For Charleston Battery fans, the team’s March 19 match against the College of Charleston was probably as flat as any the club played in its 2013 preseason, a disjointed affair in which the Cougars valiantly absorbed multiple attacks and the Battery proved better at hitting posts than the back of the net.
Think of it as 90 minutes of frustration, followed by 10 seconds of stunned disbelief — capped by a moment of pure magic.
With the game winding down to what everyone by that point assumed would be a scoreless draw, Cougars captain Daan Brinkman inexplicably found himself with the ball at his feet near the right top of the penalty area. What happened next unfolded in dreamlike fashion – the young college player pushing forward, finding space where there had been none for 90 minutes, then brilliantly firing the ball past a momentarily befuddled keeper.
Which is when a bit of magic – in the form of Battery captain Colin Falvey – arrived. As if summoned from thin air, the 27-year-old center back appeared on the line behind the goalkeeper and – with no room to spare – kicked the game-winning shot clear.
When the whistle blew less than a minute later, the few fans in attendance wandered away mumbling about the Cougars’ resilience and the Battery’s missed chances. Brinkman’s last-second shot-on-goal was almost too surreal to fit into the pattern of play they’d just watched for 90 minutes.
Except it was also one of those odd moments that occasionally defines Falvey. A tough kid from a working-class neighborhood in southern Ireland, Falvey has been a soccer vagabond since 16, a world traveler with a physical, blue-collar playing style. Yet as he enters the prime years of his career, there’s also an element of quicksilver running through his game. Whether it’s the occasional bold run to create an opportunistic scoring chance or his alert anticipation of Brinkman’s shot, Falvey seems blessed with a gift for the unexpected.
But perhaps there’s an explanation for this knack of his. Because it turns out that this charismatic Irishman from the port city of Cork is the seventh son of Noreen and Jimmy Falvey, a bricklayer who is, himself, a seventh son.
That makes Colin the seventh son of a seventh son, a rare accident of birth order that, according to Irish tradition, confers special powers upon a young man.
The (occasionally bad) luck of the Irish
Falvey came of age in a boisterous, crowded house in a neighborhood where previous generations had played “the Irish sports” (hurling and Gaelic football) instead of soccer. His father ran his own construction company. His mother ran the household. And Colin grew up scrappy.
“I think that, maybe with seven brothers in the house, you quickly become hard-nosed,” Falvey said last month when he sat down for an interview in the courtyard at Kudu Coffee.“The house was pretty rough, the place was pretty rough, and it was just one of those things. You want something in life, you kinda have to go get it. It was never handed to me. Nothing was ever given to me on a silver spoon.”
Falvey played for club teams into his mid-teens, when scouts from England began nosing around his parent’s house. Can I come around for a cup of tea, or dinner? they’d ask. I want to talk to you about Colin.
At 16 he signed with Gillingham and moved to England to try the academy life, but it didn’t last a year. Carlisle came next, but he spent his late teens crisscrossing the Irish Sea, playing for club teams in Cork while doing spells with different clubs in England. “All the talk I was getting in England, you know, when you’re a young center back, was like you’re going to have to wait, bide your time, until you’re 21, 22, like that. And I decided I didn’t really want to do that. I wanted to play then.”
So when Dave Hill, the coach of Cork-based Cobh Ramblers, told him “I don’t care how old you are. If I think you should play, you’ll play,” Falvey signed on. “I think I made 70 or 80 appearances in about three years,” Falvey said. “I was a regular, which was great for me when I was 19, 20 and 21.”
When the new management at Kilkenny City AFC signed him in its well-funded push to win promotion to the Irish Premier League, Falvey’s prospects appeared to be soaring. At 21 he was surrounded by much of the league’s top talent, and yet his new coach made him team captain. He believes he still holds the record for the youngest captain in any of the Irish professional leagues.
That early success initially made a future in the top European leagues look like a realistic possibility. But when Kilkenny’s big new investor pulled out unexpectedly in mid-season, the club’s big plans evaporated and Falvey found himself out of a job.
