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....As Josh Magennis sits outside on a blustery day in Yorkshire, the thought forms that we are all unique. Every goalkeeper, striker, fan, coach and fourth official; each has their own football story. Listening to Magennis prompts this.
But as he talks about an extraordinary career, the thought morphs into the conclusion that, where Magennis is concerned, even a word as strong as unique might not be quite enough. He is the one-time youth rugby player turned goalkeeper, turned striker, turned right-back, turned international goalscorer.
An Ulster rugby prospect at 15 while also Northern Ireland’s under-16 goalkeeper, Magennis was released by Cardiff City at 19, having failed to make it in Wales as either a keeper or striker. He moved to Scotland and Aberdeen, where circumstances and Archie Knox dictated he would temporarily be a No 2, not a No 9.
Magennis spent the guts of four years at Pittodrie before two at Kilmarnock. Then he transferred south to England, to Charlton, then north to Bolton Wanderers last summer. “Carnage,” he says repeatedly of the Bolton experience. Now he is at Hull City where in six appearances, he has one goal and one red card.
All the while, Magennis has collected 44 Northern Ireland caps and on Monday, will face Germany in a Euro 2020 qualifier. As a graph, Magennis’ career trajectory resembles a tumultuous week on the stock exchange.
But, 29 last month, he is smiling. This is one refreshing character — gregarious, hilarious, generous, and appreciative of where football has taken him and what it has given him. His self-deprecation is no act.
Asked about his development when switching from goalkeeper to outfield player, Magennis replies: “I was raw. Like a butcher’s fridge. Absolutely raw.”
Asked about how he feels playing for Northern Ireland, as he has done for nine years, he replies: “At 19, when I was released from Cardiff, if someone had said, ‘Look, in a few years’ times, you’ll have nearly 50 caps for your country, you’ll have played in a major tournament and you’ll be scoring goals for your national team,’ I’d have said, ‘You’re on recreational drugs!’”
When Magennis thinks about the last few months at Bolton – the unpaid wages, relegation, a points deduction, the winding-up order and then, too late for him, the rescue – he comes up with three words: “Emotional, stressful, heartbreaking.”
He had joined the club in the summer of 2018. It was a move up to the Championship from League One Charlton. One of the appealing aspects of Magennis is the respect he pays his former clubs.
“When the opportunity came at Bolton, I didn’t have to think about it,” he says. “When I went and met the manager (Phil Parkinson) and saw the stadium and training ground and facilities, it was proper.
“The dressing room was brilliant, even before all the craziness happened — cohesive and pulling in the one direction. And we started off the season unbelievably.”
In the avalanche of bad news to engulf Bolton, it is forgotten they began their 2018-19 season with a 2-1 away win at West Brom. Magennis scored the first on his debut. He scored in the next match and when Bolton beat Birmingham 1-0 in the fourth game of the season — again, with a goal from Magennis — Bolton were third in the Championship.
That was the high point. Matters on and off the pitch started to slide.
“I’d invested hope,” he says. “When you sign for a team in the Championship, you want to remain with that team in the Championship.
“But it was apparent very quickly that football, if not taking a back seat, was parallel to a lot of other factors. You were going into work and seeing colleagues and other staff members genuinely struggling.”
November’s wages arrived late at Bolton. December’s and January’s came on time but after that, nothing. As a team, Magennis says they “agreed to see the season out” but it became increasingly difficult.
“Some people were saying that if they didn’t get paid, they couldn’t afford to go to work,” he says. “For me, that was absolutely unbelievable. That wasn’t just playing or coaching staff. It was medical staff, cleaners, people who worked at the hotel, on matchdays. Everyone had their own struggles.
“It’s all about perspective. I’m a man of schedule and routine. I like to know what’s going on. I’m extremely emotional. People say an extrovert.
Magennis ‘the extrovert’ putting a brave face on at Bolton in April before a match at Blackburn Rovers. (Photo: Andrew Kearns – via Getty )
“The uncertainty of not knowing what was going on was eventually too much to handle. Unfortunately, when the administrators took over, we never had a meeting. They didn’t come and address us about what was going on. We had a couple of meetings with the PFA (Professional Footballers’ Association) but it was the administrative team and Football Ventures who managed to take over the club eventually, and we weren’t hearing anything from anyone.
“It was a lose-lose situation. When you were told something, it was another delay or a new deadline, which was just as bad.
“It was a crazy experience. I don’t mean any disrespect to anyone but until you’ve been in this situation, you don’t know what it’s like. It’s carnage.
“Football was my get-out-of-jail card but it was getting to the stage where I was driving in stressing about liquidation.”
Eventually, Magennis submitted his notice and a court date was coming until Hull City stepped in. They offered money, Bolton took it. The Trotters were in League One by then. Magennis was staying in the Championship.
“I have a young family. They are my only priority. I have to make sure they are secure and have stability. We’d moved from London, kids were in school. I was well-prepared to stay. Bolton was good to me and I had a good time. But I didn’t get paid.”
In the midst of the “carnage and madness” in July, Magennis received a phone call from his son’s headmaster. Would he come along to the school fair so children could take shots at him?
“I was thinking, ‘You want me to dress up as a clown or something?’. I’ve been called that many times. But it was for kids to take penalties at me.
“I didn’t think that was going to sell tickets but we had a great day.”
Perhaps the Bolton headmaster knew that Josh Magennis’s professional career started with shot-stopping.
From Bangor, outside Belfast, the teenage Magennis had mixed schoolboy goalkeeping with forward play and rugby union. He joined Irish League club Glentoran and got into the Northern Ireland youth set-up.
