Gareth Evans :The Hammerhead Dragon (Part 2) – The Interview

Part Two to our Gareth Evans special (see Part One here). In a Lost Boyos first, we spoke to Welshman, Gareth Evans about his adventures on the other side of the Atlantic with US teams Austin Aztex, Real Maryland Monarchs, North Carolina Railhawks and his current club Wilmington Hammerheads.

Your first ventures abroad came with Austin Aztex – how did that transfer come about?

Well I have a lot to thank Dean Saunders for the transfer coming about. After a period of not playing in the 1st team at Wrexham I decided I wanted to try for pastures new. I had some friends who had been in university and already played in America and they highly recommended it. Luckily for me the timing completely fell into place. Adrian Heath had just taken over a brand new team in Austin, Texas, called Austin Aztex and him and Dean Saunders are good friends. Deano called him on my behalf, recommended me and then within a month or so I was officially living in Texas!

Was there always a desire to play football overseas at some point? Or was it just an offer that arose and you took it?

Playing in America or abroad is something that I had never ever thought of until I was in the youth team at Wrexham. We had a coach called Paul Lees come in who came to watch our games and training sessions and he worked for a university called Furman in South Carolina. Clint Dempsey is probably the best player to come through their system. He wanted me to go over there and study and play for the team, but after long consideration I decided against it as it had always been my ambition to play for Wrexham’s first team. Plus the whole idea of going back to school was one I didn’t fancy at the time. Then a guy called Tom Taylor, who is now a good friend, joined Wrexham. He had most recently been playing for Portland Timbers and I used to talk to him every single day about playing out there and it just sounded brilliant. These things were always in the back of my mind whenever I thought about leaving Wrexham.

What was it like moving aboard at a young age having played in your local area for most of your career up to that point?

As soon as I had made my mind up on leaving Wrexham and giving America a try I just got extremely excited about it all. Then in early February in 2009 I flew out to Austin for a week to play in a trial game and sign the contract. I remember sitting in the office on my own for a minute right after having signed to come and play in America and all my excitement evaporated and I was absolutely mortified. I couldn’t believe what I had done; I thought I had made a huge mistake. The whole thing just hit me like a ton of bricks. I was then introduced to Tappy (Alex Tapp ex Wimbledon and MK Dons) who was familiar with the area. He came and picked me up and showed me around the city and then I calmed down a lot and the excitement started to build again. I went home for two weeks, packed as much as I could, said a lot of goodbyes and then came right back over for preseason.

I recently wrote an article about Anthony Pulis and his move to Orlando City who are managed by your old manager at Austin, Adrian Heath, what was it like to play for him? Did he give you any advice as a fellow Brit that had moved ‘over the pond’?

In terms of coming to the area we had a good group of English guys at the team which I think made it easier for me to settle in. I made good friends with Eddie Johnson who I lived very close to back home and if I ever felt a little homesick I would just talk to him about funny stuff back home so I never actually got too homesick. As for Adrian Heath, he is to this date without doubt one of the best coaches I have worked for and I have the utmost respect for him. For many different reasons in my year in Austin we butted heads a lot and fell out, and that was mostly down to my immaturity being in a new place new environment and things just not going well on the field for both the team and myself. Adrian tried to help me and I thank him for that, even the year after I had left the team and moved on I remember a conversation on the phone where he gave me some great advice, which I took, and since then I haven’t looked back. My only regret is having just one season working under him, I feel with more I really could have pushed on a lot quicker in the US.

 

What prompted you to return to the UK with Vauxhall Motors, only to go back to the States shortly after?

Simply enough my visa ran out and I had to go home. While I was waiting for a new contract in the US I wanted to play and earn a little bit of money. Vauxhall were the closest team to me so I ended up playing there until I re-signed in America.

What eventually lead to you leaving Austin Aztex and joining Real Maryland Monarchs?

Leaving Aztex was something that was taken out my hands. Something happened which I completely disagreed with and I informed them (in a naive manner) that I wanted to leave and didn’t plan on returning. At this point they hadn’t made their mind up if they wanted to re – sign me anyway so this made their decision very easy. Simple as that really.