“So that was when I got a call from Terry Phelan, who was an ex-Irish international player to Man City, Chelsea, played for the Battery,” Falvey said. “He had a scout scouting around the Irish league at the time, he’d seen me play, and he says to me, ‘Do you mind if I get your number?’ I says yeah, no problem.
“The original plan was I was going to go back to England. I had a few offers … a couple of League One and Two teams. And I got a call from Terry. Obviously, being Irish, it’s a big deal for someone like Terry to just call you up, you know?
“So Terry called and … he was telling me about New Zealand. And I didn’t know anything about football out there. He says ‘You know what, Colin, I think you’d enjoy it out there. I think I can improve you as a player.’ He says to me ‘I’m only going to be out here for a couple of years myself. If you come out and do well for me, I’ve got a 101 contacts in England. I’ll put you back in England if you’re worried about coming out to New Zealand and not getting back.’ So I says, ‘You know what? It’s not going to do me any harm. I’ll play one season.”
That’s how Falvey first wound up in New Zealand, playing for Otago United. Once again, Falvey had a good season, and with Phelan moving to his next career stop at the end of it, Falvey started looking for an English club in the market for a young but experienced defender.
“The problem was, the New Zealand season finished in March,” he said. “So the European window had shut, and I was in a bit of predicament. Then (Phelan ) says, ‘I played in the States. They’re in preseason right now. Would you fancy playing in the States?’ I said definitely, it would be something I’d be interested in. So he says ‘Let me contact the Battery.’ He lived here, said it was probably the best place he’d played as a professional as in like city-wise.”
Once again, timing would be an issue.
Coming to America
Falvey’s introduction to the Battery in 2009 came just after the club signed four center backs, and through the staff was impressed, they didn’t have the budget. So it was the Battery who passed Falvey along to Wilmington coach Dave Irving. “He says ‘I’ll take him right away. When can he come?’” Falvey signed a one-year contract with the Hammerheads, planning all along to split for Europe as soon as the season ended.
Again, Falvey earned accolades. He won Wilmington’s defensive MVP award and was named to the league’s Team of the Year, And along the way, after playing against Major League Soccer clubs in the Open Cup, a new idea began to form in Falvey’s mind. Instead of rushing home to Europe, why not make a push the top North American league? It was an idea that would, in a round-about way, lead him back to Charleston.
“So after Wilmington I thought… if I get a good offer in England, I’m going to probably take it. When nothing really jumped out (from England) and Charleston came in with an offer, I spoke to Auggie (Charleston coach Mike Anhaeuser) and (club president) Andrew Bell. They told me about the past, how they’ve helped a lot of players make the jump over the years. The Battery’s got a real good relationship with the MLS. The MLS clubs see them as a really well-run professional organization, even though they’re a smaller club. Auggie said, ‘You do well here, you’ll definitely get a move through the Battery. We’ve got enough contacts, we’ve got the Carolina Cup.’ And after speaking to him I said, I enjoy the States, the club seems very professional. The only thing then left was the contract and the figures, and that all got worked out.”
Falvey’s original contract for 2010 was a year with an option for a second, but after the Battery won the league championship that season, Falvey initially declined his option in order to pursue a shot at MLS. But when no MLS opportunities arrived, the biggest deal left on the table was from a team in Vietnam. “It was a lot of money for one year, so you have to think about that side of things, too, when you’re not making mega-money.” After flying out to train with the team, however, Falvey knew immediately that Vietnam wasn’t the right move, and when he got back he re-signed with Charleston for the 2011 season.
But his traveling days weren’t over yet. Youngheart Manawatu, a New Zealand club from the fast-growing city of Palmerston North, called him with an offer: Return to New Zealand on loan, and they’d send him back in time for the start of the USL PRO or MLS preseason. With the Battery’s permission, Falvey once again spent his off-season playing soccer Down Under.
