FA Cup 2021-22: Walsall's Brendan Kiernan on helping young players deal with rejection in football

Brendan Kiernan was a personal trainer and a teacher assistant while he tried to return to full-time football.
Brendan Kiernan is an expert on rejection.

Crystal Palace fired him at 16 to end his dreams of becoming a winger with academy team-mates Wilfried Zaha and other wingers.

Kiernan says, "All I wanted was to play professional football and it felt like a dead end."

To keep his dream alive, he traveled the country, visiting QPR, Derby County and Charlton.

The teenager found it demoralizing as each trial ended in the same manner - without a contract.

"Every young player dreams of being a professional athlete." Some feel that they have nothing to offer when this doesn't happen," Kiernan told BBC Sport.

Kiernan, now 28, is a League Two Walsall player external-link. He tells young players his story and shows that rejection doesn't necessarily mean the end.

He is also a coach and mentors players who have been fired by their clubs.

"I have read stories of young players being found dead after being fired. Kiernan says that having been rejected by many clubs has had a huge impact on him. He will be playing in Saturday's FA Cup first round match at King's Lynn Town.

"There is always something to be thankful for"

In his 2017 book No Hunger in Paradise, Michael Calvin, a journalist, wrote that only 180 of 1.5 million youth football players in England will be able to make it as a Premier League professional.

18-year-old Jeremy Wisten, a former Manchester City academy player, was found dead in his bedroom on October 20, 2020. He was a City youth player, but he suffered an injury that led to him leaving the club in 2019.

City did not act in an improper manner regarding Wisten's release or the fact that he was let go. Manila Wisten, Wisten's father spoke highly of the club during an interview with Manchester Evening News. External-link Manila also said that there was more to be done for young players following their release.

Kiernan stated that clubs are becoming more vigilant about letting go of young players. He believes that there are still many areas for improvement.

He adds, "I know football players who have gone on to great careers." "One of my main messages is that there's a lot to be thankful for. There are always other choices.

Brendan Kiernan (bottom right), with Crystal Palace Under-16s, Selhurst Park. Wilfried Zaha is in the top row, first from left. Kiernan says, "There was a lot talent in this group. I am still in contact with many of them."

'Never give up'

Kiernan is a regular player in Matt Taylor’s Walsall team. They are three points away from a play-off spot following 15 games.

It was not an easy journey for him to play full-time football.

He grew up a stone's throw away from Arsenal's Old Highbury Ground, and would sit outside his home listening to the name of his favorite player, Thierry Henry, read over the speakers. Then he'd kick a ball in the street.

Kiernan, nine years old, knew he wanted a career as a footballer by 2001. His dad Stephen took him to the first Gunners match.

Eight years later, Palace rejected him and he was unsuccessful in a series of trials that failed, his love for the game began to fade rapidly.

When he was considering a career change, his father convinced him to try AFC Wimbledon.

Kiernan impressed Mark Robinson, then the academy boss and now the first-team manager. He was 18 years old when he joined the first team.

He says, "After all the setbacks that I had endured, it felt incredible." "And to top it all, that season we were promoted to the Football League."

However, he suffered another blow when he turned 20 and was put back on the scrapheap by the Dons. External-link

Kiernan was a teacher assistant, then a personal coach while playing non-league football with Bromley Staines and Ebbsfleet United.

He was 22 years old and was ready to quit football when Lingfield, a non-league club in Surrey, convinced him to continue playing.

Kiernan, who went from playing League Two to the ninth level of English football within two years, said: "It felt as though my dream of becoming a professional was over."

He says that the "right doors began to open for me", and after moving up in the leagues at Hampton, Richmond, and Welling United, Kiernan won an EFL hat trick for Harrogate Town.

He adds, "It was a long road to get back but it has been worth it."

Brendan Kiernan's signature goal celebration is a "call me" gesture. There is even a hashtag #CallBK. He says, "It's all about being able to reach out and assist - both on the pitch and off."

"I want to be a part of the solution"

"There are young players in a position I was once. It is logical to pass on the advice that I have learned over time.

Kiernan signed a two year contract with Walsall in July. He is now explaining why he created a website for players to seek advice and help.

He has completed a level 2 counselling course and is now working towards his full certification.

"There were former footballers, current professionals and academy coaches on my program. He says that some of them spoke about the difficulty in finding support for the boys they have to let go.

"It is a huge issue but I hope that I can help in some way. Recently, I have been working with players in Manchester United and Barnsley.

"I understand what rejection feels like, and I wanted to be part the solution and hopefully help young people avoid taking their lives."

He says, "Everyone is responsible for their mental health."

It's about creating a mindset that will allow you to survive in a competitive industry. It's all about surround yourself with the right people, and the right support system.