badges and good players who haven’t come through academies.
“I gave everything I ever had for every manager,” he said. “My career was moulded by them. I’d like to think man-management is one of my strongest parts, making people believe in themselves. I think my own story, from being a welder to standing waiting to go on and play for my country. shows what can happen.
“Hopefully I can find another, perhaps send him over to Hibs and see him go on to collect his own hat-trick at Ibrox.”