Falvey’s 2011 season in Charleston lacked the team success of the previous year, and when it ended without producing MLS offers (in part because of his Irish citizenship), his agent had a talk with him. “He said, ‘The MLS thing isn’t happening for the past two years. You have to think about long-term here as well.’ And Charleston said, ‘What do you want? Because we know we’re desperate to keep you.’ But at the same time I was a little bit mixed feelings because the MLS hadn’t happened, (thinking) ‘Should I go back to England?’
“So I said, ideally I’d like to sign a long-term contract here. I love it here. (The Battery) has been great, and if I stay here longer and have the security of a long-term contract, then I can actually have no worries about trying to get my Green Card. So I spoke to Tony (Bakker), the owner, and .. they needed someone older who basically fitted the bill for them. So we matched up really well.”
In early 2012, Falvey signed a three-year deal with the Battery that included guarantees that the team would not attempt to hold him back if an MLS opportunity arose. “They said ‘We know you’re mad to get in the MLS, but we’re worried that you’ve tried the Asia thing, you’re thinking about going back to England, we’re worried that after one year, somebody will come around and you’ll just go.’ And I said, ‘Alright, let’s do it. I’m happy. I’ll work hard and try to get my Green Card and get in the MLS and I’ll put everything else aside, and that’s our goal.”
The deal paid immediate dividends for both parties. Falvey entered the 2012 season as the Battery’s undisputed leader, with fresh legs after taking his first off-season break from soccer in years. The team’s performance fluctuated, but the Battery finished tied for third in the league table and went on a roll in the postseason. After the squad wrapped up the USL PRO Championship last September in Blackbaud Stadium, a visibly moved Falvey lingered on the field, talking to fans, soaking up every moment.
In his first three years with Charleston, the scrappy kid from Cork who had never won anything hoisted two championship cups. He’d landed a multi-year contract with a team he respected, built an abiding connection to the club’s fans, and a somehow constructed a meaningful life at what once looked like nothing more than a temporary stop on his way to bigger and better things. Today Falvey lives in Midtown Charleston and says he loves the city life, the freedom to walk out at all hours, to meet friends for coffee or take in a comedy show at Theatre 99.
But he is also also a 27-year-old competitor entering his soccer-playing prime. And he can hear the clock ticking.
Leading by example
When Falvey talks about his career, the business side of things is never far from his thoughts. A soccer career is a fleeting thing, and it’s up to the player to earn as much as he can before his legs abandon him on the shores of middle age. That means an itinerant center-back has to accept a few facts. It’s a cutthroat business. He could be traded tomorrow. A certain twist of the knee can change everything.
Yet there’s an undeniable streak of romanticism in the man, too, even if it’s just in the way he approaches the game. A purely practical approach might require less commitment and fewer risks. But as savvy as his experience has made him, Falvey’s game appears animated more by instinct and passion than by cool calculation. Besides, to hold anything back emotionally would limit what he’s able to accomplish as team leader.
Scottish midfielder Nicki Paterson, who along with Falvey and left back John Wilson comprises the veteran leadership of the squad, is entering his third season with the Irish captain.
“Colin’s the heart and soul of this team, pretty much,” Paterson said. “He’s a great laugh around the locker room, but he’s very good at knowing when to turn the laughing off and put the seriousness on. He’s the guy that leads by example on the field. He’s the true captain, leader of this team, and just by his blocks in the Carolina Cup or – doesn’t matter if it’s the Carolina Cup, championship game, practice – he throws his body on the line better than anybody I’ve ever seen.”
Coach Anheuser saw those traits in Falvey long before he offered him a contract in 2010 and made him team captain in 2011.
“He was a player we knew would come in and be a leader,” Anhaeuser said after Falvey helped the team to a contentious 1-0 win over the Carolina Railhawks on March 30. “He’s that type of player. That’s his game. He likes to lead, he’s vocal, he get’s stuck in, he does his job and he knows how to do it well. And he organizes very well. So from the beginning, that’s why we signed him.”
