You would be hard pressed to name a League of Ireland graduate who has scored a hat-trick in a continent’s biggest derby before 83,000 people to turn a 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 win. Given all the time you would like, it is unlikely that you would come up with the name of Éamon Zayed, who kickstarted his senior career with Wicklow-based club Bray Wanderers. Nevertheless, during a spell at Iranian giants Persepolis in 2012, that is exactly what the Irish-born Libya international did.
When held up against the career paths of virtually any other player to ply their trade in the Republic of Ireland’s lowly domestic leagues, Zayed’s is one that sticks out like a Shamrock Rovers shirt in Phibsboro, but for all of the right reasons.
Much like the majority of up-and-coming Irish talent, Zayed spent his teenage years across the Irish Sea in England with Leicester City. At 19, Zayed returned to Ireland with Bray Wanderers to make the step up to senior football following the Foxes’ reluctance to offer him a professional contract.
Zayed’s first footballing spell in his birth country would not be uninterrupted, however, as mid-season loan spells with Crewe Alexandra – where he didn’t manage a single appearance – and Norwegian side Aalesunds took him away from Bray. Thankfully, as far as the Wanderers were concerned, neither of the parties were impressed quite enough to put a concrete offer on the table.
During his stay at the seaside, Zayed managed an impressive goal tally. Despite his time coinciding with club and league legend Jason Byrne – a first cousin of Robbie Keane and also clinical in front of goal – he bagged more than his fair share for the Seagulls and even picked up the PFAI Young Player of the Year award in 2003. His goals might not have been enough to clinch an overseas move, but after four years with Bray, Zayed made the move to Drogheda United.
In a two-year spell with Drogheda, Zayed went on to lift the Premier Division crown and Setanta Cup in 2007, before another short-lived stint with the newly formed and now non-existent Sporting Fingal from 2008 to 2010, where he also got his hands on silverware in the form of the 2009 FAI Cup. With Fingal ceasing to exist, Zayed found himself without a club as 2010 neared 2011, and during this time he followed his father’s family lineage and declared to represent Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya despite having played for Ireland at underage level.
At this point, Zayed had options to consider, and his future as a Libyan international would likely play a huge role in any decision he was to make. Al-Ahly Tripoli were the first to come forward, and the player looked set to join the side until a peculiar new rule was formed out of thin air. Almost as though it was specifically designed to halt the transfer, the country’s football federation introduced a new regulation that prevented foreign-born Libyans under 30 to play in the domestic league.
After this, Zayed found himself on the verge of a move to Egyptian outfit Haras El-Hodood, which also fell through. So, as 2011 began, the newly declared Libyan international found himself still without a club and unable to play his club football in the country that he had only just chosen to represent. Not long later, an opportunity to make a League of Ireland return presented itself, with Derry City reaching out to the unattached forward.
His time at the Brandywell would prove fruitful. Zayed enjoyed one of best seasons of his career to date and fired the Candystripes to a third-place Premier Division finish, as well as scoring in the final of the League Cup when Derry defeated Cork City. On a personal level, it was certainly a season to remember for Zayed, who ended the year as the league’s top goalscorer with 23 goals and was also named PFAI Players’ Player of the Year.
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Read | A Tale of One City: Tehran
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Having impressed beyond the watching eyes of Irish football with this season at Derry, some rather unorthodox offers were being sent the way of Zayed.
“Iran? You’re not serious, are you?” Not the reaction you might expect from a player who coming to the end of a one-year contract with an Irish side when informed of a potential new destination, but this, admittedly, was the immediate response of Zayed when he was informed of an offer.
As it turned out, the offer was serious. So serious, in fact, that he signed a six-month contract with Iranian outfit Persepolis in December 2011, and this is where his career really gets interesting.
Less than two months after signing for Persepolis, Zayed was named as a substitute against Esteghlal in Tehran’s fiercely contested Red-Blue Derby; a derby that, in 2008, was named Asia’s most and the world’s 22nd most important by World Soccer.
Persepolis found themselves in the nightmarish position of being two goals behind and were running out of time as they looked to salvage a point and spare their humiliation. Then, on comes an untried, untested and unknown Irish-born Libyan.
With 82 minutes on the clock, a hopeful long pass saw Zayed break the offside trap. The forward came into the box and calmly finished beyond the oncoming Mehdi Rahmati in Esteghlal’s goal. It was 2-1, but too late. Surely.
In the space of a minute after his first, Zayed netted another. Esteghlal, while looking to maintain possession and protect their lead, lost the ball. Persepolis moved forward and Mehdi Mahdavikia put a perfect ball onto Zayed’s head for the equaliser. The stadium erupted. Footage of supporters in the stand would not be out-of-place after a cup triumph or something with far more resting on it than an equalising goal.
