Football

'People Thought I Was Crazy' - Caleb Folan Opens Up On His Unique Career

'People Thought I Was Crazy' - Caleb Folan Opens Up On His Unique Career

Given his career has encompassed Colorado, Myanmar, and Thailand, the question generally asked of Caleb Folan’s career is the ‘where’.

The question worth asking, however, is the ‘who’.

A lot of my venturing was me seeking happiness, and was not always to do with football. It’s a change of scenery; it’s almost an escapism from what you are dealing with at home. It was daunting, moving away, but that’s the kind of person I am.

I like putting myself in those kinds of situations and learning more about myself. It is a basic part of self. If you put yourself in a certain situation, do you embrace it or just go through the motions?

It is about embracing yourself and gravitating to where your spirit takes you. When you do that, you are being your true self. It’s not so much about following yourself...it’s about following your truth.

*****

A brief run-through of the ‘where’.

Folan came through at Leeds United, and after a couple of stints on loan, moved permanently to Chesterfield in 2003. Four years later he joined Wigan, before joining Hull City for the Premier League promotion under Phil Brown.

It was while at Hull that Folan got his first Irish call-up under Steve Staunton, but injury would mean he had to wait until Giovanni Trapattoni was manager to be capped. Falling out of favour under Brown, Folan tried a loan spell at Gareth Southgate’s Middlesbrough, but injury dictated an early return to Hull. Months later, in 2011, he made the surprise move to Colorado Rapids in the MLS.

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From the U.S. he returned to England with Birmingham, but injury denied him a first-team appearance. Folan then moved to play in Malaysia, came back to England for a trial with Blackpool that became a bizarre spell at Bradford. From there, the next stop was Myanmar, with a club now known as Shan United FC, with whom he spent the 2014/15 season.

At this point, the Wikipedia list comes to a full stop.

So what has Caleb Folan been up to since?

"I kind of unofficially retired, to be honest", he tells Balls from his home in the UK.

After Myanmar, Folan returned to the UK to look for a club. Remarkably, given he scored goals in the Premier League and provided Ireland's most iconic flick on for Robbie Keane (okay, maybe it was Noel Hunt) since Niall Quinn, he couldn't find a job.

His days were spent at home, rattling at keys to research agents and clubs in the hope that someone would hire him.

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I was out on a limb by myself, trying to contact teams and contact agents.

I was sat at home, thinking, ‘How am I going to contact clubs and agents?’ I was researching agents I didn’t know at the time, even coaches or people in positions at clubs who might have some guidance or help. It was...strange. Very, very strange.

Time in Canada, Thailand and on Reunion Island yielded nothing, until, after five long months, an opportunity arose to play with Central FC in Trinidad, a side coached by Stern John.

Folan spent a year in the Caribbean and has now returned home to pursue other interests. In spite of it all, he betrays no bitterness. "I went through a lot of things, mentally, regarding football. I didn't feel bitterness, but disappointment and hurt, really". 

By that stage, Folan was no stranger to this side of the game.

Having enjoyed life in Thailand, Folan returned home for an opportunity with Blackpool for the 13/14 season. After a full pre-season, Folan was then offered an unsatisfactory month-to-month deal, which led to his turning it down and linking up with an old coach, Steve Parkin, at Bradford.

He offered me a lifeline to go to Bradford, and offered me a short-term contract. The hurtful or strange thing about that was the lack of communications with the manager. I got to the end of my contract, and had heard nothing from the club or the manager.

I remember going home, saying ‘Hmm, my contract’s out. What do I do? Do I go in tomorrow?'

No [I didn't go back in], I just presumed I had left and nothing had been renewed. I had no conversation even prior to that. I left.

I've never heard from them. What’s funny is that they were still paying me my contract for three or four months after that.

I sent all the money back to them. I sent it back. I notified them that they were still paying me and I sent it all back.

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The other conspicuous skirmish of Folan's career came at Hull. When he went to 'Boro on loan, Phil Brown delivered a few withering valedictory remarks. "Caleb didn't score in his four games this season and didn't really look like scoring", scorned Brown. "You're always getting pictures of every individual when they come into work, not just a game situation".

At the time, Folan called the comments "childish and pathetic", saying that it was an unfair reflection of his attitude and application on the training ground. Folan was at 'Boro when he responded to Brown, but the vagaries of injury led to an unexpectedly early reunion.

Today, Folan bears no ill to his former manager, confirming that the pair shook hands and that he still regards him as one of his favourite managers.

At the time it was more shock as the worst thing for me, or the thing that I take badly, is being portrayed in a way that’s not me.

That’s what I live on. Being true to me, and knowing who I am.

When someone questions that, that’s the only thing in life is truly upsetting to me.