Today, Anhaeuser uses Falvey to convey the messages he feels he can’t deliver. “I communicate with him from a player standpoint, because he’s got to get it across to the guys the things that guys get upset about (when a coach says it). He’s able to translate it and make sure that the guys carry out what’s needed to win. He wants to win every game, just like I want to win every game and I’m sure every player wants to win every game, but you also have to do things properly to insure that.”
Falvey returns the compliment when asked about Anhaeuser.
“Listen, I’ve been here three seasons, and he’s won two championships for me. Before I came here, I’d been a pro seven or eight years and I’d won absolutely nothing. And that’s what keeps me going every day, the fear of not winning stuff. I remember (when I got here) I had the fear that I would end up, at 34 or 35 years of age, 20 years pro, and never won anything. So when we won it in 2010, that was a lot of relief. It doesn’t matter what league, what standard, it was a lot of relief. He’s brought me two championships in three years, so I’ll tell you what: I’m over the moon with him and the club.”
Falvey says he picked up his leadership style “just sorta seeing some of the older pros when I first started out, the way they handled themselves, and it was no-nonsense. Just good, honest, hard-working, says-it-how-it-is. And also you have to sometimes put your arm around players when they need it, and give some players a kick up the ass when they need it. It was just something bred into me when I was young, and I just carried it throughout my career and my life. That’s just me. I don’t actively go out and do it, when I play or in training. It just comes from inside me, and I think it’s a good thing. I think if you took that part of my game away, you’d be missing a lot.
“I’m delighted to be captain here. It’s a great club. And Johnny and Nicki, the three of us, even though I wear the armband, the three of us help around the locker room, and between the three of us we’re able to take care of things. It does help that we do have a lot of young players. It makes it a little bit easier, because I’m still only 27.
“I think I’ve got over 250 professional games under my belt. Coach I think said it last year, I’m not your typical 27-year-old with a handful of games. I think that helps with being captain as well. Having so many games and being so experienced, that’s why I think a lot of coaches do look at it and say even though he’s 27, he’s definitely a leader. He’s definitely a captain.”
He’s also a player other teams recognize. And not always fondly.
“Sometimes I can be a pain in the ass, to my own players and to obviously to (opposing) players. I’m very competitive. I’ll tell the players I’m playing against what I think of them if I think they’re jumping around and talking shit. I can be… not a nice person, let’s just say.
“A few friends I have on other teams, like Mark Briggs, who’s the assistant up in Wilmington, he’s told me numerous times ‘The majority of my team hates you, to be honest.’ And I’ve heard that a few times. But I think that one thing is that as soon as you play with me, and for me, you’ll quickly realize that I’m not a complete asshole or anything. I just want to win. That’s it.”
‘You play for the shirt’
For many Battery fans, Falvey is a uniting figure, a veteran player who genuinely seems interested in the club’s loyal supporters.
“Colin is one of those players you love to have on your team but would hate if he played against you; passionate, vocal, aggressive, hard working,” said Mikey Buytas, president of the club’s official supporters’ group, The Regiment. “He is going to set the tone of the game early on and isn’t going to back off anyone. You got to respect him. The guy wears his heart on his sleeve. It is easy to see why he is the skipper and why he quickly became a fan favorite.
“Off the field, he is a great guy. He always makes sure he gives us a thumbs up or clap over in E10 after the match, regardless of the result. He always makes the rounds to all the fans up in the pub after a match.”
Falvey credits the local fans and his Anglo-Irish soccer training for much of his popularity. “From Day One they were great to me. They made me feel welcome. And I’m committed, like Nicki as well. We really play for them. That’s what’s instilled into you from an early age.
“You play for the shirt. You play for that jersey on your back. You learn that from when you’re 6 years of age in England, Ireland. You play for the fans, you play for the shirt. So I think as soon as they seen the way I played and carried myself, I think they liked me. And we have a laugh and joke sometimes about things. They’ll give me crap about certain things, and don’t worry, I’ll tell them a few things as well. It’s a good relationship.”
