Keith Rowland forged a career in professional football by virtue of maximising his natural talent thanks to the application of hard work and a desire to grasp every opportunity.
That determination took the left-back from street football in Killicomaine estate to England’s Premier League and going up against world-class talent such as Ruud Gullit, Dennis Bergkamp, Jurgen Klinsmann and Gianfranco Zola.
A decade across the water and across the divisions provided Keith with crucial experience he is now attempting to pass on to a future generation as assistant manager of Conference-based Braintree Town.
Keith divided his weekends between Boys’ Brigade football with Edenderry Methodist and afternoon appearances at Lisburn Youth. A final spell at Linfield marked his domestic departure and Keith arrived in England as a raw teenager before becoming established off loan spells and league football.
“I often talk about making the most of an opportunity and Bournemouth AFC heard about me when Harry Redknapp was on a flight to watch Colin Clarke play for Northern Ireland and met my Lisburn Youth coach, Robbie Walker, who recommended me,” said Keith. “I remember playing football at Kernan one night and came home to hear Jimmy Nicholl had been at my house speaking to my parents about a move to Glasgow Rangers then Harry phoned about 30 minutes later to discuss Bournemouth.”
Five years at senior level in the colours of West Ham United, plus a sustained period with Queen’s Park Rangers, led to 19 Northern Ireland caps and a taste of the finest on offer from the beautiful game.
“There was still a drinking culture in the game, even at Premier League level, but you could see the influence of the foreign influx starting to come into place,” said Keith. “I had over two years left on my West Ham United contract but felt it was the right time to move and could have signed for Kevin Keegan at Fulham but opted for Queen’s Park Rangers.
“It was a club in transition at that time with people like Trevor Sinclair and Les Ferdinand having moved on but I enjoyed my time with them and met some great people.
“I never really looked back after my Bournemouth debut and had a terrific season then which, ultimately, led to West Ham United.”
His final few years as a professional featured spells down the league ladder with Luton Town and Chesterfield before hanging up the boots after a series of Conference appearances.
Keith’s transition across the white line into the dug-out kicked off at Averley before a switch to Braintree Town and his current remit as assistant manager.
“I suppose the experiences of my playing career naturally feed into this role as assistant manager, especially as we feel a real responsibility towards the squad as a part-time group,” he said. “Players maybe coming out of league clubs need guidance to get back on their feet and so much of this game comes down to character and timing.
“My loan spell at Farnborough Town was a great introduction to the game before returning to Bournemouth and feeling ready.
“I am enjoying my role as assistant manager and helping to build a squad at this level brings its own rewards, especially with top-10 positions on one of the lowest budgets in the division.
“I can name plenty of players with a lot more talent than me but they never made it for one reason or another and I had a great grounding in the game before grabbing my chance by working hard and attempting to improve every time.
“All of those areas can help now working at non-league level as it is about doing our best for the players.
“I work as a postman in the Dagenham area and the players have to juggle jobs alongside football.
“The travel can be an issue at this level and at times we have to maybe leave at 6 o’clock in the morning.
“We do not do overnight stays and once had a run of eight games inside 14 days due to the weather backlog, including a trip to Newcastle.
“It is a shift in gears but we do what we can to help with the adjustment period coming out of full-time clubs.
“We try to get that balance between players with experience of the physical demands at our level, plus maybe those coming out of senior clubs but trying to find a path back into professional football.
“I think we have put together a good group and achieved some great progress with a tight budget, plus I expect one or two to make a move, if right for the club, back into the league by the end of the year.”
Keith was delighted to see another player from Portadown make his senior Northern Ireland debut when Luke McCullough lined out against Uruguay in South America during a recent friendly.
“I would love to see someone from home make it in the Premiership,” said Keith. “I wish Luke well and would love to see him become established at first-team level with a club.
“I was 22 when I made my international debut and for Luke to get that first senior cap after just turning 20 shows he has the ability.
“There was such a family atmosphere around Northern Ireland back then and we had some really good players, quality guys who helped you settle.
“I still remember my debut at Windsor Park on a September night against Latvia.
“I do not get home that often now due to commitments with football, work and my two teenage sons, Taylor and Bradleigh.
“As a player, I basically used to lock up the house in England for two months and come home to see my family and mates.
“I was back staying in my old bedroom in Killicomaine but having a great time.
“It is a busy way of life in England but I enjoy it and have plenty of memories from my career as a player.”