By Dave Donnelly
LEAGUE of Ireland fairytales are historically short in supply but a new page will be written should Stillorgan’s Kaleem Simon help Montserrat to World Cup glory this week.
Not only could Simon become the first Irish person to reach football’s biggest stage representing another country – he could do so with facing his best friend Ayman Ben Mohamed of Tunisia.
Simon was born in London but, from age two, lived in Stillorgan and then Goatstown while attending St Benildus College.
A couple of years ahead of him in Benildus was Ayman Ben Mohamed, and the pair have been best friends since coming through the ranks with UCD and then Longford Town.
Both players had spells with Bohemians before embarking on their national team journeys, while ex-Bohs man Roberto Lopes is also in the frame for World Cup honours with Cape Verde.
Simon, who is targeting a professional contract in England having spent the past 12 months in the English National League with Welling United, made his debut in qualifying in March.
The tiny Caribbean nation face two of the biggest games in the country’s history as they face US Virgin Islands and Grenada for a first-ever shot at the big boys in elite qualification.
Top spot in a five-team group including former World Cup qualifiers El Salvador will only yield a play-off, but the carrot would be a spot in the business stages with Mexico and the United States.
For an island of 5,000, half of which is uninhabitable due to a devastating volcanic eruption in 1995, getting to the latter stages would be a victory in itself.
Once the final stage commences, however, all bets are off. With three places in the finals guaranteed, and a play-off for the fourth, World Cup qualification is a real possibility.
With Panama pipping perennial qualifiers Honduras and the United States to the finals in 2018, dreams can come true – not that 24-year-old Simon is getting ahead of himself.
“We don’t want to get to where we’re very heartbroken and disappointed that we don’t make it into the next qualifying stage,” Simon tells the Dublin Gazette.
“The World Cup is obviously massive, so it’s not easy for an island like ourselves to get into that. Not to be too negative, but also not to be too hopeful – to have that balance is key.
“We have the Gold Cup qualifiers in July as well, so we should be getting into that. You don’t want to be heartbroken if things don’t go our way.
“We just need to keep our heads and stay positive, and hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” he says.
The majority of the national squad are, like Simon, second and third-generation Montserratians, descended from the Windrush Generation who moved to the UK after the Second World War.
Simon’s grandmother, Mary Philip, was born in Montserrat and his grandfather in Dominica, while his mother, Karen Strawbridge Simon, is from Derry.
He’s still not entirely sure how the Montserrat FA figured out he was eligible, but once manager Willie Donachie made the call he didn’t have to think twice.
“I always used to joke and say, ‘oh, I could play for the Montserrat team,’ but I never really realised that I could and I’d be able to. I was just happy and excited when I got the call.
“I knew a lot about the country and the island, because that’s where my dad is from, but in terms of the national team itself I knew very little.
“The Montserrat FA messaged me on Instagram and I messaged them back, and put me into the system. I sent on my video.
“As soon as I had I got a call from Willie Donochie, the manager. He said we want you on board. I don’t know how they knew I was eligible. I didn’t put on social media that I was from Montserrat.
“I might have put half-Irish, half-Caribbean, but I don’t think I ever put anything about Montserrat. I don’t know how they managed to figure that out.”
Simon made substitute appearances in the 2-2 draw with Antigua and Barbuda and the 1-1 draw with El Salvador in Curacao, the first time Montserrat have avoided defeat to either side.
Nottingham Forest striker Lyle Taylor scored all three goals and, though they needed a late equaliser against El Salvador, they could easily have won both games.
This week’s games will take place in the Dominican Republic and Grenada, new experiences for a player who, until March, had never visited the Caribbean and is still yet to see Montserrat.
Simon, who also had spells with Wexford and Cabinteely in the League of Ireland, sees his immediate future in England, but he wouldn’t rule out a return to professional football in Ireland.
The tricky winger decided his talents might be better spotted if he dropped down the levels to National League South, which he compares to the LOI First Division, than a weaker team at home.
He moved to London with the hope of forging a professional career but a bad ankle injury and Covid-19 limited him to a handful of appearances before the league was cancelled earlier this year.
There are offers on the table to continue in part-time football at the same level but Simon has set his sights on at least the Conference, and is hoping his international performances can help his cause.
“I have a couple of offers in Conference South, but I would prefer to try and see if I can try and get something higher, especially if this helps.
“With Covid, it hasn’t helped my case at all, or anyone, but if I can get a Conference or League One or League Two side, I would like to get into full-time football.
“That’s ideally what will help me grow as a player. If that doesn’t happen, I’ll be back home and still in Goatstown, so options are open if I can get a team in the Premier Division. We’ll see.”
Picture: Martin Doherty