Sunderland’s Jacob Carney on his debt to Irish League loan spell at Portadown
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Although the average football fan will not be as familiar with Portadown’s proud past, Carney considers his six-month Irish League loan spell as a defining experience.
The 20-year-old goalkeeper signed a two-year deal at Sunderland last month following his departure from United, with the League One outfit praising “technically-gifted” Carney’s “high potential” ahead of “exposure to the first-team environment”.
Carney returned to England from Northern Ireland this summer with a string of awards increasing the weight on his baggage allowance...and a host of memories from his time between the Portadown posts.
He had arrived at Portadown in the New Year - a teenager ready to embrace the challenges of living in an unfamiliar country and on his own for the first time, alongside the on-the-field tests at a club back in top-flight football for the first time since 2017.
He left just 27 appearances later but with gains far beyond the measure of minutes on the pitch.
“None of this now would be happening without Portadown and the Irish League,” said Carney. “Thanks to everything from my time at Portadown I’m now ready to continue with so much increased confidence towards grabbing whatever future opportunities I can get at Sunderland.
“The platform I got off Portadown and the Irish League left me with some really tough decisions based on the level of interest from other clubs but I’m so excited about what the future holds at Sunderland coming off the back of such a key season.
“Obviously it’s always up to me to do well but I’m 100 per cent aware of the benefits from playing in the Irish League and so thankful to the manager Matthew Tipton and Portadown as a club for taking the chance on a 19 year old.
“I left Portadown a very different person, even just the changes from living away from home...never mind getting smashed by some of the players in the Irish League!
“As a player coming in from England on loan I made a conscious choice from the start to try and immerse myself in the whole experience.
“Living under lockdown restrictions left me limited in what I could do in terms of going out and about but it suited as I was there to do a job and improve my career prospects.
“As well as working on my fitness I also used some of the time at home to study up and watch footage of opponents.
“There’s plenty of information out there now that can help give you maybe an edge or so on how a team sets up for set-pieces or what players will do.
“When coming in as an outside loan player I would always just try to put everything into whichever club I’m representing.
“If you join somewhere on loan with the viewpoint of thinking about only what you can get out of it all then things will never work out.
“As a goalkeeper, in particular, if I play well it’s better for the team and everyone benefits.
“It’s not about one player, it only works if everyone is in it together and that was a real part of everything in my time with Portadown.”
And with the modern Irish League enjoying an expansion of full-time contracts on top of the more traditional virtues, it is a path Carney would recommend to any young player seeking development in an environment of hard yards and high stakes.
“The Irish League was physical but also a strong standard,” said Carney. “I would tell anyone in circumstances like mine to give it a go.
“Playing two or three games a week in such a condensed period of time meant I ended up finishing the season with so much first-team football.
“The Irish League has plenty of quality and, as a goalkeeper, dealing with the rough and tumble was a great learning experience.
“You look at the Premiership in Northern Ireland and you’ve a great range of quality sides and different kinds of tests.
“I settled into living in Northern Ireland and it was a learning curve not being at my parents or in digs so living on my own.
“My time over in Northern Ireland absolutely helped me grow as a player and person.
“Training was so intense and you learn so much from actually playing senior games.
“Basically I came over with about 30 men’s games under my belt as a teenager and finished having pretty much doubled that inside six months.
“Everything develops in that sort of environment, not just your ability but areas like the winning mentality and game management.
“With every extra fixture under my belt I was learning more about making decisions in so many different situations during games.
“You’re constantly evaluating moments and making choices over playing it out from the back or going long or when to speed it up or slow it all down.
“People back in England may not know too much about the Irish League or dismiss it but I would 100 per cent recommend it to anyone.
“You have that mix of full-time and part-time players but the standard is good, with plenty of media profile too.
“You have clubs in the Irish League playing each year in European competition.
“There are hidden gems for sure within the Irish League and a reason so many scouts from clubs in England or Scotland definitely keep an eye on what’s happening.
“For me, there’s no doubt it provided a brilliant platform to showcase what I can do and develop.”