Did you feel you were taking a risk with your footballing career by dropping down another division to play for Real Maryland? 

In a way I felt it was a risk but at the same time it wasn’t something I had any say on. I had a bad season performance wise personally for Aztex and the team didn’t do well at all. Also with me being a foreign player (each team is only allowed 7 per squad) there were no teams wanting to sign me. Thankfully Anthony Hudson (coach at Real Maryland Monarchs) gave me a chance and made me captain. I think I showed that year a little more of what I’m about and what I can do, even getting voted by the league’s coaches into the team of the year.

Did your life change dramatically off-the-pitch as a result of the move from Austin to Maryland?

My life didn’t change that much really when I moved to Maryland. Besides the fact I personally much preferred the living arrangements (something which the Aztex did great with) and the city itself in Austin. But in terms of playing I had a coach who had faith in me by putting me as captain and I was just determined to play well for him and the team.

You speak very highly of your coach at Maryland, Anthony Hudson (former coach under Harry Redknapp at Spurs and manager of Newport County) – what made him such a good coach?

Anthony is a great coach. He’s brilliant with the lads 1v1 and talking to them and bringing the best out of them. But the thing that stands out is his dedication to the game. He is always wanting to learn and get better and better. The season is very short in the US and the preseason even shorter and in such a small space of time with a new group of guys he got us so defensively organised it was unbelievable. I think his sessions were brilliant, always different and challenging, never boring and I have a lot to owe him as he helped me regain my confidence and he believed in me, which is something I am very grateful for.

You then moved to Wilmington Hammerheads in North Carolina – how has that compared to your experiences in Maryland and Austin?

First of all, Wilmington is an unbelievable place to live. I fell in love with the place within the first week or so of living here. So that was a good start, but then I quickly realised how great the club is. We have an amazing fan base for such a small town, and we are the only professional team in the town, so we get treated well by the people and we do TV interviews etc. which is definitely not the norm for this league. I think the coach, David Irving, we have here is brilliant. He does a great job of working with a very small budget and putting a group of hungry players together who want to work for him and play for him. He’s coached here and lived in the area for a long time, so he knows what it’s all about and what it means to play for this team, and he gets that across every day in training. He’s a great motivator in training and games and I have got a lot of respect for him.

What prompted you to move to the North Carolina Railhawks, only for you to return to Wilmington shortly after?

The move to Carolina Railhawks came about because we play in the USL Pro league which is the 3rd tier and only runs for 5/6 months of the year. Railhawks play in the NASL which is the 2nd tier and their season runs for 8 months. A few guys from our league will step up to the NASL for the last 2 months of their season to boost their squad numbers and help, and it also gives the player an extra 2 months playing and 2 months wages! Luckily for me I signed and played every single minute of all the remaining games. Unfortunately for us we got knocked out in the playoff semi-final on penalties, which was heart-breaking. Twice in one year my season ended early because of penalties! But the contract I signed was only a two month deal and the coach there had already accepted a position in the MLS where he would be leaving right after the season, so it was only ever going to be a 2 month short term deal.

Wilmington Hammerheads had a successful season last year – do you think they will finish in the playoff places again this season and do they have a realistic chance of claiming the USL Pro crown?

We definitely did very well last year, but as a new team we had that sort of surprise factor. Next year people will know about us, so it will be more difficult. Whether we can come 2nd in the USL Pro regular season again I am not sure. I would like to think we will be challenging for 1st, but our main aim first and foremost is to make the play offs and then we can see where that takes us from there. In terms of winning the whole thing, there are definitely 4 or 5 teams who will think they have a better chance than us, and financially they do, but if we can build the same team spirit we had last year and improve our quality a little, I don’t see any reason why we can’t be challenging for the title.

How would you describe the ULS Pro League to someone? What is the quality of football like? What is the support like?