*****

Expressing himself has been central to Folan's life, and travelling and embracing cultures rich and strange has merely been one way of articulating it.

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Folan is relatively reserved - this is his first interview in three years - but has always had different ways of putting himself across.

I was naturally talented at art from a really young age. I was always reaching for a pencil. It was love from a young age, and it was a feeling of expression as well. I used to go to train and play football, and as soon as I'd come home I'd be drawing, trying to create something.

It was a different headspace, where you enter a different realm of yourself. It's a way of shutting off from things, really. But you don't realise that until you get older, when you're younger you just like doing it.

Which version of Caleb Folan did he like the most on these days?

I always liked myself as the guy who came home and shut off from football. That was always the true me. When you go to football you are going to work, and any job has rules and regulations. Especially in football, which is such a judgemental field of work. You have to carry yourself in certain ways.

It's a game of opinions, isn't it? One manager can rate you, and another might not. You're judged and it will always be like that.

With art, you create something and it's your expression and it is your take on things.

Folan brought his art to work at times, and designed tattoos for some of the senior players at Leeds. He is most inspired by street art, and speaks regularly with some of his favourite artists. (One group, Insa, painted a mural on the ceiling on his house in Leeds).

Folan continued to explore this passion in Denver, and in Asia was awoken to another: energy healing and meditation. He is currently completing diplomas in sports therapy and sports massage therapy in the UK with a view to working in that area in football.

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Folan is now melding these spheres together with a view to returning to football, whereas once they were separate; an outlet to escape his chafing at the rigid football world.

When you are young and an apprentice in football, you have memories of being in a team room when your manager is barking orders and rules, and you are so young you don’t have a voice to speak up or you're scared to speak up. That’s the environment and you don’t want to be an outcast or get in trouble.

As you grow older, you find a voice and there are times you feel you have to speak your mind.

When I was a young kid, I wasn’t vocal at all. When I was 16 or 17 and a young pro, I’d be sat there quiet. As I’ve got older within the game, I just naturally found a voice. Whether that’s a manager coming at you in a certain way - if he can have an opinion, why can’t you have an opinion yourself?

If a manager is telling you something, or asks you something of you or has a view, why can’t we have a view as well? Sometimes speaking up like that is seen as a bad thing in football, as if ‘he’s a troublemaker’ or something.

I’ve never been that guy [a troublemaker], but I’ve grown to a place where I can say it.

*****

Among Folan's most powerful expressions in football came in the dying minutes in a World Cup qualifier in Bari.

With Ireland trailing to the World champions in the final minutes, substitute Folan was attracted to a long ball into the penalty area and managed to contort himself in the right way for Robbie Keane/Noel Hunt to equalise.

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"It's one of my proudest moments", recalls Folan. "It doesn't get much better than that. Away to Italy, who were world number one at the time, World Cup winners...how does it get better than that?"

Folan's grandparents are from Galway, and was first called up to the Irish squad by Steve Staunton in 2007. There was a bit of controversy around the selection at the time: Staunton had seen him play once, had never spoken directly to him, and picked him ahead of David Connolly, Alan Lee, and Clinton Morrison. Folan never actually spoke to Staunton: he was informed of his call-up via letter and was then forced to withdraw from the squad through injury.

It fell to Giovanni Trapattoni to hand Folan his seven Irish caps.

I love that guy. I’ve so much respect for him. His English wasn’t great but he would text and call me in his own time, to see how I was. He was always checking up with me.

If there was a period when I was doing quite well, he called to say to 'keep up the good work, and look after yourself'. When I was injured he would call to see how I was doing.

It was always brief, but I was blown away by the thought. I remember being sat in my apartment with my friends, and my phone rang. I had him saved in my phone as G Trap, and I thought, ‘No way, Trapattoni is calling my phone’. I showed it to my friend, and he thought the same.

I answered, and it was him.

Unbelievable.

Folan played his final game for Ireland in 2009, and wasn't considered once he moved to America.

*****

To a more mundane method of expression. Folan has only recently started engaging on social media, and among tweets supporting his former teams and revelling in moments past was support for Colin Kaepernick's new campaign with Nike.

It’s quite an amazing thing.

I don’t want to get too political, but with the Nike campaign and his message, I just relate to it. I relate to it in a sense that I sacrificed a lot in order to find happiness.

That stems from initially going to America - people thought I was crazy. ‘He’s sacrificing money and his career for the sake of going here’.

I saw it a different way: I was sacrificing that in order to gain something greater: inner happiness.

Even men as expressive as Folan sometimes find others to speak for them.

Gavin Cooney
Article written by
Changed the spelling of his name upon pressure from Michael Owen.

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