When Gavin Carlin, a promising young goalkeeper for West Bromwich Albion and the Republic of Ireland U-17 team, made the long journey to southern Turkey to prepare for the U17 UEFA European Championship in 2008, little did he know that his life would be turned upside down after he picked up an unfortunate injury on a rocky pitch.
Prior to that, Carlin was one of the lucky ones. He was in the one percent of footballers who were able to get away from Ireland to England and land a professional contract. After trials at Chelsea, Charlton Athletic and Manchester City, he was persuaded to make a choice between Leicester City and West Brom for a better chance of gaining more playing time and moving up through the system. At 16, he made the decision to join Albion where he quickly learned the ropes by training with the first team under the coaching tutelage of goalkeeping legend Joe Corrigan.
In his first season at the Hawthorns, Carlin made an immediate impact for the reserves, moving up to third-choice goalkeeper at the club. He felt confident he was on a fast track to success with the Baggies who were then flying high in the English Championship under manager Tony Mowbray. Training with the first team, Carlin worked alongside West Brom favorites such as Kevin Phillips, Chris Brunt, Zoltan Gera and others.
After returning to England from Turkey to have scans done to see the extent of his injury, the medical staff at West Brom broke the bad news to Carlin. The injury was much worse than Carlin had expected. He had injured his kneecap, and if injections and draining the fluids weren’t going to fix the problem, surgery was required.
“[When I was in the hospital], and they were changing the dressing during the first night after surgery, I was able to see the white of my kneecap and it was as white as anything,” explained Carlin. “I remember looking down at my kneecap, at 17 and you try to be positive, but thinking ‘Oh God, that’s not good.'”
While the surgery was a success, it meant that the next six months of his two year deal at West Brom was focused on recovery time, letting the knee heal, spending time in the gym, and thus scuppering most of his second season in a very stressful environment where it was a race for survival of the fittest.
Then in 2009, Carlin was called into the club office a few months before his contract was due to expire.
“If I was a betting man, I would have put nearly all of my life savings on them renewing my contract because of [taking into consideration] the injury,” said Carlin. “And then they told me that they would not be renewing my contract, and the blood just drained from my head.”
The timing of the decision was cruel. Within months, West Bromwich Albion were promoted to the Premier League where the riches and exposure of the club were much greater compared to the Championship. Plus the club had signed keeper Scott Carson, a Champions League winner, so the chances of Carlin breaking into the team — even if his contract had been renewed — would have been extremely limited.
After his time ended at West Brom, Carlin heeded the advice of his father and set his sights on moving to America. First came the process of earning enough core credits at a college in Gloucester. And while he was there, he spent some of his time on the books of Forest Green Rovers as a goalkeeper.
Carlin soon ended up in the United States where he got a scholarship to Jacksonville University. Still feeling down from a disappointing end to his career at West Bromwich Albion, the lightbulb went off for the six-foot-five Irishman when he began talking to his fellow college soccer teammates — many of whom had similar careers in different leagues, national teams and academies around the world.
“These guys had a totally different mindset. ‘Playing for Bayer Leverkusen academy, playing for New Zealand youth team, it got me a scholarship to Florida. Look how lucky we are.’
“All of a sudden, my world opened up. Being surrounded by these guys forced me into a positive mental thinking.”
Fast forward to 2019, and Carlin now runs his own soccer company Good Lad Soccer that’s home to several soccer camps and private coaching clinics in the Jacksonville area. Carlin has traded the green grass of Donegal, where he grew up, for the sunshine of north Florida.
At Good Lad Soccer, Carlin has been able to fuse together his experience playing at professional and collegiate playing levels and coaching at Jacksonville Armada into mentoring individual athletes from ages eight and older.
As a coach, he’s always vocal on the sidelines of the field, providing positive feedback to the local boys and girls. And taking the life lessons he’s gone through to help athletes succeed.
“At Good Lad Soccer, every player is going to be feel valued,” explained Carlin. “Before I train a kid, I always put myself in the mind of what it was like to be at that age, and how would I like to have been spoken to.
“I find that taking every player you coach, giving them that special level of attention is why I find Good Lad Soccer has been such a hit.”
When asked about the name Good Lad Soccer, Carlin summed it by referencing the American translation of it.
“‘Awesome job man,’ like you would say in America. But ‘Awesome Job Man Soccer’ doesn’t have the same ring to it. You know, good job. Good lad. That’s where the name came from.”
The name Good Lad Soccer sums up Carlin’s philosophy of positive reinforcement, open communication with the player, and the determination to excel. But perhaps most importantly, it’s also about the personal connection with the one-on-one feedback that makes Good Lad Soccer an intriguing and unique take on a system that makes the player feel more valued.
It’s what Carlin hopes will continue to be a winning formula.