But the one move that assured Falvey’s place in the Battery fan pantheon occurred on the night of the 2012 Championship.
Local photographer Kim Morgan Gregory, her husband Jim and their children have been committed Battery fans for the past 19 years. Last August, their 27-year old son Thyler Gregory died when his car ran off the road on Edisto Island while driving home from his job as a chef. The news rocked the family and the Regiment, but what Gregory didn’t know was its effect on the staff and players, too.
After the Battery’s 1-0 victory against the Hammerheads, Gregory went out onto the field to record the celebration.
“Everyone was looking for that special someone to take that memorable photo with,” Gregory said. “Everyone was running around like crazy, everyone was celebrating. I was trying to focus on where the best place would be to get some great shots of the players…and then all of a sudden Colin Falvey came up to me, squaring up face-to-face, saying, ‘I’ve got something to show you..” I was waiting for him to present me something.
“Colin started rapidly pointing to the front of his jersey. Thyler’s name was on the front of his jersey. Number 12. Twelfth Man! A tribute to our son… and it was being won by the Battery’s captain while they took their official championship photo that would represent this moment in time forever.”
As Buytas said: “That was pure class.”
2013 and beyond
In the months after their emotional 2012 championship, most team observers assumed the 2013 roster would have to be radically restructured. Some amount of turnover is expected in USL PRO, and on top of that the Battery were resigned to the prospect of losing multiple players to MLS.
Yet of the four players who went on trial with Major League Soccer this off-season, only Ryan Richter wound up leaving the club for the senior circuit. With Falvey, Paterson, Wilson and Rookie of the Year Jose Cuevas returning for another go, the Battery’s opening day roster featured 12 players from 2012. Eight of them started on the road in Richmond last week.
Falvey says that anything short of another championship this year will be seen as a failure.
“I think Orlando probably starts as favorites because of their budget and stuff like that … but I think our expectations should be very high. We are the current champions. We don’t want to give that up without a fight. We have to install into the young players – and we’ve done it right from Day 1 of the preseason – we expect to win another championship this season. That’s the goal. That’s what we expect to do.”
But while years of success in the various iterations of what is now USL PRO have yet to draw solid interest in Falvey from MLS scouts, he remains optimistic. He and Paterson now believe that the biggest barrier to experienced European players like themselves is usually the league’s limited number of “international slots,” which are often reserved for big-name stars. To circumvent that rule, both men are now actively working to secure Lawful Permanent Resident Status in the United States. If it works out, and they get their Green Cards, they’ll be able to compete for MLS rosters without taking up an international slot.
“Now the concentration is to have a good season, and come September, get in the MLS,” Falvey said. “I know that’s toward the end of their season, that’s going to be difficult. More realistic is probably next January for their preseason camp, and fingers crossed, I’ll have my papers by then. Hopefully, if it’s to be my last (season in Charleston), I want it to be a championship.”
Falvey pauses for a moment as he considers those words.
“I don’t want to talk too much about the MLS,” he begins, “because at the end of the day I want to be respecting the Charleston organization. Because I do have two years on my contract. At the end of the day, I’m a Battery player, and if anything is going to happen, that’s basically the club’s decision. But I know they wouldn’t hold me back.
“Listen. We’ve got no superstars here. We’re a small, good professional organization. Everybody has to pull together in order for this to work. Because the club doesn’t have millions upon millions of dollars that can get people to do all sorts of jobs. So every now and again we all have to chip in and do little things to make it work. But I think the fans know that, and they really get behind the team here.
“That’s not to say we don’t want to compete against the MLS teams. We do. We want a nice Open Cup run this year. Because the Battery’s got good tradition in that competition, and we want to keep that going. We spoke about it in a meeting. It’s something that means a lot to the club. And we want to be a part of that history as well. ‘Ah, remember that team from 2013 that had that Open Cup run?’ We want to be remembered.”
TOP PHOTO: Colin Falvey after the Battery’s 1-0 win over the Carolina Railhawks on March 30. Kim Morgan Gregory photo.