Former Madrid youth, Felix Bape speaks exclusively to BTS

Article by Kieran Burke - @KieranBTS.

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Being the only League of Ireland club to hold player assessment trials in pre-season, Athlone Town were always likely to be marked up as heavy favorites for yet another wooden spoon finish in the SSE Airtricity League First Division, especially when you consider the strength of the expanded second tier this season. Friday nights league opener away to Galway went the way many expected as the title favorites, Galway United, ran out comfortable 4-1 winners over Aaron Callaghan's inexperienced Town side. However, there was a chink of light for the Town at the death in Eamonn Deacy Park as promising talent, Fexlix Bape scored something of a wonder-goal to announce his arrival on the League of Ireland scene. 

Astonishingly, a former Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid youth team player, Bape turns twenty-five on Tuesday and yet despite his prestigious pedigree he had to make do with attending Athlone's trials, alongside one-hundred plus competitors, in order to convince new boss Callaghan that he was worthy of League of Ireland recognition.   

On the books of serial junior honor winners, Sherrif YC last season, Bape's arrival at Athlone is one of the more bizzare and certainly eye-catching in recent years and following his debut goal from full-back at Eamonn Deacy Park last Friday, our reporter Kieran Burke sat down with the Spaniard to try and make sense of it all, from his early days at the Estadio Bernabeu to togging out at Lissywoolen in the hope of just earning a domestic chance in Ireland. 

"It was long process to join Real Madrid. They started to scout me during a year without seeing anything of me, after this period they asked me to do a summer trial, where you have to play 4-5 games with your team at the Real Madrid facilities. After that they evaluate you as a player and they decide who can do pre-season with the team and who not. I passed this second stage and made pre-season but still every week players would be eliminated from the squad. After I was selected, we started the league and it was a such a great experience where I could learn a lot from my coaches, some of my ex-team-mates are now in "La Liga" such as David Soria in Sevilla CF or Diego LLorente in Real Sociedad and some of them playing at decent levels in Spain and in Europe as well." 

Quickly moving on to discuss his cross City transfer to local rivals Atletico, Bape remains forever grateful for the lessons learned at two of Spain's and indeed Europe's biggest clubs. 

"After a period in Real Madrid I moved to Atlético De Madrid, where I could learn a lot from the coaches both about football and about life. My time there (Athletico Madrid) was full of nice experiences, actually I still like to remember those great memories."

Despite the positive memories from his time in the Spanish Capital, Bape would follow in the footsteps of so many talented youngsters at giant European clubs as he sadly never broke into the first-team at either club. While a move to Getafe could certainly be viewed by some as landing on ones feet, Felix Bape was most definitely on a slide down the leagues in his native country. Again answering in a positive fashion, Bape stated he never allowed rejection by the top clubs to get him down and preferred to focus on the important lessons learned during his youth football days. 

"It all depends how you are prepared (to leave a big club) and I was. In my case my parents were always reminding me to enjoy and give my best in that opportunity but also keeping my feet on the floor and being focused on my studies as well. Since I joined those teams I knew where I was, they are one of the best teams in Spain and probably in Europe, therefore they have scouts everywhere and there is a high competence as it is normal, so I just took my opportunity to learn as much as I could and see how  far I could progress. When I had to leave the club (Atletico Madrid) I felt grateful because I was a better player and more mature and mentally stronger for life. It's true that I moved to Getafe CF, who were a really good team as well, so I kept playing at a high standard for my whole youth career." 
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Only arriving to these shores in 2017, Bape revealed he had in fact sought to sign for a League of Ireland club immediately but after a chance encounter with the manager of Sheriff YC, the Spaniard had no hesitation in signing for the non-league club.

"In the summer I was trying to get into the LOI but the transfer window is short and most squads are already completed. Then, I decided to keep myself fit and I met the Sheriff coach through a mutual friend. I came to a game and I liked the standard of the team and I decided to sign.

Answering a follow on question in regards to any lessons he had learned regarding Irish football from his time in the Leinster Senior League, Bape replied: 

"Yes, I learned a lot about how Irish football is played, I also watched some LOI games in order to learn more about the systems and the models of play that irish teams use. Therefore, I feel I've learned a lot during this period (in the Leinster Senior League) and I feel quite ready to make my name in the LOI."

Given Bape's prestigious past and the fact he had made a concerted effort to learn about the domestic game in Ireland during his time with one of Ireland's top junior clubs, many found it strange that the defender had to go on trial, especially considering Athlone's poor showing of recent years, in order to earn a shot at First Division football. However, Bape revealed his enjoyment from taking part in what he described as a well ran trials assessment by the County Westmeath club. 

