Red Deer soccer star living the dream in England

From the moment he could stand up, Caolan Lavery was kicking a ball around in his parents' Red Deer home.

His earliest memories are dreams about one day playing the beautiful game for a living.

"As long as I can remember, I told everyone I ever met I was going to be a professional footballer," he said.

With Irish parents, it was always called football, not soccer.

Fast forward to today, and Caolan, 24, is living his dream as a professional player, now establishing himself as a key member of Sheffield United.

Despite currently playing in England's third tier of pro soccer, the Blades have strong traditions in the game.

Traditions that date back to when the team was founded in 1889 in the northern England city, known over the years for steel production.

"Historically, it's a big football team in England," Caolan said. "It's got a great fan support, we get about 28,000, 30,000 people every week."

Beer, boisterous crowds, and chip butties

Playing in front of a boisterous home crowd this season, Sheffield United has surged to the top of the table and is now a favourite to gain promotion to the second tier in England's pro leagues.

Caolan (pronounced Kee-lun) is described by his coach as an aggressive striker who works his socks off. He has scored three goals since signing with the team last August from crosstown rivals Sheffield Wednesday.

Blades fans have even made up a chant in his name, based on a current song in the charts.

There's a song for nearly every player, in addition to the team's anthem, sung to the tune of John Denver's "Annie's Song." That anthem is all about drinking beer, eating greasy chip butties (fries in a sandwich) and smoking unfiltered cigarettes known as Woodbines.

"Right from kick-off to the full-time whistle it's just constant singing and noise," Caolan said, describing the atmosphere at the Bramall Lane stadium. "And it makes it very difficult for opposition teams when they come and play against us."

The youngest of six kids, with a father who played Gaelic football, Caolan always felt the game was in his blood.  

No one who watched his development as a young player is surprised to see where he is today.

"When he was younger, he always had a ball at his feet," said older brother Gaelan, who at one point coached his brother for the Red Deer Renegades, the city's club team.

"You could tell he was head and shoulders above everyone else."

Former Renegades teammate Patrick Sweiger had the same feeling, that his friend had a shot to make the big leagues one day.

"As an 11 year old, he was unstoppable," Sweiger said. "Teams we would play against would put two or three players on him, and he would still score a hat-trick most games. He was incredible."

Even then Caolan was catching the eyes of scouts and agents. As a result, he first went to Europe to try out for a German team at the age of 13. Offered a chance, he decided it was too early to leave home.

He went to England the next year to give it another go, but eventually decided to move to Calgary to continue his development with South West United.

After a few years playing there, and for Team Alberta, he finally decided to leave home at 16 when he was offered a scholarship with English team Ipswich Town.

It was tough, he said, being so far from home at such a young age, playing against much stiffer competition.

"I was used to being the big player in every team I played in, and then I came over here and I was just another good player."

With the added pressure of trying to complete high school online, he was ready to pack it in and come home.

"My family stuck by me and came over and visited me. And I used to get little notes from my sisters and brothers, and little things like that. They're the reason I stayed."

The separation was tough on his family as well.

"I would just tell him that he was doing the right thing and to follow his dreams," said his sister Leana, who sent cards, family photos and care packages, with foods and treats her brother missed from home.

"We took a lot of time talking to him on the phone and giving our guidance and support as much as we could," she said.

Now that he has settled in with Sheffield, his parents Moya and Danny and siblings — Leana, Darren, Blaine, Gaelan and Roisena — all keep up with his games via social media.

With limited TV coverage outside England's Premier League, Sheffield United's club website allows them and other subscribers to watch games a day or two after they've been played.

Caolan is quick to underscore that his family has meant everything to his success, but being away from home remains his biggest sacrifice; missing out on Christmases and birthdays, not seeing his seven nieces and nephews grow up.

"You have to give up things in order to achieve what you want to achieve," he said.

With his career taking off, there are things he still hopes to achieve.

World Cup dreams

One is taking the field alongside superstars in the Premier League, something he hopes to one day do with Sheffield United.

"The possibilities here are endless. We have the fan support, the training ground and the stadium. We have everything to be a Premier League club."

A few more wins could help the Blades extend their lead at the top of the table, pushing them closer to the ultimate goal of promotion at the end of the season in April.

Another goal for Caolan is playing on the game's biggest stage, in a World Cup.

But it won't be with Canada. While he did represent Canada at the U-17 level, Caolan has been snapped up by Northern Ireland, where he's also eligible to play.

"I'm Canadian, but I was brought up as an Irish kid and they've been really good to me," he said.

Nonetheless, he hopes his own journey shows other young Canadian players that hard work and dedication can pay off.

"I think anything is possible."