On a telephone line of patchy quality, using a mobile borrowed from a friend as his own was last seen falling into the sea at Galway Bay a fortnight ago, Vincent Borden recalls a playing career, and a life lived, that has taken in places as varied as Los Angeles, Zagreb and Ballybofey.
Towards the end, Borden replies to a question about arriving at Galway United in January by saying: “I just sort of walked in. I’ve been stumbling through everything I’ve done.”
It’s delivered deadpan, like a line from The Smiths. The self-deprecating assessment continues: “When you stop and think, you can question what the hell you’re doing.”
There is a little laugh in the voice of this quiet American. Borden’s has been a peripatetic existence since it was decided, aged 11, he would depart his home in Ithaca, New York state to join Dynamo Zagreb’s youth system. He has since been back to the United States, to New Jersey, then on to Slovenia.
Finding some geographical stability on the west coast of Ireland was not part of the plan, but then that applies to more than Borden. Not many in professional football get to dictate their journey from A–Z. And Borden is only 24. There’s time for several unexpected arrivals and departures yet.
But for now, for 2023 and 2024 – he has signed a contract at Eamon Deacy Park until the end of next season – Borden is settled. He has been an essential piece of John Caulfield’s midfield and the side’s rise to promotion. Next Saturday there is an FAI Cup semi-final against Bohemians. In terms of infrastructure Galway United are as lacking as too many in the League of Ireland, but on the pitch under Caulfield, Galway are on the up.
“It’s such a nice set-up here,” Borden says. “The first night, I knew I was in a good house and I still am. The guys, the staff are really welcoming. So it’s hard to complain and say: ‘What am I doing?’ I’ve really enjoyed it.
“I don’t know what it was like before, but I’d say the club’s on the right track.”
Alex Ferguson once gave a famous teamtalk focusing on the background of each player in the Manchester United team and how they had made their individual journeys to sit together in front of him. Borden’s would begin with his Dutch mother Caroline and father Gabriel and the revealing of a natural soccer ability in the non-soccer environment of Ithaca.
Seen by a former Dynamo Zagreb goalkeeper, Ziggy Zigante, who was coaching one of the local clubs Borden joined, a trip to Croatia was recommended. The young Borden went on a summer camp and a year later went back permanently. “My dad was all for it, my mom wasn’t sure,” he says.
Initially he was accompanied by a young US coach, Nathan Bell, who was studying how Croatia, a country of 3.8 million people, could so consistently produce such talented footballers.
“Nathan is the owner of the Brooklyn Academy, one of the fastest-growing academies in New York City,” Borden says. “They have connections to Barca and others. He was, like, my guardian for a year and then my dad and brother came over. My dad started medical school there, then the rest of the family came over the next year.”
Uprooting from New York state to Zagreb seems an extravagant decision but the family’s logic seems to have been, if their son was sufficiently talented, in the United States they would have to travel hours and hours from Ithaca to get the sort of coaching that would improve him. Given its geographic scale and that soccer is only now booming and attracting a new level of coaching, travel was not so uncommon.
What is uncommon is that a family would move to Croatia. Borden went into a local school and began to play at age-group level for Dynamo. There was some noise about him in the US and around 2013-14 he was invited to his first USA international camp. It meant getting on a plane from Zagreb to Los Angeles, where the camp was held, though as Borden says, “I like flying.”
He found himself in the company of Tyler Adams, now of Bournemouth in England’s Premier League and Tim Weah of Juventus in Serie A. But in phlegmatic fashion, he says: “I was lucky to get called up.
“I did well in the first camp I was at, got called back. I was at three or four altogether, but I never really did well enough.”
He was in school in Zagreb, learning the language, but there would be no breakthrough at Dynamo – “It probably didn’t go as well as we hoped.”
He moved to another Zagreb club, HASK. As 15 became 16, the family returned to Ithaca, while Vincent moved to New Jersey and into the Red Bull academy system. Next was Rutgers and a university degree in Criminal Justice while playing in the colleges’ East Conference league. There was an internship at HSI – Homeland Security Investigations.
The word “random” features in Borden’s conversation and at one away game, a man attached to Long Island Rough Riders, David Harris, said he knew a coach in Slovenia. Would Vincent like to go over for a trial?
So Borden found himself in the Slovenian second division using some of the language he had learned in Croatia. The first season, 2021-22, went well, but at the start of the second season Borden was injured, could not recover and last October terminated his contract.
He went back to Ithaca, recuperated, trained and then his dry phone rang again. Galway United?
“I came over January 3rd, preseason started on January 4th. It sort of went from there. I didn’t know anything about the League. The only team I’d heard of were Shamrock Rovers, who’d been in the Europa League. One connection I did have was from Rutgers, a coach from Dublin, Gavin Wyse. His dad Larry played in the League of Ireland, actually for Galway and Bohs, Athlone. I text Gavin from time to time to joke about little Irish things, the brand of tea.”
On a wet Friday in an Irish February, Borden boarded a bus in Galway to Donegal. He made his debut at Finn Harps in a 2-1 win. He scored both.
There have been a lot of long bus trips, he mentions Kerry, Longford and back to Ballybofey. It is just as well Borden’s world has so often been in motion.
And at least he has had a good view of Ireland.
“So many stone walls, cows and sheep.”