"As I told you, nobody knew me here (in Ireland) so it was fair enough that Aaron (Callaghan) wanted to see me (in trials). I was happy with that because I believed in my skills and abilities."

When asked how he had become aware of the second-tier strugglers, Bape revealed his agent played a major role in arriving at Lissywoolen ahead of the new season.

"My agent noticed made me aware of the option (to go on trial with Athlone Town)  and I didn't doubt to start the process. From the moment I started with the team, I liked what I saw. The coaches are quite qualified and experienced and they are putting a lot passion into it. They want to do great things with the team and the trial process was very well organised and that says a lot about them (Athlone Town FC) as well."  

Albeit, still in the very early stages of his League of Ireland career, Bape was asked for his assessment on the standard of play in the league and how it stacked up against playing underage football in Spain. 

"I am  a bit aware of the standard due to  my own research and I was watching a lot Irish Premier and First division games, and the football is slightly different in Ireland  must say. I have played more than 160 games in Spanish Third Division at historic team such CD Castellón, Logroñes, Lorca and Mar Menor, where I was training 4-5 times per week plus the game being full time in most of them, so honestly I can not compare yet, I would like to do it at the end of the season." 

Blooded into the new look First Division with perhaps the toughest possible task on offer a fortnight ago, a trip to hot title favorites Galway United, Bape stood out despite a terrible defensive performance from the youthful Midlands outfit, who were taken to the cleaners by new United signing and former First Division winner with Wexford Youths, Danny Furlong, who grabbed himself a hat-trick on the night. Looking back on his competitive debut, which resulted in a heavy 4-1 defeat, Bape revealed:   

"Galway performaed well, they are playing together longer than us, but we had our chances in the first half and we were getting better while the game was progressing. We performed much better in the second half and we improved our football as team. Our coaches and my team-mates are doing a great job in how to approach the games and I am convinced that we will be fine all together.

Starting the game at wing-back for Aaron Callaghan's 'Blue & Black, Bape managed to get himself on the scoresheet through a fine volley in the dying stages of the match, played out in front of a thousand plus crowd in Galway on the night. However, the defender revealed he could not enjoy his maiden League of Ireland strike given the result overall.  

"Regarding the strike, it was fine, but I could not be happy because I could not help my team to get a result, I hope the next goal will help us to claim a result." 

Often looked down upon as the "Graveyard" division of Irish football due to its small attendances and lack of media coverage, many of the leagues top players cut their teeth in the First Division. While it may be far too early to suggest Bape can go on to emulate the rise of former second tier stars such as Greg Boler, Ronan Finn, Patrick Hoban or David McMillan, Bape's opening day performance has already raised one or two eyebrows. When asked if he saw his opportunity with Athlone as a way of alerting the leagues big boys to sit up and take notice, Bape cut the figure of an ultimate pro beyond his years. 

"I have learned that in football everything can happen, but also I have learned that you have to focus on the present, and that is true that if you want something you have to work really hard and protect it, and this is what I am going to do . So, currently I am only focusing on helping Athlone Town FC for the next game, as Cholo Simeone says "Game by Game" and then, at the end of the season we will see what happen." 

While the League of Ireland's oldest club seemed to have made strides over the off-season in terms of moving on from what was a humiliating 2017 campaign both on and off the pitch, naysayers will always be quick to look back on a number of crippling off-field events at the Town club over the past number of years. A reported player strike due to unpaid expenses in 2016, cloak and dagger stories regarding mystery foreign investors, who soon headed for the hills, and the subsequent match-fixing investigation which saw two of Athlone's foreign contingent of last season banned for twelve months each, one could be forgiven for wondering if some players would rather steer clear of Lissywoolen. However, closing out the interview, Bape revealed that while he was aware of the goings on at his new club last season, he never for a second doubted that Athlone Town was the right place for him to reboot what has been a career filled with promise but with little to show for it so far. 

"I am aware of that (last seasons off-field incidents) and that's gone already. As I told you, I decided to join the team because I really believe Athlone Town and my coaches, wow are truly honest people full of energy to do the job well. This is a new season for everybody and I hope that we can give the fans a decent season." 

Athlone Town face another tough away assignment when they resume First Division duties on Sunday with a trip to recently relegated, Drogheda United. The "Drogs" have yet to get any competitive minutes under their belt in 2018, as the County Louth clubs opening league fixture at home to Finn Harps was postponed, due to issues regarding the United Park floodlights. Throw the disruption of Storma Emma into the mix and it's been a long couple of weeks for the United faithful, who will be hopeful of getting their season off to a winning start against last seasons bottom club on the entire League of Ireland ladder.