In football, the word ‘journeyman’ often has a negative connotation. It’s a legacy that few professional players wish to be burdened with.
“I wasn’t too familiar with the word before I came to England,” says Mike Grella. “If I’m not mistaken, it means someone that can’t seem to hold it down at one club.”
The New York native has at times seen that label applied to his own career. He estimates he played for ‘8 or 9 clubs’ in England. The truth is he played for six; Leeds United, Carlisle United, Brentford, Swindon Town, Bury and Scunthorpe United.
Nestled within that over-estimation is a microcosm for what seemed an endlessly frustrating situation for Grella. In January he turned 28-years-old and was clubless, back in his native New York, training only to maintain fitness. “I would go really hard one day at training and the next day I’d say you know what forget it,” Grella explains. “I couldn’t find that motivation and that fire I’d had my whole life, it was crazy.”
His admission that the passion was gone is not only honest, but a tremendous shock for anyone that knows him well. As a kid, Grella would play with his Dad in the back-yard for hours against a goal made from plumbing pipe. On Sundays, that same Dad would wake him and his brother up to watch the Italian football round-up (Grella is a Juventus fan).
“I think I learned more watching the game [on those Sundays] than I did playing,” he says reminiscing about bleary-eyed mornings watching football in a language he did not yet understand. However there came a point when only playing would improve his game. Turning down the opportunity to be drafted by Toronto FC, he undertook trials in Italy and England before impressing Leeds United and earning a contract.
Then in League 1, the play was robust and Grella found a recurring pattern. “It was just very difficult,” Grella says. “I was behind guys like [Jermaine] Beckford and [Luciano] Becchio and as soon as one of them got injured they would get a more trusted guy with a bigger CV or someone in the Premiership who needed a run of games. Because of the size of the club they were never going to leave it in my hands. I had to prove it all over again. It was a shock mentally. Everyday fighting for your life and your spot.”
So he pitched up, moved to Carlisle and Swindon on loan. He then left Elland Road permanently for Brentford. He departed London for Bury and then ended up at Scunthorpe. He tried Viborg FF in Denmark, considered offers in Eastern Europe, then eventually returned to the United States last year to play in the NASL with the Carolina RailHawks.
For a man with a wife and a newborn son the regular upheaval that came with his job was proving mentally draining. “I’d wake up in the middle of the night thinking what was going on in my career was a nightmare and I’d wake up the next day and it wasn’t,” Grella says. “I was thinking this could not be happening. I knew I had so much talent but it was just not fermenting anywhere.”
His passion for the game was now but flickering embers, so much so he considered retirement. Jobs in insurance and real estate were lined-up. He took interviews amid a trial with New York City FC (they would later offer him the chance to join their training camp). The path it seemed was diverting away from soccer for the first time.
“It’s easier to talk about now,” Grella says. “When you’re 27-28 and you’re staring at the end of your career it’s a scary moment. I just thought my wife is pregnant and it’s time to settle down. I didn’t want to ever give my wife and my son a disadvantage because I’ve been following my dream a little bit too far now.”
Stood at a cross-roads in life, he had decisions to make. His friend in insurance wanted an answer, NYCFC wanted an answer and now New York Red Bulls wanted an answer regarding their trial offer.
With much thought and consideration he took the risk and opted for the Red Bulls; impressing Jesse Marsch and eventually securing a contract. Earning a deal had never been Grella’s issue though. Building on that, getting minutes consistently was his stumbling block. He endured a rough start to his Red Bulls career that saw fan criticism and suggestions this would be another Carlisle, Brentford or Viborg.
Then it clicked in week four of the season when he scored a delightful chip against Columbus Crew SC. He began to feel validation for what he had spent years telling managers and coaches. “I just needed that run of games,” he says passionately. “Jesse has a great talent for extracting things from guys and giving them confidence. Everything I needed, Jesse and Ali [Curtis, Red Bulls Sporting Director] are the guys that have given that to me and relit the fire.”
Grella’s father describes him as a confidence player and it’s something he agrees with. Now blessed with self-belief, it hasn’t led to second thoughts about his past “I don’t regret my time in Europe at all,” Grella says. “I made some really good friends and I learned a lot.”
Despite not making the impact he would have hoped, Grella is exceptionally proud to be associated with Leeds United and one game in particular - a 1-0 win over Manchester United at Old Trafford in the FA Cup in January 2010.
“I was warming up alongside Giggs,” Grella says. “Sir Alex Ferguson is stood there and we’re winning 1-0. We go onto win that game and there’s ten to twelve thousand Leeds fans in that stadium. That was my one moment I had to pinch myself.”
He goes on to add: “I had scored the goal [in the previous round] to get us to that game and I thought for sure I would be starting there, but when you’re winning 1-0 at Old Trafford you never put a striker on.”
A subtle nod to his selfless nature, it is one of the many things that has endeared Grella to those at the Red Bulls; validating the team ethic Marsch has fostered this season. “For me it’s about winning the game,” Grella says. “When I look at that locker room I see a lot of humble, honest guys.”
What Grella will also see in the locker room is a space with his name and the number 13 on it. Now 28-years-old and settled back home in New York, right next to his parent’s house, the hope is he has taken the scenic route to success, as he tries to leave the soccer legacy he nearly gave up on.