HAT-TRICKS IN IRAN, PLAYING FOR LIBYA AND LIVING THE AMERICAN DREAM: AN IN-DEPTH INTERVIEW WITH IRISH STRIKER EAMON ZAYED
- His team were 2-0 down and a man down in an Iranian derby and his HAT-TRICK sent 86,000 fans into meltdown
- His coach at Persepolis didn’t want him but glory treble made him World Player of the Week!
- Grandparents’ bloodline meant he starred for Libya where the soccer federation was ruled by Colonel Gaddafi’s son
- Earned a ticket to America and has now spent the last six years scoring and shining in the NASL then the USL
- Now at the age of 37 after an extraordinary playing career he is ready to embark upon his coaching journey
DOWN 2-0, down to 10 men, 10 minutes to go in a fever-pitch Iranian derby.
The super-sub Irish striker the coach doesn't rate or want climbs off the bench and scores a hat-trick to send 86,000 frenzied fans into meltdown.
Hollywood executives would rip up the script and throw it back in your face as a plot too fanciful. Yet Sport Careers Agency client Eamon Zayed lived the reality as the star of the show.
It was February 2, 2012, when the hitman bred in the League of Ireland at the likes of Bray Wanderers, Drogheda and Derry City found himself at the eye of the storm of the football confrontation that splits Tehran apart.
Eamon, born in Dublin of an Irish mother and a Tunisia father, was wearing the no12 red shirt of Persepolis battling their sworn foes in the blue of Esteghlal.
With the game ebbing away and Persepolis wallowing in the Land of Lost Causes Zayed all of a sudden fashioned three career-defining moments.
Eamon smiles as he reflects: ”I was voted World Player of the Week for that hat-trick, we were down to 10 men and were 2-0 down and to be honest I wasn't in a good place with the Turkish coach.
”I was on the bench knowing he had told the club president and my agent that he didn't want me.
”The president said I had to be given at least one chance to impress. I looked around that dressing-room that day and I could see how nervous the local players were.
”I had nothing to lose. I was given 30 minutes when we were already 2-0 down and I didn't feel any pressure.
”It was an unbelievable atmosphere. Red-hot with 86,000 people there screaming.
”Me? I was ice-cold because I knew the coach didn't like me and I had a Roy of the Rovers day. Three chances, three goals.”
Watch our YouTube link of that incredible day and you see a hitman in the zone.
Goal One, a clever run beyond his marker and a curled finish into the far corner. It looks like a consolation strike, Persepolis fans are already streaming for the exits.
Goal Two, the cross from the right comes in. Eamon is in a 1 v 3 situation with the defenders but his shrewd off-shoulder movement sees him dart between them to bury the downward header. Disbelief in the stands now, something special is unfolding.
Goal Three, a low ball into the box and the big striker uses his nous and muscle to roll his shadow and once more he fires an unerring finish into the far corner to seal the unlikeliest of 3-2 wins.
Pandemonium, the opposition coach has that thousand yard stare of a man looking down the road at his sacking.
It's a game Eamon will never forget yet he revealed: ”In Iran my team-mates didn't respect me until I started scoring goals at Persepolis yet the atmosphere in the games there was insane.
”You were a superstar there and the derbies against Esteghlal were life and death affairs.
”The day after that first derby when I scored the hat-trick I was doing an interview and they told me that after my third goal went in a young kid had DIED of a heart attack in the celebrations.
”They asked to send a message of condolence to his family. It was a surreal experience.
”We played a month after that in the Asian Champions League against a team from Dubai and we had 96,000 fans there.
”I scored another hat-trick that day and the whole second-half the stadium was cheering my name. That was a goose-bumps experience and something I will never forget.
”I was standing on the halfway line savouring it all and drinking it in.”
These days Eamon, now 37, is in his sixth year in America after building a new life and career in soccer there.
A brutal back injury looks to have ended the playing days of a free-scoring striker whose fascinating career has taken in Ireland, Iran, Malaysia and the USA.