USL Pro I think is a good league and it is definitely developing rapidly. The major downside is the length of the season, but with the budgets teams have to work with it makes sense. It’s not like hopping on a bus and driving an hour down the road to a game. A lot of it is putting 20 guys on a plane and getting them to stay in a hotel for 2 or 3 nights – it’s very, very expensive for clubs. In terms of level, I get asked this question a lot and I find it hard to compare to another league. It’s a completely different style of play to back home. It is much slower mainly because of the heat the games are played in and teams normally try and play their way out of the back. However, I believe there are players in this league who could play at a very good level back home. The supporters out here vary; Orlando City in our league do very well and get about 6 or 7,000 usually and with some exceptions they get more which is great. My team Wilmington Hammerheads do unbelievable, we are a small town with one of the smallest budgets in this league but last season we regularly got around 5,000 fans, which is amazing.

How long do you envisage yourself staying in the States?

For me, I want to live in the US for the rest of my life. I absolutely love it out here and honestly could never see myself living back home again. I met my girlfriend when I was in Austin and we have been together since. She is incredible and I am extremely lucky to have her; to be honest I think if I didn’t have the novelty of the foreign accent I don’t think I would have stood a chance! The years I have been out here have been incredibly fun, challenging and rewarding in many different ways and I just think there is so much more opportunity out here than back home, right now at least.

What would your advice be to another Welsh footballer who was offered the chance to play in the US?

My advice based on my experiences is if you’re offered the chance to play in the USA, grab it with both hands and go for it. I did and I have never once regretted it!

What has been your highlight of playing in the US?

My personal highlight from playing in the US would probably be last season which was my first with Wilmington. I had originally signed at the start of the season with a team called LA Blues in California, but for some reasons this didn’t work out. Thankfully Coach Irving was willing to take me
last minute and it worked out great. I had the best year of my career performance wise and the team came 2nd in the league. We only got knocked out of the play offs in the quarter finals on penalties, which was a blow, but at the start of the season we were predicted to come 12th out of 15 teams and we came second. Individually, over the last 2 years I have been a finalist for Defender of the Year and have been named in to the league’s Team of the Year both years running, which is a great achievement as it’s voted for by the coaches of all the teams in the league.

Do you have ambitions to play in MLS in the future?

In terms of MLS of course I would love to play in that league. However, it’s not just a simple case of being good enough and spotted. That is hard enough in itself but then you have the foreign player limit that comes with the territory in the USA and nowadays with the way the league is growing and how fast it’s improving, the foreign spots are going to players like Robbie Keane, Beckham, Henry etc. It is obviously near enough impossible to compete with them. However, I don’t think it’s impossible to get in the league, but it is very difficult. I do hope I get a chance at some point to train with a team and show them what I can do. I believe if I get that opportunity, then I’m confident in my ability and believe I would have a chance.

Any good/funny stories from your time out in the US?

Wow, I have a million different stories most of which are definitely not appropriate. But one that sticks out would be when I was playing in Maryland all the guys and even the coach, Anthony Hudson, were in on a trick. Anthony told me that I was to expect a call from a reporter at about 12.30. Sure enough at 12.30 I got a call, little did I know it was one of the guys pretending to be a news reporter. I did this big whole interview on the team while I was in one room and all the other guys were in another with me on loud speaker. Then the worst part is they even got me to come down to lobby of the hotel in my game kit and with my boots on ready for a photo shoot. I ended up coming downstairs in to the lobby to find all the lads standing there laughing like crazy. I’m not going to lie I was raging and highly embarrassed, but I definitely see the funny side of it now.

Finally, what would your advice be to another Welsh footballer who was offered the chance to play in the US and become another US-based ‘Lost Boyo’

My advice based on my experiences is if you’re offered the chance to play in the USA, grab it with both hands and go for it. I did and I have never once regretted it!

Thanks Gareth for an insightful and honest interview and good luck with the season ahead! Top man!

Lost Boyos will be following the progress of Gareth Evans and the efforts of the Wilmington Hammerheads throughout the 2012 USL Pro season. You can also follow Gareth on Twitter – @GarethEvans23

3 thoughts on “Gareth Evans :The Hammerhead Dragon (Part 2) – The Interview

  1. Pingback: Lost Boyo XI 2012 « Lost Boyos

  2. Pingback: Retrospective: The first 12 months of Lost Boyos « Lost Boyos

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