From Harvard University to Athlone Town
In this most unusual of years, it's perhaps fitting that one of Athlone Town's leading players is a 22-year-old who has come to the League of Ireland via an unconventional route.
This time last year, Taner Dogan was in his final semester in Harvard University, where he was completing an economics degree and captaining the university's soccer team in the NCAA Division One.
A conversation with Mike Treacy, the American ex-chairman of Dundalk FC, led to a trial with the Louth club in January, and Taner ended up joining the SSE Airtricity League Premier Division champions.
Shortly before the truncated season resumed at the end of July, he scored for Dundalk in a friendly against Athlone, and it was agreed that he would go to Adrian Carberry's side, on loan, for the rest of the season.
Taner (pictured, above, in action for Athlone Town against Longford) has been making an impression since he arrived at the local club.
He has started every game, scoring twice in the league (both goals in separate games against Galway United) and also finding the net in the dramatic 5-3 win against Wexford which put Athlone into the draw for the FAI Cup quarter finals.
Speaking to the Westmeath Independent this week, Taner said he viewed his time in Ireland as an opportunity to develop as a player and further his career.
“Europe is a desired destination for American players, so hopefully I can work my way up on this side of the world,” he said.
With games taking place behind closed doors, few people have had a chance to see him in action. A central midfielder, he described himself as a player with “a good work ethic” and an eye for goal.
“I think I’ve a good range of passing and technical ability, so I’m an all-round midfielder but I like to get in the box and get some goals as well.”
Growing up, Taner lived in a few different places in the US. His father is from Turkey and regularly played soccer with him during his childhood.
“I played a bunch of different sports - basketball, football, baseball, you name it - but as soon as I got a bit older I was obviously happy just playing soccer full time,” he said.
During his high school years he was based in St Louis, Missouri, where he played for a club called St Louis Scott Gallagher, before making the move to third level and perhaps the most prestigious university in the world.
“I got scouted and recruited by Harvard University in NCAA Division One, so between 18 and 21 I played there. I got a degree in economics from Harvard as well, and captained the team in my final year.
“It's arguably the best university in the world, so to get a degree there was great. In terms of facilities and everything relating to soccer, it was good. NCAA Division One is basically full-time training.
“There are good players that play in the United States college system, so it was positive from that point of view, and also I made a lot of good friends and people that are still close to me today.”
He never set foot in this country before January, and visa issues initially delayed his transition from the Ivy League to the League of Ireland.
“(At the beginning of the year) I went to a training camp with Dundalk in Spain, and they wanted to keep me on, but I ran into some trouble with getting a work visa.
“I went back to the US for a couple of weeks, sorted those things out, and then returned to Dundalk, but I only had a couple of days before the impact of the whole Coronavirus lockdown hit.”
Taner's girlfriend is a fellow Harvard graduate who lives in London, so he spent the lockdown period with her, before travelling back to Ireland at the end of May. Then came the loan move which means he is now dividing his time between Dundalk and Athlone.
“I had a conversation with the management (at Dundalk) about how it would be more beneficial for my development to be in an environment where I’d have the opportunity to play week in and week out, and get some proper League of Ireland experience,” he said.
Taner was grateful to Adrian Carberry for giving him an opportunity to play for Athlone, even though results on the pitch often haven't gone to plan.
“As a team, since I’ve been here, we haven’t really gotten the results we wanted. The FAI Cup win against Wexford was big for us and for the club.
“We have some good players, and have put in some good performances, so I’m confident that we’re going to end up picking some more results up in the league. I’m enjoying the football as well, so credit to Adrian for putting that all together.”
Asked for his impression of the League of Ireland, he said it doesn't always get the credit it deserves.
“I’ve been impressed with the league here, especially the top teams in the Premier Division. There’s a lot of quality there, and it’s maybe not respected as much as it should be across Europe and in other places.”
Looking ahead, Taner was hopeful good displays for Athlone might earn him a new contract with Dundalk next season.
“I just want to continue to put in good performances. If that leads to a longer-term contract with Dundalk, I’d be excited for that, but I’m 22 and I have my whole career ahead of me.
“I just want to realise my full potential as a player and enjoy the process of getting to the highest level I can play, wherever that may be,” he concluded.