With a Masters in Finance, a degree in Business and a UEFA A Licence in his locker you sense it won't be long until his yearned for start in the coaching world materialises.
For now, though, he took a breath to look back on a life less ordinary for Sport Careers Agency and lifted the lid on the episode that saw him become an international star for LIBYA.
Eamon said: ”I've had 20 pro seasons and it all started at Leicester City going over to England with my dreams as Irish lads do.
”I didn't make it and came home then I tried again at Crewe and it just didn't happen for me.
”My dad was born in Tunisia and but his parents were born in Libya. When I was 25 the Libyan national team started scouring the world looking for players with blood ties.
”They found me and I went over for a week. Colonel Gaddafi was still in charge of the country and his son Al-Saadi was running the soccer federation.
”I arrived into the airport and there was a media scrum with TV cameras everywhere. You don't get that in the Irish League! It was madness.
”The standard of soccer in the League of Ireland is decent but it's not England but all these commentators were talking about ROBBIE KEANE!
”They thought the Libyan Robbie Keane was stepping off the plane, which was a bit daunting.”
If Eamon ever writes an autobiography he had just walked into another explosive chapter for the book.
Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi's son Al-Saadi was a football fanatic who once somehow had the influence to get himself onto the rosters of Italian Serie A clubs Perugia, Udinese and Sampdoria.
He only ever saw 20 minutes of action in total in Italy but Al-Saadi, who played 18 times for Libya, loved the game and wanted to see his national team flourish.
Eamon admitted: ”I met Colonel Gaddafi's son at training, he was surrounded by soldiers and it was terrifying.
”I played for Libya for four years and got two goals in 13 games and it was a strange experience in many ways.
”I didn't speak Arabic and I felt they looked upon me as a foreigner and not one of their own.
”There were so many times when they could have just squared me the ball and I would have scored and they wouldn't pass to me.
”It was glaringly obvious what was happening, journalists were interviewing me about it.
”I scored against Equatorial Guinea, though, and after that they seemed to respect me a little more.”
So how did the Irish striker who'd become a legend in Iran then starred for Libya come to be living the American Dream?
The answer lies in the persistence of a coach called Tim Hankinson who'd first approached Zayed when he was in charge of San Antonio Scorpions in the now folded North American Soccer League (NASL).
Eamon stressed: ”He'd rung me because he knew of me from what had been a terrific season for me at Derry City.
”I thought I was on the outs at Persepolis until the hat-trick happened then I stayed in Iran and I told Tim I couldn't come.
”He was persistent, though, throughout my career in Iran and then fast forward to the end of 2015. By this point I had left Iran and had a year in Malaysia.
”So by this time Tim was in charge of Indy Eleven in the NASL and I was 32 and really wanted to experience life in America.
”It was perfect timing and I loved everything about that club, the league, the fans and the city of Indianapolis.
”It's true to say I was living the American Dream, I was up for MVP at the end of the year and I got a new two-year contract.
”The NASL collapsed, though, and Indy Eleven went into the USL and they hired a Scottish coach called Martin Rennie who wanted his own players and I was gone.
”I ended up signing for Charlotte Independence and enjoyed it there but Tim came calling again and I went to Chattanooga Red Wolves in USL League One.
”This was a brand new league, I was starting my UEFA A Licence and this was a chance to play and also be a second assistant coach.
”The project was appealing and made sense to me for the next steps in my career.
”Within eight months, though, Tim was sacked and the dynamic there changed before my contract ran out.”
Eamon was approaching a crossroads in his career when the COVID-19 pandemic was biting into all of our lives.
At 37 he knew he was on borrowed time as a player but fit and firing he still knew he could do a job at USL level.
The problem was his body was beginning to break down and he sighed: ”I have never relied on pace, I do my work in the box and my strengths were my movement and chance-taking in there.
”But I got a back injury just after COVID hit that they treated as a muscle strain but it was actually a fractured back.
