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Monday 15 October 2018

What Joe Lapira did next...

Capped once under Stan, American is now plying his trade in Norwegian second tier

MOST FOOTBALLERS hope that an international cap is the start of something great.

Some players built a successful club career, or at least earned a big-money move, after their international debut.

And not many Ireland players would expect to find themselves in the cold confines of the Norwegian Second Division, playing in front of crowds of 700, less than a year after playing for the international team, but that's the scenario which midfielder Joey Lapira is faced with these days, lining out for modest Norwegian side Nybergsund Idrettslag Trysil.

Only 14 months ago, Lapira was indeed an Ireland international, making his debut in the 1-1 draw with Ecuador in New York. Kevin Doyle, Kevin Kilbane, Daryl Murphy and Stephen Kelly, all Premier League veterans, were his team-mates.

"It's hard to think that a year ago I was there in New York, playing in the green shirt for Ireland alongside all those great players, and here I am now in Norway," Lapira told the Evening Herald.

SIDESTEP

"Playing for Ireland was one of those high points in my career, I know that me playing in the Norwegian second tier may be a sidestep, but the main thing for me was to get my fitness back, get my career going, get my head straight and see what happens then.

"The plan would be for me to play at a higher level here in Scandinavia, and see what happens after that, maybe get to the UK or one of the bigger European leagues. My contract here is up in November so I will take stock after that and see where I can go. But it's been good for me here, everyone has treated me well and the football has gone well.

"It was a dream of mine to play for Ireland, I don't think I could say that I dreamt of playing in the Norwegian Second Division when I was a kid, but here I am," added Lapira, who won his first and last Ireland cap in that game under Steve Staunton against Ecuador, as the long-haired forward, then playing college football in the US with Notre Dame, qualified for Ireland through his Louth-born mother.

"It was an amazing week working with Ireland that week. I had seen all the players like Kevin Doyle and Kevin Kilbane on TV before that so to be in the training camp and in the dressing room chatting to them was strange, but it was great, they were great to me.

"Ireland had a young squad there because of injuries and a lot of the guys were only 20 or 21, they were young like me, so we had a lot in common. It was a lot of fun, for me as an American kid who was half-Irish coming into the panel I thought I might not get respect from them, but everyone treated me very well."

Steve Staunton created a mini-storm of controversy when he handed Lapira that cap, as not only was he playing his football at a low level - players at UCD in the eircom League play at a higher level and in front of bigger crowds but would never be considered for the Ireland team - but he subsequently raised questions over his commitment to the Irish cause, saying that he was still open to playing for the USA.

"I haven't even thought about international football recently, because of where I am and the level I am playing at I am in no position to think about or talk about international soccer, I will have to do a hell of a lot better in my own game before I can consider international soccer again, it's not on my mind," Lapira admits.

Lapira ended up in Norway after some ill-fated trials in Scotland. "I had gone on trial to Scotland but things didn't work out for me. I got injured almost right away when I was on trial at Rangers and Aberdeen didn't go that well. I was going from US College football to a very competitive European premier league and there was a big gap," he says.

"I was still working on my fitness and prospects were not all that great for me in the UK, but I knew that the transfer window in Norway was open, I wanted to play for a club instead of just sitting on the bench and getting the occasional game somewhere, so I ended up in Norway.

"The club had just got promoted to the Second Division, I knew I'd have a chance to come in and play and things have gone well for me, I am playing regularly and playing well. It's not as skilful as some of the other European leagues but the games are fast and played at a high tempo, it's a bit like the lower leagues in England.

"There's a lot of action and I am getting to run around a lot, it's a bit of fun. I needed to play for a whole season over seven or eight months as opposed to the College season in the US which only lasts for three months.

"The standard is ok. The team I play for come from a really small town, the population is around 500, and we only get 700 or 800 people at our games.

"There are some big clubs in the division and they can get 12,000 or more at their matches, so I have played in front of decent crowds, but the average in the division is about 4,000, and that's a lot more than I was used to when I was playing college football in the US."

Formula One star Michael Schumacher is a near-neighbour of the Irish international, as he has property in the area and was until recently one of the main sponsors of Laipra's club, and he admits that the laidback lifestyle suits him.

ATTRACTIVE

"Life is good here. There's a small ski resort about ten minutes away from the town, Trysil, and I live there, in a log cabin. It's not exactly Manhattan but it's a good life, and I like things nice and quiet, I'm not a party animal so it suits me here, going for walks in the mountains or skiing. You don't get bothered by journalists too much out here.

"And there are quite a lot of American players out here, it must be a rule in the Norwegian Second Division that every team has to have an American. It's attractive for Americans to come out here, the pay in the MLS is not great and while the pay levels may be similar here, so you're not making massive money, you are getting to play in Europe and I know that's what most American players want to do.

"I want to play at a higher level of course but the main thing for me in coming to Norway was to get fit, I had surgery two years ago and until a while ago I was still recovering from that, but it's good to be here. I have played a lot of games, scored a few goals, I've learned a bit of Norwegian as well."

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