“I went across the water as a goalkeeper,” he says. “Cardiff decided (quickly) that I wasn’t going to make the grade and the academy manager, Neil Ardley, found out I used to do both and said, ‘Do you want to re-try as a striker?’
“I said, ‘You have to be kidding me on.’
“Because, just before I left for Cardiff, I’d had to choose between rugby and football. It was hard. A coach at school in Bangor was with Malone Rugby Club and I’d go there midweek. I was told that if I continued, I’d be drafted into the Ulster Rugby scholarship scheme. I had to decide. Football was my first love.
“But when I didn’t make it at Cardiff, I asked the question if I could come back and play rugby and they said, ‘Yeah, the door’s open.’ Ulster Rugby said that. I was 16. I’d gone over to Cardiff at 15.”
Now Magennis had another striking decision to make. “I didn’t discuss it with anyone, really.
“I come from a single-parent home. I told my mum. She used to be at the side of the pitch screaming – one of those mums.
“I’m mad into faith and so I just prayed. I said to myself, ‘I’m here now, I might as well try. If I go home, there’ll be no coming back.’ I’d rather be here and fail. No, ‘What if?’”
Magennis took a chance with his teenage peer group who knew him as a keeper.
“Oh, I got a lot of stick. A lot of questions in the local media. But Neil Ardley stuck by me. He said I’d to be mentally tough, block it out.”
This is when Magennis calls himself raw. He laughs, just as others laughed, but he persevered. After the summer of his 17th birthday, he returned to Wales and said to himself, “I’ll leave no rock unturned. Some days I’d be good, some days I’d be dreadful.
“I managed to get a pro contract. I was the only one out of my second-year scholars. People who were giving me banter were released. There were two boys who went up before me — one was Aaron Ramsey. He was that good he was playing up a year. At 15, he went straight to the first team and then to Arsenal.”
Magennis got his deal and would train sometimes with the first-team forwards such as Robbie Fowler and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink.
“It was mad for the lads. I used to go and train with them as a goalkeeper when they were doing shooting practice. Then I was back as a striker.
“‘What are you doing?!’ they said. ‘I’m a striker now.’ Nobody could believe it.”
Dave Jones could.
He was Cardiff manager and when the club had an injury crisis before a trip to Liverpool in the League Cup in October 2007, he told his new young striker that he might need to go in goal at Anfield. Fortunately, Michael Oakes was able to play but Magennis was there on the bench.
It would be two years, a week before his 19th birthday, that Magennis would make his debut as an 89th-minute substitute for Jay Bothroyd. Two weeks later, he had his first goal, against Bristol Rovers in the League Cup. “A header,” he smiles. “Still remember it.
“Cardiff had some ridiculously gifted footballers then. Hasselbaink was there, Robbie Fowler, Stephen McPhail, Aaron Ramsey, Joe Ledley, Ross McCormack, Jay Bothroyd. Jay was amazing, larger than life. He’d look after me. I got close to him.
“I used to play two-touch with Robbie all the time. He’d say that if I ever beat him, he’d give me his car for the weekend.
“I never beat him. Ever.”
Magennis concedes now that “immaturity” was a factor in his departure from Cardiff. Jones had warned him not to “get ahead of myself” but he had.
The parting was “amicable”, he says. “But I had to go, and I went to Aberdeen. That was a shock. I felt a long way from home. At Cardiff, I was a young pro, at Aberdeen I’d to produce. I was still young but I was going there as a signing. You’ve to perform.
“But I was miles off it still. I thought I was something that I wasn’t.
“I stayed a few years. The managers seemed to like me but I was in and out.
“I went to right-back. All the strikers were fit and all the defenders were injured. Archie Knox said, ‘Can you play right-back?’. Then, he said, ‘You’re playing there until I say otherwise.’ When it was time to go back up front, it just wasn’t happening.
“The club was brilliant, the fanbase brilliant. Beautiful city; met my wife there, had our first son there. But my attitude wasn’t where it needed to be. I got released and no-one really touched me.”
Magennis celebrating with O’Neill during that memorable night at Windsor Park in October 2015. (Photo: Simon Stacpoole/Mark Leech Sports Photography/Getty Images)
“Windsor Park was still under re-construction and the dressing room was a Portakabin. For the first ten minutes after, it was silent. Michael spoke, then it was silent. He just said, ‘Well done. We’ve done it. No-one thought we could do it, so you deserve everything.’ No-one spoke, then we went back out for a lap of honour, then madness, champagne, Sweet Caroline. It was brilliant. The best moment in my football career.”
This led to, as Magennis puts it, “the glitz and glam of the Euros, the Kings of Lyon.” Northern Ireland beat Ukraine in Lyon. There was an unlucky last-16 exit to Wales and a match against Germany.
The Germans re-appeared in Northern Ireland’s World Cup 2018 qualifying group, too – Magennis scored against them. And when the draw for Euro 2020 was made, Germany came out again. So too Holland.
It could not be harder. But O’Neill’s team have begun with four wins from four against Estonia and Belarus home and away. In March, Magennis scored the 87th-minute winner at home to Belarus. In June, he scored the 80th-minute winner away to Estonia. He’s not Gerd Muller but Germany will be aware.
“It feels surreal,” he says of meeting Germany as group leaders. “You just have to see how far you can push them. Windsor can be a formidable place.”
And surreal is also how Magennis says he still feels when the letter from the Irish Football Association calling him up drops through the door. “It really is. People think I’m telling lies when I say that but I’m being genuine.”
Surreal, genuine – the unique Josh Magennis.
(Top photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile via Getty Images)