Gary Deegan talks all things football, from his time in the League of Ireland to putting the bite into Cambridge United's midfield
Gary Deegan is as combative and uncompromising as they come in professional football.
“When you drive through the gates here, it’s work mode,” says the 31-year-old, as we talk at Cambridge United’s Clare College Sports Ground training base.
“The sessions are tough and intense, and you shouldn’t enjoy them.
“You should come off feeling tired and feeling good about yourself – there is nothing worse than leaving behind 10 per cent or wondering if you could have done a bit more.”
Those high standards Deegan sets himself are also expected of those around him, with the small talk and platitudes not for the U’s captain – he just wants to play and win.
There is a heart-on-the-sleeve snarling persona that the Dubliner appears to relish perpetuating, racing from one challenge to another to get the blood pumping.
He also seems to win and lose with the fans, sharing their rollercoaster of emotions, perhaps no better demonstrated than the celebratory videos posted on the club’s official Twitter feed during the U’s winning run at the end of October.
Deegan has no personal presence on social media though, and there is very little out there about his route into football, the hard work that took him to the top – which included playing in the Champions League qualifying rounds – or what inspires him.
Yet, during a rare in-depth interview it is really easy to warm to the engaging Deegan as we talk all things League of Ireland, hard work, motivations, life as a postman – and missed deliveries – and all things in between.
As he relaxes into explaining how he came to ply his trade on these shores, via some of Irish footballs outposts, you get the sense of his intensity and drive to succeed.
It has not been plain sailing as having been released from the Shelbourne academy he found himself trying to break into professional football while earning a living.
Work was first at a DIY store and then as a postman, which would mean an early start at 5.30am, and being finished by as late as 3pm, then leaving for training at 4pm to arrive by 6pm, and back home to do it all again the next day.
“I was late for one of my first sessions at Longford and trust me, I felt the wrath of being late; I was never late again,” says Deegan, recalling his first foray into a man’s footballing environment.
“At the time I was working, so I was coming home from work, getting in the car and then straight to training as we trained at night time. I was ditching work half an hour early to get myself across to make sure I wasn’t late.
“The manager put his marker down early doors with me, and the rest of the team, and it was a tough season but I learnt a lot.
“I’ve always been self-disciplined, and always believed in myself and that can take you so far.”
There were occasions when Deegan was a postman that the two worlds did collide though.
“One time I was doing the post, and my mother rang the manager saying ‘Gary hasn’t done any of the post’. I had left it all on my bed,” he says.
“I sacrificed the post because we had a match – I said I would double it up the next day on the post.
“They’re the small things that stick with me; and I really appreciate the stuff that happened to me.”
What is striking and impressive about Deegan is his inner belief.
He has had knockbacks, being told he was not big enough, strong enough or good enough, but has always stayed true to himself and come back fighting.
When he left home as a teenager to go and play for Galway, he knew the rewards that could ultimately be available.
It may have been a risk at the time, but that strength of character helped him become a success. They are all traits we see every time he steps on to the pitch as well, but where do they stem from?
“I’ve always had older brothers so when I stepped out of line, like at school or whatever, as I never grew up with a father, my brothers acted like a father figure,” says Deegan.
“If there was any messing at school, I would get a slap off the brothers so you’re going to learn quickly how to play the game a little bit. My brothers always said to me, ‘If you ever get into trouble just make sure you don’t bring it to your mother’s doorstep, just go and deal with it’.
“So I’ve learned to stick up for myself, be a man and just grow up and be streetwise as well.”
That approach has been a large part in shaping Deegan’s career.
Those early experiences in the Irish lower leagues led to him swapping bottom-of-the-table Galway for league leaders Bohemians. “Trust me, hard work has good ways of repaying you – it may not be now or next year, but it comes back to you,” he says.
What followed was two League of Ireland titles, an FAI Cup and an appearance in the Champions League qualifying rounds and, aged 22, a move to England to join Coventry in the Championship.
Deegan walked into a changing room that included big characters such as Freddie Eastwood, Marlon King and Leon Best and so it was another steep learning curve, but his time at the Sky Blues was dogged by serious injuries.
Pat Fenlon, his former manager at Bohemians, came calling to take him to Hibernian in the Scottish Premier which Deegan describes as “a tough league, a man’s league and an underrated league, let me tell you”.
Unfortunately, more misfortune befell Deegan as in an attack in Edinburgh city centre he suffered a broken jaw that had to be wired shut for eight weeks.
It led to just a year at Easter Road, and so he returned to England with first Northampton Town, then Southend and Shrewsbury before arriving at the Abbey.
At all of his clubs, Deegan has proven popular for his commitment and passion.
It is a fearsome look, but is it a fair reflection of his true personality?
“I’ve got my own standards, and you want everything to have high standards,” says Deegan.
“You want to get the best out of yourself and everyone else but obviously when I go home and see my little girl and girlfriend, I can relax a little bit and just be a dad and chill.
“But when you wake up you’ve got the football head back on.
“I drive myself every day. What’s the point of being a footballer? To show grit and make the most of it.”
And with Deegan having known life outside football, it is understandable why he is so keen to try to give back to supporters.
“Back to the Twitter thing, I think fans can appreciate it as they’re spending their hard-earned cash every week to come and watch us give them something back,” he says.
“So why not give them something back, whether it’s a win, or a Twitter video.
“Engage them, get them onside because trust me there will be times when we’re up against it, and it might be a bit of a cheer from the crowd that gets you going.
“So we’re all grateful and thankful that we’ve got good supporters.”
And with that will to win, you just know that Deegan will lead the fight for success at the U’s.