Éamon Zayed, the boy from Balinteer, had saved the blushes and rescued a point for his new side, 4,827 kilometres from home. Those who were pictured leaving at 2-0 had returned to their seats. There was a real sense that this guy, whoever he is and wherever he’s from, was not finished just yet.
That sense appeared to be dying as the game entered its 93rd minute until Hossein Badamaki dribbled toward the byline. Badamaki then put a low cross into an almost empty box. One red shirt went up against two in blue. Zayed controlled the ball with his back to goal on the edge of the six-yard box. He shifted the ball to his left and turned onto his right foot, before displaying the coolest head ever seen in the Tehran derby to slot the ball past Rahmati for the third time in 10 minutes.
With this, everything went out the window. Players, coaching staff and supporters lost control and ran to join their hero in celebration. Substitutes ran across the pitch and leapt over advertising boards to embrace Zayed. Other players – from both sides – stood head in hands in disbelief.
“One of our supporters died from a heart attack after seeing my last goal on the TV,” Zayed recounts to the Irish Independent.
“At the stadium, the whole place went mad,” he told the Irish Times. “I’ve never seen anything like it. And then on the bus afterwards all the players were coming up, hugging and kissing me, telling me I didn’t realise what I’d done.
“Then, when I got back to the hotel there was a wedding on and the people wanted me to join them as a special guest. An old man offered me $100, he told me how grateful he was and that he wanted to give me a gift.”
After going on to score two more hat-tricks that season, the club rewarded Zayed with an extended contract. He would play just 13 times in total for Persepolis, scoring eight, before moving on to fellow Iranian side Aluminium Hormozgan. Here, Zayed encountered the ugly side of football in Iran.
The club failed to consistently pay a complete wage to players and left little opportunity for their players to express their discontent with this, as Zayed himself learned. “When it came to the end of the season, I was due a sum of money and I had to negotiate it,” he said to Goal. “The contracts mean nothing in Iran. If you get 60-70 per cent of your contract, that is great. They make up their own rules.
“When I went in, the club said they’d pay me under a third of it. When I disagreed they threatened to keep my passport. I had to sign the contract just to get out of there. That’s a problem that you face.”
Next on Zayed’s unpredictable journey was a return to Ireland in search of security. Unfortunately for the journeyman, this was not to be found back home with little money circulating in the league, despite joining one of Ireland’s biggest clubs, Shamrock Rovers.
The Premier Division in the Republic consists of a handful of professional full-time clubs, while the others are semi-pro and part-time. Even the professional clubs, though, have trouble committing to 52-week contracts. It is often the case that players, in the off-season, seek other work or sign on for social welfare, as Zayed explained to the Irish Mirror in 2014: “Being a professional footballer in Ireland is very difficult. You’re out of contract at the end of the season [November] and while you might get something sorted straight away, clubs don’t want to pay you until mid-January.”
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Read | The social welfare stars of the League of Ireland
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This unfortunate trend is not something that is limited to the league’s lesser sides, either.
“Ronan Finn is one of the best players in the league but he took work in the post office during this off-season,” Zayed continued. “When I was at Derry, Barry Molloy worked in Tesco and other players also did bits and bobs here and there to get by – you had to. When the season finished, I got my P45 from Shamrock Rovers and signed on the social welfare.
“When you go down there, some people recognise you. They’d ask ‘How are things at Rovers?’ but I’d just say ‘Well, not great clearly, I’m down here’. I don’t know if embarrassing is the word but when you play football, you like to think there’s a little bit of prestige.
“You go from playing in front of a few thousand people, people there to support you, and little kids who look up to you, to signing on or getting part-time work. So that absolutely knocked me down to reality, and mentally it can be tough going.”
Unable to find a more secure livelihood back home, the time came for the striker to embark on another unique journey. Malaysia was the destination this time, where he would form a strike partnership with former Liverpool forward El Hadji Diouf.
Unlike some of his previous moves, the deal to take him to Sabah made more sense. George O’Callaghan had recently taken over at the club and was a keen admirer of Zayed since his time playing in the League of Ireland with, most prominently, Cork City.
In one year at Sabah, Zayed found the net 11 times in his 21 games and after just one season, the time came for him to make another move. This time, it looks as though Zayed has found a home for longer than a year, with Indy Eleven in the North American Soccer League.
The poacher introduced himself in typical fashion early in the 2016 season by scoring twice in a 2-1 defeat of the New York Cosmos and later bagged a customary hat-trick to seal a 4-1 victory over the Carolina RailHawks and close out the Spring season of NASL.
At 32, what the future holds for Zayed remains uncertain. Whether it lies in Indiana or elsewhere, the career of this unlikely intercontinental hero is definitely worthy of keeping an eye on.
By Conor Clancy. Follow @concalcio