”The pain was getting worse every day and they did blood work that showed I had an infection.
”I had a horrible three months until January of this year and there was a thought I might come back in April and I had clubs like FC Tucson looking at me.
”The doctors, though, then told me it would be July and deep down I knew the back wasn't right and the time was coming.
”I love playing and I don't want to stop. I still feel I can score at USL level but now it's coaching that will consume me.”
In his days in Indiana Eamon dipped his toes in the waters of coaching working as an assistant with NCAA Division 1 women's side Ball State University Cardinals.
He relished the challenge of improving the players and helping to mould them both on the field with their soccer and off it with their academic life.
Eamon enthused: ”I loved the idea of working at that level and it opened my eyes to how all-encompassing the coaching job can be.
”I liked helping the players juggle their hectic lives to produce the best in their games.
”I have always also been fascinated by the mental side of the game and how I would switch on when the big crowds were there.
”If I had could have been as switched on in the run of the mill games I might have gone further in the game.
”I have a friend called David Gillick who is a 400metres runner and won the European Championship for Ireland.
”It fascinated me speaking to him about mental preparation and I would look at that side of things.
”Then I would think how the man-manager coaches I had worked with had clicked into a team's psychological state and improved them.
”So I have been thinking always about this process of coaching and how I can work with and improve teams.”
Stephen Kenny is currently the national manager of the Republic of Ireland in the midst of a difficult transitional period for his nation.
Eamon knows a man he counts as a mentor is facing fierce criticism but has no hesitation in naming Kenny as his major coaching influence.
He said: ”Back in 2010 I was contemplating quitting soccer. I had just finished my Masters in Finance and I was playing with Sporting Fingal in Ireland.
”I was in and out of the team and I wasn't enjoying my football. I was 27 and I thought maybe it was time to get a REAL job.
”I went for a few interviews in finance but I found them far more intimidating than I ever did playing in front of 96,000 fans for Persepolis.
”The interviews went really badly and I had this offer to go and play for FC Hibernians in Malta.
”I had a contract for a year, a house by the beach and a car and I was thinking I'd do that then reassess my life.
”Then Stephen came in and talked to me about going to Derry City and the next half hour on the phone changed the rest of my life.
”He told me how much he believed in me, he told me how many goals I could score, he made me feel so wanted.
”Stephen has a knack of finding players with a chip on their shoulder, with something to prove.
”He was offering half what I had on the table from Malta but it didn't matter.
”I had the best year of my life playing for him and was top goalscorer in the league and Player of the Year.
”On the back of it I got to Iran, Malaysia and the America. That phone call changed my life.
”He made me feel ten feet tall every game and I loved playing for him.
”I learned so much from Stephen. I went on to play for others who were perhaps better tactically on the field but no-one who inspired players more.”
Now when the right offer comes Eamon Zayed the coach with a business brain will be ready for the challenge.
From hat-tricks in Iran to starring for Libya this Irish striker has been on a road less travelled. Whatever the next destination is one thing is for sure. The story won't be dull.
EAMON ZAYED ON THE SERVICE HE RECEIVED FROM SPORT CAREERS AGENCY
”I met Piero Carrino, the Managing Director of SCA, at the Irish Football Coaching Convention back in 2017.
”Piero did a presentation and I stayed back afterwards to ask some questions.
”I saw the client list then and I remember asking then about a CV but I was still a player.
”I think it is important for coaches to figure what your weaknesses are.
”So when I was moving towards coaching I had a go at doing my own CV but it was only an OK effort. I don't really know what I am doing.
”Sport Careers Agency do and I always remember the impact Piero made on me at that Convention so I got in touch.
”They were so easy to work with. My CV is terrific and I liked being involved in the process of producing it. Did it help me? You bet, 100 per cent. I feel confident when I am applying for jobs that I look like a professional.
”I am sending in something in my CV that I am proud of and comfortable with. I am delighted with the work that was done for me. Top marks.”